Hi, I’m Mark Rickerby, writer/programmer/designer/product manager working at the intersection of software architecture and storytelling. My practice moves across many different disciplines, so it’s hard to succinctly describe what I do. I’m happiest when I’m inventing things and teaching others to do the same.
I’m based in Sydney, Australia, where I work as Head of Product at Digivizer and outside of that, I work on projects and tools that blend speculative fiction with computational creativity and generative methods.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is this place?
This is my personal website. It’s been around for more than ten years, with a cadence occasionally interrupted by moving between cities, countries and working for insane internet startups.
Why doesn’t this site work properly on mobile?
I’ve been hand-writing HTML since the mid-1990s. I’m too old for this shit.
Why are the old URLs so inconsistent?
This site was originally a blog/wiki hybrid (bliki?) with topics, archives and notes all mashed into the same top level namespace. I haven’t moved any of the legacy content because cool URIs don’t change.
What’s a ‘maetl’ then, eh?
maetl was a name I started using on forums around 1999-2000, and seemed to take on a life of its own the more I used it. The word itself originates from Autechre’s debut album Incunabula, a naïve mathematical masterpiece of early 90’s electronica. Apparently the track was named when the pair were goofing around in the studio, calling each other ‘mate’ in silly voices. There’s also a typeface, designed by the legendary Mike Cina.
Why is there no writing between 2011 and 2014?
I was suffering from depression and bipolar related problems. I was paying more attention to slower moving long-form writing. I was draining away my creative focus on Twitter. I was too busy working on software.
Aren’t programming and writing complete opposites? How do you do such different things?
This question has its roots in a fear of mathematics that a lot of literary people have as a consequence of it being forced on them by poor teachers who valued rote learning more than creativity. In my early 20s, I had a kind of imposter syndrome where the more programming I did, the more I believed that I wasn’t cut out to understand programming and that I’d never ‘get’ it. This experience of failure and frustration taught me that the left/right brain dichotomy is bullshit and that the different modes of thought in programming, writing and design are all interrelated. It took a lot of effort and a lot of mistakes, but I practiced all these skills because I enjoy making things on screens and inventing worlds with text and images, which kept me motivated to learn more and more. Visual, spatial, symbolic, linguistic, logical and computational thinking are all just different modes of rationality and creativity, none of which are mutually exclusive. Just because you don’t have aptitude or talent in every single one of these modes doesn’t mean you can’t practice and improve your abilities in any of them. I’m not saying that specialisation isn’t valuable, but I do think it is massively over-valued in our society where the specialist paradigm enjoys a near-complete monopoly across most corporate hierarchies and job titles. I’m a generalist, not a specialist. We do exist, regardless of what your corporate org chart suggests.
Surely you can’t do all those things at once?
Like most people, I find it difficult to work on too many things at the same time. Conversely, I’ve found that I need multiple ongoing projects to move between as befits my creative obsession and motivation which changes every day. It’s a difficult balance, and one I have yet to master.
How do you write so much, so quickly?
A mild form of hypergraphia at times, although I usually think of myself as a really slow writer. Mostly, that’s because I spend a lot more time editing than actually writing. When words come quickly, it’s usually freestyle, replete with overcomplicated syntax and rhythm stress that needs to be toned down in order to be comprehensible.
Why do you write?
I guess it all started with reading.
I get non-fiction, but what’s the point of reading novels?
What’s the point in binge watching two seasons of your favourite long-form TV show? Novels are capable of exploring the psychology of human experience and exercising empathy in a way that no other form of media yet invented can. For e.g, see: Atonement.
Why is this FAQ so long?
It’s a convenient place to throw various half-edited snippets of text and explanations while I reorganise the rest of this site. It will probably get smaller over time as I clean stuff up and move things off to their own pages and write more detailed essays on these topics.
What are ‘generative methods’?
It’s a term I prefer using rather than ‘procedural content generation’ which comes with game industry baggage around the assumption that generators output ‘content’. Broadly similar and perhaps intersecting with AI, generative methods are a loose collection of algorithms, techniques, patterns and heuristics for making things that make things, usually involving randomisation and probability.
Show, don’t tell!
At some point I need to publish a list of projects here. In the meantime, specific examples of my work in this area are Calyx, a tool for generating text using template expansion grammars (a.k.a. recursive transition networks). I’ve used it to create a number of things, including a 50,000 word CYOA gamebook for #NaNoGenMo2015 and bots like @tiny_woodland. I’m using these techniques extensively in my novel, for generating a parody information landscape (fake websites, emails, social media) for the main characters to live within.
What’s the novel about?
The basic premise goes like this: What happens to New Zealand when the South Island becomes an independent state? The manuscript evolved as a mashup of speculative fiction, satirical social commentary and a tragic Bildungsroman, exploring the fragmentation of individual and collective identity through the experiences of people living on the extremist fringes of New Zealand and Australian society.
Why are you writing a novel about New Zealand?
I never consciously planned to write about present day reality. It was an accident; it was stupid; I’ll never do it again. As a consequence of this lack of journalistic integrity, my writing has been perturbed by far too many awkward incidents, ranging from a ‘psychic’ octopus becoming a celebrity in Germany at the time I was writing the wheke related sections, to the Christchurch earthquakes reconfiguring the entire basis of a story that was originally about Christchurch being destroyed by other means. More recently, Snowden’s NSA leaks have forced me to re-edit a lot of material relating to government surveillance and data collection by the GCSB, reflecting the fact that readers are now generally aware of ubiquitous mass internet surveillance being a fact rather than fiction. The last straw was the 2015 news that the GCSB and SIS might be merging. This of course mirrors a scenario I intuited in 2010. The real world moves much faster than I can write about it. This is an obvious mistake that experienced novelists would understand and avoid, but I did not know it at the time.
I grew up in Porirua, around Mana and Plimmerton. Despite the all-encompassing conquest of Te Rauparaha whose later battles with the British swept away the previous history of the region, the coastline had various geographical features that were imbued with heroic significance, tracing the faint outlines of a deeper mythology. One of the most compelling local legends was the story of Kupe’s anchor stone, which was said to have been cast ashore on a beach near Porirua harbour. The mystery of Te Wheke o Muturangi became the framing for a story which encompasses the experiences of my childhood and an epic journey towards the discovery of an idealised dystopian version of Aotearoa. The name also references and reflects on the fraught nature of modern NZ history, with colonial lies and mistranslations conflicting and contrasting with the multiplicity of truth in indigenous oral traditions.
When will it be finished?
Progress has been slow as I have a rambunctious toddler in my life—she’s more important right now.
Why is it interactive?
The structure of the narrative was always pulling in this direction. It ended up being easier to go with the flow rather than fight against it with the preconcieved notion of what a novel should be.
How are you building this?
With great difficulty.
Will it be open sourced?
Parts of it already are, although not the main narrative engine. I’d love to collaborate with other novelists interested in exploring such a framework but I’m not sure whether OSS is the best way to facilitate this.
What’s the difference between novels and games?
Games are based on feedback loops and interactions with systems of rules. Novels are long-form works of narrative fiction. Turning such rough summaries into strict definitions often leads to antagonistic pedantry along the lines of “Well actually, Minecraft isn’t a game.” Whether Minecraft is or isn’t a game is an arbitrary judgement call that doesn’t explain very much about what makes it compelling and interesting to millions of people. The same is true of teasing apart a precise distinction between novels and games. Many works are obviously categorical but there are some works that blur the boundary. See also: Gamebooks.
How do games relate to the ‘death of the novel’?
The history of the novel is of an unavailing (and often futile, often failing) struggle to reinvent and reimagine the form. Games are something else entirely.
Will my job be replaced with an algorithm?
If you are genuinely worried about this, I suggest looking closely at where the messages about robots taking over the world are coming from. Who are the people making these claims? What are their professional motivations? Whose interests are they guarding? The robot revolution is primarily a narrative about the future of industrial society. It’s not the only narrative, and none of these narratives are historical materialist certainties. Humans have the unique ability to consciously influence themselves and the world around them, so awareness of a thing happening has the potential to derail or destabilise the continued existence of that thing. You could also look at this question in a less philosophical way: If your job is boring, meaningless, mechanical and rote, you should welcome it being automated. This is an opportunity to discover a more meaninfgul career path that involves something that can never be fully automated by machines, such as providing emotional support and empathy to people who need it.
Should I learn to code?
Think about the crossroads of should and must. If you have a vision for something concrete you want to build, your chances of successfully learning to code will be much greater. Programming isn’t a magic dialectical object that’s either ‘known’ or ‘not known’. It’s a gradual continuum of understanding and experience. Learn as much or as little as you need to realise your ideas and ambitions.
How do I learn to code?
What language should I start with?
Try out several different popular languages and get to know their communities through local meetups. Choose the language that feels most comfortable and ‘right’ for you. You’ll learn better and be more motivated using a tool that you enjoy intrinsicly, rather than something you’re forcing yourself to do because you think you have to. Most importantly, the community will provide you with support and encouragement when things get frustrating. Don’t tough it out alone!
Do I need to study computer science?
You should study computer science if you find it fascinating and want to unlock deeper knowledge about data structures, algorithms and the foundations of computing. If you want to build an app or want a job in the industry, you’ll have just as much—if not more of a—chance of success by studying arts and humanities and building a solid foundation of writing and critical thinking skills. Why? Because making software in practice isn’t purely technical. So much of it involves talking to people; understanding their needs; dealing with competing requirements and contradictions; and shaping language to solve specific problems in context. If you study computer science, you’ll have to learn these other skills on the job. If you don’t, you’ll have to learn computer science on the job. Two roads diverging in a wood, and all that.
Programming isn’t an arts discipline. Programs are proofs.
I appreciate where this comes from. It’s a pathway to great clarity but it’s not exactly how software works in practice. Computation is ultimately a physical process involving energy and entropy. There are whole layers of interaction between the code and the machine which are largely based on social convention. There’s also no single monolithic, precision definition of types that covers the full scope and complexity of how types are used in programming languages. The only way to define things holistically here is to integrate ideas from sociology or philosophy. Programming is too deeply entangled with ontology and epistemology for it to be defined as a pure form of mathematical logic, however appealing such a frame might be. Also, do you really want to disagree with Donald Knuth on something so fundamental?