Examining Pro’s Prose, Part 9

First off, Happy 8 Year Blogging Anniversary!

Although David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time, I’ve put off examining his prose until this late in the series. I did this on purpose, because the writers we have looked at “follow the rules.” They use clean, minimalist prose. It’s easy to see and articulate why it is good. It’s what we should all learn to do before developing our own styles.

I know this is a bit of controversial advice. Many people say to develop your own style from the start and not waste time trying to emulate famous writers. It’s not so much that I think one should be able to emulate it, but that one should understand what makes simple prose effective before layering in complexity.

I’ve read about how DFW taught writing and believe he took this same approach. You can’t build a house without a foundation. I think that if anyone tries to write in the way of DFW without first understanding the basics, it will come off as a complete mess. So consider yourself warned, but do whatever you want.

To borrow a term from Greg Carlisle, DFW’s prose has an elegant complexity to it. The point of this post is to try to get at what this could mean (though Carlisle was referring to the overall structure of Infinite Jest with that term). His prose still has the elegance of the previous writers from this series but with a layered complexity built on top of it.

Here is a sentence we get early on in Infinite Jest:

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I’ve come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.

Most people should be able to read this and understand it on the first time through. This should strike you as strange. It begins with the placement of a person, followed by an 18-word descriptive appositive (containing further qualification after the relative pronoun), continues the first part, and ends with a 21-word, nonessential comma clause descriptor.

Normally, a creative writing instructor would mark this as too long and confusing structurally to be read easily. So why does it work here? That question is hard to answer, because we don’t have earlier, unedited versions to compare it to. The best way to get a sense of its workings is to try to think of some changes and see how it makes things worse.

One thing we could do is eliminate this business about the smile. The passage as a whole would read more easily. But the phrase “impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material” is too good. This sentence is on the first page of the novel, and that phrase, in particular, sets the tone of the novel perfectly.

Think about that phrase for a second. There’s something very dark about it. It implies the person is forced to smile constantly (“fixed”), but who does not smile often (the stamp of the smile reverts to the original shape because of the “uncooperative material” aka his face). At the same time, the description is so unique and striking, it almost comes off as comical. And this perfectly describes the tone of the novel. It’s dark, yet almost comical.

So we can’t eliminate that part. We could always break it off into its own sentence, but again, it just doesn’t seem important enough to do that. The subordinate flow we get by sticking it into an appositive fits its importance.

In the next part, could we eliminate “lately” without losing anything? I’d say yes. This fits with the rule: eliminate adverbs. On the other hand, we’ve basically gone all-in on the wordiness, so it might be better to ask: does it sufficiently detract from the meaning to remove it? I’d say no.

It fits the wordy flow to leave it in, and we have to imagine there were other ones that were cut, considering it is the only adverb in the entire passage. Think about the alternative and more wordy “something stamped hesitantly into uncooperative material.” The adverb there really does add a few too many unnecessary words to make the image appear in your head. It gets a touch too confusing.

The last clause begins by reiterating “the type.” This acts to reground the reader. It reiterates the subject of the clause, and we could imagine many ways to phrase it that doesn’t make it this clear.

In conclusion, the structure of the sentence may be complex, and the word count makes it look excessively wordy, but DFW keeps the excess to a minimum like we’ve talked about before. He also keeps each segment fully self-contained so that there is no confusion about the subject at each point. The basics of clear writing are still there underneath the added complexity.

Homework: Try the same type of analysis with this sentence from a later section (hint: it might have lots of places it could be cleaned up, but has the voice changed? is the tone intentionally different? does context matter?).

If it’s odd that Mario Incandenza’s first halfway-coherent film cartridge — a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carefully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle — if it’s odd that Mario’s first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show — like a kids’ puppet show — then it probably seems even odder that the film’s proven to be way more popular with E.T.A.’s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.

Draw Luck in Card Games, Part 2

A few weeks ago I talked about draw luck in card games. I thought I’d go a little further today with the actual math behind some core concepts when you play a card game where you build your own deck to use. The same idea works for computing probabilities in poker, so you don’t need to get too hung up on the particulars here.

I’m going to use Magic: The Gathering (MTG) as an example. Here are the relevant idea axioms we will use:

1. Your deck will consist of 60 cards.
2. You start by drawing 7 cards.
3. Each turn you draw 1 card.
4. Each card has a “cost” to play it (called mana).
5. Optimal strategy is to play a cost 1 card on turn 1, a cost 2 card on turn 2, and so on. This is called “playing on curve.”

You don’t have to know anything about MTG now that you have these axioms (in fact, writing them this way allows you to convert everything to Hearthstone, or your card game of choice). Of course, every single one of those axioms can be affected by play, so this is a vast oversimplification. But it gives a good reference point if you’ve never seen anything like this type of analysis before. Let’s build up the theory little by little.

First, what is the probability of being able to play a 1-cost card on turn 1 if you put, say, 10 of these in your deck? We’ll simplify axiom 2 to get started. Suppose you only draw one card to start. Basically, by definition of probability, you have a 10/60, or 16.67% chance of drawing it. Now if you draw 2 cards, it already gets a little bit trickier. Exercise: Try to work it out to see why (hint: the first card could be 1-cost OR the second OR both).

Let’s reframe the question. What’s the probability of NOT being able to play a card turn 1 if you draw 2 cards? You would have to draw a non-1-cost AND another non-1-cost. The first card you pick up has a 50/60 chance of this happening. Now the deck only has 59 cards left, and 49 of those are non-1-cost. So the probability of not being able to play turn 1 is {\frac{50}{60}\cdot\frac{49}{59}}, or about a 69% chance.

To convert this back, we get that the probability of being able to play the 1-cost card on turn 1 (if start with 2 cards) is {\displaystyle 1- \frac{50\cdot 49}{60\cdot 59}}, or about a 31% chance.

Axiom 2 says that in the actual game we start by drawing 7 cards. The pattern above continues in this way, so if we put {k} 1-cost cards in our deck, the probability of being able to play one of these on turn 1 is:

{\displaystyle 1 - \frac{(60-k)\cdot (60-k-1)\cdots (60-k-7)}{60\cdot 59\cdots (60-7)} = 1 - \frac{{60-k \choose 7}}{{60 \choose 7}}}.

To calculate the probability of hitting a 2-cost card on turn 2, we just change the 7 to an 8, since we’ll be getting 8 cards by axiom 3. The {k} becomes however many 2-cost cards we have.

Here’s a nice little question: Is it possible to make a deck where we have a greater than 50% chance of playing on curve every turn for the first 6 turns? We just compute the {k} above that makes each probability greater than {0.5}. This requires putting the following amount of cards in your deck:

6 1-cost
5 2-cost
5 3-cost
4 4-cost
4 5-cost
3 6-cost

Even assuming you put 24 lands in your deck, this still gives you tons of extra cards. Let’s push this a little further. Can you make a deck that has a better than 70% chance of playing on curve every turn? Yes!

9 1-cost
8 2-cost
7 3-cost
7 4-cost
6 5-cost
6 6-cost

Warning: This mana curve would never be used by any sort of competetive deck. This is a thought experiment with tons of simplifying assumptions. The curve for your deck is going to depend on a huge number of things. Most decks will probably value playing on curve in the 2,3,4 range way more than other turns. If you have an aggressive deck, you might value the early game. If you play a control deck, you might value the later game.

Also, the longer the game goes, the less cards you probably need in the high cost range to get those probabilities up, because there will be ways to hunt through your deck to increase the chance of finding them. Even more, all of these estimates are conservative, because MTG allows you to mulligan a bad starting hand. This means many worst-case scenarios get thrown out, giving you an even better chance at playing on curve.

This brings us back to the point being made in the previous post. Sometimes what feels like “bad luck” could be poor deck construction. This is an aspect you have full control over, and if you keep feeling like you aren’t able to play a card, you might want to work these probabilities out to make a conscious choice about how likely you are to draw certain cards at certain points of the game.

Once you know the probabilities, you can make more informed strategic decisions. This is exactly how professional poker is played.

Arguments on Religious Exemptions to Nondiscrimination Law

[This post is a day late. Excuses: I got bogged down looking these laws up. I accidentally had “insert” on, and I deleted large chunks without realizing it.]

It’s been in the news recently that a few states have (re)issued “Religious Freedom Laws.” The most recent being Mississippi’s Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. I won’t get into the details on this particular act but instead try to present some arguments from both sides of this debate that I think are good and bad.

Like most liberals, I tend to react from my gut and conclude these things are horrible. This is mostly an attempt to take a step back and figure out  the actual arguments. I’ll take a philosophical approach and assume for the sake of argument that the laws are written in a reasonable way to achieve their intended goal rather than pick apart the specific language of any one of them.

This means we’ll assume that there is a (local) law that says public accommodations must serve people regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, etc, and that the newer religious freedom law exempts people from following the nondiscrimination policy based on a “deeply held religious belief.”

Good pro argument: It’s not a big deal for people who are denied service for any reason to go somewhere else. I actually think this is a pretty good argument. When I was planning my wedding, I think back to how I would have felt if someone would have said, “You know, we’re family owned, and we prefer not to do gay weddings for religious reasons. We can put you in contact with several other local bakeries that do them instead if you don’t mind.”

Wedding plans have lots of setbacks. This one would be the least of my worries. I find it hard to care that much. I’d think they were homophobic jerks, but if the laws were written in a way that said: if you deny service for a religious reason, you must provide contact information for a service of equal quality within a reasonable distance, that seems to be a good trade-off. In order to discriminate, they have to advertise for their main competition. If there isn’t competition, they wouldn’t be allowed the exception.

Good anti argument: It’s not a big deal for the provider to just provide the service. Part of being an adult who engages the public is to deal with people you don’t like or who make you uncomfortable.

Let’s take two examples. The first is the clerk who hands the documentation to the gay couple. This should be easy. It’s just a piece of paper. I don’t even think that clerk has to sign it. They literally just hand it to you. That person isn’t condoning anything or celebrating anything or participating in anything. In other words, it’s just not a big deal to provide that service regardless of religious belief.

A slightly trickier example is baking a cake for a wedding that “goes against your religion.” Let’s remove the gay wedding from the example. This becomes a question of whether the person has developed the normal adult cognitive faculty of separating a pure business transaction from their personal life. It’s childish to care so much about how a cake is going to be used.

I’m sure there are Catholic bakers who believe getting remarried without an annulment is a sin. Or heck, they probably believe all marriages should be through the Catholic Church. Yet they manage to provide cakes for all sorts of weddings that aren’t a part of their religion.

My guess is that they have the ability to forget about it once it is baked. If it bothers you so much, stop thinking about it so much. The cake baker is not “participating” in the wedding. They are not “condoning” or “approving” of the wedding. They won’t even be attending. The ego needed to think so highly of their service is staggering.

I maintain that this is true for every scenario the law is intended to cover. Grow up. It’s not a big deal to provide the service. Sometimes, in real life, you have to deal with people you don’t like. That’s just part of running a business. It’s special pleading to get a law to shield you from these people.

Consistent libertarian pro argument: All services should be allowed to discriminate however they want. It’s 2016! The market will weed out the discriminatory services fairly quickly, because everyone will boycott them for discriminating. Then, without any government intervention, we will be in the same situation that the anti side wanted.

I have no idea whether this is empirically true, but I respect the consistency of the argument. This brings up a bad argument on the pro side. Some people say the law is okay because it has “targeted language.” This is a horrible argument. It is an attempt to get around the slippery slope of allowing all people exemptions to all things based on vague “religious beliefs.” But being targeted is admitting that the law is specifically designed to legally discriminate against one targeted group. That is unacceptable. Religious bigotry cannot be written into law. The consistent libertarian pro argument is much better.

Slippery slope anti argument: Allowing religious exemptions will lead to chaos. The language of “deeply held religious belief” is too vague. That could mean anything. Maybe it’s my deeply held religious belief that it’s a sin for Asians to eat pork. Am I allowed to deny them service at my all-pork restaurant based on that?

This gets back to the libertarian argument. I think if the pro side wants to be consistent, they have to say this is allowed. The fact that they won’t go this far is a sign that their argument isn’t very good if made in this way. So ultimately I think I have to come down on the anti side unless there was solid empirical evidence that the libertarian argument would work.

 

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.

I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.

The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.

We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.

Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.

While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.

This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.

Here’s a sample:

Year of Giant Novels Part 4: The Way of Kings

The next giant novel of the year has been taking me quite a bit of time. I’ve chosen The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, to change things up a bit. It is the first book in a long epic fantasy series. I’ve written about Sanderson’s Mistborn in the past.

I didn’t worry about spoilers in the previous posts in this series, because the first few books were “classics.” The contents of those books are part of the fabric of Western culture. This book is still pretty new, and like most speculative fiction, the mysteries of the world are part of the fun. So I’m going to be vague sometimes. I promise not to spoil anything.

When I announced this series, I pointed out that the most common complaint in book reviews I made the previous year was that the book was too long. Unfortunately, I’m going to lodge the same complaint here. I see no excuse for it.

One of the features of this world is a place called the Shattered Plains. In order for cavalry fighting to occur here, men have to move large bridges by hand across these crags in the ground for the horses to run across. The Kaladin storyline has this happen probably five or so times. Showing this to us once was interesting. Reading five chapters where this happens is a slog.

I get it. He introduced new elements into those scenes. He developed the character. Blah, blah, blah. These aren’t legitimate excuses. Someone along the publication line should have said, “Those scenes get tedious to read, and they are all going to blur together in the reader’s mind a week after finishing the book anyway, so maybe you should combine them into one or two chapters.”

This would have worked wonders on the pacing. It would have meant a denser layering of new concepts, but this would be a small price to pay considering how few new concepts are introduced in these chapters. I can’t help but feel like these sections existed merely to make the book longer so that the series as a whole could rival giants like The Wheel of Time.

The description also got tedious. I found this a strange turn from his earlier stuff. He used to give excellent, brief details that told a lot about the world and culture and characters. The Way of Kings takes the “more is more” approach. Everything gets describe to a fault.

I get this is part of the “style” of the genre. People want to hear a million details about this fantasy world. But to me, it reads as lazy. It’s weird to call such a long book lazy, but this book came out after he got “famous.” It feels like he stopped working hard to find the right description and instead dumped everything onto to the reader hoping one of them was the right one.

The most interesting character for me is Shallan. She basically infiltrates her way into an apprenticeship to a scholar. There are a lot of complexities to her, and she gets put into interesting moral dilemmas that I cared about as a reader. She also interacts with people from different walks of life, which lends itself to a more natural exploration of the religions, cultures, and history of the world.

Unfortunately, her point of view disappears for huge chunks (I think over 300 pages at one point, a whole novel!). This makes the tedium I referred to above even worse, since I knew there were interesting parts I could be reading.

I once read a review that said Sanderson’s NaNoWriMo-esque speed of writing might be good for fans that just want to know what happens next, but it is beginning to show in the sloppiness of his writing for the rest of us. I can’t agree more. If this were carefully cut to 600-700 pages, it would be exactly the same book, but infinitely better.

I think that’s enough of the bad. Let’s get on to the good. The world is detailed and has a long, complicated history. We get glimpses of this past with enough detail that I fully believe Sanderson has a good idea about what went on. This is quite an impressive amount of depth to the world you don’t get from much epic fantasy (e.g. I’m not convinced Tolkien had pre-Third Age Middle Earth history worked out at the writing of The Lord of the Rings).

The magic system and sword/armor systems were original and neat. Actually, most aspects of the world were interesting. I don’t blame him for wanting to drone on forever about them (please resist the urge in future books!). I mean, who puts giant crustaceans in epic fantasy? It is nice to get away from the dragon trope.

The characters weren’t bad, but they certainly felt a little one-dimensional at times. In a novel with this many characters, it’s good to have defining features to remind the reader who they were. When these features get repeated too much, the character becomes reduced to that feature. I’m not saying that happened in the book, but it was borderline sometimes.

Now I should make a disclaimer that I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, so things might turn around in the second half. I’m hopeful, since many people think this is the best modern work of fantasy out there right now. We’ll see.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 8

Today we’ll look at some prose from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t put this off forever; any series about prose would be remiss to skip Fitzgerald.

Many writers these days pop out 120,000 word novels every year. The Great Gatsby clocks in at about 47,000 words and was finely tuned over three years. This careful attention to prose is exactly the type of thing we should be looking at in this series of posts.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m pretty sure I read this book in high school, maybe 14 or 15 years ago. I may have just studied some plot summary handout, though. In the years since then, I’ve attempted to read it maybe five more times. I’ve failed every single time. Something clicked this last attempt, and I thought the book was brilliant.

This book is hard! It’s shocking that this is a standard for high school students. Structurally, it jumps around a lot. It is half the length of a standard novel yet has twice as many main characters. Nick, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Jordan, plus several other minor characters all have fully realized backstories, personalities, and relationships with each other.

The way Fitzgerald achieves this is with extraordinarily economic prose. Pretty much everything in the novel serves two or three functions (as we’ll get to shortly). The point of view is brilliantly chosen. The narrator is telling of events that happened in his past. This gives an intimacy from the narrator being there and knowing the characters, while at the same time serves a distancing function.

I wish this “partially involved narrator” was used more. It was quite refreshing. The narrator also served to complicate the structure, because we hear the events as Nick learned of them, rather than chronologically. The shaky timeline serves a dual purpose: it reiterates that this is all in Nick’s memory, and it heightens the sense that Gatsby is running out of time.

Let’s get to the prose. Here is an early description passage of a place between Long Island and New York City. This place has huge significance in the later parts of the novel.

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through powdery air.

It starts with a simple declaration to give the reader a picture then em dashes to more detail. It starts a metaphor: it isn’t just a valley but a farm for ashes. This makes sense, because the town is industrial and produces the ash. We immediately get a simile that the ash grows like wheat, staying consistent with the farm metaphor.

The picture is brilliant. We can almost feel it growing and covering everything. We get a few details, but these details are enough to paint a huge picture: ridges, hills, grotesque gardens, houses, and chimneys.

The sentence closes with a description of the people. The phrase “transcendent effort” here is so unique and unexpected. It creates a sense that these people require great will just to move in this oppressive ash. How do the men move? “Dimly” and “crumbling” evoke both the mood of the town but also keeps the description consistent with ash, which is also dim and crumbling.

In one sentence, Fitzgerald gave us all the description of the town we would need for the whole book. He achieved this through consistency in his metaphor but also making the different parts of the description reinforce each other. He used adjectives that did work for both physical description as well as mood.

Lastly, the sentence itself has a type of melancholy to it through its pacing and length. By chaining together those “ands” between the commas, the cadence gets drawn out. It plods along, almost losing you as it does it. The reader drowns in the description like the people in the town are drowning in the ash.

Sentences like these don’t come on accident. It reads like almost careless, effortless writing, but on close examination like this, we can tell how much work actually went into it. Almost the whole novel is like this somehow!

Let’s do some more:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

I chose this one, because I wanted to reiterate a point from the first one. “He came alive to me” is a simple declaration. The sentence could have ended there, but this would be the type of laziness that pervades less professional writing. If you’re just going to tell the reader something like this, you may as well not include it.

So the elaboration is the interesting part. He again chooses a metaphor: delivered from a womb. This is the point I wanted to emphasize. This consistency in metaphor is one the annoying things I find when critiquing new writers.

Maybe they strike upon some surprising idea like “womb of his purposeless splendor” (though I doubt it). How do you work it in? Tons of ideas might come to mind like “arrived from the womb” and so on. But of course, one has to look to the previous part of the sentence.

We have the phrase “to me.” Babies are “delivered” to people from wombs, so to stay consistent, this is almost the only choice. It is at this point that babies first cry and “come alive” (I am not making any sort of political statement here). The whole thing works as one consistent unit to both elaborate on the coming alive, reinforcing the metaphor, and having dual meanings.

Then there is the last part of the sentence: womb of his purposeless splendor. As in the first example, this is such a striking and unexpected phrase. Gatsby has been living in a womb of sorts, hiding away in his giant house without purpose, but it is certainly magnificent. Somehow those few words capture all of this. Now he is emerging from it and will have a purpose. It is, in fact, this very scene where Gatsby first reveals the purpose of everything.

We could go on like this all day. Notice we’ve only looked at two sentences. I guarantee that if you open the book to any random spot and find a single sentence, you’ll be able to keep doing this. The book is so tightly constructed that it boggles the mind.

Draw Luck in Card Games

Every year, around this time, I like to do a post on some aspect of game design in honor of the 7DRL Challenge. Let’s talk about something I hate: card games (though I sometimes become obsessed with, and love, well-made ones). For a game to be competitive, luck must be minimized or controlled in some way.

My family is obsessed with Canasta. I don’t get the appeal at all. This is a game that can take 1-2 hours to play and amounts to taking a random hand of cards and sorting them into like piles.

I’ve seen people say there is “strategy” on various forums. I’ll agree in a limited sense. There is almost always just one correct play, and if you’ve played a few times, that play will be immediately obvious to you. This means that everyone playing the game will play the right moves. This isn’t usually what is meant by “strategy.” By definition, the game is completely decided by the cards you draw.

This is pure tedium. Why would anyone want to sit down, flip a coin but not look at it, then perform a sorting task over and over for an hour or more, stop, look at the result of the coin flip and then determine that whoever won the coin flip won the “game.” This analogy is almost exactly the game of Canasta. There are similar (but less obnoxious) bureaucratic jobs that people are paid to do, and those people hate their job.

Not to belabor this point, but imagine you are told to put a bunch of files into alphabetical order, and each time you finish, someone came into the room and threw the files into the air. You then had to pick them up and sort them again. Why would you take this task upon yourself as a leisure activity?

I’ve asked my family this before, and the answer is always something like: it gives us something to do together or it is bonding time or similar answers. But if that’s the case, why not sit around a table and talk rather than putting this tedious distraction into it? If the point is to have fun playing a game, why not play a game that is actually fun?

This is an extreme example, but I’d say that most card games actually fall into this pure coin flip area. We get so distracted by playing the right moves and the fact that it is called a “game” that we sometimes forget the winner of the activity is nothing more than a purely random luck of the draw.

Even games like Pitch or Euchre or other trick taking games, where the right plays take a bit more effort to come up with, are the same. It’s a difficult truth to swallow, but the depth of these games is so shallow that a few hours of playing and you’ll be making the correct moves, without much thought, every single hand. Once every player makes the right plays, it only amounts to luck.

It’s actually really difficult to design a game with a standard deck of cards that gets around this problem. I’ve heard Bridge has depth (I know nothing of the game, but I take people’s word on this considering there is a professional scene). Poker has depth.

How does Poker get around draw luck? I’d say there are two answers. The first is that we don’t consider any individual hand a “game” of Poker. Obviously, the worst Poker player in the world could be dealt a straight flush and win the hand against the best Poker player in the world. Skill in Poker comes into play over the long run. One unit of Poker should be something like a whole tournament, where enough games are played to overcome the draw luck.

Now that we aren’t referring to a single hand, the ability to fold with minimal consequences also mitigates draw luck. This means that if you get unlucky with your initial cards, you can just choose to not play that hand. There are types of Poker that straight up let you replace bad cards (we’ll get to replacing in a moment). All of these things mitigate the luck enough that it makes sense to talk about skill.

Another card game with a professional scene is Magic: The Gathering (MTG). Tournament types vary quite a bit, but one way to mitigate draw luck is again to consider a whole tournament as a unit rather than an individual game. Or you could always play best of five or something.

But one of the most interesting aspects is the deck itself. Unlike traditional playing cards, you get to make the deck you play with. This means that over the course of many games, you can only blame yourself for bad drawing. Did you only draw lands on your first turn for five matches in a row? Then maybe you have too many land cards. That’s your fault. Did you draw no land many times in a row? Also, your own fault again. Composing a deck that takes all these probabilities into account is part of the skill of the game (usually called the “curve” of the deck).

Here’s an interesting question: is there a way to mitigate draw luck without having to play a ton of games? Most people want to play something short and not have to travel for a few days to play in a tournament to test their skill.

In real life, replacing cards is obnoxious to implement, but I think it is a fascinating and underutilized rule. The replacement idea allows you to tone down draw luck even at the level of a single game. If your card game exists online only, it is easy to do, and some recent games actually utilize this like Duelyst.

Why does it work? Well, if you have a bad draw, you can just replace one or all of your cards (depending on how the rule is worded). Not only does this create strategic depth through planning ahead for which cards will be useful, it almost completely eliminates the luck of the draw.

I really want to see someone design a card game with a standard deck of cards that makes this idea work. The one downside is that the only way I can see a “replace” feature working is if you shuffle after each replacement. This is pretty annoying, but I don’t see a way around it. You can’t just stick the card you replace into the middle of the deck and pretend like that placement is random. Everyone will know that it isn’t going to be drawn in the next few turns and can play around that.

Anyway. That’s just something I’ve been thinking about since roguelikes have tons of randomness in them, and the randomness of card games have always bothered me.

 

Replies to Against Theory, Part 2

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him on the blog, and he is one of my favorite philosophers. Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made. For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent. H.P. Grice is one person in this camp. There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory: “Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?”

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning). How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such. We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation. It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc. This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory, because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students. It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that. First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article. Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding. It’s sort of like saying: do math, no wait, stop formulating a theory, just manipulate the symbols, what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

Next they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author” (this was discussed last time). Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here). This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant. When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things. The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Well, I think I’m done with this series of posts for now. I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting. For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints. On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).

Replies to Against Theory, Part 1

Two weeks ago I blogged about Knapp and Michael’s “Against Theory.” I’ve started going through the book Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, which is a compilation of all the major papers arguing for/against the points brought up in “Against Theory.”

Here’s the main point of Knapp-Michaels, which I never articulated in a clear way. All theory is effectively an illusion based on making distinctions that don’t actually exist (meaning/intention; true belief/knowledge). Thus, the only thing we should do is “practice” (i.e. read/interpret), and we may as well skip out on the unnecessary “theory” part.

One of the most interesting things about these articles is that no one has mentioned the point I raised (so far), but many, many other issues are raised. The first response is titled “Revisionary Madness: The Prospects of American Literary Theory at the Present Time” by Daniel T. O’Hara. It is quite good but hard to summarize, since it’s points are made rhetorically through satire.

The next one is Hirsch’s “Against Theory?” This was the piece I was most excited to read, because I wanted to hear how Hirsch defended himself. He begins by reiterating that Knapp and Michaels seem to firmly agree with him, and it is somewhat odd that they took so much effort to call him out over what appear to be misunderstandings.

Hirsch reiterates that intentionalists never imagine a moment of interpretation before intention. That is the whole point of this school of thought! One must have intention for there to be a meaning to interpret. Hirsch also agrees with them that intentionalists choose among a range of possible speakers. He takes it for granted that this avoids the intentionless meaning issue, but I think this grants Knapp-Michaels too much ground.

I diverge from Hirsch here, because this is such a bizarre way to frame what an intentionalists does. I still like my analogy. When one works out the answer to 2583 x 3921, one doesn’t posit a range of plausible answers in order to choose the correct one. There is only ever one correct answer, and just because you don’t know it at first glance doesn’t mean there are other possibilities you are “choosing between.”

The interesting thing about this example is that it shows how both practice and theory can be necessary even if there is only ever one right answer. Deriving the correct answer is “practice.” But you won’t know the derivation gave the correct answer without the “theory” to ground the method.

Under this framing, intentionless meaning is avoided. The collection of symbols on the page only ever has the meaning the author intended. You may have to do work to find that meaning, but you don’t have to posit a bunch of meanings by fictional people to choose among to do it.

Hirsch’s main criticism of Knapp-Michaels is with their leap from “intention and meaning have no distinction” to “intention has no theoretical interest” (also a point I alluded to in my post). He claims some semantic slight of hand goes on here by pointing out that text-authorship and meaning-authorship are not the same. In other words, there’s no theoretical interest if a text only means what “its” author intends, but there is theoretical interest if a text can mean what “an” author intends.

Again, this feels slippery to me, because I think Knapp-Michaels do have a point if one allows “theoretical” intention to be relevant. I’m not sure Hirsch really wants to allow this either, because it basically nullifies the whole point of the intentionalist project. This would allow all of the New Criticism in, which Hirsch wholeheartedly wanted to reject with his book. So I think I must be misunderstanding his point here.

Hirsch also brings up the distinction between “what an author intends” and “what an author intended,” another scary distinction for intentionalists in my view. It seems to me that in an attempt to refute Knapp-Michaels, Hirsch is almost bringing on more problems than he solves. I think there was a section in his book about this, but it again seems scary to think intention can change at the whim of the author twenty years after writing something. Surely intention must mean: by the author at the time of writing; otherwise, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 3: Moby-Dick

I went in to Moby-Dick with very few preconceptions. The only thing I had heard about it was that there is some chapter on cetology, and everyone finds it too tedious to keep reading. I think this is a poor excuse, because it doesn’t occur until Chapter 32 and it isn’t that long.

Since I’ve been focusing on description on this blog recently, I thought I’d give a particularly interesting description. Early on, we get this description of a painting:

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbhours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavoured to delineate chaos betwiched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

The description actually continues after this. It is quite wordy, but much of this can be attributed to an older style. One of the joys of reading this novel is to revel in how inventive the descriptions are. Melville could have described every detail of this painting, giving us a perfect image of it in our minds.

Instead, we get this nebulous, vague sense. We have to imagine a painting for which an ambitious artist tries to capture chaos. This contributes much more toward the unsettling feeling we’re supposed to have of the place than if we had some clear idea. The description also does a good job of having more than one purpose. It incorporates some of the surroundings: “unequal cross-lights” and “little window towards the back of the entry.”

The painting has an ominous whale figure in it, and so it serves a deeper function than pure ambiance. It is a foreshadowing of the chaos that is to come. It sets the mood for whaling.

I’m only about half-way through the novel so far, but here’s my general impression. In some senses, it’s not as hard as I thought. The language is dense and there are tangents, but the first half has a lot of good suspense and the story is never lost for long.

In other senses, it’s harder than I thought. I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. I have to have a particular attitude and willingness to go along with it. This is different than most novels. If you like to read, you probably can pick up almost anything at almost any time and enjoy it.

This novel must be embraced for what it is. If you’re going to get annoyed at reading detailed categorizations of whales, you can’t pick it up (or you have to skip those parts). But if you embrace it, even these sections are enjoyable.

All these sections taken together contribute to a full immersion into the culture of New England whaling in the 1800’s. There’s newspaper clippings, poems, songs, paintings, personas, textbook-style cetology, historical bits, sermons, etc. These are all woven beautifully into the story itself. It’s really brilliant and fun when you are willing to go with it but feels impenetrable when not in the mood.

I think anyone interested in writing should read this novel, because it is written with such magnificent style (unlike Don Quixote where understanding its historical significance is more important than actually reading it). Melville is a master at sliding between registers: from high lyricism to gruff whaler dialect. If you only stick to modern novels, you’ll never encounter brilliant passages like:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

I’ve read this passage twenty times in the writing and editing of this post, and it never ceases to amaze me with its beauty. This type of thing could never get published today, even in obscure literary fiction (actually, maybe Mark Helprin comes close). Anyway, I definitely recommend this one, which surprises me. I expected it to be a terrible experience.

P.S. Most of you probably wouldn’t notice if I didn’t point it out, but I’m switching to Friday posts after over a year of doing Wednesdays.