Notebook of Sand



Curriculum Vitae

• Recent Publications
• Recent Projects
• Conferences & Speaking
"Comparing Spatial Hypertext Collections"
  ACM Hypertext '09
"Archiving and Sharing Your Tinderbox"
  Tinderbox Weekend London '09
"The Electronic Nature of Future Literatures"
  Literary Studies Now, Apr '09
"The World University Project"
  St. John's Col. Cambridge, Feb '09
"Ethical Explanations,"
  The New Knowledge Forge, Jun '08
Lecture, Cambridge University
  Tragedy in E-Lit, Nov '07
Hypertext '07: Tragedy in E-Lit
Host for Tinderbox Cambridge '07
Keynote: Dickinson State Uni Conf
Upper Midwest NCHC'07: Speaker
eNarrative 6: Creative Nonfiction
HT'05: "Philadelphia Fullerine"
  Nelson award winning paper
NCHC '05:
 Nurturing Independent Scholarship
Riddick Practicum:
  Building Meeting Good Will
NCHC '04:
  Philadelphia Fullerine
  Lecture on American Studies
WWW@10: Nonfiction on the Web
NCHC '03: Parliamentary Procedure
ELL '03 -- Gawain Superstar
• (a)Musing (ad)Dictions:

Ideas. Tools. Art. Build --not buy. What works, what doesn't. Enjoy new media and software aesthetics at Tekka.

Theodore Gray (The Magic Black Box)

Faith, Life, Art, Academics. Sermons from my family away from home: Eden Chapel!

My other home: The Cambridge Union Society (in 2007, I designed our [Fresher's Guide])

The Economist daily news analysis

Global Higher Ed blog

• Hypertext/Writing

Writing the Living Web

Chief Scientist of Eastgate Systems, hypertext expert Mark Bernstein. (Electronic) Literature, cooking, art, etc.

Fabulous game reviews at playthisthing.

• Stats

Chapter I: Born. Lived. Died.

There is a Chapter II.

Locale: Lancaster County Pa, USA

Lineage: Guatemala

Religion: My faith is the primary focus of my life, influencing each part of me. I have been forgiven, cleansed, and empowered by Jesus Christ. Without him, I am a very thoughtful, competent idiot. With him, I am all I need to be, all I could ever hope for. I oppose institutional religious stagnation, but getting together with others is a good idea. God is real. Jesus Christ is his Son, and the Bible is true. Faith is not human effort. It's human choice. I try to be the most listening, understanding, and generous person I can.

Interests: Anything I can learn. Training and experience in new media, computer science, anglophone literature, education, parliamentary debate, democratic procedure, sculpture, and trumpet performance. Next: applied & computational linguistics, probably.

Education: Private school K-3. Home educated 4-12. Graduated Summa Cum Laude from Elizabethtown College in Jan 2006. As the 2006 Davies-Jackson Scholar, I studied English at St. John's College, Cambridge University from 2006 - 2008.

Memberships: Eden Baptist, Cambridge Union Society, ACM, AIP, GPA.

Alum of the Elizabethtown College Honors Program, sponsored by the Hershey Company.

Summer 2007
2004: Earlier | March | April | May | June | July | Aug | Sept | Oct | Nov | Dec
2005: Jan | Feb | March | April | May | June | July | Aug | Sept | Oct | Nov | Dec
2006: Jan | Feb | March | April | May | June | July | Aug | Sept | Oct | Nov | Dec
2007: Spring | Summer - Summer 2008 | Spring & Summer 2009 | Now
Until June
Monday, 7 Apr 2008 :-: ["Permalink"]

A friend recently suggested that I write down my longing wishes-- and then experience some of them after I finish my comprehensive exams. I was at a loss. Life has recently been so much about deadlines, service to others, and big plans for the future, that I have completely forgotten what it means to wish for something, to plan for things which give me pleasure.

I can however, say what I miss:

  • Musical performance
  • Athletics
  • Blogging

I can't wait to be able to sit down in two months' time, relax in a nice chair, think for myself, and write a blog post.

Pure luxury.

** * **

Until then, I expect to be mostly inaccessible.

Christian Missions
Tuesday, 19 Feb 2008 :-: ["Permalink"]

In an interesting blog post interview, Maggi Dawn, the Chaplain at Robinson College, discusses this week's visits to Cambridge by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu. She interviews three people: Duncan Dormor (Dean of St John's College), John Binns, Vicar of Great St Mary's (the University Church) and James Gardom (Dean of Pembroke College).

When Maggi asked if this was similar to a Mission, Duncan noted that it was more in the order of lectures on faith and society rather than a presentation of Christian teaching which invites any kind of conversion. Binns pointed out that Christianity concerns the shape of all society, and that the (or one) ultimate end of Christianity is "what kind of communities we create" and "how we shape social policy." Gardom had this to say:

James Gardom went as far as to suggest that the old fashioned model of a University Mission is a thing of the past. "The old model of mission is broken irretrievably," he said. "We need something significantly different. The idea of “convincing people about faith" through a public teaching event? - you know, it just doesn’t work like that any more."

As someone who is currently participating in the Cambridge Christian Union's ongoing annual Mission (, I was interested in their comments. While I am excited about this lecture series at the university, I wish to respectfully disagree with Gardom on University Missions.

Gardom suggests that public events which present Christian teachings and invite personal change may once have been viable, but that something has changed to make this approach less effective. Things are certainly different-- I have heard of lectures in St. John's thirty years ago where up to 60 students would gather at once to consider the claims of Christianity. That is not the case today, but I do believe that the University Mission is still a powerful community expression of faith and a viable invitation to divine transformation.

Especially at a university, especially at Cambridge, a Mission is structurally the best way to get information about Christian teaching to the greatest number of people. Contemporary missions provide:

  • A simple solution to the logistical problem of expertise distribution. The annual student-run mission is organised, well, by students, with the moral support and prayer of the religious establishment. As students, we attempt to love like Christ in relational communities of faith and nonfaith, but there are some areas where love means telling the truth about God, and in some of these areas, our expertise varies. By inviting speakers, we are able provide Christian teaching at a level of scholarship and clarity which exceeds our own and which reaches all parts of the university. This is the same philosophy behind this week's lectures--inviting archbishops and not undergraduates to speak.
  • A hub for a variety of initiatives designed to be appropriate for the needs and interests of individuals. Print and web marketing, word-of-mouth, film nights, discussions at the debating society, discussion dinners, coffeehouse evenings. In our time, Missions are not designed to move people to a decision within the lectures; they are designed to open discussion. Most of the talks in the CICCU mission set out philosophical and methodological grounds for enquiry into Christianity and faith, alongside an articulation of that faith; only one talk included a strong personal appeal.
  • A training ground for Christian community action. Since the CICCU is student-organised, it provides hundreds of students each year with practical experience in organisation, but also in how to integrate organisational efficiency with Christlike love.
  • An occasion for remarkable Christian unity. While it is true that some people disagree with the ideological core of the Christian Union, it is perhaps the largest-scale non-denominational Christian activity in Cambridge and provides an occasion for students to consider their own approach to unity. This year's mission was held in three Cambridge churches of different denominations.

Is this model "broken" and ineffective? While it is true that larger venues might have been selected, each lecture was given to what seemed to me a nearly-packed venue. This visible attendance is just one manifestation of the sum spiritual and informational effect.

** * **

What about these other claims, that Christians must also be interested in questions of social and community interest?

As a student at St. John's, I have been excited about Duncan and Grant's Chapel's series on Christianity and social engagement, even if my own participation at Eden Chapel and work on the World University Documentary have stretched me too thin to attend very often.

I am also excited about this week's lectures, but I would hesitate to call them more or less "broken" than the Mission model. The lectures deliver ideas which were not included in our Mission, on topics of great importance. But structurally, they are less efficient. The lecture series is not designed to be sustainable in the same way as a Mission. CICCU and other initiatives (including Chapel!) are better designed to cultivate relationships and incubate long-term discussion focused toward active faith.

Other long-term initiatives in Cambridge would be the Faraday Institute (science), the Jubilee Centre (public policy), the Veritas Forum (an exciting new program of seminars and discussions), and the Christian Graduate Society (which has a strong International Development contingent), and Christian Heritage, which probably reaches more people with a broader international spread than all of these combined.

Thanks for blogging the lectures, Maggi!

Tragedy in Electronic Literature
Friday, 21 Dec 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

Tragedy in Electronic Literature
On 5 Nov this year, I gave lecture within the English Tripos to the undergraduates at Cambridge. Slides, audio/video, and lecture notes for "Tragedy in Electronic Literature" are now online. (please use the YouTube links when possible to save bandwidth)

This lecture site was available to students over a WIFI connection during the lecture. They could use it to look at the examples more closely, read supplementary material, and view the slides. The WIFI network was limited solely to the material I provided, since I didn't want attention to wander. I was very, very pleased when student questions combined material from the lecture notes/site with things I had said in the lecture. The site was built in Tinderbox, published with the Spatial Hypertext Publisher I recently built.

In the lecture space, I also set up several computers with examples, so people could try them out, but students were far more interested in talking than looking. Professor Poole and I were a bit disappointed at this, but in retrospect, it's nothing to be disappointed about. We can hardly complain that a cluster of students stayed to talk afterward until the building closed.

The lecture's basic question is this: if electronic literature empowers characters and tragedy disempowers them, how is tragedy possible in electronic literature?

I owe thanks to many of people for this:

  • Adrian Poole sponsored and supervised the lecture. His own interesting lectures and our consequent discussion on tragedy have been fascinating. His encouragement and confidence have been inspiring.
  • Mark Bernstein first encouraged me to organise a panel at Hypertext 07 on Tragedy and Hypertext. He has, in general, been a great encourager over the years.
  • Nick Lowe, Kieron O'Hara, David Millard, and Emily Short, who spoke at the conference panel. I owe a lot of ideas to this discussion.
  • I am particularly indebted to Nick Lowe for his interesting book The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative, and to Emily, for her thorough review and fascinating description of tragedy-related Interactive Fictions.
  • Clare Hooper, who got me to think about literary hypertext in the first place, whose enthusiasm refuses to be blunted, and who co-organised the ACM panel.
  • Sarah Smith, who shared examples and ideas about tragic hypertext .oO(and for the unforgettable line: how many female Shakespeares does your play have? Ours has two)

I am now working on a related issue: moral dilemmas in interactive fiction, which is proving to be very interesting.

The Blanket-Man Surveys
Friday, 16 Nov 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

a new poem, written indoors on a frosty night...

"The Blanket-man Surveys"

A. Bottles, broken.
B. Stubs, spent.
C. Shoe shops, open.
D. Breadcrumbs, shredded- scattered on a patchy glove.
E. This testament.
F. All of the above.

Down to Camelot
Monday, 8 Oct 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

I watched the first few minutes of the film adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables" (starring Megan Fellows) today. The film is adapted from a bildungsroman by Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the story, the young poetry-loving orphan Anne Shirley, a mistreated foster-child servant-girl on the frontier, is plucked from a life of poverty and sent, accidentally, to a middle-class agrarian pastoral idyll. Literature shifts from being an escape from poverty to the spice of pastoral life. Anne's progress is emotional and relational, and her school friendships are a microcosm of the social hierarchies within the community of Avonlea. Mistakes, confessions, and aphorisms mark the ladder of her social progress, just as innocence, education, charm, and frank honesty take her to greater heights. Society is hierarchical for Anne; each new step toward the urban is a step toward greater wealth, privilege, and opportunity. We see no hint of urban suffering. When Anne reaches The City, we see only grand houses, balls, and yachts. Like Avonlea itself, Anne exhibits the graces which her upper-class friends see in the pastoral. She is a cleansing agent, the erudite and naive farmgirl who is in awe of their wealth and lifestyle, who teaches them to enjoy their privilege and introduces the sweet moral freshness of pastoral life into their rarified air. Where there is charitable, sacrificing love, it is toward the daughter of a millionaire, not toward other orphans as she once was. When she is drawn too dangerously far into the world of privilege, Anne goes back to Avonlea. A rose in the wild cannot be picked and live, no matter how pretty it might be in a crystal vase. Her morality, her frank honesty, her innocence and morals are entirely a construct of her social and natural environment; too much distance from their source strains her character. So she returns to the simple, relaxed middle-class pastoral of Avonlea, where the farms always produce, prices are affordable, friends have time to walk a mile for some gossip, and moderate wealth preserves the illusion that an extra bit of lace or jewelry really is a precious, wonderful thing.

** * **

Anne of Green Gables is, significantly, a Canadian story. Avonlea exclusively contains white people who work their own land. The story carries no hint of the American vision of the rural, with its toiling, shrewd Yankee figure. There are no yokels or rednecks here. The orphan of American literature is not Anne Shirley; it's Huck Finn. As for pastoral idylls, the American analogue to Avonlea would probably be the colonial ideal of the gentleman farmer. That ideal however was forever changed by Washington and Jefferson, who in the popular imagination put politics, warfare, invention-- the welfare of the people-- ahead of personal interests.

Some days, I wish I were in Avonlea. I wish I lived in a world where I could sit on the porch, read Wordsworth, relax and be content. Here at Cambridge, I have access to beautiful idylls like Grantchester whenever I wish. Byron and Tennyson and Wordsworth and Woolf and Plath and countless others have often enjoyed cream tea in Grantchester, under the orchard trees.

But I can't be satisfied with afternoons at Grantchester. I know better than to seek ease. I have been given resources by God and many generous people; it is my duty and pleasure to administer them as best I can for the good of others and the glory of God. So I therefore press on with what energy I have to do what I can with the time I have been given.

Anne, like the Lady of Shalott, never makes it to Camelot. But I know that there is an idyll waiting for me, a place where I will lay down my burdens and find perfect rest. In the meantime, I will do my best to lay aside those weights which slow me down and run this life's race with determination and patience, not so I can win at life, but so others may find both life and hope.

May God have mercy on me if I do anything else.

Scones & Jam!
Saturday, 8 Sep 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

The Gourmet Scientist and I made some scones last week. I was knackered from many long bus rides and consequently forgot lots of ingredients. Problems of this magnitude can only be solved with Marketing! (tm).

Crystal blogged our attempts.

The Dangers of Writing
Friday, 7 Sep 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]
Resort to sermons, but to prayers most:
Praying's the end of preaching. O be dressed;
Stay not for th' other pin: why thou hast lost
A joy for it worth worlds. Thus hell doth jest
Away thy blessings, and extremely flout thee,
Thy clothes being fast, but thy soul loose about thee.
--"69" from "Perirrhanterium", by George Herbert

Sometimes, when I read the religious writings of a great poet like Herbert, I imagine that he was an amazingly spiritual man, someone to be admired and imitated. This may be the case. But literariness is not next to godliness, and good theology doesn't naturally result in good living.

An example of this can be seen in the wonderful Biblical poem of Isaiah 38, written by Hezekiah, king of Judah, after his miraculous recovery to health. The poem is honest-- more honest about his personal sins than the prayer which led to his recovery--and seems theologically sound. He even creates a clever chain of literary conceits: life as fabric-- plucked away by wind, woven in the loom, rolled up and cut off for storage. Hezekiah's poem is a beautiful expression of contrition and praise. But poems are not people, for poems do not change. While writing, Hezekiah may have been sincere about the miracle of his recovery and the blessing of God's forgiveness. But when emissaries from Babylon come to congratulate him on his recovery, he shows them the family jewels rather than shares his faith in God.

Personal writing sometimes comes from a desire to preserve a lingering moment or emotion. In such cases, this contrast between our malleable life and the indellible pen is what draws us to the written word. Herbert mentions this frustration in the first stanza of The Temper:

How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Somehow, despite the way the variability of life can drive us to write and speak, we can think that a person's writings describe them. It's also possible, like Hezekiah, to think this of ourselves-- to think that writing brings closure, that a poem of thanks is an adequate substitute for thankfulness. Good writing and public speaking are the highest virtues if reputation is the essence of morality, but if human life or divine approval are the measure, our ideas are no more important than our everyday actions.

Thus, writing is dangerous for those who believe themselves too much, who also fail to heed their own advice.

Notes on Tragedy
Tuesday, 4 Sep 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

Note: DO NOT TAKE THESE NOTES TOO SERIOUSLY. MY IDEAS HAVE BECOME SIGNIFICANTLY REFINED SINCE I WROTE THIS. For more updated ideas, look at the page for my lecture on "Tragedy in Electronic Literature".

** * **

In preparation for next week's panel on Tragedy (1:30pm, Wednesday) at the 2007 Hypertext Conference, and to address some ideas raised in an exchange between Emily Short and Mark Bernstein(1)(2)(3)(4), I offer the following bits of commentary.

Issue One: Overlap between IF and Hypertext

In her first essay, Short narrates a little dialogue between IF practitioners and Hypertext writers. She draws distinctions between the technology and then suggests that hypertext authors (and implicitly, hypertexts and their underlying technology) prefer static works in which "the reader/user should not have any real agency"-- while IF on the other hand, if it doesn't give the reader/user agency, at least must always "teach the player how to interact".

This last statement is a useful distinction, and Short uses it as a jumping-off point to talk about agency and protagonists in tragedy and electronic works-- a very good and interesting discussion. But the dichotomy between Hypertext as static and IF as dynamic is a bit facile. When we ask our questions in a panel of IF and hypertext people, we have to do more than identify basic differences: we must understand the common ground which can provide opportunity for mutually constructive discussion.

It's easy to get lost in these discussions. We use a word like "agency", and the conversation becomes based on a confusion of terms. In this case, "agency" can mean many things which are not easily compatible, and I think this is one area which deserves further scrutiny.

A related area of common ground is the question of "who"-- questions about the characters, the writer, and the audience. This area is very thorny and complex, because it's so close to the heart of every creative work. Most writings of any kind differ on this point, which makes it a good common ground, since the possibilities vary enough to offer us many chances to learn from disparate works.

How do they differ? Let us consider for example, the question, "What is the narrator?", or "what is supplying us with the substance of the work?". In a film, it might be a camera, the editor, or a narrator character. It might be a narrator in a play, such as Chorus in "Henry V". In electronic works, the narrator might be the user interface, or perhaps a voice within that interface. In novels and poems, the narrator question has provided many PhD and book opportunities, most notably Booth's excellent book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. or one of my personal favourites, a work on using narrators for world-modeling in the novel, Langland's Society in The Novel.

Narrators change. They have varying relations to individual characters' thoughts. They sometimes deceive. They are sometimes deceived, even self-deceived, as Emma (and the Emma-narrator) is about her feelings for Knightely. Readers experience different kinds of affinity with these narrators. Some people, for example, find Coetzee's Disgrace disturbing because it not only invites the reader to associate with a rapist, but it also presents him to the reader as he does to himself-- as a nice, well-meaning erudite guy.

Within this issue of narrators, we can find common ground with the question, "How do authors signal the nature of the narrator?" Text-based interactive fiction, which sometimes doesn't bother with design, often distinguishes narrators using the techniques of stream-of-conciousness writers: by emphasizing changes in style at the natural breaks in the text (paragraphs, the command prompt). Instant Message poems use design elements to distinguish narrators and speakers. Hypertexts, whether spatial, transclusionary, or interlinked, are also design-rich and can tend to rely on design or the strong boundaries' of lexia to distinguish narrators (this incidentally, is where Short falls, well, short. She sees the challenge of organising large sets of links, but hasn't identified the complexities in hypertext of montage, design, UI, graphcs, etc, which many IF systems dispense with).

(note to self. Someday write a reversal of Interactive fiction in which the computer supplies commands, such as "walk north", and the reader must describe the world, but the computer remembers, accumulating as it proceeds through the story that the reader creates. That would be soooo cool. This, by the way, is what Thespis is, in some ways.)
(Although I haven't read them -- shame on me-- I'm sure that First Person or Second Person handle these questions about narrators well.)

How does this provide common ground, and what does this have to do with Tragedy? If, for example, we agree that a certain relationship with the narrator is useful to a kind of Tragedy, we are then free to think about how that relationship can be established using the toolset available to each type of electronic work. The next section will provide an example of this.

Issue Two: Play the Protagonist or Ride Shotgun?

Aristotelian tragedy can't work if the player is the tragic character (Emily's Protagonist, Mark's Hero). It's just not possible. This kind of tragedy requires the reader/audience to realize that the tragic character is doomed before the character does. If you're going to have a tragic character and are trying to create this kind of effect, the reader must expect the tragic character to have a mind of his/her/its own.

Again, hypertext and IF present different potentials in relation to Tragic plays. In a tragic play, you often get lots of dialogue. Most of Oedipus Tyrannus consists of Oedipus angrily arguing with people as he completely fails or fears to understand the implications of what he hears. How might this work in electronic literature?

  • You could do this as a puzzle-based work. You're trying to discover what happened. You, the player discover information, go back to Oedipus, argue with him, then go off to find the next bit of information. But Aristotle's warning applies -- too much delay, and the story ceases to be about Oedipus.
  • In both Hypertext and IF, you need to have an NPC that presents the reader with a reasonable expectation that he can be convinced of things by argument. And then you need to have that NPC completely ignore reason.
    • In IF, it's tougher, because NPCs are hard to write, and because we expect them to be stupid. We run into the challenge "to teach the player how to interact". But it's somewhat possible, as Emily demonstrated in "Galatea". Also, the reader cannot use sophisticated argumentation, so IF loses some of the effect created by contrasts between the heightened style of court vs the language of nurses, shepherds, and housekeepers.
    • Hypertext makes dialogue easier for the reader, because the author writes all the dialogue. I can easily imagine a version of Oedipus Tyrannus in which the reader controls the speeches of the messengers, Jocasta, Creon, Tereisias--no. I would make the reader Oedipus's secretary/advisor, screening the messengers, advising them on what to say, and watching/listening to them bring news or argue. This would preserve the ability of messengers to lie, doublecross, etc, without the reader anticipating. The technology would be simple, the writing very possible.

The Aristotelian model of "plot" and its relation to audience knowledge isn't the only kind of tragedy. Some theories highlight the role of suffering and reader empathy in tragedy, which is most notably discussed in Eagleton's Sweet Violence (too bad he can't be at the conference, though he's a prof at Manchester; I hope he was, at least, invited). Getting readers to feel sorrow is a difficult task, but the sufferer must be distant for us to wish to hold them close. Player death is frustrating, but it is not sorrowful if we have saved our game. Tragic violence and tragic suffering aren't about endings; they're about the challenges of going on. Thus, this kind of tragedy cannot put the player in the role of the sufferer.

The Death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII and the death of Floyd in Planetfall are two examples of subsidiary characters whose deaths have evoked strong emotion. In both cases, the hero character has a responsibility toward the NPC-- but the works themselves are not primarily tragedy.

Sufferers fit nicely into popular understandings of Hegelian tragedy-- where different kinds of moral right are put in opposition. An electronic version of Philoctetes, I suspect, would make a very, very good hypertext or IF; it reminds me of a lot of the moral quandaries found in the very excellent Avernum series (which are a wonderful combination of hypertext and gameplay, and which manage player ignorance deftly). It would actually be possible to play Neaptolimus in an interactive version of Philoctetes, which itself is a story questioning the nature of objectives and quest.

Hamartia and Comedy

Mark and Emily got into a discussion of Hamartia, the fatal flaw, the sin, the error, the missing of the mark, and the relationship between Tragedy and other forms, such as Comedy. I hope, (for Mark especially), that this brief note is helpful.

Michael Bywater has a handy rule of thumb which is not entirely precise, but is quite handy. It goes something like this:

Tragedy occurs when small mistakes have large consequences. Comedy occurs when magnitudes are reversed. Tragedy says, "for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost". Comedy says, "for want of a nail, the world collapsed, because Aunt Dahlia can't hang up the family portrait. And oh look, how droll! Sir Roderick is giving fascist speeches to the Black Shorts again. When will he stop? We need the courtyard to entertain the vicar to tea this afternoon, and he'll hardly put in a good word to the Bishop if he sees all those fascists. He can't stand shorts."

In the context of this question, Mark asks, "What would James Bond do, or wily Ulysses? They'd do something briliant, totally unexpected, something nobody would have thought of." Emily appropriately responds by noting that Bond and Ulysses are heroes, and that Mark is now out of bounds of the Tragedy question. She's partly right.

But we do know what Ulysses would do in a tragedy-- at least according to Sophocles. In Philoctetes, this hero is the villain, the person who, like the heroes of many videogames, is willing to cause suffering for others in order to achieve the objective given him by the gods. Tragedy often dwells on the fringes, in the aftermath, on the jilted, and on the suffering.

Philoctetes presents a classic videogame situation. The hero is asked to obtain an object to defeat the boss at the end. But the play presents a moral dilemma: the object is needed by the suffering Philoctetes if he is to survive. As an extra twist, it Philoctetes is marooned on an abandoned island-- not beacuse the game designers wanted an island stage, but because Ulysses's opportunism seems to have resulted in Philoctetes becoming stranded.

That's what happens to heroes in Tragedy.

Tragedy and The Happy Ending

For those of you who have not studied literature, it should be noted that tragedy is not reliant on whether the ending is "happy" or not. Some tragedies have no deaths at all.

Alienation Effects, Happening Effects, and The Screen

Brecht's ideas are interesting in electronic works, which sometimes attempt to be immersive. There is a tendency, I think it's fair to say, for IF to seek an immersive quality, but hypertexts rarely tend even toward realism. IFs tend to use commands like "Go North", wherease hypertext works tend to provide incomprehensible links, such as Dylan Kinnett's wonderful first options "Rock", "Paper", "Scissors" which are notable precisely for how much they remind the reader of an inability to control. Later options, such as "Win" and "Lose" retain this irony, reminding the reader that there is no way to escape the situation.

This varying affinity to the world of the story, which is connected to the reader's consciousness of the artifice of the story, is addressed in Peter Brook's paraphrase of Brecht:

He [Brecht] began working at a time when most German stages were...designed to sweep up the spectator by his emotions so that the forgot himself completely. Whatever life there was onstage was offset by the passivity it demanded of the audience.

For Brecht, a necessary theatre could never for one moment take its sights off the society it was serving. There was no fourth wall between actors and audience-- the actor's unique aim was to create a precise response in an audience for whom he had total respect. It was out of respect for the audience that Brecht introduced the idea of alienation, for alienation is a call to halt: alienation is cutting, interrupting, holding something up to the light, making us look again [....]

The alienation effect and the happening effect are similar and opposite: the happening shock is there to smash through all the barriers set up by our reason, alienation is to shock us into bringing the best of our reason into play. Alienation works in many ways in many keys. A normal stage action will apear real to us if it is convincing and so we are apt to take it, temporarily, as objective truth. A girl, raped, walks on to a stage in tears- and if her acting touches us sufficiently, we automatically accept the implied conclusion that she is a victim and an unfortunate one. But suppose a clown were to follow her, mimicking her tears, and suppose by his talent he succeeds in making us laugh. His mockery destroys our first response. Then where do our sympathies go? [....] If carried far enough, such a series of events can suddenly make us confront our shifting views of right and wrong."

(The Empty Space, 81).

I included this long quotation because the visibility and questioning of artifice is a very important theoretical, writerly, and technical issue within both electronic literature and tragedy. It is one of those areas of common ground which is expressed differently in different works. In Hypertext, the Happening effect can be achieved visually, through photos, footage, and fonts. In IF this is a bit harder. However, the alienation effect is easier, I think for IF writers, who must, as Emily noted teach their readers how to play.

Time Locks and Option Locks

This one came from a discussion with Michael Bywater. In many tragedies, things must happen at the right time, or time is short, or options begin to narrow. Time is usually one major factor which turns small mistakes into precipices, into Hamartia. Electronic literature offers interesting opportunities for restricting readers' options, but also a lot of challenges.

This question is thus very interesting, but I will leave it to further discussion, after quoting a wonderfully relevant fable by Kafka:

"Alas," said the mouse, "the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into," "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.

The Quest Model

A lot of stories and games create the illusion of player agency by using a quest model. Instead of proceeding linearly through prescribed Acts and Scenes, the reader concurrently completes a set of prescribed quests and subquests. How can this be employed for the purposes of Tragedy?

Understanding IF

Mark misses something about IF in his comments about the IF author having to be there before the reader. He says, "you rack your brains. And you come up with something incredibly clever, unexpected and far-fetched. Something perfect! But I'm just a writer, not a her: have I thought of your incredibly clever stratagem? If I have, you're deflated: it's not heroic after all, it was just a puzzle and you've supplied the correct answer".

Emily dismisses the deflation issue, but there's another misconception here: the idea that the author has to be there before you. In world modeling, just as in Card Sharp/Thespis, the author can be surprised by logical possibilities they have not considered. Each new rule, each new lexia increases the possibility for unexpected cleverness in readers. Also: Mark also makes the assumption here that IF is intrinsically puzzle-centred, which is not necessarily the case.

The question of puzzles in IF is interesting, and I think it could be fruitfully considered in relation to Brecht's ideas about alienation effects.

Education, Tragedy, and Brecht

Emily makes a very fascinating comment about IF in "IF In the ACM literature, Part Three":

It [ Anstey and Pape's use of the word 'rehearse'] implies the point of presenting moral choice in IF and similar media might be not to enhance the story but to enhance the player -- to educate him, to make him more thoughtful about issues, to encourage him to think through and articulate a position

Emily goes on to call this idea a "harsh puritanical" one, which I find odd, given the highly moralistic nature of Greek tragedy, which is still artistically satisfying, despite the fact that no matter how complicated and ambiguous it presented moral questions, it was still there to serve the state and prop up some kind of religious establishment. When I think "harsh puritanical" actions, I think about 17th century censorship, not about ideological creativity.

But that's only a minor point. I'm much much more intrigued by the following statement:

"is it still a game, or is it more of an electronic Socrates, sticking us with more and more contrived questions to make us see the holes in our thinking"

First, as I mentioned before, Tragedy sometimes sticks us with more and more contrived questions to make us see the holes in the tragic character's thinking. But also: it should be rather obvious that dialogue is not always Socratic. The question of what it is when it's not Socratic, especially when used in electronic literature, would seem to me to be something Ms. Short should be rather familiar with, especially given the somewhat moral nature of Galatea-- if you treat Galatea like she's a slut, she will respond to you like the perv you acting to be.

Further Questions

  • Progress in many videogames is regulated by subquests. This allows certain freedom within the game world, while permitting certain actions to have a predefined, large influence on the state of the game. The accomplishing of the quest thus has more importance in some cases than the killing of a person. In Time in Greek Tragedy, De Romilly talks about "moments of crisis" in Tragedy-- points at which choices and information have greater importance. How well do these "moments of crisis" map onto game quests? Is this an opportunity or a hindrance for tragedy in Electronic literature (my instinct is that it's a hindrance, at least if the reader is the tragic character).
  • Characters in tragedy often operate under constraints. C.f. time locks and option locks. Electronic works, according to Janet Murray, tend to be encyclopedic. Readers tend to follow every link, look at every component in a montage, explore every sub-cavern. Is exploration OK? Or does it undermine tragedy? How can this be managed in electronic literature? IF springs immediately to mind, but that's because IF presents the easiest solutions. How do you manage this in hypertext? (Avernum, as a hybrid system, might be helpful here)
  • The encyclopedic tendencies of electronic literature can be used effectively, I suspect, in Tragedy, since critical ignorance is important to Tragedy. How?
  • A related issue is The Desire to Stay in the Game. In both Hypertext and IF, there seems to be a tendency to want to stay in the game as long as possible, to keep reading as long as possible. "Premature endings" are losing situations. But death in Tragedy is a satisfactory, if not satisfying ending. How do we present possibilities of varying lengths without creating a hierarchy of outcomes?
  • Electronic works can be huge. How do we make works with the potential for tragedy which legitimately present the tragic ending as a satisfactory one rather than "GAME OVER"? Or alternatively: should electronic tragedy have endings? Or, like Dylan Kinnett's "To Win, Simply Play", should we give them no ending at all, banish the reader to go over and over and over the tragic past like the traumatized sometimes go over our own tragic memories?
  • How can we properly create a sense of loss in electronic literature?
  • If we take a Hegelian position that Tragedy is about conflicting codes which resolve through the destruction of one or the fusion of both, can these "codes" be implemented in software, or should they just be expressed in the language of the work?
  • Can more visual/geometric forms of electronic literature be tragic? Is it possible to have a tragic spatial hypertext? Or does the form preclude the possibility? In other words, is some kind of realism necessary for tragedy?

Distinctions on Agency
Tuesday, 4 Sep 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

(part of a larger discussion on Tragedy & Electronic Literature)

..It's easy to get lost in these discussions. We use a word like "agency", and the conversation becomes a confusion of term. The following is just a short list related to Tragedy, with a few Electronic literature questions thrown in:

  • The theoretical potential of a character in the fictive setting. Can Oedipus delegate the task to Creon and go to his ranch to clear brush?
  • The formal potential of a character in a work. In the Tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, can Oedipus really avoid poking out his eyes, if it's to be a Tragedy?
  • Whodunnit? The philosophical impetus of a character in a fictive setting. Did Apollo really make him do it (1330)? Plato's sockpuppet Socrates was very worried about the effects of unleashing these questions on society.
  • What does agency mean in plays consisting primarily of dialogue, which were only just beginning to develop techniques of presenting action on stage?
  • Does agency look different in electronic works consisting primarily of narration?
  • In electronic works, can reader actions influence what happens, where 'what happens' is an abstraction readers create from the dialogue and narration? If so, what are the implications? (Nick Lowe would have things to say here).
  • In plays such as Agamemnon, the commenting/narrating chorus does nothing; it fails to intervene to stop Aegisthus and Clytemnestra from killing Agamemnon and taking over the city. How does inaction work in electronic literature (time locks, option locks, but what if it's a hypertext?)
  • What options do you give readers? No really.
  • How do readers find out their options? Is ignorance a bug? Or are Rumsfeld's distinctions useful to writers?
    • Known knowns
    • Known unknowns
    • Unknown knowns
    • Unknown unknowns
  • What are the relationships among reader knowledge, narrator knowledge, character knowledge, their statements, their narrations, and their "agency" within the work?
  • How much of this is up to the writer, how much is up to the reader, and how much is up to the software developers in systems? In a world-modeled IF, the software developer leaves a lot to the reader, but writers' power in this is dependent on the software. IF authors often take pleasure from unexpected things players do with stories based on world models. But it is false to think that Hypertext gives authors hegemonic control over options. This mistake is made by people who naively think that hypertext is just links and lexia/nodes. Just as IF systems aren't just a set of preset If-Then clauses, hypertexts are not just links and nodes. Card Shark & Thespis(literary Adaptive Hypertext) are the World-Modelling equivalents in hypertext writing, enabling works based on rules and objects rather than solely author-predicted structures. Emily Short notes this in her fourth installment of IF in the ACM literature.

This list is merely an example of how a simple word such as "agency" could be understood in many different ways. These are very different, if related issues, which is why it's important to know what we're talking about. This ability to draw distinction permits us to find the overlapping areas more accurately.

Monday, 3 Sep 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

Here at Cambridge, people sometimes talk about privilege and about how certain families and certain social networks tend to be more successful at reaching the university. Despite massive University efforts to provide equal opportunity and even provide extra opportunities for people from low-income areas, certain tendencies persist.

These issues are very complex, and some kinds of elitism are very good for an institution which is attempting to employ the best academics, provide the best resources, and produce the best graduates. On a simpler level, however, these social networks are very good for potential applicants. During the past year, I had the privilege of meeting the family of another student. We had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation. Some time later, I received the following email about homework from the younger sibling of this student, who is thinking of Oxbridge applications soon:

hey, im ploding through the boring thing hehe i'd like to include a little bit about that mountain in america u told me, u sed it had like one climate on one side and like a desert climate on the other? what was the name of it? please reply as soon as possible because i need to hand this in soon. thx

(older readers should note that the quality of youths' online grammar and spelling does not necessarily reflect their skill with the English language. This example is very typical of current style, and based on our brief meeting, I would not be surprised if this student did very well at Oxbridge.)

During our prior discussion, I had explained to this student some very basic ecological issues more clearly than the teacher had-- something which is more likely to occur for those who know people from Oxbridge, or from any university. Now the student was asking for sources.

I could have sent sources, and it would not have been plagiarism. But instead, I sent some names and terms along with the suggestion that the student find the relevant sources. I don't know if the student will put them to good use or not. But making it harder for this student actually provides a greater opportunity to hone research techniques, skills which will provide a great advantage during secondary school and in Oxbridge applications.

This, I suspect, is a major part of privilege, and to be honest, if it means that students learn more, I have only a few specific reservations about it, but those have more to do with how to balance a university's impact on society in relation to the economic and regional diversity of its applicant pool and the quality of its production.

The (adj) X (prep) Y is Z
Monday, 6 Aug 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

One of the most common formulations found in academic English is the phrase, "The (adj) X (prep) Y is Z". The great tendency to do this is a major part of the verbose nature of academic English. One main reason for this construct's popularity is its use in spoken conversation, where it is used as a crowbar to pry into the conversation while the speaker is still figuring out what to say.

Another main use of this construct is to permit the subject of a sentence to follow what would otherwise be its direct object. The problem with a direct sentence is that, while the sentence, "Bill is fat, but James is thin" can compare Bill and James, it does not contain the same emphases as, "The difference between Bill and James is their weight", where the emphasised word is placed closer to the beginning of the sentence, as in "difference" in the former example, which is more important than the fatness or thinness of either individual. One other advantage of this construct is its ability to emphasise the adjective, as in "The least difference between Bill and James is their weight", compared to "Bill is fat, and James is thin, but that is their least difference", which requires an additional clause to perform what the former construct achieves in only one additional word.

Finally, the most academically-valuable, most abused feature of this sentence construction is the ease with which additional prepositional phrases and noun clauses, with yet more subclauses, asides, and commentaries of various kinds, may be appended ad infinitum, so long as the writer is careful to mind the transitions into subclauses and never traverse back up the tree of clauses more than two or three levels, which tends to confuse readers, who might find it difficult to remember which is the branch to which they are returning, although Milton famously used this technique to great success in the introduction to "Paradise Lost", which employs a cascade of dependent phrases and clauses to maintain a sense of forward motion and grand historical scope in the span of divine and human doings he summarizes in the admotion to the heavenly muse found in the work's first canto.

An Open Mind
Thursday, 19 Jul 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

It's much easier to have an open mind if you have an empty mind. At Cambridge, I have learned that detail is a necessary component of any good conversation, and that plenty of time can be "wasted" by people who have a general understanding of the question but are unable to distinguish key differences between similar things.

But as Christians, no conversation is "wasted" if we enter the conversation with the good and growth of the other person in mind. Not all people share our opinions. And not all people's opinions are as developed as ours; people also ask a lot of bad questions. If we put our own learning, or the integrity of the idea above the person we're with, we have failed our responsibility to love all people. If we just spend time together and contribute nothing to each other, we have failed our responsibility to love all people.

Christians have a double responsibility and a high calling in our thinking and discussion. Not only are we to seek truth and wisdom, but we are to stand firm in love and humility, in gentleness and generosity. We should be eager to learn and founded on truth, always willing to build on that foundation, and always willing to lift a stone in the constructive life of each person God blesses us to meet.

As If
Wednesday, 11 Jul 2007 :-: ["Permalink"]

Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape.[....]
The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine,
     whirling and foaming in its wild career,
[....] the helm of the boat is gone, and he looks imploringly toward heaven,
as if heaven's aid alone could save him from the perils that surround him.

notes on "Manhood" from "The Voyage of Life", paintings by Thomas Cole.

The two key words in Cole's notes for this painting are "as if". By itself, the painting provides no means of hope. The airy castles of "Youth" and the blissful garden of "Childhood" are far behind. There is no angel here. The only light, choked by dense clouds, only succeeds in putting peril into relief. Thus, "as if" is not a statement about the foolishness of the man's prayer; it is a statement on the nature of his faith, which seeks God "as if" he exists, when even light has failed.

At the St. John's College Christian Union, we are going through prayers in the Bible over the summer. This week's prayer, from Habakkuk 3, presents a similar situation to Cole's painting. How do we relate to a God whose majesty "made the nations tremble", who according to Habakkuk, torments the earth with judgement-- a God of plague and pestilence, who brings anguish and distress in his pursuit of total justice? And what good is faith when our emotion and experience fail to transcend but instead become barren or dismal?

** * **

Answers to these questions are not sufficient. Habakkuk's response is inspiring precisely because it's so ridiculous:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;

It's an extreme statement of faith to attribute both suffering and sustenance to the same person. Habakkuk continues:

I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer's;
he makes me tread on my high places.

This isn't so much a prayer as it is an outburst of desperation, resolution, and desire; not unlike a mantra. It holds Habakkuk to a standard, but to acknowledge need is also to insist upon God. Here, in this dire moment, heaven and earth must meet and work together for anything good to survive.

Many people live within societal desolation like that which Habakkuk or the protagonist of "Manhood" were facing. But as Christians, we are all refugees. And wherever we are, we must hold fast to our faith. For if we do not stand firm in our faith, we will not stand at all.