What I’ve been reading in March 2021

Margarette Lincoln, London and the 17th Century: The best writers of history don’t just give a bird’s eye view of major events; they know when to drop to ground level for small details that make the past come alive. Lincoln’s history of 17th century London is strong in that department. Amidst wars and plagues and revolutions are nestled chapters on such mundane matters as gardening and coffee houses. I can vividly picture this prototype of the hipster barista:

[…] to drink coffee, an exotic import, was a mark of status. In a coffee house, customers felt themselves to be men of standing, at liberty to take centre stage whenever they had news or opinions to impart. The coffee-man flattered this sense of individual importance, striking an affected pose as he poured the liquid into each dish.

Drawing of a London coffee-house, c. 1690–1700 (© Trustees of the British Museum)

I was struck by a different, more consequential continuity between then and now that runs as a theme through the whole book. In the 17th century, affordable printing and increasing literacy in the city gave rise to the phenomenon of pamphleteering. Political actors of all stripes would have pamphlets printed to distribute in the streets and pubs, often with the intent to sway or moderate the public or the mob (a term coined in this era – short for mobile vulgus, “fickle common people”). News periodicals with reach and editorial standards were only just starting to emerge. A weak press overwhelmed by an unchecked rumor mill fueled by new or newly accessible technology – sound familiar? Lincoln acknowledges the parallels to an early 21st century media landscape when discussing the power struggle between Charles I and parliament in the 1640s:

Radical propaganda now swamped London, and the power of unregulated print was exploited for political ends, just as social media would be 400 years later. Parlamentarians rushed to publish their version of the king’s attempt to arrest the five Members [of parliament]; scandalous rumors of the royal family’s supposed involvement in the Irish rebellion were not just whispered but openly published.

All considered, I was rather engrossed in this part of my project to grow a deeper understanding of the British – any history of London is necessarily also a history of this collection of countries that now (for now?) constitute the UK. Next stop: The 18th century, probably through the lens of Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837.

What I’ve been Reading in February 2021

Paul Morely, A Sound Mind – How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite its Entire History): I picked up this one because the premise seemed right up my alley: An aging rock/pop critic writes about his late-in-life exploration of the classical music canon. I’m here for any non-traditional approach to classical music, anything that scratches at the veneer of the classical-industrial complex. Unfortunately, I had to stop reading after 100 pages or so. The writing suffers from idiosyncrasies that may be fine for a review in the New Musical Express or Pitchfork but I cannot stomach 500 pages of it. Take this opening sentence for a chapter on the Classics for Pleasure label:

When I was growing up, deep in the last century, the sort of comfortably lo-falutin and soft, accessible music presently found at the top of the current classical charts tended to be readily available, mostly in Woolworth’s and WH Smith’s, on the friendly, budget-priced, slightly camp and tacky Music for Pleasure label.

Morley is stacking the adjectives and subordinate clauses which jerks me, the reader, forward – except we’re not really going anywhere. It’s more like pogo dancing in place, kind of fun and then exhausting. To be rather honest, I may have a particularly negative reaction to this because it reminds me of issues I’m battling in my own writing …

Beyond these stylistic quirks I was turned off by the incessant namechecking. On a single page in the chapter on Frank Zappa I counted 35 (!) references to other artists and bands, mostly rattled off without much context. I happen to get that “Joni” (in a list between “Janis” and “Lennon”) is Joni Mitchell but when I can’t place the names I’m alienated. Again, this may be typical in music criticism but in long-form non-fiction I want less riffing and more exposition. Here it opens a gulf between writer and reader that I feel betrays a perhaps unstated intention of the book: creating a supportive environments for others to find their personal key to classical music.

Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles: When Houellebecq drops a new novel it’s bound to be followed by controversy. I’ve been aware of his shit-stirring tendencies ever since this breakout novel came out in 1998, though I never cared enough to understand what the fuss is about. Well, now I do, or do I? This has certainly not put me in the mood for more Houellebecq.

The novel follows the lives of two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, whose mother abandons them, preferring to ride a wave of sexual liberation from France to California and back – this is a sort of original sin in the story. Not that the fathers care much more about their sons. Bruno grows up in boarding schools and is stricken with a hyperactive libido that will derail his life many times. In stark contrast, Michel is essentially asexual and aromantic. He’s raised by his grandmother and becomes a molecular biologist, uncharismatic but devoted to science.

At times Bruno reveals shockingly misogynist, racist, homophobic and borderline pedophilic views. I suppose this is where controversy kicks in. I can’t shake the feeling that Houellebecq planted those sections as provocations calculated to generate PR for the book. The fragments of Bruno barely add up to a real character; he is also a teacher, boringly and solidly middle class, prone to launching into monologues on literature and sociology. Some of his rhetoric, supposedly borne out of sexual frustration, reminds me of incel manifestos. On the other hand, he gets married, fathers a son and is actually quite adept at picking up women (in the social minefield of nudist vacation colonies, no less) – so not really an incel. After one mental break too many he checks into a psychiatric institution for life where he finds contentment in medication that amounts to chemical castration. Is he just all the failings of late 20th century materialism rolled up into one person? It comes across rather as sloppy construction, and it would likely work fine without the provocations.

In the end, I don’t know what to make of Bruno. I can think of another character that thrives on shock value, American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. His utterly disgusting violence in that book (seriously – I’ve never felt so ill reading anything else) at least has a function: it’s laced with a litany of brand names and marketing copy to taint those tokens of consumerism in the reader’s head. It’s quite a neat cognitive trick. Houellebecq seems to throw bombs just because, which brings him uncomfortably close to endorsing Bruno.

Michel takes on less of a profile until late in the book. There is a kind of sci-fi subplot woven into the novel that only fully plays out in the epilogue. Michel develops the foundation for a transhuman science and philosophy which directly leads to the replacement of mankind with a new race of clones, free from the agonies of love and sexual reproduction since they are all genetically identical and immortal. (I guess those are the two options for man’s redemption – this or the loony bin.) Michel’s arc strikes me as the more original one, and I might have enjoyed a short story based on that more than a whole novel constructed around it.

What I’ve been reading (January 2021)

Priya Satia: Time’s Monster – History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire: I’ve been living in London for almost a year now, and despite exposure to British culture throughout my whole live I don’t really get the UK. From my experience as an immigrant to and eventual citizen of the US I know that it takes years immersed in a foreign country until a deeper understanding of national character and contradictions and traumas starts to set in. Sure, we can all stereotype Americans as gun nuts, but what conditions shaped that nuttery? Unhelpfully, few natives are able to assume the disinterested perspective required to investigate such questions. Fish can’t tell you much about water.

Maybe it takes Priya Satia, an American-Indian historian, to fill in some of my gaps when it comes to British imperialism in particular. In Time’s Monster she examines British empire through those actors who saw themselves as keepers of history – historians mainly, but also administrators, poets, philosophers and the like. Picking up on the other keyword from the book’s title, a major theme is how they put forward different theories of history and progress over time to placate a national conscience in the face of the inherent ethical challenges of empire: conquest, subjugation, racism and so on.

I’ll come out and say that this was probably not the best choice for me. A history of the discipline of history itself necessarily adds a level of indirection that hurts accessibility. The writing is knotty at times, straining to bridge the chasm between conventions of academia and popular non-fiction. The density of argument and information on each page made it hard for me to absorb the material. Nevertheless, the book is dotted with jolting bits of analysis, such as this couplet:

The harsh reality of conquest, slavery, and industrialism was accompanied, indeed significantly driven by, the search for imaginative relief from the dehumanization they caused: the addictive magic of tobacco, opium, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and tea. In addition to the jinn, angels, goddesses, and shape-shifting creatures that remain with us culturally, binding us to earlier eras, the modern era produced new chimera: mythical concepts like nation, progress, and race.

I’m interested in British imperialism because I’ve been sensing that the UK is still harboring nostalgia and something like pride for its lost empire, perhaps uniquely so in Europe. I don’t get the impression there is a reckoning with even its recent world-historical fallout, like Partition in 1947 (the division of the Indian colony into an independent India and Pakistan – at least hundreds of thousands killed in the process). How come? Satia turns towards this question in the last chapter:

Still, the idea that [British imperialism] opened the floodgates of modernity and progress for all, despite some understandable growing pains and a few scandals here and there, remains seductive. And that is because without this idea, we would lose our sense of history itself. The stakes for remaining invested in some positive notion of empire are high.

I feel there may be more prosaic reasons as well, having to do with geography. The soil of the isle of Great Britain only ever saw the fruit of empire, never the violent labor. It’s so much easier to divorce history from reality here and now when history happened on the other side of the globe. Even more so since, as Satia points out, the UK doesn’t have a single museum dedicated to empire.

In 2019, a few months before I was to take the oath to become a US citizen, I took a field trip to Washington DC (where I’d never been) as part of a quest to better understand this new identity I was going to adopt. Right there in the center of power and memory, on the National Mall, sits the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

(It’s not America if an oversize pick-up isn’t ruining your shot)

The museum is a curatorial marvel that celebrates achievements of black culture in overground galleries and memorializes the atrocities of slavery in harrowing subterranean ones. To be absolutely clear, the US has a long way to go towards fixing racial injustice, towards accepting even the self-evident Black Lives Matter, but at least there is a loud discourse about the role of slavery and racism running through the media, politics and institutions. In contrast, the British appear mute about empire.

Further up the Mall in DC I also visited the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s an odd place, far less popular and far less vibrantly curated than its fresh black cousin. In a way, it reflects native peoples’ marginal status in the country today. With enough time, it turns out, bloody history fades from present consciousness even if it soaked this soil right here.

What I’ve been reading (December 2020)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: I deserved a break from the tomes I’ve wrestled recently – just a light novella about the nature of madness and evil, you know. Actually, its detached style of narration did make this a breezy read. For me, the story’s impact came partly from the contrast between the sober prose and the fever-dream content: an arduous trip up the Congo River through way stations held together by the barest of mercantile infrastructure and the questionable motivations of the men who while away their time there.

I was compelled to finally read it because the story was (heavily) adapted for the screen as Apocalypse Now, which I revisited last month in the context of Alex Ross’s new book Wagnerism. I’m interested in the tangle of references that link film and book, such as the parallels between the settings, the Vietnam war (in the film) and African colonialism (in the book). Alex hints that Wagner could be another link because of Conrad’s repetitive use of the word “darkness”, which looks a bit like a Wagnerian leitmotif if you squint – I end up not quite buying this. Aren’t recurring themes and symbols a feature of most storytelling? To some degree, all artistic output of an era is influenced by the enveloping culture of which, in the case of Conrad, Wagner was a towering figure. I would say, Conrad was inspired by Wagner in the same way that Zadie Smith was inspired by Beyoncé – true but also a truism, for which Gen X’er hasn’t been touched by Queen Bey’s gesamtkunstwerk?

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark: This is more fallout from Wagnerism – Cather being a consummate Wagnerite, tracing in this novel the life of Thea Kronborg, from preacher’s girl in rural Colorado to rising star soprano singing Wagner in New York. Most of the book is given over to Thea’s formative beginnings, her rural childhood and a few years of young adulthood. This part reminded me more than once of a 19th century spiritual ancestor: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, apparently a book with enough enduring appeal to fuel a recent new film adaptation (written and directed by by Greta Gerwig). Of the March sisters in Little Women I’m mainly thinking of the budding writer Jo. Her and Thea, as young girls, share a tomboy attitude and harbor complex interior worlds that don’t quite find an outlet in the simple places they are born into. For all the daring focus on female self-actualization, Alcott’s women ultimately follow a conventional path. Jo marries a bore who tone polices her writing, and she seems to drop her ambitions as a writer.

Cather’s vision is a lot more radical, even if couched in genteel language that sounds like Alcott’s at times. An early suitor of Thea’s is killed off; he might have reined in her free spirit and tethered her to small town life. (That older suitor had his eye on her since her early teens – creepy from my vantage point, but I cannot make out whether Cather is sanctioning or subtly satirizing this 19th century trope.) The next suitor is a wealthy beer heir and a temperamental match for her, plus he fully recognizes her potential as a singer. We are meant to think he is the one for Thea, as a traditional narrative demands it, but then it is revealed he is already married. She rejects him and his financial support. Appealing instead to an old hometown friend for financing, Thea makes it to Germany to study singing in earnest. She sacrifices much for the sake of her career – once launched into the world she never returns home to Colorado, not even when her mother calls for her on her deathbed. She remains unattached to any man, other than her crypto-gay platonic companions, up to a point in the epilogue where she has already reached the height of her success.

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Apart from this forward-looking conception of a woman’s life as well as an artist’s life, what stands out is how Cather uses a classic Western landscape not to tell a classic Western tale of rugged men but as a conduit for self-discovery. (She does something similar in the other novel of hers I’ve read – Death Comes for the Archbishop.) After two years of toiling in Chicago trying to ignite her musical career, Thea escapes for a summer to Arizona and camps out alone in a canyon, in cliff dwellings abandoned by a native people centuries prior. Cather’s description of that luminous place is a high point of the novel, and Thea’s stay there marks the turning point in her commitment to a life as an artist. In recent years I have roamed around New Mexico enough that I intuitively connected with the idea that solitary time spent in a Southwestern wilderness would inspire such epiphanies.

What I’ve been reading (November 2020)

Alex Ross, Wagnerism – Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music: I recently rewatched Apocalypse Now which features possibly the most infamous use of Wagner in film history, a helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries. I can report that the spell of that scene remains unbroken. The Valkyries bring out the latent thrill of abstract, mechanized violence to a degree that they completely override any satirical intentions of the film makers. It was maybe inevitable that this use of the music would transcend the screen and subsequently those same brass fanfares would be deployed during real military operations. Alex has a great video recapping the mad ride:

This is just one fairly contemporary instance of a Wagnerism. The book catalogs the dizzying variety of ways in which Wagner’s ideas and music influenced artists and commoners alike over the centuries. After following Alex’s writing in the New Yorker for more than a decade I feel I have a handle on his passions, and I think the book is strongest where he is most invested personally – as in Willa Cather, who gets a whole luxurious chapter of her own, and as in Thomas Mann, who pops up all over since his life is entwined in such an exemplary way with the art and politics and Wagnerisms of his time.

Because of a noticeable emphasis on proto-queer figures – Ludwig II, Cather, Mann, Proust – at times the book feels like a project of queering Wagner. Until this party of aesthetes is broken up by Hitler, of course, and then incinerated by fictional military helicopters. Such is the Wagnerian question hovering in the background of it all: How is it that one artist’s body of work would accessorize both Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and a Nazi state philosophy of murderous antisemitism?

What I’ve been reading (October 2020)

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child: Rather than reading, I’ve been listening to Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels over the last several months, now finally breaking into this last part. 66 hours and 52 minutes total listening time! The plain, direct language – in the English translation anyway – is a great match for the audiobook format. Having the novels read out aloud to me brought out Ferrante’s mastery of storytelling, or something beyond that, her skill at mythmaking. Of the many layers of the series, I was most interested in the quasi-experimental setup: What path does life choose for two girls – conscientious, studious Lenu and impulsive, independent Lila – born into a Neapolitan slum of the 40s with the same unusual smarts but very different dispositions? I’m a Miranda with a bit of Samantha breaking through occasionally, and obviously I’m a Lenu. Would Lila sit through 66+ hours of audiobooks? No, in that time she would devise an innovative new podcast format which would quickly gather a large following, and then, maddeningly, she would abandon the project.

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet: This is a fictional account of Shakespeare’s family life in Stratford and how the death of his son Hamnet at 11 years old may have led to the play Hamlet. O’Farrell tells the story in minute descriptions of the world through the eyes of several characters, mainly Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, his children and the bard himself. This mode seemed maybe too conventional to me, dipping into it between Neapolitan chapters. Ferrante’s writing features little in terms of descriptions. It’s driven by dialogue and the characters’ actions and relationships, yet evokes an uncanny sense of time and place, almost a social and political history of Italy in the second half of the 20th century. In contrast, Hamnet is so concerned with particulars of its historical setting that it seemed smaller, less epic than its premise might allow for. Shakespeare’s creative life is barely touched on until the very last furious scene of Agnes’ first ever visit to London – the strongest part of the book. I’m not sure why I had to endure such a slow build-up to it.

Charlie Kaufman, Antkind: In the screenwriter/director’s debut novel the subject and narrator is a Kaufmanesque antihero, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a failed film critic who prefers the gender neutral pronoun “thon” and who is not Jewish, as thon will preemptively correct you. Not that B. is embodying a non-binary identity in any real sense – he is a man, just a pretentious one with many such annoying affectations as obscure pronouns. At the outset the story is about B.’s efforts to reconstruct from memory a film that only he has seen, before he accidentally destroyed its only copy. Also, that film is 3 months (sic) long. Then multifarious obsessions distract B. from this project, and I struggle to summarize what really happens in the course of the book. It’s overstuffed with classic Kaufman devices – interior monologues, absurd predicaments, zingers, puns – and follows his signature dream logic where the action can take unpredictable and often hilarious turns. (E.g., B. falls into open manholes repeatedly – trust me, it’s very funny.) Whenever I thought I had found solid ground in the undulating plot, Kaufman dropped me through another metafictional trapdoor (or manhole). Broadly, I think, this is a meditation on comedy and that which we omit from stories in order to make them narratives and not, well, reality.

What I’ve been reading (September 2020)

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August. In a throw-away remark here, Alex Ross described the opening chapter of his book The Rest is Noise as an instance of the “Tuchman maneuver”, and not being familiar with her, that remark compelled me to pick this up. It covers the run up to and the first month of WWI. The best parts are the vividly drawn scenes of generals and statesmen in moments of key decisions – history shaped by personal dogma, vanity, indecision, fear. Also, somehow I associated WWI mostly with trench warfare, but here I learned a lot about the importance of logistics in the early stages of the war: getting armies to where they need to be in time, managing supplies, figuring out where the hell the enemy lines even are.

Malcolm Turvey, Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. A friend pointed me at this book via an LRB review – it’s no secret I’m slightly obsessed with Tati and consider Play Time the greatest movie ever made. It’s a close study of Tati’s films and methods, in the academic manner. Nothing kills the funny like explaining a joke. This book is necessarily full of explanations why and how Tati’s comedy works, categorizing gags using academic terms (“mutual interference gag”), which to me read as kind of meta-funny. I learned one can indeed theorize about comedy, but this is not a must-read even as a Tati fan.

Bov Bjerg, Serpentinen. In earlier days of the web, pre-Twitter, pre-FB, pre all contemporary forms of social media, having a blog was a bit like having a septum piercing: vaguely subversive and uncouth yet stylish if worn right. Bov Bjerg’s was one of the stylish ones in the German language “blogosphere”. There is a specific post of his about a date with a political party in the august city of Bielefeld that still pops into my head once in a while. Anyway, now he’s a successful novelist. A previous novel, Auerhaus, was adapted into a movie. This new novel, Serpentinen, is shortlisted for the German Book Prize 2020. It’s a family chronicle of sorts, told in impressionistic bursts (not unlike a typical blog in the early 2000s, you might say). Heavy themes – addiction, physical abuse, suicide – run through the generations of the portrayed family. The almost constant jump cuts in the text did propel me forward as a reader but, ultimately, I wouldn’t say I was invested in the story.

Lockdown Hack #5: Personal YouTube Charts

(About Lockdown Hacks)

webstore-screenshot

Where

In the Chrome webstore
Plus: Source code on GitHub

Stack

Chrome extension, jQuery, unofficial YouTube APIs

Notes

This is a YouTube feature I’ve been wanting for a while: I know there are videos, especially music videos, that I return to over and over again, and I would like to see which ones I’ve viewed the most. YouTube has a watch history but doesn’t offer a tally.

So I wanted to bolt on that feature. The YouTube Data API unfortunately does not grant access to the watch history – it was removed from the API at some point, maybe because that information is way more sensitive to privacy issues than anything else in the API? My best bet was creating a Chrome extension then which suited me well enough. I wanted to learn more about extensions anyway.

Chrome extensions are based on the time-tested combination of HTML, CSS & JS, with some specific JS APIs thrown in. I appreciated how this lowered the barrier of entry for somebody familiar with web development. The programming model is awkward though for the same reason that it is for many of these types of plugin/extension frameworks. There isn’t a real development environment – an IDE, so to speak. Notice, for example, how the developer documentation is silent on the topic of automated testing. It’s easy enough to load an extension locally in Chrome but then development becomes a tedious cycle of code editing, reloading the extension and manual testing.

My main challenge was YouTube itself anyway. Chrome extensions let you run your JS in the context of an existing page – such as the YouTube watch history page – which gives you access to the DOM, safe XHR requests to the page’s origin, and even global JS variables (not a documented feature – but the hacks work). Originally I thought I was going to scan the history via the DOM but I had to give up on that. The DOM is dauntingly complex, using a ton of web components, and scrolling down far enough to capture a sizable chunk of the history brought even my high-end MacBook to a crawl. So instead I reverse engineered the XHR requests that the page makes to browse through the history.

I decided to use jQuery because I couldn’t stomach writing raw JS. With more time and patience I would have tried setting up a more sophisticated environment with package management and something like webpack. Rest assured I would never use jQuery in a project not explicitly designated as a hack!

jQuery spaghetti notwithstanding, the result seemingly works quite well. Of course it depends on undocumented YouTube APIs and UI elements, so it will be correspondingly brittle. I released the source code on GitHub in the (probably futile) hope that, if the extension does need maintenance to keep it compatible as YouTube makes changes, somebody might be able to contribute to it.

(Failed) Lockdown Hack #4: Prontissimo

(About Lockdown Hacks)

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 15.05.25

Stack

Amazon Product Advertising API, Ruby on Rails, Vue.js

Notes

Not burying the lede here, I failed to achieve what I set out to do with this one. (The screenshot above only reflects how far I got in terms of the frontend – yes, I spent 30 minutes designing a logo, what of it?)

I still think the idea was pretty good: Hack Amazon search to sort results by fastest delivery. Amazon does not let you sort this way, and I think I understand why. It wouldn’t normally be a useful feature because you can just filter by Prime eligibility which would indicate a one- or two-day delivery. Furthermore, delivery estimates for non-Prime items where Amazon doesn’t tightly control the supply chain are probably unreliable. But during this pandemic I noticed that Prime delivery has been all over the place here in the UK, sometimes weeks out. When online shopping is the most convenient or the only way to procure certain stuff, you do sometimes care intensely to pick the item that will be delivered the fastest.

I skimmed the documentation of Amazon’s Product Advertising API and decided I would be able to cobble together at least a proof of concept. Then over the next day and a half I faced enough hurdles that I eventually gave up. There were two major issues: Getting access to Amazon’s Product Advertising API is an involved process, and the API does not return the kind of data (delivery estimates) I needed, as far as I can tell.

I had skipped over the part in the documentation where it explains that to use the API you need to be an Amazon Associate. Not only that, you need to have made at least 3 qualified sales through the associate program and need “final acceptance” which involves human review. I did sign up as an associate in the US and in the UK and even managed to broker 3 sales in the US (with a little help from my friends). But the review process is opaque enough that I suspect it will take days to get final acceptance. I did contact the US and UK associate programs separately about fast-tracking but the replies did not give me confidence the rules are bendable in any way.

Because I hadn’t been able to try out real API requests and responses it also took me too long to realize that the API doesn’t provide the delivery estimates I needed (I think). This is the major takeaway for me from this failed hack: Good documentation is clearly a prerequisite for a successful API but it’s just as important to make it trivial for users to start exercising it with real data, even if it’s under restricted trial conditions like for example Twilio does it. It’s hard for a developer to project what an API will enable them to do by just looking at documentation.

I understand Amazon might have valid strategic reasons for restricting API access. The API has some potential as an abuse vector where somebody could recreate, for example, the Amazon homepage in a way that undermines the Amazon brand. But then again, don’t the tight rate limits – 1 request per second to start with – protect against most abuse? My product intuition is that the upside of removing barriers to entry trumps potential downsides here.

Lockdown Hack #3: Whence

(About Lockdown Hacks)

Screenshot 2020-04-20 at 20.12.29

Where

https://nikhaldimann.com/whence

What

A game of guessing random locations on Earth based only on satellite views

Stack

Google Maps JS API, Vue.js

Notes

Perhaps obviously, the popular game GeoGuessr inspired this hack, where you move around Street View to guess your location. It’s fun enough that they managed to spin it into a whole franchise, complete with a paywall and professional leagues. I remember when it was a simple free game, years ago.

Having worked a lot with satellite imagery over the last years, I had carried around this idea for a long time – applying a similar game mechanic to just satellite views rather than Street View. Scoring is based on how close your guess is and how many times you zoomed out.

During my brief research into similar games I also found the Map Zoom Quiz. In my view they made a fatal design decision to have players type in their answer. That makes it too hard, plus reaching for the keyboard in a game like this just feels wrong. Whence is still hard but you do get points for making an educated guess. I also observed I got better at it over time as I indeed learned to differentiate the world’s terrains more precisely and to latch onto specific clues (agricultural landscape looks very different in Asia vs North America!).

I didn’t face any real technical challenge during this – roughly two days of programming and game design, then one day of UI design and polish. The Google Maps API is mature and rich yet simple, and it was really comfortable to use with an appropriate Vue wrapper. I think I spent a disproportionate time on UI design and game design, both disciplines out of my comfort zone of course. I’m still not satisfied with the UI. It’s particularly awkward on small screens but I got tired of fiddling with it.

How does this hack tie into the lockdown condition? Just think of it as virtual travel, since real travel hasn’t been in the cards for most of the world recently. But really, it was just an idea that I had been stuck in my head for quite some time and I needed to scratch the itch.