Midweek Patreon Update

I’m doing a midweek update to inform you I’ve changed my Patreon goals. I originally said that I wanted to be at $100 per month by the end of the year in order to keep the blog “alive.” But now I’m changing that to $50 per month by the end of September (with the old goal still applying). If we don’t make that goal, I’ll shut the Patreon down and no longer post every week.

If you haven’t read it, here’s the original announcement about starting a Patreon page.

I’ll remind you that my rewards are actually very, very good compared to a majority of people making similar content. The most typical reward is to give an ad-free version (I don’t run ads) or to give people the content a day early. One prominent person gives supporters the information of an upcoming speaking engagement early (yes, your “reward” is to be told how you can give them more money before other people find out).

These are all trivial rewards.

My rewards are part of the reason I can’t sustain the Patreon model anymore. I give a whole video and an extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” blog post each month. I give out free books. These are actual rewards. Of course, supporters shouldn’t be supporting to get the rewards. They should support because they like the content. The rewards are just a side benefit.

Anyway, I’m not actually complaining. I’ll be happy if people make it worth my time, and I’ll be happy if I no longer have to stress about getting quality content out on a deadline. So whichever way it goes, I’ll be happy. It’s this middle ground I don’t like.

I’ve been blogging for about ten years now, and since the majority of my day is reading/writing/editing, it’s not feasible to keep doing a weekly blog for (essentially) free. Patreon was meant to get a modest (barely breaking even) amount for that effort. All it has done is create more work, so it’s a sanity thing to end it early unless some more people show interest.

Again, thousands of you come here every week. If a mere 40 of you find the content valuable enough to give even a dollar a month, we would hit that $50 per month number (and you’d get a bonus post each month). If this doesn’t happen, then I can say it’s been a good run. Most blogs probably go defunct in less than six months.




Become a Patron!

I’ve come to a crossroads recently.

I write a blog post every week. It takes time. The last one was close to 2,000 words and required reading a book. For the past three years I’ve been writing full time, and so blogging can be a burden that cuts into this with no monetary rewards.

This blog is now over nine years old, and I’ve done nothing to monetize it. I think this is mostly a good thing. I do not and will not run any sort of advertisements. Even upon the release of my first book, I only did a brief mention and then no promotion afterward (and as far as I can tell, this converted to literally 0 sales).

I want this to be about the blog content. I do not want it to turn into some secret ad campaign to sell my work. I can think of many authors who have done this, and I ended up unsubscribing from them.

This brings me to the point. Putting this much work into something is not really sustainable anymore without some sort of support, so I’ve started a Patreon page. As you’ll see, my initial goal is quite modest and will barely cover the expenses to run my blog and website. But without anything, I will slowly phase out writing here regularly.

If this concept is new to you, Patreon is a site dedicated to supporting creative work. Patrons can pledge money to support people creating content they like. It can be as little as $1 a month (or as many podcasters say: “less than a coffee a month”), and in return, you not only help the site to keep running, you’ll receive bonus content as well.

Because of the scattered nature of my posts, I know a lot of you are probably scared to support, because you might not get content of interest for the month. Some of you like the math and tune out for the writing advice. Some of you like the critical analysis of philosophy and wish the articles on game mechanics didn’t exist.

For consistency, I’ll only put out something that would be tagged “literature” for the vast majority of posts from now on. This means once a month or less and probably never two months in a row (i.e. six per year spread out equally). This “literature” tag includes, but is not limited to, most posts on philosophy that touch on narrative or language somehow, editing rules, writing advice, book reviews, story structure analysis, examining pro’s prose, movie reviews, and so on.

Again, the core original vision for the blog included game and music and math posts, but these will be intentionally fewer now. If you check the past few years, I basically already did this anyway, but this way you know what you’re signing up for.

I think people are drawn to my literature analysis because I’m in a unique position. This month I’m about to submit my fifth romance novel under a pseudonym. This is the “commercial” work I do for money, and it’s going reasonably well. I’ve come to understand the ins and outs of genre fiction through this experience, and it has been a valuable part of learning the craft of writing for me.

My main work under my real name is much more literary. I’ve put out one novel of literary fiction. Next month I’ll put out my second “real” novel, which is firmly in the fantasy genre but hopefully doesn’t give up high-quality prose.

These two opposite experiences have given me an eye for what makes story work and what makes prose work. All over this blog I’ve shown that I love experimental writing, but I’ve also been one of the few people to unapologetically call out BS where I see it.

As you can imagine, writing several genre novels and a “real” novel every year makes it tough to justify this weekly blog for the fun of it.

If I haven’t convinced you that the quality here is worth supporting, I’ll give you one last tidbit. I get to see incoming links thanks to WordPress, so I know that more than one graduate seminar and MFA program has linked to various posts I’ve made on critical theory and difficult literature. Since I’m not in those classes, I can’t be sure of the purpose, but graduate programs tend to only suggest reading things that are worth reading. There just isn’t enough time for anything else.

I know, I know. Print is dead. You’d rather support people making podcasts or videos, but writing is the easiest way to get my ideas across. I listen to plenty of podcasts on writing, but none of them get to dig into things like prose style. The format isn’t conducive to it. One needs to see the text under analysis to really get the commentary on it.

Don’t panic. I won’t decrease blog production through the end of 2017, but I’m setting an initial goal of $100 per month. We’ll go from there, because even that might not be a sustainable level long-term. If it isn’t met, I’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s just one of those unfortunate business decisions. Sometimes firing someone is the right move, even if they’re your friend.

I’ve set up a bunch supporter rewards, and I think anyone interested in the blog will find them well worth it. I’m being far more generous than most Patreon pages making similar content. Check out the page for details. The rewards involve seeing me put into practice what I talk about with video of me editing a current project with live commentary; extra fiction I write for free; free copies of my novels; extra “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles; and more!

I hope you find the content here worth supporting (I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of getting $2 a month and knowing it’s from my parents). If you don’t feel you can support the blog, feel free to continue reading and commenting for free. The community here has always been excellent.

What is an Expert?

I’ll tread carefully here, because we live in a strange time of questioning the motives and knowledge of experts to bolster every bizarre conspiracy theory under the sun. No one trusts any information anymore. It’s not even clear if trusting/doubting expert opinion is anti/hyper-intellectual. But that isn’t the subject of today’s topic.

I listen to quite a few podcasts, and several of them have made me think about expertise recently.

For example, Gary Taubes was on the Sam Harris podcast and both of them often get tarred with the “you don’t have a Ph.D. in whatever, so you’re an unknowledgeable/dangerous quack” brush. Also, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is insanely detailed, but every ten minutes he reminds the audience “I’m not a historian …”

Many people who value the importance of expertise think that the degree (the Ph.D. in particular but maybe an MFA for arts stuff) is the be-all-end-all of the discussion. You have the Ph.D., then you’re an expert. If you don’t, then you’re not.

The argument I want to present is that if you believe this, you really should be willing to extend your definition of expertise to a wider group of people who have essentially done the equivalent work of one of these degrees.

Think of it this way. Person A goes to Subpar University, scrapes by with the minimal work, kind of hates it, and then teaches remedial classes at a Community College for a few years. Person B has a burning passion for the subject, studies all of the relevant literature, and continues to write about and develop novel ideas in the subject for decades. I’d be way more willing to trust Person B as an expert than Person A despite the degree differences.

Maybe I’ve already convinced you, and I need not go any further. Many of you are probably thinking, yeah, but there are parts to doing a degree that can’t be mimicked without the schooling. And others might be thinking, yeah, but Person B is merely theoretical. No one in the real world exists like Person B. We’ll address each of these points separately.

I think of a Ph.D. as having three parts. Phase 1 is demonstration of competence of the basics. This is often called the Qualifying or Preliminary Exam. Many students don’t fully understand the purpose of this phase while going through it. They think they must memorize and compute. They think of it as a test of basic knowledge.

At least in math and the hard sciences, this is not the case. It is almost a test of attitude. Do you know when you’re guessing? Do you know what you don’t know? Are you able to admit this or will you BS your way through something? Is the basic terminology internalized? You can pass Phase 1 with gaps in knowledge. You cannot pass Phase 1 if you don’t know where those gaps are.

Phase 2 is the accumulation of knowledge of the research done in your sub-sub-(sub-sub-sub)-field. This basically amounts to reading thousands of pages, sometimes from textbooks to get a historical view, but mostly from research papers. It also involves talking to lots of people engaged in similar, related, or practically the same problems as your thesis. You hear their opinions and intuitions about what is true and start to develop your own intuitions.

Phase 3 is the original contribution to the literature. In other words, you write the thesis. To get a feel for the difficulty and time commitment of each step, if you do a five year Ph.D., ideally Phase 1 would be done in around a year, Phase 2 is 2-4 years, and Phase 3 is around a year (there is overlap between phases).

I know a lot of people aren’t going to like what I’m about to say, but the expertise gained from a Ph.D. is almost entirely the familiarization with the current literature. It’s taking the time to read and understand everything being done in the field.

Phase 1 is basically about not wasting people’s time and money. If you’re going to not understand what you’re reading in Phase 2 and make careless mistakes in Phase 3, it’s best to weed those people out with Phase 1. But you aren’t gaining any expertise in Phase 1, because it’s all just the basics still.

One of the main reasons people don’t gain Ph.D.-level expertise without actually doing the degree is because being in such a program forces you to compress all that reading into a small time-frame (yes, reading for three years is short). It’s going to take someone doing it as a hobby two or three times longer, and even then, they’ll be tempted to just give up without the external motivation of the degree looming over them.

Also, without motivating thesis problem, you won’t have the narrow focus to make the reading and learning manageable. I know everyone tackles this in different ways, but here’s how it worked for me. I’d take a paper on a related topic, and I’d try to adapt the techniques and ideas to my problem. This forced me to really understand what made these techniques work, which often involved learning a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t have if I just read through it to see the results.

Before moving on, I’d like to add that upon completion of a Ph.D. you know pretty much nothing outside of your sub-sub-(sub-sub-sub)-field. It will take many years of continued teaching and researching and reading and publishing and talking to people to get any sense of your actual sub-field.

Are there people who complete the equivalent of the three listed phases without an actual degree?

I’ll start with the more controversial example of Gary Taubes. He got a physics undergrad degree and a masters in aerospace engineering. He then went into science journalism. He stumbled upon how complicated and shoddy the science of nutrition was, and started to research a book.

Five years later, he had read and analyzed pretty much every single nutrition study done. He interviewed six hundred doctors and researchers in the field. If this isn’t Phase 2 of a Ph.D., I don’t know what is. Most students won’t have gone this in-depth to learn the state of the field in an actual Ph.D. program.

Based on all of this, he then wrote a meticulously cited book Good Calories, Bad Calories. The bibliography is over 60 pages long. If this isn’t Phase 3 of a Ph.D., I don’t know what is. He’s continued to stay abreast of studies and has done at least one of his own in the past ten years. He certainly has more knowledge of the field than any fresh Ph.D.

Now you can disagree with his conclusions all you want. They are quite controversial (but lots of Ph.D. theses have controversial conclusions; this is partially how knowledge advances). Go find any place on the internet with a comments section that has run something about him and you’ll find people who write him off because “he got a physics degree so he’s not an expert on nutrition.” Are we really supposed to ignore 20 years of work done by a person just because it wasn’t done at a University and the previous 4 years of their life they got an unrelated degree? It’s a very bizarre sentiment.

A less controversial example is Dan Carlin. Listen to any one of his Hardcore History podcasts. He loves history, so he obsessively reads about it. Those podcasts are each an example of completing Phase 3 of the Ph.D. And he also clearly knows the literature as he constantly references hundreds of pieces of research an episode off the top of his head. What is a historian? Supposedly it’s someone who has a Ph.D. in history. But Dan has completed all the same Phases, it just wasn’t at a university.

(I say this is less controversial, because I think pretty much everyone considers Dan an expert on the topics he discusses except for himself. It’s a stunning display of humility. Those podcasts are the definition of having expertise on a subject.)

As a concluding remark/warning. There are a lot of cranks out there who try to pass themselves off as experts who really aren’t. It’s not easy to tell for most people, and so it’s definitely best to err on the side of the degree that went through the gatekeeper of a university when you’re not sure.

But also remember that Ph.D.’s are human too. There’s plenty of people like Person A in the example above. You can’t just believe a book someone wrote because that degree is listed after their name. They might have made honest mistakes. They might be conning you. Or, more likely, they might not have a good grasp on the current state of knowledge of the field they’re writing about.

What is an expert? To me, it is someone who has dedicated themselves with enough seriousness and professionalism to get through the phases listed above. This mostly happens with degree programs, but it also happens a lot in the real world, often because someone moves into a new career.

Vote for Trump?

I tend to stay away from political posts (I think I’ve done around 5 in my last 800). I have some family members who have caught Trump fever, and when I ask them why they want to vote for him, the arguments confuse me a great deal. I know I’ll probably get death threats and whatnot for this, but here goes: the top five responses I hear when asking why someone should vote for Trump and why they make no sense to me.

Don’t misinterpret this post and say, “At least he’s better than Hilary.” I’m not trying to make a pro-Hilary or anti-Trump post. I’m merely pointing out that I haven’t heard a pro-Trump argument that makes sense to me (I was mostly asking these question in primary season when people presumably saw Trump as an actual good choice rather than a lesser of two evils choice).

1. He’s a great businessman, so he’ll be able to whip a stalled government into a well-oiled machine.

I understand this is the persona he plays, but I’m confused why people take his word for this. Aren’t Trump supporters the ones who say you can’t believe anything a politician says? If we apply this to Trump, we find that all signs point to the opposite.

Here’s a list of businesses started by or run by Trump that have gone under: Trump Vodka, Trump Casino, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, GoTrump.com, Trump Mortgage, Trump Magazine, Trump University, Trump Ice (i.e. water), Trump on the Ocean, The Trump Network, Trumped! (talk radio show), and Trump New Media to name a few. There are others. Google it.

I get it. Starting a business is hard. Some of these go way back. You can defend a few of these failures using that logic. No one is perfect in their early years. The greatest business people all have embarrassments in their past.

But this only goes so far. At some point you have to look at the record and say: wow, that’s the track record of someone who has no idea what they’re doing. Bad luck alone does not produce that many business failures. Despite what he says, all the evidence points to the fact that he isn’t a very good businessman.

2. He’ll bring people together to get work done in Congress.

Did you just laugh a little? Are you incredulous that people have said this to me with a straight face? Well, they have. Again, I understand this is a talking point, but let’s look past that to the real world evidence.

Trump is so bad at bringing people together that he can’t even bring his own party together. Look at the never Trump movement. He’s so divisive that there’s talk of the RNC stealing the nomination from him. Look at Paul Ryan’s comments. Is that the type of rhetoric we’d expect to see from someone who can unite? He might be the most divisive person I’ve ever seen run for office. How is he going to bring Democrats and Republicans together if he can’t even bring Republicans together?

3. He’ll build a wall.

Let’s tackle the obvious before moving on to the wall. He’s running for the most powerful position in the world. He’s not running for project manager for building a wall, so this argument alone is not a good one for why you want him to be president. Sadly, once I’ve pointed out the flaws of the first two reasons, this is the one that inevitably comes out.

The wall itself is also a problem. The Washington Post estimated the cost to be about $25 billion. That cost will fall to us when Mexico refuses to pay for it (I’m starting to see how those earlier businesses might have failed: build something expecting someone else to pay, they don’t, file for bankruptcy, repeat).

According to people who actually know about border patrol, securing the border is not as easy as building a wall. There are many ways such a project could actually make it harder to secure the border. But if this is still high priority for you, I’ll admit this reason could play a minor, partial role in a pro-Trump argument.

4. He’s politically incorrect.

Look at my previous posts. I’m as aware of the dangers of hyper-PC culture as anyone. I’ll first push back against the idea that Trump cares about this issue. For the most part, it looks like he just doesn’t have a filter. He says whatever nonsense pops into his head no matter how offensive, racist, or sexist it may be. Then when someone calls him on it, he uses political correctness as a cover.

But let’s grant that he says these things to intentionally dismantle political correctness. The real problem isn’t whether any given individual is PC. It is the growing culture of political correctness stifling honest debate and research and art that is the problem. I don’t see how having a president that says politically incorrect things will do anything but stoke the fire of the PC crowd.

5. He’s self-funding and hence not beholden to big money donors.

Well, this is yet to be seen. It looks like he might turn on the RNC fundraising machine once he has the nomination. But even if he doesn’t, his current “self-funding” is super weird. He is loaning his money to his campaign rather than donating. It looks more like a giant money-making scam than self-funding (for example, if he uses individual donations to pay himself back with interest, he’ll have made money by preying on the hopes of susceptible Americans!).

In any case, this one may turn out to be true, but since it is something we can’t know at this point, I wouldn’t consider it a good reason to be pro-Trump right now.

Let me reiterate, this was not meant to be a case against Trump. If I were to try to do that, I’d focus on his destructive immigration policies, his thoughtless trade policies, the fact that he appears to be lying about the five things people most like about him, and his dangerous ignorance about anything important relating to the job and seeming unwillingness to learn about it. But those are for another post (which I probably won’t write).

Status of ABC Conjecture

I rarely do this, but I’m going to direct you to a different blog this week. I’m in the middle of two big projects, and I didn’t feel like blogging today. The abc Conjecture is one of the most important unsolved problems in math. It is also relatively simple to state. Go read about it at that link if you haven’t heard of it.

A few years (?!) ago someone claimed to have solved it. Unfortunately, the proof was one of the longest and most complicated things the math world had ever seen. Ever since, the status of the conjecture has been up in the air. Some people have attempted to understand it to try to verify if the proof holds up.

A few days ago, we got a massive status update. You can read about it here.

Composers You Should Know Part 3

My relationship to today’s composer is much different than the previous two. The previous ones I have been listening to and following for ten years or more. I found this one recently, because I was listening to Sirius XM’s classical channel and heard something magnificent come on. I looked the composer up and found her.

Jennifer Higdon is writing some of the most inventive music I’ve heard. She has the ability to write in a huge variety of styles: bluegrass, beautiful lush orchestrated pieces, avant-garde experimentation, and more … often all rolled into a single piece.

There are several really interesting facts about her life. The first one is that she started late in music. I spent my youth around stressed out high school students who had “only” a few pages of musical accolades who feared they had already missed out on the chance of a profession in music. They were already 15 and hadn’t finished writing their second symphony which put them way behind their idols.

Jennifer Higdon didn’t even pick up an instrument until 15 and hadn’t started composing until 21! Now she is one of the most successful living composers. She currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair at the Curtis Institute of Music and has had numerous commissions from the top orchestras and performers. She has won basically all the top prizes and awards for composition as well.

Her doctorate was under George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania (though I hear almost no Crumb influence in her work and think that extracting it would be an awesome music theory Ph.D. if anyone is interested). The piece I want to talk about is her violin concerto (I’m using the Hilary Hahn recording). The piece won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize (I swear I’ll try to avoid the Pulitzer next time).

The piece opens with the main theme on the violin. The orchestral accompaniment is a collection of disjointed, broken upper register parts with chimes and what possibly sounds like harmonics on the violin. The solo part contrasts with this nicely, but the power of Higdon is first noticeable when the orchestra accompaniment switches to a sustained part. The bottom comes in for the first time, and the effect is chilling.

The positioning and style choices in the juxtaposition of contrasts is what made me fall in love with the first piece and seek out more. I’ve since learned that this is a characteristic in many of her pieces. One moment the soloist is playing rapid, technical passages, the next she has long flowing lines.

The transitions are spot on. You can think about the different sections and wonder how you get from one to the next. But in the moment of listening, the flow works, and you don’t notice the section breaks unless you are intended to notice them. When she intends you to notice, then it is quite an experience. The set up contrasts are often the most moving moments of the piece.

The violin concerto is quite difficult to describe, because its sound is so unique. It sounds vaguely atonal yet always feels fully tonal. It sounds foreign while maintaining the feeling of familiarity. The second movement is fascinating, becuase it opens as the standard “slow movement,” but once the solo comes in it quickly shifts to a much more urgent and pressing feel.

The movement does a wonderful job at maintaining an undercurrent of passive beauty while the motion of the solo picks up intensity over top of it. This tension allows the piece to build to a huge sense of relief when the tension releases. This type of thing isn’t possible with a more traditional approach to the middle movement.

The last movement is more traditional in that it provides an awesome, showy finish. It reminds me a bit of the end to Shostakovich’s first violin concerto. It is technical with interesting moody, modal tonalities coming in and out throughout.

Overall, this is a fantastic piece you should check out. I will definitely continue to follow what Jennifer Higdon does and familiarize myself with more of her work. This is a composer you should definitely know if you are into orchestral works but not so familiar with modern works.

I should have been doing this in the previous posts, but here’s a link to the first movement:

Composers You Should Know Part 1

I figured I would start a series on important living composers that most people are probably unaware of. I think a lot of symphony orchestras do a disservice by sticking to the classics. Even people that regularly attend orchestra performances have a hard time naming more than a handful of living composers outside of those that have made a bit of fame through movie scores (John Corigliano or Philip Glass come to mind).

It is a strange state of affairs if you consider any other artistic medium. An art connoisseur would have no problem listing living artists ad nauseum or an avid reader would have no problem listing living authors (and not just popular bestsellers). The blame can be spread over many sources, but it doesn’t help that the major orchestras shy away from new music. Public education doesn’t include it, either.

The person I’ve picked for today has been in the news a lot recently. Can you guess from that alone? John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year (did you know there was a Pulitzer for music?) for his work Become Ocean. As such, a lot of people have written about it, but I’ll give my own take in a bit. You may be thinking, “Ah, but I have heard of this person!” Make sure you are not confusing John Luther Adams with the minimalist composer John Adams (also recently in the news for his controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer).

John Luther Adams lives in Alaska, and this has been a major influence on his music. His pieces are often about some aspect of nature. Become Ocean fits into a larger program of the composer to create pieces about all the elements. This one is about water, but he has an earlier piece, Inuksuit, based on earth and one that has come out since then, Sila: The Breath of the World about air. I expect to see a piece about fire in the near future.

I have avoided reading much about Become Ocean, so I could write this without being influenced by other people’s reviews and interpretations. The Seattle Symphony comissioned the piece and premiered it in June of last year. Of course, when thinking about what an orchestral representation of the ocean would sound like, it is hard not to think of Debussy’s attempt with La Mer. You should get that out of your head, because this work is very different. Despite how much I love La Mer, I have to admit that Adams’ representation is brilliant.

Most of the work is quiet and almost zen-like. You can hear the gentle waves with short, scalar and arpeggio patterns up and down, up and down. It is hard to know for certain without a score, but it sounds like a piano keeps this ostinato going for the entire piece. On top of these waves are long, held notes tying the whole thing together with a dark murkiness.

This is most of the piece, and it may sound boring to you, but consider the following. The sun is setting, and you are sitting on the edge of a dock looking out over the ocean watching it. The repetitive waves transfix you, and you lose 45 minutes out there. It is beautiful and wonderful, not boring. That is this piece.

The piece, as a whole, continually shifts and moves. It has long, slow builds to magnificent climaxes. These moments are chilling in the strength and power, just as the ocean has the power to be a destructive force. It is amazing that the piece can seem so static, yet have so much underlying motion in the same way that changing your attention on the ocean can make it seem static or turbulent.

If you don’t listen to much modern music, then this would be a good place to start. The piece does not have a large barrier to entry like a serialist composition or quarter-tone piece or something with lots of references. Anyone can sit down and instantly be captured by the beauty. It will take a good deal of patience, though. There’s no melody or anything to command your attention. Like all great art, it requires some effort on the listener’s part. But that effort is well worth it.But that effort is well worth it.

The Role of Genre in Game Interpretation

This essay is a bit late. I wrote it about three months ago, so it rehashes tons of things from the past months of posts as if they never occurred. Still, I think the example is nice. We’ve been thinking about genre and interpretation of literature. But if we take seriously the idea that games can be art, then the same methods of interpretation still apply.

Game critics jump at the opportunity to place games in the nice neat box of its genre. Still, there has been a growing trend to shrug off genre as useless due to the diversity of modern games that push boundaries. We will examine the idea that the utility of genre identification is not in its descriptive power, but its use for artistic interpretation.

It is true that no label will ever perfectly fit any given game. But if this were a viable argument to forgo genre as useless, then it would have caught hold in the world of literary criticism by now. Instead, we find that genre is still a useful means to understand literature. The idea is ancient and can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics, but the (post-Derrida) resurgence can be traced back to at least Gérard Genette’s famous 1979 essay The Architext: An Introduction.

Roughly, Genette defines poetics as the art and science of interpreting a text by situating it in the proper context of similar texts. The similarities come from stylistic and thematic concerns among other things. This group of similar texts is what we call a genre. Some narratologists, such as Genette, argue that one must establish the context to obtain a proper understanding and interpretation. In other words, if we want to interpret a work of art, then identifying its genre is not only useful, but necessary.

This might sound shocking to most people, because (American) high schools teach that great works of art stand on their own. There is no right or wrong way to interpret. I can read The Catcher in the Rye, be moved by it, and formulate my own opinions without ever considering the genre in which it resides. Great art should be universal and not dependent on surrounding works.

This viewpoint is valid, but limited in scope. Consider the following thought experiment. You read a book on Abraham Lincoln. You are not told the genre or author. I now reveal that the book was a collection of journal entries by a friend of Abraham Lincoln. This exposes a set of ways to interpret the book. If I told you it was a biography released by a reputable academic press last year, then I open a different set of interpretations. For example, both are trying to convey factual information, but we should be more skeptical of stories found in one person’s journal.

Now, if I told you it was a work of historical fiction, then a new set of possibilities arises. Major people, places, and events form a factual framework for the story, but the bulk of the plot will be fiction. We might expect to find other literary devices such as symbols and themes which put a particular spin on the events. Identifying the genre was enough to open and close various ways to interpret the book, because we are familiar with the genre’s conventions.

This example also shows us that the author’s intent is important, because we want to know whether we are reading true statements. Art isn’t always as egotistical as we want to believe: I felt this; I think it means that. David Foster Wallace often referred to experiencing great literature as building a relationship between author and reader. Art fails if one side tries to be selfish.

Communication is vital for a successful relationship. Understanding only comes if the reader is familiar with the genre in the same way that cultural context can change the meaning of oral communication. Familiarity with conventions and tropes allows the reader to see the manner in which it deviates. According to Genette, these deviations will have significance for interpretation. Only by putting a work in the context of its genre can we hear what the artist is saying.

By now you’ve guessed how this relates to games. Games serving as an artistic medium is a recent development. Sophisticated dialogue on interpreting games is in its infancy, and attempting to port established literary theory to the discussion is almost non-existent. The point is not that genre theory or poetics is the “right” way to frame these conversations, but that it gives us one established lens of interpretation from a multitude of literary theories.

It is futile to produce a full-scale analysis here (Genette took several books to analyze Proust), but let’s consider one familiar example: Braid. In this case, we have an unambiguous genre. Braid is a puzzle platformer in the sense that the player jumps between platforms and solves puzzles. The most significant innovation is that getting to platforms and solving puzzles requires time manipulation.

If we want to interpret the game, poetics tells us that we should give time special status. You might think at this point, “Duh! The game is about time manipulation, and we didn’t need to know the genre to come to that conclusion.” But you would be wrong, because you are biased and know that time manipulation is not a characteristic of the genre. If the genre typically used this mechanic, then we’d have no reason to give special status to time in our analysis. So identifying and understanding the genre gave us information to bring to our interpretation of the game.

We should not be hasty in our attempts to render genre useless merely because many recent games defy clean classification. Genette (and Hirsch) allowed for the definition of genres to change and grow over time. New ones can be constructed where no old ones fit. The Braid example may not have convinced you, but genre analysis can be a useful tool for interpretation of games in more subtle and abstract settings. We should move past the simplistic notion that genre is purely descriptive. It can also be interpretive.

Thoughts on In the Beginning was the Command Line

I’ve been meaning to read Neal Stepheneson’s In the Beginning was the Command Line for quite some time. It pops up here and there, and I’ve never been able to tell what was in it from these brief encounters. Somehow (OK, I was searching for NetHack stuff) I ran into Garote’s page (Garrett Birkel). He is a programmer and in 2004 wrote some comments in with the full original 1999 essay here. This gave a nice 5 year update to Stephenson’s original. It has been 10 years since that update. I don’t plan on doing much commentary, but I did want to record thoughts I had as they came up.

In the first half of the essay there is a long diatribe on American culture. My first large scale thought is that this should be removed. There are some really nice clarifying analogies throughout the essay, but this is not one. It adds probably 1000 words and layers of unnecessary confusion. A good analogy is the Morlock and Eloi from The Time Machine as the types of people using computers. It doesn’t take long to describe and illustrates the point. Having a huge political discussion about TV ruining people’s brains and being easily distracted by shiny objects is an essay in and of itself and not a useful discussion for the main points.

Speaking of main points, I should probably try to distill them. One is that graphical user interfaces (GUIs) as opposed to the original command line prompt were created for the wrong reason. This led to a lot of bad. It is unclear to me from the essay whether or not this is supposedly inherent in the GUI concept or just because of the original circumstances under which they were made. Another main idea is the history of Linux. It is well-done, but you can find this type of thing in a lot of places. The more interesting historical description was of BeOS, because this is far less known. The last main argument is about the monopoly that proprietary OSes have in the market. We’ll get to that later.

Notes (I don’t distinguish whether the quotes are of Garote or Stephenson, sorry):

“All this hoopla over GUI elements has led some people to predict the death of the keyboard. Then came the Tablet PC from Microsoft — and people have been complaining ever since, because most things that you would use a computer for, still involve letters and numbers.”

This was without question the right thing to say in 2004. Ten years later our move to tablets and phones as our primary computers is so close to being a majority that Microsoft revamped Windows as if no one uses a laptop or desktop anymore. It was widely criticized as a mistake, but I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come since 2004. It may not have been a mistake if they waited 2 more years.

“Even before my Powerbook crashed and obliterated my big file in July 1995, there had been danger signs.”

It is interesting to me to see how much emphasis is put on “losing files” throughout this essay. It seems a point that the 2004 comments still agrees with. I certainly remember those days as well. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen now, but “cloud computing” (which I now just call “using a computer”) is so pervasive that no one should lose work anymore. I could format my hard drive and not lose anything important because my work is stored all over the world on various servers. It would take a major, organized terrorist-level catastrophe to lose work if you take reasonable precautions. I have a 2 TB external storage device to do regular back-ups on, but it just feels a waste now.

“Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can’t go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.”

It is interesting that even back in 1999 this was clear. The proprietary OSes had to keep up appearances that they were better than the free alternatives. Despite the marketing that you were actually buying quality, the OSes you paid for were bigger, slower, had fragmentation issues, were more likely to crash, and got viruses. The Windows bloat is so big now (over 20 GB!) that older laptops will waste half their space just for the OS. In effect, the OS you paid for was worse than Linux in every way except for the intuitive GUI and a few select professional-grade programs.

In 2014, the GUI issue is fixed. The switch from Windows 7 to Ubuntu is less jarring and more intuitive than the switch from Windows 7 to Windows 8. I claim even the most computer illiterate could handle some of the modern Linux distributions. Now you basically pay for the ability to pay for a few high quality programs. There are certain professions where this is worth it (mostly in the arts, but certainly use Linux for work in STEM areas), but for the average person it is not. Now that WINE is better, you can even run those specialized Windows programs easily in Linux.

The next section is an anecdote about how difficult it was to fix a bug in the Windows NT install on one of Neal Stephenson’s computers versus the simplicity of getting help with Debian. This whole section is basically making the argument that a for-profit software or OS must maintain the illusion of superiority to get people to buy it. This means they hide their bugs which in turn makes it hard to fix. Open source encourages bugs to get posted all over the internet. Thousands of people see the bug and have an opportunity to try to fix it (as opposed to the one, possibly incompetent customer service rep you tell). The solution, when found, usually very quickly, will be posted for all to see and will be incorporated into the next release.

I’m not sure if the cause/effect that is proposed is really the reason for this (he admits later that there are now bug reports for Microsoft and Apple, but they are very difficult to find/use), but it matches my own experiences as well. I only note this here, because I often hear that you are “paying for customer service” or “support” when you choose Windows over Linux. For the above reasons I just don’t believe it. If the Linux community somehow stopped being so darn helpful so quickly, then maybe this would be a point in favor of proprietary software. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

The last part of the essay on the monopoly might be a little outdated. When I buy a computer and Windows comes as part of the package, I feel a little cheated because the first thing I do is delete it. Why did I just pay for something that I was going to immediately delete? The reason this is outdated is because in 2014 you can find “Linux boxes” that come with Linux installed in place of Windows. They are harder to find, so you don’t have as many choices, but this is a big improvement from 2004 where 100% of Dell (or whatever) computers came with Windows.