Reading app

Recently I finished a cataloging app that I’ve been developing in my spare time for most of this semester.  For a long time I’ve written notes about books I’m reading, as well as art, games, comics, movies and other things in notebooks, Google Docs, spreadsheets, all over the place.  Some of this is organized but most of it is not and even the organized stuff isn’t easy to look at.  I always wanted a cataloging app where I could log all of these things and see the relationships between the stuff I’m reading and viewing, but only limited to my actual experience.  Some cataloging apps didn’t allow you to make associations with other entries.  Others went overboard, pulling in links from the web and doing lots more than I actually wanted.  What I wanted was a closed system, something that only included things I’ve actually read or experienced, sort of an external map of my own mind or learning, a way to look at the whole of what I’ve read about, make associations between books I’ve read recently and things I read in 2008.  I think it will lead to a better organization of my thoughts on certain subjects I’m interested in, new media, fiction, theory.

When I finished building the app (which required learning enough node and mongo to make it work) I decided I might as well make it available for other people to use or develop, so I created a Github Repo and wrote instructions for a relatively non-techinical person to install and run it on their own heroku server, or a technical person to make an updated version.  I still have some features I want to add to the app, but I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll feel like diving back into a bunch of node and mongo.

Here’s the Github if you want to give it a try. Let me know what you think.

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thoughts on gamer gate / eron gjoni

A lot of the time I completely miss news stories or events that I would theoretically be interested in knowing about but am too busy with work or whatever else to read enough to really get what’s going on.  I was totally confused by “gamergate” earlier this fall and never really attempted to understand it until recently, when I read a bunch of posts about it.  I’m not super interested in the gamergate phenomenon, but I found Eron Gjoni’s “The Zoe Post” to be really fascinating in the way that I enjoy reading other things in this vein like fan fiction or even Eliot Rodger’s manifesto, which I wrote about earlier this year.  It’s a hard thing to categorize, it’s not really that it’s amateur writing, and the characteristic of this kind of writing are hard to pin down, it includes fiction and non-fiction, it’s both self conscious and naive, it includes “good” writing and “bad” writing in the sense of prose quality, logic, structure, other things that you might learn in a fiction workshop.  The similarity between The Zoe Post and the Eliot Rodger Manifesto is partly that they’re both primary documents from guys doing highly publicized and misogynistic things, in Rodger’s case transparently and in Gjoni’s case maybe less so or maybe you could make an argument that it’s not, but at least that’s a theme in both cases, and they both involve a serious amount of self-mythologizing and self examination on the part of the author.

Obviously I’m not comparing the crimes of Eliot Rodger to this sort of ridiculous decision by Eron Gjoni, but the way the text is read in each case is similar, as a sort of diary or confession of a mad man.  I don’t understand enough of the context to necessarily pass judgement on Gjoni, but my gut reaction generally is that even if Zoe Quinn was emotionally abusive in their relationship, the reaction of publishing a long, obsessive, privacy violating missive on the Internet seems unnecessary, and Gjoni’s justification at the beginning, to warn people to be cautious of Zoe, seems absurd and short sighted.

But what’s really interesting to me about this text, because I’m really not equipped or interested in making political or psychological or any kind of judgement about it, is the way Gjoni frames the whole thing, their relationship and the strange, sort of alienating power game that it involved, as a game, while of course they’re both involved in making video games.

When he’s describing the beginning of their relationship he writes:

I was enamored, but after a while she caught herself ranting and asked about my interests and from there we discussed all sorts of stuff from art to programming to neurology to artificial intelligence to philosophy to how the “is it a game?” argument has literally been going on for a quarter century before video games even existed.

Through the rest of his dissection of their relationship he refers to “games” that they play, with “rules” like:

1. If boyfriend relates observations that lead to a correct belief, girlfriend is to make up false reason to explain observations. If boyfriend backs down, girlfriend wins.

This is either a pretty interesting literary device or a totally absurd way to talk about relationships or both.  The thing is I have no idea if his “is it a game?” question in the beginning of the text is supposed to inform all of the following “games” that he uses to describe this psychological aspect of their relationship.

Then there’s the facebook logs he posted.  Even I wasn’t interested enough to read all of these, but I did read a lot of them.  Partly it’s amazing that he wanted to publish this stuff given how narcissistic he comes across in them, but I guess that a paradox of narcissism (or something).  But it’s interesting because this is the kind of stuff I really love using as source material for fiction or games that I’m working on, dialog and stories.  I’m pretty fascinated by these very coarse and grammar-less communication modes, and even the annotations branching comments and all of that are pretty amazing.

But there’s also the gut feeling problem, similar to reading Eliot Rodger, if less intense, which is that I really shouldn’t be reading this stuff, or at least not “enjoying” it, or finding it interesting, or dissecting is as literature or whatever else.  Reading the response by Zoe made that clear.  The fact that this is available and exists is bad, bad for her and bad for the world in general, in a pretty non-ambiguous kind of way.  The fact that it’s real makes this an issue, obviously, it wouldn’t matter if it were fiction.  But I’m not sure if reading it like fiction is immoral or unethical.

I also like this drawing:

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Last week I read Violence by Slavoj Zizek.  An insight that stood out to me was his analysis of the torture at Abu Ghraib, which was described by George Bush at the time and others in the government as the result of a few perverted individuals who were disobeying the command chain (or something).  Zizek points out that actions and habits are the result of the social climate of individuals and makes comparisons between the (particularly theatrical/performative and recorded) scenes of torture we saw on TV and in newspapers and American hazing rituals and even performance art.  Where my thoughts wander after that is basically unrelated, but Zizek references a lot of movies and some works of fiction in his writing, so naturally I think a lot about how those particular movies and books use violence.  I guess to Zizek these stories are representative of the social worlds the writers experience and can be read as much as a product of a society’s “obscene underside” as a commentary on it (this is not what he says, but just kinda where I’m going with it).

But what this really made me think about, which is not at all related to what Zizek was writing about, is the use of violence in different kinds of media.  I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the idea of introducing violence into stories I’ve written, for many reasons, the primary one being that violence is basically unknown to me, in the immediate sense that I’ve never shot a gun, I’ve never been attacked, though I’ve been in a few “fights” in my life, none have resulted in significant injury.  The closest feeling I’ve had to what I imagine violence feels like is playing sports as a kid, when I was pretty aggressive at a pretty non-competitive level.  So the idea of writing detective stories with guns has always felt strange and impossible to me, though obviously many people who write detective stories have just as little actual experience of violence as I do.  But when reading fiction and watching movies it often feels like its difficult or even impossible to tell a good story without violence.  The Great Gatsby has a fatal car accident, Hamlet has a bunch of sword fighting and poison, Jane Eyre has the red room, etc.  When it comes to creating digital art I think this strangeness I feel about violence is exacerbated.  My initial feeling was that digital work sort has a certain feeling about it that makes violence as a narrative device seem silly, maybe relating to privilege, on the part of both the author and the reader in an assumed digital work, you might guess that people creating and viewing art on Apple devices are probably not experiencing violence first hand, but of course that doesn’t make sense, one because there are violent images all over digital media, from The New York Times and other news sources, and two because you that same basic assumption might be applied to novels and movies for similar reasons, which are probably incorrect or at least imperfect.  Anyway, what’s interesting, or different, is that when it comes to books and movies, as its often been noted, the viewer has no real options except on or off.  Whether or not you are able to interpret what’s happening in a movie, its going to keep going,  and a violent action is in a way forced upon the viewer, which is obviously part of the enjoyment of some movies, like horror or suspense movies.  We may know that a violence action is coming, but we don’t have control over it.

Digital media doesn’t (always) work that way.  In the story “Refresh” that I published as an iPhone app in January, there are hints that a violent action may occur, and part of the narrative is about one character’s fear of another character’s violent action, but because of the interactivity of the story, there’s no way for me to predict when the reader will encounter that action (if at all).  In a way, this makes the idea of hinging a story on a violent act, kind of absurd.  One of the issues that I often come up on when working on an interactive project is the question of whether the reader will actually understand how it works and be able to access all of the content.  This makes sense to address if you’re designing a piece of software for commercial use, a website, or an interactive map.  When you’re creating a narrative or a work of art, this consideration is actually terrible for the work itself.  In this way, unlike movies or fiction, interactive narratives have more in common with works of visual art.  A painting is completely viewable at once, but this doesn’t mean that the viewer will understand the painting, at all or in degrees, and it isn’t the work of the artist to ensure that any view will understand the painting.  Of course, if no viewer understand the painting, it might not be a good painting (or maybe it will sell for a million bucks), but if a painting was so simple as to be understood by anyone immediately, it probably wouldn’t be particularly interesting (obviously there are cases where this would not be true).  So the problem with creating interesting or provoking games/interactive stories/digital art is that the average person assumes that something digital that isn’t immediately obvious is either broken or poorly designed/executed.  Creating digital works requires the risk that many people will find it frustrating or simply unfinished or broken, and hoping that its intriguing enough to those readers who have a little more patience.  This is definitely a far tangent from talking about Slavoj Zizek, but this is kind of where my mind was wandering while reading that book.

My twisted world

I read all of Eliot Rodger’s manifesto, “My Twisted World Story of Eliot Rodger by Eliot Rodger.” The full title says something about the way the story is written. Before I write about that, I think many people who I mentioned I was reading it to were surprised or put off, asking why I would do that. I also wouldn’t even bring it up sometimes when someone asked what I was reading. I felt self-conscious reading it on the subway, similar to how I felt self-conscious reading American Psycho, though that was a paperback and this was a document I read on my phone. I can’t really explain why I felt fine reading and found it to be kind of page turner despite the amateur writing. I don’t know if it makes me morbid or not.

What I found interesting about the story was that Eliot Rodger seems so objective about himself and the events and because of that it feels like a true portrait of a kid losing his mind over time. The piece is pretty long and there are these incremental moments of Eliot Rodger doing more and more desperate, violent and anti-social things, starting with pretty silly stunts like pouring a Starbucks latte on a couple that was doing too much PDA in line and getting more strange like purchasing a super soaked squirt gun after seeing a couple in a park and returning the park to spray them with orange juice. Obviously there’s a argument to be had about how objective Eliot Rodger could really be, but the tone is completely flat and he doesn’t seem to spare any details, regardless of how unflattering they might be, and I’m comfortable believing its a relatively “real” account of what happened.

The obvious take-away from this story, and one that I thought about a lot while reading, is the parallel to In Cold Blood, but in a modern world where the killer wrote their own story.  In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books and one I often argue as the most important American book ever.  But I also feel its a problematic work, the problems expressed in the Tom Wolfe essay “Pornoviolence,” that argues that violence is used in American media the same way sex is used in pornography, and that In Cold Blood works in this model because there’s no mystery about how the story ends, and the element that keeps us reading is the promise of the violent scene, sort of like in horror movies.  Eliot Rodger’s manifesto works the same way, in that the ending is known to the reader throughout the story, and the very fact that one is reading the story is predicated on the reader’s knowledge of the writer’s execution of the violent act, but the reader also knows that the act itself will not be the ending of the story, which is, however, unnecessary, because it’s been so thoroughly documented by other media outlets.  In this paradigm there’s no room for a Truman Capote, who interprets the thoughts and feelings of the killers for us.  The Internet for Eliot Rodger is like if Perry Smith had a literary agent.

So I guess the question is whether or not there is value in a narrative like this.  The writing isn’t good or at least it isn’t innovative or interesting, the title being fairly indicative of Rodger’s “style”, he uses relatively few words and repeats the same thoughts and ideas over and over, kind of like a crazy person might.  In some ways it does represent a modern sort of amateur Internet voice, and there’s definitely a question now about what kinds of voices and reading are valued, given the popularity of narratives on Internet platforms or books like Hunger Games or 50 Shades of Grey, where no one is really excited about the lyricism or complexity of the prose.  I found it interesting and I liked thinking about it, but I wouldn’t really recommend anyone read it.