Pluralistic: 03 May 2020

cyberpunk,scholarship,science fiction,bruce sterling,henry jenkins,climate crisis,pandemic,co2,state capacity libertarianism,motivated reasoning,charles koch,marshmallow test,games,paleocomputing,prince of persia,monopolism,second chances,old school,books,reviews,

Cyberpunk conference call for papers; Lockdown CO2 and structural roots of the climate emergency; The Making of Prince of Persia

Pluralistic: 03 May 2020 give-me-slack


Today's links

Cyberpunk conference call for papers (permalink)

You've got one week to submit papers and proposals for the Cyberpunk Culture Conference, which will be held online (naturally) on Jul 9/10.

The conference's defining vision: "we are living in inescapable cyberpunk futures bleeding into the interstices of our present, and these cyberpunk realities intersect with our mainstream culture at every possible angle."

The related topic that most interests me is the way that the marketing materials and boasts of the personal computer industry, games industry, and online service industry inspired the OG cyberpunks, who were largely not working in those industries.

And then how the cyberpunk literature they created inspired customers for those industries, as well as creators/programmers/founders in those industries, and a new generation of (post?)cyberpunk writers who came out of those industries.

It's a nifty and weird bit of self-fulfilling prophecy, but a prophecy that mutates in unpredictable ways.

In a new episode of Henry Jenkins and Colin Maclay's "How Do You Like It So Far?" podcast, Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic really dig into what post-cyberpunk writers and stories are like:

Specifically, they declare the end of the Hacker Cowboy, because the cowboy hero always disappears when the "frontier" turns into a state with railroads and land barons.

And they laud the era of sf about movements creating social change, replacing the Heinleinian competence-porn hero who unilaterally Invents a Thing That Changes The World.

While noting that the writers who produce this work are far more likely to be involved in industry, politics and academics than their forebears were.

I found the whole episode fascinating, in that slightly uncomfortable way that a good Sterling rant always evinces.

Lockdown CO2 and structural roots of the climate emergency (permalink)

About 4 billion people are in pandemic lockdown, but the forecast drop in CO2 emissions for 2020 is about 5%; to head off a global temperature rise of more than 1.5C, that number needs to be 7.6%.

As Murtaza M Hussain wrote, "This suggests emission levels relate less to individual behavior than larger structural factors only addressable through regulation."

Emergencies have a well-known leftist bias, which is why the right has such a hard time dealing with them, despite its worship of "rationalism" and its belief that "reality doesn't care about your feelings."

Take Charles Koch: he became a billionaire by making a ton of long-term investments in hydrocarbon extraction and processing technologies with really long amortization schedules, and grew the business he inherited from his father a thousandfold.

People like Koch are the subject of endless right wing worship that singles out his patience as a kind of natural gift that suits him to rule – the market gave Koch a lot of money because Koch has the foresight and reason to allocate capital well.

It's why there's so much fetishization of the "marshmallow test," which purports to show that poor people are, by dint of some intrinsic deficiency, incapable of the mature foresight that is needed to govern themselves wisely.

(of course, reality is very different – poor kids "fail" the marshmallow test because experience teaches them that promised opportunities rarely materialize, and the smart money is on seizing any chance you get rather than waiting for jam tomorrow)

You know who really fails the real-world marshmallow test? Charles Koch. Mister Long-Game can't see the value of taking a short-term hit to retool for renewables, even if the cost of failing to do so is civilization l collapse and a possible end of our species.

That's the root of idiocies like the Mayor of Las Vegas insisting that she can declare her city open and the "free market" will produce safety guidelines that keep people from dying.

And it's why the right has to tie itself in knots with ideas like "state capacity libertarianism" to figure out how to preserve its ideological purity without being roasted alive by climate change.

Human beings have a shared microbial destiny, a shared world, and a shared climate. Selfishness is not pareto optimal, especially when it comes to commons.

Indeed, the "Tragedy of the Commons" was a fraud designed to justify the seizure of commons and the subjugation of their users as a preferable alternative to not being selfish.

The climate lesson of the lockdown is that climate change is not a matter of personal responsibility. Even if everyone does nothing, just sits as still as possible and buy as little as possible, we will not head off the crisis.

If you had any doubt about whether diligent recycling, ditching your car, and never boarding another airplane could save the world, now it should be dispelled.

We need structural change: to how we generate power, how we grow food, how we transport goods.

The role for individuals to achieve that change is to band together in movements that demand the investment of capital and resources in refashioning our built world so that it continues to sustain human life.

If the survival of the human race is beyond the reach of individual choices and market transactions, that doesn't mean that the human race shouldn't survive. It means we should find new tools to manage our resource allocation.

The Cowboy Economist has a great analogy about the doctrine that holds that if markets can't do something, that thing is immoral and shouldn't be attempted: he likens this to a carpenter who refuses to use screwdrivers, and only uses hammers.

"Sorry, fella, I'm a hammer guy. That thing you want built needs screws and screws are WRONG, so you're wrong for wanting one."

Markets are tools for capital allocation, not moral arbiters. They can't solve all our allocation problems, especially these existential threats.

The Making of Prince of Persia (permalink)

From an early age, it was clear that Jordan Mechner was extraordinarily talented. While he was a Yale undergrad, he created the game Karateka, which Broderbund published and which went to #1 on the Billboard software charts.

But it was Mechner's followup game, Prince of Persia, that cemented a place in game history for him once it became part of the canon of games, inventing and popularizing many of the tropes of modern sidescrollers and puzzle games.

In "The Making of Prince of Persia," Mechner reproduces three years of personal journal entries describing the trials and tribulations that went into PoP.

It's a genuinely delightful book, even if you don't care about the history of video games.

First, because of the ingenuity of the technical tricks that Mechner invented to create the breakthrough graphics in the game.

Mechner was a multi-talented kid: a visual artist, a gifted programmer, and a would-be filmmaker. To get the fluid movement that redefined the look of video-game characters, he filmed his kid brother (a budding Go champion) doing acrobatics.

Then he did all kinds of crazy things to turn that motion into a rotoscopic basis for his hero, like photographing the frames with a still camera (bought from the old Whole Earth Store!) and scanning them, then turning those scans into pixel art.

To read Mechner's contemporaneous logs of his wrestling with his tools and his machines is to take a journey back to a heroic age of games authorship, when even programmers affiliated with industry-leading studios like Broderbund were making tools to make tools to make games.

There's also a sense of living in a dynamic moment, when really different new computers were shipping regularly, each with radically different capabilities and limitations, and how that played into the calculus of a hacker wrestling with optimizations for just one platform.

But the book also works on entirely different levels. It's also really fun to peek inside the head of this driven, smart kid as he graduates from Yale, moves to San Francisco, arriving with a major success under his belt to take up a position at an industry-leading giant.

He's brash and smart, and really observant and insightful about the dynamics of the people around him – Broderbund was incredibly dysfunctional – while at the same time, he was just a kid, making stupid mistakes about his life and the people around him.

So that even as you're rooting for this bright prodigy, you're also cringing at his self-destructive work habits and worrying about how far out of his depth he's gotten. It's got a hell of a dramatic arc.

And finally, this is a snapshot of a moment when the tech industry had an enormous amount of slack in it – despite the long hours and high stakes, the industry was made up of lots of different people trying different things.

It was an industry that grew when new people showed up and did new things – not like today's growth model: giant companies buying little companies and killing or co-opting the ideas that might grow to threaten their dominance.

It was an industry where you got a second chance, and a third, and a fourth, because there were lots of magazines that might review your game; there were lots of new platforms were players might discover them. There were lots of different retailers who might stock them.

Countries had their own computers and their own retail channels. There were multiple distributors bidding for products, hungry and coming up with new ways to make them into hits.

And that is the true story of Prince of Persia! Because the game was a giant flop. The original Apple ][+ version tanked. Mechner scrambled hard to get a DOS version out, betting everything on it, and…that failed too.

Indeed, the last 20% of the book is just a series of journal entries wherein the young Mechner is collecting these rave industry reviews, using them to get PoP launched on another platform, and then having his hopes dashed.

Until, eventually, the game became a hit. It didn't become a hit because Mechner had some incredible new insight or lucked into a brilliant new tactic. He just got a ton of shots, and eventually, he got lucky.

Luck is key to every success (of course). You can improve your odds by doing something amazing (as Mechner did with PoP), but the other key way to improve your odds is to get more chances.

In the decades since Mechner created PoP, endless rounds of consolidation has led to a denuded, monopolized world where all the chances are hoarded by the winners – the ones who are getting bailouts during the crisis – and the rest of us get one (or fewer) chances.

THAT'S the lesson of Mechner's diaries: that, in the absence of more chances, there are countless significant, breakthrough works created by brilliant, unsung prodigies who labor over them with heartbreaking intensity that just…disappear. They get one (or fewer) chances.

Mechner's success begat a long, fruitful career that brought delight to millions. He's had moderate success with the screenwriting and directing that obsessed and distracted him while he was creating PoP, and has created some stunning graphic novels.

He's someone who was very good, very lucky, and who got lots of chances.

BTW: back in 2012, he recovered and posted the original PoP sourcecode:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Boy Scout badge in Intellectual Property;=5693563&subj;=news

#15yrsago Brazil rejects Bush's faith-based AIDS money

#10yrsago Skin-tone-matched hospital gowns make it easy to spot color-shifts

#10yrsago Terry Pratchett: Doctor Who isn't science fiction

#1yrago "Smart" doorlocks have policies that let landlords and third parties spy on you

#1yrago Fentanyl execs found guilty of racketeering, face 20 year prison sentences

#1yrago Chinese urbanization has left 25 million vacant homes in rural villages

#1yrago In 2008 "synthetic CDOs" destroyed the global economy, and now they're back

#1yrago Strange codes from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Beyond the Beyond (, Murtaza M. Hussain (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 558 words (10850 total).

Currently reading: Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 01)

Upcoming appearances:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

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