27 January 2013


Andrea Zanin at Sex Geek has a terrific long post, The Problem With Polynormativity.

Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.

The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.


These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.

She identifies four attributes of polynormativity:

  1. Polyamory starts with a couple
  2. Polyamory is hierarchical
  3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules
  4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy!

She identifies three key problems with this:

  1. The polynormative model is kinda sucky.
  2. The media presents these poly norms as, well, norms. As The Way to Do Poly.
  3. This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies.

An unwillingness to grapple with this mess is a big reason why I don't write much about poly or involve myself in the poly community. I'm glad that Zanin has written this so I don't have to; I agree with just about everything she says except her enthusiasm for Wendy O. Matik's book.


A friend on Facebook punctures some of my enthusiasm for the piece. It's apparently reflective of a strain of poly rhetoric that I haven't seen happening. Here's a slightly edited version of my friend's comments:

It's actually something I see a lot from bloggers trying to be Big Name Bloggers. Franklin Veaux has been on a kick of delegitimizing primary-secondary relationships for over a decade.


Examples of tropes in this article— polyamory-as-revolution, connecting primary-secondary to “hierarchy” and implying its connection to oppression-via-hierarchy, “primary” means “putting this person's feelings over that,” open derision of the idea of “poly couple” (is a poly person a “poly single”? Yes. But a “poly couple” is an oxymoron), orthodoxic anarchism, calling “going poly” a hobby, professing what does and does not upset the system, ignoring past stabs at poly-in-the-media which were triad focused (Divilbliss family, etc).


And that is, basically, what my partner and I do, too. I do, however, really feel for people who are dipping their toes into polyamory these days. It used to be the case that the challenge was getting information on how to live your life as a poly person. For the last 10 years or so, though, there's been an increasing trend in writers to take shots at existing subsets of the community, and the expense is that the newly poly must wade through “orthodoxy conflict” to find what's genuine to them and not fear what other polyfolk have to say about it. This is not productive.


I have generally seen two major styles advocated by the “activist” types within the community— the overly-rigid rules-and-contract system and its reactionary twin, the all-must-be-totally-equal system. The latter was something that became big with Franklin Veaux and he's made it part of his calling card. The entire concept has since been rolled up with bullshit anarchy, focusing on semantics and plugging in to arguments about hierarchy, ignoring the fact that it's not an a priori hierarchy but one of preferences and personal priorities, the sort that any anarchist makes all the time. But, it makes it easy to pick up the usual suite of arguments about Why Something Is Bad. You just need a generic hierarchy.

Make no bones about it. Poly writers have been on a decade-long campaign to make people like me and my sweetheart, and other poly couples you know, know that we are Not Really Poly. If we point to the stability, long-term viability, and investments our relationships have yielded, we are told we're clinging to monogamous notions of “success.” If we argue that we're simply following our hearts, we're reminded of super-cultural programming and heteronormativity and all the rest. Now we're being told we fail to challenge our super-culture sufficiently and that we're counterrevolutionary. There's even been a push to separate “polyamory” and “relationship anarchy” into separate camps, with “polyamory” being necessarily centered on dyads and primary-secondary while “relationship anarchy” is the real Ideologically Pure Polyamory.

Yes, she was criticizing us. At one point, she switches narrative voice to speak directly to us so she can generate a straw-man argument about our “hierarchies.”

My friend and I are obviously reading the piece differently because of having had different encounters with the poly community.

As I hinted at above, I've joked for quite some time that the worst part about polyamory is The Poly Community. I've met a few too many poly clusters with dauntingly baroque relationship roles and Agreements ... and a presumption that This Is The Way You Do It ... and seen some of the unhappier examples of this style in action. (For want of a better term, since “polynormative” is a bit loaded, I'll refer to it as The Poly Style In Question, TPSIQ.) So I have been a little spooked to see TPSIQ as the One True Poly face presented to many newbies and, increasingly, civilians.

That made the article refreshing for me. Unlike my friend, I've not seen the criticisms of TPSIQ. Reading the article again, I see that it is too dismissive of the virtues of TPSIQ; though it claims respect for folks who are well-served by it, there's too grudging a tone when it does so. Consider this:

I suspect I may get irate or defensive comments here from a lot of polynormative folks who feel just great about their model .... If you’re one such bunch, there’s no need to get defensive—I’m not really criticizing you anyway

Knowing that there are many folks who do practice TPSIQ happily and responsibly, I first read that as saying clearly that the article was not meant as a criticism of those folks.

But reading the long segment I ellipsis’d out there, one can take it as skeptical that everyone doing TPSIQ is as well-served by it as they say (grudging) or implicitly rejecting the possibility that any of them are well-served (hostile). I read it closer to the former, but perhaps even that is too generous.


This fasting metabolism business is craaaazy.

Tuesday afternoon my digestive system powered down in the face of the flu. (Mercifully, I've not had actual nausea, like many folks seem to have suffered with this bug.) So I've had five days now of subsisting on soup, rice crackers, and Gatorade, somewhere between 500 and 1000 calories a day. It's probably burned four or five pounds, which is almost a blessing in disguise as I can totally afford to strip a bit off my middle-aged waistline. I'm still feeling pretty rough: tired, snotty, and with a very nasty cough. But I'm clearheaded (as demonstrated by the impulse to write a blog post) and I'm in that fasting state in which I don't feel hungry, just distant awareness that my system wants nourishment.

The last time I felt this way was almost twenty years ago. I had a bout of flu that hit me harder than this one but passed faster, so between the short duration of the bug's effects and the resilience of youth, I bounced back from it uncannily well. This gave me a weird day in the wake of it during which I felt fine, even energetic, but I had zero appetite. I felt a mad temptation then to conduct an experiment with myself and see how long I could stay a perpetual motion machine powered by tea and my own inner reserves, but wisdom prevailed — in those days I was a lot scrawnier, and really couldn't afford to lose weight — and I trained my system back into eating.

So in a strange moment of state-specific memory I'm reminded now of being reminded then of Kafka's story “A Hunger Artist”.

Perhaps it was not fasting at all which made him so very emaciated that many people, to their own regret, had to stay away from his performance, because they couldn’t bear to look at him. For he was also so skeletal out of dissatisfaction with himself, because he alone knew something that even initiates didn’t know—how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world. About this he did not remain silent, but people did not believe him. At best they thought he was being modest. Most of them, however, believed he was a publicity seeker or a total swindler, for whom, at all events, fasting was easy, because he understood how to make it easy, and then still had the nerve to half admit it. He had to accept all that. Over the years he had become accustomed to it. But this dissatisfaction kept gnawing at his insides all the time and never yet—and this one had to say to his credit—had he left the cage of his own free will after any period of fasting.

Design vs Architecture

For future reference: Dan Klyn argues that Architecture ≠ Design. He's sneaking up on a distinction that I think is useful, though at the moment I'm not persuaded that his nomenclature is helpful.

Art vs. design

A few days back I got drawn into a Twitter discussion about art and design. It sprung from this exchange:

Alan Cooper ‏<@MrAlanCooper>:

@doriantaylor An architect lives at the junction of people, purpose, and technology. So does an interaction or user experience designer.
Dorian Taylor <@doriantaylor>:

@MrAlanCooper I mention it because I see contemporary starchitects doing today what people like Macadam did: “finance my white elephant”.

I then tweeted:

Design as vainglorious art, not problem-solving craft. Grrr.

.... which sparked a bunch of discussion producing an unreadably bushy Twitter thread, which birthed a Branch thread which is still going at the time I write this. These are some comments from me in that thread which I want to hang on to:

Art & design draw upon highly overlapping skills, but pursue radically divergent ethics. Art is expression for the artist; design is problem-solving for the user.

Design culture tends to be unclear on this distinction, to the detriment of good design. There are a bunch of cultural forces supporting this problem, notably the creation of art & design schools in the mid-20th century.

Emphasis there added after the fact, because it got some love on the thread and circulation on Twitter.

What is the effect of the celebration of “designers” like Ron Arad, whom Dave Malouf alluded to above? I would call “designers” like Arad more artist than designer.

It confuses non-designers into thinking that design is styling. That design is contrary to function. “You're here to make it pretty. You're here to make it ‘cool’.” That's bad for me, bad for them, and bad for our expectations about product design in general.

I also suspect that it screws up a lot of students at A&D schools. They get the idea that they can get to do expressive, personal art and make a living at it as designers. Certainly there are such people, but that generally ain't the job.

In the ’90s, I went with a bunch of IxDs to a talk by Bill Moggridge.

He started telling a story about a sort of helmet thing worn by people with sleep apnea to help them breathe while they sleep. An IDEO team of industrial designers did a bunch of research into the disease and the technology in order to design a better helmet.

We IxDs felt a pang of ID envy. What a cool project!

Then Moggridge said, “Of course, the designers were disappointed to be assigned to this project. They would much rather have been given free reign to design a new chair.” And presumably come up with some eccentric chair-themed sculpture.

It's the “of course” that kills me. “Of course” designers don't want to solve interesting problems?

23 January 2013

There is always another joke

The previous post reminds me that one of the best pieces of design advice I know comes from the screenwriter Jane Espenson.

There is always another joke. This is probably the biggest lesson of comedy writing. No matter how much you love a joke, even if a particular joke was why you decided to write a certain episode, there is always another one. I've seen scripts where a given spot in a given scene is (temporary) home to more than a half-dozen jokes over the course of a week. And those are just the pitches that made it onto the page at some stage. Many more will have been pitched in the room.

Give it a try. Pick a random joke in your script. It can even be one you like, and imagine you've just been told that the only change you need to make is to improve that joke. I bet you can do it. Now do it with every single joke in your script.

There is so much goodness in this.

  • Don't get attached to solutions. If there's a problem with something you've proposed, don't work too hard to preserve it, because you can always come up with something else.
  • Early in the process, don't worry about every little problem being solved perfectly. Take time to ensure that you have a solution for what you need, then go back later to find the solution.
  • Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

Design process

Glenn Reid has a terrific little memoir of working with Steve Jobs.

I can still remember some of those early meetings, with 3 or 4 of us in a locked room somewhere on Apple campus, with a lot of whiteboards, talking about what iMovie should be (and should not be). It was as pure as pure gets, in terms of building software. Steve would draw a quick vision on the whiteboard, we'd go work on it for a while, bring it back, find out the ways in which it sucked, and we'd iterate, again and again and again. That's how it always went. Iteration. It's the key to design, really. Just keep improving it until you have to ship it.

There were only 3 of us on the team, growing to 4 within the year, with no marketing and very little infrastructure around us.


It is a process which requires understanding the parameters, the goals, and the gives and takes. Stretch what's possible, use technologies that are good, rein it in when the time comes, polish it and ship it. It's a kind of horse sense, maybe a bit like building houses, where you just kind of know how to do it ... or you don't.


One of the things about designing products that can come up is Ego, or Being Right, or whatever that is called. I'm not sure how this evolved, but when I worked with Steve on product design, there was kind of an approach we took, unconsciously, which I characterize in my mind as a “cauldron”. There might be 3 or 4 or even 10 of us in the room, looking at, say, an iteration of iPhoto. Ideas would come forth, suggestions, observations, whatever. We would “throw them into the cauldron”, and stir it, and soon nobody remembered exactly whose ideas were which. This let us make a great soup, a great potion, without worrying about who had what idea. This was critically important, in retrospect, to decouple the CEO from the ideas. If an idea was good, we'd all eventually agree on it, and if it was bad, it just kind of sank to the bottom of the pot. We didn't really remember whose ideas were which -- it just didn't matter.

This should all sound very, very familiar to my colleagues from Cooper.

  • No whiteboards, no design. Know whiteboards, know design.
  • Use small design teams working closely and collaboratively. Don't put too many people in the room. Don't make designers work solo. Don't make the design team confer all of the time with other people.
  • Design with passion but not ego. Ideas belong to the project team, not to the person who proposed them; if they're good, the team will use them and if they're not you can always come up with more. Do it right and you forget who invented what.
  • Iterate relentlessly within the design team's process. Don't settle; you can always make it better. Spend as long at this as you can possibly afford.
  • Design is product definition, not just product execution.
  • Design for the real world ... but also make the developers sweat a little. It's better to propose something that turns out to be a bit beyond what you can do and roll it back a few ticks than to do something mundane. Reality bats cleanup.
  • Design is a knack that some folks have and some folks don't ... but doing design is not sparkle magic, it's disciplined craft.
  • Product definition is the heart of company strategy, deserving executive-level juice.

A lot of people know this stuff, but there are not a lot of companies which actually allow it to be done. Apple did it because their CEO was committed to it and good at it. But you only need the first half of that equation — the commitment — for it to be possible in any organization.

22 January 2013


VICE has an amazing interview with a young woman who has taken the name Labanna Babalon.

You gotta put it in perspective of everything turning upside-down. Like, super right-wing Christians almost seem like Satanists. Man becomes woman, woman becomes man. The Whore of Babylon becomes Jesus. All this stuff flips in order for us to graduate into 5D. Relaxed duality, the holy hermaphrodite embodying both of these things. If we really were an alien genetics experiment, then the reptiles are the divide, the yin and yang that keeps God and human, all of us divided. Like, “I’m man and you’re woman; I’m God and you’re human.” Anything that makes the Godhead more important than the Goddesshead is a distraction from potential in humankind. It turns people into sheep, taking their energy, putting it into the matrix—like the movie—and sucking their energy from them.

As I tweeted: Chaos magick works. But that doesn't mean that it's good for you.

BS on the internet is inevitable

How do you know what you know? at the Weekly Sift argues that the proliferation data availability combined with human thought processes make the Bullshit Problem on the 'net effectively inevitable.

Corey Robin

Corey Robin is one of my favorite lefty observers explaining what conservatism is and how it works. He argues that conservatism is ultimately not really about public policy but about preserving hierarchies of power in the private sphere. His essay Reclaiming the Politics of Freedom is the best summa I've seen him provide on what this means for the left and right both in ideals and practical politics.

21 January 2013

Moon hoax

S. G. Collins offers us an entertaining and thoughtful little video about how implausibly hard it would have been to fake the Moon landings.

20 January 2013

Idiot plot, idiot society

David Brin notices something about what he calls our favorite cliché. He notices that we don't believe it.

It is we in fiction who show no respite or mercy, relentlessly depicting civilization as irredeemably stupid or morally bankrupt. If movies and novels were our basis for judging – say you were an alien relying only on the testimony of our adventure flicks beamed into space – then you would conclude that no human institution can be trusted. Cops won’t answer when you call. Or they’ll arrive late. Or if they come in time, they’ll prove staggeringly inept. Or else, if they swoop in swiftly and seem competent, they will turn out to be in cahoots with the bad guy.

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect – demand – swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well. In other words there is a stark disconnect between the world that film-makers live in, and the worlds that they portray. An absolute opposite of expectation.

And what's more, it's deeply related to the Idiot Plot, in which the story only moves forward because everyone in the story is an idiot.


One of my favorite pieces of writing-about-writing is David Mamet's unforgettable memo to the writers of The Unit.




I thought of it recently when I came upon at an intriguing post about kishōtenketsu at The Significance of Eating Oranges.

Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.

It seems to me that there is a major style of plotting that you see it a lot in live theatre, and occasionally in films and other media. It's when narrative interest is maintained through the progressive revelation of a mysterious backstory. Surely there's a name for that?

18 January 2013


New York Magazine's Jonathan Chiat on an example of David Brooks' legendermain.

This is all Obama’s fault because it makes Republicans “look like whackos willing to endanger the entire global economy.” Brooks displays an almost surreal lack of interest in the underlying reality that Republicans actually are whackos willing to endanger the entire global economy. It is his responsibility to conceal this reality from America.

Good fun, if you like that sort of thing.

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom is magical: exactly the movie Wes Anderson has been trying to make for years. I don't want to say anything more about it than that. Just see it if you haven't.

(Okay, one thing for folks who've seen the movie: There is a huge opportunity for the film's portrayal of the young girl heroine of the story to go kind of skeevy. The film avoids this completely, making it look effortless. I didn't even think of it until days after I saw the film. Amazing.)

In what I presume is Oscar bait, there's a gorgeous illustrated screenplay available online. Joe Bob says check it out.

Glenn Beck's technique

The mind, it boggles.

Glenn Beck uses his own show as an example in a succinct description of the bullshit-generating process.

It is difficult to resist talking about psychological pathologies here.

An astute friend points out that if one listens carefully, he's speaking in the voice of an evil propagandist, not describing his own show that way. But you have to listen carefully to catch this. Singularly odd.

17 January 2013


I love this poster from Walkable And Livable Cities Institute. It's not hard to see which place I'd rather live in.

Reminds me of an old favorite urban design propaganda image.

San Francisco

Jason Evanish writes 25 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to San Francisco, which is a pretty good guide, especially for migrants coming from the East Coast.

Two items stand out in my mind, though.

PBR is the official beverage of San Francisco

This made me feel hugely culture and generation gapped. “Mission hipster” style has consumed the city.

Costumes are a way of life

This acknowledgement of San Francisco's mighty Weirdness Culture isn't surprising in itself — what's striking is that it's the only mention of the character of Freak Nation present in the piece.

On the one hand, that's a sign of a measure of California Über Alles, as cultural signifiers that I thought of as distinctly San Franciscan in the ’90s like out queer culture and piercings have become commonplace in much of the country. But on the other hand, it's also a sign that San Francisco is less weird than it once was.

Increased cost of living and two rounds of web gold rushes have made San Francisco a more normal place.

I'm starting to sound like those New Yorkers nostalgic for the ’70s ....


Kaid Benfield at the National Resources Defense Council describes the nightmarish hostility of our built environment in an essay on the disturbing and sometimes tragic challenge of walking in America.

What you don’t see are any but the crudest accommodations for walking. This particular part of Woodbridge is a place for being either indoors or in a motor vehicle. If you were, say, an employee at the Pep Boys auto parts store, didn’t have a car on a given day, and wanted to grab a sandwich for lunch at Wendy’s right across the street, you’d have to walk nearly a mile, round trip, to cross the road with the benefit of a traffic signal. Even then, half your trip would have no sidewalk.

What many people with limited time would understandably do in that situation, instead, is attempt to cross the road using the shortest and most direct route between Pep Boys and Wendy’s, and hope their instincts and powers of observation would enable them to do so without getting hit. Some people do exactly that, without consequence.

But other pedestrians aren’t so lucky.

It's a nightmare, which is why in a previous post I said:

I do indulge in one very big luxury, which is not living in the great American suburban wasteland. This not only makes my housing breathtakingly expensive, it also nickels-and-dimes me with every carrot and bar of soap. Suburban living is actually more resource-intensive than urban living, but we've made it cheaper through a whole range of public policies. It is decidedly weird that a smaller living space, relying on public transit, and encountering hungry, miserable people asking for spare change every day is an expensive luxury.

Likewise, how bizarre is it that living without owning a car is an expensive luxury?

10 January 2013

Benzene: the snake is a lie!

Malcolm W. Browne at the New York Times debunks one of my favorite science legends.

Of all the cases cited by psychiatrists, psychologists and historians of science to illuminate the role of symbolism in creative thought, none is more famous than August Kekule's somnolent vision of a snake biting its tail, a dream that supposedly revealed the true structure of the benzene ring to the German chemist.

But at least one historian now believes that Kekule never dreamed the snake dream, and that, in any case, the benzene ring had already been described by other chemists at the time Kekule claimed to have discovered it.

Cartoon from the amazing Rick Veitch. You should buy all of his books, especially his surreal retelling of the origin of Superman, The Maximortal.

Blackbird Dice

A few months ago I played John Harper's beautiful little story game adventure Lady Blackbird. The game is a marvel: in sixteen pages it delivers character relationships, a vivid and interesting setting, a simple game engine with a novel dice pool mechanic that plays swiftly and encourages good roleplaying, and an adventure setup that is open-ended but has a strong narrative drive. (It's a little like a very streamlined version of Fate, if you're into that sort of thing.)

My tabletop roleplaying group wrapped it up in an evening — Lady Blackbird was happily reunited with her lover, the Pirate King — but it was obvious that we could have done a long campaign with just those rules. The game is a marvel.

It left me with an itch to use that rules engine again. Then game designer Will Hindmarch ran a Kickstarter for his cyberpunk roleplaying campaign Always/Never/Now; the Kickstarter video was incredibly seductive to a middle-aged geek like me.

Hindmarch's Kickstarter updates have been tantalizing. He's late on the project, but I'm kind of glad, since it's obvious that it's a result of him obsessively refining and expanding the project. I know the feeling, so I'm happy to wait.

In the meantime, I've done a little preparatory project to be ready for when the game is published and I gamemaster it. The Blackbird dice mechanic has you count odds and evens on your dice. Essentially you're just flipping coins, though rolling dice is more fun and convenient than flipping coins. But spotting odds and evens is a tiny bit of cognitive load in this deliberately simple game mechanic, so I've made the dice you see pictured. Since Always / Never / Now is a cyberpunk game, I've taken blank dice and painted half of the sides with shiny silver nail polish and half with matte black.

Roll and count the chrome.

Because yeah, I am that kind of geek.

09 January 2013

Playlist generator

Boil The Frog takes two musicians or bands as inputs, then creates a playlist which smoothly takes you from one to the other. Uncanny, fun, and could waste a lot of your time.

Only a mistress of adorable evil

Loving this phenomenon.

Plus, don't forget Sariah Gallego, the famous Sith Girl.

Defining "Pagan"

This is just an index of links, so I don't lose them, pending a later real post on the subject.

Here's Michael York, summarizing the definition of Pagan from his book Pagan Theology: Julian Betkowski

The ‘broad” definition of paganism that I use is “an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by the individual or community with the tangible, sentient and/or nonempirical.”

A ‘narrower’ definition replaces the ‘and/or’ conjunction with a simple ‘and’. Briefly, I see paganism as a celebration of life, a celebration of the world, a celebration of the physical, and a celebration of pleasure. Its component features are drawn from a grab-bag of nature veneration, the this-worldly, corpo-spirituality, enchantment, humanism, hedonism and multiple and gender-differentiated understandings of godhead or the divine. Different individuals and different communities select from this grab-bag differently. There is no dogmatic authority. The underlying ethos within a pagan orientation can be understood in terms of wishing, health, wonder and freedom. Most succinctly, paganism is root-religion — the root of all religion. And where the fashion is now to say, “I am not religious; I am spiritual,” I would rather say, “I am not spiritual; I am pagan!”

Here's a tweet from the Pagan Alliance:

Can Pagan mean any earth-based, nature-centered, polytheistic OR indigenous faith? that's how we've defined it n our org


Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, thinking that he was talking to conservative media, accidentally told Media Matters about conservative fundraisers backscratching each other.

The arrangement was simply FreedomWorks paid Glenn Beck money and Glenn Beck said nice things about FreedomWorks on the air. I saw that a million dollars went to Beck this past year, that was the annual expenditure.

It's not like this is news; anyone paying attention knows this is how it works. But it's unusual to get it from the horse's mouth.

Since Media Matters is a liberal organization, they're biased, so there's no need to regard this as important.

08 January 2013

Disastrous presentations

I just Facebooked the very funny article at The Verge about this year's incredibly ill-conceived Consumer Electronics Show keynote. (Update: There's now video!)

That inspired a friend to offer The Blaze describing a TED talk gone mad. And that reminded me of one of the most memorable corporate presentations I ever attended.

At the Computer Game Developers' Conference in 1995, Microsoft arranged a big presentation of their new graphics engine that would be bundled in Windows 95. They were renting out Six Flags for us for the night. But we had to sit through their propaganda first.

There were two kinds of developers in that room. There were developers who had worked on games in Microsoft DOS or Windows ... mostly DOS since even sedate turn-based games had trouble getting good enough performance in slow, buggy, crashy Windows 3.1. (That included me, sort of; I was a producer, not a programmer, so I knew the headaches by the transitive property.) Then there were developers who refused to work on games for the PC. Both groups had reason to hate Microsoft. The mood in the presentation theater was not receptive.

Just let us ride the roller coasters.

The Microsoft guy was tinkering with his PC as we came in, and then he started giving us a PowerPoint presentation. Two slides in, his computer crashes and he has to reboot. Laughter and jeers, but with a little note of sympathy; we'd been there.

Unfazed, the presenter continued his rap. His computer came back up. He re-opens his presentation file. Weird artifacts go kablooey all over his screen. The laughter really comes this time. The guy looks a little shaken, and calls to the wings for one of his colleagues. The presenter talks while his buddy tinkers with his computer. The guy tinkering with his computer waves to someone offstage, and a second guy comes out to help him. More chuckles from the audience.

The presenter starts talking about the meaty stuff: memory allocation, frame rates, et cetera. It's sounding kind of sexy, but we'd all heard BS promises from Microsoft before. I didn't even notice when the third guy came out in a lab coat. I did notice the fourth guy, who had a lab coat and goggles. The presenter keeps talking, as if nothing weird were going on, but the audience is starting to catch on. There's a fifth guy: lab coat, goggles, and Einstein hair. These guys are now brandishing strange-looking tools and waving their arms at each other as smoke pours out of the computer.

The presenter goes to the computer and hits a key. The smoke stops, the display goes back to normal, the mad scientists retreat back to the wings.

Fifteen seconds later, there's a computer running fast game graphics in a movable, resizable window, native in Windows. Inconceivable at the time.

A thousand developers applauded as hard as they could, whooping and stamping their feet.

04 January 2013


With folks talking about Quentin Tarantino lately, I had occasion to link someone to this post — and discovered that it was lost, so with the help of the Wayback Machine I'm re-posting it now.

If you've been thinking about seeing Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' double feature Grindhouse, let me offer some encouragement to check it out, and do it soon. It's getting crushed at the box office, so if you want a big screen, you had better catch it soon.

I loved this picture and I want to encourage folks to see it ... but only if they're the right audience for it, because it certainly isn't for everybody. You have to love movies, and you have to have the ability to process exploitation movies. I warn you: both installments are scary, and Rodriguez' installment Planet Terror goes, with astonishing effectiveness and frequency, for the gross-out.

That's because Planet Terror goes for everything, the entire vocabulary of exploitation film, all packed into a single movie. There's zombies and kung fu and gratuitous sex and guns and bad dialogue and army guys and rednecks and car chases and blood blood blood and crazy-looking extras and strippers and bad acting and quirky characters and doomed romance and Tom Savini and over-the-top dialogue and on and on, every bit of it delivered pitch-perfectly in the voice of those old exploitation movies.

Planet Terror is why you want that big screen, so you can have a few hundred strangers with you while you hoot and cheer and groan and laugh and gasp.

As usual, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon gets it right in describing Rodriguez' work.

Planet Terror packs it all in, but even though the movie may seems haphazard on the surface, it was clearly made with a Zen master's meticulousness.

I'd go a step further and say that this represents a watershed for Rodriguez. He's always been a talented filmmaker, and the kind of filmmaker whose enthusiasm for the medium shines through in all of his work. I really enjoy his films because they click most of the time, and even when they don't, quite, there's something seductive about the fearless voice of Mr Rodriguez underneath exclaiming Hey, I'm making a movie! But in Planet Terror the greatest satisfaction is how it slowly emerges that Rodriguez is in total control of what looks on the surface like chaos. If you have any love for the grubby charms of exploitation movies, then Planet Terror squeezes more entertainment into every single frame than you would have believed possible. It is in no way a serious film, but it is exactly the film that Mr Rodriguez wanted it to be. He is now a master of the craft.

Tarantino seems to hit a new level in his filmmaking, as well. His installment, Death Proof, has a kind of split personality.

There's a little slice of it that's pure terror suspense, dividing the first half from the second. Then there's the long final set piece of the movie, a dazzling car chase. And it is truly dazzling; I keep thinking that I've had it with car chases, and every three or four years someone comes along and shows me that actually, there's still life in that old trick. This is one of those times.

That brief description makes things sound more conventional than they are. In retrospect, it makes Kill Bill look like an elaborate film school exercise, in which Tarantino refined his ability to do various styles of action. A gunfight, a sword fight, a training flashback, a mass meleé, a kung fu wire fight, and so on, spackled together with the character dialogue he already knew how to do. In Death Proof he shows that he can now shake up a cocktail of styles, giving us two parts car chase, one part slasher killer, one part tequila, with a splash of comedy.

But even more interesting is the other 70% of the movie which is just dialogue, most of it women sitting around a table or driving around in cars, telling stories and bullshitting about stuff. It's funny, sexy, and affirming of the pleasures of ordinary life, spending time talking with friends.

Yeah, most of the movie is women talking. Let that sink in a second. How many movies like that do you get to see? Remember Alison Bechdel's rule from Dykes to Watch Out For, commonly known as the Mo Movie Measure.

I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements.
  1. It has to have at least two women in it who ...
  2. talk to each other ...
  3. ... about something besides a man.

Death Proof passes this test, in spades. Because, it becomes clear watching it, Tarantino loves women in a way that I find is characteristic of dorky, verbal guys who have (finally) gotten past their adolescent frustrations. To write and direct dialogue like in Death Proof you have to have listened to women, listened a lot, listened attentively, and cared about what you heard. I sat there thinking, this is the guy who could direct a film adaptation of Jaime Hernandez' Locas stories from Love and Rockets.

Now it's hardly unconventional for a male director to point a camera at actresses with a lover's eye. And it's hardly a direct-hit feminist victory for a man to gather a group of gorgeous actresses and give them a script to read of them telling jokes and talking dirty. And further, Tarantino is still delivering to spec on an exploitation film, so he lingers unashamedly over his actresses' physicality ... including, if you know to look for Mr Tarantino's little fetish, their bare feet.

But his camera does not deliver us fantasy bimbos, made up and plucked and polished into some plastic android femininity. They're not “sexy” like antiseptic starlets, they're sexy like the women you know. They're earthy and fleshy and real and possessed of their own voices. Having that delivered by a male director, wrapped in a genre movie, may not be Final Feminist Victory, but it is a feminist victory, and it suits my tastes just fine.

03 January 2013

Obama vs Nixon

Barack Obama says that he is not a progressive.

The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.

In case you didn't know.


David O. Atkins at Digby's Hullaballoo on politics, austerity, and the crisis of economic thinking.

What seems more likely is that the current economic, ecological and political system is broken and unsustainable.

Read the whole thing. Its virtue is that it is not long.