YOU: A Novel

I recently finished the science fiction novel YOU: A Novel by Austin Grossman. The novel is about Russell’s returning to get a job with Black Arts a game development studio. Russell distanced himself from his high-school friends with whom he got into designing a role-playing computer game. After dropping out of the liberal arts to law trajectory he had been on, he goes back and gets a job with the company  his friends had created in the meantime. Grossman has worked in game design, so the book has an authentic feel. It is also good on how franchises are maintained as the story turns around the creation of yet another sequel to a tired franchise with flashbacks to when they created the other versions. There are a number of interesting ideas and enigmas to YOU including:

  • YOU is about the dream of the ultimate game. The book starts and ends with the question of the ultimate game and how the imagining of that game is so important to gaming,

    Finally, there is the secret of the ultimate game, inscribed on a series of crumbling scrolls in a language that is no longer well understood. But partial translations suggest that the secret of the ultimate game is that you’re already in the ultimate game, all the time, forever. That the secret of the ultimate game is that the ultimate game is a paradox, because there’s no way to play a game without knowing you’re playing it. That games are already awesome, or else why are we making such a fuss? (p. 365)

  • Part of the issue of the ultimate game is the drive to greater realism as if graphical realism were the only metric. The novel forces us to ask what is realism and whether better graphics are necessarily more immersive (compared with better stories or more open worlds.)
  • Simon, the genius behind the game engine of Black Arts dies before the beginning of the novelistic present in an elevator. It isn’t clear how he died, but it seems relevant at the beginning of the novel. Grossman answered questions about the novel here including an answer about how Simon’s death is a “bait-and-switch.”
  • Finally, there is a really interesting reference to the story of love told in Plato’s Symposium that men and women are separated and want to join up again,

    To forestall any future threat, the gods decreed we should each be separated into halves, and each half hurled into a separate dimension. There was the human half, weak but endowed with thought and feeling, and the video game half, with glowing and immortal bodies that were mere empty shells lacking wills of their own. We became a fallen race and forgot our origins, but something in us longed to be whole again. And so we invented the video game, the apparatus that bridged the realms and joined us with tour other selves again, through the sacred medium of the video game controller. The first devinces were primititive, but every year the technology improved, and we say and heard and sensed the other world more clearly. Soon enough we’d be able to feel and smell and taste and live entirely in our own bodies again. And on that day, he finished portentously, we’d challenge the gods once more.

    “First of all,” I said, “you ripped that whole thing off from that story in Plato. …” (p. 301)

Xanadu Released

Screen shot of Xanadu

Hacker Trips has an article about how Ted Nelson’s Xanadu finally gets released after 51 years (with Transclusion). The article describes a conference in Ted Nelson’s honour. At the end he is quoted to the effect,

To wind up his story, Ted Nelson stated that he was “dealt one of the best hands in history, and misplayed it to the hilt. [He] could have accomplished so much more. [He] was here 1st, and it’s all gone wrong. [He] believes this would be a very different world and better world if [he] had gotten leverage. The world has gone the wrong way.”

Nelson also announced a demo of a working version of Xanadu with transclusion. Open Xanadu is up at the Xanadu site.

CSDH-SCHN 2014 Conference

I have posted my CSDH-SCHN 2014 conference notes now that the conference is over. I will probably put up some notes on CGSA 2014 also in there tomorrow. We had great participation this year. You can see the conference programme here. One thing that went well is the Digital Demonstration session which was like a poster session, but with demos of neat tools and digital projects. Some themes:

  • Visualization and text mining
  • Topic modelling and mallet (see theme immediately above)
  • This moment in digital humanities in Canada
  • Studying the history of our disciplines
  • Connecting with the other humanities disciplines and organizations like Compute Canada

Museum of Online Museums

From Twitter I learned about the Museum of Online Museums. The idea is great. It is part of a site by Coudal Partners, “a design, advertising and interactive studio … as an ongoing experiment in web publishing, design and commerce.” I’m not sure what that means? Will this survive? They also have an enormous Board which seems to be voluntary.

On the MoOM I found some neat online museums like the Sheaff : ephemera.

The Isolator, A Bizarre Helmet For Encouraging Concentration (1925)

From Geoff I learned about The Isolator, A Bizarre Helmet For Encouraging Concentration (1925). The Isolator was developed in 1925 by Hugo Gernsback a science fiction pioneer (and editor of Science and Invention magazine.) The idea is to force you to focus on your writing (with lots of oxygen.)

One wonders if it works? Could it be even more useful now?

Around the World Conference


Today we are running the Around the World Conference from the University of Alberta. This year’s topic is privacy and surveillance in the digital age. The Kule Institute for Advanced Study is hosting this online conference. Here are some of my opening comments,

I would like to welcome you to our second Around the World Conference. This year’s conference is on Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age.

The ATW conference was the idea of the Founding Director of KIAS, Jerry Varsava. The idea is to support a truly international discussion around a topic that concerns us all around the world.

This year we have speakers from 11 countries including Nigeria, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Germany, Brazil, the US, and of course Canada.

This ATW conference is an experiment. It is an experiment because it is difficult to coordinate the technology across so many countries and institutions. It is an experiment in finding ways to move ideas without moving bodies. It is an experiment in global discussion.

Buxton Collection of Input Devices


Bill Buxton has made available his collection his Buxton Collection of Interactive Devices. This collection of input and touch devices like chord keyboards, watches, pen computers, and joysticks. I saw some of his collection when at GRAND in 2011 as he mounted a display for CHI 2011 which took place right before.

What is doubly interesting is the Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer which is for exploring large sets of visual objects. You can explore the Buxton Collection with Pivot if you install Silverlight. Apparently Pivot is discontinued, but you can still try it on the Buxton Collection.

The interface of the PivotViewer reminds me of Stan Ruecker’s work on rich prospect browsing. He developed an interface that always keeps the full set of objects in view while drawing some forward and minimizes others.

A World Digital Library Is Coming True!

Robert Darnton has a great essay in The New York Review of Books titled, A World Digital Library Is Coming True! This essay asks about publication and the public interest. He mentions how expensive some journals are getting and how that means that knowledge paid for by the public (through support for research) becomes inaccessible to the very same public which might benefit from the research.

In the US this trend has been counteracted by initiatives to legislate that publicly funded research be made available through some open access venue like PubMed Central. Needless to say lobbyists are fighting such mandates like the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR).

Darnton concludes that “In the long run, journals can be sustained only through a transformation of the economic basis of academic publishing.” He argues for “flipping” the costs and charging processing fees to those who want to publish.

By creating open-access journals, a flipped system directly benefits the public. Anyone can consult the research free of charge online, and libraries are liberated from the spiraling costs of subscriptions. Of course, the publication expenses do not evaporate miraculously, but they are greatly reduced, especially for nonprofit journals, which do not need to satisfy shareholders. The processing fees, which can run to a thousand dollars or more, depending on the complexities of the text and the process of peer review, can be covered in various ways. They are often included in research grants to scientists, and they are increasingly financed by the author’s university or a group of universities.

While I agree on the need to focus on the public good, I worry that “flipping” will limit who gets published. In STEM fields where most research is funded one can build the cost of processing fees into the funding, but in the humanities where much research is not funded, many colleagues will have to pay out of pocket to get published. Darnton mentions how at Harvard (his institution) they have a program that subsidizes processing fees … they would, and therein lies the problem. Those at wealthy institutions will now have an advantage in that they can afford to publish in an environment where publishers need processing fees while those not subsidized (whether private scholars, alternative academics, or instructors) will have to decide if they really can afford to. Creating an economy where it is not the best ideas that get published but those of an elite caste is not a recipe for the public good.

I imagine Darnton recognizes the need for solutions other than processing fees and, in fact, he goes on to talk about the Digital Public Library of America and OpenEdition Books as initiatives that are making monographs available online for free.

I suspect that what will work in the humanities is finding funding for the editorial and publishing functions of journals as a whole rather than individual articles. We have a number of journals in the digital humanities like Digital Humanities Quarterly where the costs of editing and publishing are borne by individuals like Julian Flanders who have made it a labor of love, their universities that support them, and our scholarly association that provides technical support and some funding. DHQ doesn’t charge processing fees which means that all sorts of people who don’t have access to subsidies can be heard. It would be interesting to poll the authors published and see how many have access to processing fee subsidies. It is bad enough that our conferences are expensive to attend, lets not skew the published record.

Which brings me back to the public good. Darnton ends his essay writing about how the DPLA is networking all sorts of collections together. It is not just providing information as a good, but bringing together smaller collections from public libraries and universities. This is one of the possibilities of the internet – that distributed resources can be networked into greater goods rather than having to be centralized. The DPLA doesn’t need to be THE PUBLIC LIBRARY that replaces all libraries the way Amazon is pushing out book stores. The OpenEdition project goes further and offers infrastructure for publishing knowledge to keep costs down for everyone. A combination of centrally supported infrastructure that is used by editors that get local support (and credit) will make more of a difference than processing fees, be more equitable, and do more for public participation, which is a good too.