Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

Real photos of solar systems.

I think I put the idea together myself before reading it from scientists. If a star is the heaviest object around, and massive amounts of rocks or dust are circling so fast they won't be sucked in, then gravity might coax that much debris to conglomerate and congeal. Not into one big mass, but in patches, with some variation depending on the speed and distance of whatever formed. That explains how a chaotic mess with only a star, given vast time, could become a solar system. Discovering this was accepted science was a thrilling affirmation, but had I even considered I'd see a real photograph of this process? I don't think I even dreamed it.

The image here seemed too extraordinary that I assumed the actual it the artist's rendition, and after a double take, I hunted further for the disclaiming caption. Look at that thing. It's real.

That's one of two photos taken with the Very Large Telescope's "SPHERE" instrument, specialized to illuminate a system by selectively blocking the light of its star.

The second, with a subject also hundreds of light-years away, is also breathtaking: an actual image of a system with two visible planets. (Plenty of extrasolar planets have been cleverly detected, but actually photographing them is rare; I think this is the first image ever of two in one system, differentiated from the background stars by their movement.)

These are significantly larger and farther out than Jupiter. What does that imply? More dust that was swirling thinner and faster, to maintain that distance and collect over time into such gas giants?

That's only my first speculation as an amateur, but even the basic premises on which to base such speculations wouldn't have been available some decades or centuries back, and only this era are these "real-world" examples shedding light on the range of possibilities.

Chamomile.

A classic evening tea. What to have if you want something soothing and don't want to caffeinate yourself.

It's one of the few teas I think is best on its own. Well steeped, but without sugar or milk or cookies or anything.

I don't think it's dandelions, but it is flowers, though the flavour is closer to dandelions than anything else I remember inhaling. ("Floral" used for tea, in my mind, means a sensation more abrasive and perfumed – a taste selected to seem apart from comestibles – but chamomile isn't that either.)

The ideal moment.

Among Earth’s old myths is Heaven, a form of afterlife.  The myth survived to be invoked by adult speakers around a young me, sometimes with apparent sincerity. The finer details seemed to vary depending on the adult relaying them, but I came to consider it, approximately, “a place where you could do whatever you want forever.” Perhaps Heaven would be a physics-fluid cloudscape to a person that always dreamed of flying without a plane, a soothing sauna to the unwitting labourer, or a lush meadow to a grazing animal.

One day, I’d memorize “Weird Al” Yankovic’s frantic stream of consciousness Everything You Know Is Wrong, with its brief confrontation with Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates over failing to conform to the dress code:

Well, he lets me into heaven anyway
But I get the room
Next to the noisy ice machine
For all eternity

By then, I had also imagined my own configurable “Heaven” as something like an apartment. It was simple and uncluttered. In fact, I imagined only one concrete object: something to program. I’d used my family’s Amiga growing up, but HyperCard on the Macintosh had earned its place as my platform of choice through its accessibility and seeming limitlessness to a person of my age.

After some grades, it had dawned sadly on me: “school takes up your whole life,” by which I meant one’s whole childhood. There was a yearly summer, but even the season’s name belied its impermanence, and when all the summers were done, you had grown up. When was one supposed to avail oneself of one’s childhood with a long, dedicated focus on something so vast as programming?

One year, I was fortunate to borrow one of our classroom’s computers and keep it in my room for the summer. I designed a point-and-click game called “Mansion Escape.” Out my window was our yard, then the field of the neighbouring property, then the further rural distance. The sun would set on the other side of the house, but the visible twilight would as plainly pronounce the transition out of day. That moment – the begining of the evening, when the world was quiet to you, and and time lay waiting – felt closer to my imagined Heaven than anything.

I was still waiting to learn the evidence for Heaven, and only years later would adult claimants disillusion me through failure to produce any. Since I always considered “what happens when we die” a great unanswered question, I was not disappointed (except perhaps in those adults).

Admired figures have repeated thoughts like “uncertainty of an afterlife makes life all the more precious,” which sounded upstanding, though I had never found myself thinking it. Does a post-life void really enhance the present? How could the quality of today be affected by future unknowns?

But if, through some lapse in logic or misplaced trust, I had ever been certain my imagined Heaven was real as France, I might have felt comfortable deferring pursuit of such evenings indefinitely, even after I had grown up. If I want to be certain I’ll ever have them, I thought, I then I have to seek them. That realization might have changed my actions, and my actions might have changed my life. There it was: an indirect, but appreciable effect of not knowing.

I could say this story was about finding “Heaven on Earth.” But if an evening on Earth could be Heaven, then I would no longer be using “Heaven” as I was earlier; I’d have committed verbal sleight-of-hand. The truth is the opposite: a quiet evening to create – or your own imagined version of Heaven rendered here, today or tomorrow – is no element of the afterlife, but of life.

"A Decade Of Sun"

A ten-year anniversary for the amazing Solar Dynamics Observatory, recording our star in perpetuity with various sensors. And now, a time-lapse video stringing all ten years together at the rate of one day per second.

I've finally purchased my first space station.

So to speak. It's the Eaglemoss model of Deep Space Station K-7, the remote setting for the original Star Trek episode The Trouble With Tribbles. I’d mistakenly thought the episode took place entirely on the Enterprise, even after its meticulous reference from within Deep Space Nine decades later resurfaced it to my attention (I’m sure I’m not alone in that). But recently noting the station itself transmogrified the experience of watching what I’d considered a relatively dry original episode. Why would that make any difference?

Star Trek’s scripts imply a good dozen space stations by name, though only a few were depicted, like the majestic Starbase 74 from 11001001, apparently a repurposing of an earlier shot containing the identical “Spacedock” around Earth. It was rendered as a massive majesty of cylindical symmetry, capable of holding the thousand-capacity Enterprise-D like a cabinet holds a candy bar. For the exterior of Starbase 173 from The Measure Of A Man (more like a Swiss army knife), its depicted lounge looks plain and comfortable, which is common for Star Trek.

Hints like that brought me to see its space stations as statements and not just settings. Any space station in science fiction is functional, but not always hospitable or accommodating, let alone alluring. Designed for TV and movies today, they’re often the opposite: unnecessarily dark, harsh or unaccommodating, as though “utilitarian” wasn’t a feature but a ceiling, a line whose overstepping would constitute some unspoken offense.

But Star Trek’s space stations never evinced this attitude. Returning to Deep Space Station K-7, a primary location for Tribbles was a common area with a trading post and dining area, but the station manager’s office looked equally desirable as a place to occupy at leisure. Based on the episode, Geoffrey Mandal (a graphics artist on DS9, Voyager and more) produced blueprints for this station class which included the areas for entertainment, housing, and nature, imagining a combination of functionality with relaxation and residency.

Despite its capacity to house a few shuttles rather than Starbase 74’s room for a few starships, the same future bestowed by Star Trek seemed present at the heart of that thinking: this might be a place where you could find flight crew, scientists, academics, or just families (who might more typically be those things), built on the expectation they would congregate or mingle or interact. “Expectation” is a word that might encompass Star Trek’s optimism: a model of a better humanity, beyond the vices of yesterday and today, was presented to be emulated. If humanity didn’t turn out this way, there wouldn’t be a purpose for this kind of space station. The message on the wings of this fictional conceit was not just “humanity can,” but “humanity will.”

That’s a kind of thing I enjoy thinking about. And that’s why, not really being a collector of physical objects, I felt such a desire to have this one nearby.

The stars, as seen from elsewhere.

An amazing image for astronomy: the New Horizons probe, five years after completing its primary mission to capture Pluto in detail, sent back images of two nearby stars. Comparing them to images taken from Earth, those start (Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359) appear unmistakably shifted. This means New Horizons, having travelled over four billion miles, has returned our first look at the galaxy – as opposed to just the solar system – from an appreciably different angle.

To see it is to feel almost like travelling out there, just a little. New Horizons joins the Voyager 1 and 2 probes in heading indefinitely away from us.

(I don't think it's been updated in some time, but Hanno Rein's Exoplanet app, though designed to chart the galaxy's planets, shows a really nice visualization of the stars' relative distance on the galactic scale.)

Twitter culture.

On Twitter, there's a field for your user name. Of course, you could put your name there, but why not your opinion? Maybe a nice phrase, or the name of an ambiguous but popular movement. That seems good.

Then you're set to unleash a series of tweets containing only your name.

"Perhaps More Than Ever – Truth Matters"

Social news continues to develop rapidly, but it's never the wrong time for reminders to employ basic critical thinking and skepticism, like this one from Steven Novella:

Step back from any important claim and ask the basic skeptical questions. Is this really true? The full story is probably more complex and more messy than this clean narrative. Does the other side have any legitimate points, even if I disagree with their basic position?

Person allegedly finds actual treasure chest.

A more serious idea than my temptation to hide a boxed ocarina in the park for unwitting musicians:

Antiquities collector Forrest Fenn says he hid the bronze chest more than a decade ago, creating a treasure hunt for people to find it.

Thousands of people searched for it, many quitting their jobs and using up their savings. Four people died.

I read this just after waking up and thought I remembered reading "hundreds of thousands," but even "thousands" seems hard to believe. And the treasure was actual treasure: valuable ancient coins, jewels and artifacts.

From what I can tell, this whole story is supplied by the architect of this hunt but sat alongside front page stories of the Coronavirus pandemic and worldwide protest marches. Is this real? What is going on?

"That's for Sunday night."

That was one of my earlier memories after moving to the United States. I don't remember which classmate expressed the approximate sentiment; I was just meeting them all. I had mentioned my first task after arriving home (from high school on Friday afternoon) was to complete my small amount of homework.

Parents warn children of "bad influences," and on their minds, I suppose, are drugs, delinquency, or unkindness. Putting off homework seems relatively harmless, if not a legitimate time management choice. However, the tone I perceived suggested it wasn't about time management, but delaying something less worthy of attention.

The token denigrator of schoolwork is a conjurable image: a capable student who doesn't fulfil their potential for lack of effort. I had the image, but I'd never seen it live. It felt strange, hearing a real person deliver the declaration with such insouciance; not a trace of discomfort. Like they thought they'd figured things out.

It was enough to spark questions. Homework was often exciting, and if not, then rewarding. But was there some hidden world of adventure and benefit behind this academically negligent philosophy? Was it really for Sunday night?

The answer – which I took some time to consider – was no. Not "no" to taking reasonable breaks or purposely delaying work, but "no" to the attitude on offer. "No" to the question of whether an enriching activity, formatted to promote steady understanding of concepts and acquisition of mental tools, was indeed less worthy.

If I had embraced the attitude every day for decades, said classmate might have proved at least as bad an influence as any on that earlier list. Instead, the encounter helped me learn to do for myself what teachers composing homework once did for me: to sort worthy from unworthy – a skill which doesn't affect grades, but courses of lives.

Open letter from former Facebook employees.

Addressed to Facebook and signed by over 30 of them:

“Facebook… claims that providing warnings about a politician's speech is inappropriate, but removing content from citizens is acceptable, even if both are saying the same thing.”

Time to leave Facebook.

My first Facebook post was in 2007, and the last was this week. Just over 6,100 posts, not counting comments or replies.

Having decided I'd never send friend requests (only let people send friend requests to me, which I would always accept from real people I knew), and that I wouldn't "unfriend" anyone (but support anyone in "unfriending" me for any reason), I amassed over a thousand Facebook "friends."

Before leaving, I took a whole day to contact everyone to whom I wanted to make sure I offered a point of contact: just over two dozen.

Facebook seemed like it might be the future of the Internet. It had potential to combine worldwide networking and artistic sculptibility of the early web, and give it to everyone. It's hard to imagine how that opportunity could be fumbled even by someone who was trying, and I never thought the list of reasons to leave Facebook would become so long that it would take an hour just to write a summary.

Facebook employees made world news this week by tweeting their shame at working for the company after Mark Zuckerberg's latest defence of neither flagging nor fact-checking broadly-reaching posts by government officials considered to spread misinformation or incite violence.

Facebook is one of the main perpetrators of tracking users around the web, and inviting other companies to collaborate is part of their business. Reports of psychological distress from overworked content moderators sifting through violent video have been exceeded in newsworthiness by abuses of user trust, as the company has been shown time and again to share loosely and freely with third parties data users have trusted it to safeguard. Cambridge Analytica was only one client of its generally-available APIs.

Even if none of this were true, Facebook's merits as a platform aren't great. Control over your timeline, the primary stream of content that reaches you, is limited. Targeted ads are to your experience as road signs to city streets, and the interface – what you'd think should be a user's main concern – is clunky at best. As a web developer, opening the web inspector reveals its use of HTML, built on standards carefully designed to be clean, accessible and semantic, nears ghastly.

A platform with none of these problems is perfectly possible. Facebook could have done way better in 16 years.

There was much interaction, some measure of affection, and some discussions which taught me more about people's amusing and pitiable quirks and shortfalls.

In retrospect, the start of my time on Facebook marked the final days of my time maintaining this site. And the beginning of my time rebuilding this site marked my final days of using Facebook.

Facebook wants to be people's home. Mark has expressed he wants people to think of "Facebook" as "the Internet." When I contacted friends, I got the impression some would like to leave too, but depended too heavily on it.

I joined Facebook starry-eyed. And I discovered that if Facebook is either my home or not, then it's not. Anyone who knew me on Facebook is welcome here.

That's how that turned out.

Why I’m not planning to play The Origami King, and why the original Paper Mario is still my favourite.

To the story-driven, turn-based RPG format Squaresoft had previously lent Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars, Paper Mario added a traditionally Mario-esque eight-world structure to form a contiguously-explorable adventure. It was the first RPG I knew to question needlessly arbitrary HP counts (a typical amount of damage was “1”). And while enough Final Fantasy combat became passive busywork, Paper Mario’s battles required anticipation and timing, making them feel active. The Thousand-Year Door later took this foundation, and its lighthearted and wacky tone, to the power of the GameCube.

Past that, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems seemed to wax experimental. Super Paper Mario went for tackier art, a more traditionally opaque level-to-world hierarchy, and an action-first battle system, appearing to meld the original Super Mario Bros. with an RPG at something closer to the molecular level than the original did.

Then Sticker Star went another way: back to turn-based combat, where one consumable sticker – peeled from floors and walls all around – equalled one offensive or defensive move in a battle, and a Super Mario World-like map for quick transit between courses functioning like the locales of a point-and-click adventure, requiring revisits with special items to advance the plot. These items were useful in boss fights as well, which – if you could guess which to use – slammed a major enemy’s Achilles’ heel, turning a genuinely difficult fight into a manageable one.

At this point, I felt the series beginning to lose me. Dead ends with empty spots for special items presented themselves, seeming like pure guesswork. Use the wrong item – even a rare one – and lose your sticker: no warning, no undo. After my insistence on avoiding tips and spoilers resulted in multiple world tours with no progress, my “but I love Paper Mario” energy ran out, and I gave up.

In Color Splash, those boss-battle advantages became requirements; partway through a boss battle, you’d be cornered you until you used the right item. Here was a triple-A installment on the Wii U crafted by the industry’s best, informed by everything preceding it, the GamePad a window to paint and slice at the world the kind of clever way I’m typically over the moon about. And somehow, that feeling of bliss for which I loved the original was missing.

Over 20 years, Paper Mario borrowed and combined elements of many genres without becoming any. You’d think such bold, long-term experimentation would yield a superior product, like a well-tumbled rock, even if it wasn’t a conscious goal. So, why am I not tempted to play the newly-announced Paper Mario: The Origami King, and why did my return to play the original feel more like a relief?

The traditions of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are also experimental ones, but each installment in their sagas makes the originals feel like prototypes, foundational and beloved but readily exceeded. Several sequels in each compete for my favourite of the series while the originals stay below.

On the other hand, I don’t think Rare's Donkey Kong ever got better than the original Donkey Kong Country. I loved the trilogy enough to exhaust every last secret, and Retro Studios’ “Returns” games were expertly executed; but they never quite reclaimed the elusive “it” that made the original feel more like a frontier than a game.

So it was with Paper Mario. I chose “elusive” rather than “ineffable” because, while I’ve never distilled it to a concept, I’ve always felt there is one, and wording it precisely feels like a task for a game designer. I think that precision is still beyond me, but I can tell the answer doesn’t lie simply in that opening history of the series’ mechanics and structure.

The music is one starting point – I know that has something to do with it. Paper Mario’s music is credited to Taishi Senda and Yukja Tsujiyoko. Looking at my records, I see I named my first iPod shuffle after the latter (in my habit of naming my portable devices after video game composers), which means I found it special. Paper Mario’s music knew what it was: simple, melodic, generally mimicking acoustic instruments and sparsely and starkly complemented with accompaniment. Each dish was a deliberately chosen handful of ingredients – usually just two or three – like a purist chef might pick with a mandate to avoid overcomplexity and confusion. Quaintness on purpose. Even when it was dire, it was optimistic. Most of all, it was sincere: though the story was framed as a children’s book and lived by off-the-wall dialogue, it attested to a world that felt real. I could live in this place, looking as it looked, feeling as it sounded, and never find myself asking “oh, come on – I’m supposed to believe this is reality”?

That feeling about the world must depend on more than just music. The general production design, the locational layouts, and the dialogue all play into it.

Which brings me to the dojo at the heart of Toad Town: a cozy rooftop room in which train a small Buzzy Beetle, a cloaked figure, and an old Toad master. In an early instance of dynamic audio, the town’s marimba allegretto would fade into something churning softly at double the tempo, complementing the muted cries and strikes of unseen students through the walls or floor.

Toad Town served as a respite between challenges; a staple source of emotional counterbalance in games, from The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons with their hometowns, to Resident Evil with its save rooms. The dojo itself served as a periodic source of unusually challenging opponents to optionally test your cumulative strength and skill, a staple of the saga – but as your opponents’ beneficiary, it was peaceful: a respite within a respite. The wooden rooftop room had no access from the rest of the building, an architectural pattern I cherish in real houses for its feeling of isolation and secrecy, and borrowed sentiments of stillness and contemplation from Eastern martial arts. So, while I completed its challenges, I thought of it as the place I’d most fondly revisit just for the feeling of being there. I’d just sit there.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say “it.” No game design jargon I’ve heard attempts to hone in on that type of quality. Even Miyamoto and Iwata’s strivings to put words to nebulous feelingsc at the foundation of design seem to land on more general targets.

I’m left suspecting that quality eludes description because it wasn’t designed. The dojo is not the level or world structure, and it’s not the music, and it’s not the battle system, and it’s not the characters and their dialogue, but it is the result of all of them. Decades later, when I think fondly on the game, I think of things like that. And those moments are why I call that game the best of the series.

I can almost hear one response: “Paper Mario wasn’t intended to be a comforting world of routine and relaxation – that’s what Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing is for. If you insist on evaluating games by that measure, evaluate those ones.”

Something about that strikes me like a bell. Not because it’s right, but because it feels like the fundamental error. The value of a game excludes part of the player’s positive experience, as defined by its creators or professional critics? It’s antithetical to William Golding’s opinion on how Lord of the Flies should be interpreted by readers:

The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like. If it's yours, then that's the right one, because what's in a book is not what an author thought he put into it, it's what the reader gets out of it.

Nintendo 64 was the system to creatively render paper in 3D space, clearly leaving the creators asking what else paper could do. They’ve since rolled and unrolled it, crumpled it, rotated it on axis to make it invisible, flown, painted, stuck and unstuck it, and are poised to glorify its folding. The soundtracks embraced rhythmic electronic jams and neon techno synths. The humour, upheld by the characters’ power to relay the tongue-in-cheek thoughts of the designers, keeps the games timely and belies the creators’ enduring enthusiasm. But neither the glitz, nor the sharp-edged beats, nor the metafiction, nor the mechanically-creative possibilites of paper were ever critical to my appreciation of the series, except that paper enabled that visionary art to take its rightful place in the game itself.

Is that critiquing voice the “mistake” of Paper Mario’s designers as well? Rather than to examine the source of the decades-lasting residual feeling the original achieved, to experiment with mechanics until creating what they thought Paper Mario “should” be? It’s almost as though they didn’t trust the original to have been an original, in the way Zelda’s and Super Mario’s stewards trusted their respective cores.

“Sequel” has proven neither to imply better, or worse. It implies “what the designers choose to do.” And what’s currently considered “game design,” – now a refined subject of entire conventions and academic programs, serving what has become a thriving industry – isn’t everything. The experience of a player, listener, reader or viewer does not equal – perhaps cannot equal – what creators intend. It’s an observation I hope I make at the outset of any project.

"Every COVID-19 Commercial Is Exactly The Same"

Perhaps not exactly, but in these "in these [adjective] times" times, there are similarities. "Microsoft Sam" aggregates some.

O hai Venus.

Venus has been a bright beacon in the evenings lately. In a week or two, Venus will lie between the Earth and the sun, minimizing our interplanetary distance.

Before sunrise I also noticed Jupiter in the south, and GoSkyWatch confirmed Saturn was visible a few moons’ widths away. Pluto was optically even nearer to Jupiter than Saturn, but was invisible, of course.

It turns out the inner six planets will fall within the same narrow angle this July, all fairly close to alignment with the sun. (Even Uranus and Nepture will be within the same third of a circle.)

The original text adventure.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. In the distance there is a tall gleaming white tower.

I’ve heard Willie Crowther’s Adventure (“Colossal Cave Adventure”) from 1976 called the root work of the text adventure game genre at the narrowest, and I’m asking myself why I’d never tried to play it till this week. I realized my picture of the video game history before Super Mario Bros. is a grey mist: I know there’s plenty there, but I’ve never hiked back to explore. Exploring video games’ present – that history’s future – would take well over a lifetime, so one must hike deliberately.

I looked Crowther up on YouTube wanting to see and hear him, and he’s nowhere. He was a programmer, but video games were no mainstream industry. Bearing in mind the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons, and his own love of cave exploration, he crafted this game so his visiting children would have something to do.

The premise is literary: the game’s main character greets you as though from a remote location, saying “I will be your eyes and ears,” and will obey short commands. (And only the first four letters of each word, so please type “NE” instead of “northeast”.) Thus do “you” set out from a forested well house, learn to take and use items, and scout a fantasy-influenced cave. (It took minutes to associate my instruction “take lamp” with my recollections of the phrase “get lamp,” peppered memetically by those who know.)

I played for most of an hour before being killed by a cluster of defensive dwarves (was Adventure also the origin of the “video game death”?). I’m impressed I got anywhere, and I’m not finished.

As the dawn of video games fades beneath the horizon, Adventure will soon be fifty years old.

Carmen Sandiego and other DOS games.

Apparently the state of online game emulation has advanced since I last thought to check. It looks like archive.org has a bunch of titles, including the original DOS version of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, playable right in the browser.

I played this on the Amiga, so the graphics and sound were way better (I think the Amiga itself was able to boot into DOS somehow), but it's definitely the game that had me eagerly poised over a world atlas in my early grades, memorizing locations, capital names, cultural promontories, and flags.

Part of me wonders what the legality is around this – you'd think the self-declared Internet Archive would do its homework. The other part remembers asking itself decades ago how many video games had ever been made, when the seeming answer already lay on the fifth order of magnitude. Video games will become literary in scope, with treasures buried beneath generations' worth of other treasures.

A new duck-based webcam.

The University of Chicago has seen fit to share its century-old duck pond by way of streaming. The pond is frequented by mallards, hens and ducklings.

I haven't seen more than 20 watching at a time, which feels like it might in person if you imagine yourself stopping by with the other viewers.

Site temporarily not broken.

You didn’t worry too much, did you?

This post marks what I would count as the seventh major version of the site, my home, which arose shortly after it was first possible, in the opening years of the World Wide Web: a realm which, though it’s matured and wavered since those opening years, still deserves its capitalization. An open port from which any mind can embark to observe and mingle in a universe of other minds. In it, may this home serve again as a tranquil point.

There’s plenty to say, and I look forward to saying it.