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.

Against Against Theory

I’ve been getting a lot of hits on my critical theory posts and the ones on Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation. I thought I’d do some more on famous papers on related issues. Probably the most important and influential is Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’ Against Theory. It appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of Critical Inquiry.

My initial goal was to provide a synopsis of this paper in a similar way I did to Hirsch’s book. Unfortunately, I’m either so confused by what they are trying to argue, or their argument is fundamentally flawed. So I’m going argue against its main point.

The entire second section of the paper is based around debunking Hirsch’s defense of intentionalism. If you’ll recall, Hirsch’s book is centered on the idea that the only valid interpretation of a work is the one the author intended. Then he spends the book constructing a theoretical framework for reconstructing the author’s intended meaning.

For some reason, Knapp and Michaels think they will succeed in their argument against theory if they prove there is no such thing as intentionless meaning, i.e. a text cannot have meaning if there is no authorial intent.

I think everyone on the authorial intent side of things (including Hirsch) is in agreement here. It is quite a bizarre thing to focus on. The crux of the paper ought to be an argument for why there is no need for theory if authorial intent is the only thing that matters. They just assert, without argument, the truth of this claim. But it’s the only claim in the paper that seems to need justification!

I’ll try to lay out my case for why theory still matters. First, Knapp and Michaels seem to believe that theory is the attempt to relate authorial intent to meaning. I’m not sure where this comes from, but it takes a narrow view of theory that actually excludes Hirsch’s book. So I’m not sure why they even talk about that book if this is their view (I know they separate the ontological and epistemological parts of theory; more on that later).

Theory, as seen in practice, is almost always an attempt to relate authorial intent to interpretation. This creates no conflict with equating authorial intent and meaning. It doesn’t posit a need for intentionless meaning.

It is a fact that language is inherently ambiguous. So even though there is only one valid interpretation, a reader may not know what that is. This makes interpretation necessary. This means there must be tools for the reader to discover the meaning of the text. The grounding of these tools in a theoretical framework is what is usually meant by “theory.” Thus theory is needed.

One way I could see arguing against theory is to claim that Hirsch provides all the theoretical framework we need, and so there is no point to continue the enterprise. I’d almost be able to get on board with that. Unfortunately, they seem to be arguing against Hirsch, and so they are creating a hole that needs to be filled with more theory!

Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Suppose you have a math problem. It has one right answer. This doesn’t eliminate the usefulness of a theoretical framework for arriving at the correct answer. Once you have a way to get to the correct answer, more theory can be created to get to the correct answer more accurately or more quickly. You never have to posit “other answers” for this to be true. There is only ever one correct answer through the whole process, but it is still possible for someone to make a mistake and get a “wrong answer.”

Hopefully you see where this is going. Knapp and Michaels claim that theory is not needed if a text’s meaning only ever has the correct interpretation of the author’s intent. But the above example shows this not to be the case. A person can look at a math problem and not immediately see the answer, but after some derivation come to the correct answer. Similarly, a person can read a sentence and not immediately ascertain the author’s intention, but after some interpretation can come to the meaning. It is in that interpretation step that theory still has a function.

I’m actually still extraordinarily confused at how Knapp and Michaels didn’t think of this or how they could read Hirsch’s book and think it was about an intention/meaning distinction rather than a book about how to interpret correctly. It is called Validity in Interpretation for goodness sake, not “Validity in Meaning.”

I’ll just reiterate how bizarre it is that they want to assume theory is only about an intention/meaning distinction and then engage Hirsch’s book which clearly is not about this at all. You can’t insist his book is theory and hold to the idea that theory is only about intention/meaning.

They must be aware of this, because in section 3 they say, “For Hirsch and Juhl, the goal of theory is to provide an objectively valid method of literary interpretation.” So far, so good. They continue, “To make method possible, both are forced to imagine intentionless meanings or, in more general terms, to imagine a separation between language and speech acts.”

That’s where they lose me. It may be the case that Hirsch and Juhl abstractly talk about this in their works (though I don’t recall because of how minor it is to their theory), but as I pointed out above, it isn’t a necessary component. You never have to imagine intentionless meanings for Hirsch. The only thing you have to imagine is that the reader doesn’t immediately know the author’s intention, which is almost a tautology of how reading works. If you don’t believe this, think of the math problem. We never had to imagine wrong answers to still have to do work to get to the right one.

Sorry for harping on this point over and over, but it is exactly what the paper does. This makes no sense to me, because this “problem” (which I don’t see to be a problem at all; please make an argument!) is tangential to the question of theory at best and a non-issue at worst. How this paper became so important is beyond me when they seem to have offered a long-winded, purely semantic strawman.

I have the book Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism on its way, so hopefully that will provide some more answers and clarification.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 7

Today we’ll examine something I think Ethan Canin does well: description. Description is one of those things that is very hard to get right. I think this is because it is difficult to notice when someone has done a good job. Bad description jumps out; good description goes unnoticed.

Everyone notices an overwrought passage that contains strange similes and metaphors and goes on forever trying to paint as explicit a picture as possible. The story breaks to set the scene. This is a case of show-don’t-tell-itis. The reader ends up skimming to find the story and gets nothing out of all the work that went into the description. Or the reader that suffers through it gets bored.

For this reason, I’ll make the first rule of description: show as little as possible without sacrificing useful information. This is counter to what most of us have been taught, but one carefully chosen detail can tell the reader more than a whole page of useless ones.

Ed wore Reebok’s to the party. Does that detail tell us anything? Probably not. Tina picked up on Ed’s Saucony Kilkenny XC5 minimal running flats as soon as he entered the party. Does that tell us something? Maybe. Ed is a runner? Tina knows enough about running shoes to identify these? We’re getting somewhere now. This example isn’t great, because most people won’t be able to visualize the shoe. But you should see the point that describing because you feel you need to or that it makes the scene “more realistic” is not a noble goal. Describe with purpose.

This brings us to the second rule: make the details serve more than one purpose. Often people think of description as the way to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. It can serve many other purposes in addition to this and often multipurpose description keeps the story moving.

Here’s an example. Take something simple like describing snow (I’m in the middle of NE Snowpocalypse 2016). Someone who has show don’t tell ingrained in them might try to give every painstaking detail as accurately as possible. But this isn’t non-fiction; it’s literature. The same exact thing can be described in multiple ways, giving different moods.

Maybe the character is falling in love, so she sees the beauty in it. The sun hit the ice crystal dangling from the pine, breaking the light into a dozen shimmering rays. The gentle snowflakes danced among the light. Blah, blah, blah. As you see, you can use words like “shimmering,” “gentle,” “dance,” “light,” “sun,” etc to emphasize the joy of the character.

The same exact scene could be described by an angry character. Harsh light glared off the frozen surfaces. The snow plunged relentlessly and suffocated everything like an infinite, oppressive mask. Okay, so maybe that got a little depressive or melodramatic with words like “harsh,” “glare,” “plunge,” “suffocate,” “oppressive,” etc. But I merely wanted to illustrate a point. There isn’t one objectively accurate way to describe anything.

Now you see why good description is hard to spot. You don’t have alternate versions to compare it to, so you’ll read right over it and not realize the carefully chosen details. The details will evoke the right feeling, but you didn’t read a version that didn’t evoke those feelings to see how well it was done.

Obviously this can be taken too far, and you’ll start to produce abstract, experimental prose poetry. Striking the right balance is hard, so let’s examine how a pro handles it. Here’s a passage from For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin. The main character was kissed by his best friend’s sister. Note how the description doesn’t come as a block. Details are woven in and out of thoughts and actions so that the story doesn’t stop.

He would leave Marshall reading a book on the porch and then set off rambling along the shoreline, not sharp in his thinking until he had passed two or three curves on the great spits of sand and the house had long ago vanished behind the dunes and the low stands of trees. She lived constantly in the center of his thoughts. He would try to think about his plans for the rest of the summer, but his eyes would conjure up her forthright gaze; he would try to listen to the clap and rumble of the surf, but would instead recall their conversation together on the porch, and then the kiss, and then in return her enigmatic scolding.

Note how the use of “clap” and “rumble” suggests a rough ocean, which imitates the turbulent emotions he feels. The curves of the shoreline mimics the winding thoughts in his head. The girl lives in the the center of his thoughts, and he stands in the center of a vast nothing.

Canin could have spent a page writing a description of the beach, and then continued with the story. We would have gotten a much more vivid picture in our minds, but that would have been boring. Instead, he chose a few sparse details of description that added to the mood, and then wove them into the action.

Here’s an early passage (pg 17) from Carry Me Across the Water. Many writers describe a ton of physical traits of their characters. Here we see a hyperfocus on one tiny detail that draws out characterization.

Walking up the front path to Jimmy’s building, Kleinman took a yarmulke from his back pocket and set it on his head. It wouldn’t stay in place: maybe God knew. Since boyhood, yarmulkes had never stayed—something about the shape of his cranium: an irreligious skull. He still had plenty of hair, though—thank his mother’s father for that. He laughed and pushed the yarmulke down on the crown again. He was trying to start off on the right foot with Claudine.

In that amount of space, we could have gotten a description of his size, hair color, age, body type, clothing, etc. But that would have given us much less information than focusing on the action of putting a yarmulke on.

First, it was in his pocket. He is putting it on to make an impression. This tells us he cares much more about what Claudine will think of him than wearing it. We see that he was raised Jewish, because he’s had the problem of keeping it on since boyhood. We see that he’s basically always been irreligious. He’s well-educated enough to know that hair genetics is passed through your mother’s father. He has the ability to laugh at himself as he fumbles with the yarmulke. Etc.

If you want to read more, I’d highly recommend Canin. His subtle use of description to create moods and characterization is excellent.

That vs Which: examples that compare apples to apples, which will help you out.

Many people take the loose view that grammar and language evolves over time, and therefore you should go with whatever sounds right. Others argue the that/which distinction has basically disappeared. I want to do a comparison to prove once and for all the distinction is necessary. It isn’t preference. They aren’t interchangeable. The meaning of the sentence gets changed by swapping one for the other.

Let me be clear. I am not some obsessive grammar person. I kind of suck at it. But the way people dismiss this point as unimportant and a matter of personal taste (including professional editors!) drives me crazy. It isn’t taste. It’s important.

Many great sources fail miserably in describing the difference between that and which. I’m looking at you Grammar Girl (I love you for everything else) and you Chicago Manual of Style (an excellent doorstop as well). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a source that gives you the same sentence with “that” and “which” swapped to show the distinction. Everyone has one sentence with “that” to show the use and then a different sentence with “which” to show the use. How is that helpful? It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Let’s start simple.

Example 1: I played with the marbles, which were blue.

When you use which, you imply that every single marble was blue. This is what is meant by “which is nonrestrictive.” You aren’t restricting your attention to just the blue ones out of a bunch of colors. You’re saying they were all blue. This implication matters. Consider what happens with a simple substitute of “that.”

Example 2: I played with the marbles that were blue.

This sentence has a totally different meaning! “That” implies you have a bunch of marbles of all sorts of different colors in front of you, but you’ve decided to only play with the ones that were blue. This is what is meant by “that is restrictive” or “that is essential.”

Example 3: The puppies, which were cute, ran across the yard.
Example 4: The puppies that were cute ran across the yard.

In example 3, all the puppies ran across the yard. It just so happens they were also all cute. In example 4, only some of the puppies were cute, and only those few puppies ran across the yard. Read these over and over until it makes sense.

Now be horrified at all the times you used these incorrectly and probably implied something you didn’t mean to (did you seriously just imply there are non-cute puppies? Are you sure?). Now look what you’ve done. He’s self-conscious:

Some people argue it’s the comma causing this change in meaning and not that/which. Walk away from that argument. You’ve found someone wrong on the internet, and it isn’t worth your time to engage them. They’re probably a troll anyway. What’s more probable: the distinction made for hundreds of years in a rigorous way still retains some meaning or the words have no meaning anymore and the meaning has magically shifted to comma usage even though the words are still there? Think about it.

I’ve seen a bunch of rules for trying to distinguish between that and which. To me, they’re all pretty terrible. Here’s the easiest rule, which will work 99% of the time.

Step 1: What noun comes before that/which?
Step 2: Does the thing after that/which apply to all of [insert Step 1 answer] or just the ones you’ve described?
Step 3: If Step 2 answer is “all,” use which. If Step 2 answer is “only those described,” use that.

Officially, I wanted to end the post here, but I just know that someone is going to complain I’ve only told you how to tell the difference between that/which when they distinguish between restrictive/nonrestrictive clauses. Not only is the other type of distinction easier, I’m much less concerned with it. Here things can be a bit more stylistic, because the use (often) doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Rule: If you can delete the stuff after that/which without causing confusion, use which. Otherwise, use that.

These examples are slightly harder to give, because they often require context to know if the information is needed.

Example 5: I went to the store, which had roast beef.
Example 6: I went to the store that had roast beef.

If you’re writing a story and there’s only one store. You can delete “which had roast beef” without confusion. The clause “which had roast beef” is inessential. The store just happens to have it. No big deal.

If the story is about a person who must get a serial killer roast beef or they will kill again, and they find out that three of the four stores in their area are out, then “that had roast beef” specifies which of the four stores you went to. It’s essential information, because if you delete it, the reader will think: which store? Are they wasting time picking up some quinoa pasta at the Whole Foods when they need to be getting to the roast beef store?

As you can see, the meaning doesn’t change all that much if you use the wrong one here, but there’s still a correct choice between the two words. If you play fast and loose with this distinction, puppies aren’t going to start hiding their faces, so the stakes aren’t as high.

And there you have it. Some comparisons that actually make sense. I hope that helped.

Year of Giant Novels Part 2: Don Quixote

I’ve made it into Part 2 of Don Quixote. I’ll fully admit upfront that it has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading. The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.

In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation. This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.

The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different. How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us? This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.

Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.

This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1, because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book. Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled. As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.

Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2. Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character. Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.

You have to know a bit of real life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction). In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.

But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2. Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists.

He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!). These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality, because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.

These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 1: Don Quixote

Back in my youth, I used to love reading giant novels: Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, etc. There are still quite a few left on my list that I haven’t gotten around to.

In the past few years, I’ve mostly read short novels. I even find myself getting annoyed when a 350-pager has gone on too long. The most common complaint I have these days is a lack of focus that leads to too long of novels.

I hereby declare this The Year of Giant Novels, where I will attempt to get through all the giant novels I own but haven’t read. I may even get some more if it goes well. I will, of course, blog about them as I read them. My list so far is: Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Ulysses. Let me know if I should do any others (Warning: I might veto War and Peace). I would like to add something from the past 50 years (maybe 2666?).

Anyway, on to Part I of Don Quixote. This novel is quite a strange beast. Say the name Don Quixote to anyone, and they will probably think they know all about it without having read it. They’ll have images of pure silliness.

They probably won’t be able to tell you why he fought the windmills, but they will know it happened. Some might even predict that the novel is episodic and monotonous going through his crazy and delusional adventures. Pretty much everything anyone knows about the book happens in the first 5%.

What most people don’t realize is that this novel was published in 1604 (according to the Penguin Classics edition). 1604! They also don’t realize how far ahead of its time it was; we’re talking about being hundreds of years ahead of its time. This thing is a tome of post-modernism 200 years before modernism happened.

First off, the narrator wants you to believe this really happened. Cervantes goes so far with this idea that in an early chapter, he has the narrator interrupt the story mid-action to say that he doesn’t have the proper citations to continue the story.

The narrator goes off on his own story. He visits a library where he accidentally comes across an Arabic text that contains the end of the story about Don Quixote he interrupted. This qualifies as Borges-level mind games (which is probably why Borges chose Don Quixote for the backdrop of his famous “Pierre Menard” story). When Barth used this technique in the 1960’s, it was considered a mind-boggling innovation. But here it is in something published in 1604.

Another example of these postmodern techniques is in Chapter 6, where a barber and a priest are trying to destroy the books that Don Quixote read that led him to his delusions (already a clever premise examining the interaction between fiction and reality, author and reader). The two come across another of Cervantes’ novels.

This nearly killed me. Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, has been so enamored by one of Cervantes’ other novels, which somehow exists in this fictional universe, that he goes mad. That’s not all. Then the barber claims to know Cervantes in real life. This means the author wrote himself into his fictional universe! Then the barber goes on to criticize the novel. This is brilliant. A fictional character speaks a critique of the author who wrote him.

I’m starting to see why Don Quixote went crazy.

Thoughts on Björk’s Vulnicura

Björk has been quite a polarizing figure throughout the years. I used to absolutely love her music in the early 2000’s. I thought Vespertine was a brilliant culmination in all the ideas she had been exploring.

It was an album with palpable emotional output. It pushed the boundaries of accompaniment with grandiose and experimental orchestration combined with electronica. The chord progressions were otherworldly in their strangeness. The melodies wound around in huge, tangled phrases.

Iceland is known for its musical creative geniuses, but this was something special even for Björk. Then came Medúlla. That album terrified me. It not only marked a change in direction to a more aggressive and wild sound, but the album only used voice. It was a wildly successful experiment in just what a human voice could achieve.

Björk basically fell off my radar at that point. I’d periodically notice something new come out, but it felt safe and sterile. I couldn’t get too excited about it. Sure it was more interesting and original than most of the other things released by mainstream artists, but she had also turned to a more pop sound. Her collaborations were still pretty great through these years (especially the one with The Dirty Projectors).

It just came to my attention, nearly a year after its release, that she came out with her ninth album Vulnicura. I decided to give it a chance, because I can’t quite shake how much her earlier stuff influenced me.

I’m glad I did. This album returns to the Vespertine sound in many of the aspects I listed above. The emotional content is back. This is essentially a break-up album, but not like any you’ve heard before. This goes right to heart with its poetic lyrics and winding, understated melodies.

There are a few standout tracks. “Black Lake” occurs as roughly the half-way point, and it really focuses the other songs on how painful the experience was. It is only string and voice for over 4 minutes. It then ramps up with sparse but hard hitting electronica to bring depth to the song:

The other highlight is “Atom Dance” where Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons makes an appearance. Their two voices create a huge mass of agony.

My one complaint is that some of the earlier songs use repetition effectively on the first few listens, but once you’ve heard it five or so times, it feels like too much.

Overall, this is an excellent album by Björk, and if you’ve been turned off by her lately, you might still want to give this one a try.