ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Lazy Game Reviews: The Lazier Response —

In January of 2015, Lazy Game Reviews, a site dedicated to reviews of retro and historic video games (especially of the DOS stripe), reviewed the Internet Archive’s MS-DOS Games Collection that was making a bit of news back then.

It was…. mixed. Here’s a link to the video of the review.

I didn’t see much point in responding at the time, especially in the Hellmouth of Youtube Comments, but we’ve had a few months with this MS-DOS emulation out there (and a year of console/other computer emulation before that) and so maybe it’s just time for me to respond to some of the more salient points in the review, in no particular order.

So, here they are, lazier responses to a lazy review.

  • “I already use DOSBOX and have most of this.” – The purpose of doing in-browser emulation is not to compete with people who are the types of personalities to go through installing emulators on their home system, or who collect scads of old programs to play in those emulators. What it does do is provide instant access to old programs, for a massive variety of platforms (not just MS-DOS, but over 25 in the Internet Archive system, not counting the arcade games), and most importantly, keep access to the most obscure and edge-case programs that even the most strident hoarder would think twice about keeping around. Yes, you can play a DOOM clone or a famous Role-Playing game, but you can also try out a pregnancy calculator, a US Savings Note Valuation program, or an Exercise Bike Companion. Which if the standard emulator user was keeping on their hard drive, I’ll dine on Roast Chapeau tonight.
  • “Other sites have done this.” – Other sites tend to have Java plugins, Chrome or Firefox extensions, or similar requirements to install extra “stuff” into the Browser. Spoiler alert: People are doing that less and less, having been ultra-burned in the past. And in many cases, these sites provide you with rich, beautiful ads to accompany your program use and browsing. Some even do some roundabout amount of charging. The goal from the beginning was ‘one click, and you’re there” with the Internet Archive experience, and we’ve generally done that. It’s a little difference, but it does make the world.
  • Some of the games are broken. – Some were too fast, some didn’t work in the emulator quite as expected, and some just crashed. Over time, I’ve repaired what people have brought to my attention, or removed the program if it’s just not working deep into operation. We have 3,400 programs in the MS-DOS collection alone – it needs people reviewing them to know what’s up. Since the review was written, things are much better and will continue to refine.
  • There seems to be zero quality control – Guilty as charged, in so far that I simply snapped in a wide variety of at-reach software examples to put into the collection. Over time, some have been swapped out and some have been improved, including machine settings, or discovering superior versions of items. The entire collection was snapped into place by, essentially, a single person. Again, it’s gotten better in months hence as feedback has come in.
  • How long will this be up – A while to come, apparently.

People who read my stuff on this site have heard this before, but the fundamental intention with all the JSMESS/EM-DOSBOX in-browser emulation was to turn the experience of computing into a truly embeddable, referenced object. To say to you, as I can do right here, that there’s this completely weird pixels simulator someone made over a decade ago, and then have you click it and you are right there trying it out instantly, is the new world that I’m talking about bringing in.

Or maybe this interesting use of 167k of data might impress you. Or running a benchmark within the emulator, on itself. Or running a very early PC demo.

The point is, that’s what this is all about… not just about how better or worse it can play a specific game, or who is doing what out there in the realm of providing a free arcade. It’s about making software playable. Really old software. Really playable.

And if you want to define the last 3 years of work on this, it’s been anything but lazy.


The Springtime of Internet Archive V2.0 —

Here’s what Internet Archive did really well for a decade and a half: provide old webpages, and give fast and simple access to millions of items ranging across all kinds of media.

Here’s what it did not do well: change the website.

For years and years, the site looked very much the same. You can verify this, well, on the Internet Archive’s wayback machine itself. Here’s the website in 2004. Here it is in 2014, ten years later. (Go back earlier and you realize it’s different looking only to reflect the fact that people didn’t have monitors that went over 1024×768.)

Now, if you’re going to have to choose between “be pretty and follow website trends” and “save the goddamned data”, I think the choice made is pretty obvious, and that’s what the site did. And did well! You can look at data uploaded long before Flickr, before Youtube, before Facebook.

But believe me, it always galled me when people would link to things at the Archive, amazing and wonderful things, and they felt they had to apologize for the look of the place. The look, and more importantly the back-end structure of the presentation of the look, was locked in the past. Let me rush to say that gazillions of patches and upgrades were applied to the site over the years by the very talented development staff, but there hadn’t been a bottom-up redesign, one intended to reflect the modern realm of technology and information.

In 2014, that changed (really, it started in 2013), and the redesign of what’s called “Version 2″ or “Beta” became available to the masses.

Now it’s generally available. In some places, it’s the default.

Now I’m going to tell you to use it all the time.

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For a while, I’d swap between Version 1 and Version 2 as my needs were required. As of this year I stopped using Version 1 entirely.

The story of creating and designing V2 is not mine to tell. Much more involved and talented people were responsible for this, and I’m sure they’ll tell the tale as time permits.

No, I’m just going to tell you, again, to use it all the time.

Getting to it is easy – it either offers a lot of people the chance to “Try the Beta”, or you just visit http://archive.org/v2 and it will swap you into the new interface. (You can “exit” it in the upper right, if it’s all too much for you.)

What hits you, first, is how much more visual it is. Yes, there’s settings to go back to a “list” mode, and there’s places where there’s “just” some files so you don’t get pretty previews or informative screens. But for movies, music, software… you can see, in large tiles, what’s going down in a collection. And individual items, be they newspapers or television, have great preview frames that tell you instantly what’s down there.

Going over to the MS-DOS Games Software Collection, for example, you are literally beset upon by the wild colors and names of the MS-DOS era. Tapping a picture, you find yourself looking at a preview of the program, and a clear button to start the fun. It’s really easy.

Searches are more robust and allow clicking around to what you’re looking for. The site is responsive, allowing you to move to different widths (and platforms) and have the site adjust to the aspects of your browser. The Archive now knows what social media is. And the thing is…. it’s not done.

It’s not done by a long shot. And that’s the real magic, for me, knowing the work that went in to make this the case.

You see, the back-end was completely rewritten from the ground up while not touching the data that it’s presenting. The whole codebase shot up into the present day. And with all that time and innovation has come the ability for new features and modifications to arrive with 24 hour turnaround, instead of a nightmareish ballet of negotiating legacy code. It’s a new dawn.

I have really had a great time working at the Archive for the years I’ve been there (yes, it’s been years now!) and with this newest interface, things are just a solid joy to work with. Sure, it’s meant a lot more work to make sure everything has good previews and that descriptions are everywhere, but that’s the kind of work that I love doing, so things got nice indeed.

I’ve gushed enough. V2 is the future. And the future is rosy indeed.

 


Embed-able Computers are a Thing. —

This either works for you or it doesn’t.

If it works, a copy of Burgertime for DOS is now in your browser, clickable from my entry. If it doesn’t… well, no Burgertime for you. (Unless you visit the page.)

There’s a “share this” link in the new archive.org interface for sharing these in-browser emulations in web pages, weblogs and who knows what else.

The world’s getting weirder. Enjoy the ride.


Scan, No Scan (and a Cube in the mix) —

This week has been spent sorting through the Information Cube, that insane 40x8x8 shipping container in my back yard, and packing up magazines by the thousand to go away.

The reason this is happening is because of an arrangement I made last year, with the Strong Museum of Play (and is also the International Center for the History of Electronic Games). In this arrangement, they are going to be the new physical caretakers of the magazines I’ve been collecting and have been donated to for 30 years, and in return, I’m not going to die under a pile of crates of magazines that collapsed on me while I was trying to find “that issue with the ad for 9600 baud modems”. Fair enough.

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I have negotiated a number of terms of this material, which would be a bit involved to go into right now. But I still have access to them, and I will have first refusal if they decide to de-duplicate and send to other archives. In an ideal world, I’d inventory all the magazines before they went up to Rochester, but in an ideal world I’d not be doing this in the dead of winter.

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The archivists at the Strong have given me a large list from my own rough inventory of items, and Kevin Driscoll and I have been going through the crates and piles, cleaning things up as we go, and moving the relevant magazines into crates destined to go north.

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The Strong is a good place. And the important thing is, we’re over the hump with regards to materials regarding computers – after taking a bit of a nap on them, institutions now realize they want these endless journals of computer programming and products. And after talking to a lot of places, I rested on the Strong as the place to take my magazines and hold them. They’re well funded, they take care of their stuff, and believe me, it’s a hundred times better than the Cube.

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(National Geographics, however, are a curse, and I’m working hard to find some place or dealer to get them to. The world does not hurt for National Geographics.)

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Anyway, here’s the REAL point of this post.

Every time I mention ANY of this, EVERY single time, and from EVERY quarter, comes the exact same theme of comments and the same question framed every which way, but coming down to this:

Where are the Scans of these, and Where Can I Read Them?

The Scans, the Scans, the Scans. On one level, it’s very encouraging that people have an interest in the material, and that they now recognize the value of access to computer materials online. Without a doubt, that’s what the place I work for is dedicated to and it’s the central thesis of the Internet Archive’s existence.

But there’s a missing part in there: the actual, physical, person-intense process of scanning.

It is not an interesting job. It definitely not enjoyable. And it’s endless, an infinite process of gathering items, getting them into machines, and then whatever level of quality assurance is done afterwards to make sure they’re functional.

Scanning, say, a brochure from a 1978 computer user group, which is a couple pages total, is at least a functionally rewarding and quick turnaround. Scanning what is ultimately 50,000 pages of PC Magazine is not. And believe me, it’s 50,000 at least.

There have been heroic, involved projects to scan magazines over the years. One of the leaders is Bombjack, but there are many others. And when these scans come into my radar, I get them into the Internet Archive’s stacks as fast as possible. Easy access, and quick reading, and the online reading capability are important things, and I’m proud we’re able to support these projects with that.

But I think people need to realize how time-intensive (and sometimes money-intensive) scanning is. I have a scanner in my house, but I also worked very hard on documentaries and emulation in the last couple of years. Being in the dark room with the scanner and adding materials has been my choice to avoid. Because I’m not in an urban center (and therefore can afford the space to have a Cube in the first place), people are not really able to get out here. I have had a volunteer who’s done some books, and he’s been great to do so, but I can’t have someone here day in, day out right now.

Meanwhile, people clamor for the scans. The scans, the scans, the scans. Why are you holding them back, they hue and cry.

One particular edge-case fellow has decried for years, years on end, that I am “holding back” on one particular magazine (one there are significant copies out there, trust me) that he believes I am intentionally not scanning, for reasons he can only construct as evil and self-centered, and holding back from the community. I realize he’s an edge case, but he doesn’t exactly inspire me to tramp out to the backyard.

So, rest assured, this is a situation that’s on my mind. It’s a victory – people realize this is a real and valuable thing. But it’s also the first step of a mountain – scanning magazines and materials is intense, intense work.

My proposed solution is simple.

First, get as many items safe and sound up into the Strong Museum and the ICHEG Archives, so that they’re taken care of, reference-able (with actual catalog numbers, so you can ask for June of 1984 and get it). This first run-through with the Strong has been huge, and I have a theory they actually want more, but we just haven’t synchronized inventories yet.

Next, work with the Internet Archive as a fundraising situation to get both a book scanner and paid volunteers to scan material at the Strong. Lots of scans. LOTS of them. These folks up there are friends, and scanning, like I said, is terrible work, and terrible work should be compensated wherever possible.

The Archive will gladly host the resulting scans. So as items get scanned, they’ll show up in the appropriate collections. The work will be done.

I believe there’s two types of scans that are possible in the contemporary world – “good enough” scans that give you all the information and insight you could want, and “artisanal” scans that are for specific one-off images or pages that have value and merit on their own. Obviously some materials deserve artisanal effort all the way down, but many, many don’t (Conference proceedings come to mind – black and white pages, never-ending, with no illustrations.)

It’s a huge project. I think the first big step was no longer locking items away in the Cube, like a bomb shelter, from the ravages of cleaned-out basements and dying enthusiasts. I think that step is far from over and I expect to continue to be sent items.

The next step, after ensuring their proper place among the stacks of art and works in the world, is to bring them to you digitally.

When I make the call for funding, I hope people answer.

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Taxes —

So, this:

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…is the culmination of a back-burnered fear tornado I’ve been dealing with in the last couple of years – mostly making that final adult transition into tracking my finances in a meaningful way.

To that end, it’s a $25,000 IRS tax bill for my 2012 finances, which were rather off-the-rails odd as far as the IRS goes. (I’ve already paid for every other year, except this last one, which I will pay before April 15th).

People generally treat their finances private, but I’m not generally people, so I thought I’d quickly touch into what this all is.

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When I got offered the job of shooting the DEFCON Documentary, I came up with a number for being paid (outside of the budget of the movie). That amount was how much credit card debt I owed, plus extra for other debts. And man, did I owe a lot of credit card companies a lot of money – $19,000, to be exact. And that number was not really going down very well.

By that point, of course, a payment plan had been organized with the credit card firms, but the terms were pretty onerous and they were still charging some amount of interest. One wrong move, and they had the power to do some ridiculous stuff. I wanted out of the credit card world, and so this DEFCON money was money that would really help me.

I got the payment, and immediately wrote out three massive checks towards the companies (two of them were Bank of America at that point – the third was Discover). And I knew I was walking away from the dragon when I intentionally overpaid Discover by $500 and they very nearly had gotten interest in the intervening time from the last bill to overtake that $500. As a bonus, I told them to close the accounts, all of them, and both put me on the oven for trying not to leave, and then Discover didn’t actually close the account – 3 months later I got a bill from them. Oh, the noise I made. Again, this was at the end of writing three checks, three fat checks, for the full amount owed, and then some.

So, credit cards. Out of my life. Gone. Owe them nothing. yay.

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But after I filed all my taxes in my own, stupid way, I had made a huge, huge mistake, which is that I didn’t properly list the DEFCON money. Frankly, it was out of my mind – they’d given me some 1099 stuff (they’re a legit organization), and I hadn’t listed it.

This, it turns out, really angers the IRS.

So when they sent me a tax bill set that was something in the $40,000 range, that effectively got my attention. In the intervening time, I hired an accountant, went through ALL my finances on every side, and found write-offs as well as repairs, and generally re-arranged how I do this whole income thing. I should also note that I actually had a refund in 2013, and I suspect 2014 will be the “normal” amount a fellow pays for his salary and other income in the world. I’m not letting this happen again.

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So, there’s pros and cons to sharing this – I’m sure I’ll get some level of jibes, or references. But be clear – I did this to myself. Nobody snowed me, I wasn’t told one thing and given another, and I certainly didn’t find myself at the mercy of some clever manipulation of The Rules to get me here. This was a legit mess-up and 2015 will have a non-trivial percentage of my time being spent paying this off.

I make a decent salary, and I knew this was coming, hence my request that any speaking engagements cover lodging/travel – I just can’t afford it for now. And I definitely won’t be covering too many dinners. Also, ketchup in water makes soup.

Life won’t be exactly a hardship, but it does cut me down in terms of leeway. No problem – I’ve weaned myself off of most expensive habits and I really enjoy working on stuff in my house and visiting people who are near me. The saturation may be a little down, but the year won’t be grey.

But that’s not really the reason I’m sharing this.

The reason I’m even going into this is because there’s a situation that affects some of the communities I run in, be they hacker or tinkerer or otherwise “smarty-smart” groups. And that’s the two big fallacies about financies: If you’re smart in how you do programming or tech or math, then surely you should be a taxes/finances genius…. and that if you don’t execute brilliantly along your monetary aspects, this is a shameful situation you must never bring up and hide.

I call bullshit on both.

I call this out and I step forward because in mentioning, conversationally with friends and associates, of the stress of this situation, people would reveal that they too had experienced run-ins with the IRS and general finances – either due to taking on too much debt, or misreporting income, or not understanding how penalties and liabilities affected their income.. you name it. Some had been garnished wages. Others had transferred funds in various places. Someone who I know who would rather I not tell you anything else about them was signing checks over to his wife so that it wouldn’t be immediately garnished in lieu of mess-ups from 1998.

Hiring an accountant, a good one that walked through things with me and gave me the homework assignments (with guidance) that allowed me to re-factor all my finances into something sensible and boil it down to a single bill… that was the best decision I made in all of this. He helped me go through years of materials, and we took a $37,000 bill down to $20,000, which cost about $1500. I may be financially dumb in some ways, but paying $1,500 to get back $17,000 is a heck of a deal. I wish I had more deals like that.

You are not stupid. And you are not alone.

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Stepping out from a miasma of concern and fear regarding my finances into one of understanding and clear, present goals has been a breath of fresh air. It was, truly, one of my remaining huge emotional fears and concerns. And while one might not call having a $25,000 bill being out of the woods, it’s a single number. I can work with a single number. I understand a single number. So that, among all my other goals this year, is to get that number gone. Here’s hoping.

Again! You are not stupid! And you are not alone!

(Some percentage of people might kick into some “help Jason’s tax bill” mode, and I’ll just say – buy documentaries if you’d like, get me speaking engagements with honorariums, or just relax – I’m sound of mind and body, I will earn my way out of it.)

 

 


The BITSAVERS Renewal —

The Bitsavers-Internet Archive bridge continues to be a wild success.

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(I mentioned this whole thing with an announcement from a couple years ago.)

If you’ve not been aware, there’s this amazing, amazing project undertaken by a small handful of individuals to go through stacks of computer documentation and just flat-up digitize it all. No muss, no fuss, no flamboyance, no showtunes. In go endless booklets, manuals, blueprints and spec sheets, and out come PDFs. By the truckload, it can feel like.

The only problem, and it’s a minor polish considering the gargantuan amount of effort put into it, is that the bitsavers site is decidedly spartan. It’s just directory after directory, without any real way to browse the things. You kind of have to know what you want, and you have to download PDFs to see if they’re what you’re seeking. Again, it’s a minor complaint considering the hard, heavy lifting of grabbing this material and digitizing it is being done, dependably, for years on end.

Some time ago, I leveraged being a bitsavers mirror to write some code that would absorb newly digitized items into the Internet Archive’s collections. By doing this, the PDFs get previews, some amount of word analysis, and an online reader. Win-win.

That was some time ago. The collection was well past 28,000 individual items. Items that, if you find them, have gems aplenty:

And, literally, many, many more.

This has been running pretty smoothly for years, but even the best of automated scripts break over time, and I sat down and did some much-needed maintenance.

I finally wrote the script that needed to be written some time ago – it goes through what actually got uploaded and what missed out for a billion reasons over the past few years. It turns out, between broken connections, system downtimes, and the many pieces that could go wrong, over 4,000 files had been skipped over. Those are populating as we speak.

In total, it looks like in about a week’s time, the amount of items on the bitsavers collection on archive.org will go from 28,000 to at least 32,000. That’s books, magazines, brochures, articles… and due to the highly focused work of the bitsavers folks (primarily Al Kossow, who does most of the scanning), the material is very agnostic – it’s not someone who loves Apple scanning nothing but Apple, or a person who likes videogames, or even someone who thinks it should only be brochures or manuals that get scanned. It’s everything, literally everything that sat near or around computers.

Closing the air gap from stacks of paper in a warehouse to digital files is a long, boring, intense road. I’m so glad someone is doing this, and I hope the collection as it stands on archive.org and the other mirrors is of a lot of use to a lot of people for a very long time.


The Emularity —

Last week, on the heels of the DOS emulation announcement, one of the JSMESS developers, James Baicoianu, got Windows 3.11 running in a window with Javascript.

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That’s impressive enough on its own right – it’s running inside the EM-DOSBOX system, since Windows 3.x was essentially a very complicated program running inside DOS. (When Windows 95 came out, a big deal was made by Gates and Co. that it was the “end” of the DOS prompt, although they were seriously off by a number of years.)

It runs at a good clip, and it has the stuff you’d expect to be in there.

windeskBai, tinkerer that he is, was not quite content with that. He wanted this operating system, sitting inside of a browser and running in Javascript, to connect with the outside world.

That took him about 3 days.

winThat’s Netscape 1.0n, released in December of 1994, running inside Windows 3.11, released in August of 1993, running inside of Google Chrome 39.0.2171.99 m, released about a week ago, on a Windows 7 PC, released in 2009.

And it’s connected to TEXTFILES.COM.

Windows 3.11 definitely works, and all the icons in there click through to the actual programs actually working. You can open solitaire and minesweeper, you can fire up MS-DOS, you can play with the calculator or play audio, and you can definitely boot up Netscape and NSCA Mosaic, or mIRC 2.5a or ping/traceroute to your heart’s content.

The world these Mosaic and Netscape browsers wake up in is very, very different. Websites, on the whole, and due to the way this is being done, don’t work.

hackernewsdefconIt turns out a number of fundamental aspects of The Web have changed since this time. There are modifications to the stream that can be done to get around some of this, and we’ll have screenshots when that happens. But for now, the connections are generally pretty sad looking.

digitalTo connect to the outside world, the Windows 3.11 instance is running Trumpet Winsock, one of the original TCP/IP conversions for Windows, and which uses a long-forgotten (but probably still in use here and there) protocol called PPP to “dial a modem” (actually, connect to a server), and transfer data to a PPP node (really just a standard web connection).

This means that somewhere, this instance needs to be connected to a proxy server, which assigns a 10.x.x.x address to the “Windows” machine, and then forwards the connections through. Basically, world’s weirdest, most hipster ISP on the face of the earth.

In other words, this is janky and imperfect and totally a hack.

But it works.

It took about three weeks after I decided we needed to go with EM-DOSBOX in addition to JSMESS to work with DOS programs, that we had it up on the archive.org site and going out to millions. It has taken two weeks after that for this situation to arrive.

Contrast with how it took poor Justin De Vesine, working hard with Justin Kerk and a host of other contributors, eight months to get JSMESS’s first machine (a colecovision) to run at 14% normal speed inside a browser, for one cartridge.

IMG_1813717583062Welcome to the Emularity, where the tools, processes and techniques developed over the past few years means we’re going to be iteratively improving the whole process quicker, and quicker, and we’ll be absorbing more and more aspects of historical computer information.

Now the stage is set – the amount of programs that can be run inside the browser is going to increase heavily over time. The actions that can be done against these programs, like where they can be pulled from or pushed out to, will also increase.

What becomes the priority (as it has been for some time) is tracking down as much of the old software as possible, especially the stuff that doesn’t sell itself like games or graphics do. I’m talking about educational, business, and utility software that risks dropping down between the cracks. I’m talking about obscure operating systems and OS variants that fell out of maintenance and favor. And I’m most certainly talking about in-process versions of later released works, which could stand to be seen in their glory, halfway done, and full of possibilities.

Documentation for the software just skyrocketed in value – we had bai reading 1995 books on PPP troubleshooting to get things going. MS-DOS programs on the Internet Archive will need links to manuals to become more useful (this is coming). And just grabbing context will continue to be a full-time job, hopefully split among a group of people who are as passionate as the folks I’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with so far.

I can entertain debates about the worthiness of this whole endeavor as an abstract anytime anyone wants. But the flywheel’s in motion. It’s not going to slow down.

We’re there.

Update: 

I should have known this was click-juice. Welcome everyone. To speak specifically to folks who “just want to try it”, I ask for patience in terms of this being available to try – it’s still so new and fragile, and frankly, it doesn’t help to have thousands of people hit on the thing, go crazy when it acts weird, and complain bitterly.

If you’re new to the Javascript Emulator party we’ve been throwing for the last year, may I humbly suggest visiting the Internet Archive’s Console Living Room, Software Library and Arcade? With over 25,000 items to try, there’s plenty to keep your attention before the next generation of stuff becomes playable.

 


The Haze of Possibility —

The game Grand Theft Auto V will send you on a large variety of missions and quests, many of which will require travel between the southern, more urban locations and the northern, nature-filled expanses. A number of roads and paths connect these areas, including mountainous trails, single-lane routes and a number of highways. One of these is the Great Ocean Highway, a multi-lane affair that swings along the west side of the island and into the city.

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The day in GTA V is shorter than “real time”, so it’s a good chance you will catch yourself on this highway in the sunset or sunrise, the twilight hours, the golden time. This popular highway is filled with cars making their way north and south, driving at various speeds into the city or away from it. Among them will be you, often caked with blood or carrying passengers to the next quest, or both.

In the mile or so before you get into the city, the view ahead of you stretches far into the distance, and besides the lights of buildings and skyscrapers intermingling with the stars, comes the boardwalk, bright and beautiful, a hazy line stretching into the ocean. At the end of this horizon line of glowing activity is the blur of the ferris wheel and roller coaster at the pier’s end, turning ever so slightly, twinkling into the darkness.

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That view, that hazy view into the boardwalk, has a lot of special, internal meaning to me. It’s a view that promises, just over the horizon, the fun and excitement I might be wishing it was part and parcel of. I didn’t always have the free agency to find my own fun – sometimes I’d be somewhere because the family or the group I was with was on its way to another function, one not as fun, and seeing the glow and promise of things in the distance might be all I got, and I’d craft a dream and hope from it.

Grand Theft Auto V is a marvelous thing, technically. The world is full and real. When I run into the edges of it, the places the engine and the construction fall short, I am so far deep into a situation that my complaint seems ridiculous: Emergency services fail to arrive when I explode cars at busy intersection. Strip club appears to have no roof access to service air conditioning, requiring scaling from other nearby buildings. Specific style of taco truck seems unnecessarily prominent around city.

But far and away, the most brilliant, beautiful thing is the lighting, which ranges the gamut from sun showers to cold nights, and from summertime-quality days to buzzing, foggy evenings. To remember the process of generating a functional, single-color sprite on my Atari 800 by calculating the binary behind each set of 8-16 pixels, it has been a privilege to witness how far the technology has come in my lifetime.

That a moment in the game, a simple one of driving into the city on the Great Ocean Highway, music blasting on the radio, could call me back to a feeling and emotion that has been a part of my life since the beginning… well, that’s maybe the highest compliment I can pay.

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The Digital Nostalgia Heat Differential —

This post is, once again, my favorite kind of idea: a terrible one.

If you’re walking into the emulation-in-a-browser-thing cold, then this big massive essay from me is not going to be of interest. And if you’ve read my stuff before, it’s going to be a bunch of stuff you probably already knew, presented to you again, and concluding the same way.

But, this is the year I’m taking the in-browser stuff on the road, and I also intend to step up my game with the presentations, and so it’s going to be a few rounds of stating my philosophy and motivations as the Software Curator at the Internet Archive on this site, because it’s just going to be a year of that.

So let’s work it over again.

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Here’s me in 2002, finding a pile of old game consoles in a room of technology and craziness at the Hackers on Planet Earth convention in NYC. And I spent some time doing what I like to do – arrange stuff for ease of use. So there’s a fully-realized demonstration station, with easy-to-find access of the cartridges, and a little do-it-yourself for controllers.

Naturally, this setup was doomed – it was only alive for 48 hours, and I’m glad someone grabbed a snap. Along with my short-lived luxurious flowing locks period. But the exercise, with its flaws, and its neatness, was worth my time. People played games they’d only heard of, I saw parents use it as a teaching tool (or change to wool-gather) for kids, and there were surprisingly few douchemobiles.

Even by then, Emulation was a Thing, a Thing that had caused no end of controversy, and had been a boom, a bust, a craziness. I contributed what I could where I could, although my technical chops are seriously not that good. Mostly I saved things, or wrote a few things here and there, and mostly I just enjoyed the magic of what emulation provided, and dreamed.

Both these situations have a place – emulation, growing and controversial, could do things that the game setup of a vintage system could not, and vice versa. They both had long-term issues to face, but don’t we all. And for that time, and even into now, both can continue on quite happily, and both approaches exist.

This will not always be the case.

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In the beginning, was the software.

As The Narrative goes, Software was not thought of as a separate, meaningful product until IBM, realizing they were really getting themselves set up for an anti-trust lawsuit, started to unbundle software/programming from hardware to head off the interest of a government intervention. A gambit, by the way, which failed miserably; but in doing so, IBM had unwittingly birthed this new industry, one that has grown into the juggernaut of what it is now and which so many of the raised voices of the Internet World seem to dabble in directly or indirectly.

The Narrative is problematic out of the gate, because the whole point of Software as a concept is that it’s the manipulation of materials towards a goal, and if you’re willing to accept that definition of mine, then music, painting, poetry, writing… all software. Just focusing on the piano roll industry of the 19th-20th century will do to demolish the timeline of 1960s IBM creating “software”. We even have the old “disk images” of the piano rolls around, both as paper, MIDI files, and digital recreations that make 100-year-old player pianos do their thing.

But rest assured, the idea of there being at least some sort of definable, distinct and of course recompensable art in the endeavor of the manipulation of electronic signals has roots going back a very long time. There are the usual tales of exploitation, misappropriated credit and tribute, and the triumphs of will and talent. But it’s a real thing. In the beginning is the software, and the software persists.

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My particular interests stem from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, but that’s just a personal bias. After all, it reaches from my childhood, a time of great turmoil and misery punctuated by the ecstasy of the promises of computers, leading up to my early 20s, when the Internet truly takes hold in a meaningful way. Maybe the Hunter S. Thompson quote applies here, but in the geekiest way possible. Regardless, the love continues, and I have never stopped adoring the memories of the time.

There’s two ways you can really go in the old computer biz, once you decide you like it. You become a collector, or you become an implementor. You can be both, but I find you don’t do one of them particularly well. So let’s keep it separate.

Collectors gather up all the materials, be they physical or digital, related to their area of interest. Motivation is variant, as is justification. Some people just like having a lot of stuff they like, within arm’s reach or a basement’s trip, and arranging or rearranging materials to suit presentation or a perceived permanent storage. Personalities range, as does how much time spent with them is enjoyable. Like anywhere else, infighting and competition occurs, along with breathtaking efforts to maintain their specific pile to the highest degree.

Implementors have a second layer of creation applied on top of collections, be they collections they maintain or by referencing the collections of others. In the very specific world of vintage computing, there’s been an explosion of newly created devices for reading, recreating, modifying and manipulating older hardware. Think “SD Card Reader for a Machine That Could Not Possibly Have Needed an SD Card Reader until now”, but there’s much more to it than that.

For the sake of this classification, I’m willing to lump academics into the Implementors camp, even though they’re primarily “implementing” classes, books and writings.

So into this area of study, which I keep calling “vintage computing” but should probably just be called “computer history”, comes the entrenched collectors, the implementors old and new, and the audience related to experiencing all of this, in whatever way they choose to.

Welcome.

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Into all of that situation, then, comes the “implementation” I’ve been on for a few years – throwing bootable computer simulations into the browser. Nothing, going back to the beginning, was intended for this to happen. Executing code within the browser’s guts itself, especially exceedingly complicated code like an emulation system, is way out of bounds of original design parameters. But here we are.

At some point, every project, even one trying to do as much of the “right thing” as this one has, will hit the bedrock of dogma and architecture. I may be happy that the toolchain components (MESS, Emscripten, Most Browsers, Javascript’s Standard) are all variant amount of “open” instead of non-variant amounts of “proprietary/closed”, but eventually even that’s not good enough, or is irrelevant to the goals of someone coming in from the outside.

So file the following back at shouts in the darkness on choices.

Java was supposed to be the solution, but I don’t like any way that Java has worked out. It’s a mess on ownership, standards, and implementation. Also, it’s friction-filled – you not only have to install a plugin into the browser (not allowed in many environments), you have to make sure it’s updated (it’s a security nightmare and some browsers expire the Java plugin, forcing a re-install). I just didn’t like a “all you have to do is install [scary thing] and you get access to the old software” as an overall design. I also think “install this plugin” is on the way out as something browsers will do – it’s just plague-ridden as a situation. More on Java/Flash as a solution below.

Javascript has its own limits, but it works in all the browsers, and (assuming you didn’t run into a gotcha), when I take machines and run a fullscreen hit of an archive.org-hosted game, it’s quite breathtaking to realize this is Javascript blowing through a browser and no other trickery enacted. I still get a joy out of that.

Making it run in browsers as opposed to the desktop is also huge to me. Browsers boot everywhere, in everything. The more things that run in browsers, the more people it runs into. Desktops (and straight executable code) all have advantages, but they lose the factors that are important to the project.

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So, let’s step back.

Already, baked into the choices, are the fundamental philosophies of the project and what I’ve been going for. It’s been a learning experience over the last decade or so to see the sparks between my belief system and an audience when not everything is in sync. Oversights become intentional sins. Advantages along one parameter seem like needless obtuseness over another. “Hate” is used as a descriptor. So are “broken”, “forgot”, and “stupid”.

Let’s cover the factors involved in the project thus far, then.

  • The belief that the originals can’t last. Hardware fades out and dies, disks demagnetize, cartridges break, tapes are lost, and documentation hits the trashbin or the trash fire. In the long run, saying “I’ve got a machine in my basement” isn’t going to cut it.
  • Belief that the software of the past should be accessible to as many people as possible, as quickly and as flexible as can be, and in a way that can grow and change to continue to be accessible for the future.
  • The idea that “friction” is a major problem in older software, that outside of the masochistic delight a small crowd takes in how much effort it is to set up, the action of clicking a single URL and getting, say, a 1983 Apple II program running in it, is a new level of frictionless experience.
  • As little manipulation of the original software as possible, or, barring that, having it easily seen what manipulation was done, so it can be undone going forward.
  • Function, after a fashion, as a sort of talisman-proof for a variety of additional arguments, by proving the data/software can be used in a contemporary sitting, and that it has continuing value. I.e. “Oh, we might want to look into providing a software archive if this can happen to it.” or the all-important “I guess I better contact this Jason guy about these old floppies I was going to throw out because I thought they were doomed.

I’ve been happy with these factors – they’ve solved the project well.

There are also factors I don’t like, but are also a part of this:

  • 100% volunteer. I technically get paid to do this, but it’s a sliver of my total duties at the Archive, believe me.
  • QA testing is “as best as possible” and “let’s see what happens when people meet it for the first time”. Again, no budget.
  • Multi-layer failure vectors that overlap in terms of performance. I.e. Archive.org infrastructure issue, Old Browser, Broken Browser, Slow Machine, Slow Network, Odd Expectations, Plugins That Block Javascript, Web Compatibility is a Flaming Viking Ship Burning In Your Swimming Pool And No Fire Extinguisher in Sight

Call me biased, bitter or merely observant, but I feel like the trade-off for no-budget has been that we’ve been able to move rather actively in doing proof-of-concept things in the main project. I have a very dim view of how institutions do this work, and especially how they tend to smother bizarre or off-ranch approaches like this so nobody gets “hurt” or nobody feels any lines were crossed. It has been a very strong indication that I’m working for just the right place that they’ve let me get things as far as they have, with some of the rocket ship being made of corrugated cardboard and a distinct smell of burning almonds just before we hit orbit.

There are other platforms to bring (Macintosh, Commodore), but before I think we bring those under the fold, I want to go back and really nail out the QA and documentation of what we’ve done so far, including making distributable versions of JSMESS and EM-DOSBOX so that archive.org isn’t the only place running this show. I want those kind of minds that want to iteratively improve the underlying programming, and I’ve discovered they’re rare indeed. Maybe 2015 is the year this whole emulation-in-browser thing gets the Big Cleanup, while I stomp the ground to talk about while it’s so important. That seems like a good blend.

Next: The World.

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The MS-DOS section went big last week. Real big. We’re back up into the millions of new visitors to the Archive, which, when combined with the last year and understanding the overlaps, at least means the place is growing, in terms of the audience and awareness, which are important things in the standing and future of this Internet Archive thing.

Along with the weblog entries, the youtube videos, the radio and TV mentions, and the discussion board flare-ups, I’d estimate I’ve read roughly 4,000 comments related to the MS-DOS collection and this whole project.

So. now that I’m back from the eyewash station,… I have a whole bought of thoughts, reactions and obvious points in need of clarification.

As is usual, for everything ever in the history of internet communication, there’s a few phylum of responses that just always latch onto anything that gets thousands of eyes. They are:

  • This is all bullshit, I did this years ago in a better fashion and do it 10x better daily while wearing five hats
  • It did not work perfectly, it was like watching my dog die
  • Look at me, look at me, look at meeeeeeeeeeee

The first one’s got my interest as a topic of discussion. The other two don’t.

Regarding “This was all done better” posts, which usually make an appearance at the beginning or the end of a flood, I find that’s because there’s some distortion between the project intentions (stated above) and the perceived intentions.

For example, EM-DOSBOX is a port of DOSBOX into Javascript. Therefore it has some features that DOSBOX does not (the ability to run in a browser, detachment from a specifically-installed machine for your DOSBOX needs) and has dropped features that DOSBOX has (integration with serial ports, ability to mount local filesystems into the DOSBOX environment, etc.)

This means that I can say “Go here to try out MyMan, a Pac-Man clone made for DOS in 2000.”

The good news is you go there and it instantly happens.

The bad news is that if anything goes wrong, people instantly complain. Harshly.

They especially complain because it “works great” on the desktop version of the emulator. What they’re skipping is that as good or bad as it is now, improvement can happen, but you’re just never likely to get to a point where you say to someone “Try out MyMan – click here for a .exe file that will install DOSBOX on your machine, load MyMan, and allow you to start playing it.” EM-DOSBOX wins on Friction.

But if that friction is truly meaningless to you, you are one unhappy puppy and there’s a delicious, grape-flavored comment box just below the statement for you to fill with anger.

And anger! I thought the Internet was a machine for making copies. Turns out it’s a machine for facilitating anger.

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A large amount of people have very poorly-maintained machines and browsers. That’s just always going to happen. Also, some people are running machines that are very, very old. So any experience that depends on their browser performance is probably going to be odd and possibly infuriating. (A note to myself is that we will probably make some “evaluate your system” process where you click on a URL and you get told about potential ways to make your system run better, or improvements that might need to be done.)

Some games run too fast due to a speed differential, however – that should be a shocker; the javascript implementation of the DOS emulation being too fast – and we have a solution coming very shortly.

The way that JSMESS ran in October of 2013 when we first announced it and the way it was running by the time of the Internet Arcade was night and day – we did so many improvements, revisions, updates and continuing efforts to jack up speed and responsiveness. That came from user response and improvements along the toolchain. I don’t see that trend changing going forward.

EM-DOSBOX improved markedly from last week to this week, and improvements continue. So, ultimately, playing the long game (and the Archive is nothing but Playing The Long Game). “It Just Works” is a definite goal.

Through the 4,000 comments, a lot of it is people arguing with each other, not putting forward any ideas, and obviously a microscopic amount of offers to help or assist. But there were some excellent pieces of feedback; the most marked being that people wished they could “save games” and come back to the site to continue them. I’m going to be honest – that never even occurred to me, that people would be intensely playing some of the longer games in the collection, and have to save them away for later. Looking back, of course, it’s obvious, just like a lot of the situations with “obvious” features. It turns out to be an involved solution, but one that’s being looked at.

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There’s a little part of the mindset in the modern world that’s been interesting in all this, as well – kind of a perception that every single website, no matter who or what is behind it, is a Product.

Products have guarantees. Products are out to kill and murder competing or similar Products. And Products owe you something, because you walked in the door.

Maybe it’s related to the announcement and interest of the games aspect of all this. There’s certainly a rather bloody-knuckled approach to the millions who showed up, found some things working, some things rough, and then decided it was a Failure. I don’t think there’s a cure for that mindset.

Instead, as mentioned, I took what I could from it – improvements in the UI, changes in the options, and definitely improving the way the games can be tuned to work in the browser as expected. And that save game function!

I don’t know, at this start of the year, where we’ll be at the end of it. But it’ll be interesting to watch the journey. We’ve got years of work behind this now, and a year of effort ahead.

Let’s see where this takes us.

 


Love and Noir in the Time of Ebooks —

I first met Chris Orcutt at the age of 11, and we both remember it exactly the same way – the wall at the condominium village we both lived in, who was hanging around, even who was standing where. 2015 is 34 years later. 34! That is a very long friendship.

We’re now in our forties. I’m a filmmaker, archivist, annoyance. Chris is a writer.

Here’s a good one of Chris these days, at his writing desk:

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It’s a still from from a film I did about his insistence on writing his first drafts in pencil. (The film is here.)

Chris photographs well.

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However, we usually look like this when we’re together:

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We’ve both moved around a lot, but for the last few years, we’ve lived within a few dozen miles of each other, and getting together on a semi-regular basis is the easiest it’s been in over a decade, so we’re making the most of it. Good lunches, good walks, good conversation.

In his early 30s, Chris became a full-time writer. He’d been a writer for years before that, including for a newspaper, as a speechwriter, and as a copywriter, but after a certain point, he and his wife made the decision that he would dedicate himself, full-time, to writing. Writing novels and short stories and plays. Nothing else.

They’ve kept at that choice, with various amounts of hardship attendant, since then. Chris writes. He gets up in the morning and he writes the entire morning, then either does some reading or other research. Pretty much every day. For years.

Back in his twenties, when we were both going to colleges near each other in Boston, my friend started taking a poor turn. Drinking got amusing, then prodigious, then alarming. It got to a point I simply assumed my very good friend, my best friend, was going to die, so I tried to enjoy what time I had with him.

As he has discussed in the open more recently, Chris had an un-diagnosed bipolar disorder. With medication and medical supervision, it’s under control, the drinking is rare, and my friend is alive to this day. With this control came the ability to focus on tasks and quality of work that shows in his efforts since then.

And that effort, I will say one more time, is writing. Pretty much every day. For years.

The result of this writing has been a collection of novels. They include a three-novel detective series, the Dakota Stevens Mysteries, and two short-story collections.

They’re good. They’re unquestionably good.


He has not wasted his time, his years, poured into these projects. I’ve not had to look away and make excuses for them, or call a glue-ready horse a racing champion. He’s done fantastic work here, and will continue to do so.

Here’s why I’m talking about this.

The third novel in the detective series just came out. Of his going-full-time novels, this is the fifth overall. He and I both do these long-term projects (he the books, I the movies) and we don’t look at each other’s stuff, in-process – we wait until the end and enjoy it with everyone else. So on the day it came out, I bought and downloaded the third novel, A Truth Stranger Than Fiction, and damn if I didn’t devour that thing in a day. I read very fast and vociferously, but I take the book in along the way. And the book’s good. Damn good.

While I didn’t read the in-process novel, I went to a lot of lunches with Chris during the year he’d worked on this book (and he’d written drafts before the intense year) and I know how many times he read the thing, how many drafts he pounded out to get it where it was, and how much editing and polish he put on it, across months, to get the book where it is. This thing’s a craftwork wordsmithing of the highest order for Chris. You may diverge from opinions stated by characters or you may be surprised at which way things go, but none of his books, none, have the sour feeling of a good idea burdened by crap writing. He wrote these for the ages.

This turns out to be a problem.

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If you haven’t observed this already, I’m a whirlwind of input and output. I splash through a hundred hangouts, online and off, a week. Tracking down the most minute of factoids just to prove a point in a web-based conversation I wasn’t even in two hours ago is my idea of a good time. Shit howdy do I like splashing through life’s intellectual wading pools and swinging a bazooka of manic lyrical fireworks. Pump me full of the hottest images from imgur, the latest insanity out of hackernews, the twitter tornado of the moment. My tolerance for the always-on glut of intellectually stimulating-and-stultifying river of human experience is legion. Bring it.

Not so much, with Chris.

The rough years of his twenties and the writing years of his thirties and forties have diversified the two of us. In our teens, we were both pretty hyper and bring-it kids. I’ve turned that up to dangerous, slap-a-warning-label-on-it levels. Chris has instead focused on his craft, his skills, in the art of writing. It’s made him different. Not less of a person, mind you… far from that. It’s his years of focus that’s made him really great at the writing he’s aimed his life around. He is the monk, waking to the cold water of the stream and practicing, and I am the insane brother living deep in the city, buried under twelve crazy deals and all kinds of trouble. Different choices.

All said, we still get along.

But it does mean that each time Chris emerges from this thing that means so much to him, this novel that he’s poured hundreds, thousands of hours into… he just hates the way things are. It’s like he’s brought the best pie he could bake to a fair where folks are gleefully handing out Hostess Fruit Pies and crowing at how the flaky crust and the cherry-flavored-filling is a meal fit for a king.

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He gets really sad about it, sometimes. Books were, and continue to be, special. But the modern world is working very hard to make the kind of effort Chris puts into his part of the writing landscape a waste of time.

What he wants is for the books to be available in 1975, making a splash with the effort he’s put into them, meeting up with others doing equivalently hard work, and taking his residuals while taking his wife to exotic locations to do research for further writing.

What he gets books are available on Amazon. Amazon takes away the problems of a warehouse of rotting copies that your publisher isn’t promoting, and enables to-the-moment direct control by the author of the sales and pricing of their book. For that advantage, Amazon has progressively, and I do mean progressively, destroyed writing books as a career for any writers who are not in some way self-promotion machines or blowing three quarters of their time that should be spent on their books, on blog entries meant to drag in readers.

Amazon’s structure favors people shooting out a bunch of crap, in serial form, to constantly stay in the promotional frame. Amazon’s routines disfavor older books, with “older” being a month or two ago. And ever-present “sales”, “prime” and “deluxe” situations are existing where Amazon is heading towards making books into an “all you can read” Netflix-like situation, where people pay Amazon $10 a month and they get all the books they can slam down their gullet.

This is not what he signed up for.

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I’ve done this rodeo before.

Here, I’ve told you my friend’s craft and pain, and the more passionate reactions will tend to be along two lines of thought, with a bonus track.

The two lines are

  • Fuck your buddy. Sorry to hear he came down with the born-too-lates. It’s a world of self-promotion and staying-with-the-times and he better learn those skills as well as he’s apparently learned to write. Or get a second job.
  • Writing has never been a self-paying job – congratulations on learning what we all knew.

(The bonus track is, “oh, a book series to read, I’ll check it out.”)

 

So, both of these are wrong for what I’m talking about here.

First, I think the world is seriously suffering when everyone is writing garbage teenage supernatural romance with a chapter’s worth a month. I realize there has always been crap and Sturgeon’s Law reigns supreme, but that doesn’t mean Sturgeon’s is an end goal. I make the argument that there’s got to be some middle ground – that as we’ve been working so hard to make it easy to transport electronic books in seconds and share them among ourselves in seconds more, that we lost some of that imprint feeling, of knowing a house of publishing was going to give us winners and it was worth the effort to seek out the newest titles. I think it’s a problem, and a problem that needs solutions.

Second, there have been writers who have made it a career, after they put in their dues. Chris has, trust me, put in his dues. After saving for years, and with a boost from sales from a book, husband and wife took a trip to Paris (which was then used for research for a later novel), and this was the first time they’d done any vacation in a decade of marriage. Dues? Paid.

I can’t wrap this entry in a bow. I can’t even bring you the place the plot is going to go. I don’t know what’s going to happen. My friend has skills that outstrip mine in many ways, and I get lots of goofy press for my efforts, while he works in relative shadow.

I thought, maybe, I’d shine a little light on a friend’s lifetime effort, since it deserves a beam many times brighter than it has gotten.

And maybe, just maybe, send them to Paris again, one day.

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