10 Mar

Wrongness Theory: Or, When It Rains, It . . . Oh My God, Did You See the Size of That Squirrel?

We take a break from our scheduled examination of digital fiction to bring you these words from our sponsor, Discontent™.

We’ve all heard of Murphy’s Law, right? There are some variations in the wording, but the concept behind the law is that things go wrong frequently. Well, I recently did some research to figure out if there’s a different law, or maybe a corollary to Murphy’s Law, that describes how wrong things tend to congregate in groups (like teenagers who smoke), or, in other words, “when it rains, it pours.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a name for such a situation. Finagle’s Law gets close. It states that “whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way.” But it doesn’t state explicitly that wrong things pile up.

Home owners are surely familiar with this fact. It’s not just an issue of the plumbing leaking; it’s that your furnace also stops working that same week. And then all the lights in your house burn out simultaneously. And, no, it’s not because a leaky pipe is drenching your circuit breakers in water. It’s just that everything goes wrong at once.

I’ve written about this before, but this time, I decided to do some hard research rather than just complain about the squirrels we trapped in our attic, the soffit we had to get repaired, the inch of standing water we had in our basement, the five hours we spent vacuuming it up, or the huge electricity bill that will be coming this next month as a result of said vacuuming (with a 6 HP shop vac).

I’ve also decided to remain pessimistic, since, according to the Non-Reciprocal Law of Expectations, “Negative expectations yield negative results. Positive expectations yield negative results.”

Not that I won’t act. I got an estimate from a basement flooding guy, who’s coming on Thursday to install a sump pump. But I know that I can be assured of a couple other laws governing the repair project. First, there’s Parkinson’s Law, which states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And coupled with the Ninety-Ninety Rule of Project Schedules, I can count on the job taking longer than expected since “the first 90% of the job takes 90% of the time, the last 10% takes the other 90%.” And I can also be sure that the job will result in other mandatory home improvement projects since Zymurgy’s First Law of Evolving System Dynamics is true: “Once you open a can of worms, the only way to re-can them is to use a larger can.”

Of course, the mere fact that I’m vocalizing any of my pessimistic predictions is problematic; the Unspeakable Law notes that “as soon as you mention something, if it’s good, it goes away; if it’s bad, it happens.”

And I’m also sure that somehow, most of this is my fault. Hanlon’s Razor, a corollary to Finagle’s Law, admonishes, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I’m definitely stupid when it comes to home ownership and repair. I mean, I heard those squirrels a month ago. The flooding has happened before (though never this bad). And I just don’t like paying lots of money unless I absolutely need to, so I’ve put off things like the soffit repair and an upgrade to our gutters and downspouts (which I’m probably going to add to the list of hired-out jobs soon).

Ultimately, though, it’s sad that I can’t refer to this whole series of unfortunate events with a less clichéd phrase than “when it rains, it pours.” Enlightened though I am by my research here, I have found “no answers, only cross-references” (that’s Wiener’s Law). Of all my options, though, Jenning’s Corollary might fit best: “The chance of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”

I’ll let you know how much that carpet costs once I get an estimate.

07 Mar

Established Storytelling Adapted

On what’s currently happening to established forms of storytelling in the digital age.

Part of the issue in figuring out where fiction will go from here is to determine whether current forms will be improved or whether new forms will be invented. The novel was not a huge departure from its predecessors. It was simply a longer story. So it’s really more of an enhancement of previous fiction rather than a complete revolution, like film.

What will happen from here on out, though? Will we maintain current forms of fictional stories and adapt them to the web, or will we come up with fundamentally different ways of delivering narrative? That’s the question.

In a talk he has given multiple times, Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine explains that when internet content was starting to take off in the 90s, the powers that be thought it would be like “TV, only better.” But it surprised them because a) it wasn’t at all like TV, and b) it ended up producing content nobody could have predicted.

I have no illusions here: I don’t claim to know what will happen with the future of storytelling. But we can look at what has happened already in the relatively short period of time that digital media has thrived. And today, I’d like to examine how already-established forms of storytelling are faring in this new media environment.

I want to first mention the novel, even though I know I’ve already said quite a bit about it. The Kindle, and various other ebook readers, were developed for one primary purpose: to keep the novel alive. Or, if not the novel, then at least novel-length books. That’s one of the reasons I don’t see the novel dying any time soon. It’s a priority for our society still. We’re creating technology for it.

On the other hand, I don’t see the novel faring well online with our current web interfaces. For all the reasons I stated earlier, I think shorter chunks are the key to the current digital media environment. So what about serialized novels, you ask. Good question.

I don’t think they’re doing too well either. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of them. There are. They go by the name “webserials.” And you can find plenty of them at webfictionguide.com. But for now, they remain one of those relatively obscure niches on the web, mostly populated by aspiring authors.
For webserials to really be successful, they’re going to have to be featured on sites that attract readers. This has been done, too. Sites like Salon, boingboing, and Slate have published serialized fiction. But they have some problems. The Salon one, according to one reader, just kind of faded into obscurity by the 35th installment (I can’t verify that). The boingboing one linked to a pdf file, so you were essentially just downloading one chapter per week of a book that had already been published, thus robbing the serial of its much-needed sense of what’s-going-to-happen-next-? And the Slate one I can’t even get to load.

Ultimately, though, serials just haven’t ever gotten back the popularity they enjoyed in the Victorian era, despite some notable exceptions here and there. As one informative piece on serialization points out, though, serials never actually died; they just changed form.

Two such forms have done well on the web. One is the comic. Webcomics are cheap to put together and some enjoy as wide a readership as print comics. Xkcd is my personal favorite, though it, like Bizarro (my other favorite comic), doesn’t have an ongoing narrative (with a couple notable exceptions here and here: 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5). Others, like Penny Arcade and Weregeek are pretty popular, and there are some very clever ones that have attractive interfaces, making them fairly interactive. The Right Number and Nine Planets without Intelligent Life are my favorites.

Beyond webcomics, video series, or webisodes, have done alright, too. A quality webisode usually requires a big monetary investment, though. Which is why some really good ones, like 72nd to Canal and The Remnants, have just fizzled out. But Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog, Chad Vader, Lonelygirl15, Quarterlife, Red vs. Blue, and several others have gotten a significant viewership.

With the development of personal media devices like the iPod, and with the addition of 3G internet access to sophisticated cell phones, I think the video format of storytelling is adapting well to new media. They don’t even need to be in serial form. Some of my recent finds include excellent stories like Evol, Ida’s Luck (Part 1 & Part 2), and Glory at Sea.

Ultimately, video on the web is both better than and quite inferior to television. There’s certainly enough quality out there to rival traditional TV. But finding it is a little more difficult. Fledgling programs like Miro and joost and hulu have had some success, but miro is the only one of the three that is pure internet tv and I just haven’t found many channels worth subscribing to.

So even video, I would argue, hasn’t achieved its optimal form of propagation through the internet tubes. There remain issues of accessibility and consolidation. Clearly the internet won’t kill video (like video killed the radio star), nor will it kill comics or novels. But I’d say video is in transition. Might it be headed toward something with more interaction?

That’s what I’ll look at next time. Video + interaction = _______. Fill in the blank.

03 Mar

Early Attempts at New Media Stories

Part one of an investigation into the kinds of storytelling that are currently thriving in our digital age.

These days in America, nonfiction outsells fiction by a factor of three to one, I’ve heard. And any avid web surfer can tell you that nonfiction is way more popular on the net. Still, I don’t think fiction will go away. Imaginative narratives are hardwired into us. We live nonfiction; we dream in fiction. And we’ve been telling made-up stories to each other for millenia. It’s part of what it means to be human.

That said, there’s no denying that fiction has changed and evolved over the years. And it will continue to do so. Writing was invented some 5000 years ago, and since then, various new technologies have had huge impacts on the kinds of stories told. For instance, the novel exists primarily because of the printing press, though other factors like a growing middle class — with increased leisure time — come into play. But just think about plays, radio drama, movies, television series — all of these were the results of technological advancements.

There’s no doubt that the computer and the internet are also having their effects on the way stories are told. New media interfaces like web browsers, gaming consoles, mobile devices, embedded video, and in at least one case, google maps are becoming the new stages on which our current tales are being acted out. But what do these current tales look like? And are they really any different from fictions we’ve seen in the past? Today, I’ll look at two of the earlier pioneers of the new fiction frontier.

The first computer-aided attempts at interactive storytelling predated the internet, but you can find plenty of those early experiments online. Interactive fiction began sometime in the 70s, I think. Maybe even earlier. The phrase “interactive fiction” is actually a pretty specific type of story, one in which the reader types commands to determine what elements of the narrative will be described next. So, for example, you might encounter a scene like this: “You walk into the room to find a table on which rests an unopened letter and a strange looking box.” You would then type “open letter” or “open box” to expose the next block of text, telling you about the contents of the letter or whatever. I find it a little frustrating since it’s not always completely intuitive and since it ends up delivering plot quite slowly. Take a look at my feeble attempt to navigate one of these things.

Another early foray was hypertext fiction, which basically consisted of a simpler sort of reader involvement than interactive fiction. In hypertext fiction, you just click on links to get to the next section of the story. It’s basically a choose-your-own-adventure novel on the computer. And its heyday was in the 90s. Here’s me navigating the “Starry Pipe Book,” which is typical of simplistic hypertext fiction.

Nowadays, hypertext fiction has gotten a little more sophisticated. They’re often displayed in Flash and include some nice graphics and sometimes audio, so they are truly multi-media. The story “Inanimate Alice” is an example. It provides a very multi-media experience but is still essentially about just clicking to navigate pages.

Inanimate Alice

We can ask the readers to do things other than just clicking on links, though. And many have tackled more experimental/artistic ways of incorporating reader interaction. Ideally, the interaction and the multi-media components have some thematic or narrative purpose. But at this relatively early stage of tweaking story form and structure, you’re bound to get some pretty artsy, postmodern stuff. That’s cool and all, but what you end up with is not really story. Instead, it’s a lot of poetry and experimental writing.

The poem “Cruising” is a good example of a piece of writing that uses its Flash interactivity effectively, even if it’s only a minor supplement to the already-good poem. As the blurb at the ELO Collection states, “Cruising is an excellent example of a Flash poem that, while primarily linear and cinematic, makes use of interactivity in a limited way that complements the subject of the poem, the coming-of-age ritual cruising, with hormones raging, in small town America.”


But then there’s other stuff, like “Soliloquy,” which is “an unedited document of every word [the author] spoke during the week of April 15-21, 1996, from the moment [he] woke up Monday morning to the moment [he] went to sleep on Sunday night.” It took him 8 weeks of working 8 hours a day to transcribe the whole thing. And the end result is something that’s an intriguing postmodern work of art, I suppose. But definitely not something I want to actually read.


And that’s the problem with much of this hypertext stuff. It doesn’t have much mainstream appeal. Not that mainstream appeal is a prerequisite for quality (see American Idol), but it is pretty important in determining what direction fiction will take in the next few decades or centuries. Interactive fiction and hypertext fiction are both intriguing forms of storytelling, but they’re not the next it.

02 Mar

Is Paper Dead?

More expert analysis coming your way. This time, I tackle the death of the novel and new media fiction.

I’ve been flirting with interactive stories for the past year or so. And my goal in doing so was pretty simple: I just wanted to make the process of reading a little more fun. People don’t read a lot of fiction on the web. And I have some theories on why that is.

It’s tempting to say that the computer screen is just too tough on the eyes and to blame the current technology for scaring off potential readers. Certainly, the Kindle has used such logic in making their product as printed-page-like as possible. But I have spent multiple hours reading text on the computer screen, and I know that most of my students have also done so.

It seems, then, that the real problem is not the amount of time spent reading a computer screen. The problem is rather the type of reading done.

Web reading is not static. It involves a lot of navigation, a mixture of image and text, and interactivity. Such reading is easier on the eyes than the long-session strain of novel-reading. And it’s also a fundamentally different type of brain engagement.

To begin with, we approach the web with the understanding that we’ll be looking at chunks of meaning. A classic example is the experience that most people have had of getting lost in wikipedia linking. You look up one topic, like, say, “pawn,” which you’ve been hearing the kids say, and the next thing you know, you’re reading about leetspeak and hacking and lolcats and memes and viral propagation. We can end up reading several chapters’ worth of information, but we get tricked into doing so because we have calibrated our brains for small units of meaning. High school students can spend hours on Facebook, but they’re examining chunks of information — status reports, pictures, videos.

A related issue is limited attention: we usually approach internet content as a temporary thing. Seldom do I ever sit down at the computer thinking that I’ll read for the next hour. It’s usually more a matter of checking in, skimming headlines, reading blurbs, etc. Sometimes, I’ll discover an interesting video online, but if it’s over 10 minutes long, I’m hesitant to start watching. Essentially, the internet reader’s mindset is in ADD mode.

Is the web making us ADD? Or does it just cater to that ADD part of us that already exists? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a venue conducive to mixed media. Web reading is usually accompanied by images and increasingly offers video links. Many wikipedia pages (and I keep using wikipedia as an example because it’s one of the most-read site on the web) have charts, bullet point lists, and images in their margins.

All in all, web content resembles magazine or newspaper reading more than it does novel-reading. The reason the internet is killing print media like newspapers is that the web reads exactly like a newspaper. It does absolutely everything a newspaper can do, but it also allows greater ease of navigation.

I would guess that the web will not kill novels; it simply can’t replace the novel. The Kindle, and products like it, may indeed end up killing paper novels — though I don’t really see that happening soon. But at this point in our history, we simply don’t read internet content like we read novels.

Another way of saying the same thing is to say that novels won’t survive on the internet. Sure, they’ll be available online, but unless our interface with the web changes drastically (and it may do so some time within the next decade or two), they won’t be nearly as popular as other types of reading.

So the question becomes, what type of fiction will thrive in the new media environments currently facing our technologically advanced societies? That’s the issue I’ll explore next time.

03 Jan

Top 10 New Musical Discoveries of 2008

(In no particular order.) I’ll be posting songs on the tumblr for the next ten days.

  • Early in the year, my brother exposed me to Bon Iver, whose debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago is a one man show of Justin Vernon, a proud Wisconsinite who wrote and recorded all the songs on the album over a three month span one winter in the North Woods. It’s a phenomenal album, and he’s got a new one coming later this month. We recently saw Bon Iver in concert at the Barrymore, and we saw him last April at the Orpheum Stage Door theater. Both shows were great, though it’s hard to top the intimacy of that April show.
  • Another highlight of our concert-going for the year was the Hotel Cafe tour, which swung by the High Noon Saloon this fall. It featured five artists (Jaymay, Alice Russell, Meiko, Thao Nguyen, and Rachael Yamagata). Though Rachael Yamagata was the headliner, Thao definitely stole the show. Yamagata’s introspective songs were nice, but failed to command the attention and passion that equally quiet artists (like Ray LaMontagne or Bon Iver) can. Thao’s energy, on the other hand, was uncontainable and infectious, and her songs, from a release this year called We Brave Bee Stings and All were catchy and original.
  • We missed out on Vampire Weekend‘s stop through town (too late in trying to get tickets), but I personally enjoyed their album. It’s hip these days to call them overrated, and who knows? Maybe they won’t have much staying power. But one particular song of theirs, M79, is so good, I have to include them on my list.
  • I also have to include Flight of the Conchords, who released an album of their hits from season 1 of their show, which is without question one of the best comedies currently on TV. The music is not only funny; it’s quite clever in its nods to different musical genres, and it’s often pretty catchy stuff. I don’t typically go for musicals. They’re not really my style. But Flight of the Conchords manages to offer enough satire and comedy that it doesn’t feel like it’s a musical.
  • The movie Once also didn’t feel like a musical, though it most certainly was one. The accompanying album, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is a beautiful piece of musicianship that stands alone without any of the film plot associations it conjures. But the fact that the film’s story was so wonderful certainly helps.
  • Eileen and I discovered another Irish gem when we visited Ireland this past summer. It was a children’s choir called Cor Na nOg that we heard on the Irish equivalent of NPR. When we heard them on the radio, we were immediately impressed, but we didn’t catch their name. So we went searching in music stores, asking people about the RTE children’s choir. No one knew the name. But back in the states, with the help of the internet, I eventually found them out. I sent an email via the contact form on the website, asking if any CDs were available for purchase. I got a response from a woman named Norma who said the following: “Any CDs we have produced are ‘freebies’ to be sent out with our TV Guide. If you give me your address, I’ll see if I can dig one up for you.” She sent me two. From Ireland. At no charge. I love the Irish.
  • I also remained enthralled with Yann Tiersen, the composer responsible for the Amelie soundtrack, and I went on a binge, collecting music of his. This year, he put together a soundtrack for a documentary called Tabarly about a famous French sailor. I haven’t seen the film, and to tell the truth, I’m skeptical it can do the soundtrack justice. It’s mostly piano music, and mostly wonderful.
  • Tiersen’s Amelie soundtrack makes me wish I could play accordion. Not that I could really do anything as impressive as, say, the shirtless accordion guy, but perhaps I could do something minimal like Beth Tacular, who is one half of the duo that makes up Bowerbirds. Their album of avian-themed lyrics is decidedly indie, and/but it’s really creative stuff.
  • So is Girl Talk’s album, Feed the Animals. Girl Talk is another one man show, made up of Gregg Gillis and his huge vocabulary of popular music. He’s a mashup artist, who juggles far more songs per track than your normal mashup artist. Though it can be a little exhausting to listen to the album in its entirety, the musical samples are so fluidly juxtaposed you’ve got to remind yourself to close your gaping mouth as you listen in disbelief. The album is available online for whatever price you decide to pay, and there’s a good wikipedia page which lists all the samples in each track of the album.
  • Last but not least is Australian Xavier Rudd whose song Messages I stumbled upon while listening to Pandora one day. He’s been compared to Ben Harper, Paul Simon, and Jack Johnson. All of them are apt comparisons, actually. He’s a pretty versatile artist with lots of different sounds. This year’s release, Dark Shades of Blue, is a little harder and darker (evoking even more comparisons — to Lenny Kravitz and Pearl Jam), but still has some good stuff on it.

So there you have it. My top ten of 2008. Bon Iver, Thao, Vampire Weekend, Flight of the Conchords, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Cor Na nOg, Yann Tiersen, Girl Talk, and Xavier Rudd.