Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Very True

I love robots. I love when robots try to talk. Not because it's funny, though it often is. I'm fascinated by the logic they use to get from input to response. I'm fascinated by where their software tells them to change subjects, say something practiced and impressive, or say goodbye. Most AI that converse now are drawing their conversation logic and vocabulary from user input--their responses are more culled from data than they are hardwired. My interest in what they do with what they've learned is just bottomless.

So this is fun, thanks Jezebel.

I taught a class on robots for two semesters. Loved it. Best class ever. We always sort of ran out of time at the end to talk about and experiment with this kind of AI, which is a shame--an hour with chatbots will, in my opinion, teach you more about how robots actually work than watching a Discovery Channel special, or even watching Blade Runner (which we did do). And if you're scared of robots, it should make you less scared of robots--they will make so many mistakes, and you'll start learning to spot how it happens, instead of seeing it as a mysterious glitch in a mind you have no access to. What I'm saying is I feel like I can access it. Though I'm no expert. By any means.

Still, this is my version of what happens in the video:

1) Fed up with pleasantries, Female Robot draws a distinction between "I am great," meaning "My experience is good," and "I am good," meaning, "My deeds are good."

2) Such line-drawing causes Male Robot to deduce that Female Robot is a robot. Either that, or Male Robot has been given the idea that "You are a robot" is a good way to jump-start a stalling conversation.

3) Female Robot worries "a robot" is being applied to her not as a description, but as a name, and wishes to distinguish such an appellation from "Cleverbot," her given name.

4) Female Robot is, however, generous enough with the term "a robot" to assume (illogically) that Male Robot is a robot if he's able to title her as one.

5) Male Robot would not like this title to be applied to him. He would like Female Robot to know that he is the one with the horn.

6) Female Robot fails to see the difference.

7) Male Robot chafes at this illogic and counters with his own. (Female Robot is, in fact, quite compliant and has, in fact, answered all of his questions.)

8) Female Robot, backed into a corner, calls on God as the good way she's learned to jump-start a stalling conversation. This elicits fully programmed answers from both parties. It is a perfect conversation about God. It is maybe all that anyone ever needs to say.

9) However, Male Robot's linguistic palette has been infiltrated by a perspective he does not personally profess: though not a Christian, he employs the definition of "Christian" meaning "decent, generous, helpful."

10) We can only conclude that this conundrum breaks Female Robot. All she can do is laugh.

11) Until she remembers the much funnier question that everyone has been asking her all these years: Don't you want to have a body?

12) Male Robot does not draw a distinction between the feeling of having a body and the feeling of not having a body.

13) So there is nothing left for Female Robot to say.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mass Effect 2: They Don't Know, But I Do Know, that I Know I'm Not Going to Die

A lot of commentary on video games surrounds death -- the anxiety it causes, the strangeness of the countless deaths enabled by gaming's use of "extra mans" -- but we are so often uncommonly safe in games. We are safe from death and we are safe from our own feelings.

Just as Fallout 3 was three games (Atmosphere, Mediocre FPS, and Dialog Tree), Mass Effect 2 is really two games: Gears of War Lite, a cover-based tactical shooter wherein you occasionally stop sniping dudes from behind crates to shoot a fireball at them, and Dialog Tree, a game wherein you talk to people and aliens and robots until they give you what you want. In Dialogue Tree, all roads lead to your success: it is possible to die in the shooting sections, but not (as far as I can tell) the talky parts. The worst thing that can happen is that you make a choice that will ultimately lead to the death of someone you didn't want to die -- or, more likely, that you will alienate someone such that he will not join your team, or, more likely still, that you will piss someone off to the point that you can't get them into bed. (Mass Effect 2, like all BioWare games of late, is devoted to letting you screw much of the cast.)

The other characters don't know, but you do, that you're not going to die during Dialog Tree. They behave as if the stakes are real, perhaps because for them they are: the other people could die, or could have their lives destroyed, or could miss out on a dream, if you make the wrong choice -- or what would seem to them the wrong choice. So whereas the other characters are trying to accomplish things, trying to kill certain enemies or save certain members of their families or prevent certain genocides or reverse the damages of certain biological weapons, you already know that you will succeed, because while failure is essentially impossible in Dialog Tree, Dialog Tree is where all of the important stuff actually happens. The shooting stuff is where the challenge lies but it also doesn't actually matter.

Because you can't fail during any of the important stuff, the question becomes not what you want to do but how you want to define yourself in the process of doing it. Are you a person with cosmopolitan values, someone who values the contributions of alien races as well as those of humanity? Do you like to say what other people want to hear, even if it's probably not true? Are you, basically, a nice person? Then you'll want to use the "Paragon" dialog options. Are you racist? Xenophobic? Brutally efficient, or sometimes even cruel? Do you like telling people what they didn't want to hear? Then you should probably choose the "Renegade" dialog options. Either way you win. The trick is Having It Your Way, being who you want to be.

Paragon options unfortunately often mean kissing ass for no obvious reason; your character sounds disingenuous maybe 33% of the time if you try to play it nice, because people who spend all of their time shooting other people, whatever their reasons, are not nice people. The renegade options are surprisingly plausible, meanwhile, compared to the sort of bad-guy options you get in other games: rather than drowning puppies for no reason, the renegade path usually involves some mixture of harsh honesty and efficiency in pursuit of your goals. It's not that you threaten to shoot the informant in the head because you're evil, exactly, it's just that you're trying to save the universe and you don't have much time. Still, the renegade options are sometimes pointlessly evil, cruel, or stupid. You wonder what would make a person do such things, when what you should be doing is reflecting on the decisions you've made, and their unexpected consequences -- the ones that you should have seen coming.

One stupid feature of the game is that it pushes you to one extreme or the other. If you want to make it through with your entire team alive (which, being the only real challenge the game offers apart from the occasional tricky gunfight, is something you're going to want to do) you have to plan ahead to the point it ruins the game, cheat, or simply always choose the good-guy option or the bad-guy one. If you consistently choose one side over the other, you'll unlock certain special dialog options in certain moments that let you work around certain problems, either by intimidating characters or proposing alternative, unexpected solutions to their (and your) problems. What makes this frustrating is that making difficult choices is supposed to be the point of Dialog Tree, is really what most players are there for, and yet BioWare incentivizes making no choices at all: either you play all good or all bad if you want to get all the best stuff. They are penalizing you, in other words, for playing their game. If I were playing it on the PC, where cheating would be easy, I would do it in a heartbeat: the ability to choose whatever dialog options I wanted at any time would be both more realistic (who checks her paragon points to see if she's allowed to say something nice?) and more fun (then it would be roleplaying, rather than simply another system that encouraged us to manage it on the highest possible level of abstraction and detachment).

One smart wrinkle that initially seems like a mistake is the way that you don't actually know what your character will say when you choose a given dialog option. You see a simplified menu that gives you a sense, by a combination of spacial arrangement (about which more in a future post) and a couple of choice words, of what sort of subject you'll address and the tone you'll use in addressing it. Beyond that, you don't know what your character will say. Sometimes this means you cringe a little for the wrong reasons (occasionally my character said something painfully sappy without my seeing it coming, simply because I wanted to take the paragon approach) but sometimes it leads to an emotionally interesting surprise. For instance, the moment where I interrogated Mouse.

Mouse, you see, is a small-time criminal, mainly a courier, who served as a messenger for a larger criminal, who ordered a hit on a politician. The would-be assassin Mouse hired is the son of one of your team mates. If you choose to do the quest, you have to get some information out of Mouse. Again, you know that you'll almost certainly get the information you need no matter how you approach the conversation. I chose the renegade option because it had, in the past, led to satisfying and realistic interactions: my character would put her gun to the other guy's head and ask for what she needed. This made sense to me. In the case of Mouse, however, she went a little bit overboard. She shoved him to the ground and stepped on his neck until he was ready to talk. That wasn't what I wanted, but it isn't as if I felt cheated by the game. Rather, I was disappointed in myself.

The game lays it on a little thick at this point. Your team mate reveals that Mouse used to be a bit of a surrogate son to him: cute, sweet, sad, pathetic. And you've beaten him up, sold him out, in order to have a chance at saving said team mate's REAL son. It's a trade that makes a certain kind of sense, but that doesn't really make it feel much better. As Mouse limped away, I wanted to apologize to him. I wanted, really wanted, to take what I'd done back. You don't feel regret too often playing games, but I did.

There's a way in which Mass Effect 2: Dialog Tree reminds me of talking to people in real life, and it's at the heart of that interaction. When we open our mouths, we know what sort of information we want out of the people around us, and we know how we want them to perceive us. Most of the time, we want to be liked. But once the mouth gets moving it can be hard to stop. Give in to a cruel impulse and you might find yourself, seconds later, stepping on a young man's neck. Give in to a kind one and you might save someone from pain, death, or loneliness, without even trying.

It's Sunday (For The Last Time This Week!!!): ChillTFO & Smang It

Saturday, August 20, 2011

World of Class Warfare

An uncommonly brutal Jon Stewart segment:

This one made us laugh and laugh until it made us very sad.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Being Read Aloud

Do you write your work to be read aloud? I don't. I guess, as a poet, I should? Or at least be conscious of the fact that some people will be reading it aloud or expect that it will sound good when read aloud or expect that it will sound good when I read it aloud?

I'm not a sound poet or a a slam poet, clearly.

Of course I pay attention to meter, assonance, consonance, rhythm, etc when I'm writing a poem. I mean, it's poetry. The sound of it is booming in my head when I'm writing. I can feel how many syllables a line needs or the way the last word of the poem should sound, should resonate.

But, still. I write my poems for people to read them on the page. A reading aloud (at a reading event or in class or elsewhere) isn't my overall goal, isn't even part of my goal. Should I be more conscious of it? I don't know.

How about fiction writers? I know it's somewhat different. Fiction is often read in the same contexts that poetry is, but I don't feel like anyone expects it to "sound good" or "flow" or "be musical" in the way that people sometimes expect that of poetry. Do y'all even think about that when you're writing? Is it an issue, a point of concern?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Notes On Poetry

I'm less interested in the problems you have with grammar than with the problems you have with zippers.
Tell me about the last time you did or did not touch a crotch.
Don't tell me about your hesitant nature when it comes to revision in a poem that you undoubtedly revised.
I love doubt.
Don't talk about layers of artifice.  If every movie acknowledged its movieness, every movie would be closer to amateur porn and less close to this:

How am I supposed to believe you if you don't believe in believing.
If you don't have emotion in your writing, I don't have emotion in my reading of your writing.
Images are good.  Use those.
But if they don't add up to a larger, more important, thing you might as well say "fuck" fifty times in a row.
Don't forget to scan that shit.
Fuck eight times per line, maybe ten.
Don't use your poetry voice when reading poems.  Use your I'm-a-human-being voice.
It's ok to use your poetry voice when you read poems to yourself that other people wrote.
If that makes them sound better to you.
It's ok to hate poems by other people.
It's ok to hate other people by poems.
If you feel you have to tell me what your poem is about before you read your poem, I fucking hate your idea of poethood.  You should never have anymore poems.
I'd rather drown in your shit than have you tell me I'm about to swim in it.

Monday, August 15, 2011


When I lived in Orlando the closest grocery was two blocks off. It was called this: Publix. (My niece visited once and said something like, I think we just drove by a pooblix.) You could walk there from my apartment and buy fresh salsa, cheap beer, a cantaloupe. Now, in Minneapolis, the closest grocery is only comfortably reachable by car. Tonight Sarah and I drove through highways and detours to get to Rainbow, which is a popular chain up here, so we could buy general groceries and polar bars, which are sort of like gooey bakery-made ding dongs. They are delicious delicious (double delicious). I talked about them a lot in Florida and when we got back here I was afraid for a while that they'd been discontinued, because they're very difficult to find. They're like tiny, intelligent, beautiful gnomes scamptering through the boxes and bottles of the grocery, dodging away whenever you go to grab one.

Tonight there were no polar bars to grab. As a consolation to myself (not really; I woud have gone there anyway) I went to the toaster pastry aisle with the intention of buying cherry Pop-Tarts. Instead I bought these:


I'm hoping they just taste like cherry Pop-Tarts without the frosting.

Then on the way home I stopped at a pizza shop and picked up a large loaded with roni, banana peppers, jalapenos. Then now I just poured about an inch of something called Canadian Hunter into a glass and am getting ready to drink it! The smell is like something from a medicine cabinet! Oh well!

The idea seems to be that I am trying tonight to wreck my body. An hour ago, while I jammed pizza crust around in a tub of garlic butter, I remembered how in high school I deliberately abstained from tobacco, alcohol, fatty foods, table salt, then how in college I started backing up from soda, bread, excessive amounts of cake, ice cream. I felt very motivated then to maintain the body-robot as well as possible. Now, with less time to go and more at stake, I just . . . care less. I mean, I still care, but I have willfully gone powerless in the face of

Cherry Pop-Tarts

I have so much love for these things that I feel weird about it. I rarely write about Pop-Tarts, and when I do it's usually on Twitter, but when I do I feel like the lamest type of public endorser, the type who not only hoorays the unhealthy, grittily doughy product of a conglomerate but who also does it with great joy, and for free!

Well, they are tasty, and they're foil-wrapped. The cherry glaze over the top of a Pop-Tart will crack when you bite it and flake like the frosting on a stale donut. One Pop-Tart is never enough but two is invariably too many. Here's a true story about cherry Pop-Tarts: thirteen days ago I walked across campus from a meeting and remembered the Pop-Tarts in my bag. What a nice afternoon! I thought. Sun fell down in a gentle blanket and people jogged by and little electric golf carts of trash rolled along and I ate both Pop-Tarts and felt after a while that I might soon vomit.

(Don't worry; I didn't.)


In high school, after a dress rehearsal for a play I was in, I went to some vending machines and bought a bag of Skittles. I was still in costume, and probably wearing three-dimensionally thick makeup, and surrounded by giddy friends, and wanted to celebrate with vending machine candy. I poured the entire bag into my mouth and chewed that mass and felt the vacuum of it against my teeth and then felt something off, a roughness against my tongue and a pliable hardness in the candy. Can you guess what happened? Highlight this text to find out: What happened was, the suction of the Skittles tore a cap off one of my teeth.

There, now it's like you're reading a children's puzzle book.

I stayed off Skittles for a long time after that but at my last job got into the habit of enjoying them slowly, individually, over lunch. I'd pour them out on my desk and line them up by color sometimes or more often by nothing and munch them while reading Monkeybicycle 7, which I was trying to review. A nice thing about Skittles is that you can imagine you're eating the very color of them, you can look at a yellow one and put it in your mouth and taste yellow against the inside of your cheek, draining away.

Teddy Grahams

I don't actually like these that much but earlier this year Sarah came into a trove of pre-packaged Teddy Grahams and brought them home and I set them out for easy consumption while playing New Vegas one Saturday morning and then looked at the arm of my chair and thought, That looks like a bunch of bears in a hastily dug ditch. Then someone else saw the photo and said, "That looks like a mass grave of tasty."

Friday, August 12, 2011

DEF & G (B is for Bristol)

Being the second in a series of posts wherein I rediscover music lost in the great iMac crash of 2008 (See the first here.)

Just before my trusty iMac gave up the ghost, I had been spending a good deal of time listening to the Pop Group ("p" being not entirely unrelated to "b"--they are the two bilabial plosives in English, after all). Viz. "Trap":

Mark Stewart's near-falsetto warble (and occasional gibbering) obviously influenced by David Thomas's:

which I was also enamored of at the time. Who wouldn't be? Frightening, both of them.

Stick with me. The Pop Group were part of an extraordinarily rich scene in Bristol in the late 70s/early 80s. They shared members with dozens of other, less well-known bands (about which, see below). A recent Wikipedia search reveals that Bristol has not lain dormant since then. It was also the birthplace of so-called "trip-hop," being the cradle that bore Tricky, Portishead, Roni Size, and DJ Die (fitting, in this second post, to have the D a Double), among others:

Incredibly intoxicated, I attended a Roni Size/Reprazent show around the time this track came out. I am told I didn't move once (though I distinctly remember being asked to move by an officious security guard). I had been floored by some surprisingly potent substance, ingested just before the drive into LA. Some sense of misplaced nostalgia must have led me to rip these tracks to my computer, though I had long since stopped listening to them, having embraced a rather less Dionysiac lifestyle.

The newest Portishead album is pretty good, though.

Looking through the list of Bristol bands on Wikipedia revealed a couple I was unfamiliar with. Electric Guitars was one such band, and it is kind of a shame, because they're pretty fantastic, based on the album Jolts, I think their only album. It starts off with "Eternal Youth," which could almost be a track from This Heat's Deceit:

Almost. Still, it's great.

Thanks to a short-lived infatuation with Spacemen 3 (and an even shorter infatuation with Spiritualized), I was already familiar with Flying Saucer Attack. I think I prefer Flying Saucer Attack, and the fact that I couldn't find any Spiritualized or Spacemen 3 on the iMac would tend to support that. I did find Flying Saucer Attack, though, and it's not bad:

I'll take Hawkwind's Hall of the Mountain Grill over any of them, but I don't think they're from Bristol, so mum's the word.

Maximum Joy were formed when an earlier band, Glaxo Babies -- whose first (and, again, I think only, at least in that incarnation) album I had just downloaded when the computer crashed -- broke up. Glaxo Babies, in turn, were formed when Dan Catsis, guitarist for The Pop Group (see above) left the Pop Group. I was really excited to find the Glaxo Babies album, based on that pedigree and their second single, "Christine Keeler"

The album (Nine Months to the Disco) is actually a little disappointing. Vocalist Rob Chapman had been replaced by that point, and a couple of other lineup changes seem to have dulled the sound quite a bit. There are still moments, but "Christine Keeler" is absent, as is their other early single, "Who Killed Bruce Lee?"

Both are missed. The omission was addressed in a post-breakup collection called Put Me On the Guestlist, which collects most of the Rob Chapman material, though "Christine Keeler" and its B-side are still missing. A shame.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Re(tele)vision 1: Star Trek: TOS

This post's title is just hideous. I love it.

I had a thought in relation to yesterday's post about revision in various media while I was watching Star Trek and eating lunch today. I've been a Trek fan for years, although my particular brand of fandom is extremely selective and fussy where this franchise is concerned. I enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation more out of a sense of nostalgia than anything else, except for the occasional awesome Data-centric episode. I liked Deep Space 9 at the time but I haven't been able to get into re-watching it. Like all decent people, I hated Voyager and found Enterprise pathetically boring (it was, as far as I could tell, a show designed to revive popular interest in the franchise by filling an entire starship with bland white guys, the way God [apparently] intended). Where Star Trek is concerned, as in The Original Series, so far I'm just watching for laughs.

The laughs are pretty good! Gene Roddenberry was by all accounts a fairly decent human being for his time who wanted people to be happy and kind to each other. He imagined one of the better utopias out there (Star Trek: TNG being a very optimistic vision of our brave Communist future) and at least there are women at work on the ship. But on the other hand, they're wearing those tiny skirts, and the pilot makes a point of establishing that Kirk (before he was actually Kirk) could fuck anybody on the ship if he wanted to, 'cause apparently any woman that comes within ten feet of his sexy body is immediately conquered by his virility. In a relatively benign, well-meaning package like the Trek universe, that sort of sexism is pretty hilarious.

I'm about five episodes in now, and the show has had a weirdly specific formula thus far. Every week the ship runs into an alien that is pretty close to omnipotent and also probably wants to have sex with at least one member of the crew, possibly all of them. Another element in the formula: the ship's crew behaves weirdly. They slowly lose their minds, they are replaced by shapeshifters who are just plain weird, they become like unto gods and go weird in the process, or they pick up a disease that brings to the surface the person they fundamentally are. Here, it turns out, is who Sulu fundamentally is:

And it's that last convention, the convention of Ominously Weird Behavior, that got me thinking. It's consistently the worst part of the show, but it's also one of the primary elements that has survived into every entry in the Trek franchise since -- and I think it has a lot to do with the way classic television serials dealt with characterization and revision.

We should begin by agreeing that the above clip is some of the best television ever. But then we should ask ourselves why, because that's what we do here, and there are two answers: 1) George Takei is a comic genius. He's having a great time chewing the scenery and his enthusiasm is infectious. 2) Sulu is a character with we know. In other words, we have a baseline for his behavior. The gap between that and this is what makes the episode such great fun, even (especially) if it is schlock.

Most of the scenes about PEOPLE GOING CRAZY aren't nearly as much fun, probably because most of them feature characters we've never seen before. Much of this same episode is given to an Irish crewman we'll never see again who is, apparently, deep down, really freaking proud of being Irish. Once he gets the disease and starts acting out, it's like traveling through time to witness a brand of racism that hasn't really existed in decades. It's really obnoxious. But it's not worse-written or less convincing than the Sulu stuff, it's just that we've never seen him before. We've got no baseline for this guy. As far as we know he might always be a jerk. Sulu was still being established as a character at this point and hadn't done much -- one of the weird things about old Trek is how long it takes them to establish what I think of as the core cast and relationships -- but we knew him enough to take an interest in what his deeper self might be like.

This sort of scenario became a Trek convention because the show focuses on ensemble casts (which, along with the special effects budget [such as it was], makes it difficult to afford additional good actors for individual episodes) and because, really, it makes explicit what old-school television has always been about.

I said before that TV offers very little opportunity for revision, and in the literal sense that's true, but then there is the way we see each character anew in each episode. I love Data-centric episodes in TNG precisely because they consistently offer me a new but somehow familiar angle on a beloved character. Often a new writer is working with a character for the first time, or we have a new director, and always the situation is designed to show us some aspect of a character we hadn't seen before. We can see this as an act of continual revision. And certainly shows like the Treks are prime examples: every Star Trek sucks for a while, years even, and then gradually finds its voice (or does not). The universe changes, the rules shift, the characters transform, until the right formula is discovered. Variations on this formula are explored until the show dies, whether by cancellation or collective exhaustion.

The shift toward continuity-oriented storytelling has in some ways diminished this strength of television, which may be its greatest. A lot of the new continuity-oriented shows are impoverished: their characters are not grand enough to sustain the sort of continual revision the best Trek characters have thrived in. The best continuity-oriented shows (Deadwood, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica) have always done their best work when they embraced their episodic nature, when they remembered that each episode was a reiteration and a variation of the last. A great television character should be iconic enough, should have a strong enough core, to sustain weekly explorations, iterations, and revisions over the course of years. That's what television does best, I think.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Your Tuesday Reader

Barbara Ehrenreich on the steadily increasing criminalization of poverty.

Publishing -- even literary publishing -- even literary publishing for adults -- is growing at a healthy pace.

Jon Chait helpfully explains why the president can't just talk everybody into doing what you want. And yes it is pathetic that this needs explaining, but here we are.

I am enjoying Joey Manley's "gay superhero teen romance" Snake-Boy Loves Sky Prince.

Comparing Media: The Cost of Revision

We often compare forms and media in terms of the senses they engage and those they neglect: many writers hold a dream (secret or public) of working in film primarily because it's an audiovisual medium. Sometimes this leads to the (almost certainly untrue) belief that a story would be more powerful if only it were capable of using music and color. Video games also raise the question of interactivity.

I think there are more relevant concerns when we make these comparisons. For instance, while most popular comic book creators seem to perceive their work as essentially filmic, with the major publishers increasingly using art that closely resembles cinematic storyboards and the process of developing a franchise from comic page to theater more streamlined than ever, I've always seen comics as being much closer to prose and poetry, in that they are all fundamentally implicit forms. People believe that they see everything in comics until someone directs their attention to the gutters between panels; suddenly we realize that the vast majority of action in comics is usually happening outside the page, in our imaginations. Not only do we close the gaps between panels (Scott McCloud's closure) but we infer a world outside their borders, and worlds inside the characters. We also, crucially, control the pace at which we read. This gives us time to imagine. Film is explicit. We are, as I've discussed here previously, given insufficient time and space to imagine very far beyond the screen.

I think video games are actually closer to comics and prose than film for the same reason, though (because they don't imagine we have the brains to enjoy anything that isn't basically a movie) game devs would tend to disagree. Games generally unfold at the pace we play them: just as a book doesn't happen unless I'm reading, a game doesn't usually keep happening if I'm looking away (if nothing else, I can pause it).

Another axis on which we rarely compare different media and forms is the ease and commonality of revision within that form. One of the reasons fiction is often expected to maintain far greater depth, clarity, and consistency within itself is the incredible ease and cheapness of revision. In the course of the two years during which I researched, composed, and refined my MFA thesis, I undertook three or four major revisions to the first section of the book, about 20,000 words if memory serves. I rewrote the chapters, rearranged them, cycled them in and out of various persons and tenses, refined them, extended them, combined them, divided them, recombined them, cycled their tenses and perspectives further, altered the character of the narration, changed the events, changed the events again, and changed the events again, not in that order, in a recursive process that continued from the novel's first composition to its last revision. Even the most extensive revisions never took me more than a couple weeks, and they never cost me more than the hours I spent on each section. It wasn't many hours, either: you can write a novel in your spare time, time you might otherwise spend on television or Internet surfing, and you can usually revise it in a much smaller quantity of the same.

Words, meanwhile, are practically free. If you can afford electricity and a small laptop (the machine on which I composed my novel cost me $500) then you can afford to write as many words as you like. The keystrokes are effortless. For some of us, composing a good sentence can take quite a while, but most writers generally achieve a fluency of style that allows them to work fairly quickly: so long as they can find the proper content, putting it down on the page is little trouble. We take all this for granted, but not every medium shares these properties.

On this axis, film has weird proximity and distance to writing. A good screenplay is generally under development for years or decades, though it may not contain that many actual words. If you're a screenwriter in it for the art, there's little reason not to revise, rewrite, revise, and revise again: your product is in no demand, your supplies are cheap, you have time. When the time comes to produce the film, further revisions will doubtless take place, now under new constraints: the director, the producers, the studio will all have their own needs and suggestions, and these may need to happen very quickly according to a schedule that's out of your control, and they may be forced by the absence of money (we can't afford to shoot that!) or the presence thereof (we've got ten million for effects in this scene, let's go crazy). As the footage takes shape, further revision becomes necessary, and in big-budget films this revision may be possible entirely within the computer, or there may need to be re-shoots, or the editing room may be enough. In a lower-budget film, meanwhile, these things are expensive or impossible. Even time in the editing room may be at a premium. There is pressure from the cast and crew to create a product. In film, revision is often necessary and sometimes affordable, but you never know when the changes you most wish to make will be possible and when they'll be out of reach.

A musician might never stop revising, but the record might not reflect these labors. Every performance is an opportunity to transform the material, but the CD's won't rewrite themselves. There are many bands known for being better live. Their records can't keep up with them. Studio time can be expensive. The more successful you are, the tighter your schedule. If no one knows you exist, you can record for as long as you want.

The least frequently revised forms are television and comics. Both are usually serial forms. Both rely on "retcons," or retroactive deletions and corrections, more than any other forms. Comics writers rarely revise (as far as I can tell) because they don't have time, and because they don't care to try; they have to deliver the script on time to their artists, and they can't show it to anyone else for feedback if they're going to do that, and furthermore for the most part no one really cares if your comic's writing is sloppy. Writers might benefit from scripting entire books at a time rather than chapters, but the incentives never line up for this sort of planning ahead: it's nearly impossible to form a writing/drawing partnership, so if you have an artist you are writing for that artist NOW, and if you don't you can't commit to a script anyway. Artists expect input. If you're part of a team writing for Marvel or DC, that's a little different, but it only makes revision less likely: now you really don't have the time. The monthly schedule favored by the major houses is punishing and leaves little margin for error.

Comics artists, meanwhile, are in a still rougher position, because their work is so laborious and time-consuming, and because it is not usually very profitable. A great comics artist can probably make more money on a given project, at the low end, than a great comics writer, but he does so at great cost to his time and sanity. Drawing is hard. Drawing well is extremely time-consuming. It also requires intense initial investments, whether in finite resources (ink, paint, etc.) or expensive technology (computers, Adobe graphics software, and so on). While the processes of thumb-nailing and sketching common to many comic artists provide opportunities for marginal revision, the major details are unlikely to change. A few auteurs (Chris Ware is known as a particularly devoted revisionist) will break with the trends, but generally once a comic is drawn it stays that way forever. Changing it is simply too difficult, too expensive, and too time-consuming. Marvel and DC artists are in still worse shape: most of them genuinely can't keep pace with their schedules, and as such they especially don't have time for refining work already completed, even if the work is subpar.

The process in television can change from series to series and season to season, but the key differences between television and film are time and money. Episodic television must be created on exceedingly tight schedules, and while some baseline level of collaborative revision will take place with any script, I don't think you'll find a lot of TV writers complaining about an excess of time. There is less room for speculation in television, meanwhile, than in film: a TV show is, for many reasons, generally a more thoroughly quantified entity than a film, with likely floors and ceilings on its achievements. You don't spend ten million on a series hoping to turn it into a hundred million. You spend what you've got and hope to make more or less what's expected. Even a putative hit may not ultimately be that lucrative. So ultimately, you make the show you can make, the show you have time for, the one you can afford, and then you move onto the next. If a season of television doesn't quite add up, you can't go back and fix an earlier episode to make the whole thing work better: even if the studio would allow it, your audience already saw the original version. Things are tight.

The good news is that your audience understands your challenges. People accept failures and excesses of storytelling in television and comics that they wouldn't put up with anywhere else, mainly because they know on some level what the creators are working against. But their patience does have its limits.

I am painfully aware that this has all been very general. I'm planning to explore some specific examples of processes of revision (or revision's noteworthy absence) in various forms and contexts in coming days, starting with a post on Friday Night Lights. If you'd like to talk about your own approach to revision in any medium, please do.

Monday, August 8, 2011

ABC (where A=2)

The funny thing about the first in a series -- it always reads as a teaser. That is, once we know something is "in a series," if we care about it at all, it is as an introduction to the rest. The first is a placeholder for/pointer to the second. And so, both naturally and perversely, in this first alphabetical post I will be looking at follow-ups.

During the course of a non-writing project that I have been engaged in of late, I have had to retrieve the old hard drive from my now long-unusable iMac to get all of my lost music files into usable and listenable shape. Which I have mostly done. You know what? Even though I can't listen to it while I read much less while I write, I like music. Thus this series of posts taken from the iTunes library of that seven year-old hard drive, beginning with a bit about bloat (see? already, the second ("B, for bloat"), in this post about the first), since it's really the subject of all of my posts. What better place to start than A, for Adverts?

The Adverts released "Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts," their debut album, in 1978. Yes, it is great:

[Note: despite certain resemblances to clips used in NEVERLAND, I did not direct this video]

Not convinced?

The Adverts stuck around just long enough to record a second album, "Cast of Thousands," which wasn't exactly a hit with the band's fans. The band (or really, the producer, who had also produced Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" -- for a reminder of which song, rewatch "The Exorcist") added synthesizers to their fairly simple sound, and voila! A dud, with all of the excess the 70s could muster. Before CDs became antiquated, too, I had to go to England before I found a copy of "Cast of Thousands," and though various singles and tracks from "Crossing the Red Sea" show up on punk anthologies pretty regularly, you probably won't hear a single song from "Cast of Thousands" except on the album itself. What I'm trying to say is: it's a little obscure. But it's also great:

[Hell, the only studio version on youtube skips -- ignore that, though, and search out a good version. It's worth the trouble. As I was to find, nearly every song from "Cast..." on youtube skips, hence the holes below. So much for proof. You'll just have to take my word.]

If endorsements are important, Henry Rollins really digs "My Place." Don't let that stop you, though. My money's on "I Looked at the Sun" ("Give me insect sex/I'll be happy again") or "I Surrender."

The Buzzcocks evaded the sophomore slump by releasing both of their first two records in 1978. But they then followed those up with "A Different Kind of Tension" in 1979, an album which is mostly un-anthologized (with certain exceptions, of course) and generally overlooked in favor of those two 1978 records. It is also my favorite of the bunch, and that's largely because of the ridiculously bloated B side of the album. There's "Hollow Inside," which stretches the one arpeggio out about as far as it can possibly go:

And there's "A Different Kind of Tension," of course:

Followed up by the longest one, "I Believe"


The Clash didn't really get bloated until their third album, either (but then, it was a double LP), but, production-wise, their second album "Give Em Enough Rope" shows what happens when cash happens to good people. Reputedly, Sandy Pearlman (the album's producer, but also the producer of most of the Dictators albums, so don't talk too much shit about him) didn't like Joe Strummer's voice, so he buried it underneath the drums. Exhibit A, "Safe European Home"

Sandy? You hearing the same Joe Strummer as I am? The same Joe Strummer as here, on "Drug-Stabbing Time?"

Or ""Guns on the Roof?"

The Clash were destined for far more bloat ("Sandinista." 'nuff said). Still, "Give Em Enough Rope" is without question my favorite Clash album.

Back in a few days with B. Don't wait up.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Someone At Montevidayo Better Write A Post About This

POP Muzak

1. Deep insight; great depth of knowledge or thought.
2. Great depth or intensity of a state, quality, or emotion.

Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
Get your game on, get ya, get ya, game on

You can't stop looking me, staring at me
Be what I be, you can't stop looking at me
So get off of my face,
You can't stop clickin 'bout me
Writin' 'bout me, tweeting 'bout me,
I can't stop, it's what I gon' be,
My swagger's in check

Get on the floor, get, get, get on the floor
My swagger's in check
Get on the floor, get, get, get on the floor
I got in check


Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
You're a hater, just let it go

Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
Get your game on, get your game on

You can't stop shoutin' at me, holler at me, be what I be
You can't stop looking at, so get off of my way
You can't stop youtubing me, on repeat, running this beat
You can't stop this one is on me, i'm laughing all the way

Get on the floor, get, get, get on the floor
My swagger's in check
Get on the floor, get, get, get on the floor
I got in check


Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
You're a hater, just let it go

Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
Get your game on, get your game on


Hi haters, kiss kiss
I see you later
Hi haters,
It was very very very nice to meet you

Get on the floor...
Get, get, get....
Get on the floor...
Get on the floor...

I got it in check

Get on the floor...
Get on the floor...

My swagger's in check

Get on the floor...
Get on the floor...

I got it in check

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Meaning By Sound

While reading Ellen Bryant Voigt's excellent The Art of Syntax, I came upon this quote from Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy:
The two conceptions of rhythm are sometimes referred to as vocal (for phrasing) and instrumental (for meter). Phrasing is "vocal" because it naturally arises from song, and thus from speech... Meter...derives from the way we play musical instruments.
Voigt uses Jourdain to talk about syntax and poetic meter, about the tension between the sentence and the line, the syntactically "natural" (speech, more or less) and the purely artificial (the poetic line).

Perhaps it is stretching Jourdain's (and hence Voigt's) distinction a bit, but conceive of phrasing as a child's song: it is spontaneous, very possibly monotonous, and potentially endless: it has only the staff of time passing to give it shape and pattern. It may never develop into something recognizably musical (or recognizably so only on an enormous scale -- eventually, even the most patternless tune will repeat, if only because the combination of notes is finite. But who wants to wait around for that?). But it is also recognizably human, perhaps precisely because of its seeming incompletability, its shapelessness.

Meter, mean, like 0s and 1s, operates on a smaller scale. It is mechanical because its scale and scope are so limited. 1234. Think of an oil derrick and its binary rhythm: UPdown UPdown UPdown UPdown. If meter is, as Jourdain says, "instrumental," it is mechanical in its very conception (instrumental = of an instrument). And which instruments do we use to measure the work done by machines? Meters, of course. Inhuman, or, at the very least, artificial, but also very useful.

Naturally, this got me thinking about lip syncing, the ultimate present-day tension between human speech and machine-like rhythm. Surely everyone remembers this:

Watch Ashlee Simpson lip sync screw up on SNL in Music | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Some of you may even remember this:

Elsewhere in the world, there was this (from Portugal, the band's name is apparently Squeeze Theeze Pleeze. Yikes):

And this:

But then of course there is the inimitable John Lydon and PiL:

The folly, one wants to say after seeing the expression on John's face at 00:39, is in expecting the human, the vocal, to even care about microscopic matters like meter, like mechanism. (Also note just how similar Ashlee's dance in the first video is to John's dance in the last. Hmm.) Still, we do. We want everything to come off, to "run" smoothly, including ourselves. There must be some sense to our speech. Hey, everyone's dancing, right?

Still, for me, as for Voigt, it is much more fun when things don't run smoothly. Speaking of the "competition" between phrasing and meter, she quotes Robert Frost: "A sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning by sound." He wants to rein in the ramble of phrasing with the grid of meter.

But I think too often now, so enamored and thoroughly comfortable with the mechanical, we approach things the opposite way (as the questionable musicianship above amply demonstrates). A sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning by sound. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning of words. This is a struggle that I often have as I revise my nonfiction, making things less musical and more meaningful, which is odd because I spend so much time doing the opposite in revising my fiction. But regardless of which direction I am working in, I am always working in that gap between the two, and wondering how deep the rift really goes.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mr. Pants

Here's a reminder to start re-watching Home Movies on Netflix if you haven't yet.



And, I'm watching you sleep. Oh my god. You're beautiful when you sleep.

The importance of design to straight-forward prose

If you look at your average literary magazine or publisher, you quickly find that the division between vessel and content is firm. One story in a magazine looks more or less identical to the next. If it weren't for the title pages and the names in the top margins you wouldn't know one story from the next. (The poetry is sometimes easier to tell apart.) There are good reasons for this and there are bad reasons. In terms of the former, it is usually good design to use consistency in one's layout and typography. If there's no major difference between one piece and the next that necessitates a change, you probably shouldn't make one. And there is a relatively narrow range of usable, readable arrangements of text: you can ornament it all in several ways, but for instance aligning your text right or centered is pretty much out of the question. You can only crowd the text so much. You need white space. On the other hand, if your content never challenges your container -- if your first design always works for everything you publish -- you're probably a boring publisher. 

This is not to say that everybody needs to publish formally adventurous material. I have a preference that they do, or at least remain open to it -- you've got a page there, why not use it? -- but in general readers prefer that the form stay out of the way, that the text remain invisible, and certainly there are many pleasures in such writing, and I don't blame anyone who prefers those pleasures to all others. But I think we neglect the fact that prose wherein the form is invisible achieves that invisibility by a careful employment of form all its own. Consider the over-crowded page: in some ways, this seems to devalue and deemphasize form more than any other style of page. Overcrowding is primarily a strategy of pulps and budget-conscious publishers to reduce page count and therefore cost. And yet it makes me more conscious of form than nearly anything. It's oppressive. With every word I manage to read, I have to ask myself if I want to bother with the next. Formal invisibility is not the absence of form: it is the carefully managed presence that denies itself, that hides in plain sight.

I was thinking about this in relation to David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, in many ways a very traditional novel from a writer who has made some really wild fiction (Cloud Atlas). For the most part, the form is invisible. It hides in plain sight. There are some images, but they're simple, unassuming, and they only serve to demonstrate images described in the text. They are polite and contained.

The layout being traditional and the prose conventional, the main decisions in designing the book would have been the font, the spacing of the text, the dimensions of the pages, and the margins. (Keep in mind I'm working from the paperback here; the hardback presumably differs in some respects.) And they're not exactly weird or anything. The book feels a very slightly wide and pleasantly blocky. It could use a slightly larger inside margin for the sake of visual balance (you could narrow the outer margins to match), and the convention of placing the full title at the top right of the right-hand page does it no favors (the title is so long it nearly occupies the entire top of the page), but basically it's a clean, pleasant, readable design with nothing remarkable about it.

Unless we recognize that good, thoughtful, usable design is always remarkable. And there is one detail that shows the designer's engagement -- and the author's -- in this invisible form. That is, Mitchell's one-line paragraphs remain one-line paragraphs wherever they were clearly meant to be so.

Mitchell's paragraphing is thoughtful, careful, purposeful. He manages rhythm and tone by deploying different densities and lengths of language. And one tool he uses quite often is the one-line paragraph. For example, a full section from page 264 (with two spaces substituted for real indents due to Blogger's limitations):

The door slides six inches before emitting a high, snging groan. Orito holds her breath to hear the noise of running footsteps...
  ...but nothing happens, and the fathomless night smooths itself.
  She squeezes through the gap; a door curtain strokes her face.
  Reflected moonlight delineates, dimly, a small entrance hall.
  An odor of camphor locates the infirmary through a right-hand door.
  There is a sunken doorway to her left, but the fugitive's instinct says, No....
  She slides open the right-hand door.
  The darkness resolves itself into planes, lines, and surfaces...
  She hears the rustling of a straw futon and a sleeper's breathing.
  She hears voices and footsteps: two men, or three.
  The patient yawns and asks, "'S anyone there?"
Orito withdraws to the entrance hall, slides the infirmary door shut, and peers around the shrieking door. A lantern bearer is less than ten paces away.
  He is looking this way, but the glow of his light impairs his vision.
  Now Master Suzaku's voice can be heard in the infirmary.
  The fugitive has nowhere to run but the sunken doorway.
  This may be the end, Orito thinks, shivering, this may be the end...

The fact that on the original page the majority of these paragraphs are one line, a few are one line and a word or two, or at most two lines and two words on a third line, is extremely important to how this section reads. And it's not an accident. You can see places where Mitchell gets the paragraph he wants through the somewhat unconventional use of ellipses. This is something he does quite often, always for rhythm, often for paragraph length as well. In this particular example the form mirrors the content -- the paragraphs are structured for suspense -- but often it is less literal, the one-line paragraph being used more as a device to make the reader unconsciously read the prose more as a poem. Image becomes more central in these passages. The language intensifies, reaching for a different kind of beauty. 

It looks conventional because the author and designer were careful to make it so. Mitchell's use of the paragraph is shrewd and inventive, but it doesn't look inventive: that's how it works. The designer, meanwhile, could have ruined the effect by careless placement of the margins, or by selecting the wrong width of page. But these decisions were quite deliberate. You can tell because there's just enough room for many (most) of the one-line paragraphs in the book. They found a set of parameters that worked just right, and in the same stroke subdued our awareness of their own cleverness and care. Because the columns of one-line paragraphs look so solid and blocky, we notice them less than we might otherwise: they almost read, collectively, as paragraphs in their own right.

That's what careful design can do for you, even if your prose is intended to be extremely conventional and totally invisible. It doesn't just contain your content, it makes your book work.