Narrativist role-playing games, an esoteric spin-off from Dungeons and Dragons, turn the conventions of games upside down. In games, you play to win, the rules regulate your action, and the story is a hook meant to draw you into the game. In narrativist games, you play to create a story, the rules constrain the ways the story can evolve, and winning is beside the point.

In many ways, narrativist role-playing games are collaborative writing exercises or storytelling workshops. They might also be useful laboratories for social software design.

For example, everyone talks about Twitter and the role of its 140-character limit. Is 140 characters enough? Could we manage with less? Would we be happier with more? What can’t we achieve in the face of the limit? What can we achieve that we wouldn’t be able to do with unlimited message length?

Robin D. Laws game, Og: unearthed edition, explores the extreme case. The players in the game are a band of cavemen. They face various dangers — wolves, mammoths, forest fires, hostile tribes. They work together to achieve heroic triumph, or at least to survive.

They do this with 18 words. That's all you can use amongst yourselves, though you can say anything you like to the GM. You, me, rock, water, fire, stick, hairy, bang, big, small, shiny, thing. And it gets worse: no one knows all 18 words, so you start out with a few words selected from the 18.

And one of those eighteen words is “verisimilitude".

A blogger writes:

For some reason, though, it works brilliantly. There's a real sense of satisfaction in managing to explain (comparatively) complex ideas with your tiny vocabulary. Once you get the hang of it, you can hold entire conversations in cave-speak, and string together ever more inventive forms of abuse. Essentially, you're combining elementary puzzle solving with searching through a foreign dictionary for all the curse words, with an occasional time-out to massacre bunch of cavemen from a different tribe (without any of the pesky moral considerations of whether it's OK to kill a bunch of pygmies). There's also some pride to be taken in engineering breakthroughs in caveman technology; by the end of our session we had invented both the wheel and the scarf, and possibly scrambled eggs. Every roleplay scenario should end with a communal omelette.

Og is available as a pdf download ($7.95) from Steve Jackson Games.

In the spirit of today’s internet culture, which values collaboration and information sharing, Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson are conducting an experiment in which their new book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children will be inviting readers to supply the book’s footnotes. Three chapters of the book will be posted on and, and readers will be asked to highlight portions of the text to add their own footnotes.

Publishers are taking note of the ability for a system like this to build a community around books. Alison Flood writes in the Guardian:

Enhanced ebooks will almost certainly be the way forward, and as the quality of ereaders improves, there will be a multitude of ways in which we can do this," added Hodder & Stoughton's Isobel Akenhead, pointing to "director's cut" editions of books – with commentary from the author about why and how the text might have changed, as well as user commentaries, which she said would work particularly well for reference books such as recipe books.

Slowly but surely, the print world is catching up to the hypertext community, and this article serves to show that the print publishers may finally (again!) be jumping aboard.

Dennis Pelli and Charles Bigelow observe that authorship is becoming nearly universal.

Concern for the minority who can’t read may soon extend to those who can’t publish. Reading—a defining characteristic of civilization as far back as ancient Greece when all Athenian citizens were expected to know how to read—is now taken for granted in industrialized democracies. Publishing by the few Athenian authors brought us drama, philosophy, science, mathematics, literature, and history. As readers, we consume. As authors, we create. Our society is changing from consumers to creators.

Is universal authorship really a good thing? Sure, it allows easier access to information and personal experience, but doesn’t that just mean we’ll have to wade through a waist-deep ocean of cheese sandwiches before finding what we’re really looking for? Perhaps. But since search capabilities have been keeping up with the increase so far, perhaps the search engines will put in the money and effort to stay on top of it. In any case, links placed by thoughtful writers will continue to provide a trail for interested readers.

Eugene Lang College and The New School for Liberal Arts will host The Internet as Playground and Factory, a conference on digital labor , in New York City, November 12-14. The conference is centered around the internet as a medium for labor from which large internet enterprises profit:

This conference confronts the urgent need to interrogate what constitutes labor and value in the digital economy and it seeks to inspire proposals for action. Currently, there are few adequate definitions of labor that fit the complex, hybrid realities of the digital economy. The Internet as Playground and Factory poses a series of questions about the conundrums surrounding labor (and often the labor of love) in relation to our digital present

The engaging schedule, covers topics from “Why Virtual Worlds Need a Civil Rights Movement” to “Facebook User Labor Enactments.” The participants list is impressive. The conference is free to attend, but guests must register in advance on the conference Web site.

Mark Bernstein sends word of a fresh note on The Bundle of Newspapers, explaining why newspaper circulations (and not simply revenues or profits) are collapsing so quickly. He finds the answer in the origins of the modern newspaper as a bundle of information that the Web – and especially the mobile Web – has untied.

Now, these papers are not interchangeable; and that is why we have Mr. Pulitzer, who invents what we call the good paper, and Mr. Hearst, who invents the other kind. My mother is at one time a newspaper woman, and though she is a nice Jewish girl from a nice socialist family, she works for Mr. Hearst, who is not socialist, or Jewish, or nice except that he pays my mother very well and invites her to swell parties. I mention this just to explain my biases, as the FCC wants me to do. But all the newspapers are big bundles. This guy is a mensch and wants to read the Forward, and that putz, who is hardly more educated than a neanderthal, likes the Sun. But if the Herald-Tribune or the Sun or Forvertz want you to buy their paper, they need to have theater reviews and stock prices and pretty girls and the latest on pork bellies and of course the eighth at Saratoga. Besides, the Sun has Archy and Mehitabel.

With NaNoWriMo starting this weekend, thousands of fingers will begin pounding furiously at the keyboard. Since the first Writers On Writing was well-received, we thought we’d share some more thoughts with you to really get you going! (Correspondents: send us your gems!)


You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.


I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.


Sometimes people say to me, “I want to write, but I have five kids, a full-time job, a wife who beats me, a tremendous debt to my parents,” and so on.
I say to them, “There is no excuse. If you want to write, write. This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don’t wait. Make the time now, even if it is ten minutes once a week.”


Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency . . . to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.


Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.

So if you’re not sure what to do with your Hallowe’en afternoon before the trick-or-treating and costume parties really get into full swing, lock your doors, pull the shades, and try to hold on to your sanity as you invite the Elder Gods into your Twitter account. The theme couldn’t be any more perfect for the holiday. Here’s how to join the parade of horror.

A friend sent us the a link to a site about retouching photos. It was, she said, the scariest thing she’d ever seen. In the spirit of Hallowe’en, we expected people retouched to look like zombies or ghosts; instead we found this. It appears that people are retouching photos of children to make them look “better.”

In “Editing Children Into the Uncanny Valley”, Bryan Alexander raises interesting questions about anxieties toward digital manipulation of images that are supposed to represent reality. All digital art—and indeed all art—is a departure from reality. It is not the fact that this isn’t life-like that makes it disturbing; it’s the fact that it should be. Something has been lost in the editing process that has completely taken away the essence of life and realism that the photos are supposed to capture.

So where do we draw the line between acceptable digital art and that which affects us negatively? At what point do these girls stop looking real? As Alexander also points out, there are also some interesting issues of class, a topic which has already garnered attention in the digital world.

“At Pixar, they have a word for almost human but not quite: monster.” – Alvin Ray Smith

At the heart of writing is the desire to leave something behind, and the fear of impermanent technology deters talented writers from taking up hypertext. Some developers, however, are using new technology as the basis for sharing history with future generations, and a new research project at Microsoft offers a glimpse into a quest for permanence which might border on obsessive.

The MyLifeBits project records photos and video, archives IM conversations and web history—even preferred TV programs, and allows the user to annotate these bits with voice and text. Much of the value of MyLifeBits relies on the SenseCam, which allows the user to experience the moment without the interruption afforded by most cameras:

There is a strong demand for capture of life experiences, whether in photos, videos, or written accounts. However, few people want to miss the experience in order to be the camera operator. Furthermore, many people who have stuck with photography, and especially digital photography, have ended up feeling overwhelmed by their large collection of photos, and only get enjoyment from a chosen few that are selected for albums. The SenseCam allows photos to be captured automatically using sensors to trigger picture-taking. Here we show SenseCam data that has been imported into MyLifeBits. The sensor readings are plotted and corresponding photos can be displayed.

The idea behind the project is to capture a lifetime of experience into a neat, searchable package. Apparently we’d rather bore our great-great-grandchildren with the details of our most visited social-network pages and our evenings spent watching Jeopardy than leave them complex works of art to serve as glimpses into our deepest emotions.

There’s certainly something to be said for mystery.

David Gelernter of Yale University recently made some interesting predictions about the future of books in the “Room For Debate” section of the NY Times

I assume that technology will soon start moving in the natural direction: integrating chips into books, not vice versa. I might like to make a book beep when I can’t find it, search its text online, download updates and keep an eye on reviews and discussion. This would all be easily handled by electronics worked into the binding. Such upgraded books acquire some of the bad traits of computer text — but at least, if the circuitry breaks or the battery runs out, I’ve still got a book.

Matthew Battles notes that electronics have already crept into the codex, like RFID tags, and asks interesting questions about what else could be done for the book.

Could little piezoelectric sensors be incorporated in the binding to furnish a digital "bookmark"? Would it be useful to store the resulting data somewhere to track how quickly you read the book? How could the digitized text of a bound book be linked to/accessed/interacted with, within the confines of the codex, to enhance the reading experience?

Just in time for NaNoWriMo’s new Young Writers Program , Puffin Books has created We Make Stories, an interactive digital writing site aimed at children. The site offers different applications in which kids can create narratives, one even allows kids to record their own sounds to add to their stories. Other applications allow children to make eBooks, treasure maps, interactive pop-up books, and comics.

At Puffin we believe that storytelling is an important skill which aides in the development of a child's literacy. The tools here have been designed to promote a range of storytelling skills and give children confidence in their ability to create stories. There are currently six different storytelling tools available with the possibility of further tools being added in the future.

The site may have been created to stress literacy, but it also has the added benefit of fostering electracy and introduces kids to the creative process behind simple forms of electronic literature. The site is innovative, cute, and engaging, and best of all gets kids creating born-digital narratives.

A while ago we raised some questions about whether Twitter narrative needs to weed out the cheese sandwiches. After all, cheese sandwiches are, in fact, a part of our daily narrative. Unless you agree with David Mamet that cheese sandwiches aren’t tasty.

While these questions have not been answered entirely to our satisfaction , Susana Zaragoza has some interesting points about Twitter as a platform. Zaragoza argues that Twitter goes beyond the typical social networking site to offer proof of the emergence of Secondary Orality, the shift from the values of print literature to combine many of the values of both print and oral culture. She also seems to suggest that Twitter uses hypertext and multilinearity in a way that bridges the gap between social media and wikis, the future of which could be a complex narrative which promotes reconfiguration of the text, author, writing and literary education. The emergence of such a narrative is precisely the idea behind Mark Amerika’s suggestion of a Hypertextual Consciousness .

Last week, we reported on an early performance of "Sleep No More", an immersive hyperdrama at the American Repertory. Mark Bernstein saw the production this week, and his reaction was ecstatic.

The American Booksellers Association is attacking, Wal-Mart, and Target, claiming in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice that the companies are exacting predatory pricing. The ABA claims that the companies are selling newly-released hardcover best-sellers below cost in an attempt to gain market control:

Publishers sell these books to retailers at 45% - 50% off the suggested list price. For example, a $35 book, such as Mr. King's Under the Dome, costs a retailer $17.50 or more. News reports suggest that publishers are not offering special terms to these big box retailers, and that the retailers are, in fact, taking orders for these books at prices far below cost. (In the case of Mr. King's book, these retailers are losing as much as $8.50 on each unit sold.) We believe that, Wal-Mart, and Target are using these predatory pricing practices to attempt to win control of the market for hardcover bestsellers.

The letter also notes that Amazon previously engaged in below-cost pricing on electronic copies of new hardcover books, although it is not as quick to cite costs on eBooks. It seems logical that since the production costs of electronic copies are nominal, a company could be able to produce electronic versions of new release best-sellers for much cheaper than the hardcover versions.

With the beginning of NaNoWriMo looming on the horizon, it seemed like a good time to recall the wisdom of writers who’ve been there:


The worst thing a writer can do is to think. The best thing to do is to react, which includes thinking but doesn't let it act as an impediment or a censor. When you read something, you think something—write that down. That's what I'm always trying to do, –


If you start to edit as you write, you are climbing into your “editor” self, the self that reads. You’ve done plenty of reading, you don’t need practice right now.
Just write.


When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.


Any fiction should be a story. In any story there are three elements: persons, a situation, and the fact that in the end something has changed. If nothing has changed, it isn’t a story.


If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.


Don’t write stage directions. If it is not apparent what the character is trying to accomplish by saying the line, telling us how the character said it, or whether or not she moved to the couch isn’t going to aid the case. We might understand better what the character means but we aren’t particularly going to care.


Breslin’s Rule: Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover.


Do not pay any attention to the rules other people make.... They make them for their own protection, and to Hell with them.

Nintendo’s recent DS release Scribblenaut joins the ranks of games that we would probably like better if we hadn’t expected to like them so much. However, this knowledge comes to me from a new game review site: The New York Times.

Sure, Seth Schiesel writing in The Times was a bit tougher on the game than Gamespot or IGN.

The big idea is that Scribblenauts includes a dictionary of more than 20,000 nouns. You type in a word, and the corresponding object magically appears on the screen. Almost anything you can think of that isn’t sexual, racially offensive or copyrighted is included. The concept is that you are limited only by your imagination in how you solve the various puzzles.
But it generally doesn’t work out that way. Instead, the interaction among various objects often seems arbitrary. I need to start my car, for instance. Giving Maxwell a key doesn’t help. Maybe I can summon a tow truck and connect it to my car with jumper cables? No dice.

A couple of his “frustrating examples” seem to forget that the game rewards creativity, but the important thing is that they reviewed the game and actually took a close look at what the game was trying to accomplish artistically—not how it sold or how controversial its content might be made to seem.

Harvard’s The American Repertory Theater and Punchdrunk are performing Sleep No More, a hyperdrama rendition of Macbeth with a creepy, Hitchcock feel.

I was recently able to attend, courtesy of the ART, and it was truly one of the most memorable theater experiences I’ve ever had. I had never been to a hyperdrama before, but I was familiar with the concept and, having a fair amount of experience with hypertext, knew that my choices on which characters I decided to follow would influence my experience.

One problem I couldn’t figure out was how the audience could watch the action without getting in the way or detracting from the experience. The solution is brilliant: each guest wears a white mask. In the dimly lit rooms, the masks make us seem like spirits gathering around a group of mortals who were only faintly aware of our existence. Though we were asked to be silent, the occasional stifled giggle or whisper between other ghosts added to the ambience. As the action moved down a hall, groups of spirits would break off their exploration of scenery to join the larger group on the move, and as more and more spirits gathered and followed, the action seemed to take on a new sense of foreboding. The experience created by the masks was incredible, like watching a scene from beyond the grave.

I was also struck by the authenticity with which the play space was transformed: smells, temperatures, textures, and sounds brought the experience to life. The choreography was impeccable, and the cast did a wonderful job of helping the audience understand exactly what to do. I may even go back to catch some of the things I missed the first time.

If you’re in the Boston area, treat yourself and go see this production! Shows run through January 3, 2010.

Amidst the ceaseless hand-wringing about how the Internet is shortening our attention spans, distracting us from more important things, destroying our capacity to think, and ruining our children, it’s nice to occasionally hear a sensible rebuttal. In The Tweets for the Web, Tyler Cowen offers such relief , stressing that while current culture is tending toward shorter bits of information, the result is actually increased attention span, as we are now following our specialized mix of our favorite weblogs (and other preferred media bits) every day for years at a time.

Cowen also succinctly refutes the claim that today’s multitasking society is made inefficient by a perpetual haze of technological distraction. “Multitasking is not a distraction from our main activity, it is our main activity.”

Perhaps the most convincing part of the whole essay is the analogy of contemporary culture to a long-distance relationship:

A long-distance relationship is, in emotional terms, a bit like culture in the time of Cervantes or Mozart. The costs of travel and access were high, at least compared to modern times. When you did arrive, the performance was often very exciting and indeed monumental. Sadly, the rest of the time you didn’t have that much culture at all. Even books were expensive and hard to get. Compared to what is possible in modern life, you couldn’t be as happy overall but your peak experiences could be extremely memorable, just as in the long-distance relationship. [...]

Today, our relationship to culture has become more like marriage. It enters our lives in an established flow, creating a better and more regular daily state of mind. True, the art world has in some ways become uglier, or at least it sometimes appears so. But when it comes to how we actually live and feel, contemporary culture is more satisfying and contributes to the happiness of far more people.

Roger Ebert recently republished his review of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking film, which depicts a murder through the subjective flashbacks of 4 different characters. The movie was so influential that a psychological theory accounting for the effect of subjectivity on recollection is named after it.

Ebert remarks on the incorporation of “Rashomon” into English lexicon:

Its very title has entered the English language, because, like "Catch-22," it expresses something for which there is no better substitute.

The Rashomon effect, as well as the discursive structure that its namesake pioneered, is an important pattern of hypertext and has been the subject of very important works.

My path through college was neither straight nor narrow. I switched majors a couple of times—a practice strongly discouraged at the University of Florida—from accounting to computer engineering to English, Each switch felt like an upgrade. I didn’t take my first business class on a campus until my third semester, since classes were mostly online or broadcast via cable. I never met any of my professors in person until I switched to computer engineering, but even then all of my classes were in an auditorium of hundreds.

Then I switched to English.

In English, classes held a no more than 30 students. I even got into one department seminar which was limited to ten. I was shocked during my first semester as an English major when I was slow to pack up my stuff after class one day, and the professor starting asking me questions about what I had thought about the lecture and even asked questions about myself. As a person! Professors knew my name, and could remember it a couple of semesters after I took their courses. This was what college was supposed to be.

At the time, I thought smaller classes and incredible professors were just a testament to the English department’s ability to schedule a sensible number of classes per student. Perhaps it was also because discussion is more important to the humanities than to calculus or financial accounting. However, as I started noticing the same students in most of my classes, I realized that there were simply fewer of us than there were Business majors.

William M. Chace calls this “The Decline of the English Department” and explains there are so many business students and so few liberal arts students. He recalls the boom of the humanities in the 1950s:

“Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one’s future. In comparison with the pre-professional ambitions that dominate the lives of American undergraduates today, the psychological condition of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.”

Chace believes that cost of education, the comparative youth of English as a discipline, the lack of external grants and sources of income compared to the sciences, and the lack of definition as a discipline have all contributed to the fall of the English department.

And, indeed, there is a prejudice against “soft” degrees. My parents were furious when I decided to abandon a stable future as a programmer to pursue English. Luckily, that programming background has served me well in the pursuit of electronic literature, and these days I’m proud that I ended up with an English degree.

Sometimes, new findings appear that make one wonder how anyone could have believed otherwise. Research on hypertext fiction has revealed students’ anxiety and apprehensiveness, but Hans K. Rustad of Hedmark University College in Norway believes that this aversion demonstrates only that they are unfamiliar with the form, not that the form itself is flawed. His essay argues for an understanding of hypertext from four different reading approaches: semantic orientation of reading, gaining experience, self-reflection, and absorption.

His essay could prove to be key in unlocking some of the mysteries of teaching hypertext, and it refutes the belief that students inherently find hypertext reading difficult and overwhelming. Indeed, how heavily can we rely, when thinking about the future of literature, on observations of subjects who have never before read much literary hypertext?

Dan Jurafsky of Stanford University has recently started a blog on the language of food which covers topics like how “entrée” came to describe a main course and why “tomato ketchup” is not actually as redundant as it seems.

Jurafsky teaches a course on the linguistics of food; the syllabus is worth a look. Coming up, for example, we’ve got a lecture on “The Grammar of Cuisine (or, Why do we eat dessert at the end?)”, starting with Claude Levi-Strauss and ending with “Taking the Biscuit: the structure of British meals”.

Interestingly, it appears that language influences food, and not the other way around.

Maple-glazed apple bacon donuts are an anomaly. Why?

When adapting video games, movie execs greenlight high-action games in which the narrative is either absent or serves only as an excuse to string together the next action sequence or puzzle. That’s why we have movies like Doom, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Super Mario Bros.

Hollywood finally got the message and decided to adapt a game that already has a great story to begin with: Prince of Persia. Finally, a game movie worth watching! Screenwriter John August and PoP creator Jordan Mechner discuss how they pitched the movie to Disney and how they put together the pitch trailer.

Twitter has proven, yet again, that micro blogging is a great venue for emerging literature. Neil Gaiman, the creator of Stardust and The Sandman comic series is teaming up with BBC Audiobooks America to produce an interactive story which will be written through the collaboration of Twitter users. Gaiman started the story last Tuesday, and others may pitch in and help create the narrative by adding the hashtag #bbcawdio to their Tweets. BBCAA then sorts through the chaos and compiles the results to string together the best narrative. You can check out the story so far by following @BBCAA .

Once the project is finished, BBCAA will record the result and it will be available for free download at the BBCAA website and will also be available at iTunes or other audiobook retailers.

(Thanks, Bryan Alexander! )


Xoan Baltar, iPhone painter, is so talented with the Brushes app that soon after receiving compliments from “very important people in the world of illustration” and even a director at Disney, Brushes creator Steve Sprang asked him to take a job working on the next iteration of Brushes. In an interview with Seeds and Fruit, Baltar explains how he began doing iPhone art, how iPhone art differs from art with brushes and paints, and how he thinks art will progress . He observes:

“It’s incredible that millions of years ago, man painted in caves with their fingers — and many years later, although the technology is better, we continue doing the same, painting with our fingers on a glass screen. It’s interesting.”

On first glance, I mistook some of his Brushes work for photographs . He admits that this response is common.

Frustrated with people accusing him of retouching photos and labeling them as Brushes art, Baltar created some youtube videos of his work in progress. I don’t know which is more incredible: the finished product, or watching him create these works. However, it’s no mystery why Seeds and Fruit calls him “one of the leading talents in iPhone art.”

Some of my favorites include:

Rigas Arvanitis offers some kind and thoughtful remarks on Reading Hypertext. Arvanitis is the chief editor of Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances ( Journal of Anthropology of Knowledge).

He writes of Susana Pajares Tosca’s two papers, “I like very much her writing” and declares, “Greco is super interesting.” He particularly singles out Mark Bernstein’s new essay, “Into the Weeds":

“I find Berstein’s writing illuminating…There is something very decisive about his writing. Something very performative. He sees how to translate a simple phrase into a sort of philosophical and practical maxim.”

Roger Ebert, the movie critic famous for his thumb being up or down, has almost as many books as Eastgate’s own Mark Bernstein. I found out about Bernstein’s books when dropping by for dinner, finding that they covered most surfaces not occupied by the plates. Ebert recently described just how one can come to own so many books — including multiple editions of the same title — and why he can’t get rid of them.

“I cannot throw out these books. Some are protected because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word; they're like little shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most are used, and I remember where I found every one...Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used book store.

Paul Graham offers an interesting look at the publishing industry and why people are refusing to pay for content, whether music, news, movies, or information:

“Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.”

It’s striking, when you think about it. A copy of Time costs just about as much as a copy of The Economist. 45 minutes of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra costs about as much as 45 minutes of The Beatles, or 45 minutes of Milli Vanilli.

“Now that the medium is evaporating, publishers have nothing left to sell. Some seem to think they’re going to sell content – that they were always in the content business, really. But they weren’t, and it’s unclear whether anyone could be.”

Graham argues that because people have never paid more for better content, there is no market for content itself, only the medium in which it’s supplied. So what does this mean for the future of publishing, as we live in an increasingly paperless world? Graham suggests a larger focus on advertising or finding a way to embody it in ways people will pay for.

If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally wished your MS Paint doodles were a bit more high-tech or that you could produce something that looks less like your three-year-old niece’s crayon art. Well, the future is here!

A group of students in China have created a program called Sketch2Photo , which takes a hand-drawn outline sketch, searches the web for photos that match the sketch, and brings it all together in a composite picture. The results, in press at ACM Transactions on Graphics, are actually pretty incredible:

Sure, the new image doesn’t have exactly the right lighting and shadows, but it definitely comes out looking less photoshopped than most tabloid photos.

“We present a system that composes a realistic picture from a simple freehand sketch annotated with text labels. The composed picture is generated by seamlessly stitching several photographs in agreement with the sketch and text labels; these are found by searching the Internet. Although online image search generates many inappropriate results, our system is able to automatically select suitable photographs to generate a high quality composition, using a filtering scheme to exclude undesirable images. We also provide a novel image blending algorithm to allow seamless image composition. Each blending result is given a numeric score, allowing us to find an optimal combination of discovered images. Experimental results show the method is very successful; we also evaluate our system using the results from two user studies.”

One issue that immediately comes to mind is the issue of photo ownership and copyright infringement: here we have the music sampling issue appearing in a new context. . At the very least, the software promises interesting things for the future of image editing.

In a response to the release of vooks, a video-book hybrid, Laura Miller asks, “Do Readers Really Want Video-Book Hybrids?” (Miller, you may recall, once attacked hypertext as, blaming it for the Postmodern attack on the seamless dreamtime of narrative.)

I think the answer to this question is a bit more complicated than Miller’s observation that many kids today are reading printed books to find “a welcome break from staring at screens all day.” The reaction to vooks has been pretty clear: people don’t want books interrupted by video; but does that mean they don’t want to the two to come together?

Good books offer readers complex narrative, interesting language, and most importantly, imagination. Good video offers beautiful visuals and can enhance the viewer’s experience through use of lighting, color, sound, and the composition of the shot.

If people weren’t interested in combining video with reading, the current video game market would never have gotten off the ground. Original Nintendo RPGs relied heavily on text delivering the story, and even the most recent Kingdom Hearts game for the PS2 has no less than a 10 minute introduction, conveyed through a combination of cutscenes and textual character dialogue.

The key component that these vooks are missing--and which video games and hypertext fiction offer--is interactivity.

Money Money

Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls is fed up with people telling her she shouldn’t ask for money.

i was writing a press release and in it disclosed how much money i made from the recent london webcast (about 10k). i gave a copy of the text to jason to proofread over a cup of tea (that’s what rock stars do for each other nowadays instead of leaving lines of blow on the backs of bathroom toilets). he suggested taking the money part out. he gently advised; he’s heard people gossiping about me and my shameless revelations about my webcast/twitter income etc.
right around the same time i got an email from beth, regarding the future of my webcasting. she suggested we do something totally free and not ask people for any money. she’s been picking up on heat from people that the ask-the-fans-for-money thing has gotten out of control.
artists need to make money to eat and to continue to make art.

Musicians have long complained of record companies stealing profits and stifling creativity. Palmer argues that there’s no reason fans shouldn’t give their money directly to the artist. She builds direct connections with her audience through her works, through performance, and through electronic media. Why must she pretend that money is beside the point?

it’s also not a matter of whether an artist is starving or cruising on a yacht.
i would hate to see my fans turn on me once i actually have money in the bank with a “well, i would support you if you were starving, but now that you’re eating, no way.” fuck that. accept a new system. feel ok about giving your money directly to paul mccartney. he may be rich, but he still rocks. show you care.


Simon and Schuster, the book division of CBS, have introduced the vook™, which they hail as a new form of eBook that integrates text with video illustrations. Of the vooks in the initial launch, two are fiction. The others seem to be what the platform is really designed for: instructional books, promising toned abs and better skin.

The fiction intrigues me, as I’m wondering how they would be able to offer video interjections without losing the level of immersion that print books and fully visual narratives offer. It seems that a Richard Doetsch thriller like Embassy would not want to interrupt its “page-turning suspense” with “dazzling video components that advance the storyline.” Don’t get me wrong, there are ways to join text and video together beautifully, but what sound like video cut-scenes to an otherwise straightforward linear text narrative seems like an awkward way to do it.

It’s a little surprising that none of the members of the 8-person Leadership Team at seem to have come from the ebook, hypertext, or publishing worlds. There’s a lot of real-estate talent on view. Meet Peter Richter, the lead engineer:

“ Peter Richter spent the last 11 years working for the GlobalEnglish Corporation which provides an online English Learning service for ESL learners. There he combined his former experience as a teacher with his technological skills to help pioneer the world of eLearning. Peter brings with him the experience of create dynamic, engaging user experiences while architecting sophisticated data driven web applications.”

The company can afford a Brand Director and a Social Marketing Manager and a Creative Director and a VP of Content Development; they might want to get an editor to rethink that “architecting”.

Bob Stein, whose Voyager Expanded Books ploughed this furrow years ago, isn’t impressed.

“Basically it's an ordinary romance novel with video clips interspersed in the pages. In terms of form the result is ho-hum in the extreme, particularly as there doesn't seem to be much attempt to integrate the text and the banal video, which seems to exist simply to pretty-up the pages.

What greatly interests me about these vooks, however, is their accessibility through the iPhone and iPod Touch. I can’t wait to see what new and interesting possibilities writers can come up with using video, sound, and creative use of the touch screen.

Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall has won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction . The novel explores the life of Thomas Cromwell, who became an advisor to Henry VIII.

In a recent interview, Mantel discusses her belief that being a writer means constantly changing your writing as you change as a person:

“Your relation to the world alters, and so does your mental landscape, the things that interest you, the things you know...I can't see how people manage to produce a homogenous body of work. I have no ambitions in that direction. There are themes that keep re-emerging, but they are in themselves themes of rebirth, revolution, transformation.”

Chris at Gimcrack’d is curious about the lack of instructional documentation on the process of writing nonlinear text, so he’s taken on the task of creating a manual.

There are tons of manuals on how to write — some of them are even good. There are almost none on how to write nonlinear text. (If you can think of exceptions or recommendations, please please please leave a comment.)

He plans to document his own work as he writes a hypertext, which for now is tentatively titled mountain.tws. His article details some of his preliminary thoughts and expectations for the text, including how many endings it will have, how the text is structured, and what he hopes to keep hidden from his readers.

Thanks, M. C. deMarco.

Gene Golovchinsky, a leading researcher in the ebook world, criticizes Cushing Academy’s decision to dump textbooks and other tree-books in favor of eBooks. The school invested in three large monitors, “laptop-friendly study carrels” and 18 eBook reading platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s eReader to view the new eBooks.

Golovchinsky mentions the ever-present copyright issues and the durability of the files, but his main concern is the ways in which eBooks are inferior to print books. They cannot, for example, show color or images. He disputes that the book is an obsolete tool.

Gene Golovchinsky

One reason eBooks loose the drag race with paper is that they don’t yet take much advantage of hypertextuality. The ebook simulates paper. It is produced in advance, linear and rigidly structured, and one organization must fit everyone.. It must be read in a particular order, and it can’t be added to once it’s complete. Perhaps this comforts the completionists, but it’s not the way information works.

Tinderbox and Law uses Tinderbox to explore the chronology of events involved in an investigation. The technique translates well to the needs of fiction, too.

As Mark Bernstein comments , the article highlights the importance of using both the outline view and the map view to understand not only the order of the events, but the intervals between events as well. If a map view becomes too busy or complicated, the outline view’s collapsible list of events could be useful. Conversely, the map view shows the relationship of links and intervals of events that the outline view cannot. It’s best to use both together.

Urban Sketchers creates art using pen, watercolor, even iPhone’s Brushes app. They display their art on their Flickr group , but they also have a blog which features various artists (currently an incredibly talented 10-year-old) and includes articles by the artists, discussing their inspiration and technique.

I was actually surprised at the quality of some of the Brushes work. One artist in particular, Xoan Baltar , stands out . His work is truly incredible, especially to think that it’s drawn on a touch-screen!

It’s great that artistic communities like Urban Sketchers are embracing new forms of art creation. Interestingly, though, Urban Sketchers does not accept art that is altered drastically in programs like Photoshop. This fact suggests that something about Brushes is still considered organic in this artistic community, even preferable to Photoshop. What, then, constitutes too much intervention of the machine, and is the use of touch screen the only factor to make Brushes more organic?


The HBO Cube presents its stories from four different camera angles simultaneously, while the viewer switches between them, choosing how to watch the action. The project is reminiscent of hyperdrama: that from one space to the next at any given time can alter the viewer’s interpretation of a scene dramatically.

The stories use their scenery to create visual barriers, which interrupt the camera’s line of sight, so that the viewer really does need to switch views to catch everything. The importance of barriers in interactive media is not sufficiently understood or appreciated.

The Cube would definitely be improved if the audio followed the angle you were watching, for example, in this scene having the couple’s dialogue slightly muted if you were watching them through the doorway of another room. Also the movement can be a bit quick, but overall the Cube is clever and innovative. It’s glance in the right direction for new media on portable electronics.

(Thanks, Susan Gibb!)


Condé Nast has closed Gourmet, as the storied food magazine becomes the latest casualty at the intersection of the collapse of advertising and the rise of the net.

I first heard the news from Shuna Fish Lydon, the acerbic pastry chef (French Laundry alumna) and blogger and one of Gourmet’s more improbable fans.

Editor Ruth Reichl crafted a new tradition. Newspapers once closed with a wake; Gourmet closed with food, and then a Twitter classic:

Dishes done. All gone. Great gathering at the house tonight. I so love the people I've worked with at Gourmet. Hard to believe it's over.

One of my favorite English professors once told me that being a writer means that it’s harder for you to write than it is for the average person. At the time, when “writing” meant churning out a ten-page paper on Conrad in the two hours before class and breathlessly running to class with wet ink, I had no idea what he meant. Today I don’t think I can write my phone number on a napkin without revising it .

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) was designed for people like me. The idea is to write a 50,000-word novel (about 175 pages) in one month. According to the website,

“By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down. ”

NaNoWriMo also offers a Young Writers Program , which allows kids to set their own writing goal for the month. I hope plenty of teachers will participate with their students!

The event kicks off November 1st and ends midnight, Pacific Time, November 30th.


Lots of buzz for BumpTop, a desktop manager for Windows. It’s got a nice pedigree: here’s the CHI 2006 paper on which it’s based. More pedigree: Andy Hertzfeld (legendary Macintosh system programmer) is an investor.

What I can’t figure out is how they got around Apple’s patent on piles. (Here's a good overview of piles and the desktop in a hypertextual thesis by Matthias Müller-Prove). If piles are no longer off-limits, we can look for a bunch of interesting innovations.

Editor Daniel Menaker discusses the impossibility of contemporary book publishing his recent essay, Redactor Agonistes.

The essay covers everything from the perpetual gloom of the book business to the psychological dependency of writers. Reviews are often arbitrary. You can’t get reviewed anyway, because there are few reputable review outlets left. You don’t have time to read all the good books that come out; You don’t even have time to find them.

Menaker thinks that books today are becoming shorter due to shorter attention spans. We’ve all heard this before, usually about kids and teenagers: the Internet is decreasing everyone’s attention span and kids don’t read anymore. If this were true, I couldn’t say that my 13-year-old sister read 12 books this summer (no, they were not assigned readings, nor was the TV broken, her cell-phone disconnected, or her laptop inaccessible). But the fact that books are getting shorter may be true even if his reason for it is not.

Which brings up an interesting point that Mark Bernstein pointed out to me: “how long should a salable unit of literature be?  In the 18th century, people bought and sold pamphlets and even broadsides. What law of nature or economics prevents one from buying a novella?” Similarly, how long must a hypertext work be?

As part of its “Toward Print-Less and Paper-Less Courses: Pilot Amazon Kindle Program” Princeton issued free Kindles to students. So far reports show dissatisfaction with the way the readers work in an academic setting. Many of the students interviewed complain of difficulty in interacting with the device, problems with annotation, and citation issues, as the eBooks are reformatted in a way that eliminates page numbers.

Up the road at Harvard, a controversy has broken out over a small “house” or dormitory library. Returning students found that the library has been renovated over the summer to place brass bars across each shelf, rendering the books decorative but inaccessible.

photo: Mira John


Brian Aldiss is privately publishing his new novel, Walcot. We don’t know, it seems, whether this is a matter of chance or of necessity, but it’s interesting; I don’t recall any really major literary figure since Lawrence going this route.

The book looks gorgeous. With 100 copies at £100 and 1000 copies at £20, he’s looking at a gross of £30K. That’s real money, but then Aldiss is the real deal, with an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that spans six columns and a mainstream following that regards his science fiction as a curious hobby of an otherwise-important contemporary writer.

Of course, this is facilitated by new media. First, it’s much easier to produce a book today than it was when you cast pages in lead. Second, you can promote and sell the book directly to readers on your Web page, saving lots of trouble and expense. (TLS reports that the marketing budget runs to ten copies hors commerce. Ten!)

Privately printed: the latest new medium.

What is the relationship between images, words, and narrative?

Antione Bardou-Jacquet’s The Child raises these questions and more. This short film uses words as images to provide background scenes, portray moving vehicles, and even act as characters (oh the puns!). The narrative action of the piece is actually conveyed by the combination of these words, diaglogue, and mise en scène.

It might be interesting to do a Lacanian reading of the piece, examining the relationship between the word-images as signifiers, the signifieds conveyed through filmic aspects of the piece (e.g. sound, dialogue, etc) and how the words convey meaning through their role as images.

It’s a very interesting piece; definitely worth watching a couple of times to catch some of the words you missed the first time.=

(Thanks again, Jill Walker Rettberg!)

A few days ago, Prof. David Millard from Southampton twittered about a new tower defense game for the iPhone. It’s David Whatley’s GeoDefense Swarm. Clare Hooper also twittered about it. They’re right; it’s very good.

Millard’s work on Auld Leakey points the way, I think, toward an interesting new approach to thinking about links and, especially, hyperdrama. Claire Hooper is part of the Learning Societies Lab at Southampton, and wrote another interesting card-shark hypertext system called Storyspinner.

But what does it mean, exactly, to say that a tower defense game is good? And to what kind of “good” can a tower defense game aspire?

Raymond Chandler addressed the same question with regard to mysteries in The Simple Art of Murder.

With all this [Dashiell Hammett] did not wreck the formal detective story. Nobody can; production demands a form that can be produced. Realism takes too much talent, too much knowledge, too much awareness. Hammett may have loosened it up a little here, and sharpened it a little there. Certainly all but the stupidest and most meretricious writers are more conscious of their artificiality than they used to be. And he demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius, but an art which is capable of it is not 'by hypothesis' incapable of anything. Once a detective story can be as good as this, only the pedants will deny that it could be even better."

It seems to me that this argument can’t work for tower defense games. What tower defense game could justify our confidence that it could be capable of anything? Anything? But there’s got to be a better way to talk about art like Geodefense Swarm, a way that is more satisfying than simply saying “I liked it.”