Happy Bird Presidents Day

What better day to put together an anthology of my ongoing Bird Presidents project than Bird Presidents Day?

I’ve been drawing these for a few weeks now, ever since I knocked out Theodore Crowsevelt as what I thought at the time was a one-off joke, and now I’m just about halfway done with the series with #1-19 (and Teddy at #27) done already. I’ve been pretty happy with the results so far and feel like I’m actually developing my drawing a bit in the process (not to mention learning a bit about birds and human presidents).

So: here’s a bunch of bird presidents. I’ve posted each of these as a blog entry with a bit more info about the respective bird and president and notes on my process, so if you want more detail go ahead and click on the name above a given image.

Bird Presidents

#1: Grebe Washington
Grebe Washington

#2: Guan Adams
Guan Adams

#3: Ptarmigan Jefferson
03 Ptarmigan Jefferson
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Bird Presidents #19: Rutherford B. Hawk

Rutherford B Hawk

Let me triumph as a bird or not at all.
~ Rutherford B. Hawk

Rutherford B. Hayes; the red-tailed hawk, one of a big variety of birds that fall under the “hawk” label but one which I’ve always especially liked for some reason.

This one goes out to my good friend rtha, for reasons.

Hayes got into office under contended circumstances; there was significant dispute over electoral votes in 1876, and ultimately the whole mess might have gone either way and by sheer count of non-disputed electoral votes was weighted heavily toward Samuel J. Tilden before it was finally resolved with Hayes taking the big chair and a bunch of compromises made on the whole Reconstruction situation. Woo, politics!

Also apparently he was big on the gold standard, so once Ron Paul gets out of the game maybe folks can re-animate Hayes at try and get him to run again.

William Can’t Sleep, a text adventure about William Carlos Williams

Spent some of today writing another very short Twine game (see previously), this time playing around with one of my favorite poems, “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams. And so: William Can’t Sleep.

I like the poem in its own right, but I also like it as a meme—refitting it to varying situations is a long-running joke on Metafilter, where all sorts of things seem to turn up in iceboxes or to prompt the need for forgiveness or to be describable otherwise as being x, so y, and so z.

I have in fact previously written a silly random This Is Just To Say generator, if you want to just reload to your hearts content. And Metafilter friend Joe Saunders collected mefi variations for a while on a tumblr.

But, so, yes: I got to thinking about the idea of the poem as a note, from someone to someone: why not from William to his wife, Florence? And if he’s leaving a note, why? How did those circumstances arise? What about the world where Bill didn’t eat the plums?

And so William Can’t Sleep gives the player a chance to explore that small set of moments. You can dotingly recreate the poem as we know it, or, depending on your actions and reactions and inactions, produce one of several possible variants, or something more or less totally unrelated.

Twine, and You’re In A Garden Or Whatever

I wrote a very short choose-your-own-adventure type game yesterday, and it’s called You’re In A Garden Or Whatever. It’ll take you maybe two minutes to play.

It’s really just a learning experiment (a “Hello World” in programmer parlance) for a new game development environment called Twine that I’ve been interested in trying for a while. Twine’s particularly interesting because it was designed specifically to be really, really easy for folks to learn to use. It succeeds wonderfully at that.

And not easy as in “compared to programming a game by touching actual metal wires together in the belly of a mainframe computer”; there are a lot of game development tools that are easy to get started with or relatively simple to work within compared to a full-throated traditional programming environment but which still present a very steep, very imposing wall of conceptual and practical barriers to someone who doesn’t already know a bit about software development. They’re useful, interesting tools, but they are not beginner-friendly.

Twine is easy as in “if you can understand how a Choose Your Own Adventure book works, you can do this”. A basic Twine game is as simple as a text description of the current situation the player is in and further description of maybe a couple of choices of how to proceed: do you want to push the lever, or go out the window? You write out labels for “push the lever” and “go out the window” respectively, and Twine will link those to the page you make that choice from.

So the code for the first page of You’re In A Garden Or Whatever looks like this:

You're in a garden. There's a tree nearby with some fruit on it.

* [[check that tree out]]
* [[just chill out, whatever]]

That’s it. Double square brackets for a link, and Twine will look for another little page in your collection of pages named that. Here’s what my page titled “check that tree out” looks like:

It's a big tree, with a whole bunch of fruit on it.

* [[eat some fruit]]
* [[man, it's nice out today]]

And so on. My game here has only 20 pages (or as Twine calls them, “passages”, which is a clever play on their role as both short passages of text and conceptual game “rooms” leading one to the next), and just a few more than 800 words, and I wrote it up in maybe an hour including debugging a couple of bad story links I’d created. I spent almost all of my time actually having fun building a thing, and I’m excited to tackle something a little more ambitious now in terms of story content.

If you like the idea of writing up a simple bit of interactive fiction, or grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books, or always liked the idea of text adventures but couldn’t stand dealing with the guess-the-verb nature of classic text parsers (‘get sword’ … ‘I DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET SWORD’ … ‘oh bite me, game’ … ‘THERE IS NO BITE ME, GAME HERE’ … ‘augh!’), give Twine a look. It’s free, it’s a cinch to install on both Windows and Mac boxes (and works with a little nudging on Linux as well) and it won’t give you a headache. There’s some nice, short, gentle walkthrough videos at the bottom of the Twine page that will show you everything you need to make something at least as polished as the game linked here.

Really all you need is a story you want to tell and a willingness to sit down and write it. Twine does a magnificent job of getting out of your way and letting you do just that. Give it a shot.

(Confidential to seasoned programmers: Twine does provide some more advanced facilities for more complex game interactions, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can write and read arbitrary variable states, you can inline arbitrary HTML and include CSS styling, you can toss in your own JavaScript hooks, etc. It is excellent at not making things difficult for the novice game writer but it’s got a bit of horsepower under the hood too if you want to go looking. If you like the idea of writing a game as in using-the-written word but want to be able to do clever programmatic things with the environment or game mechanics, there are a ton of little Twine hacks out in the wild that prove that that is very doable.)

New recording: Margaritahell

This month over on Metafilter’s Music section we’re having a “rework a major key son gin minor or vice versa” internet double dog dare, and this afternoon I got to thinking it could be fun to do a real low-key bummer version of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. So I laid down a guitar track and a uke track and a couple vocals into my iphone, and here we go:


Bird Presidents #18: Ulysses S. Grouse

Ulysses S. Grouse

I don’t underrate the value of military knowledge, but if birds make war in slavish obedience to the rules, they will fail.
~ Ulysses S. Grouse

Ulysses S. Grant; the grouse, a bird of order Galliformes, which I think we can all agree is the order of birds Doctor Who would be of if he were a bird.

Grant! He’s the one with the tomb that he’s in, or so I hear. And he did a pretty bang-up job with the Union forces under his control in the Civil War, by all accounts. But his presidency apparently involved a generous helping of corruption scandals, though perhaps it’s up in the air whether that’s because of any corruption on his part or just an inability to spot and/or effectively deal with corruption among his administration. Politics not being a shooting fight most of the time, and all that?

Also, at one point in 1862, he decided to just straight up kick all of the Jews out of his military district, which, hrm. Lincoln said no, apparently.

Sketchbook: Me, Kirk, and Wikipedia

self-portrait from photo

I’ve been really enjoying drawing my Bird Presidents the last couple of weeks, as much as anything because it’s reminded me that I actually like to draw, something I used to do all the time but haven’t done a whole lot of lately. And so I’ve been trying to make a point of sitting down and doing a little bit of non-bird drawing every day, and so I’ve got a small pile of non-bird sketches that I like, so, here, yes: a sketchbook dump. Maybe it’ll turn into a regular thing.

I didn’t stop drawing for any particular reason (and I didn’t even really think of it as “stopping drawing”, so I was surprised to realize that’s essentially what I must’ve done since lately I feel like I’ve started drawing again); I think it’s a combination of not tromping around town with a backpack full of notebooks and pens, not having a deskjob where I’m denied other distractions and so forced to keep my brain busy with my hands, and maybe just getting a bit discouraged by lack of progress in my skillset and spending my creative energy on other things like music and writing and so on.

But yes: drawing! It’s fun! And the birds and the sketching lately have made me remember that I can kind of do something with this, that years and years of drawing growing up actually sticks around. If anything, I’m feeling like daily sketching has gotten me into a better, more careful, more happy-with-what-I’m-producing place than I had been previously.

So! Here’s some stuff!

unknown woman in a hat

This lady was from an archive of I think historical Canadian photographs that I tripped across on Flickr. Which got me thinking about sketching random people I have no knowledge of, because that could be interesting and also a little less stressful than trying and failing to capture someone I really have a sense of. And that lead to a new excuse to sketch:
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Bird Presidents #17: Kagu Johnson

Kagu Johnson

I’m an avian! I glory in it; I am an avian. The birds — yes, the birds of the United States have made me what I am…
~ Kagu Johnson

Andrew Johnson; the kagu, whose reaction to Cocoa Puffs is not apparently documented.

“Kagu” for Andrew is a bit of a stretch, as was “auklet”, but I decided the kagu looked like a bit more fun to draw and so here we are. Look at that crazy head plumage! I didn’t really do the feathery mess justice but you at least get the idea. (“Antwren” would have been a bit more on the nose in terms of morphological similarity to Andrew, but have you seen the antwren? It just looks like a wren. Which looks like a billion other wrens and such. Creative license justified in this case I think.)

Johnson got the job as Lincoln’s second Vice President, a role in which it seems like he found himself through a mix of political convenience (a steadfastly pro-Union man but of Southern heritage and popular with Southern whites, right as the Civil War was starting to look like it might be ending and some sort of reconstruction of the country would be the business of Lincoln’s second term) and a fair amount of effort on his own part to put himself at the top of the VP ballot in 1864. And then, of course, Lincoln got shot a few weeks later. The whole presidency thing didn’t go stunningly after that.

But I learned two things about Andrew Johnson while putting this one together, both of which allegedly involve booze!

1. His Vice Presidential inaugural address was delivered the morning after a night of partying, and possibly after a bit of hungover pre-gaming, and so was sort of rambling and incoherent and terrible. Maybe he had the flu? Maybe he was just actually drunk? Sands of time, we’ll probably never know, but in any case the quote here is a section from that apparently deeply embarrassing speech, and not really the least flattering bit.

2. When Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, it was part of an apparent conspiracy to take out not just the head honcho but also vice honcho Johnson and honcho-of-State William Seward. Seward survived his injuries; Lincoln, not so much; but Johnson came out unscathed entirely, not because his attacker was a poor shot or anything like that but because said would-be assassin instead spent the fateful evening getting mad crunk at the hotel bar and then wandering around the streets of D.C.

So it’s kind of a wash with Johnson and booze.

Bird Presidents #16: Albatross Lincoln

Albatross Lincoln

Slavery is founded in the selfishness of birdkind’s nature — opposition to it, in his love of justice.
~ Albatross Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln; the albatross, no known subspecies of which wears a beard and hat but there may at this late date be things yet beyond the ken of avian science.

What would I write about Abe Lincoln? You know about him. I had to skim through pages and pages and pages of quotes looking for which one to use; he has a bigger wikipedia footprint than probably the ten preceding presidents combined. Civil War. Great Emancipator. Shot to death at (spoiler alert) the theater. It’s Lincoln. There’s a movie out.

To that point, actually, this one has actually had me a little nervous — you could say it’s been a bit of an albatross, ho ho ho &c. — because people know Lincoln. He’s got popular iconography. The beard! The hat! The beardless chin, sometimes! Even people who can’t draw a map to the gas station can draw you something on a napkin that everyone else at the bar will recognized as Honest Abe.

So there’s a kind of pressure here that’s was’t there with e.g. Moorhen Van Buren. “Oh, I can’t wait to see how you do the moorhen,” has said exactly no one to date. And I recognize I’m being neurotic but that doesn’t make the neurosis go away, and it actually gave me some pause this morning when I sat down to work on it, like: what if it’s not good enough? What if it’s not Lincolnian enough? What if the little hat I draw on the bird doesn’t look just so?


I have been recently reading a small book called Art & Fear, on the suggestion of my immensely talented internet friend Brad “Brad Sucks” Turcotte, and it’s very good and in part about exactly this sort of thing. And the main lesson I have taken so far from it is to shut up and just do a thing, which is a policy I’ve always endorsed but not so consistently applied so it is nice to be reminded of it by a sensible book by smart people.

And so, here it is: a drawing of Lincoln as a bird that I just shut up and did, and it’s good enough (I don’t actually dislike it) and I can now move on to president number 17 in the series instead of sitting around worrying myself to death about whether this one is The Best Lincoln Bird I Could Possibly Make. Forward progress, momentum, iterating on a useful form! That’s the ticket.

Also, on a personal note, my strongest association with “albatross” is neither the bird nor the metaphorical weight but the giant flying fortress thing that you had to beat at the end of Bionic Commando right before your final confrontation with Resurrected Hitler. It was hard to blow up Hitler in his helicopter, but beating the Albatross first was definitely harder.