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knole Prototype #1a – The BOD Architecture


[ link to prototype (.exe) ]   [ github repo ]


I’ve just released another prototype of knole’s titular landscape god, but there is nothing new for you to see. It still just sits on its own neck and watches, breathing and blinking slowly, and I still question whether or not a god even should breathe. My placeholding art is still holding the place, though hopefully I will soon feel confident enough to show some other concepts; many people to whom I’ve shown it even like the clean lines and demarcated, symbolic biology, and feel that I should keep it that simple and abstract throughout. This would certainly irrigate my theories (cribbed from others) concerning the power of human imaginative abstraction, and significantly lower my workload.

In its quiet, introverted self-regulation it still has, in the words and work of my supervisor Dr. Leon Watts, no ‘Social Presence’; that is, without some method of interaction, it cannot enter into the user’s conceptual ecosystem of interpersonal relationships as a recognised peer or self-willed organism; this is the very definition of an agent 1. However, in showing it to friends and colleagues I am beginning to question this assertion; their personal ecosystems are doing a very charitable job of trying to include the god as an imagined agent, if not one in reality. They project its presence on its behalf, agree on the potential of its participation in a social relationship with them; even if the god, all the way down to the very genesis of its code, has no concept of participating with its subjects at all.

The main differences between this prototype and the first lie in the architecture of that code. However, rather than being simply due to an act of machinist housekeeping, these differences constitute entirely distinct ways of thinking about what it means to be a creature, an agent, a god, a creation and its creator. At least for myself.

I have mentioned here before the Behaviour-Oriented Design (BOD) architecture developed by Dr. Joanna Bryson from the University of Bath; and I am going to do so again, completely artificially, as I think that I could do with the practice. BOD is a general, language-agnostic set of principles for building intelligent digital agents, whether they be robots or entirely-software based entities 2. It involves programming the agent with two internalised, interconnected layers of functionality; a set of behaviours, modular, self-contained programs that each control an aspect of the agent’s internal and external appearance, actions and mien, alongside a reactive planning script that decides which of those behaviour modules should execute at any particular time.

BOD architecture diagram

In BOD, each distinct behaviour of the agent (in knole’s case, the breathing and blinking behaviours) are hermetic objects in and of themselves; ancillary, independent programs that can conduct their own internal calculations and computations quite happily. These behaviours can model internal processes; such as, for example, listing all the obsolete chocolate bars once sold in the United Kingdom; or external actions, such as putting on a bolo tie. These behaviours do not need to run one at a time, but can run in vast parallel if called upon by the plan to do so. Their object-oriented design, like that of other programming languages to which I cling parochially, removes any worries about interdependencies, conflicts or fug when it comes to running these behaviours. They are logical islands.

Though they can conduct their own business internally, any influence they might have over the world outside of themselves is controlled by the reactive plan. This script decides which behaviours to trigger in any particular instant, based on a combination of the agent’s internal state and the state of that part of the external world that the agent can perceive. The plan makes such a decision once every program cycle (for knole, this is once every 60th of a second). Dr. Bryson calls these plans POSH (Parallel-Rooted, Ordered, Slipstack Hierarchical), and they are structured in a very particular way to allow certain decisions, or factors in those decisions, to take precedent over others.

This structure has three parts, or aggregates, which are influenced by the internal state of the agent and the sensual data being received from the external, perceptual world, and which in their turn influence the acts that the agent might then commit. In order of importance (or position in the hierarchy), these aggregates are:

    • Drive Selections – This is a process of constant checking, once every program cycle, of the agent’s current goals. These may be short-term or long-terms goal, and are subject to constant deletion, creation and re-categorisation based on new information received either from inside or outside the agent. Suppose, for our nostalgic, pseudo-Arizonan example agent of above, that there are no more chocolate bars to be wistfully remembered, and so that lofty goal has been attained; no longer relevant, the agent can delete that drive, turn off the behaviour and move onto the scintillating business of fastening its culturally-reductive neckwear.

 

    • Competences – These are the major functionality of a POSH plan, in which the agent acts (through behaviours) to achieve the goals chosen during the drive selection. They represent lists of hypothetical and conditional actions, which must fulfill the parameters of the actions above them to be initiated. For example, an agent can only put on their bolero if they have first bought one; therefore, the [buy bolero] action would come above [put on bolero]. Down the list the agent goes, taking those actions which are both highest on the list and possible to fulfill. Usually, there is a default action which is activated if none of the other conditions are met; in our agent’s case, this might be simply a furtive, rebellious whisper of ‘Shucks’.

 

    • Action Patterns – In many cases, no deliberation over an action is needed; it executes in the same way, and in the same order, every time it is called, with no conditions to fulfill. These action patterns are syllogistic to reflexes, and often don’t even need to pass through the reactive plan at all; they can instead be directly triggered by senses, or even other behaviours and actions. They represent the most instinctual, systematic components of an otherwise-rational agent.

 

BOD design diagram for knole

This prototype was an attempt to reconstruct my godlet as a BOD agent. Construct 2, the software I used for the first prototype, was not up to snuff for this task, and so I returned to Gamemaker: Studio. Perhaps Construct could have handled the BOD architecture, but I find the way it structures and represents the architecture to be confusing and restrictive. One of things that I like about BOD is its modular, object-oriented structure. Building my creature in this way allows me to think about my creature in this way, to compartmentalise it in an almost-cartographic fashion; the diagrams in this post, I think, looks more like a map than anything else. Construct 2, with its event sheets and terraced UI, only serves to block this conception, forcing me to consider my creature as a temporal, linear process rather than a spatial system. I can also code by hand in Gamemaker, which is certainly faster than clicking through sub-menus with a £5 mouse.

Above is a diagram of the general structure of my godlet using BOD. Even though it is all a little artificial, the creature now has a believable, living metaphor at its centre, even if it is a mechanistic and reductive sort of metaphor. In Construct, the breathing and blinking were the entirety of the godlet’s internal function, animations that were programmed to begin and repeat without any structure to give that beginning or repetition any meaning. With these two behaviours now separated into modules and subsumed into the larger organisational structure of BOD they have a purpose, and indeed form an amoebic narrative. The creature breathes and blinks because the POSH plan, a metaphor of cogency, is telling them they should. Of course this isn’t anything like true agency; in the discourse of BOD these behaviours are merely action patterns, and once called to activate they will run in the same manner every time, much like a reflex in an organism. However, I have built some fuzzy variables into their functioning, which in the future may be altered by other factors both internal and external; these variables include the rate of breathing, the range of motion in the components of the face and the speed of the blink. It will be interesting to see how these cyclical, impregnable processes will be influenced. As always with object-oriented design, there is an ongoing question of control; when objects contain their own variables, and are trusted to coexist with many other objects in a complex space, how does the designer create a rule-set for allowing interaction between those objects? These interactions are key to more complex and interesting behaviours, but a schema has to be imposed; as the godlet becomes more complicated, the interrelations, interferences and persuasions between objects will become harder to plot. Perhaps this is where the truly emergent, unexpected behaviour will arise; then again, perhaps it will just be a nightmare to debug.

The other issue with this approach lies in the question of granularity of the cognitive metaphor that I have created using BOD. The creature, and its development, are predicated on an ‘illusion’ of intelligence and life. I wish to demonstrate how a simulation of life only needs to be as developed as much the fiction requires it, and no more. Where that requirement ends, however, is a thick line to draw, and begs a further question; for the creature to succeed as a dynamic character, does the designer need to invest in the illusion, as well as the audience? How much functionality must I build which, while having no impact on the audience’s external experience of the godlet, provide me with an internal experience, a personal fiction, that might help me develop the rest of the simulation?

Both behaviours in my prototype demonstrate this case in point. In the blinking behaviour, I have carried over a lot of the functionality from Prototype #1, including the mechanical action of the eyes opening and closing, and the random activation of that action; at a random point every 400 milliseconds, the blink is triggered. This little action pattern is plenty good at giving the illusion of a living being to a observer. It is easy to imagine, when the functionality is hidden, that the godlet is not responding to a random timer but is instead clearing its precious, holy corneas of grime. However, in the BOD prototype the random activation of the blinking is encased in a new conceptual metaphor, represented by the invisible object [mIrritationDetector]. This object is there on the godlet’s face, even if you cannot see it; a dimensionless bindi positioned directly between its eyes.

Here is the code that it runs:


if IrritationCounter > 0 {
IrritationCounter = IrritationCounter - 1
} else if IrritationCounter <= 0 {
Irritated = true
IrritationType =
choose("dust","light","blood","sweat","tear","insect")
}

So, every 400ms the [mIrritationDetector] gets irritated, and broadcasts that irritation to the godlet’s reactive plan, along with a randomly-chosen ‘irritation type’ represented as a string; this type might be “dust”, “insect”, “tear” or even “user’s finger”. The reactive plan then causes the blinking behaviour to run. It’s an odd and unnecessary bypass.

In a similar manner, the breathing behaviour is placed in an arbitrary container of its own, one reified by me, the designer, as a way of thinking about my being as being. The godlet’s reactive plan only runs if the variable Alive is true; in turn, the Alive variable is only true if the invisible object mAir is present in the godlet’s world (its ‘room’, in the ontology of Gamemaker). If I remove the mAir object, the creature is no longer alive. However,


if Alive = true {
if instance_exists(mAir) {
bBreathing.BehaviourActive = true
}
}

Both of these systems are arbitrary and redundant; the roundabout route of the irritation from detector to POSH plan to behaviour does not change the outward appearance of the behaviour at all; which most AI developers, including myself, might argue is all that matters. The Alive variable is just another set of brackets around functionality that I wish to run regardless; I have no intention, currently, of ever setting that Alive Boolean to false, or of deleting the mAir object and having the godlet suffocate. It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that such structures are a waste of code, memory, program cycles and time. knole functioned, to all appearances, in the exact same way without them.

These complications, then, were created primarily for myself, rather than for anybody or anything else. Perhaps in the future I will need to start thinking about memory allocation and performance; keeping the godlet graphically and functionally partial, a tortured head rather than a free, enacting body, was certainly motivated as much by this as by my desired fiction. For the moment, however, these useless lines of code and invisible, symbolic objects are part of a necessary and ongoing imaginative simulation of what my creature might still be. I set Alive to true< because, one day, my godlet might not be alive; and in creating that postulate of a god that might not be alive, I learn something about its divinity, and also learn something about that which it might value. Gods traditionally have little to fear, for they cannot be obliterated; what does it do to a being's animus to be vulnerable in that manner? What if-elses does it add to its POSH plan? Even further granularity could be imagined; a debate arises about the fuzziness of living, philosophically and mechanically; is it simplistic to represent living as a binary value? Should it instead be a scale, a program in and of itself? The irritations in the godlet's eye, with their pointless taxonomy, may not always be pointless; just because it does not yet cry, that does not mean that I want it to have no system of self-responsibility when it finally does. Perhaps it will fall in love with a particular type of insect, themselves a sort of virtual agent inside the godlet's room, and permit this insect to drink from its caruncula. When building agents, the illusion that we construct for ourselves as creators is as important as the illusion we construct for our audience. Until I know what my knole is, as much as I will ever know this quiet, expectant non-participant of a deity, I cannot preclude the infinite structures, associations, relationships and cogitations that might lurk invisible between its eyes. While such a non-prescriptive process makes for a sloppy codebase, it matters to me.

1. An interesting thought occurs regarding the more populist use of the word ‘agent’ to represent spies, assassins and other clandestine shenaniganeers. It’s an oddly general term for such people, the word meaning as it does ‘something or someone who acts’. In computing, the use implies a certain degree of will; an agent collects information from around it and uses this to inform an independent decision as to the most rational action to next take; this implies autonomy. Apart from a few exceptional examples, the operatives of MI5, the KGB and the rest are more like subroutines than agents; a cellular component of a much larger operation, acting according to instructions sent from somebody higher up. There is actually very little power to act rationally in them at all; indeed, the entirety of a spy agency functions more like a single agent than the agents that comprise it.

2. knole is a combination of the two; primarily software based, with little method of actuating in the real world, but sensible to that world through arrays including geolocation, aural and visual recognition, gyroscopic arrays and temperature indicators. Probably. I’m still not sure how most of it works.

pheasant image

I never saw the beater who brought the pheasants to Cob Cottage and slung them over the wall, like panniers full of cooling lunch. In my mind they are an utter stereotype, one I don’t need to describe to you, one that we can all picture as they disappeared around the keystone of the house wall and up the slope and into the fields. It was some sort of day, weather-wise, warm I think, and the riflers had not needed any excuse; they had sent the beaters rifling through the furze. You often heard the munch of the guns off in the hills, though you never heard the bird’s response. They die in far greater numbers than the riflers would ever want to eat; that is, in greater numbers than zero. Pheasants can be rustic meals, but not many people profess to enjoy cooking them. To get any sort of taste you have to graft onto them the fat of other, less-rigourous animals; the little that the birds possess has the colour of bronchitis. In fact, the whole carcass, once it’s skinned, looks like the cautionary tale of a lung.

In that part of the world, and in this time of the world, such gifts over the garden wall are commonplace. On the shoot days, once the trigonometry had been had, once the long machines had been loosed and exercised, once it had all been worked out to a certain number of decimal places, all of the houses that border the fields and woods are left entire braces of dead birds by the retreating beaters, who swiftly pick their way back home to something tastier.

We had been sunbathing in the small walled garden next to the track that led up around the cottage, up the hill and under the kitchen; we were lain beneath the small, avuncular crab-apple right in the centre of the lawn. It was only a little patch, but the grass had such a tog and was pleated right up to the stones of the wall so that it felt that we were actually bathing in a manger of water, bedded and plugged in motionless algae. The man who owned Cob Cottage, who I already found terrifying and who would later spoil everything and lose himself the house, the importance of love, everything, told me with what might have been expertise (I didn’t know him well, and never came to) that the birds needed to be rested in the fridge for at least an night before we butchered them. The plural there was assumed; the women who I was with in that house were not asked. I didn’t see the pheasants, in particular my pheasant, until the next morning.

The sun was gone the next day, and though it didn’t rain there was a bitter curl of wind coming over the lip of the garden. As I dressed up inside, with everybody who would be staying indoors that day idly and impatiently tugged the lapels of my fleece, lovely hot breath in my ear, telling me that I had nothing to prove to him, that I did not have to humour him and that we might have a nice day ourselves, instead. That he might do all six himself. In that anteroom it felt as if I was preparing for a duel, or an execution; certainly that I might never be seen again if I stepped through the kitchen door, back into the garden that I had loved the day before.

We were all being pathetic; the idea of pulling these murdered things into modules was upsetting me even as it was exciting me. At this point in my life I still ate meat, and had for a long time felt like a charlatan; a stuffed breast. I saw this brace of opportunities, slung into our deep self-satisfaction, as a way to be the cyclic creature that I had always wanted to be; a Möbius intestine, keeping my refuse, my usage, my vileness, hermetic in one perfect unimpeachable bracelet of being.

This placed a lot of responsibility with those birds that even then were chilled to their middle, completely foreign, queued for us outside.

I was nearly buckling as I walked out, under the scaffold that the thatcher had put up, and met him on the lawn.

The deckchairs had been tidied off, even though they had not been in the way at all, and the crab-apple looked planed and newly installed; as if it had not been there yesterday. He stood with a plastic margarine tub full of knives and looked immeasurably content. He had already finished four of the birds while he had been waiting for me, and now stood listening to the stream and the bugle of children on the near horizon, flush with his extraordinary life, snugly fitting what he had chosen to do with it.

At the top of the tree were two gnarled joists that I had not noticed before, mortises that twisted away from each other at near-perfect right angles. On each hung a pheasant by its neck, knotted through a length of twine. He had taken the dun, colour-of-the-world female, allowing me to luxuriate, to sightsee, in the roomer male. I thought it inappropriate to couch it in terms of all those comparisons that I could make (its rosemary neck, its yoghurty nibs, its Quetzalcoatl brow) but I could not help it; we are often incapable of seeing these animals as anything other than communications at us that must be answered. The female on the other side of the trunk, a bird that the male had probably never known, failed to respond as nature intended.

We set to work, trying not to look at each other around the ridiculous gibbet he had made, while the women inside occasionally, languidly glanced from the kitchen window, further and further disintegrating into the mist rising from the words they were saying, and the stock they were making. It was so cold inside the bird.

I could now, removed from that day, really ramble about that pheasant, up and down; I could tell you what its grain bladder reminded me of, how its guts moved in my hands, about the colours and the textures and the evacuating smells and the tricks of gravity and the things he said to me that were warm and encouraging; but it would just be something to write. It’s a very easy thing to do, and it is hard to do well. What I think I might focus on, instead, and what is interesting me these days, is the process by which I felt that I understood a small part of that pheasant in parting it from itself, and how that feeling of understanding, if not understanding itself, made me extremely unhappy.

I have been reading about birds recently, but I have also been reading about computers, specifically in the work of Joseph Weizenbaum; Weizenbaum was a computer scientist and co-founder of that discipline, and thus excellently placed for his later jeremiads against the use of easy, lazy metaphors when speaking about computers and their relationships to the greater world. In Computer Power and Human Reason, Weizenbaum delineates the ‘computer metaphor’ which, even by 1976 when the book was written, had in his view begun an uncontrollable, Utopian replication through the populist imagination, cloning itself into every conceivable topic of thought. As we had come to understand how computation worked in the first half of the twentieth century, and began to experiment with ever-more-powerful applications of computers, it became very tempting to see every aspect of the world as a pronounceable system in which individual parts work in unison to produce an output, just like a computer. Such a temptation, Weizenbaum thought, could lead to only a barren justification for acts of unhumanity and inhumanity, both catastrophic and commonplace, and a gross misunderstanding and dilution of the truth of the world. To quote the book’s closing lines, “what could it mean to speak of risk, courage, trust, endurance and overcoming when one speaks of machines?”

Like all metaphors, I think, and as Weizenbaum thinks, the ‘computer metaphor’ is an exercise in abstraction; applying an idea to a disparate context, and then using that idea to deduce a new census, a Solution, to each disagreeable aspect of that context in turn. A mind is like a computer, we still say, so let’s debug it. Society is an algorithm, so let’s re-write it. The result of such systematising, in Weizenbaum’s view, are almost all bellicose and leviathan; wars, massacres, napalm clinging to the jaws of babies. Applying his ideas it is hard to say that we have moved out of this conceptual bind in the last forty years; this metaphor is still applied, irresistibly, to every aspect of our lives, the only difference perhaps being that it is as much the preserve of commercial bodies as academic ones these days. I watched the stream of a panel discussion from a game developer’s summit recently, in which a group of A.I. developers stated that the production of “content” (that is, what is actually in the game, such as character, dialogue, narrative) by human beings is too unpredictable and slow a process, and that by applying the up-and-coming metaphors of A.I. a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ might be found; automated systems that generate new stories, new motivations, new characters and plots from sophisticated, seismographic algorithms. A story is, after all, just a program run from initial rules. So, let’s run it.

Such metaphors, whether they are about computers or not, are comforting to anybody wrestling with soft, indistinct problems or trying to understand something enormous, as I was on that day. It was tempting then to frame that process of butchery, of revelation, of biology, in so many different ways. There was, for example, an intimacy I felt as I dressed, or rather undressed, the bird’s body; I had to touch its neck a lot, and felt the hungry veins there; it seemed to shrug off its pelt willingly as I cut into the interdermal membrane that kept it dry inside a heath. I had never been so close to any animal, not even a pet; I had never been permitted. It exposed its dimpled pecs to me, though that implies volition, and I went further in I flicked at the precious glans of its heart, not thinking how that would have felt in life. I also felt and focused on this gradation of insides, me inside clothes inside a garden inside a pheasant inside something else entirely, and there was a sort of sense made there. My hands were so cold by that point that I had to dip my gory fingers into the mug of tea that had materialised beside me. Hanging there, I saw it most as a delicate, interpolated network of things, horripilating in the wind that was getting up. Most of its systems were not working, and I was snicking off the interconnections, making sure that they could never work again. And that is how the computer metaphor got into the small space between me and my pheasant, and I started to see that word ‘system’ again and again. It was easy after that, and just horrific.

The man, who had done far worse things than this, came around from his own bird, once he was satisfied that I had cleaned right the way back to the spine. The last thing to do before decapitating it for the oven was to clip off the feet. They were lax and loose, signal-less, the most immovable things that I had ever seen; covered in mismatched, yellow crazy-paved scales. They looked painful. There was a smile on the man’s face, a normal smile, and he told me that he had just that moment made a decision not to try and trick me. I was happy about that, but confused. He brandished wire-cutters, clamping the bird’s ankle between the blades, and he told me that if he had been feeling cruel he would have told me to hold the foot as he snipped. I didn’t, and I watched what happened next. As the blades sheared through the bone with the sound of a ripped stocking, the claws suddenly curled in of their own accord, all the way tight into a fist. He told me that it was just the tendons spasming and reacting to pressure, and that when he had first done this, with another man, he had been told to hold the foot, and when it held him back he had screamed.

I am trying so hard, and I did try then, to dispel the overlapping solomonic circles of metaphor that surround this bedraggled (though perhaps something needs to be alive before it can be draggled), poor (how?) organic matter that I see as a bird. I am trying not to rely on the easy, elegant translations of sexuality, cookery, cartography, class, fraternity and most of all logic that I could perform upon this article of the environment that I might call a bird. Most of all, in that unifying clench of its foot, in which an input is reacted to, I am trying not to see it as a machine. It’s too reductive and Cartesian, a denial of the bird’s terror, the crime committed against it, the indignities it has suffered; an enormous assumption on my part, and unfortunately an enormous comfort. The feedback loop was too tight; there was too much correlation between the tweak of the wirecutters and the sad reaction of the innards; I had already lain out the IF->ELSEIF->ELSE patterns that such a toe-curling implied. And even now all this time later it becomes hard to see the life that once imbued this apparatus as anything other than a self-perpetuating circuit or, even worse, a performance of life, with no back to it.

I felt sick by the time I had finished, and the feathers snagged about the lawn for days.

Weizenbaum states that a metaphor is only useful, and not harmful, if it enriches both the contexts which it utilises. I am not sure whether this is the case here; the bird is dead, it has helped me to understand some other thing a little better, and makes me see systems everywhere and wish to replicate them, no matter how incompletely. But even with everything taken apart and itemised, even in seeing the far bus of its lungs, I worry that something is missing from my model; and, even more horrifically, I worry that there is not.

I drove that pheasant halfway across the country to glaze it, wrap it in bacon (I didn’t think this much about the pigs) and eat it. It was too hot, and too dry, and a waste.

knole Prototype #1 – Encoding A Pregnancy


[link to prototype]   [github repo]


I am now just getting on with it and making a start on the actual coding of my virtual godlet. This is something which, historically, has been completely beyond my grasp; I find it usually very difficult to begin making anything until I’ve spied some sort of syzygy happening in my head; until all the spheres of my thinking on a topic are in alignment. Of course, all of you sensible people know that this is a rare event, certainly one which I have yet to witness in my lifetime, and when one is dealing with computer code it is a lost cause. Unlike natural language (in which I might ask you, for example, ‘what’s the smell of parsley?’), it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether what I ask of a computer will be understood in any sense whatsoever. Putting aside the complications of dialect, translation or channel, if we take human beings as, in small part, information processors, we see that they share certain expectations of semantics; a human response to a sentence that contains the words “what” “smell” and “parsley”, in that particular order, will be understood by the asker to some degree, even if it is not the response they were looking for. And once we have that basic understanding parlayed between us, the originator of the sentence can always return to the words at any point and prune, snip, train, trellis, topiary, coiff or shave them as needs must. As long as the inherent meaning of the sentence remains, or a new one is established, the individual parts may as well be the follicles, or foliage, that those verbs signify. They are components to be easily styled, removed, augmented or bouffed without destroying the trunk of the meaning.

This ideal consensus on language, which means that a first draft of most written natural language can stand alone as a parseable piece of work, rarely migrates to the context of computer code. The difference, I think, comes in the nature of the processing of the two different language-modes. When I am writing a natural sentence, the biological computers receiving and transmitting it are close to one and the same, within an acceptable degree of wet, mystic tolerance. My brain (that of the speaker/writer) and your brain (that of the hearer) have subscribed to a communal pattern of interpretation that we can agree upon, and which allows a fuzzy, thick-as-thieves, nod-and-wink as to the inherent meaning of the shared transcript without an exact, binary translation of what I, the speaker/writer, completely meant.

With a digital computer, not the case. We often speak about the problems of having computers recognise natural language, but there is still discrepancy in handing computers instructions written in supposedly-formalised programming languages. A programming language is, to a similar degree, a human construct; the computer must always translate what I am typing into a machine code that can actually be executed on its physical components. No matter how automated the instruction there must always be, as far as I can tell, a clumsy, mucky human defining something somewhere in the chain of proscription. Therefore no matter how precise and elegant that negotiating language, it will always be dictated by an entity entirely alien from the one that must understand it. Even a single line of code can contain errors of typing, syntactical heuristics that humans understand ‘just because’, not to mention assumptions as to the computer’s ability to ‘know what we’re getting at’. With all of these rules-of-thumb and degrees of error, it is always very likely that the code we have written, which we believe is hermetic and executable, will just grind the program to a halt, with no real indication as to why. As I am starting to understand, we cannot assume the computer to be another language-using entity like ourselves; though it has been created by minds like my own, I and it do not share a jot of common sense, lexical generosity or culture. It cannot (as yet) fudge my statements into something that it can understand ‘just because’. It instead operates with a mathematical unambiguity, through a language “clearer and more precise than the spoken languages like English or French” 1 in the words of J.W. Forrester; a statement that I can agree with, even if it glosses over the paralysis of self-expression that such a language presents to the creator.

It’s taken me quite a lot of space here to write through my ideas to the point at which I can say the following; if it has to be this way, and you do have to work with such an unimaginative, taupe correspondent, then it’s best to find out where you are making mistakes and assumptions (the stuff of imaginative discussion) very early on in the process, before your ways of working get too cozy and the relationship starts to sour.

It is the start of the second term of my PhD, and as well as thinking about the above I have become sick of talking about my work without having anything post-verbal with which to illustrate it. I have already begun to fiddle about with Construct 2, a development environment for HTML5 games which has a very sunny, persistent manner in asking me for money. I’m still not its biggest fan; instead of coding scripts directly (as I’d become used to in Gamemaker: Studio) a Construct 2 game consists of ‘event sheets’, lists of conditions and actions chosen from a fractal series of menus that could have been hand-coded in about one-third of the time. It does have its advantages2, but my main reason for using it lies in its native support for Google’s voice recognition API. I have put together a small prototype of knole’s titular creature, consisting of some non-committal artwork and some basic looping functions. The voice recognition is already installed; with no work on my part, my deity has its oracle, its psychopomp, a form of priesthood. It can hear the prayers of those that speak them near its (that is, your) microphones.

I haven’t implemented any feedback or reactive behaviour into this prototype. What is important, at this initial stage, is to test my approaches to creating some illusion of life. Without a conscious decision, and apparently ignoring the fact that my character is divine, I have begun by encoding a semblance, a performance, of breathing and blinking. I suppose I settled on these two functions for several reasons:

  • These are very low-level behaviours, relatively ‘easy’ to interpret, which can loop with no contingent input from an audience.
  • Breathing and blinking are perhaps two of the initial qualities that we expect, in the absence of any other vitality, from a living being with lungs and eyes. I have decided, independently, that lungs and eyes are a good starting point for getting people to identify with my creature, even if it is divine and has no need for them. Kittens and celebrities and people’s mothers have lungs and eyes. People like things to have lungs and eyes, and for those lungs and eyes to do things, quietly and diligently. Without some sort of diligent, quiet, primitive animation, no amount of interaction would counteract a very atavistic sensation on the part of the audience that there was something ‘wrong’ with my creature. Prothesis of biology is nothing new when gods are concerned; just look at Zeus and his rampant, transcendent teledildonics.
  • They were quick to code up, and allowed me to test my architecture for the creature with little fuss.

This ‘architecture’, my chosen way of theoretically constructing and organising the encoded ‘self’ of my creature in programming language, is based very much on the principles of Behaviour-Oriented Design, a method of building believable computer agents developed by Dr. Joanna J. Bryson, now of Princeton and Bath universities, during her PhD.

To over-simplify her work, agents (let’s call them ‘creatures’) in this system have separate modules of ‘behaviour’, self-contained micro-programs that chug along quite happily on their own within a large network of other independent behaviours until called upon by something called a ‘reactive plan’. Such a plan is a series of rules which determines which behaviours ‘run’, influenced by both internal and external factors. In the mammalian metaphor of my creature its behaviour, its goals and its ‘plan’ for acting can be influenced both by stomach-aches and thunderstorms, depression and the sight of dew.

In the argot of BOD, then, my prototype’s breathing and blinking are action patterns influenced by a drive selection. In these foetal stages, my creature’s low-level drive could be said to be ‘stay alive’, ‘collect air’ or even ‘pretend to be a living animal’; however I choose to frame this drive, it leads to the creature prioritising, over all others, its breathing behaviour. In more complex agents, there are many arenas of conflicting drives, all of which jockey for priority throughout the agent’s existence. For now, though, we have only lungs and eyes, and even those only function in the most mechanistic, abstract fashion. There are no other factors to consider in its behaviour; it has no concept of fear, because I have not told it what it must do when it experiences the thing I call its fear; it has no concept of hunger, because I have not told it what food is nor that it should crave it. I might not imbue it with these things at all. But for the moment, with nothing to constrict its throat, it hangs there and breathes; in and out, without, very literally, a care in its world, forever.

If you have a copy of Construct 2 you can download the .capx file from knole’s Github repository and look at how these primitive actions are structured for yourself. Though I am currently using BOD for my theoretical applications, I haven’t encoded that architecture into the prototypes yet; Construct 2’s event sheet architecture doesn’t lend itself to it incredibly well. The creature as yet doesn’t have a concept of ‘staying alive’, which might be the thing which compels it to breathe; or a concept of ‘irritation’, or anything to irritate it in the first, place which might cause it to blink. It does these things because it is told to do them, without causality of any kind.

Looking at the functions themselves, at the moment there are no biological simulacra encoded into the architecture; only logical process. Each drawn component of the creature’s face (its brows, its eyes, the various segments of its nose) are separate objects, all of which move at certain rates, in certain directions and up to certain thresholds, simulating the motor functions of a face. These movements are controlled by separate breathing and blinking event sheets, but the values of all of these rates, thresholds and directions are stored separately as number variables within each object itself. There’s a smidgen, then, of BOD’s modularity, but I’m not quite there yet.

This is how the breathing functions, in pseudo-code:


-> Start 'breathe in';
-> if creature is 'breathe in'
and face (less than) upper threshold,
move face up @ preset rate;
-> if face is upper threshold, 'breathe out'
-> if 'breathe out'
and face (more than) lower threshold,
move face down @ preset rate
-> if face = lower threshold, 'breathe in'

And so on, in a contented loop. The blinking happens concurrently, shrinking and growing the eyes at a much swifter but randomised rate. While I did not test whether the two behaviours would interfere with each other, they seem to make good subliminal bed-mates. What is most important about this architecture is that it is extremely adaptable; every component’s movement, the threshold of that movement and the rate that it moves can change. Once the god has things that it can react to, whether that input be vocal, tactile or otherwise, these inputs can change those numbers, and so complicate its behaviours. The passing of time could make the creature’s eyes droop and sag with tiredness, or a tender finger run along its jowls might make it hyperventilate.

Though in this prototype I sought to bring my way of thinking, my authorial, human language of ‘creatures’, ‘wants’ and ‘breaths’, around to the precise concepts of the computer, to perform a translation between myself and the machine as an initial lemma, the next and important step is to use this mathematicised abstraction of my godlet to explore the shared vocabulary of the human mind that I share with my audience; that emotive syntax of smelling parsley. Even in these very early stages I am witnessing the tabula rasa that coding a creation presents; how everything, every preconception and grant taken, must be explicitly stated there in the code. I cannot write what I like; the rules of grammar in programming are far more ironclad than in English, and everything must be stated very dully and fully before I can begin to play with them. But it is not dull to do so; I am getting excited at how the creation of every single element of this creature’s internal world assumes my authorship. What reasons will I give the creature for breathing? What will irritate it into blinking? What will I tell it to like, and what will I tell it to hate? It will be interesting to start realising some of the principles of BOD into the work.

Of course, this translation is going through several different exchanges now; from my brain to the computer and back into the brain of you, the ‘reader’ of the creature’s face. But it is in that final process, from the computer language into the language of your imagination, that the most telegraphing effect will take place; a sharing of semantics between myself and you. The computer is no different from any other artistic media; I am using it as a vector for significance, relying on our shared animalisms, our closed-circuit sentience, to provide a system out of which all of the personal peculiarities of you witnessing the creature, as part of your particular life, might arise. There are some things that I can predict about your reaction (that you will see my thresholds and rates as the breathing and blinking of a being, rather than as maths) but there are other things that I cannot. I would be interested to hear your initial reactions to the prototype, but I’m happy to report that most of the people that I have shown it to are very taken with it, even at this simple, allegorical phase.

People’s eyes are drawn to its reassuring, regular, cyclical movement, even its lack of reaction. Though there is as yet no sound to accompany it, when I look at my silent godlet I hear behind my ears a wheezing, sucking snort as it draws the nonexistent air inside. Through the movement of the simple lines that make up its nose, people will into being the three-dimensional chambers and membranes that such a nose must have in real life. My tutor even said that it was ‘hypnotic’ to watch. It’s an odd feeling, using digital, documented architectures to test what is, in the end, an organic sort of computation; a parsing of subtle, inexpressible data, garlanding and enmeshing the code with imagination and inference, like fronds of laurel on bobbed curls.

Unlike a computer, the human brain will always compile something; it will never lock entirely. Even when we give it such an impoverished test as this, it cannot help but engorge it into a plump, living deity, pregnant with pauses, expectant to begin.

1. As quoted in Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, in a less-than-flattering context.
2. For example, unlike most programming environments if you change the name of an object or variable it is changed everywhere, which functions a little like a cosmic spellcheck in a universe where an ‘i’ before ‘e’ after ‘c’ can cause total and utter heat death.

Said Horror To Hearer

Now that I am starting to grope into my PhD in great fistfuls, and work out exactly how I might start to build my digital godlet, I think it’s time to focus on specifics. At the moment I don’t have many of those; my notebooks are filled with misty calls to ’empathy’ between the human agent1 and the creature, as well as long, hopeful lists of potential interactions that will, I am sure, prove very difficult to code into being. However, one specific has stood since the beginning of this project, and persists as the mechanic upon which everything else must rely; the ability of the human agent to read the poem, which tells the creature’s story, aloud to the digital creature itself.

Fundamentally, I am talking about natural language processing; the now-banal ability of computers to take the waveform input of a human voice and understand that input as words and sentences, in a computerish sort of way; this is not of course the same as ‘understanding’ in a human sense, but rather involves transcribing those words into parseable text, or ‘strings’, which the computer can use for something else. Most people’s everyday interaction with this technology is limited at best; despite Google’s best advertising efforts, not many of us walk down the street and boss our phone out loud, as if we had a small staff of lice understairing in our fingercreases. If we do use NLP at all, it is in clipped, unbroken phrases; to dictate a text message when we are using our other hand to balance a ziggurat of biscuits, or to ask our phone something provocative in front of all our friends who have not heard its reply. I haven’t yet found much evidence of computers being read anything beyond functional, spare instructions.

Therefore last night, as I am now a Computer Scientist and I do things with a shining, experimental rigour, I lay in bed with some Medjool dates and a cup of oily tea2 and read my phone some poetry.

I decided on W.H. Auden because of his personal significance to my work, his varied and testing use of meter and rhythm, and because his was the first volume that fell when I flailed my morningstar of a hand across the shelf. I opened the Simplenote app on my phone, turned on the microphone, and started reading. I did not try to choose poems that were simple or regular or full of small words, nor did I read them in a way other than I would read them to a human audience. I just pressed the icon and starting speaking.

Below are the results. I think that you can tell which are the originals and which are the transcriptions, but I don’t mean to be dismissive in that. This was a crass experiment, and the phone did far better than I anticipated.

August 1968

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

August 1968 the ogre does what oh geez can deeds quite Impossible 4 man but one price is beyond his reach the ogre cannot master speech about a subjugated playing among its desperate and slain the Argus talks with hands on hips while drivel gushes from his lips

Pseudo-Questions

Who could possibly approve of Metternich
and his Thought Police? Yet in a liberal
milieu would Adalbert Stifter have written
his noble idylls?

Vice-versa, what God-fearing Magistrate
would dream of shaking hands with a financial
crook and Anti-Semite? Yet Richard Wagner
wrought masterpieces.

Wild horses could not drag me to debates on
Art and Society; critics with credos,
Christian or Marxist, should keep their trap shut,
lest they spout nonsense.

Pseudo questions you could possibly approve of matinee and his thought Police yes in a liberal milia with apple box sister have written his Noble levels vice versa what god fearing magistrate would dream of shaking hands with a financial crook and anti-semite Richard Wagner wrote masterpieces wild horses couldn't drag me to debates on Art and Society critics with Kratos Christian or Marxist should keep their trap shut less they spelt nonsense

No, Plato, No

I can’t imagine anything
that I would less like to be
than a disincarnate Spirit,
unable to chew or sip
or make contact with surfaces
or breathe the scents of summer
or comprehend speech and music
or gaze at what lies beyond.
No, God has placed me exactly
where I’d have chosen to be:
the sub-lunar world is such fun,
where Man is male or female
and gives Proper Names to all things.

I can, however, conceive
that the organs Nature gave Me,
my ductless glands, for instance,
slaving twenty-four hours a day
with no show of resentment
to gratify Me, their Master,
and keep Me in decent shape
(not that I give them their orders,
I wouldn’t know what to yell),
dream of another existence
than that they have known so far:
yes, it well could be that my Flesh
is praying for ‘Him’ to die,
so setting Her free to become
irresponsible Matter.

No Plato no I can't imagine anything but I would less like to be in a disc incarnates spirit unable to chew or sip or make contact with surfaces Aubrey the sense of summer or comprehensive Picchu musical gaze at what lies beyond no God has place me exactly where I have chosen to be the sub Luna world is such fun where man is male or female and gives proper names to all things I can however can see that the organs nature gave me my ductless glands for instance sleeping 24 hours a day with no show of resentment to gratify me the master and keep me in decent shape not that I give them their orders I wouldn't know what do you dream of another existence and that they have known so far yes it well could be that My Flesh is praying for him to die so sitting her free to become a responsible master

‘Here war is simple like a monument’

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.

Here war is simple like a monument here war is simple like a monument a telephone is speaking to a man flags on a map of a cert that treats for sent a boy brings milk in bowls there is a plan for living men in terror of their lives who first at 9 who were the first at noon and can be lost an arm and miss their wives and I'm like an idea and I too soon but ideas can be true although men died and we can watch a Thousand Faces made active by 1LY and maps can really point to places where life is evil now Nanking Dachau.

In my view these are not Auden’s best poems, but the phone is not concerned with that and in this instance neither am I; what we are concerned with is comprehension in terms of computation. In short:

  • Does the computer transcribe the poem accurately from the diction3?
  • Does the computer produce something, in that transcription, that can then be used in further computation as defined by me, the designer?

The answer to both of these questions is broadly ‘yes’, which is important for my ongoing work with knole. I am not a native programmer, and my PhD is not concerned with the technical possibilities of NLP. Instead, I wish to find the easiest path to using it in my work, in order to do interesting things subsequently, artistically. For my purposes, this means technology that works with little back-end input from myself; it does not interest me, other than in the way that all things are broadly interesting, how the words change from sound input to process-ready strings. What matters to me is what those strings look like when they do reach the computer. If there is too much discrepancy between the intended input by the speaker and the received input by the computer (in my case, the creature), authorial intent and narrative is made gobbledygook. I would still have a program that hears, that is interactive with one’s voice, but there would be no defined understanding of the voice, even if that understanding were defined by myself the designer.

These quick, initial tests are promising, however; it doesn’t seem that I will need to modify existing technologies very much to get what I want. I do have some ongoing thoughts:

  • This technology, as we can see, is not designed for long stretches of input; I was lucky that the microphone did not automatically turn off after a few seconds, as I have known it do before. Ideally my creature would ‘listen’ more of less constantly, processing language or other aural input as it occurred; however, I have not done any research into how this might affect the performance or battery life of whichever device my creature ends up occupying. As it is not designed for lengthy input, so we see it struggling with punctuation, which tends to be absent from the shorter command-language of the digital assistant, in which one must must manually say ‘comma’ to have the corresponding glyph appear in the text. Whether this will be a problem I am not entirely sure, as often in oral poetry punctuation is a signal to the reader, rather than the listener; a comma tells the reader to pause, and so the listener hears a pause. The same applies to line breaks; if a poem’s audience ‘hears’ line breaks, it is in the vocal interpretation of the reader. In fact, it might be interesting to see if an audience could accurately delineate these breaks on the page just by listening. In any case, my creature does not need to display an accurate textual output of the poem, only respond to elements within its reading.
  • However, this does then bring up the question of prosody; that is, the performance of a poem encompassing tone, rhythm and voice, or more accurately the meaning inherent in a poem outside the bald vocabulary and syntax. As we can see above, this is not something that could easily be encoded into NLP. Perhaps something could be jury-rigged involving differing responses based on the time between units of speech, or the volume of that speech serving as a crude barometer of emotion. I suppose I will find out when I start trying to build this little bleeder.
  • There are some interesting errors on single words; for example, in August 1968 there are three separate interpretations of the spoken word ‘ogre’ in one, very short poem. This is an ongoing problem of NLP, and how much it affects my project will depend on which units of speech I rely on for my creature to compute. Will the creature be listening for ‘keywords’ to react to, or rather ‘keyphrases’? Will it react to several words in juxtaposition, proximity or comparison? If I rely on single nouns or verbs, the errors could become a problem, unless I build in a simplistic ‘spellcheck’ in which common errors are automatically normalised to the intended word. This will be more simple for me to do than most other users of NLP, as I will be curating a fairly small possibility space of speech for the creature to react to.
  • This leads onto the question of homonyms, an important stylistic device in the poetry of many of my favourites, including Dylan Thomas, Auden and Ted Hughes. How can the creature distinguish between ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ if it has no way to ‘see’ the written version of the word, only the reader’s reading of it? I suppose context will be important to understanding what is meant.
  • Obviously, the speech recognition struggles with some of Auden’s proper references, the pretentious old river delta.
  • The speed at which the poem processed on-screen whilst I read it was fairly impressive; perhaps only lagging one second or two behind my voice. However, this is a fairly unacceptable delay when one is trying to represent a living creature listening, organically, in real time. I am not sure how this delay could be improved; again, perhaps I will be saved by my teensy possibility space.

Of course, I must not worry about errors too much, or treat them merely as ridiculous failures of my authorial intent; as I have found in my own work, the mishearing of words can open entirely new worlds within a text, and allow a degree of rebellious, fruitful interaction with the intended meaning. Such is the power of interpretation, in analogue works, and perhaps there could be an interesting correlation with interaction in digital works, as well.

If the creature mishears a reader, or the reader deliberately misreads a word in that delightful, bloody-minded way that people like to interact with computers, how can a designer create an environment in which that mistake has value, both in the creature’s response and the reader’s?

1 A more active alternative for ‘user’ proposed, amongst others, by Brenda Laurel in her excellent Computers As Theatre.
2 I hadn’t washed it out properly.
3 In this case a clear but rhetorically-brisk pace in an accent close to Oxford English.

A Startling Realisation

knole

Though there is a lot of academic writing and positivist chicanery to come in regards to my PhD project, diminutively named , I think that this development log might benefit from something a little woolier.

A few years ago I happened to visit Longleat Park with my family, in my Dad’s Orinoco-green jeep-simulacra with its orrery roof and arse-heaters. Longleat, at its own centre, is a stately home; though its movement through time has been anything but regal. From its owner’s pornographic impastos in the drawing rooms to its transformation into a Middle-English safari park in recent years, I get the sense that the National Trust would wilt around their green-lobed blades if they ever got their hands on it. We were there, along with a parade of other brightly-coloured vehicles, to do something which I to this day find not only absurd but grotesque; we joined the slow queue along the tarmac as it wound past the entrance gates and into the woods, a queue no different in composition from that we had been sitting in an hour before on the A303. It stunk of caramel and onions inside the car, and I could see the snot-glint of grease on every haunch of leather, but of course we could not open the windows. I had one of those apocalyptic, drifting instances when I realised and recognised what everything around me was constructed from, its heredity; from the seatbacks to the diesel in the engine, and the fat girl’s proto-bicep in the car behind us. Luckily, this granularity did not last.

The landscape we were moving through was former huntland, with that posh grass you only seem to get on the posh ranges of grand estates; curated by ewes, thick as a club sandwich, as unbroken as garnet. The woods were sparse and very old, and there was a tiger, predictably, shivering in its colour almost like a fox. The lion’s den was empty for the winter. The macaques had tortured all the squirrels. There may have been a rhino but I may also be dreaming that, now; I see it parked beside a rosehip hedge, as congruous as a battle tank in Wiltshire, with the syrup dripping into its armour.

The whole day was glum and gross, and we hadn’t even reached the shops yet. Longleat is not a circus; the animals looked healthy, and were not badly-conserved. They just looked embarrassed.

We reached a curve in the road; on one side were the woods, and the Park, and on the other an open, massive, slow basket of field, on its opposite side thick with ferns and the chain-link fence, keeping out the greater part of England. As we sat there idling, I caught a large-scale reconfiguration happening in the dogtooth pattern of the ferns. I had been so used to the limited, blaring palette of Longleat’s charges that I could see nothing apart from the fact of movement over there. Eventually, it resolved itself; a small, closeknit herd of deer, wandered through some gap from their territory outside. The main motif of the group was an enormous stag, his antlers a petrified, Celtic diagram. His fawns and does were flush against his coat, and I could barely pick them out in his fallow; could scarcely tell what was eyeball and what was autumn hide.

We had startled them, and they were rammed right up against the boundaries of our experience. Everybody in their cars turned away from the exotic obvious and watched, steering-locked, as the wild family unused to fences negotiated its length, looking for their way back into anonymity. They were the colour of the ferns at that time of year; the colour of the diesel in the engines, and old computers and brown meat around the wishbone and ash and bare branches and every grey sky of England that we had come there to forget. And yet we watched him and them, at the very edge of their freedom, resplendent in their camouflage. The plane on which we all sat shifted, and I (and I will speak for) everybody else on that road experienced a form of moral vertigo, the distinct feeling that humans feel when they see a thing within its nature, unaware, while we crawl along on wheels and eat coconut from the bag. Its an pre-Catholic, primeval sort of guilt; a recognition that past the glare and bombast of what we think we might like, the tropical and the dazzling, there might be a native alternative, a dunner dinner for our eyes, something all the more remarkable for it.

If feels as if knole, and what I will be attempting with it, might spring in part from that day; that distant clutch of ferns, chevroned like a prison uniform, and the doe’s eyes like a pelt, hiding on the background.

knole

knole

I’ve been given some money by the government to do something which might very well fail.

I am presumptuous about its outcomes already, and even now self-congratulatory about its results. I have yet few of the technical skills necessary to complete it. It will take three years, and I sincerely hope not any more than that. If it succeeds, I may very well have exasperated some intelligent people; I can’t even presume to properly upset them; perhaps even in that I am presumptuous, and it just won’t matter that I’m a charlatan. At the moment, the something is just called knole; a codename that I decided I required after watching the documentary series about videogame developer Double-Fine. I watched Tim Schafer, their lead designer and writer, weebling and bobbing his way through San Francisco’s Chinatown, pointing up through the blear at the neon signs of bars and clubs which had given his early projects their first, have-to-do names; ‘Lipo’ became Psychonauts, ‘Buddha’ became Brutal Legend, ‘EZ5’ became Happy Action Theatre; a game which I had never heard of before, and whose marketing material seems to involve smelting children

The placeholding of my projects is not something that has ever occurred to me; whilst ‘working titles’ are certainly a technique that people use across the field into which I have been corralled, they are not nearly as codified as the ‘codename’ in software development, possibly because of the latter’s collaborative processes. Not only is this name designed to give you something monosyllabic and crunchy to talk around in meetings, but it also provides a self-important cant which is meaningless outside the company in which one works. I do not work in a company other than Bonfire Dog, and that makes me lonely; my codename is more of an attempt to feel like a proper developer, surrounded with support, than to obscure anything important from you. Having no work colleagues, I go out drinking far less regularly than the Double-Fine shower (but not as little as the difference between our workforces might suggest), and so it felt disingenuous to name my project after my favourite pubs where I do anything but crawl with my friends. Therefore knole was named after an ancient deer park near my parent’s house that I sometimes walk through, full of haunted trees and fawns with backs like plasterers’ jeans. Across the undulations where the horses once tailed the dogs, you sometimes catch sight of the grand old house for which the park was named; tea-stained and pensioner-wracked, trusted nationally.

knole is a that I am undertaking between the universities of Bath (for Creative Writing) and Bath Spa (for Computer Science), which of course has caused some excellent administrative dithering in its early stages. Now that the dithering has waned, I can get on with my enquiries; simply, how characters in digital or interactive art can be instilled (either by their author, or their interactor) with the pathos, drama, comedy and what-might-only-be-unfortunately-called ‘literary’ qualities that we expect, and often get, from characters in more traditional works.

Of course, there are already many excellent examples of ‘literary’ characters in videogames, interactive fiction and other interactive art; I would not presume to exclude them. However, as well as being fewer and farther between than they should be, these characters seem to rely more on traditional narrative safe harbours, techniques of characterisation found more naturally in books, film and other media. Mass Effect, an example of excellent non-player embodiment often brought up in such conversations, does indeed use playeragency and interaction to reveal character, and bind their player to them and their choices; in practice, however, I have always found these interactions rich in isolation; excellently-written, yet with little animation or verve. The choices in these interactions often have more in common with Viscera Cleanup Detail, encouraging the player to function like some sort of narrative street sweeper, buffing through the options rather than stumbling and pruning through them like any normal, awkward person. When a choice connected to something outside the character’s immediate realm appears, it is often unashamedly binary; not always, but often enough.

I have, after making this wide, tiresomely familiar, most-likely-foolhardy statement, taken on my own pathetic challenge. I focus on creating one character, as intimately as I can, and using every method I can to render that character as completely as possible; to not only author it, but to, once the player has hold of it, to cast off that authorship and give it some sort of agency and growth. By using techniques which I personally, myself, a big limited being, have rarely seen considered in the creation of dynamic digital characters. I hope to show that characters in digital works can use the tenets of their own medium, as well as those of techniques past, to create interactions that are memorable, intricate and radioactive, a sort of benevolent poison which affects our development, and the development of our children, and so on. And that in so being, they will not be hampered by their new responsibilities as reactive, functioning beings, alive with every input to which we can wire them.

Here are a few of the topics, and techniques that I am exploring to make my thing:

  • Animal behaviour, animal/human interaction and pet studies;
  • Artificial intelligence, ambient intelligence, fuzzy logic and cellular automata;
  • The general tenets of good game design, AI in games and those examples, good and bad, that we currently have of ‘character’ in the broadest sense.
  • Identity, narratorship and character in more traditional works;
  • Digital pets, sprites and familiars such as the Dread Furby, Wuv-Luv, Tamagotchi et al;
  • Animal-assisted therapy;
  • Storygames and the illusion of choice;
  • Telepresence (including the delightful and parochial world of teledildonics);
  • Long-distance relationships;
  • Animism and folk religion;
  • Facial animation, voice recognition and image tracking.

All of these studies, and my application of them, will go into creating my own unique being, a ‘literary intelligence’ built only to inhabit a world of my making. At the moment, it is called Wurdergirderdu, and at the moment it looks exactly like the drawing at the top of the page, scribbled by Sarah Alice (also known, elsewhere on this website, as The Ski Ghost) for me years ago on a envelope when we were bored, and now co-opted. Indeed, that drawing is the only concept I have at the moment.

Wurdergirderdu is a spirit-creature of England. It is a creature in England, on England, through it and under it; a guardian spirit of that land, a semi-divine maybe-beast in the animist tradition practiced to this day in countries such as Japan, Canada and Cornwall. Wurdergirderdu stands for everything that England was, is and might be, whatever it is and wherever it stops, and in my vision is its god, patron and symbol, far brighter than the lion or the lamb or the cross or the dragon or the bull.

My PhD work is to create Wurdergirderdu in several different manners. In the first instance, there will be a prose poem, as linear as an escalator, bound on paper and to be read out loud, more or less in one straight go. It will be a panegyric to this creature, describing a protagonist’s walk through a sort of English landscape, a dream-place that I have been bricolaging in my head out of all those bytes of my home country that I have seen, imagined and interpolated over my years. The protagonist will be the voice of the poem, the voice of its reader, and it will describe the adventures and dioramas encountered in this England whilst accompanied by Wurdergirderdu. The narrative will describe Wurdergirderdu as weakened, failing, wounded; indeed, the protagonist has no choice, in my poem, but to carry the sprite on this regal tour of its own, symbolic body. Together they will see so much, meet so many and explore so much more; a structure that I am borrowing, in no small part, from the topographical poetry and morality narratives ofearly English writers such as Langland and Drayton.

I have not decided yet how this poem will end, but it will end, as long as it is read. Tu-TUM-tu-TUm-tu-TUM-tu-TUM-tu-TUM it will go, over a few hundred lines; events, proscribed characters, predetermined outcomes, and so a picture of this debilitated avatar emerges. And then it is done.

Of course, I would get in trouble if I only produced a few hundred lines of poetry in three years; especially with the Computer Science department at Bath, my co-supervisors. The bound work stands a double role, both as artefact and key, chronicle and instruction. It stands as the (very secure) password for, and instruction manual to, the much more complex and daunting half of my work, the half which I will need to learn how to make as I make it.

My plan is to create a direct simulation of Wurdergirderdu digitally, on-screen, as an interactive representation of the creature chiseled out in the poem. Most likely it will be developed for some sort of jerry-rigged mobile device, where I can make use of the dramatic sensors, data and mobility to create a sort of life, and a sort of intelligence, for the creature.

Through animation, it will move as it is described on the page; its injured eyes, its thick fur, its broken brow. It will communicate with you as an animal only can. Behind its eyes I am exploring the varied principles of artificial intelligence to produce something which may not be generally intelligent, but is at least narratively intelligent; something which is authored and then set free to act within its parameters, and perhaps surprise everybody with an authored illusion of sentience; this illusion, the idea of using the mind of the reader or player to fill in the gaps in my computation, is my Exciting New Idea, one which I will probably discover in a book from the 1980s and get very depressed about.

It will, using image recognition, recognise you (or mistake you) and the things you bring it; the leaves of England’s trees, and the seeds of England’s fruit growing or mulching upon its back. It will come to love you or hate you or perhaps something more interesting and unknowable, depending on how you treat it. It will listen, through ears like those of the deer that I saw tiptoeing through the dead leaves, to everything you have to say. Most of all, in its injury, it will love to listen to stories about itself.

The main strut of the interaction between these two half-works will be the reading of the written Wurdergirderdu to the writeable Wurdergirderdu; the reader reads aloud, as if to a child, and the creature on the screen, through microphones and some algorithmic work, marvels at its own story. Indeed, its reactions should reveal to you more about itself, and the bound, arrested world of the poem, than merely reading the poem alone. Of course, I hope to have the creature interact in more ways than this; computers have almost as many sensors as we do nowadays. There is no reason why Wurdergirderdu shouldn’t react to the time of day, the season, the station of the moon; to different temperatures, different touches on its multi-capacitative screen, orientation, location, creating in the nexus of these interactions a sort of ‘circadian AI’, a system for interpreting natural cycles. I may even stop the app functioning outside of England, its animus as of course it would, if you took the soul out of a place.

This is all very loose, necessarily, here at the start of the project, and I’m speaking in quite grandiloquent terms; I’m hoping to break the project down into more manageable chunks and blog about them weekly in a far more workaday language than the above. If you want to follow along, they will all be tagged #knole.

I really am sorry about all the wiffle. I’m an academic now, so it’s to be expected in the first few weeks; it will work its way out of my system, like karstwater, soon enough.

Some other links that will become more interesting in time:

  • The project GitHub, where I will be posting a version-controlled evolution of the digital parts of my work. I’ll be becoming interested in collaboration, bug fixes, suggestions, branching and forkings very soon.

  • My open bibliography for the project, which will form the basis of my final contextualising essay.


And for those of you who are wondering what is happening with my other projects:

  • The Black Crown Project – That link is still dead. I still have no time or money to focus on redeveloping it, though I do have some of the ability; a stark contrast to when the project was originally created, and I could barely fill in a form field or use an HTML tag. The publishers (Random House UK) have very kindly reverted the rights back to me, though the archives of assets still rest with Failbetter Games. Those first need to be retrieved, and sorted, and a new framework developed, and content rewritten to shake off the last scraps of the game’s FTP economy. It is a large and messy job, and the chance of it being done any time soon are vanishingly small. I am going to stand very tall, close my eyes, wag a finger, purse my lips, and tell you all that it will be done.

  • On My Wife’s Back – This project, originally started with the British Library, was always going to be an oozer; spreading out slowly in all directions, getting everything sticky as it went; it seems that I specialise in grubby work. I’m hoping to digitise what I have written of Scinbank’s diary by the end of the year, and there are regular updates on my research map and blog. We’ll even be recording some old, new and invented shanties at the Library in December, as an early Christmas present. Anything new tends to appear on the blog first, and it’s best to always start there.


I’m setting up a mailing list at the moment (to occupy the currently-impotent ‘Volucracy’ button in the top menubar of this blog) which will hopefully curb my tendency to keep everything to myself and fill, those of you who want it, in, from time to time.

cat

My latest kitten has just learnt (or, perhaps less impressively, just grown) to jump clear from the kitchen floor and into the fridge. I have an irresponsible habit of leaving its cheese-thick door ajar when constructing lunch, and for the past week or so with almost no fail I have heard the corn-grind of his nascent toenails on the lacquered wood, hoiking himself up and into the cavity. At first it was laughable that this compact oik, this tiny hoiker, no longer than an Evian, with a rib-cage like an arm of bangles, should be able to leap eight times his own height. But, of course, on comes life, filling him up, changing his schematic, upgrading him, hardening his bones and his claws. Every day his face grows more and more concave, more SETI-like, though his enormous eyes, the colour of lager, never cease dominating. He pips the pip of the pipistrelle when he is pleased to see me or is hungry, and his tail lashes like a cat. His tongue, when he deigns to display it, is as sweet as a banana chip. He eats like his own tapeworm, and has found the longest stretch of unbroken space in our house, an isosceles from the tip to the tip, and he runs it daily, religiously, back legs pulling forwards and to the right, threatening at every moment to throw him out of control. With all of these disparate likenesses in him, it is becoming no trouble to rally some of them to his cause and pull himself up into odd places, especially if they contain nice smells.

Usually I catch him before he can haul himself into the body proper; he manages only a hit of melt-water, floating with spring onion skins, before he is deposited back onto the kitchen’s plain. Other times, however, my sandwich is complicated, and requires numerous trips, strategies, avid concentration, and I forget about him. And when I finish and come back to it all I can see of him is those eyes, rustic, hot and alien, weirding me out from amongst the darkness between the tofu and Crunch Corners.

In some ways this is adorable; a precious sight of a precious thing being obliviously capricious, reveling in breaching the rules which are only enforced half-halfheartedly. I sigh, remonstrate him all up on one level, in the same high, fairytale registers in which his natural prey speaks; this being the only way to get him to look at me, to turn his amber instruments my way. In that moment I feel as if I have just won some research time with an expensive telescope.

In other ways it is truly unsettling. Here on the greasy, misted shelves Teddy (that is his name) lurks with the vivarium, dripping packages, the eeking plastic and the compartments, and in so doing takes on all the attributes of a commodity himself. He is lost amongst the other discrete objects in the fridge’s depths; or rather, is not lost but merely indistinguishable. It is no longer important that he belongs out in the warmth and attention. He is no different in weight, distribution and unit cost from a pack of four chicken legs, a few tins of sweetcorn, a Tupperware of cold rice, or indeed an Evian.

If I squint, he disappears entirely.

What is worse is that these commercial attributes are not imagined; they are part of him already. It is only the sterilising airs of the fridge* which bring him into focus. He has, of course, always been a commodity; there are many kittens like him, and there will be many more, and yet all of their owners will believe them unique. He is mobile within bounds; when needed, he is stopped and ceased to make an opportunity for photographs, a feature for guests, and a giver of pleasure. He was bought, quite materially, for a large amount of money; we were even fooled by his packaging, his blue fur like something synthetic and highly flammable, those unbelievable, high-resolution eyes. He is maintained with unguents, pills and pastes. He will grow obsolescent before other, less-rarefied cats.

I do not like this feeling. I do not like it revealing his ubiquity, his seriality, his place on the shelf. He was bred to be beautiful and gawky and loving. Soon we will clip his testicles off, as one takes off the ugly head of a carrot.

I do not like this feeling, and so I pluck him out the fridge always, as soon as I can, before he can charm his way into this carton of blueberries, fuzzy with their own, coquettish fur. I put him down, trill at him, have him trill right back, and shut the door. He goes to sleep in a perfect cursive. His eyes shut, impossibly. He loses his charge so easily.

* And isn’t it horrifying that it is always running, running, running, always chilling, just in case we may need one thing or another from it at any moment? Have you ever seen the back of a fridge? Have you ever felt the heat it exchanges at its back doors? Have you run your hands over the enormous swaddled pipes, like the legs of divers, the fins and panniers and heatsinks and gills? There isn’t a worse appliance in the house. It is doing it even right in this moment! Straining! Sweating! I hate it!

Ffu –

Bioshock Audio Diary

It would be very easy, if a little odd, to begin this piece with some final remarks; certainly far easier than dreaming up some opening words of my own. The done thing is to lead with a quote from somebody else, centred on the page like a cartouche. It’s a reassuring start, to have another person go before you and pharmaceutically compact whatever it is you’re about to spend 3,000 words discussing into something elegant and digestible. However using a person’s last ever words, what they choose or do not choose to say in the final, rattle-to-a-halt moments of their life, has an altogether different effect.

Now, this might be a mite awkward, but I’m desperate to start as I mean to go on; that is, profoundly. And where better to find profundity but in the dying words of some of the finest examples of public humanity from history? Even a very brief prescription from the Internet provides me with no shortage of options.

Hold still, and swallow. They may be big names, but they’ll go down without any trouble.

“Et tu, Brute?”
Julius Caesar (probably apocryphal)

“Kiss me, Hardy.”
Admiral Horatio Nelson (probably apocryphal)

“One of us must go.”
Oscar Wilde (attributed, probably apocryphal)

You might think that it’s a bit parasitical of me, perhaps even disrespectful, to hijack the immortalities of these noble, unforgettable men, in those long-gone moments as ignoble and mortal as veal, but rhetorically it’s a safe bet. Last words, especially those uttered by the historically surveilled, frequently mean more to us than any of the millions that they spoke beforehand; at the countless breakfasts, wars and podiums throughout their lifetimes. Their quotidian wisdoms are treated quite roughly, back when everything is good and their hearts are healthy and there isn’t a single shadow on their stomachs; they are dislocated into paperbacks or poetry or blog columns or, for the most part, ignored entirely. But when the final moment comes (and it is too late for anything else) we record whatever they say fetishistically onto the populist imagination, whether it is controversial or meaningless or useful or transcendent.

I think that this impulse might find its cause in the marine survivals of our brains; those wibbly bulbs and leftover nodules which, when we were just flotillas of cells in need of teeth or horns or bioelectricity, used to warn us where the shadow of a ichthyosaur ended and the light from the surface began. It certainly does seem that, as organisms, we are far more concerned with the borders, or termini, than with the content of a thing. There is an importance attached to beginnings and endings that has migrated from those primitive flight responses and into our dramatic apparatus, those misunderstood amygdalae which help us to appreciate good stories.

The first words of our narratives, of a person’s life, are harder to dramatise, as we have a raft of unrealistic expectations and little to compare them to. Still we search for something gnostic in the ‘Dada’ or ‘Plop Plop’ of a toddler, and judge her accordingly. When that toddler moves on from the admittedly-rich ‘Plop Plop’ material and becomes a celebrated activist, for example, and her words become countless, and she is hale and wealthy in partners and goes to live by a lake we still celebrate her words, albeit with less granularity – there are just too many of them. And if that activist falls down while buying flowerpots aged 88 and the passerby who holds her head, as light as a tulip, hears her say ‘Winchester’, and feels that head grow ever so slightly lighter, that one word completes the loop all the way back to ‘Plop Plop’, and its oracular qualities; her two best pieces of work, in the eyes of the world.

The importance of these first and last words is largely defined by how society, at least some society, views the twinned acts of birth and death. While many of us do not explicitly believe in reincarnation there has often been an unspoken sense of transition, of transference, rather than finality, during these life-events; a change in geography, in mode of transport, rather than a line ending or beginning. The dying or borning person is osmosised, with some atoms in this world and some in whatever turgid, crisp landscape comes next or came before. This is perhaps why we listen to the dying especially, as we might sonar, echo-locating for some insight. Like peering up into the lantern of an Unorthodox church, we squint into the apertures the departing make with their words, hoping to catch a glimpse of blue sky beyond.

Of course, not everything about last words is celestial, forever floating off from us; they have a tendency, as well, to root the dying to our world, and to us. They can be intensely carnating, transmuting history’s polished figurines, those who we are only ever encountering rendered in marble on museum staircases, into a softer, myrrhic squish, part of the same tapenade of personhood as ourselves. Whatever the material or accomplishment of the person who utters them, last words often characterise and make vulnerable, denuding those we never even thought of as having bare skin. Caesar, for example, felt betrayed, as we all have, and probably died with a lump in his throat and a turd in the chamber as he tried not to cry; Freud just wanted the curtains shut, as the light was hurting his human, human eyes; countless others have lost their historical composure, the manners and vestments and right sort of shoes which place them on the guest-list for exclusive encyclopedias, and instead call for their mothers, a glass of water, or just a diagnosis. Their achievements are forgotten, and they become just another bin of nerve endings, knotted and stanky, which in that moment is tipping, farting, bubbling, sphincting, pouring away.

Of course, the imperative to marble, the need to make these figures statuesque and public-domain, cannot be put off for long, and these last few words, these self-written panegyrics, are always in the end co-opted by the utterer’s estate, politicised and mythologised to serve their burgeoning logo. This is especially true of suicide notes, a special sort of last statement which can play havoc with the precious commodity of a celebrity’s public frontage, especially if they were not known for their pith or their mental illness. Even spoken epithets can prove troublesome to the marketing; take Nelson’s last words, most likely misquoted at the beginning of this essay. For much of recent history, ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ was altered to ‘Kismet, Hardy’, kismet being a Turkish word meaning’ fate’. This clumsy switcheroo ignored the fact that ‘Kismet’ did not enter English usage until thirty years after Nelson’s death. It is likely that Nelson’s sacrosanct words, rather than being misheard, were altered on purpose; the man’s useful martyrdom to the red-blue-and-white-blooded Jack-brand of England was undermined, in the eyes of patriots who like to quote him, by their misgivings about where exactly Hardy was going to kiss Horatio.

In this stonemasonry of history, chiselling out all of these useful personalities, it perhaps would not have mattered much if Nelson’s words had been changed, for they were never meant to be answered, or questioned, or refuted. For all their political power, last words are not part of a conversation with these people; they belong to the same oratorical family as the eulogy, the father of the bride’s speech and other phatic communications; they exclude all information in favour of self-promotion, remaining unquestioned and performative, the audience deadened by the notion of ‘respect’. Once performed, they cannot be impeached, or broken into; they may as well be chiselled in stone underneath their speaker’s busts, part of their unchanging character, a character they have always played in the ongoing bill of our culture.

When we look at final words in this way, then, it is entirely unsurprising that videogames rely upon them so heavily to solve their own problems of characterisation. In fact, it is only with the rise of interactive art such as games, art meant to simulate a living space, that we have even had to think about characters in this same way, as living and unpredictable. With painting, writing, sculpture and other forms, what is presented is in some way a mausoleum of ideas, in the most respectful sense; a diorama of thoughts already thought, conclusions already reached, arranged for appreciation like skulls in an ossuary, the flesh long-sloughed, can become chandeliers or retaining walls with a little mortar and lateral thinking. Certainly, I have written about the interactive power of all art elsewhere, but it remains the case that on the page, the canvas or the digital stock, traditional art relies on the events of its narratives being done with, long before the audience comes by in their present to appreciate what remains; what is left picturesque, and sublime, now that everything has been finished. It is in this way no coincidence that most of our stories, in one way or another, begin with ‘A long, long time ago’.

The promise of videogames especially is to move away from such static, historically-dictated structures. We believe, perhaps a little naively, that the barrier between the audience and the artist, the character and the player, the speaker of last words and the mourner by the bedside can be removed entirely. We hope that we might take up a role in something living and unmythologised and still-changing, where the pithy phrases have not been coined just yet, and the words, the good and the bad, the memorable and the ordinary, are still being spoken and influenced by our presence in the story; that the stories themselves might be told later, with ourselves a part of them. But there is a struggle with this new paradigm, ranging across the realms of stay-at-home coders and the centuries of designers in the larger companies. Despite the potential and investment in the medium, these artists cannot depart from cultural imperative; they are intelligent, rarefied human beings who read books and watch many films and learnt the trade of story and worldbuilding through such prisms. They have spent their lives walking, hats in hands respectfully, through a marble, busted landscape of those who went before, uninteractive, holy statements written everywhere, on every surface.

It is not only philosophical problems they face, either, but computational ones; creating any being from scratch, one which has at its disposal even a finite variety of reactions to any situation, requires at the very least a rough simulation of a personality, and this has very, very rarely been done well. On a handful of occasions, perhaps.

And so we come to the current, halfway exercise, one which remains, at its heart, dead.

Let’s sit down to play a game. Almost any big one released in recent years will do. The environment loads up around you, one that is superficially inviting and full of winkling holes. However, this construction is almost always less vital than it looks, flatter, more referential than representational; these lands in which you love to tread are lands of symbols, of caryatids and atlantids lovingly copied from reality but still mute and solid through. As a player, you are told by scattered murals, cunning furniture and designed avenues that people once lived here, but are now evacuated or murdered. You creep through biospheres, meticulously simulated with a healthy understanding of how rocks might erode, though often they are devoid of predator or prey. The player especially is isolated from any richness in this ecosystem, other than in a linear snakes-and-ladders of a virtual food chain. There may be characters living in front of you with whom you may speak and interact, but this interaction is perfunctory to such characters as environment, part of the larger environment that holds hegemony over your experience. Neither you, nor these companions, have much chance of changing this environment; it is heavy with the feeling of a public museum, a place where everything has already happened and been said, where velvet ropes segregate you from the dynamism, and your only role is that of a tourist, or at best an archaeologist, reading their parting statements.

This does not describe nearly every game, but it is coming to describe more and more; especially those with larger budgets and larger ambitions, though the indies have not solved this problem either. Of all the tomb paraphernalia that these games employ, of all the formats that such last words can take, the audio diary is the current, duogenerian favourite; consisting of collectible widgets scattered throughout the gameworld, devices onto which the world’s inhabitants have recorded their dying breaths, the motif shows little sign of the self-reflexive mockery that game designers and game players have started to enact with other, insomniac features such as in-game graffiti. The audio diary began, as far as limited research can tell, with the Shock dynasty of roleplaying games, and has irrigated into more-recent, lauded examples such as Dishonored, the latter-day Fallouts, Alien: Isolation and the Dead Space series, games universally marketed as possessing an in-world rich, elegiac and open to interpretation. For these, and many other games being released now, the audio diary becomes the current vogue of ‘environmental storytelling’, a greased wheel on which to deliver some life into these arrested places.

So often the feeling when exploring these gamespaces is that of viewing an impressive diorama. There is a sense of simulacrum, of isolation from the events which shaped these arenas so long before you arrived. Of course, with the audio diary your loneliness is accompanied by simultaneous commentary, like those cumbersome talking guides that you are lent when visiting a national monument, explaining why everything went so mournful. While such pathos is no mean theme for any piece of art, it is becoming the sole subject that ‘artistic’ or ‘atmospheric’ or ‘narrative’ games can deploy. It seems then that such gamespaces, with the story distributed neatly throughout their dimensions in compartmentalised, canopic packets, are really just collections of last words; dropped about the topography and substituting statuary for character, sarcophagi for real people. What is more, the glimpses of the story which such diaries provide pay little homage to the fact that these recordings were made in the environment by limited yet dynamic individuals; when the player comes across them, most often in the location where the narrator lost their lives, blunt, silly crags of story fall out of them, stonking great obvious fistfuls of archetypes and clanging plot development that are often clumsy or hopelessly troped.

If we take Bioshock to be the most modern and accepted foothold of this device, I can defend its use; in that game the city of Rapture’s death, its stillness when compared with the occasional mushroomed bursts of violence and nonsense was mechanically and narratively apropos, embodied by the almost-glossolalia which the game’s main enemies, the Adam-addled Splicers, raspberried into your ear just coherent enough to make you feel sorry for them. The audio diaries in Bioshock, identically-modelled tape recorders (or, rather, mass-produced as part of the communal product line in the otherwise neoliberal Rapture), could be explained away in their ubiquity and convenient placement. It stood to reason that in a world that once held so much sense, the only way to navigate it would be by the final words of its once-sensible inhabitants. The appearance of each recorder, when found, was subliminally comforting, the sound of a measured human voice wonderful after so much wandering alone. The characters on the recordings were fleeting and incarnated just like Caesar and his blubbing; even if the words weren’t truly the character’s last, and they went on living after the recording was made, in a world enacted by the player’s attention, they may as well have died as soon as the recording ended. Indeed, some of Rapture’s long-dead inhabitants were solely developed through a succession of fragments, cunningly landscaped across the player’s path. Most, however, were fragmented and Jurassic, and like palaeontologists finding only a shard of an archaeopteryx in a valley wall we the players extrapolated everything, constructing a Dramatis Personae for ourselves. We did not need to meet these people; they came pre-assembled by the history around them and the circumstances in which time had left them. These were the last words of Bioshock’s world, as pure as any else in our culture, and it did not matter to us that we did not get a say in crafting them.

Like so much of Bioshock, this was a clever solution to a fundamental burden of games design. Living humans are difficult to render or artifice, and so by making them former, unacquaintable figures of a history, they take on all those benefits of the dying breath of the celebrity; knowable and human, yet removed from the interaction of the game, politicised out of being individuals and into the public domain of Rapture’s themes themselves.

Out from Bioshock, though, it seems we have not found a different way to do things, and so instead we ape and we ape and we ape. We have taken this audio-diary-as-inscription to the extreme, entirely divorcing the marriage of mechanic and metaphor that it once represented and turning it, instead, into punctuation, a sigil that indoctrinated players will recognise and disregard as standing for something more complex.

Even in Rapture, the content of these recordings do not always represent last words in their intricacy and ambivalence; they often have convenient context, and a conventional, prosaic structure, so that instead of burbled thoughts, gasping weakness, or even just the intestinal grumblings of a human being in a moment, what we are instead given is little different from paragraphs in a textbook, clinically detached from their surround; this character fully explained Randian determinism before dying, that character made a clumsy, Chekhovian gunshot before she ran away, nullifying any ambiguity or mystery in the room in which her words are found. The language these characters use in their last moments is that of an author, a director, a spin-doctor, treating the plot as press-release, as viral marketing to the theme. Human beings do not truly speak in that way.

The aping has abstracted even further, so that our response to these devices is not surprise or delight but instead Pavlovian expectation, as phatic and unargumentative as the words themselves. Many games seem infested with nooks and crannies, incomprehensible sewers and alcoves, built not because of geographical accident or storied reason but because these are the places where audio diaries should be found. We are expected to act as if coming across these hideyholes is a Zen-act of realisation, as if we were not already actively searching for these places because we know that they are the only locales where we will find anything human in these totalitarian, happened worlds. Some games even remove the notion of chance altogether and simply tell you, by means of a counter, how many more last words you still have to collect. Not unlike Nelson and his kisses, the fact of these character’s last words have been co-opted, levered in to filibust a solution. They are no longer warming or relatable, elegant or humanising. They are just another asset, just another mechanic to be grokked.

What brought about this lambast in the first instance was a website that I discovered a few years ago, far from any signposted niche or filter bubble of my usual browsing. I cannot remember how I found it; I did not Stumbleupon it, algorithmically. I have decided not to link to it, to honour this happenstance, but it is still out there, as far as I know. What this website represented to me, however crudely or categorically, was how we parse this phenomenon of last words within our society. It was named Last Words, and it was a crumbling Geocity, a remnant of a time a long, long time ago when websites were personal, matte, twinkling lists of links, and Lycos still had a shiny coat, and it was a simple thing to come across these shrines to one person’s interest, unannounced, in your wanderings.

The website was a subsidiary of a larger domain called Planecrashinfo, which trod a fine line between encyclopaedic and symphorophiliac; every publicly-known aviation disaster throughout history, military and civilian catalogued minutely. No engine was too underpowered, no crew too small, no crash site too remote to be included. As I scrolled down the list the causes of these tragedies blurred into a greypoint mix of formerly-innocuous words

windrainsnowhumanerrorhumanerrorwindwindfogfogfogfogfog

which started to make me feel a little bilious.

There were some pictures, but not many. There were some famous incidents, though most had not even made the news, as far as I could tell. I think, when you totted up the casualty lists, that the total number of dead in these events ranged into the tens of thousands. Here was the banality of death, a screaming and smoking spreadsheet far removed from the bedbound, Homeric platitudes of all those famous last words. The final moments of those ten thousands, their legacies, have gone unknown, drowned out inside the thrumming, whirring blenders that those planes became as they fell out of the sky, all pureed instantly. Whatever they were, I’m sure that they did not reveal much plot, or resolve any tension, or hint at the ineffable, or have the whole thing make sense in the third act. I imagine, instead, confusion, cowardice, a mite of bravery, and possibly a very real embarrassment.

It was while browsing Planecrashinfo that I found the link to Last Words, and saw it for what it was; the pinnacle of this entire, accumulative, voyeuristic exercise. The author, and I the audience, were little different from the player-character in our games collecting their tapes. The website took advantage of a narrative peculiarity in the aeronautics industry, separate from other, less-chronicled modes of transportation; planes are amongst the only public vehicles which contain within their fabric the ability to write their own epitaph, to speak their final bit, if something does go wrong. Through the principles of the black box, and the evidence of those final transmissions to whichever clerical, benedictine air traffic controller was within broadcast range at the time, this website meticulously recorded the last words from each of these planes, all the screaming, pleading, unknown humanity in the main cabin behind filtered and interpreted and smoothed through the one or two voices elected to speak for them in such a situation; those of the pilot and co-pilot.

When I visited Last Words there were perhaps twenty or thirty entries on this website, the carriers involved in the disasters ranging truly international from Air France to United Express to AeroPeru. Some only had a typed transcript attached, though always helpfully translated into 11-point English from the original, hollering tongue. Some, though I have no idea how, had the actual recordings available for download. And like any good, indoctrinated collector of stories, any game player who finds the artificial little alcove where the secrets are stored, I sat down, clicked play, waited for the crackle, and started to half-listen as I got on with something else. I was making a salad, I think.

After not very long I stopped trimming lettuce and frying croutons, and started to really listen, and to read the transcripts properly, giving myself up to the mode, and I started to cry. Expectedly, nothing like a girl’s blouse. I have only ever cried at media like that once before, when I watched the trailer for a documentary on intensive pig farming which finally sent me vegetarian. I listened to these men, almost all men in this stupid world, these professional pilots in starched white shirts and with voices like kindly grandfathers as they lived out their last seconds of life on the job. Some of the recordings are minutes long, a creeping degradation in altitude, a worsening rattling that, in the end, simply unclips the left wing like a gate latch and kills them all. It takes some of them a long time to realise what is happening. Some of them make brief pleas for help to the air traffic controller in a strangled jargon of metres-per-second. One pilot laughs when he realises what comes next; another just states ‘That’s it, I’m dead.’ Every recording ends abruptly in static, and I almost laughed myself at how troped that has become.

It was very clear to me after this encounter how dishonest we have been in valuing last words as they really are; that is, as the product of a flawed machine, a disaster, a body unprepared to take a breath and say something lasting, something that kerns well on a cenotaph. Some of those cenotaphed greats with which I began this essay have hinted at this biological, human urgency in their last recordings; consider Goethe’s “mehr licht!” (more light!) and Richard Nixon’s simple, adorable “Help”. However, we will never allow such men, the very currency of history, to die saying something so ordinary or honest; I have seen other, ‘wiser’ words attached to them, as if they had had the time and forethought and organisation to start writing second drafts. These are most likely false as well, their actual last words even less literary.

Even if they are honest and mortal, last words are too privileged, too manufactured, too weighty in the balance of a person’s life, and nowhere more so than in videogames. Our current industry practice of moulding our character’s entire selves in a few snatched, unrealistic moments of dialogue has become the default solution to a pressing and ever-growing problem: how do we reveal our characters, and keep them authored and manageable, when the precepts of the medium requires that the players interact, trample, troll, be disobedient? This solution enforces respect and distance in order to make the gameworld a dead one, a memento mori with all the life in the past tense. The characters are remembered by the things they did and the things that they uttered as they passed from view, and any act of rebellion that we might wish to begin is neutered. Overusing the ruth of the well-placed audio diary, as we do now, makes games into parodies of themselves, politically-expedient and prepared statements rather than troublesome playgrounds or forums for debate. There are horrific obstacles to building living characters, to making them answerable and discursive, making their flaws and contradictions and unheroics apparent and manipulable to the player. But the solution we have engendered is to rely, instead, on the static roominess of environment, of world, the illusion of choice in navigating it and giving every story we have to that environment; an act of landscaping designed to make everything look as natural and emergent as possible. The artificial audio diary must have less presence in a medium which has such drive to be organic.

I do understand how far we are from adopting such a drive fully. It is easy to sit here being churlish about how some of gaming’s best characters exist after the fact, in correspondence, and how if we ever meet them at all they are so very often disappointing; much the same way, I imagine, that Freud or Wilde or Nelson might have been, if we had been there as they passed away. The audio diary, and last words, will have to do the narrative job that they have always done for just a little while longer; perhaps, however, we might have a compromise for now. If we do have to wait to get to know our characters a little better, and have our questions of them answered, to impeach as we have always wished, perhaps we can treat their memorials, their last words, with a little more honesty and thought. The audio diary should be more like the black box and less like the paean, an honest and unedited accident of circumstance which stands for a person more completely in its mundanity, its relatability and what goes unsaid than a tacky memorial. I have lost faith in those big, important words that I used to begin this essay, and I might be better served if I close it with something more banal and terribly, terribly sad.

“Unload it, unload it-”
First Officer of IAI 1124A Westwind, November 8th 2002

“Let’s do like this-”
Co-Pilot of Birgen Air Flight 301, February 6th 1994

“Ffu-”
Passenger in Seat 5, Row D, Air Canada Douglas DC-8, July 5th 1970 (attributed)

Returning On The 17th June

hadrians wall

I shall be going to my own personal sort of Gap, all sycamoreish and lonely. I won’t be available in any format.

In the meantime, there is a short, glacial period in which you can still book your tickets for Crossroads Of Curiosity, the festival of derivation at the British Library of which I’m a part.

Enjoy your weeks.

The Uncomfortable Gaze #6

uncomfortable gaze 6

She might have been a councilwoman; she had a municipal look to her.

It has now been a span of many years, at least several, and I have forgotten everything about her from the head down. I think that she was large, but I have forgotten. I think that she was pale-skinned and mole-filled, but I have forgotten. I have forgotten where I saw her, who she was with, what her hands were doing, and what she wore. Above her all, extending past her actual limits like a gillie, camouflaging whatever there was below her neck, hung her head, to all appearances on top of nothing. I don’t even remember her face or neck or ears all that well, because it was her hair which made me notice her and keep her. It has been a canoptic sort of relationship; I have removed the extraneous material from her, and kept only what is necessary to write about her now, as a fleeting glimpse. I think that if she were to read these statements about herself, she would laugh and be worried.

Whatever else I lay over her and under her when I glanced at her, all those several years ago, her hair was cut into a winged bob, tipped like a sphinx and high-buzzed at the back, and its lower third had been dip-dyed the streaked crimson of fresh muscle or a changed bed, and in seeing that, and coveting it enough to remember it, to annihilate the rest of her, rather than camouflage her, I have used her. Her hair, devoid of the rest, has become a tool hung, ready to have roles ascribed to it, uses and totems and reductions and essences. I am ashamed of myself, and apologise to her here, for finding no use for her for so long that I have forgotten the rest of my Gaze, for keeping her bottled for so long without her knowledge. I apologise to all the others, as well, but she will stand as their symbol, even if in making her so, and in hearing such an apology, she would roll her eyes, vape and go straight back to her spreadsheets.

A Candlelit Beckoning

I will be installing myself, entirely announced, at the British Library’s Crossroads of Curiosity event on Saturday 20th June, in which the Library will descend from the top stair to join the more adult architectures of London in staying up very, very late. Until at least eleven!

The event is to celebrate the launch of David Normal’s lightbox installations, originally exhibited in a place much in need of patterned light: the Nevadan desert, and Burning Man festival. David used thousands of public domain images from the Library’s collections to create his work, and the Library has taken the opportunity to celebrate all those artists, like myself, who have used its collections to inform, inspire and construct their own output. There will be talks, art installations, performances and music by DJ Yoda, a man who I apparently once saw at university and adored.

I’ve already had to write some bumf for the event, so in the spirit of it all allow me a little paste:

As part of our Crossroads Of Curiosity event, one of the Library’s most curious recent denizens will be joining us on the evening of 20th June; Interactive-Writer-in-Residence Rob Sherman.

A writer, musician, multimedia artist, games designer and ‘world-builder’, Rob spent six months creating the beginnings of an intricate, satirical and fantastical ‘alternate history’ for our exhibition about polar exploration, Lines In The Ice. From handbound, hand-aged diaries to reworked traditional shanties, from secret computers to fake artefacts, Rob used many different mediums and technologies to weave together the life of Isaak Scinbank, a forgotten (and entirely fictional) Arctic explorer in a sprawling collection of works called On My Wife’s Back.

Rob will be hosting one of his ‘holistic exhibitions’, first held at the Library during his residency. He will be curating and constructing his own corner of the festival, mixing the artefacts, writings and ephemera of both himself and his characters, with little distinction between the two. Come and visit Rob to ask him questions, peruse Scinbank’s belongings and his own, explore digital maps and objects, and watch Rob at work at his recreated ‘resident’s desk’, as well as submitting your own ideas, suggestions, criticisms and even belongings to the narrative of On My Wife’s Back; Rob promises that everything will be considered.

Rob will also be performing, and contextualising, new, reworked and traditional songs from his residency at scheduled times throughout the evening.

Look for me in the Last Word Cafe in the Piazza, lighting candles, huffing mould, and curating a peaceful little shelter in the midst of all this genius.

[Tickets]

The Black Crown Project Is Inhuming

black crown project offline

On Saturday, there was a peep on the Failbetter Games forums, from the moderator Flyte, to the effect that The Black Crown Project, my rather excessive, microbial, non-epic, cough-em-up, text adventure shenanigan, published by Random House, would be taken offline entirely on 31st October 2014. It has taken me a little bit longer than Flyte to respond to this news, and I can only apologise for that. I suppose my first response is to the initial comment underneath Flyte’s post, by a Failbetter forum user named Rupho Schartenhauer. It reads, “Well, I certainly won’t miss it.”

That’s a shame, Rupho Schartenhauer. I will.

Now, I’m doing my usual trick of burying the actual semes of what I am saying within a lot of asemes, so I’ll put the gist of this post out on its own, with slightly more pointed lettering, if you are only here for the grave information.

The Black Crown Project will be taken offline entirely on 31st October 2014.

– The main game, as of writing playable through the link above, will cease to function. Apparently the URL, still maintained by Random House, will redirect to my home domain, Bonfire Dog, for the moment. 

 

– I am not certain what will happen to the Miasmas, the three-dimensional, browser-based manipulable objects which were vital appendages to the main narrative. However, as they are currently hosted by Failbetter Games, and tied into their API, I doubt that they will continue to function in any meaningful way. 

 

– All Living Stories, Social Acts and Access Codes will no longer function, and all character information, including names and qualities, will be inaccessible. 

 

– The community forum, source of so much utterly-necessary slashing, will also be taken offline, and user accounts rendered unusable. 

 

– The Tumblr blog will continue to be hosted until Tumblr itself erodes into silica, and will serve as a hub for any new developments with The Black Crown Project itself. The blog will, however, be reformatted from an active commonplacing of the project into an archive of what we all once saw. I will continue to sporadically reblog and read all material produced on the platform related to the project. 

 

– The wiki, foetal but fingernailed by ____Clerk____ Vael, will remain, unless he himself decides to delete it. All content produced by him, including original summaries of my work, belongs to him.

 

– The various ghostwritten documents, produced as parcel of the main project, will continue to be hosted on Amazon, the Tumblr page and anywhere else they can be found. 

 

This decision was one that I, Random House and Failbetter Games had to make, after a not-insignificant amount of time, concerning the project’s future. Though I am saddened, in ways that I will always find difficult to articulate, that The Black Crown Project will no longer be playable in any meaningful form, it is a decision which I was made fully part of, consulted upon, and endorse. I will miss it (Rupho), but I understand why it is disappearing below some ground.

Despite all appearance to the contrary, text adventures like Black Crown are not free to run. The hosting costs are, for a company like Random House, minimal, and would never have been a problem had we built the game on a platform which Random House owned and had developed themselves. But, as was very public, this was not the case. We partnered with Failbetter Games, and Popleaf Games, to devivsect an original story in an original corpus: facilitated, edited and promoted with Random House’s skill and experience, enlivened with Popleaf Game’s visceral flair, and skinned with Failbetter Games’ Storynexus platform, a platform which had been developed and iterated upon many times already to become an excellent tool for making branching text narratives.

However, to state that Failbetter Games was merely a ‘skinner’ would be highly insulting, and a little disgusting. I consider all of the people working at that company to be my friends and teachers. In particular, Alexis, Paul, Henry and Liam listened to my ideas with patience, interpreted them by pen, code and design and with clarity, speed and always their own deviations.

Most importantly, along with Dan Franklin, Harriet Horobin-Worley and many others at Random House, as well Berbank and Jon at Popleaf, these people taught me how to make The Black Crown Project. This is an important point, and easily overlooked. I was never entirely sure how I would actually create this thing that I had so smugly proposed and wheedled into the shockingly receptive halls of Random House. As will never not be the way with fiction, the form and process of the thing became entirely apparent by the end, with the help of everybody else. Failbetter Games rebuilt their engine to make Black Crown look and function the way it has now for a year, and will continue to for another month. They provided endless stress-testing, and links into their API for the content outside of Storynexus such as the Miasma objects. They, and everybody else, offered Skype connectivity, English words, walks, warm liquid, large windows in their offices out of which to stare, and always, always their support.

The Black Crown Project was my first professional piece, and I’ve admitted to many people that it was a difficult one to finish. For a variety of reasons, including my own weaknesses, it made me undyingly ill, both physically and mentally, and pushed my personal relationships to the brink of something unspeakable. I asked too much of myself, and everybody around me. But everybody around me helped to make something which, despite its flaws, its shudderings and hedgerow transparency, seems to have given a lot of you joy, sadness and an experience which, I now feel comfortable saying, is still completely unique.

Unfortunately, despite the endless charity which was given to me, none of the companies involved are charities themselves. Failbetter Games is a company who are expanding in all the ways which they have worked for and deserve, and maintaining Black Crown, with its ring-fenced code, unique features and separate, demanding bug queue, is not something which they have time or money to do. It is the same with the others. No more money can be spent on something which refuses to produce much in return.

It is no great shame or secret that Black Crown was not a successful project financially. The amount of speculation, trust and liberalism that went into its production unearthed a distinct optimism in me. I have been shamed by everybody’s behaviour and professionalism, and continue to be today. My Great Thanks stands as a headstone to this. But taking all such things into account, it remains a simple fact that Black Crown was an experiment in creativity and commerce, in which I believe I delivered on the former but not the latter. In its current incarnation, Black Crown will not make any of us any more money. It is not a populist piece, and the economics do not stand up. I stand by the decision made, and will defend it.

However, this does not mean that I am not bereft, and upset for those of you who still play the game. I have been constantly touched, in the manner of a stingray in an open pool, by the magnaminity, individual creativity and vociferousness of every fan. There have been songs written, art made, light-lighting slash fiction released. There have been long discussions on the nature of my work which, rather than superciliously detaching myself from, I have engaged with as a fan of my own work. Every single ___clerk___ inside The Black Crown Project no longer has to wonder about designations. All of you may curl your fingers (and no thumbs) in and over the pain; you have reached the ____highest rank____.

Now that I have been nice to everybody who deserves it, some business regarding things to come.

One of the prerequisites of taking Black Crown offline was that the entire archive of assets, from qualities to storylets to artwork, was backed up and maintained in a readable format by Random House. The actual logistics of this are still being decided, but rest assured that everything will still exist, de-articulated. The way to put them back together might rely entirely on what winters inside my own skull, but have some faith. I once drove to Devon with a concussion. It will be safe.

As to what happens with the Project afterwards, and in the coming whatevers, this remains to be seen. As many of you have been promised by email, I was not finished with the work by half; there was more artwork to come, more of the Eremite’s ephemera, hundreds of tweaks, clarifications and new storylines, as well as the digitised diaries of one Mr. Oscar Parlay, master of the Suite. I have not forgotten about these promises, but I cannot tell you how they will be realised.

Random House is still very interested in the IP, to use the lingo and never again, as am I. More importantly, I am interested in seeing the work in its current iteration, with my poetry and prose and song and artwork and weaknesses and failings, released anew so that people can continue to play it if they so wish. I have been toying with the idea of converting the entire project into a Twine game, a free, open-source software with which I have been gaining literacy through my work with the charity Shelter UK. Many of the original features of The Black Crown Project, if not all of them, can be replicated within the Twine code. Porpentine has helped me with this, inadvertently. However, this conversion would be a fairly daunting undertaking, one which I cannot personally afford at the moment without some form of reimbursement. There are other options, perhaps, but before anything is decided pens need to be twirled, windows need to be looked out of, lunches need to be eaten, and talks need to be had.

For the moment, I am working on several new projects, only one of which has been announced. Until Feburary I am the British Library’s Interactive-Fiction-Writer-In-Residence, which is extremely unwieldy but also exciting, like a bastard sword tanged with Aurora Borealis. I will be attached to the Lines in the Ice exhibition, which details the Victorian quests to snap through the Northwest Passage over Canada, and the resultant heroism, pathetic nonsense, cannibalism, love and hideousness that this all entailed. I’ll be creating original artworks inspired by my reading and research at the library, and what I have planned has a lot, perhaps too much, in common with The Black Crown Project. However, it might interest some of those that are reading this send-off. I will be physically at the Library for many drop-in sessions and events, and so do follow my progress on the official research blog.

Well, that’s it, really. I’m devastated but determined that the two years of work, entirely unequatable, is not lost entirely. You now have about 25 days to play as much of the game as you might like, and save any artwork, screenshots or copied text to your hard drive before the earth goes over it, and it sinks into a form which is not retrievable. I will potter about it, for as long as I can, and answer any further questions you have via email, but please do keep them brief. I’ve gravetending to be doing.

I used to sign off my Black Crown blog posts, and forum posts, with a twattish, capitalised Yorkshire shepherding pidgin which was the voice of the Hogherd, my semi-divine administrator character within the game. I always felt that I was insulting somebody, inadvertently, when I did it, and I’m not really sure if it was as haunting as it was meant to sound.

 

HYAAAA HYAAAAAAAAAAAAA HYYAAAA COOM BY COOOM BY

COOOMMM HYAAAAYHAYA

COOM DOON

COOMNN

NNN

On My Wife’s Back

On My Wife's Back

My residency at the British Library, attached as a tug to the upcoming exhibition on the Franklin expedition and the search for the Northwest Passage, now has a title, which is helping to rein in all my calving thoughts.

It will be called On My Wife’s Back, and I hope that you will follow my progress over the coming months as I try to pull something Shermanish from all the fervent, hushly white mythology that surrounds the Franklin and Arctic exploration in general.

Above is its logo, of sorts, in the original Greek sense. This title, this logo and its themes, will encompass what is looking to be a pretty bastard variety of new work, from writing to art to music to essay to video to hardware, and from now all news to do with the residency, including all of the material that I will release, will be found on my research Tumblog. There’s nothing much there at the moment, but I’m sure something will bob up soon.

In the meantime, I do hope that you’ll come to the Library and see me, gloaming through the Rare Books Reading Room, before the exhibition itself, ‘Lines In The Ice’, starts in November.

A Glut Of Cravats

A painting representing the doomed Franklin expedition.

A tiny party of you might have been looking over my blog and website for the past few months a little worriedly, wondering where I’ve got to. Of course, things are happening, behind the sub-domains. There’s a sort of rumbling, huffing squawk that you’ll sometimes hear, and occasional gouts of hot breath that you can see rising into the air More than anything, you might have seen a certain aesthetic emerging. White on white, with little dashes of red. The pattern of snow, on every stylesheet, forming a sort of Arctic hoarding while I get on behind the skeines, carving this website into some sort of order.

I don’t even like snow very much. It’s a folksy sort of acid, charming the feet off your ankles, making pressings of all your nerves, and causes great, cheery delays on the trains running into London, which struggle at the best of times with the maelstrom of slight damp, fallen foliage and teenagers pushing each other off the platforms.

However, I’ve chosen it as my new digital camouflage because it has a nice obliteration to it. It’s the colour of the internet, anyway, and I thought that, rather than get all clever with my hex codes and background images, that I would just choose something for my blog that represented the medium in which I’m choosing to write. The web, hungry for anything, ready to obliterate at the slightest mistake in one’s syntax. It’s a lot like snow, isn’t it? So inviting, but so horribly judgemental.

It’s appropriate, also, for my next piece of art, the funding for which I have just found out, this week, is migrating over to me for the winter. For the past five months, as well as fannying with HTML and doing some sort of job in the daytime, I’ve been making applications. Overusing words such as ‘institution’, ‘pedagogic’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Philip’, drawing up Gannt charts, paring down to word limits (you must know how that hurts me). I was hunting for money, for support, for funding, but all of this pairing and peeling and stitching of words and chart-making put me in mind of preparing for a sea voyage. Admittedly, I’ve never taken a sea voyage, not outside a ferry, and I suspect that I’d find it horrible, but I’m still enough of a quivering, genteel mast of glycerine to enjoy the metaphor.

And, it appears, that my funding application was watertight. We have our money. Our voyage is going ahead.

For the next five months I will be Writer-In-Residence at the British Library. Despite my lack of experience or sea legs, and my obvious weakness to scurvy, I will, after all, be the official artist to a sort of naval expedition, one that tacks back into the past, looking for long-lost sailors. In the Folio gallery, a meandering knock-hole underneath the escalators in the Library’s foyer, an exhibition is being put together. It will contain the Library’s collection of documents, personal effects and paraphernalia relating to the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin in 1845. Franklin was one of those longitudinally impossible men of 150 years ago who managed to be both Governor of Tasmania and a north polar explorer in his lifetime, though the latter was only by dint of all the other candidates being either too chilly-willy, too married or too Irish by half.

With two ships, the Erebus and the Terror (arrogant, tiny little ships, named for primordial horrors) Franklin set off with his crew and the blessings of the Admiralty to find the Northwest Passage, the mythic, ice-free trading route over Canada and down into the Pacific.

I don’t like to link to Wikipedia and be done with it, but in Franklin’s case it’s the only sensible thing to do.

Franklin was a much braver man than I am, but I do see parallels in our work. As an attaché to this exhibit, producing original artwork and writings relating to the Franklin voyage, and the subsequent attempts to find his vanished crew, I feel as scared as if I was about to take to the ocean. Throughout my applications for this position, I have been getting tongue-tied between the words ‘exhibition’ and ‘expedition’, and the gap between them has certainly shortened. Looking at the body of work in front of me, the amount of time and research that has gone into the Lines In The Ice exhibit, as it will be called, perhaps the practices are not so different, after all. As I sail through the Library’s archives, seeking the stories of Franklin’s adventures, the odds he and his crew faced, and how a great trooping line of subsequent explorers, down the years, have uncovered the sad tale of what happened to those several hundred men, their elderly commander, and their two malaprop vessels, I feel more and more like an icebreaker myself. My research will uncover documents forgotten for many years, and as my crew I will have the resident curators, bookbinders, scholars and excellent cooks that make up the Library’s staff. With them, I will discover terrific vistas, great pains, and create something entirely new to sit alongside these old, old log books and ship’s diaries, something which the public can enjoy until March, when winter is getting woolly, and the exhibition ends.

I am still working out what it is I want to do with my time at the library, but rest assured of the following:

– I will have my own cabinet in the exhibition, to fill with whatever I like;

– There were plenty of ideas that did not make it into The Black Crown Project, my last piece, which are due a stiff pint of sea breeze;

– I’ve stockpiled an awful lot of ship’s Twine for the task;

– You do not have to be with me aboard the British Library to participate, but I have been told that I make a charming mate in person.

There will be more details here and elsewhere when the charts have been finalised, the hull caulked, and we are ready to set sail. Once all this is in place, we’ll be heading out from Port St. Pancras, north and west, following the stars until the bend in the earth sunders them. We’ll be seeing what we can find in the lines in the ice. The British Library is an odd vessel to charter, shaped more like two steamer ships pulling perpendicular, and it has particular dearth of masts. Still, if you are interested, do come and join my crew.. The galley does a cracking doorstep sandwich.

And if you won’t be coming to join me, don’t cry, don’t send out search parties, and put the kettle on. I’ll only be months.

The Uncomfortable Gaze #5

pregnancy moment

I was at a variety gig some time ago, staged in an former keeper’s lodge at the gate to one of Britain’s less provincial towns. As well as feeling London like a shadow on the lung, I could taste the soap in my beer. The doorman wore tattoos like eczema at the corners of his lips. It wasn’t at home.

My opinion solidified after a few hours of awkward listing about the dance-floor, and resolved itself into the need to leave very quickly and get on a train. Unfortunately, the sprawl of the audience was, for some reason, centred on the only door, and nobody was intent on moving. The current band had been popular ten years before with a very slender wedge of humanity, and most of them were here tonight, being overwhelmed. The fact that I might want to leave was as inconceivable to them as museum lighting was to a pharaoh’s capstone. I had to squeeze around them, apologising.

However, in the centre of this static storm, unmoving and full of cardigans and Rorschachs of backsweat, I came to an impasse. The only way through to the door was between a ferociously nodding man and a pregnant woman, who stood sipping mango juice with her back against a wooden post.

I still feel awful about what followed, and I think that a large part of this guilt is due to my superstition, and the superstition of many, concerning pregnant women.
Most media that I can access portrays them as fecund, ripe, bountiful, Wildorf-esque beauties waiting for enlightenment to crown. And this woman was beautiful, blonde bobbed and florally dressed in blue, and she wore her bump less like a delicacy and more like a fuel tank, necessary for her extreme performance. I have been very unkind to her in the above drawing. She was nowhere near as monstruous as I have depicted her, but then, nobody is. She just terrified me.

What terrified me most was that apocalyptic fragility to her. I am an immeasurably clumsy man, my hands like combine harvesters with the pedals jammed, but even accounting for this I am surprised that pregnant women allow themselves out of the house. It seems to me that even walking, considering their payload, is like balancing a cascade of champagne flutes on aerosol spray. And there is such potential, with only a small mistake on the behalf of anybody encountering them, for such annihilating misery, such miscarriage, that I find it best to give them as wide a berth as possible.

I had a bag on my back, and I tried as best as I could to nudge the man in front out of the way, but he was too busy trying to emulate a twelve-stringed guitar with his one-stringed mouth. He pushed back. And so it was that I slammed, almost neatly, into her.

She gaped up at me betrayed, mouth sagging with implication. In my mind there was such a smoking, Biblical tower of sorrow in her, at the thought of what my clumsiness could do, that she transformed into this clenched, incandescent clump. Her hands went to her stomach and I almost vomited. I apologised as profusely as I could, gibbering over the violin solo. Two men beside her, who were not her friends but who felt out the roles that they must now perform, marshalled protectively, flanking her like Chinese lions outside a restaurant. I think one of them even bared his teeth, but if you asked him about that now, he might be embarrassed and feign all knowledge of it. We all get a little canine when the fundaments of life are involved.

After a while, or what must have been one-eightieth of a second, her anger turned to understanding, as she read the signs of her body as surely as her own handwriting. She knew that nothing had died, or gone moronic. I pinged out into the night, free of the trial, almost on the point of tears.

It is perhaps six months later, and I still think about that woman, and when I see somebody pregnant I instantly become aware of my tottering, unpredictable body, and my unaccountable limbs, and how they might, if I am not careful, inadvertently deconstruct a life. Sometimes I am angry at her, for not understanding that it was not my fault, and that it is difficult to for the rest of the crowd to maintain the aura around her when she stands in the thick of it like that. I then feel awful for being angry, of course, and go on avoiding women like her, dubbed numinous by society, and desperately safeguarded against people like me.

Bird Leg

burdaleg

A bird’s leg, 2014.

Grabby Jesus

Grabby Jesus

I spent an agreeable few hours in the National Gallery this afternoon, sketching instead of job-hunting. If it was not very racist, I would rank nationalities of tourists by their propensity to stand in front of the painting that I am sketching for a very long time, before practically mushing their wattles across my page to see if I can draw at all. It would be like an extremely passive-aggressive UN report.

I call this ‘Sleepy Jesus, Grabby Jesus, Aborted Hands, Heaney’s Dewlap, Sutherland’s Eye, Leigh’s Beauty.”

After spending a large amount of time very close to it, I think that Vivien Leigh’s eye and its environs might be the most perfect example of matter yet in existence. A prime piece of God’s precipitate.

The Unseen Sea

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The first draft of this post was written at about half-past eight on a Sunday morning in the Midlands. It was winter, and half-past eight is not so long after dawn, at that time of year. I had just completed the countdown that would lead to me getting out of bed, and I almost grizzled at the icy laminate and my dirty toes. Outside the window, the clouds stretched away into the south-east like dunes, and the sun had just made deep, trip-up footsteps on their leading edges. It was hurrying into the world, flinging off all of its frankly Victorian attire, letting it all shine out as it whooped down at the edge of the unseen sea.

I revealed the inside of the window with my breath, as I stood and took all of this in. This was a resolution of mine, as it was the New Year, to witness everything more clearly, and appreciate those times that I was not looking through a screen. On that Sunday morning, when I looked into the glass, I could see all sorts of grease, dotted like microbes across the plate. On both sides of the glazing fingerprints have been dragged, looking like the handiwork of a raptor. The overhead cable that was slung just outside vibrated softly, to the tango of pigeons beyond the curtain, precarious on their tiny raptor feet.

That morning seemed like an auspicious, quiet sort of time, before anybody else was up, to compose my goodbye to you. There have been other drafts since then, in libraries where hundreds of others have hawked and ticked on their own pieces of glass, and now as I finish typing this I am sitting in my bedroom, peeked at by a lime-green poster of the moon and all its seas. If you do not mind, I’ll continue to pretend I’m still there, in that morning, before the kettle had boiled and the heating had gargled on.

For those of you who have been asking, the Black Crown Project, my Sibylline little browser game, now has all the Work that it needs. It is finished. We had the party without you, unfortunately. I made the cake pictured at the top, with too much food colouring, and myself and the editors went on a hike at the edge of London to sluice out our hearts. I shan’t be writing much more, if any. The main shaft of the story is all there, and you can complete it in one of several agonising ways. I may, in the near future, add more endings, or more storylets, or more branches, depending on what I think up at this sort of time in the morning. Keep an eye on the forum. The Hogherd may come, rattling his bucket.

I’m going to make a cup of tea, very quickly, as it is freezing in here; I’ll be very quick.

Now, some of you might feel a little antsy about that. You might feel that you have just gotten a handle on it all, and now, look, in the corners, more stuff networking away from you like fungi, growing when you are not looking. Personally, I think that this is the way that it should be, and I’ll write it and distribute it if it comes to me. It might very well be the case that I never think of anything else interesting ever again. The whole process of creating this Jörmungandr (about 500,000 words now, not to mention all the art and the design) has completely ignored its tail and broken me down into thousands of bits, completely transformed me. It has made me complex, troubled, rebarbative, rude and overthought. I need to take a little bit of time to repair myself, and my writing. Just look at this post. Even with editing it is still too thick, too self-aware. I need to become protozoan, like the grease on the windowsill, a microbe instead of a macrobe, just simplify and simplify.

There goes the heating, a purumpurdump coming from its depths. The sun is properly up now, after its dip. It is shaking itself very vigorously.

Regardless of whether there is ever any more content, I will continue to stride around the forum, purumpurdumping myself, answering all of your questions. Please do post there and let me know what you thought of the game, what the experience of playing it was like, what you would have done differently, and all those things that people say they want to hear about their work and secretly do not. I do. I promise.

On a more prosaic note, I will continue to handle any and all bugs, if you can alert me to them, until there are not any more. I will also be looking for paid work doing more of this sort of thing, if you are having issues that you believe that I can solve, like the lack of an epic narrative, or the final decision as to what your character should eat for breakfast before they walk out of the door to murder things.

Excuse the tear; the daybreak just hit me in the eye, through the kitchen skylight. I haven’t cried at all, in this entire process. I won’t miss any of you at all.

Oh, perhaps I will. I could not be this self-indulgent without caring about you an awful lot. I have already said thank you elsewhere, but I will say it again. Since I was very small, I have wanted to do many different things, besides writing, but writing was the only thing that I could ever do with any certainty. Black Crown questioned that certainty, and made me very unhappy, in its own way. However, in futzing my way through I have discovered another love, one which I thought was out of reach. I now know that what I wish to do is design, make games, digital stories, interactive art, ludic expression, whatever you want to call them. I don’t just want my characters and my worlds and my secrets to stand still, to fester for a short time and then be relegated. I want allow people to contort my characters into all sorts of humorous positions, to have the leaves still flutter on the trees in new ways even a hundred years from now, and decide just for myself, once and for all, how much art can be made this way.

I think that I may have already made a little art. I would like to make more. And due to the people I have met, the coterie that I have accrued and the almost constant liquor of advice, support and educations that I have slung back, I have a better chance than most.

So thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, for letting me spend a year filling in spreadsheets with plot devices instead of profits, and writing quotes from imaginary books instead of quotes from imaginary customers for some new washing powder. For spending your time being scholars for something that does not matter at all. Thank you for the encouragement, license, advocacy and platform, for letting me speak about what I do, and in the process working out exactly what it is that I do.

Thank you so much for everything, every single one of you. There will be more soon. I do not intend to waste any of it. Ignore how mopey I was being, in an earlier paragraph, even earlier in the morning.

It really is day now, somebody’s getting up, my feet are not so cold, and I think that I have said goodbye properly. The sun has forgotten the ocean, and is coming to see us. So should you, again, and soon.

HYAAAAAAAAAAAA, ____clerks____.

COOM BY

The Uncomfortable Gaze #4

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I was sitting on the tenth floor of an office building on a Friday morning, which in this particular building meant that the weekly fire alarm test was about to begin. At ten o’clock exactly, a zodiac of blinking red lights criss-crossed the ceiling, and a bored voice assured absolutely everybody that whatever happened in the following ten minutes or so would be entirely unreal.

Almost every table stopped its discussions, silent for the announcement; it was so loud that nothing could be done until it had finished. Very few people apart from myself actually looked up, trying to locate the source of the voice, and follow whatever abstract pattern could be made from the warning LEDs. They all kept their shoulders hunched forward, fingers raised, shirts rucked and mouths slightly parted, so familiar with this ritual that all involved knew that, after playing statues for a few moments, they would be allowed to continue with their days, as long as they could put aside any instincts that arose in them.

They were playing statues. They were already excellent at controlling themselves.

Those following ten minutes were some of the strangest I had experienced in my life, purely because I had the good fortune to be able to step outside my own brain and see the wiring that really needed testing.

What I watched was a group of well-educated, well-dressed and pleasant human beings conduct an internal war. They were trying to shrug off the shackles of fifty thousand years or so of biological and cultural conditioning and ignore every startling sign that they were about to die.

The lights in the ceiling flashed red in sequence, a colour which has meant war, has been blood, has enraged animals, since the last time we all grew new bones.

A man’s voice screamed about fire, about not using the elevators, in a ululation which brought to me the images of being crushed underfoot, of twenty or thirty skulls cracking at once in a deluge of corduroy and anodised aluminium and polished leather tumbling down the stairs. I thought of choking on the fumes of melting electronics filigreed with lead, or jumping from a window, with wonderful views over the Thames all the way down.

And in the midst of the murderous insistence they sat, and clattered politely on their keyboards, and cleaned their computer screens with detergent, ate crisps and blew the salt from their fingertips.

I came back to my mind thunderstruck by how well we had all evolved, but I could have been wrong. Perhaps there was somebody else, tucked away behind a row of printers, whose heart quickened with mine, just a little. Somebody who dreaded ten o’clock every Friday morning, and who could not believe that they were not already running.

The Uncomfortable Gaze #3

moment3

One day on the DLR, the monorail which runs gingerly through London’s drowned former docklands, was an example of what most would call an insane person, alongside me and another two hundred or so men and women and several children.

He was dressed head to toe in orange cloth, the colour of cartoon radiation. Everybody knows that this denotes the uniform of the public servant, the ones at risk of being invisible in the most dangerous places. Around the azimuth of his head was a pair of headphones the colour and texture of white goods, as if somebody had carved a circlet from a dishwasher, and he spent his journey drumming violently across his knees, stamping his feet, and singing up and down his register hoarsely and loudly, his eyes tight shut. It is the sort of thing that disgusts almost everybody, one of the trials of public transport. Everybody did very badly at this; they would try to stare at their shoes, but fail, if only because of how he moved. He would swing from bar to bar, sit down, stand up, switch spaces; he was like a canary, hopping back and forth. His mouth moved spastically, in a pale imitation of some song that billowed out from under his dishwasher headphones, like steam.

There was a canniness to him, though. He peeked up every so often, to see who was watching him, but he never approached or accosted anybody, not even the women in the carriage, who hate the fact that they expect this sort of behaviour. I have been on the Underground many times and looked up to see people, veterans of the roar between each carriage, opening those forbidden doors, letting in the unnatural wind, and shell-shocking everybody with their shouts for money or burgers.

I continued to watch him, and he would catch my eye for a moment before creasing his brow and billowing into some public duende, moaning and groaning, and jiving on his arse.

These hummings, rising whines and falling cadences sounded like a machine being ignited and doused over and over, or the glossolalia of somebody not possessed, but maybe looking for attention at church. I gave it to him. I tried to hold his gaze, and transmit some sort of warm glow, a radiation of my own that would leave residues of kindness about him. I wanted him to know that I loved how different his brain was, that there was no reason he could not sing and stamp out of time on this train all day if he wanted to. It was as good as sitting there quietly, or reading, or talking to a friend. I wanted him to know that I appreciated him.

I don’t think he cared, or noticed, and he did not look back when we both left the train at the terminus. Next to the escalator were five flights of steps, and I ran up them, not caring that everybody was looking at me, buoyed up by my own self-improvement and enlightened observance of the world around me. I really was very kind, to accept him like that, on behalf of the whole carriage.

I watched his glow shrink in reflection, as he rounded a corner. And now I cannot remember what I was wearing. I don’t suppose it matters.

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