Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does Austin Suck?

Whiskey-infused bacon. Why is that cool? What may once have been a delicacy made on a hot-plate next to some piss jugs in a dorm room is, in Austin, an artisanal treat. Things like whiskey infused bacon, or fried PB&J sandwiches, or the ability to buy breakfast tacos anywhere, or the lineup at any given venue on any given night: these may vary in quality, and may not even justify their existences, but the ability to experience these things says something about Austin.
It’s a sweltering, congested sub-metropolis full of slack-asses and yuppies who simultaneously take themselves too seriously and not seriously enough. It's a place where spending $11 on a sandwich is considered a societal good. - friend and fellow former KVRX DJ Luke Winkie, in an article for Vice.
What's not said in that quote is that $3 of those dollars may have gone in the tip jar of the food stand he bought it from. There are tip jars EVERYWHERE in Austin. It won't be long until people start wearing them as accessories. But that's part of the point that I'm getting at:

Austin is full of believers. Yes, it's full of slackers too, and yes, there is a sort of "inertia":
Living in a city where things are actually expected of you is hard. It’s much easier to blame your professional and personal failings on the lack of inertia in Austin. It’s just so much nicer to hunker down in an inclusive local scene than trying to reach your potential as a human. Austin is like the safety school of life.
But what's better than an inclusive local scene? Really? Inclusive local scenes are great! Fantastic! We have five to eight farmers' markets a week, food trucks all over the city, tech startups everywhere, small and growing businesses of all kinds, meetups and places to perform... because people believe in the dream.
You don’t give a shit about whiskey-infused bacon. You’re pretending to, because that’s what keeps the whole city from feeling like a big lie.
Whiskey-infused bacon isn't important. It's what whiskey-infused bacon represents on a macro scale that's important. It's the thing that's keeping people in this city employed. It's what's bringing millions of dollars into town. People believe in each other. They're giving each other the benefit of the doubt. If you have a stupid idea, just go ahead and do it - somebody will pay for it (gourmet donuts the size of your head? Duh!).  And if not, just wait until night when everybody's drunk. In this town, that's a winning formula.
Nobody has a clue what his or her job is... When you build a city on the promise of employing every vague Comm-degree'd asshole in America, ye will reap what ye sow... When you settle down here you separate yourself from any childhood aspirations and settle with a job you're not sure actually exists.
Luke is talking about himself here, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. The way young people in this city get paid is different than the typical model in America. Yes, like everywhere else, work = pay. But in Austin the question of "work" and "jobs" is an existential one. People, at least people in their 20s (like myself), don't tend to hold down stable 9-to-5 jobs. A lot of young people hold down some kind of part-time job, then do other things for money to make up the gap. "Freelancing" is the word here. I know journalists, game developers, graphic designers, sound engineers, directors and people who wear a few kinds of figurative hats. I don't tend to agree with the Robert Heinlein quote about how a person should "...be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion," etc, but in Austin it certainly helps.

The logic is this: It's hard to find a job here... so why not go into business for yourself?

There lies the place on the venn-diagram where the "big lie" overlaps with the "big dream." No, Austin is not some jobs metropolis where they're handing out financial security to everybody with a degree and an idea. It's nothing like that. It's a place where enough people believe in the dream that they're willing to give everybody a chance, because then people will give them a chance. You can call it lowering your standards, or "taking yourself seriously and not seriously enough," or being a "slack-ass", or "a series of personal and financial failings", but that would be looking at it with a rule set designed for a different kind of game.

Austin is a place where you, as a young person developing your artistic and professional voice, can hustle your bullshit and people will give you a shot. And they'll give everybody else a shot, and you'll give 'em all a shot as well because that's what's keeping everything afloat.

And really... the only safety net in this city is the one you brought in with you. I've seen people from out of town move in, try the dream, fail, and move right back out of town. Some people don't have the financial security, the immense privilege, the know-how, or the skills (or degree) to do well here. But I've also seen plenty of people work hard and flourish. Luke Winkie is one of them.

When I moved here, a friend was talking to me about the hipster situation here (hipsters were more of a going concern back then). We were talking about how hipsters are defined by cascading irony, and how that's different in Austin. "Hipster" doesn't quite describe the Austinite. Neither does "hip," really. As ridiculous as they can be sometimes, people here mean it when they do and consume things.

Sometimes I can't shake the feeling that I'm living in Monty Python's camelot: "...it is a silly place." This is not what I was told adult life looks like. Maybe one day I'll graduate to that realm.

Until then I'm going to try to get a non-job and make enough money to start my own business.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Play and The Cosmic Calendar

I love the concept of the Cosmic Calendar as presented in Cosmos. It does a good job of making comprehendible something that's impossible to comprehend - the billions and billions of years it took to get where we are today. The Cosmic Calendar is a visual metaphor that divides up the history of the universe into the 365 days of the gregorian calendar. All of human civilization takes place on the last day, December 31st. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all did their thing within the last five SECONDS of this calendar.


It's mind-boggling.

On the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil Degrasse Tyson mentioned that sex - referring to the biological process of cellular reproduction, minus the bulk of its cultural meaning to us - is as old as early November. That's about 2 billion years ago. And all of humanity, starting with apes? About 5 million years, or starting in the morning on December 31st.

So I wondered, with all that time between the beginning of sex and the beginnings of humanity, when did Play come along? Huizinga's Homo Ludens begins thusly: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequaty defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men."


Despite this compelling introduction, Huizinga's book is a historical account of play in solely the timeline of human civilization and culture. He accounts for play in the last few thousand years, but before that? When did the animals learn to play? Is play as old as multicellular organisms?

What if it's older than sex?

Maybe it's only as old as consciousness itself. For Huizinga says, "in play, there's always something at play." Perhaps the object of play, whether a concept or a ball, requires a field of consciousness to exist in. Or perhaps play gave rise to consciousness. I'm shooting in the dark here.

Still, it's an interesting question. How old is play? To answer this question would shed light on the nature of play itself.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Saga: Vol. 3

I went to Dragon's Lair last night to pick up Saga volume 3, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. Saga is a modern space opera that follows a pair of forbidden lovers and their baby across the galaxy, with bounty hunters, royals, and now a pair of tabloid journalists in hot pursuit.

Vaughn has a way with family themes and cheap-shot pathos (a la Pride of Baghdad) that makes this book a total page turner. While set in a fantastic sci-fi universe with magical creatures and badass technology, the sci-fi element of these books takes backseat to the modern, human story. These characters use smart-phones, have crazy sex, curse endlessly, and have to call roadside assistance when their spaceships break down. They have family arguments and have to deal with love, jealousy, and who changes the baby. Staples' artwork does a brilliant job conveying extremely personal emotions, some I'm not sure I've seen in comic format before.

Yet Saga is endlessly romantic. Our main characters are beautiful, have magical powers, know the right thing to say more than half the time, and are generally heroic. The man has horns on his head and the woman has wings on her back. They could only exist in this fantastical space opera universe, filled with unexpected creatures, obstacles, and technology. Sometimes they verge on a little too perfect - Vaughn seems to know exactly which heartstring to pull next. Even their mistakes are adorable.

This is a book that stokes the imagination. It knows what it's doing, too: one of the central themes is the power of the written word to inspire people. Our heroes go against the grain of their respective societies, and even the ruthless killers that pursue them have to reconsider the way they do things. Everybody has to step outside of their comfort zones, including the arrogant Prince Robot IV. And outside of that comfort zone, characters in this saga seem to tend toward compassion and deep emotional understanding. There's a lot of crying and reconciliation, and a lot of our heroes finding the inner strength they need to continue.


It's good book, I recommend it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thoughts on The Stanley Parable

A couple days ago, after playing it over a couple sittings, and even suspecting that I wasn't done with it, I decided to jot down all the thoughts bouncing around my head about this game. It really affected me in a way that games usually don't. The following writing is raw and unrevised.


The Stanley Parable has lodged itself in my subconscious and is making me revisit all the things I thought I had figured out about freedom and choice. While the game is, on its face, a kind of weird commentary on the nature of choice in games, I think it actually works better as a meditation on freedom and choice in life.

Part of the challenge in figuring out what The Stanley Parable means is that it's constantly telling me what it means - which means I have to re-frame the question of what it means to incorporate the fact that it's telling me what it means. It gets pretty meta and confusing, but I believe that's part of the point.

A room with two doors looks like a choice. Pick a door and go in and get your special ending. But then, after the "ending" is over, you're presented with the same choice again. The Stanley Parable knows it's a game, and it wants me to play it over and over again. The nature of choice and meaning determines that whatever I choose will be meaningful because it was chosen in lieu of another choice. But then, what happens when the same choice is presented again? And again?

The abundance of that first choice, left door or right, makes the choice somewhat meaningless. After playing the game over and over again, I know what's going to happen if I choose the left door or the right. There's no risk, and so no reward.

Yet the moment when the first choice in the game became meaningless to me is the moment when the game became meaningful. At that moment, I asked myself "if my choices are meaningless, why am I still playing?" The only answer I could come up with was that I wanted to see what would happen. The choice at that point was a choice to keep playing.

The genius of The Stanley Parable isn't that it's a clever commentary on soul-crushing desk jobs, video game narratives, or even itself. The Stanley Parable is genius because it can do nothing but question its own existence. At every level the game unravels itself, working upward, until I, the player, question the nature of my own freedom and choices. It makes me think: even if my life is stressful, even if crazy stuff is happening around me, maybe the only choice that really matters is the one I make to get out of bed every day.

The game makes me make a version of that choice right in front of it. If I played the game forever, it would be canonical within the game's story. I could live The Stanley Parable, pushing buttons in a certain order to keep the game going. But choosing to turn off The Stanley Parable is a choice to play a different game, whether it be Real-Life or something else on Steam. At one point, it even asks me to. Even when I turn it off, I'm under its spell.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Soundself



My friend Robin's game Soundself went to Burning Man this year. It's an awesome project and a lot of people are astounded with it. The book full of well-wishers is real, and huge.

I helped build a third of the installation for a test run right before one of the Indiecade Annex parties. I'm in this video lumbering around somewhere. (I'm also in the beginning of the kickstarter video). I'm surprised I haven't posted about this game before actually.

The game is still a work in progress. Instead of a videogame, Robin is calling it a "videodream," a name I suggested after hearing his working term was "experiential non-game." His definition is fascinating. But before I say anything about genre, I want to talk about Soundself specifically.

I think Soundself can best be described as a kind of mirror. It listens to the player and reflects its algorithmic interpretation. The psychedelic kaleidoscopic visuals react dynamically to qualities in one's voice.

The dream is interesting for a few reasons. From one angle, Soundself feels like it's alive, communicating with you in a very intimate way. From another, it feels like a mirror, almost as if it's showing you a picture of your soul. It's a playful, relaxing, therapeutic experience at the moment. Having to sustain even the weakest note (especially in front of other people) and seeing the beauty that comes out of that sustained effort is a special experience. (Keep in mind I've only played it in public settings so my experience reflects that).

I think Robin is going for something a lot more profound than "therapeutic" though. Is it a mirror of the soul? Is it something alive, with something to say about life? Is it a tool for discovering greater truths? I'm excited to see what he comes up with. Apparently the visuals are completely revamped from when I played it.

Robin's game (dream) is part of a nascent genre. but oh snap I just got my iPhone, hold on.

The Cyberpunk Question

Cyberpunk has made a resurgence in recent years. Former tabletop games Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 are reincarnated as video games. Both Neuromancer and Snow Crash seem to be getting movies soon. Ghost in the Shell has a new season. The last Deus Ex game was very popular. These hard-boiled cyber-crime works are gaining new relevance in a world not so different than the ones they depict.

The resurgence in Cyberpunk works begs a question. It's not a question about the resurgence, not really a "why now?" Instead, it's a "what now?" Cyberpunk has shown to be so prophetic that it's becoming a mirror for society, and it wants us to think about that.

The subreddit /r/Cyberpunk has about 34,000 subscribers. Since the content is not strictly moderated, submissions range from simple images to game trailers to news articles. These submissions represent a group negotiation of the meaning of cyberpunk. That meaning?

Cyberpunk is an aesthetic. It's cluttered, technological, dirty, omniscient and everywhere. It also carries a deep sense of paranoia and wrongness, from the conspiratorial moves of the AI in Neuromancer to the edge-of-reality busting in The Matrix. It's noir, run through the mill of globalization and corporatism. Secrets fight other secrets in silent technological wars.

A central theme on /r/Cyberpunk is "this is society today." The community treats the works of the older cyberpunk artists (Gibson, Stephenson, Masamune, Scott) as prophetic, pointing to the evidence in today's world. It's not a hard argument to make, as more and more aspects of our world take on those of a cyberpunk dystopia: the government monitors all communication, multinational corporations are incredibly powerful, technology is near-inseparable from everyday life, and the activities of hackers really do matter in the big picture. All the technology that make cyberpunk action sequences cool - HUDs, robots, cyborg augmentation, etc - is well in development, if not already in practical use.

When the comparison between that fiction and everyday life is so obvious, and the gap between the two is so small, one question keeps the gap from closing: what do we do now? I consider this the cyberpunk question.

That is, "what do we do now?" is the question cyberpunk asks us in 2013. We're on the train, pulling up to the station. Our stop is The Sprawl, a technological dystopia where mega-corporations make the rules and the lower classes use what technology they can to scrape up a living. Is this where we get off?

The word "punk" in cyberpunk usually confuses newcomers to the genre. Is it just a synonym for "cool?" Is it rebellious? It sounds like something you might want to be, a cyberpunk. It sounds better than "nerd" anyway. There are cyberpunk manifestos out there on the net, and apparently Timothy Leary started a group that called themselves cyberpunks (and eventually got involved with Billy Idol, who ruined it all). It seems to have always been a shaky thing to base an identity on. Users on /r/Cyberpunk who post about "cyberpunk fashion" tend to get slagged.

We can't easily identify as cyberpunk. But what about the cyberpunk question? What does the idea of "punk" mean to that?

Punk, in the abstract, is about doing things with disregard for any convention. Convention in the original context of punk usually meant rules, and rules usually meant authority. In the context of cyberpunk, authority is usually presented as conspiracy.

Protagonists in cyberpunk works are constantly finding out new truths and betrayals, some that bend reality. The anti-terrorist groups in Deus Ex and Ghost in the Shell are physically near-invincible, so their main antagonists are mysterious and intangible (conspiracy and a baby AI respectively). In other works, like Gibson's novels, protagonists range from everyday hackers to veteran mercenaries. Their main antagonists are also mysterious, and usually not revealed until the end of the book.

Cyberpunk is largely about uncovering and resisting the mysterious forces that deign to use and control the everyday lives of regular people. It's usually a battle fought through different mediums, using technology to uncover and share information.

There are people fighting that fight today. The stories of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are stories of the now, not the future. Those two are being persecuted by the U.S. Government for revealing its secrets. Predictably, their stories as well as other stories about the NSA have made the /r/Cyberpunk page a few times.

The story of reddit itself is pretty cyberpunk. That there even exists a place on the net where people can share information so fluidly and in such large quantities is incredible. The site is a beacon for info junkies. It's also a staging ground for modern political activists, such as the Occupy movement, or the anti-PATRIOT ACT /r/RestoreTheFourth. In these sites, people gather to share and uncover the truth, to find the root of the problem and discuss what can be done about it. Those communities are communities of resistance, and they're framed by an architecture of free information.

The creators of reddit are the most cyberpunk of all. In today's world, hackers are the architects of society. Like in the digital world of Snow Crash, every structure on the net is hand-crafted by somebody slouched back covered in LED light. Reddit is a structure that is helping shape modern democratic dialogue. To endlessly quote McLuhan, "the medium is the message." If reddit is a message, I think that message is part of the answer to the cyberpunk question.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Two reviews, Fez, Space Graffiti


Yes, that's my name (minus one 'l') in the Fez credits. PC QA team! I can't honestly say I did too much - I logged the handful of bugs I found. But there it is, and this blog is mostly for bragging.

My tumblr has two new posts on it as of today. I wrote a couple game reviews. One is for Fez and one is for Gone Home. Both are excellent games that do very different things, and I highly recommend you read my reviews then follow their advice, which is to buy the games.

Finally, I'm back on the radio this fall. I'll be on 91.7fm KVRX Austin every Thursday night from 8-9pm. That's a veteran timeslot y'all! The show is called Graffiti in Space and it's freeform. I imagine I'll be playing 60's prog, 90's indie, noise and desert rock, some stoner metal, some psychedelic stuff, some hip-hop, trip-hop, blade-runner-soundtrack kind of stuff. So tune into that!