Sure, there may be some nutritional and public health reasons for enforcing a No-Oreo Zone at this school in Arizona, but I like the side effect of neutralizing the socioeconomic imbalances created by all those treats. With no treats at all, kids on the short end of the snack stick won't have to face the moral temptations I did.
Exciting news: I have an article in this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine! Yes, that's yesterday's paper. (I'm on Malibu time these days.) And no, I can't understand why my piece wasn't put on the cover instead of that Megan Fox either. Especially since there were such great art opportunities, like so:
Nutshell: technology and distribution has enabled a do-it-yourself, 'zine movement in video games. It's a raucous avant-garde, and wants to upset its medium's apple cart while also — dare one say it — making video games that aspire to artistic greatness.
This I learned at the Game Developer's Conference, during which the indie designers all convened in Room 131, in a far corner of the Moscone Center, to celebrate their own insurrection against the establishment. Which is where I saw an incredible lecture by a legendary indie gamer named Cactus. Sadly, this scene got cut from the article at the last minute. It happens! But thanks to the magic of the internet, the Director's Cut is already available. That slide above comes from Cactus' presentation, as does this slide:
They were all that good. Want to hear more? Press SPECIAL FEATURES. Now press DELETED SCENES. Now press CACTUS! Here goes:
FROM THE BOWELS OF THE GAME DEVELOPERS CONFERENCE, MARCH 2009
Room 131 was filled to capacity when Cactus took the stage, flat drunk on Malibu Rum, to give his talk: How To Make a Game in Four Hours. Cactus is the handle of Jonatan Sondstrom, a 23-year Swedish amateur who has made over 100 video games over the past five years. For many of the people in the audience, this prowess made Cactus a folk hero. And he looked the part, in torn-up vans, red jeans, and green army cap. Cactus’ games are sensory overload experiences, where the player is thrust into a strange world of psychedelic imagery and must quickly resolve the ensuing confusion. This would also be a fitting description of Cactus’ presentation, which was mumbled, heavily accented, accompanied by colorful slides, and opened with a rudimentary animation of a digital turd. "DON'T MAKE GAMES IN FOUR HOURS IF YOU STINK," the text admonished. "END OF LESSON ONE."
Unlike Jason Rohrer, who programs in C++ — “I feel like I’m working with the grain of the machine,” he says — Cactus uses GameMaker, a drag and drop software tool that makes it possible for anyone to make a working game. GameMaker, which costs $25 for the “pro” edition, has allowed Cactus to spend his days in his childhood bedroom at his parents house in Gothenburg, Sweden, transmitting his bizarre output to the world for free.
Whereas Rohrer might start programming with a premise, Cactus and other designers like him approach each game as new experiment with no hypothesis. They start doing something, and see what happens. The process is somewhat algorithmic: constantly branching out, discarding duds, finding occasional breakthroughs. “You make a game a month, or every week,” a young Canadian designer named Chris Lobay later said, “And you’re going to have a few eurekas.”
Over the course of the next half hour, Cactus delivered what seemed at times like a mixed-media performance experiment in PowerPoint comedy. The aesthetic was like his games — crude but clever. The point: a video game can be anything. “Games don’t need to be fun. They can get intensely weird and freak you out.” He said from the stage. “More people should make games that are not for children, but for adults. And, like, mature people.” Cactus did not explain precisely how to do this (or make a game in 4 hours, for that matter), but he did say that anyone can try. His one caveat: “Don’t make games that suck.”
By the time it was over, Cactus’ talk was already becoming a matter of GDC legend. He personified the indie game movement’s anti-establishment cultural ethos, and although his actual games don’t speak to a broad audience now, the example he set for relentless innovation excited the room. “If you were talking about music,” said one indie designer, “then this would be like seeing the Ramones play for the first time.” Cactus left the stage, and was quickly surrounded by a posse of like-minded indie designers and admirers. “Let’s go get more drunk,” he said, and wandered off. It was 4pm.
I guess I finally rode McSweeney's coattails into a graduate English department: McSweeney's 17 forms a key part of the honors thesis of one Flora Feltham, at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Some time ago, she emailed me the following:
The section I'm currently working on is about the blurry distinction between fiction and non-fiction in the issue and how the dynamic between the fictive and the non-fictive informs our relationship with a potentially literary text. What I would love to know, then, is what degree of authenticity your fantastic Yeti Researcher has?
Of course, I love over-intellectualizing my own work — I mean, who doesn't, really? — so I will admit that I was thrilled that someone else decided to pile on. I answered Flora's questions, and a little while ago, she sent me the relevant chapter of her thesis. Incredibly, Yeti Researcher is mentioned in the same breath as Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden, part of which is a scientific work in the form of a poem:
This combination of “metaphor and scientific material” (Emery, 1) – a tangle of fictional rhetoric and factual content – is, obviously, uncommon to both literature and scientific writing. About 200 years later, “Yeti Researcher” jumbles up the conventions of fiction and non-fiction in an equally atypical style. The difference is that Darwin was writing demonstrable scientific information using the medium of poetry, whereas the editorial-board at “Yeti Researcher” uses the conventions of scientific prose to write about a fictional creature in the context of a literary magazine.
Fletham later goes on to offer an analysis about how stylistic prose choices helped define Yeti Researcher as a distinct form of "non-narrative fiction," which itself is situated in turn in the grand sweep of literature and fiction in our fragmented (super-post-)modern culture. Whew! And by way of my answers, Feltham addresses the question most often put to me back when Yeti Researcher first came out:
“[T]he idea was to make something that McSweeney's readers would think is amusingly, fascinatingly compelling and that bigfoot researchers would be able to read with satisfaction” (Bearman, e-mail). Thus, though their intention was fictional, every step of the research and writing process was subject to rigorous fact-checking in accordance with the pseudo-scientific field they were working within: the information in “Flores Man and Sumatra’s Orang pendek” could “have survived the fact-checking process at a real magazine." They did not make-up any of the information, insofar as, according to common-sense it was not already made up. “[T]he information in the articles is real. By which I mean we didn't make up any bigfoot sightings, records, theories, etc. It was all researched and cited.”
OK, so the ads were fake. And the Classifieds. And Jim Shepard's contribution, which was clearly a piece of fiction masquerading as a real document inside a magazine of fiction masquerading as a real document! And there may have been a few other fudged things. But otherwise, YR (as we at the Society for Cryptic Hominid Investigation like to call it) stands by its work. Which, I'm now reminded, was really fun to put together. Does etiquette say that four years is too late to publically acknowledge Mark Sundeen, Jim Ruland, John Silver, Jim Shepard, Erik Bluhm, Eli Horowitz, and Brian McMullen? Hope not!
All this nostalgia made me go back and take a look at the fine writing and designing and editing that went into YR, which, if you don't own that pile of ingeniously disguised fake junk mail that was issue 17, is hard to come by. Which is why, if anyone is interested, I'm going to make the whole thing available right here!
Check it out: a writing award! From the Society of American Travel Writers. A welcome surprise, especially since I've written very few travel pieces. But if there was a story that deserved an award, I suppose, it would be this one, about a journey to make sense of the multi-dimensional sensory overload that is Japan. The piece appeared in the sadly defunct Culture + Travel, a magazine with oversized pages, fancy production, good intentions, and really bad timing. Entering the market as print's fortunes started failing, Culture + Travel sought to publish lengthy narrative writing of the kind scarcely seen in the mega glossies anymore. For example, they gave me 5,000 words to wander through Japan, and although it could have been even longer (as all writers must say), no one else could have run that piece. Kate Sekules, the magazine's brave editor, knew that full well, which only made her back it more. And her instincts were rewarded. And mine too, I guess! Here's what the committee had to say about "Stuffu Happens":
... a wonderfully written account of the exotic spirit and art of Japan. The lead states it perfectly: “There are two Japans in the minds of most visitors: the ultra-modern technotopia of Tokyo and the ancient, ritualistic island of peculiar traditions that tourists believe must be hidden somewhere beneath all that neon.” For anyone thinking about visiting the Land of the Rising Sun to see its wealth of art, “Stuffu” is a must and joyful read.
That really made my day. Since the piece is nowhere to be found online, here it is as a PDF for any interested parties.
A few weeks back, Doug McGray was kind enough to invite me to take the stage for Pop Up Magazine, his nifty new occasional (and hopefully more frequent) live event that puts a couple dozen people together in a sort of live, one-night-only periodical. Shockingly, all 400 seats at the theater were sold out for this thing -- no mean feat, as I can attest from the days of The World, Explained. Owing to deadlines, I drove up that day and hadn't really been able to prepare, but the beer was free and yeasty and I had two tall cups full and wrote out some notes in the dark and it turns out that people REALLY like a good caper story, no matter how drunkenly delivered.
Anyhow, entertainment and learning were had by all and the whole think got me thinking about how much fun actual magazines ought to be. It also got me thinking how many great magazine writers there are out there whom I've never heard of. Such as Evan Ratliff, a freelancer and Wired regular who showed slides of himself in the many disguises he took on as part of a recent story for Wired in which he tried to go on the lam. I then checked out his other works, including a recent piece in the New Yorker about Jerry Baber, an engineer and self-taught munitions designer who has designed, among other weapons, a stainless steel automatic shotgun that shoots five shells per second and can be wielded with one hand. If you want to see a great lede, then read this story, which begins like so:
At the age of seventy-four, Jerry Baber has winnowed his primary
interests in life to four subjects: shotguns, robots, women, and cars.
When Baber is holding forth—his default mode of communication being the
filibuster—his conversation tends to fall somewhere among these
categories. Often his passions intersect, as in the question of whether
or not a Corvette is an ideal car for picking up women. (It is.)
Similarly, Baber might be discussing his love of robots and shotguns,
and whether, by combining the two, he is helping to shape the future of
warfare from his garage. (He is.)
Closing out the opening section we find out why the story's subhed is "an Appalachian gunsmith’s robot army":
Not long ago, Baber decided that his gun was so reliable and accurate
that it could be mounted with confidence on unmanned vehicles. Armed
robots, he believes, could offer crucial assistance in the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan; they could be employed on a street monitored by
snipers or sent into a building harboring insurgents. Last year, Baber
met with engineers at Robotex—a start-up in California that makes
ground-based robots—and at Neural Robotics, a company outside Nashville
that manufactures unmanned helicopters. Together, they created
prototypes of small, remote-controlled armed machines. Baber keeps
several in his workshop, and talks about them as if they were pets.
This was all of particular interest to me, as I have been mildly obsessed with the coming robot army ever since I wrote in The Believer
about the fantastic vision of the future Air Force as dreamed up by
military planners in their master document, Air Force 2025, a blueprint of theoretical systems needed to help the US maintain
"Global Battlespace Dominance" in the 21st century. Among the myriad theoretical science fiction combat systems in those thousands of pages are things like: Concept No. 900522: Space-Based, AI-Driven Intelligence Master Mind System; Weather as a Force Multiplier; and, my favorite, Concept No. 900481:
Destructo Swarmbots. According to Ratliff, military planners may soon no longer need to dream. Upstarts in Palo Alto and may be teaming up with Baber to take us one step closer to Skynet. Baber seems like a responsible guy for a man who built the deadliest short range weapon ever created, and I hope that "the man in the loop problem" stays theoretical. Sure, we can say we want to stay in the loop. But what if, one day, the machines don't want us there?
Readers and listenersagree: the tale of the weightlifting snowman story is tops. Like the majestic phoenix arising from the ashes, this story was first written for the NY Times magazine (for John Hodgman, back when he edited the now-defunct True Life Tales page), where it was cruelly rejected and then re-born as a segment for This American Life. Originally thought by me to be just a trifle -- a funny little ditty from the front lines of modern life as a long term renter with an eccentric superintendent -- this story has grown legs, and has even achieved a certain cult status, inspiring the winning design in last year's This American Life t-shirt contest. Along the way, the weightlifting snowman also found it's way onto a series of Post-it Notes, thanks to Arthur Jones and Starlee Kine, creators of the Post-it Note reading series, a live show wherein stories are read alongside the genius and complimentary illustrations by Arthur. Recently Arthur started compiling the stories from the various readings over the years, and the our number came up! Please enjoy.
Only condoms can protect the world from the Mr. Burnses that live in your testicles. Or at least, that is how I translate this (good thing Swedish is required in the Pasadena Unified School District!):
More funny swedish drawings here, at the website of a very nice person with great taste who likes my writing.
Yes, I stillfind these to be fascinating. More search terms that led people to this blog:
chucky cheese technical character i don't know how to fuck
zoltan mauled by lion how do you explain love, marriage relationships, and children in the simian line palmistry how to get rid of poodles a big black thing
I like how the poodles question assumes they are pests, like bed bugs. And I fear that the simian line can not explain all those things, alas.
As though this week didn’t offer enough nudity, there’s Kathleen Rooney’s reading of Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object. If you’ve got a burning curiosity about what it’s like on the other side of the easel, get to Skylight Books
to hear the Chicago-based author read passages about her time spent as
an art model (among other things). Kyle Minor will then present bits
from his collection of melancholic and loosely religion-themed short
stories, In the Devil’s Territory. Rooney and Minor are currently
touring the U.S. in a “traveling literary circus,” and this stop will
also feature an appearance by beloved local wordsmith Joshua [sic!] Bearman.
What it does not include: live nudity. Sorry.
Included in the new McSweeney's is a daring investigation into the lives and loves of the Great Gerbil (Rhombomys Opimus) of central Asia. It so happens that I wrote it -- all thirty pages of astounding facts, including:
1. Rodent drumming
2. Too many koala bears
3. Psychedelic toads
4. And how quietly gerbils make poops.
5. And it is all 100% true.
I encourage everyone to get the new issue and check it out. There are many other good stories in there as well.
The Zombie Zeitgeist A full scale movement is on the lurch. But why the best zombie movie ever made a video game?
Believer interview with Mark Allen Digital artist and awesome gallerist Mark Allen talks about Tekken Torture Tournament and other projects where people were wired to machines and did strange things in public.
Believer interview with Marjane Satrapi Enlightening Q & A with the Persian cartoonist, memoirist, quick conversationalist in which she declares: “THE WORLD IS NOT ABOUT BATMAN AND ROBIN FIGHTING THE JOKER; THINGS ARE MORE COMPLICATED THAN THAT.”
Yeti Researcher Yet another 100-page issue of the world's top academic journal devoted scholarship about the Yeti, Bigfoot, Sasqatch, and other mystery primates worldwide. For researchers and lay audiences alike, the latest YR features a history of Sasquatch sightings in southern California, an update on the wily orang pendek of Sumatra, and a new look into Teddy Roosevelt's obsession with bagging a Bigfoot. As Editor-in-Chief, I promise you won't be disappointed.
Panda PowerPoint! I guess I don't mind being "the entertainment" when it's at Mark Allen's second annual Holiday Fry-B-Que. Presented: preliminary findings from my ongoing research into the most charismatic megafauna of all: Giant Pandas.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Dec 9, 2006 For those who missed it, there will be more. World, Explained is going strong! Money was raised, laughs were had, and for those paying attention, small amounts of useful information about things like the aurora borealis were transmitted. Plus: Michael Cera = lovably funny. And Nick Diamonds' renditions of Dumb Dog and Hanging Tough are still in my head. As is that horribly catchy Fresh Step jam.
Jest Fest at Skylight Books Somehow I wound up hosting the 10th anniversary jubilee for Infinite Jest at Skylight Books. Because who doesn't love a jubilee, right? Despite being delirious with Hepatitis A (that's the mild, non-lethal kind; I'm not at risk for Hep B since I always go the needle share and choose clean-looking prostitutes), I managed to not mis-pronounce anyone's name and make an erudite joke and poke gentle fun at Michael Silverblatt.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | June 10, 2006 Number Three! Last one was sold out so we moved to a slightly larger theater. Andy Richter hosted, and his opening exegesis of CSI: Miami warmed the people up right. Evany Thomas presented her very scientific findings on the Secret Language of Sleep; Starlee Kine bared her neuroses to the world (or at least the 300 people in the audience); Josh Davis showed video of his 135-lb self sumo wrestling a 550-lb opera singer from San Bernardino; and Davy Rothbart closed it out with some Found Magazine magic. Grant Lee Phillips, Sam Shelton and Zooey Deschanel provided the music punctuation! I can still hear their rendition of We Are the Champions.
McSweeny's Presents: The World, Explained | Feb 11, 2006 The second in our series of precision comedy and fact-based entertainment extravaganzas benefiting 826LA. Patton Oswalt was kind enough to host, and Jon Brion joined in on the piano and guitar as thematic accompaniment. Presenters included: David Rees, Michael Colton, John Hodgman (along with his hirsuit troubadour, Jonathan Coulton), and me. Plus: a fashion show of exciting multi-user garmentry.
Little Gray Book Lecture at Galapagos How to Observe President's Day. Jonathan Coulton's technical wizardry has made this entire show available online. The summary from PRX: Sarah Vowell, John Hodgman and Joshuah Bearman on Presidents' Day, along with a fifteen-piece marching band and a new song about all forty-three presidents. My contribution? Yes, from Yeti Researcher. Again. Actually that was the first one. So I have only five stories!
July 25: TJ to LA -- A Night McSweeney's Readings I was honored to be part of a strange triptych along with Salvador Plascencia and Josh Kun. Sponsored, somehow, by La Ciudad magazine, we all packed into Beyond Baroque with no air conditions. 150 people showed at 7 o'clock on a Friday evening, which we took as a good sign of something. Sal held up and anxiously discussed drawings from his novel, Josh delivered an essay on the Dr. Moreau of Tijuana, and my shtick (again) was Pac Man and metaphysics, this time with fun slides.
October 8th: Skylight Books w/Stephen Elliott Fun times were had by all. Someone in the audience actually mistook me for an expert on the psychology human character. We ate shrimp cocktail and drank cheap wine and laughed at Bush and celebrated the certainty of right besting wrong in American democracy. A lot of good that did.