The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17
Does Your Digital Business Support a Lifestyle You Love? § Stock and flow / 2017-02-09 18:15:22
Daniel § Stock and flow / 2017-02-06 23:47:51
Kanye West, media cyborg – MacDara Conroy § Kanye West, media cyborg / 2017-01-18 10:53:08
Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
Losing my religion | Mathew Lowry § Stock and flow / 2016-07-11 08:26:59
Facebook is wrong, text is deathless – Sitegreek !nfotech § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2016-06-20 16:42:52

Two songs from The Muppet Movie

Why write a blog post somewhere nobody has published in five years, in a new WordPress interface where you recognize… yeah, nothing? Where somehow you can’t even upload a JPG or PNG file you downloaded from another site “for security reasons” without converting it first? Or get paragraph tags or linebreaks working inside blockquotes? (Really? On Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s own World Wide Web???)

Because sometimes there is no other place to put such things. There is no other place where you want to put such things.

I bought a new laptop late in 2020, one of the new Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Pros that was announced just after the election (which was also my birthday). It is easily the best laptop I’ve ever used, let alone owned. I’m typing on it now. (It doesn’t have enough ports; otherwise, it is as perfect a machine as has ever existed until the next one comes out.) Buying that laptop started something for me: a new round of investment in myself after a long period of being fearful and dormant. And shortly after I bought it, I covered it in Muppets stickers.

I’m hardly unique in loving The Muppets; we’re past fifty years of Sesame Street and even longer of Jim Henson’s earlier creations, meaning just about every living generation has been touched by those special creatures one way or another. But the Muppets are a talisman of something I try to guard in myself: tenderness, exaggerated emotion, a desire to experience the world as something new, an urge to creativity and renewal, a fear of rejection, and a sometimes desperate need to be loved in a world where love is often in short supply.

The most famous song from The Muppet Movie is the opening number, “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s sung by Kermit the Frog, as played and performed by Jim Henson himself, and the conceit in the movie is that Kermit is playing and singing the song alone, on a banjo. This conceit is quickly abandoned, at least aurally; a whole orchestra comes in, turning a dead-simple children’s song into something swelling and cinematic. It’s three minutes long, and sung by a puppet, performed by someone who, for all his unbounded talents for voice and performance, can’t really sing. But I think it’s the greatest song ever written for a film. (A surprisingly competitive category!) It’s really worth watching, as many times as you can.

Here is a story about the writing of “The Rainbow Connection.” And here are the lyrics:

[Verse 1]

  • Why are there so many
  • Songs about rainbows
  • And what’s on the other side?
  • Rainbows are visions
  • But only illusions
  • And rainbows have nothing to hide
  • So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
  • I know they’re wrong, wait and see


  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[Verse 2]

  • Who said that every wish
  • Would be heard and answered
  • When wished on the morning star?
  • Somebody thought of that
  • And someone believed it
  • Look what it’s done so far
  • What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing
  • And what do we think we might see?


  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me


  • All of us under its spell
  • We know that it’s probably magic

[Verse 3]

  • Have you been half asleep
  • And have you heard voices?
  • I’ve heard them calling my name
  • Is this the sweet sound
  • That calls the young sailors?
  • The voice might be one and the same
  • I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it:
  • It’s something that I’m supposed to be


  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me


That’s the whole thing.

As a child, I was taught that this song was about hope in tough times — a rejection of cynicism, an attempt to uphold on the threshold of the Reaganite 1980s something of the idealism of the 1960s, from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the antiwar movement, only somewhat looser and more adaptable (if also more inchoate). The song also had a religious element to it: something of my mother’s highly adaptable (and thoroughly idiosyncratic) Catholicism — a belief there was a magical, spiritual universe both separate from and pervading the one we could see. The Rainbow Connection was not heaven in any proper theological sense, but it was the heaven my mother believed in. And, I think, that she still believes in.

And it is those things — insofar as it “is” anything but a sweet song with a good melody — but it’s also something else. And as you get older, and continue to deal with grief and heartache (as I have, many times), and are dealt reversals and disappointments, the other meaning of “The Rainbow Connection” becomes insistent and impossible to ignore.

It is a song about what you can and can’t believe in after a life filled with missed chances, casual cruelties, and dead family and friends. It’s a song shot full of the melancholy many of us remember most clearly in our own childhoods, an ache to your bones that has never gone away. It is every heartbreak you have ever had, every injury suffered to your body, mind, and pride. It is how you think about friendship and community when your community is broken and your friends are all so very far away. It is not about a cohort of happy dreamers, or lovers. It is about how you care for your child inside when all your illusions are gone. It is the last illusion you keep, because without it, you would have nothing left.

The questions “The Rainbow Connection” asks are genuine questions, with a more ironic edge than Kermit places on it in the song itself:

  • “Who said that every wish / Would be heard and answered”? Really ask yourself: who?
  • “Somebody thought of that / And someone believed it.” Who thought of it? Why have any of us ever believed it?
  • “Look what it’s done so far.” What has it done? Have you actually looked? Where are we? All these years of struggle: what were they for? And what have they done?
  • “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing / And what do we think we might see?” What are we looking for? How would we even know it if we saw it?

And if not this, then what? What are the alternatives? Lie down and die? Give in to the world’s cruelty and cynicism and make yourself a part of it? Tranquilize yourself and wait for something to change? Could we even do otherwise? After all… it seems like most people genuinely can do exactly that.

Seen from this perspective, The Muppets are not childlike or naïve at all. They are advancing a powerful critique of how we live and what we believe, and how we’ve come to settle for so much less than what we are capable of. There is a utopian element to “The Rainbow Connection,” but it turns out to be a very slight one. A Minimum Viable Utopia, if you will.

The other song that matters the most to me from The Muppet Movie (which, like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Prince’s self-titled album, was released shortly before I was born) is Gonzo’s “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” And this song, too, has multiple layers that are worth unpacking.

Here are the lyrics:

Verse 1:

  • This looks familiar
  • Vaguely familiar
  • Almost unreal yet
  • It’s too soon to feel yet


  • Close to my soul
  • And yet so far away
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

Verse 2:

  • Sunrises, night falls
  • Sometimes the sky calls
  • Is that a song there
  • And do I belong there


  • I’ve never been there
  • But I know the way
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday


  • Come and go with me
  • It’s more fun to share
  • We’ll both be, completely
  • At home in midair
  • We’re flying not walking
  • On featherless wings
  • We can hold on to love
  • Like invisible strings

Verse 3:

  • There’s not a word yet
  • For old friends who’ve just met
  • Part heaven, part space
  • Or have I found my place


  • You can just visit
  • But I plan to stay
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday


This song is somehow even simpler than “The Rainbow Connection,” but it wears its ironies farther out on its sleeves.

The obvious (although not literal) reading of the song is that Gonzo is not talking about any past he remembers, or even really a future he’s waiting for, but about the love and newfound family he’s discovered with his friends now all around him: the Muppets to whom he’s singing the song. Again, as a child, this is what I was taught without having to be told, and for the most part, it’s what I believed.

The second, more critical take on “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is that it is a profound confession of abandonment and loneliness in Gonzo’s formative years. It is the absence of anything like the heartsoaring love he is stumbling to find words to describe, and his very early and extremely keen awareness of that absence, even before he knew there was hope of anything different. It is less about loss (you have to have something before you can lose it, technically) than lack.

And while you could say that Gonzo is realizing now that he’s found what he’s long been looking for, the fact that he still puts it in the future tense suggests that he’s still feeling something lacking, either in his companions or in himself. He still feels incomplete, blown apart, alone and lonely, en route to something he does not have and has never had, does not know and has never known — something that he can only describe or define by its absence. A negative theology.

You could take this a step further and say that what “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is really about is the fact that such a place does not exist, has never existed, and if it waits for anyone, it does not wait for the singer. Gonzo — Tim Carmody — is so irreducibly damaged by what has happened to him, so thoroughly alone, that he can only think of love and belonging as a return to a paradise he’s never known and will never in his lifetime see.

The trouble with all of this is that sometimes the impossible happens.

Here I’m going to invoke another important text from my childhood, but I won’t take any time to explicate it, because I can talk about baseball (and specifically, this single plate appearance) forever.

It is hard to talk or even to think about miracles, especially if (like me) you have long since relaxed the God hypothesis. The 18th-century empiricist / skeptical philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.

The trouble for Hume with miracles is the trouble for Hume with all knowledge (including very basic relationships of cause and effect): the evidence to genuinely believe in miracles is always lacking. It falls apart given the tiniest bit of criticism — and yet, people are inclined to believe in miracles anyways.

In fact, people all over the world, at every age and in every walk of life, may be more inclined to believe in something impossible they believe they’ve witnessed themselves, alone or in a small group, than an ordinary event witnessed again and again by millions of people. Aristotle, too, understood, this irony, writing in the Poetics that (translations differ, but here is the gist) “the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” And if you can keep God’s hands off the probable impossible, so much the better.

The world Gonzo prophecies in “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” that Kermit imagines in “The Rainbow Connection,” is not supposed to exist. It is an illusion, an impossibility, even if it remains a necessary one. And yet: sometimes, somehow, after you have already set aside your own eligibility for such things, and doubted their real existence for others or their cameos in your own past, you nevertheless, to your own total astonishment, find yourself back there again.

On Saturday, February 6th, I moved back to the city of Philadelphia. I made my nostos, not to the city where I was born (Detroit, which will also always have my heart), but the city I chose when I was 22, and where I spent most of the important years of my life. I am back. I am home.

You can just visit / But I plan to stay / I’m going to go back there / Someday

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Paper and ink, pixels and Flash

Today, it’s not just the government that’s back in business! The internet gives us two great articles about cartooning (and technology!) that go great together.

First, Mental Floss scored a huge coup and interviewed the elusive/reclusive/exclusive Bill Watterson, author and artist of Calvin and Hobbes. (As I said on Twitter, this is like ten Salingers times a Pynchon.)

Where do you think the comic strip fits in today’s culture?
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.

Cue up Onion A/V Club’s Todd van der Werff, who looks back at that other great grandchild of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Mike and Matt Chapman’s pioneering web video series Homestar Runner.

Much of Homestar Runner’s animation is fairly rudimentary stuff. Arms go up and down. Mouths flap open. Characters stand in place while the background races past them to indicate movement. But all of that belies the program’s true strength: terrifically designed, perfectly written characters. The weirdos that populate Homestar’s world aren’t drawn from animated kids’ shows or even children’s books, but from another great American art form: the newspaper comic strip. As with Peanuts or Pogo, the characters may have hidden depths, but they’re largely defined by striking, singular personality traits. Homestar is the good guy, and even if he’s a bit of a nerd in the process, he’ll always return to that basic decency. Strong Bad proved too slippery for the antagonist role and ended up becoming something like a 10-year-old boy’s conception of everything that is awesome in the world. His brothers, Strong Mad and Strong Sad, were just what they sounded like. Coach Z was motivational, in his own weird way. The Cheat was basically Snoopy.

Read more…


Higher education’s obesity spiral

(Last week, I read Priceonomics’ “The Supersizing of American Education” on Facebook. I started to write a Facebook comment on it. Then — as you guys often know happens to me — the comment got out of hand. So I posted it on my own Facebook page, and now I’m posting it here. — TC)

The problem with the formulation “even the recession hasn’t stopped the flow of money into American higher education,” as well as the economic lesson that this article draws (the underlying problem is revealed to be federal subsidies) is that well, it’s just not thinking very hard.

First, the recession has increased economic anxiety (for both parents and kids). This leads job-seekers to seek shelter, and helps create a boom in higher ed — hey, if I can’t find a job, at least I can get MORE SCHOOL! And I’ll definitely have a better chance of finding a job in THIS economy if I have more and better education, right? (Note: this is more or less true, but in a way that’s so bound up with hidden variables that the economic logic becomes self-defeating.)

Meanwhile, the state subsidies for public higher education have fallen away, which is partly ideological, but I’ll go ahead and concede is mostly a product of the last decade-plus’s financial and economic problems. Which leaves federal subsidies and, especially, enormous amounts of federally-subsidized private debt. And it also means the gap between public and private higher ed isn’t as large as it used to be, so more kids are applying to private schools.

And last, there’s tremendous demand for American university education worldwide, and both state and private universities are rushing to fill it. Globally, American higher ed is cheap and amazing for the world’s super-rich (and even its not-so-super-rich).

So basically, over the last twenty years, American higher education has become like apartments in Manhattan: a bizarre macroeconomic experiment where a mix of public and private subsidies, huge economic anxiety and inequality, unprecedented national interest and demand, and unbelievable and wildly distorting international interest and demand all combine with genuine improvement in both the substantive quality and superficial prestige itself, creating a cost spiral that will eventually destroy the system for everyone except the people who are wealthy enough that they don’t really need it anyways.

Meanwhile, the overeducated and underemployed are everywhere, piling up on every street corner, like so many Starbucks and Duane Reades, each of them individually a good idea, each flocking to the meritocratic promise of money and success like moths to flame, collapsing under their own weight, desperately grasping upwards, trying to collect just some of the wealth and meaning and stability that is always just around the corner, always just barely out of reach.

And somewhere, too, we are all receiving what on its face seems like very persuasive advice to look down at their upraised hands and whisper, “No.” And we forget that there was ever another way.


Thirteen ways of looking at Jeff Bezos

Some of you are saying “just thirteen?” and others of you are saying “AUGHHH I’ve already seen thirty-teen opinion pieces about Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post and nobody KNOWS anythng, just make it STOPPP.” Whether you’re either of these: don’t worry. Here, we’ll just do three.

First, Nieman Lab let me write my take on the Bezos purchase. This is very Snarkmarket-y insofar as it’s:

  • written by me (with Matt’s and Robin’s voices in my head)
  • about the future of media
  • leans heavily on a rich storytelling reference (in this case Citizen Kane)
  • mixes and matches historical trend lines with a kind of literary, empathetic imagining of the future.

Second is Rusty Foster’s story at The Awl, which foregos traditional analysis for a full-on science-fiction phantasia peppered with philosophical ruminations:

I lay out Mr. Bezos’s single-use titanium microfiber undergarment and jumpsuit for the day. The truth is there isn’t much for a robot butler to actually do here in the Flying Dragon Lair. Ever since Mr. Bezos moved his home and business headquarters to the cloud, above Mt. Rainier, everything has pretty much run itself. Even laying out his clothing is largely a ceremonial duty. We used to work much more closely together, Mr. Bezos and I. I have been with him nearly since the beginning, and he relied on me for everything back then. But now, sometimes weeks go by and I don’t even see him.

Then our rockets descend from the cloud back to earth, with Dave Pell’s is-he-or-isn’t-he serious tweet, posted just now:

I don’t know how exactly that’s a viable evolutionary strategy for the Bezos-owned Post (and as you see if you read my longer post, I think it’s actually pretty important that the Post business is separate for Bezos from Amazon rather than some enchanting yet-unborn hybrid) but… come on, that kind of totally technology-driven personalized market is clearly the game-theoretically dominant strategy for Amazon, right? And when you scratch the surface, it’s just dark and thrilling and Ned-Beatty-toward-the-end-of-Network-updated-for-the-21st-century enough to be true, isn’t it?

Also, holler.


Worldbuilding and world-extending: Discoveries and questions

I kicked off this week with a big, messy post about, basically, fan fiction. Now that I’ve talked it through a bit with my incredible fellow seminarians, I think my questions boil down to: What are the aspects of a creative text that are most conducive to fostering fan fiction? and How do those attributes translate to nonfictional domains?

Here are the boundaries I’ll draw around my curiosity:

  • I’m more interested in creative responses to discrete creative works (e.g. this in response to this) than I am in creative stuff made with creative tools (e.g. this built with this). That is to say, I’m less interested in the general phenomenon of people building things with games or tools that are about building things (e.g. what makes Legos so conducive to worldbuilding?).
  • I’m more interested in the wealth (in all dimensions) of responses a work produces than in the inherent creativity of the work itself — the world built on top of or in response to a thing, rather than the world of the thing.
  • I’m (ultimately) most interested in how these attributes of creative works apply outside the most familiar domains of fan fiction such as fantasy fiction, Star Wars, etc. I’m curious, for example, how one makes nonfiction that produces fan-nonfiction.

Some familiar examples of the types of creative responses that strike me as fitting into my framework of what I’ll call “world-extensions” are modding (EG), fan fic (EG), and cosplay (EG).

Some of the more unfamiliar examples that strike me as possibly alike enough to cluster with these things are:

  • An interplay of visual artworks, like the Picasso and American Art exhibit, and particularly the range of artistic extensions of / responses to “The Studio.” (Including Picasso’s own extensions of that artwork.)
  • Op-eds and punditry in major national newspapers and the sort of mirror-world that pundits fashion in concert with one another. (Thanks, Robin!)
  • Parody Twitter accounts, like @MayorEmanuel.
  • Wikipedia.
  • Memes.

Lastly, here are some of the nascent hypotheses I’m forming about aspects of a work that can help bring about world-extending:

  • Expansiveness and/or continuity: The world should feel big and open enough that folks feel there’s room to play with it.
  • Strong, recognizable systems: The rules and boundaries of the world should feel solid enough to provide a common structure to any world-extensions.
  • Focus and blurriness: It seems important that there are areas of the world drawn in fairly vivid detail, but also aspects of the world presented only suggestively. Things to grab onto, and things to fill in.
  • Fandom: This kinda goes without saying, but the work needs to have enough attractions that a critical mass of folks will fall in love with it.

There are a few other dimensions I haven’t reached the hypothesis stage for:

  • What’s the effect of otherworldliness? Are works of fantasy more conducive to world-extending than works based more solidly in reality?
  • How much of world-extension is related to things such as age and gender? We all seem particularly interested in extending worlds when we’re young; does the desire dissipate as we get older and busier?
  • What about the degree of user/reader/watcher/listener investment in the text? To inspire fan-fiction, is there possibly a sort of attentional summit that, once ascended, begins to tunnel the person deeper and deeper into the world of the text?

Today and tomorrow, I’ll be crashing the #worldbuilding tag on Twitter to explore some of these questions. Do join me!


Worldbuilding: Mutual Acts of Creation #SnarkmarketSeminar

This entry begins my week in the Snarkmarket Seminar, but even if you’re not a seminarian, you should feel welcome to comment here!


Hello. I’ve dubbed my lecture in our ongoing Snarkmarket Seminar “Worldbuilding: Mutual Acts of Creation.”

Before we continue, I’m going to ask you to play a game called Parameters, for at least 20 minutes, or until you beat it, whichever you prefer. I’ll warn you that the game is pretty cryptic, so you’ll probably need to click around for a while until you start to get the feel of things. But I’d ask that unless you completely hate the experience, you give it about 20 minutes before you give up. Here’s the link.

You can play for as long as you’d like, and truthfully, you don’t have to play to engage with the questions and ideas I’ll be presenting here. But I think it’ll help. So I’ll pause now, and wait for you to return.

How was that? Was it fun? I genuinely want to know, so if you’d pause one more time and take a quick survey — which you’ll find here — I’d appreciate it.

In case it’s not clear, Parameters is basically a spreadsheet. That’s reductive, of course. There’s a lot more to it than your average spreadsheet. And clearly plenty of thought went into the feeling of the game-ish aspects of it, the way the money and experience come bouncing out of the boxes all random and fun, the little animation of attacking the boxes with your mouse and watching the colors recede and rebound as you click.

But a determined developer with some time, elbow grease and Google Apps Script could probably create something reasonably close to Parameters in a Google Spreadsheet.

When I play Parameters, though, I recognize it as a deconstructed version of every role playing game I’ve ever played. So let me talk about role playing games — RPGs — for a second.

This is the opening scene to the game Skyrim — a pretty recent RPG. I’m just going to shut up for a second and let you watch it.

To me, this is kind of gorgeous and cinematic — slowly waking up to this wintry world, bound in the back of a wagon. As a player of the game, you have very little agency at this point. You can look around, but that’s about it. As the first 10 or so minutes of the game progress, they’ll start taking off the training wheels and unveiling more and more of the game’s controls bit by bit. This allows you to get a handle on the game’s basic mechanics and storyline before they send you out into this incredibly detailed world.

But once that tutorial is done, part of the majesty of the game is how thoroughly rendered it all is. Every tree, every mountain, every path that you’ve glimpsed during this little opening segment is a part of the world you’ll be able to visit and interact with. Many of the plants you pass along the side of the road during this opening wagon ride are actually available to harvest later if you’d like.

Skyrim is so extraordinarily detailed, you could actually sort of live in this world if you wanted to. You could buy a house, make a living for yourself hunting animals and selling their pelts to merchants, find a partner, get married. But so that you don’t get overwhelmed with all of that at the start, they introduce you to that world this way, bound by your digital hands, encountering one by one all the incredible varieties of things you can do.

It’s a pretty sharp contrast with Parameters, isn’t it? That opening screen written in Japanese wasn’t really that much more helpful to me after I found the “English” button. It’s hard for me to think of two more different introductions to a game than these.

Yet Parameters is essentially Skyrim boiled down to its basic essence. I’m being very reductive when I say that, but on a fundamental and important level, it’s true.

The fundamental structure of both of these games goes back to Dungeons and Dragons, and probably even before. You’ve got your hit points, your stats like attack power and defense power and endurance, you earn experience and gold by plundering caves and fighting enemies (or in Parameters’ case, yellow boxes). Parameters even presents the classic RPG phenomenon known as grinding, where in order to defeat more advanced enemies, you spend time hunting down and earning experience from lesser foes.

So when I first found myself playing Parameters and getting the basic concepts, I quickly started imagining that RPG world. I saw the boxes as monsters and the locked black tiles as caves. I pictured the big box at the bottom of the screen as a dragon. The squares that let you pay to up your stats or purchase keys I saw as your classic merchants. All of these basic elements that you’d find in Skyrim or a Final Fantasy game or any other RPG are present in this game that’s basically a spreadsheet, and being familiar with this language, I found myself visualizing it in my head.

This brings me at last to what I’m most interested in: that imaginative act.

My thesis is that works like Parameters and so many other texts similar and not involve two mutual, symbiotic creative acts — the world constructed by the author, and the world constructed by the reader.

By reader, of course, I also mean user, listener, watcher … this is “reader” in the sense that Beck might have meant it in his recent un-album “Song Reader,” which I’ll come back to in a minute.

What I’m most particularly interested in is that second act of creation, the world the reader creates.

Had I the talent and know-how, I could probably even take the world that Parameters inspires in my head and actually make a game engine that actually renders that big ol’ box at the bottom as a moving, fire-breathing dragon.

And then I would have created Skyrim.

But of course users actually do this with Skyrim! The game inspires them to build these hugely time-intensive, significant worlds on top of the worlds the game’s developers have already constructed. They’re called “mods.” There’s a mod for Skyrim that even turns the world of the game into the world of Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels.

That type of creation — modding Skyrim — is basically a form of fan fiction, which is the most obvious manifestation of this creative act I’m talking about. And this is one of my first and biggest questions: What are the conditions that best inspire fan fiction? Why do things like Skyrim and Game of Thrones provoke people to spin out these stories into these enormous extended universes? How does a creative work inspire so much creativity in its audience?

I’m interested in the fact that Parameters sparks this vivid world in my head, but I have no real desire to further manifest that in any essential way. It would seem that the difference between something like Parameters and something like Skyrim in terms of inspiring further output is that Skyrim gives you the foundation of this incredibly rich and detailed world. You don’t need to build the engine to turn the box into a giant dragon, the game’s engineers have already spent significant effort on doing that for you.

But then I think about Scott McCloud and his simplicity theory for comics, which suggests in part that the more room the author leaves us to imagine something, the more we can and do imagine, and so the more we can project ourselves into a world. He points out that our brains are hardwired to scan the world for this pattern: two dots in a circle. And that for most of us, we can’t see that pattern without imagining a face. This is why McCloud says he draws himself so simply: to help his readers with their worldbuilding. To give them more freedom to imagine him, and therefore to empathize with him.

It feels like this idea clashes with what happens with worlds like those of Skyrim and Game of Thrones, worlds so detailed, they’d ostensibly leave the reader little space to imagine on their own. We’ve seen Skyrim’s depth, but let me talk about Game of Thrones for a second.

This is one of those fantasy universes so richly drawn that the show’s producers have actually hired a nonprofit called the Language Creation Society to manufacture one of the languages used on the show. There’s a blog about making this language, named after the language itself: “Dothraki.” If you’re a nerd like me, this blog is actually sort of fascinating, delving into how the fictional history of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy universe would likely have unfolded linguistically, based on what we know about how languages evolved in our world. I’m going to quote a snippet:

According to ancient lore, the Ghiscari Empire fell some 5,000 years prior to the time of action in A Song of Ice and Fire. The empire warred five times with the Valyrian Empire, ultimately falling each time because the Valyrians had dragons. After the fifth war, the Valyrians decimated the old city of Ghis, burning down the buildings and salting the earth so that none would ever return.

So what happened then? Well, Ghiscari had been the language of the empire. As the diaspora spread, the Valyrian Empire took over (until its untimely fall several thousand years later), and the High Valyrian language supplanted the Ghiscari language.

Naturally, what would have happened is that the residents of Slaver’s Bay who spoke Ghiscari would have gradually moved over to High Valyrian, creolizing it along the way. It seems likely that an aristocratic class would have maintained a working knowledge of actual High Valyrian to use with emissaries from the Valyrian Empire, but the day-to-day language would have evolved in a way similar to French or Spanish (i.e. not like either of those languages, but evolving in the way that those languages evolved from Latin).

The post goes on to share some of the Dothraki dialogue that would show up in the Game of Thrones Season 3 premiere.

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This is how many worlds have been spun out of that first giant world created by George R. R. Martin. A blog based on a language based on a show based on a series of books — each thing a whole lovely world of its own. This all suggests that rendering a world in extraordinary detail doesn’t seem to prevent others from building worlds of their own on top of it.

So there’s another question for you: what is the relationship between how detailed a world is and how much worldbuilding it inspires?

I’m interested in stories that cause their readers to build worlds because I’m interested in endlessness — for a long time I’ve been obsessed with stories that beget stories and worlds that don’t have boundaries. If you’ve been with Snarkmarket since the beginning, you probably recognize this as a theme of my thought.

I once thought it would be really fun to get a job managing the digital components of the show Gossip Girl, because of the worldbuilding potential there. I said:

Here you’ve got a television series that purports to be fully post-media — the central conceit of the show is the title character’s blog, which all the show’s characters interact with constantly from a stunning variety of mobile devices. Although it struggles for Nielsen ratings, it was picked up for a full season allegedly because of its popularity on iTunes (indicating where the series’ audience is). And importantly, the show’s entire telos is allowing its audience to eavesdrop on the lives of a glamorous subculture.

If any television show could have led the way for an immersive, cross-platform handoff between the boob tube and the cybertubez, Gossip Girl is it. We should be able to sign up for text alerts from G.G.’s blog, pinging us with the scandalous goings-on of the show’s principals. Whenever all the characters in the show are reading a missive from Gossip Girl on their cell phones, we should be able to read it on ours! There should be a Gossip Girl version of the Gawker Stalker, mapping the travels of Manhattan’s elite across the Upper East Side! The show’s website should be a dizzy wonderland of interactive innuendo, filled with voices (some, of course, claiming to be from the show’s fictive universe) commenting on the antics of the characters, all helping to compose and extend the show’s mythology.

So far I’ve only really discussed fictional texts, but of course I’m interested in things other than fiction. I might even be mainly interested in things other than fiction.

I think there’s something about texts that demand a lot of a reader — texts that require an investment just to enter the world of the text. It might be that that investment, once committed, is itself a spark to start creating. Parameters and Game of Thrones are both like this, in different ways. In Parameters, the demand is the opacity of the rulesystem; you have to spend some time just figuring out how it even works. In the case of Game of Thrones, it’s the very extensiveness of the world that makes it demanding, particularly if you’re actually talking about the books. But even the television series will stretch out over dozens of hours.

But then there are texts that require creation to even get into the game, like Beck’s “Song Reader,” which I mentioned earlier. This is Beck’s most recent collection of music, only it’s not actually an album, it’s a book of sheet music.

“Song Reader” fascinates me because it combines a pretty old phenomenon with a very new one. At one time, this type of thing was the entire music industry. Before records existed, artists didn’t release recorded music, they released sheet music. A piano was as ubiquitous a fixture in middle class homes as a speaker system or radio would be today. When a new song was released, you’d buy the sheet music, run home, and play it with your friends and family — a thousand little concerts happening in a thousand little homes.

But today, we’ve got this enormous, super-popular infrastructure not just for playing these songs, but for sharing them worldwide. Each of those thousand little concerts is likely to get uploaded to YouTube. You can’t really call them “cover versions,” ‘cause there’s no original, per se. So this, this right here, this YouTube query for the song “Old Shanghai,” is basically the equivalent of the single. This strikes me as a sort of worldbuilding as well.

Of course, several video games work this way, such as Minecraft and SimCity. They’re games that are actually canvases for creation. They’re more toys than games, even, like Legos or dolls. I think any creator can learn a lot from these things. But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m most interested in texts that are both discrete creative works in themselves and tinder for the creativity of others.

Another question: is worldbuilding always valuable? I wonder about works whose creators actually sort of resist the act of worldbuilding. Mark Rothko, for example, asked viewers of his art to consider his works as complete, self-contained entities, not as landscapes or references to things outside the canvas. But whenever I see one of Rothko’s large, suggestive canvases, I almost can’t help imagining it as a window into a world. To do that, I have to consciously try to shut down the impulse in my head to read it as a landscape, to just dial it back to colors, textures, moods, and scale and that actually sort of disrupts my experience of the art. Let me build a world out of this, I want to tell Mark Rothko. But of course, he can’t prevent me, so I do.

Journalists — particularly investigative journalists — are in the business of worldbuilding, whether or not they realize it. They’re trying to discover and connect facts in order to create a model of our own world, to understand it better.

Just this week the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (by the way, this is basically a shameless plug for their work; I’m on the board) released a massive investigation in partnership with news organizations across the world giving us a look at the shadowy domain of offshore tax havens. This is a corner of international society that operates in near-total darkness. Wealthy individuals tend to pad their offshore holdings with layers upon layers of intermediaries and puppet companies. Much of this is perfectly legal behavior to protect giant wads of capital, but some of it is intended to obfuscate laws and cloak illicit businesses. Because it all happens in this shadow corner of the world, it’s very difficult to figure out what’s what.

Like many investigative projects today, this one has at its center a gigantic database, one that actually dwarfs the US State Department cables released by Wikileaks. So investigative journalists from all over the world partnered to take this data and construct it into a faithful and quite detailed model of reality.

When we crowdsource an investigation like this one, releasing a giant data set and ask people to play with it, what I think we’re asking them to do is build a world with us, to participate in the mutual acts of creation. To create fan nonfiction.

So there’s the essential question: How do authors of all kinds inspire readers of all kinds to build worlds? What are the magic ingredients of a creative work that let it yield more creative works?

As you can tell, I’m leaving you with nothing but questions. But I haven’t yet questioned my premise itself. Is what I’m calling worldbuilding actually just creativity — is it just that creativity begets creativity? — or are these actually overlapping but distinct concepts? And if there is a difference between worldbuilding and creativity, is it merely that some of the worlds we create manifest themselves as works of their own rather than just sounds and images in our heads? So then how do you create something that cultivates that leap from the imagination to the canvas?

Thank you for playing, watching, listening and reading. I’ll see you in the comments.

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A light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away

Tim Maly writes about the true architectural marvels of New York, not the skyscrapers, the low-slung brownstones, or the magnificent suspension bridges, but the rivers and islands and shorelines of the city itself:

In 1660, Pearl Street ran along the shore. Captain Kidd had a waterfront property at the corner of Pearl and Wall. Today, that site lies three blocks inland. In the 1690s, the City sold water lots to private would-be landowners, each forty feet wide. Purchasers agreed to infill forty feet into the river, leaving space for public access wharves on the far side. These wharves became Water Street, which is itself two blocks away from the shore today, thanks to subsequent infill.

When these areas were built up, landscapers didn’t build very high. As sea levels rise and the climate becomes increasingly wild, we now have a series of artificial flood plains populated by people who did not sign up to be residents of a flood plain.

You can roughly trace Manhattan and Brooklyn’s original shorelines by looking at a map of the flood zones. Take away Zone A, and you get a pretty good picture of the ancient boundary between water and land. Some of that territory didn’t use to be land at all. Much of it was marsh and wetland.

“The High Line,” Tim writes, “is an architectural marvel made possible by the dredging of Newark Bay.”

Tim’s essay reminds me of two of my favorite pieces of writing. The first, “Atchafalaya,” by the great John McPhee, is probably the classic account of human’s semi-tragic, quasi-doomed, but all-too-real attempts to remake and restabilize the relentless natural wonders on which we’re precipitously perched.

The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah… The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

The second is from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (also called The Man Who Disappeared). In the original draft of the book, Kafka gets key details of New York City’s geography “wrong,” so his editor Max Brod “corrected” them in the early published version. But I think Kafka’s absurd, imaginary architecture (restored in this translation) was entirely deliberate and from the standpoint of literature is actually far superior:

The bridge connecting New York to Boston hung delicately over the Hudson, and it trembled when you squinted to see it. It seemed entirely without traffic and underneath it ran an inanimate, smooth belt of water. Everything in both of these giant cities seemed empty and pointlessly displayed. As for the buildings, there was barely any difference between the large ones and the small. In the invisible deep of the streets, the bustle went on after its own manner, but nothing moved above it except for a light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away, but it was as if you could chase it away without any effort. Even in the harbor, the largest in the world, it was quiet, and only here and there, influenced by your memory of seeing it up close, you might believe you saw a ship pushing on for a short stretch. But you couldn’t follow it for long, it escaped from your eyes and couldn’t be found anymore.

Besides, it’s not as if the geography of New York is fixed and immutable anyways. We’ve built things nearly as flabbergasting as this.


Announcing the Snarkmarket Seminar

Update: Discovered I needed to wait an extra week to book the hotel rooms because of how far out it is. We should be able to confirm signups this week. – MT

Snarkmarket is nine years old today. At this point, I think of Snarkmarket as less of a blog and more of a collective of incredible people with similar (and often wonderfully divergent) fascinations who’ve happened upon each other at the right time. Years after the height of this blog’s activity, I still meet folks who introduce themselves with the question, “Hey, aren’t you Matt from Snarkmarket?”

In 2013, we want to try something that ties together many of the fascinations of this collective. We’ll be seeking about 30 fellow travelers to join us in a year-long, self-assembling digital seminar on media. Everyone will be a lecturer and everyone will be a participant in a series of weekly discussions focusing on a particular text or set of texts. It’ll culminate in a weekend of creation and collaboration in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Snarkmarket began.

First, we have to figure out who’s in. The price of admission will be a hotel room reservation at a hotel in St. Petersburg (official venue TBD) the weekend of November 2nd and 3rd, 2013. We’ll take care of actually booking the rooms. Next week, we’ll post more information on claiming a spot in the seminar. If you want to be in the loop when we do, shoot me a quick email at

Second, we have to create the syllabus. Starting Sunday, January 6th, we’ll have a weekly discussion led by a different seminar participant, focusing on a different set of texts. During the month of December, each participant will volunteer the text (or texts!) they want to discuss during their week at the virtual podium. It can be anything, of any vintage – a video, a book, an essay, a story, a game, an artwork – just as long as it says something fascinating to you about media today. Once we’ve identified the full set of texts, we’ll arrange a lecture calendar (with a few breaks for holidays and whatnot).

Weekly discussions get underway the week of January 6th. We’ll try to find a regular day and time that’s agreeable to as many members of the group as possible. The day after each discussion, the next participant at the virtual podium will introduce us to their text with a post telling us why they find it fascinating. Our weekly homework assignment is to participate in the comment thread about this post (you’re not getting graded on responses, so they can be short; “I’m not sure I saw the same resonances you did in this video” is a perfectly legitimate reaction).

In September, we’ll break to work on our final “papers.” These can obvs take any form you wish. They’ll be due by Sunday, October 20th. No more weekly discussions during this time.

Last, we gather in St. Pete. What will happen there, no one can know. We promise only wizardry and delight.

The last time we embarked on a grand adventure together, we wrote a book that’s still being talked about today. I’m beyond excited at the prospect of spending a year in study with this community, learning and sharing alongside one another. I hope you’ll join us.

Happy birthday, Snarkmarket. And happy birthday, Tim!


Tantric orgasms of critical insight

Sam Anderson takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise Roland Barthes, “the man who essentially created cultural criticism,” from the systematic analysis of novelistic structure to the TV recap:

Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment…

His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy…

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.”

I have a hard time giving up knowledge so easily — and really, Barthes did too. (I think it’s mostly the pretense to knowledge, the use of knowledge as a cudgel, that he saw as the problem.)

The part I probably love best and most fully endorse is the section on what a critic is supposed to do:

“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”

The pairing of these things, the genuine jouissance and the relentless critical awareness, the ruthless crusade against the conventionally obvious, is what makes it all work.

Never just a cheerleader. Never just a killjoy. Something beyond either. And listing always in favor of flavor.

PS: Mythologies was just published in a terrific new edition/translation which is like twice as long as the bowdlerized version we’ve had in English for forty years. That’s the occasion for the essay.


How Netflix’s Content Strategy Works, Even When It Doesn’t

To me, the most fascinating part of Netflix’s earnings release for the past quarter [PDF] is the section on original programming:

One way to think of originals is in terms of brand halo. If we are able to generate critical success for our originals, it will elevate our consumer brand and drive incremental members to the service. That took HBO nearly a decade to accomplish, so we don’t expect overnight results. The breadth of media coverage we already get, though, for the highly anticipated new season of “Arrested Development”, as well as for “Lilyhammer” and “House of Cards”, has been great.

In marketing, this kind of press coverage is sometimes called “earned media.” In particular, original programming ideally gets Netflix media coverage both in places that always cover the company and in places that never did before.

Another way to think of originals is vertical integration; can we remove enough inefficiency from the show launch process that we can acquire content more cheaply through licensing shows directly rather than going through distributors who have already launched a show? Our on-demand and personalized platform means that we don’t have to assemble a mass audience at say, 8pm on Sunday, to watch the first episode. Instead, we can give producers the opportunity to deliver us great serialized shows and we can cost-efficiently build demand over time, with members discovering these new franchises much in the same way they’ve discovered and come to love shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” In this regard, we are happy to report that in terms of cost per viewing hour, which is how we evaluate content efficiency, “Lilyhammer” so far performs in line with similar premium exclusive content that we currently license.

As Nav and Robin point out, “cost per viewing hour” is both really fascinating and really pointless. (Maybe it’s fascinating because it’s pointless.)

You could say, “who cares how much people WATCH any particular show?” It doesn’t make you any extra money. What matters is whether that content makes people fork over their cash each month — if a family gets or keeps their Netflix subscription precisely because they can watch new seasons of Arrested Development or the whole back catalog of Mad Men.

But that’s almost impossible to measure. And these are edge cases, to say the least. More people aren’t going to make this decision hinge entirely on a single piece of content, or even a whole passel of it, like Starz’s. It’s an aggregate thing — you want to feel like you’re getting value out of the service. And cost per viewing hour doesn’t seem like a bad way of doing that.

It’s definitely a good way for Netflix, which doesn’t have unlimited resources, to think about how it’s going to spend its money. (Maybe it spent too much money on Mad Men.) Netflix wants programs that are beloved, not beliked. And if it can get them for less than HBO is spending for the same kind of content, that’s even better.

Finally, a third way to think about originals is as a hedge, in case, say, FX chooses not to license us prior seasons of their next hit as good as “Sons of Anarchy”. FX in this case would seek to monetize prior seasons of their next hit in parallel to how HBO does, in other words, only on “FX GO”. As long as we can better monetize prior seasons, through both scale and technology, than anyone else, then this scenario is not likely, except from a premium TV competitor like HBO that is strategically motivated to impede our growth.

Oh ho ho, Netflix, you wascally wabbit.

Hmm, you want to try to do your own thing and syndicate yourself online? Good luck with that. It’d be a shame if it turned out you weren’t able to make any money doing that.

Netflix can go to networks and say “we can make more money from your old content than you’ll ever make yourself.” It can go to creators of new shows, and say “we can make you money online, forever, and FX can’t do that.” Networks that don’t have HBO scale have extra reasons to play nice with Netflix.

As we build our capability in originals, we will have some advantages relative to our competitors. Namely, we have extensive user viewing history and ratings data to allow us to better understand potential appeal of future programs, as well as a very broad and already segmented audience. At the same time, we don’t face the same pressure as linear or ad-supported online networks to deliver ratings. Finally, we should be able to use our size and international scale to bring the best original and exclusive content from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world. This is a real advantage over our regional competitors.

Two constant themes in all my tech writing come together here:

  1. Global, global, global;
  2. Whoever knows customers best wins.

It’s a good day for Netflix. I don’t know exactly what the stock market is up to, or how it will react in the long run, but it feels like Reed Hastings knows what he’s doing again.

Disclosure: Robin Sloan owns one share of Netflix stock.