In which I may have played a bit part in the inspiration for Youtube

vintage television

I’m currently in Poland, where I’m giving a talk to Blog Forum Gdańsk, the city’s annual confab of the country’s bloggers and youtubers. While having lunch with Arlena Witt — who runs a terrific channel explaining the cryptic nuances of English pronunciation — I told her the story of how I may have played a small bit role in inspiring the creation of Youtube.

It begins back in January 2005, when I published in Wired a profile of Bram Cohen, the creator of Bitorrent. Jawed Karim, one of Youtube’s cofounders-to-be, read the Wired piece — and what happened next is recounted in an old Gigaom story:

Karim traces the idea for YouTube to a Wired Magazine article about BitTorrent by Clive Thompson in the magazine’s January 2005 issue. The story included the calculation that 867,000 people watched Jon Stewart’s brilliant on-air harangue against Crossfire, while three times that many saw it online. Karim, recounting the online reach of the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” and camcorder/cameraphone videos of that winter’s Asian tsunami, says he was captivated by the idea of an emerging clip culture.

Heh. So, if you’ve wasted half your workday today watching cat videos, you can, in part, blame me. (Personally, I prefer to waste my workday watching faked UFO videos. Speaking of which: Man, the quality of the homebrew CGI in those things has become superb! Industrial-Light-And-Magic quality, my friends. I also love the fact that there are now Youtube tutorials on making your own fake UFO video.)

By the way, it’s worth noting the other two Youtube cofounders — Chad Hurley and Steve Chen — tell a very different story, one where Karim’s role isn’t so important. (They say the idea began after “they had trouble sharing videos online that had been shot at a dinner party at Steve’s San Francisco apartment.”) Karim soon left Youtube to go to grad school, and didn’t become as famous as the other two. The origins-of-Youtube tale has thus become a peculiarly modern trope: The memetic war over who controls a company’s mythic origin-tale. Joseph Campbell arrives in Silicon Valley.

Either way, there’s a lovely irony at the end:

Once they had the site up and running, Karim and partners Steve Chen and Chad Hurley set about pitching the site to every Wired writer they could find. Nobody bit.

You can catch “mathophobia” from your parents

Picture of plastercine doll alarmed at "math"

Are you mathophobic? You might have caught it from your parents.

“Math anxiety” is precisely what it sounds like — “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”, as one scholar puts it. No-one knows how exactly how prevalent it is, but it affects a lot of folks. One study found that 25% of US college students (and 80% of community-college students!) suffer from it; a 2010 survey found that about one in five adults feel “frustrated” or “anxious” when doing math. It also found that 30% of Americans “would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem.”

No-one’s quite sure where mathophobia comes from. Educators have suggested all sorts of causes, ranging from abstruse math curriculum, working-memory issues in certain students, supergendered cultural messages telling girls they’re innately bad at math (women suffer from math anxiety more than men), or the high-stakes panic of “timed” math tests.

But it’s also a social thing. There’s a pile of research showing that many elementary-school teachers feel nervous about math. (Some examples: here, here and here). Since they’re the ones teaching it, kids pick up on the fact that math is freaky and scary. So mathophobia is also an emotional virus: You catch it from anxious adults.

And now a recent study identified another source of transmission — your parents!

Parents, of course, are often encouraged to be involved in their kids’ homework, because research finds that when parents are engaged in schoolwork, children are more likely to thrive academically. But recently, a group of academics noticed one aberration: Math. Sometimes, when parents get involved in their kids’ math homework, the students do worse.

Maybe, the reseachers wondered, these parents have math dread — and they’re infecting their kids:

We considered the possibility that it is specifically parents with high math anxiety whose homework help is negatively related to their children’s math achievement. These parents may have inadequate math-helping skills or rigidly use instructional strategies that conflict with those that teachers use in the classroom, which could confuse children and negatively affect their math learning. Frequent involvement of parents with high math anxiety in their children’s math homework could also create opportunities to communicate their fears about math to their children.

So they tested it. They gathered 379 first- and second-grade students (211 girls, 168 boys). They checked the children’s math abilities at the beginning and the end of the school year. Then, crucially, they checked with the children’s parents. How often did they help their kids with homework? And what were their levels of math anxiety?

The result? The scientists’ hunch was correct. When parents had high math anxiety, they passed it on. The more they helped their kids with math homework, the worse their children did.

So if you’re a mathophobic parent, what are you supposed to do? If your kid is struggling with homework, you feel like you have to help out, right?

Maybe not. The researchers also analyzed the performance of kids a) who had mathophobic parents, but b) whose parents didn’t help them out when the math got tough. And what do you know — the math performance of those kids did not decline. In effect, the parents emotionally quarantined themselves from their children, so their math-panic didn’t rub off on the younguns. Consider it the Euclidean version of Hippocratic oath: First, do no mathematical harm!

By the way, neither I — nor the researchers — are blaming mathophobic parents for their fears. The odds are high that the parents were taught math horribly too, by people who were themselves taught horribly; these biases go back generations, and deepen like a coastal shelf. So the long-term solution, the researchers argue, is palliative. We need to help parents out, by developing strategies to alleviate their mathophobia. As they suggest:

These might include structured activities that allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways, which could be delivered in the form of math books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps. Parents’ homework help could also be facilitated by providing tip sheets with general guidelines for math-homework help and through video models of effective math-homework help (Robinson, 2014). With support, parents with higher math anxiety may be less anxious while helping their children with math and be more equipped to positively affect their children’s math achievement and math attitudes (Frenkel, 2013).

A gender note here: The teachers of those kids in the study? Of the 79, fully 76 were female and only 3 were male. The vast majority of elementary-school teachers are women, and have been for decades (for a welter of economic and sociological reasons). This becomes part of the math-anxiety cycle. Because girls have been told for decades that “math class is tough”, society has, in effect, assiduously cultivated math anxiety in the very people most likely to wind up teaching the subject to young children.

So one can see how the social transmission of mathophobia is liable to happen inside the classroom, too. It’s a good lesson for why we need to stamp out all lazy generalizations about the how men “get” math better than women; these memes have consequences.

(That Creative-Commons-2.0 picture above is courtesy Jimmie at Flickr!)

 

On the sublime cleverness of an electric car with swappable batteries

biro electric car

Behold the Biro — an extraordinarily cute little urban electric car, which has a nifty feature: You can yank the battery out and swap in a new one when it’s dead. Each battery lasts about 25 miles, so you could bring along a spare if you need to drive for long; or when you get home from work, you bring the battery inside and charge it overnight.

You can get a sense of how it works in this video:

Caution: This is a super twee video, so you kind of have to look past the eurohipsters-in-paradise imagery here. (What is that weird space-age recliner the dude settles into during the final shot of the video? Is that what he does when he’s waiting for the battery to recharge? Just … lie there?)

Anyway, this idea — swapping out batteries in your car — is incredibly clever. It completely upends how we think electric cars ought to work.

When we think of an electric car, we think of the battery as the tank, and the electricity that goes in as the gas. But what if we’ve got all that wrong? Maybe the analogy is more like any other battery-powered object — a camera, a remote-control, a flashlight. In those situations, the tank is the empty space where the battery goes. The battery itself isn’t a permanent part of the tool. It’s disposable. When it’s dead, you yank it out and put in a new one (then set the old one aside to recharge).

This idea — whip the battery out of your electric car and swap in a new one — would solve many, many problems that are preventing the mainstream spread of electric cars. One big problem where I live is that it’s a densely packed city, and I park on the sidewalk, usually pretty far from my house. I’d love to buy an electric car, but there’s nowhere to charge it. I can’t run a cord from my house to the random curbside spot I find for my car two blocks away. And even if I owned, say, a Tesla, I’m not gonna want to spent 40 minutes at one of Tesla’s proprietary charging stations getting a full refill. But if I could swap the batteries out? Have the whole car full charged in about two minutes? Damn, sold.

Now, this idea — a car with swappable batteries — has been tried! The Israeli company Better Place convinced Renault to build experimental cars that had removable batteries, and Better Place created a network of battery-swapping stations in Israel. The concept was that they’d work like a regular gas station, except by robot: You’ll pull in, a robot arm would reach beneath your car, then yank out the old battery and swap in a new one. It promised to be even faster to refuel an electric car than a gasoline-powered one. All it took was a metaphoric shift: You had to stop thinking of the battery as a permanent part of the car. It’s not.

Back in 2009, I visited Better Place for a New York Times Magazine story on the CEO Shai Agassi. I saw their robot mechanism at work:

On the day of the presentation, a group of investors and employees milled around, peering down with interest at the mechanism. The robot — a squat platform that moves on four dinner-plate-size white wheels — scuttled back and forth along a 20-foot-long set of metal rails. At one end of the rails, a huge blue battery, the size of a large suitcase, sat suspended in a frame. As we watched, the robot zipped up to the battery, made a nearly inaudible click, and pulled the battery downward. It ferried the battery over to the other end of the rails, dropped it off, picked up a new battery, hissed back over to the frame and, in one deft movement, snapped the new battery in the place of the old one. The total time: 45 seconds.

Agassi — a 41-year-old Israeli-American with a piercing stare — beamed. “Check this out,” he said, dragging me over and pointing at a set of thick two-inch metal hooks on the frame. The latches use the same technology as those used “to hold 500-pound bombs in place on bombers,” he explained. Designed to release bombs with millisecond precision, the technology is also perfectly suited to keeping batteries safely inside the cars, yet allowing them to be extracted in a blink. Agassi obviously enjoyed the swords-to-ploughshares imagery too.

A cool idea!

Alas, it went up in smoke. Agassi, it transpires, was a terrible manager of Better Place’s finances, and made all sorts of unrealistic sales promises; meanwhile, it wasn’t easy (read: impossible) to get car companies to agree to redesign their cars to include swappable batteries. There’s a good and brutal postmortem here in Fast Company.

Still, the basic idea — swapping out a vehicle’s batteries — is still radiantly sensible. It won’t go away; indeed, it’s already percolating up from below. In many major cities in the US, takeout-food restaurants all have electric bicycles for their delivery guys, because it makes for fast (and very cheap, fuel-wise) deliveries; and if the battery on a bike gets low you can whip it out and replace it with a new one, then take the dead one inside to charge. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more odd little cars like the Biro. Battery-swapping makes sense for apartment-dwelling, curbside-parking urbanites. And there’s yet another area ripe for swappable batteries: Electric golf carts, the sales of which are exploding in retiree communities.

Sure, the big car companies aren’t going to lead the way on this one. Like most genuinely new shifts in engineering, it always bubbles up in the weird, small niches.

The infinite monkeys of spam poetry

pixelated shakespeare

Every once in a while a spambot posts a comment on my blog that is inadvertently poetic. They’re just crawling online text, cutting it up and posting in a word-slurry, but hey — the infinite monkeys of the spambot universe occasionally kick up a pretty lovely post.

Today I was cleaning out the comment-spam on this blog and found this beaut:

Gooseneck trailer hitches are important to haul irregularly
shaped cargo trailers that stick out from the front.
Multiple Paladins will have the capacity
to have Beacon of Light active around the same target, at well.
Best first nerf gun To add insult to injury, Icebound
Fortitude which can be a Death Knight tank’s main “oh crap” ability is
it’s cooldown doubled – from one or two minutes.

I remember one manager I met using a consulting assignment who expressed frustration attempting to deal
with her Gen Y employees. Scenarios (like Nordenwatch) provided fun, instant action and were even superior to Wo
– W battlegrounds.

Sing, bard!

How Ursula Franklin made me a technology journalist

Ursula Franklin

Ursula Franklin is a Canadian scientist, philosopher, feminist, and a thoroughly remarkable person. As Robinson Meyer described her over at the Atlantic web site …

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

As it turns out, Franklin also completely changed the arc of my writing career. She’s why I write the journalism that I do.

I recently talked about this with Suw Charman-Anderson on the debut episode of her new Ada Lovelace Day podcast! It’s here if you want to hear it — I’m on at the 25:00 point:


But if you prefer scannable text, here’s the short version of how Franklin changed my life:

I decided in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. Though I’d been a nerd child who tinkered with computers, I didn’t think I’d ever write about that stuff. A real journalist wrote about serious things … which meant, well, politics, right?

So I went to the University of Toronto and did a major in English with a minor in Political Science, the latter at which I was pretty dreadful. Which ought to have been some sort of warning sign, yes? But on I persisted. I learned journalism by getting deeply involved in the campus newspapers, writing and editing a bazillion stories, and training myself to be — my top aspiration at the time — a city hall reporter for the Toronto Star. (A job I never actually got, since my proffered resumes and clips were met with the sound of crickets.) But anyway, that was the goal: To write about politics — municipal, provincial, federal, international, what have you. I kept all the nerd stuff in check. Nobody, I thought, gave a toss about that stuff.

Then in August of 1990 I picked up a copy of Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology. It was a print-up of her “Massey Lectures,” an annual series broadcast by a notable Canadian thinker on the CBC.

In brief, the book pointed out how technology was increasingly affecting the warp and woof of everyday life. She lays it out crisply on her opening, comparing technology to a house in which we all live …

A page from Ursula Franklin's "The Real World of Technology"

As the book goes on, Franklin elegantly used then-contemporary examples to show how technology was tweaking the ways we related to each other — and particularly how digital tools were being used to centralize power. One lovely example is her discussion of credit-card-style keycards to unlock doors. Back around 1990 they were a hot new tech, but as Franklin pointed out, they weren’t just a “better” key. They were a different key, with new abilities. A regular metal key can let you in a room. But a credit-card key can gather information on how often you access that room, reporting back to the building-owner on your comings and goings. Or the owner can, on the fly, reprogram the lock from afar to suddenly lock you out. High-tech keys conferred new powers on those who owned the locks.

When you read the book today, it’s astonishing how forward-looking it is. That discussion of locks feel like she’s writing about Facebook or GPS chips in phones.

The point is, as a 22-year-old kid in 1990, I had never thought about technology in this way. I was completely ignorant of the tradition of philosophers who scrutinized the social, political and cultural effects of technology — from Harold Innis to Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul and many others, all of whom with Franklin herself was deeply familiar. But once she’d opened the door, I could see everything that lay within that room. I could see how my interest in politics and culture overlapped with my interest in computers.

And I decided, pretty much upon putting down the book, what I was going to do with the rest of my life: To report on technology’s impact on everyday life. How weird new tools were changing the way we talk to each other, learn new things, waste time, work, and play.

So that’s what I’ve done, for 25 years. It’s all due to Franklin.

The “conflict shoreline”: A map that correlates climate change to drone strikes

Image from "The Conflict Shoreline" by Eyal Weizman

This map is a really interesting data-visualization, with a suggestive message: That climate change is very tightly woven with war and conflict.

In one sense, this relationship isn’t news. Climate change causes resource scarcity — and resource scarcity is, historically, one brutally reliable trigger of war and strife. The US Department of Defense certainly takes it seriously; last year it released a report calling climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Another nonprofit study recently argued that a massive 2006-2011 drought in Syria, by driving rural populations into the already-stressed cities, helped accelerate the country’s human-rights catastrophe.

But that map above suggests an even more intriguing and subtle finding: That climate change tracks conflict with such granularity that it even tracks drone strikes.

The map is from a book called The Conflict Shoreline, which I learned about tonight while reading “Let Them Drown”, a speech by Naomi Klein reprinted in this month’s issue of The London Review of Books. Klein describes the map really well, so I’ll quote her at length here:

In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.

I can’t comment in greater depth on Weizman’s analysis until I’ve read his book (and after reading this I’ve ordered it). But if it holds up, as a piece of dataviz, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Klein’s entire speech is well worth reading too, as a synthesis of how climate change and human rights are inextricably entwined.

Paintings of computer code

A painting of an Oracle java API

So, I’ve decided that I want paintings of computer code hanging on my wall.

I started thinking about this last week when I saw the image above.

It’s a painting that was introduced by Oracle in a big lawsuit filed against Google. You can read about it in a great piece by Sarah Jeong, but in brief, Oracle sued Google for $9 billion. Why? They claimed Google had violated copyright by illegally using a snippet of Oracle code. Oracle argued that if you wanted to use that code legally — without violating copyright — you needed to transform it somehow, so that you could claim “fair use”. For example, you could take the code and … render it as a painting! To show what this would look like, the Oracle lawyers actually created that painting of the code seen above. (Oracle lost the argument, thankfully, though the larger question around the copyrightability of APIs is still pretty freaky; you can read more in Jeong’s piece.)

Anyway, quite apart from the legal questions at hand, I was quite taken by the idea of … having a painting of computer code hanging on my wall.

We’re surrounded by software all day long, but we don’t actually look at it, ponder it, gaze at it. Plenty of artists these days use computer code to make gorgeous art, of course. And there are many artists who’ve inverted the flow and used digital scenes for traditional art, as with the video-game paintings of my friend James Barnett (one of which I have hanging on my wall.)

But me, I also dig the idea of the code itself being the subject of a traditional art like oil painting: “Still life with Javascript.” Having that stuff hanging on your wall would — maybe? — make the code running our world an ever-so-slightly more concrete thing.

That Oracle “painting” wasn’t very aesthetically interesting; it’s just a screenshot printed on a canvas, I think. So as an experiment to weirdify it, I ran the picture through Waterlogue, an app that takes photos and transforms them into watercolor-style images:

A "waterlogue" version of the Oracle "fair use" API painting

Eerie, eh? Then I went around online and found some other examples of famous pieces of computer code, and used Waterlogue to turn them into paintings.

The results were pretty striking. Here’s a chunk of code from MS-DOS 1.1, from the section where it’s doing a sector write:

A painting of MS-DOS code doing a sector write

Here’s a little piece of the code for the original Wolfenstein game (not sure what this chunk does):

Painting of computer code from Wolfenstein

Here’s a piece of the first version of MacPaint, involved, I think, in calculating the angles of shapes:

Waterlogue 1.2.1 (66) Preset Style = Blotted Format = 6" (Medium) Format Margin = None Format Border = Straight Drawing = Fountain Pen Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Low Paint = Rich Color Paint Lightness = Medium Paint Intensity = Normal Water = Cherenkov Blue Water Edges = Blurry Water Bleed = Minimal Brush = Coarse Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Wide Paper = Soft Red Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Light Options Faces = Enhance Faces

This is a chunk of Will Crowther’s FORTRAN from the original Colossal Cave:

Waterlogue 1.2.1 (66) Preset Style = Bold Format = 6" (Medium) Format Margin = None Format Border = Straight Drawing = #2 Pencil Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Medium Paint = High Contrast Paint Lightness = Medium Paint Intensity = More Water = Tap Water Water Edges = Blurry Water Bleed = Average Brush = Fine Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Medium Paper = Watercolor Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Medium Options Faces = Enhance Faces

The top line reads “TOTING(OBJ) = TRUE IF THE OBJ IS BEING CARRIED”, though you can’t really see it when the font is so small. I zoomed in a bit more closely on the top left corner and turned that into a painting of its own …

Closeup of watercolor-ified code from "Colossal Cave"

… which lets you see the actual language and syntax a little more clearly.

I think my conclusion here is that a painting of code would look really cool if the text were a) prettily distorted by the medium (watercolor, in this case; or simulated watercolor anyway), but b) with a font-size big enough that you could still make out the text. So what I’d really like is code painted on a canvas or perhaps seven or eight feet square. Which would be nuts but great!

Has anyone actually heard of artists doing paintings of code? I poked around online and didn’t find any, but it seems like that someone has probably done this …

Update: On Twitter, Simon Carless pointed me to these fantastic posters that Ben Fry made in which he maps out the flow of the source code for several Atari games. And: You can order them as posters! Here’s the one for the game Combat; embiggen it to grasp the detail of the work here …

Ben Fry's illustration of the source code of the Atari game Combat

Today I read …

Image from the first page of "The Art of Computation" by David White Goorich, 1873

Opening illustration from “The Art of Computation”, David White Goodrich, 1873

The Art of Computation: This was an 1873 book by David White Goodrich, a “lightning calculator”, capable (by his own boast) of doing fantastic feats of mental arithmetic. In this book he details dozens of mental algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing figures in your head. He bemoaned the fact that students were taught tons of mathematic theory, but weren’t taught practical, everyday techniques for doing everyday sums: “Pupils who can discourse learnedly upon permutations and combinations, make labored and lamentable blunders in adding a ledger column. They know arithmetic as a science; they have not mastered it as an art.” Since this was a period long before the common use of calculating machines, the ability to quickly rattle off mental math was crucial for everyone from bankers to carpenters to grocery-store owners. It’s a fascinating record of the world decades before mechanization began to take over routine calculation. The whole book is a free PDF here via Google Books.

“To Write Better Code, Read Virginia Woolf”: An interesting piece in today’s New York Times by a programmer who did a liberal-arts BA and only later became a coder. He argues that of the programmers he’s worked with, some of the most useful problem-solvers had liberal-arts degrees. For example, at one point his team was working on a project and had a problem with pointers. “In programming language, a pointer is an object that refers to some master value stored elsewhere. This might sound straightforward, but pointers are like ghosts in the system. A single misdirected one can crash a program. Our pointer wizard was a philosophy major who had no trouble at all with the idea of a named ‘thing’ being a transient stand-in for some other unseen Thing. For a Plato man, this was mother’s milk.” For my new book on “how programmers think”, I’ve been interviewing a lot of coders. One thing that’s struck me is how frequently the very-talented ones — the ones who launched difficult, new products that were pounded on by tons of users — came from a dual background: They studied computer-science and some liberal art. A lot of them double majored in CS and something like philosophy, art, literature, or drama.

Beautiful failure

I’ve recently become addicted to the new iPhone game INKS — because it lets you fail beautifully.

Je explain. INKS is a pinball game where you have to complete each level by hitting all the colored targets on the pinball board. Lose a ball? No biggie, there’s an infinite supply. But the goal is to complete the level on a single ball. The fewer balls you use per level, the higher your score. Fun, yes?

Yes! But what makes this pinball so distinctive is … the ink.

Each time you hit a colored target, it splatters a big glob of ink onto the game board. Whenever your ball passes through that sploosh, it leaves a trail behind. As your ball crisscrosses the board, it keeps on running through inksplot after inksplot, leaving splats upon splats and trails upon trails, with the ink mixing and reflowing until you’ve got an gorgeous little inadvertent work of art.

It’s easier to appreciate this when you see it — so, a wee video:

As it turns out, this ink-splattering creates a really interesting experience of failure.

As the game progresses, you fail more. The levels get harder, requiring you to bankshot the ball into some lunatic-inaccessible nook of the board. So I’d try and fail and try and fail — which means I’d begin leaving crazed, fingerpaint-style trails of ink all over the place. I’d also start losing balls, and as you lose balls they change color; by the time you get to your fourth ball, the ball is black, and it leaves a trail of that dark ink. So now my accidental art creations were spiderwebbed with black too.

Behold some screenshots of what I’m talking about. These are several games, showing the levels getting harder and my increasing fail-itude:

The worse I play, the more crazy the designs become; they’re a record of my flailing. But the designs are also quite charming and thought-provoking. You see loops of physics written in ink, the iterated attempts and collisions turning into visual poetry. This is a game that turns your failure into art. 

Better yet, it lets you study your failure, because you can see the common patterns in what you’ve been doing wrong. I can’t say I necessarily learned anything from regarding the flight-paths of my errant pinballs, but when I really screwed things up, it was kind of impressive to behold.

I dig this game-design concept: Making your failure interesting. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite racing games, Burnout 3: Takedown, which took the normal fail-state — crashing your car — and turned into something new. Whenever you crashed, you could flip into a bullet-time slo-mo where you’d view your car slowly tumbling through the air. You could very slightly control the direction of the tumble, and if you could successfully smash your car into one of your opponent’s cars, you’d gain points and “boost” for you car. It was insanely fun and transgressive, and tweaked the game’s emotional import in a really curious fashion, because after a while you’d start looking forward to the next time you crashed.

Thinking about INKS and failure made me go to the shelf and rebrowse one of my favorite books about games — Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games.

the-art-of-failure

Juul is fascinated by the fact that failure is an absolutely central part of playing a video-game; indeed, as he points out, failing inside a game is so common an experience that we could regard it as the central point of playing a game.

Juul opens his book by talking about playing two games, one that was incredibly hard and frustrating, and one that was the opposite — too easy. It turns he found the latter game more annoying. I quoted him on this three years ago in a different blog post, but it’s worth quoting here:

I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:

1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes of all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions and stories, art, and games.

The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games—when we experience as a leading defeat we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us — they produce the emotions in the first place.

Or, as he sums it up:

Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.

When I pulled out the book again, a couple of other passages struck my eye. More below if you’re interested …

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Today I read …

Bicycle woodcut from 1908 Popular Mechanics

  • More proof that teenagers still prize hanging out F2F — and doing so, crucially, while away from adults. This was also the big takeaway from danah boyd’s wonderful book It’s Complicated, which is: a) kids want to spend time with each other, away from authority figures, but b) parents have created a world where that’s less possible than ever, so c) they moved it all to social media, which even they regard as a less-robust version of F2F, but still … better than nothing. <rant>These are the sensible, informed conclusions that generally come from field researchers who do in-depth, in-the-field, shoe-leather reporting, instead of engaging in the sort of lazy, deskbound chin-stroking that propels most “teens today!” punditry.</rant>