Get It Right, and Get It Written

I’ve written two novels that are historical mysteries. One of them is unpublished, and I’ll probably never get around to revising it, because it has problems. The other, While Caesar Sang of Hercules, I think worked pretty well. You can find it on Amazon; all you have to do is spell my name right and it will pop right up.

Historical research is a bitch.

Right now I’m contemplating, with some misgivings, the idea of writing a mystery (possibly a series) set in Los Angeles in 1933. Prowling on the Internet, you can find an enormous amount of historical material on what life was like in 1933 — but finding the details you crave may be terrifyingly difficult.

Let’s suppose a scene in your story is set on a Tuesday evening in the living room of a couple of your characters. They’re listening to the radio, of course, because there were no television stations to speak of in 1933. But what broadcasts specifically would they have tuned in on? Burns & Allen? Amos ‘n’ Andy? Did those shows air on Tuesdays? At what time? Would a wild guess be good enough, or do you need to nail it down through research?

The nearer to the present day your story takes place, the more danger there is that readers will notice if you blow it. I did a lot of research while writing While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and I’m fairly confident that nobody other than a professional historian would spot any errors I may have made about Rome in the days of Nero. I first drafted that book in the early years of the Internet, so my research consisted of driving up the hill to Stanford to buy books at the campus bookstore.

The book that I don’t think can be salvaged was set in Chicago in 1885. I did a lot of research on Chicago too, but the first crime in the story took place in a lumber town in Wisconsin, and I got the Wisconsin lumber industry totally, irretrievably wrong. I’ve never been able to figure out how to start the story in a more realistic version of Wisconsin. There were other problems in that book too, so I’ll have to chalk it up to experience and move on.

Most readers probably don’t care much about historical accuracy. Throw in a gramophone and a flapper, and they’ll believe it’s 1933. And for a writer who is struggling to make a living, spending weeks or months on research may not be cost-effective. But I don’t have to make a living at it, and I want to get it right.

Plus, the research is fun! For my Chicago book I managed to find and download an actual roster of the police force in Chicago in 1885, complete with the names and short biographical descriptions of the officers. About a third of them were first-generation Irish. Not only that, but in Chicago in 1885 there was actually a “colored detective” on the force. Who would have assumed the department was integrated, even to that extent, in the 19th century?

Modern readers will bring their own assumptions to the table, of course, and that can be a danger for the writer. My Rome book deals very largely with slavery, and slavery is a sensitive topic. In ancient Rome, slavery was an essential part of the economy — but it wasn’t based on race! Modern readers can easily make bad assumptions or have bad emotional reactions when they find out some of the main characters not only are slaves but have none of the modern ideas about slavery. The Romans knew that the abuse of slaves was both common and evil, you bet they knew it — but in ancient Rome nobody ever advocated freeing the slaves. Their entire economy and social structure would have collapsed. Abolition is a purely modern concept.

Race relations were a vital, and uncomfortable, part of the U.S. culture in 1933. This morning I drafted a brief scene in which my protagonist, a young white woman, is having a casual conversation with a black elevator operator. I’m pretty sure it’s accurate and realistic as to the language the young man would have used, but that scene scares me, because I’ll bet you five dollars someone is going to read it and think I’m the most awful kind of racist for having put those words in the character’s mouth.

Another character in the story is the landlady in the boarding house where my protagonist lives, and you can darn well bet that landlady wasn’t going to rent to any Japs or kikes or spics or niggers.

Were you triggered by that? If so, I think you now understand the problem for the writer. I would never use those words in my own voice (although I just did exactly that, for rhetorical effect). But in dialog? Yes. Or in a first-person narrative by a speaker from that era, yes. Those words are how the landlady (who would have been born in about 1880) would have said it. They’re her words, not mine.

I can write around it by having my narrator say, “She used a couple of colorful terms that I’m not going to repeat.” But that’s cowardly. That’s not good writing, it’s kiss-ass writing.

Today, in our allegedly more enlightened culture, the writer of any sort of historical fiction is on the horns of a dilemma. When it comes to sensitive topics such as homosexuality and race relations, if you write it accurately you’re liable to offend people. Far too many people don’t want to know how it actually was (or, for that matter, how it actually is). What they want is for you to gently massage their feelings. If you fail to convince them that you share their view of right and wrong — not in nuts-and-bolts detail, which I probably do, but in the broad-brush feel-good manner that is all they’re capable of understanding — you’re in deep trouble.

Fortunately, I don’t have to try to make a living at it.

Posted in fiction, society & culture, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Parlez-vous fran├žais?

I had a couple of quarters of German during my chaotic college days, but I’ve never properly learned a foreign language. As an older adult I’ve considered a few languages, including Chinese and Hindi. Chinese is just way too difficult. Hindi ought to be easier, because it’s an Indo-European language. It’s related to Latin, German, and English. But the consonants in Hindi are well-nigh impossible, and the writing system isn’t much easier.

A couple of years ago I settled on French. French is both easy and difficult. The vocabulary is quite a lot like English. It’s pretty much a slam-dunk, and at least French uses the Latin alphabet, albeit with half a dozen fussy accent marks. The grammar, pronunciation, and spelling, on the other hand — hoo, boy.

There are probably a dozen different websites and services that would love to help you learn a foreign language. But I have yet to find a good one.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning French on Duolingo. It’s supported by advertising, so it’s free. If you’re using a phone or tablet, you probably want to pay for your membership, as the ads will intrude, but on a desktop computer the ads are off to the side and totally ignorable.

Duolingo is great, up to a certain point, but beyond that point I’ve found it more and more annoying. The audio — the spoken French sentences — is produced by a voice synthesizer. There are no recordings of actual human speech. Of the half-dozen “personalities” the synthesizer has, three are both stupid-sounding and hard to understand. Spoken French is hard enough to understand at the best of times. But that’s how they keep the cost down.

The other problem with Duolingo is that most of the material is presented in single sentence examples. There is generally no context at all. The system does include some “stories,” which are mostly dialog between two of the synthetic voices. The stories are not worthless, but they’re kind of a side show, not the main event. And while you’re wrestling with the examples, you get no explanations. You get to see the allegedly correct answer, but if you omit a “de” after the verb, Duolingo is not going to tell you why it’s needed, or what class of verbs requires it.

A few months ago I got a cut-rate offer for Rocket French, which is part of the Rocket Languages service. So I signed up. The issues with Rocket French are entirely different. There’s a long series of 25-minute audio “stories,” which are narrated by “Paul” (mostly in English, and his pronunciation of French is rather dodgy) and “Claire” (who speaks only French). Paul and Claire are definitely human. The stories could be cut by five minutes; they’re padded out with Paul’s bad jokes. But they do give you some context. There’s seldom any explanation of verb tenses or such salient details, however. You’re just getting immersion. Also, the written text that accompanies the storylets is not free of errors — wrong gender of a French adjective, that type of thing.

The other part of the Rocket package is lessons in various points of French grammar. This is genuinely useful, but the examples are given as short phrases, not even as complete sentences, much less within a context. In these lessons there’s no actual usage of the material you’re being taught.

Rocket French has an audio input system, so you can record your own pronunciation of the French phrases, listen to the playback, and compare your voice to that of the native speaker. There’s no grading of your pronunciation, and that’s fine with me. But you don’t have to do recordings if you don’t feel like it. So in essence, nothing is required of the student in Rocket French. You can just click on a bunch of recordings and quite possibly learn not a damn thing.

Duolingo asks you to actively translate French to English and vice versa, and gives you a few extra points for success. You’re competing with other students to build up your weekly total of points, so there’s an active incentive system, complete with a chart. This is a much better system than what Rocket French offers — but those synthetic voices are just awful.

I’ve acquired a few French books, both grammar books and some stories. These are useful too, but of course books can’t do much to help you learn French pronunciation, and French pronunciation is une chienne.

Posted in languages, random musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Game Night!

We’re living in a sort of Golden Age of board games. When you say “board games,” many people surely think you mean Monopoly and Scrabble, or possibly checkers. But modern board games have advanced miles past those dusty classics. Today’s games are colorful, clever, captivating, and just plain fun.

The trick is finding people to play them. In high school I had a group of friends that got together every weekend to play games, but that was (cough-cough) almost sixty years ago. Adults tend to have jobs, families, vacation plans, and other commitments.

But I’m not giving up. Below are some snapshots of games that you may find yourself playing if you drop in to one of my monthly board game evenings. First Sunday of every month, 6:00 to 9:00 — or starting at 5:00 if you want to come early for pizza or Chinese takeout. If you live in the Livermore/Pleasanton area and you’re not on my email contact list for game night but you’d like to be, send me a message!

Azul is a beautiful abstract game in which your goal is to fill your mat with colored tiles in certain patterns. Here’s Azul Summer Pavilion set up for three players. (In most of these photos, all of the players are me, which is why all of the player mats are facing the camera.)

In Tiny Epic Galaxies, you’re supposedly sending your rocket ships out to colonize planets. Every planet card that you add to your empire gives you an extra power and adds to your points, but you’re at the mercy of the dice. Not shown is the Beyond The Black expansion, which adds pilots with special abilities and also the danger of encountering meteor storms or a black hole:

Castles of Burgundy is possibly my favorite game. Every turn you’ll have some interesting choices, and come-from-behind victories are quite possible, because there are lots of ways to get points. The basic mechanic is, you’re selecting hexagonal tiles from the central area and then placing them on your mat. You can add buildings, farm animals, castles, sailing ships, mines, or tiles that give you special powers.

Nova Luna is a simple but competitive game in which you add colored tiles to your play area and try to position them so as to complete certain patterns (called tasks). The first player to place all 20 of their disks on their tiles wins!

I’ll be uploading more photos soon. This blog entry is intended to be both an invitation and a compendium. I have some great two-player games, such as Hive (see below), Onitama, Santorini, and Yinsh. My favorite games for three to five players include Istanbul, Stone Age, Castles of Burgundy, Century Spice Road, Clank!, Dominion, and Wingspan. In the really challenging department, we might play Five Tribes, Bonfire, Mystic Vale, Lorenzo il Magnifico, Trajan, Merv, Call to Adventure, Tobago, or Lost Ruins of Arnak.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t even care whether I win. I do play competitively, but I’m just as happy to see someone else emerge victorious. Maybe we’ll have trophies. Do you think trophies would help?

Concordia is a fairly complex game. It’s partly a deck builder, partly resource management, and partly area control. You’re in ancient Rome, and your goal is to build buildings in various cities. Buildings will earn you more resources, but first you have to pay for them with brick and other commodities, plus cash. Up to five can play.

Here’s Hive, a two-player game with no board, just hexagons that buzz around. The game is vaguely like chess, but quicker-moving. Your goal is to surround your opponent’s Queen Bee.

Splendor is an engine-builder with cards. To get a card, you have to have the right combination of gemstones, which can be either the attractively chunky poker chips or cards you already have. Getting a “visit from a noble” (the tiles along the top) will boost your score. Here’s the opening setup; the players haven’t yet started adding cards to their personal arrays.

More photos soon.

Posted in games, random musings, society & culture | Tagged | 2 Comments

White Light

I won’t pretend to be comfortable with the idea of identity politics and “centering marginalized voices.” I would prefer to look at how things are now for individuals rather than agonize over past wrongs done to large groups. But I do see that there’s a kind of convenient blindness that afflicts white people, and I think it’s important not to wrap oneself too closely in it.

I’ve started reading Legacy of Violence, a fat and scholarly (but very readable!) new book that examines the dreadful history of the British Empire. Probably not many people today know that the British had a small sugar-producing colony called Demerra in South America. In 1823 there was a slave revolt in Demerra. Yes, the British still had slaves in 1823.

Here’s author Caroline Elkins’s description of how the British dealt with the rebellion: “Order was restored within forty-eight hours, though martial law remained in effect during the governor-ordered trial of dozens of the rebellion’s alleged ringleaders. Some were publicly lashed, others were executed and their severed heads nailed to posts, and some were hung by chains outside plantations where their corpses remained suspended for months so that they ‘might produce salutary effects.'”

And why was this horror perpetrated? So that a small bunch of rich white men in London could see a profit on their investments and not have to do any useful work.

For the record, all of the surnames in my immediate family, going back several generations, are from the British Isles (British, Scots, Irish, and Welsh). I’m about as white as you can get. I had nothing to do with the trouble in Demerra, and it’s not likely any of my ancestors did either — but when I encounter, today, a certain lingering obstinacy on the part of black and indigenous people, a reluctance to let go of the past, I think it’s important to recognize that there are reasons for their deep discontent, reasons stretching further back than we white people might prefer to be reminded of.

Posted in random musings, society & culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

I vs. We

Classical liberalism is the belief that the individual is, or ought to be, autonomous. “Liberal” means “free.” Liberals believe that, wherever possible, the individual ought to be free to make [his/her/their] own decisions and choose [his/her/their] own actions.

As an aside, normally I approve of the use of “they” and “their” to refer to single persons of unknown gender, but in that particular sentence, “their” runs the risk of implying something about membership in a group. Hence the awkward workaround.

Liberalism was pretty much invented in the 18th century. The power of the church was weakening, and as people moved to the cities they found themselves dealing with hordes of strangers. The customs that had worked in small villages no longer worked very well.

The idea of individual freedom could hardly have arisen in feudal society, because feudalism was based on a sense of mutual obligation among members of a small community. The same thing is true of tribal cultures worldwide. You know the people around you. You know their expectations, and they know yours. In a tribal culture, “go your own way” is a dangerous idea. It would rend the close-knit fabric of your world.

There is inevitably a tension between individual freedom and group solidarity. A society that goes to either extreme is cruel and dysfunctional. If individual freedom is elevated as the most exalted value, we have anarchy. I know there are people who consider themselves anarchists, but I’m pretty sure they don’t get it. Anarchy means you can be run down by a speeding car, because there are no police. At the other extreme, where group solidarity is the highest value, you have totalitarianism. The people in authority tell you what to do, and you have no choice but to obey.

To a lover of freedom, people who embrace group solidarity are sheep, puppets, or zombies. To people who feel that group membership is vital, a lover of freedom is a serious threat, not just to individuals but to the survival and health of the entire group. The goal of the two factions (human happiness) is the same, but they define the conditions that will lead to happiness in very different ways.

The strife that has disrupted Unitarian-Universalism over the past decade is due precisely to a conflict between these two views. I happen to be firmly in the liberal camp, but I want to take a step back and look at the situation dispassionately and analytically. I’m aware that fans of group solidarity may feel that a painstaking logical analysis is a danger. I can’t help that. Swing with me for a minute.

Unitarianism has been, for quite a long time, a liberal religion — if it’s a religion at all, but we’ll leave that debate for another time. The idea in Unitarianism has always been that you’re free to believe what you like. The community has historically embraced free-thinkers.

During my lifetime (I’m in my 70s), liberals have pushed strongly for equal rights for marginalized groups — first African-Americans and other racial groups, then gay men and Lesbians, and more recently trans-identified people. This is an important and healthy development! But while considerable progress has been made, we’re still a long way from a truly just and equal society.

Identity politics is, at root, the idea that when people who share some defining characteristic come together, they’re stronger together, politically and socially, than they would be as individuals. The move toward organized labor (which I firmly support) was an early example of identity politics in action, as was the women’s suffrage movement.

What has happened in recent years is that the people in marginalized groups have gotten frustrated that there hasn’t been more progress. They have banded together in what we might call affinity groups in order to press for faster and more sweeping social changes.

The difficulty is this: People who have gathered together as a group can feel attacked by people who place a high value on individualism. A labor union, to take an easy example, only works when every worker is required to join the union. So-called right-to-work laws (which I vehemently oppose) undercut the ability of a union to accomplish what it hopes to accomplish.

Something similar seems to be happening in Unitarian-Universalism. Our national organization, the UUA, has been taken over by a group who are not committed in any way to individual liberty. They feel it’s old-fashioned. In a nutshell, they view the traditional liberal slant of Unitarianism as a threat. They fervently believe in the value of group solidarity, because they have become frustrated at the slow pace of social change.

When you look at it through this lens, suddenly the strong reactions to Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers make a lot more sense. Within a day of the book’s release, a couple of hundred UU ministers signed an Open Letter denouncing the book. It’s clear that most of them hadn’t read the book before they attacked it.

To someone who places a high value on the thoughts and opinions of the individual, this behavior was shocking and incomprehensible. How could you possibly denounce a book you hadn’t read? For that matter, how could you even recommend that others not read a book? No matter how wrong-headed a book may be, reading it is useful. (I own a copy of Mein Kampf, for instance.)

But to a person who values “we” above “I,” attacking a book without having read it is perfectly sensible. If a member of your affinity group tells you a book is bad, your desire to remain with the group will assure you that going along with the group is the right thing to do. In fact, showing how vigorous you are in agreeing with the group’s view (the pejorative term for this behavior is “virtue signaling”) is important. You don’t want to look like a backslider!

The book was attacked as being “ablist” and “transphobic,” among other terms, even though there wasn’t a word in it that could possibly be interpreted in those terms. But to a person who has embraced the “we” point of view, what’s important is to identify with and embrace one’s affinity group, which in a broad sense would include both trans people and people with disabilities. An attack on any member of the group is perceived as an attack on the group as a whole.

Eklof took aim squarely at Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. DiAngelo is a guiding light of this particular “we” group. So an attack on DiAngelo was interpreted as an attack on the group, and thus on the hopes and aspirations of everybody in the group, including trans and disabled people.

The Open Letter repeatedly claimed that The Gadfly Papers caused “harm” — yet the nature of the alleged harm was never explained. To anyone who values the right of the individual to make up [his/her/their] own mind, this was a grotesque cognitive failure. But to “we” people, questioning DiAngelo’s views was, in and of itself, causing “harm.” No explanation was necessary; the “harm” was writ on every page.

The result of this controversy is that Unitarian-Universalism is in big trouble. Membership is declining. Congregations are riven by strife.

Ironically, Eklof’s book proposes what could be a very viable way out of the mess. Unitarianism and Universalism ought to go their separate ways. Let the Unitarians remain in the “I” camp, celebrating individual differences, and let the “we” crowd have Universalism to do with as they will.

I’m a cynic, so I anticipate that the “we” crowd won’t like this idea. One of the features of a group solidarity culture is that groups tend to think that everybody ought to do it their way. This trend is easily seen in certain branches of Christianity and Islam. If you feel that your way is the only right way, letting other people choose their own values is tantamount to an admission of defeat. If they’re not doing it your way, that’s an implicit attack on your values. Well, we can’t have that, can we?

I’m still a liberal, but I’m also a socialist. I understand the need for people to come together and work together for the common good. In my view, each situation, each conflict as it arises, has to be considered separately. A one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t appeal to me. The difficulty I see is that those who embrace a “we” solution to social problems may feel threatened by the idea that individual cases ought to be analyzed individually. A blanket “solution” is likely to be more appealing, even when the collateral damage is severe.

I don’t see an easy path around this conflict. But I do think splitting Unitarianism off from Universalism would have some solid advantages.

Posted in politics, random musings, religion, society & culture, unitarian universalism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Micro What?

As I read The Rise of Victimhood Culture (good book, I recommend it), I’m thinking again about the concept of microaggressions. Is there such a thing? If so, how would we distinguish microaggressions from simple bad manners?

One point that’s made in the book is that it doesn’t matter what you said, or what you meant by it. The question of whether it constitutes a microaggression rests entirely on how the person you were dealing with perceived what you said or did. If they claim it was a microaggression, you have no defense. You’re guilty, buster.

This is bad enough, but it occurs to me now that the whole concept rests on the flabby substrate of identity politics. That is, for something to appear to be a microaggression, you (the supposed aggressor) must be seen to belong to a different identity group than the person you supposedly aggressed against. Also, your group must be defined (by some postmodern oracle, we might imagine) as a dominant group in society, while the aggressed-against person must belong to a group that the oracle has deemed non-dominant.

If you and I are both cisgendered heterosexual white men, it’s simply not possible for anything I say or do in your presence to be interpreted as a microaggression, because we belong (supposedly) to the same group. My words or action may be rude or insulting in a way that’s either subtle or glaring, but it’s not a microaggression.

For instance, I might say, “Do you play golf?” Now, if I’m white and you’re black, that could be considered a microaggression, because, you know, golf is widely considered a white people sport. Ditto if I say, “Do you like rap music?” Either way, if you take offense, I’m screwed. But not if we’re both white.

It’s not just that the two people need to belong to different identity groups. It also seems clear that if the person who is identified as part of a non-dominant (that is, “marginalized”) group says something snarky or merely oblivious to a white cisgendered heterosexual male, such as, perhaps, “Do you own shares in any mutual funds?”, that’s not a microaggression. The person in the dominant group is assumed not to be “harmed” by such a comment. The person in the dominant group is assumed to be immune to casual social “harm.” He’s wearing invisible armor.

In the absence of the postmodern concept of identity politics, the notion that there is such a thing as microaggressions just dissolves. We’re left with a dramatic and perhaps painful scene in which the two participants are individuals.

I reject the concept of identity politics. And so, accordingly, I reject the concept of microaggressions. There is certainly such a thing as rudeness. Rudeness can be intentional or unintentional. But it’s something that happens between individuals. Their presumed, or reified, membership in some larger identity group is irrelevant, generally speaking.

There are, of course, situations where it can become relevant. If a white man says to a black man, “Do you like watermelon?”, we have to look at the context. This could be an openly racist dig by a known white supremacist — or it could be two guys who have been friends for years standing in the produce aisle at the supermarket and be a completely innocent and sincere question.

The trouble arises when we’re in a gray area between those two extremes. If the black guy is unable to be clear in his own mind that the remark was innocent, then he may conclude that it’s a microaggression. In which case the white guy could lose his job.

This is no way to run a civilization.

Posted in politics, random musings, society & culture, unitarian universalism | Tagged | Leave a comment

Freedom’s Just Another Word…

I have no idea who Dave Chappelle is. He could be a Marxist or a member of the KKK. And I don’t think it matters. A friend posted a statement on Facebook today that he copied from something called First Avenue & Seventh Street, in which they announced that they had canceled a show by Chappelle. The statement said, “We believe in diverse voices and the freedom of artistic expression, but in honoring that, we lost sight of the impact this [i.e., the Chappelle appearance] would have. We know we must hold ourselves to the highest standards, and we know we let you down.”

My response to this was, “If you claim to uphold diverse voices and the freedom of artistic expression, you don’t get to back down because of some alleged ‘impact.’ If you’re backing down, you’re NOT upholding diverse voices or the freedom of artistic expression, you’re just chickenshit.”

So then I got piled on by some young liberals, or progressives, or whatever they call themselves. I got roundly attacked. And why? Because I stood up for freedom of speech and called out a bit of rank hypocrisy.

It should be noted that none of the people who attacked me took the trouble to articulate their own views. They just attacked.

Apparently Chappelle is an outspoken homophobe or something. I’m sure I would probably disagree vehemently with his whole world view. I’m a socialist and an ardent supporter of gay and trans rights. But I’m also an ardent supporter of free speech. I’m quite sure that none of us is well served by a culture in which only a certain range of socially approved opinions can be given voice.

We need dissenters. Even when they’re dead wrong. Dissenters invite us to examine and articulate our values. When dissenters are silenced, we fall further and further into group-think. Our ability to learn, grow, and perhaps change is stunted. At the very least, we cannot act intelligently with respect to those we disagree with if we refuse to listen to them! We die.

The larger picture here has nothing to do with Dave Chappelle, whoever he is. Right now I’m editing a short book about this precise subject. It’s a book about how a contingent of radicals has taken over the Unitarian Universalist denomination at the national level. They mean well; they’re trying to combat racism. But their methods are deplorable. They try to silence anyone who disagrees with them. They use sneaky, underhanded tactics to try to force conformity. They lie about what they’re doing, and they stonewall you if you try to question them. To them, the ends justify the means. They’re fascists, is what it boils down to. Well-meaning left-wing social justice fascists.

It’s all part of the culture of victimhood and virtue signaling. Lukianoff and Haidt describe this at great length in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. The people I encountered today on Facebook are a classic example. They don’t understand the value of free speech, and they don’t want to understand it. They think anybody who voices anything but the approved view of homosexuality should be silenced.

This kind of thing is happening on college campuses too. It’s a big social trend, and it’s scary. But in the end it’s not very surprising. Most people don’t know how to think; they just react. That has always been the case; why should we expect that suddenly in the 21st century it would be any different?

Until a few hundred years ago, dissenters were burned at the stake. I’m fairly safe from that fate, at least.

Posted in politics, random musings, religion, society & culture | 2 Comments

Testing, 1, 2, 3…

This week I’ve had three intrepid beta-testers thrashing their way through my latest text adventure game, The Only Possible Prom Dress. The way this works is, I send them a version of the game and they start a playing session by typing SCRIPT. The game development/playback software then records, as a text file, exactly what happens during their session. They send me the text files, and I read through them to learn what’s not working.

It’s fun, but gruesome, and mainly just a whole lot of work. Naturally, at the start of the testing process I would like to think my game is close to finished — but from having gone through this process a few times in years past, I’m quite aware that that’s not going to be the case. There are sure to be many, many problems.

Sometimes the problems are easy to fix. A tester gives the game a reasonable command, and the game gives a response that doesn’t make sense. Or the tester tries to converse with a non-player character (an NPC), but the NPC doesn’t yet have any code to respond to that specific topic. So I write something.

Other issues can get more complex. The player may be able to do things that ought not to be possible, such as getting into locations that ought to be blocked off. Or it may be possible to get the game into a state that I simply hadn’t anticipated. In the latter category, I have two NPCs who can follow the player character around in the environment of the game. One of them is going to be helpful, and the other is an annoyance that you’ll have to deal with. It had simply never occurred to me that a player could have both of them following at once. Leading a parade, in effect. This creates a kind of clutter that I don’t need.

So I add a bit of code that will cause one of the NPCs to get bored and leave the parade after X turns — and in doing that I create a bug that makes the game unwinnable. I have a test run-through that will play straight through from the start to the happy ending, so when I run the test and things go horribly wrong, I have to figure out how to fix it.

Here’s another amusing issue. The library I’m using, adv3Lite by Eric Eve, is brilliant, but in at least one respect it’s a little too brilliant. Eric has implemented a complex system for allowing the player to converse with NPCs. This system allows and in fact expects the author to set up greeting and departure protocols. To initiate a conversation with an NPC, you need to issue some sort of say-hello command. That’s lovely, except when it’s not. If you happen to be writing a game where there’s a fireman, and the player guides her character into the room where the fireman is waiting and types TELL FIREMAN ABOUT FIRE, the game will respond, “You’re not talking to anyone.” You have to politely say hello to the fireman before you can tell him about the damn fire!

This is awful. I’m sure there’s a way to fix it, but in half an hour of trying this and that I still haven’t figured out how. So I’ve posted a message on the forum asking for suggestions. This generally works; there are a few people who know the adv3Lite library better than I do. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The underlying issue here is verisimilitude. One wants the scenario of the game to seem real. When the software balks, it’s up to the author to figure out a way to bring it into line. And with a complex game, that’s not likely to be easy. There are some classic difficulties that authors run into. Elevators, for instance, and liquids, and ropes that are tied at one end and free at the other end. I have one of each in the game. Maybe I’ve got them coded adequately. Maybe.

This game is huge. In the first four days of testing, none of my three testers has even gotten past the second of the four opening challenges. Essentially, these four items are multi-part puzzles, and they have to be worked through in a set order. After that, the game opens up and there are lots of ways to proceed. Also lots of places, I’m sure, where the software is going to need massaging. Whether it will all be tested adequately remains to be seen. Tester burnout is a real possibility.

I think it’s a fun story, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be as tough for players as it’s starting to appear. One of my testers managed to get the octopus released from its tank in front of the pet shop, but she had no idea that she had just set up the solution to the first puzzle. She just wandered off and started looking at other stuff. I’ve implemented an extensive system of hints, of course, and my testers are avoiding them because they want to actually test stuff. But players of the finished game may also prefer to avoid diving into the hints, so I need to think about how best to sprinkle in-game clues in the player’s path.

It’s like building a castle one brick at a time.

Posted in games, Interactive Fiction, technology, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hidden Assumptions

Last month I decided it’s time to finish an interactive story (a text adventure game) that I started more than ten years ago. I’ve stopped working on it several times, the main reason being that it’s just too darn large. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get it thoroughly beta-tested, unless I pay the testers. And when it’s released, will anybody ever play it? People have told me they like large games, but it remains to be seen how sincere they are.

This is a parser game, a structure that harks back to the early days of computing. The player types commands, such as perhaps GET LAMP, and the game responds in some way: “You pick up the lamp.” And then you have a lamp that you can light and carry into a dark room. This is how the world model works.

Typing a few words at the command prompt was normal in home computers in 1978, which was about when this sort of game first hit the runway. Computers didn’t even have graphics in those days, just text.

There’s still a small but active community of people who write and/or play text games, but the world of computing has moved on. Spiffy graphics and clicking or tapping links are the norm today. So I had pretty much concluded that this game will be my last venture into the genre. It’s called The Only Possible Prom Dress, and I’m hoping to have it finished in time to enter it in the annual IFComp. You’ll love it, trust me!

And then last night I had an idea for a new game. I think it’s a pretty darn good idea. But I’m not sure it wants to be a parser game.

I use a development system called TADS 3. (That’s an acronym for The Adventure Development System.) While I like TADS and grudgingly respect the more popular system called Inform, I may be ready to try something different.

I’ve written before in this space about the difference between parser-based text games and games written in Twine. Twine stories run in your web browser. They can have graphics and music. Okay, technically you can embed graphics and music in a TADS or Inform game, but it’s kind of a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation. Those authoring systems were not built from the ground up with the idea that they would present interactive stories in a modern way. Quite the contrary.

Twine builds your story as an html file. It can use css and javascript. It rocks. The Twine stories I’ve looked at tend not to rock, because the writing is usually very bad, but the presentation — ah, that’s the lovely part.

The reason I’ve resisted Twine up to now is that it has no world model. Everything in your story is just flat text. Yes, you can use variables, and that’s vital if you want to do anything serious in the way of a branching story, but if you want to set your story in a world that’s built out of “rooms,” so that your reader/player can travel from room to room, pick up and drop objects, open locked containers using keys, and stuff like that, in Twine you have to build the world model yourself. Systems like TADS and Inform (there are several others) give you a built-in structure with which to deploy your world.

This is a tremendous advantage, if your story is of that hallowed and perhaps too familiar type. But it immediately struck me that my new story idea (which I’m not going to talk about yet) would be constrained, perhaps badly constrained, by the stock world model. I don’t think I want the reader/player to type commands like N, S, E, and W to move from “room” to “room.” In a parser game, every object that’s in the room with the player is “in scope,” which means the player can interact with it using commands, but anything that is not in the room is not in scope, so generally speaking the parser won’t let the player refer to it at all. If the player tries to give a command about some object that’s not in scope, the parser responds with an error message along the lines of, “You see no bathtub here.”

Rooms, scope, and travel by compass direction are a fabulous foundation on which to build a traditional text game. But that foundation will steer the author, unavoidably, in a certain direction. If you happen to want to do something as simple as varying the description of a castle based on how far away it is, you’ll have to fight with the TADS or Inform system, which assumes every object is either present (in scope) or absent.

So yeah, maybe it’s time to learn Twine. I’m still not a graphic artist; I don’t plan to embed illustrations, much less link to videos on my YouTube channel. But there are still things that Twine does easily, things as simple as using a different background color on different pages. And for a certain type of story, clicking or tapping links may be more natural as well as more modern.

Plus, learning a new programming language is my idea of fun. Well, except for the tearing-your-hair-out part, but I do that right now with TADS programming, so I’m used to it.

Posted in fiction, Interactive Fiction, technology, writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Tap Dance & the Snow Job

In search of a little light reading, I grabbed Rupert Sheldrake’s book Science Set Free from my shelf. Evidently I bought it ten years ago, and also evidently I never read it, as it’s not marked up. I think I lost interest in Sheldrake when his experiments that purported to demonstrate telepathy were debunked.

After reading the first 50 pages, I’m ready to pull the rip cord. The guy is a sloppy thinker. His whole view is poetry, not science.

To be fair, his observation about the origins of the mechanistic, reductionist beliefs found in the standard scientific world view is important. We could all use a reminder not to be taken in by that line of thinking. The universe is still mysterious! But rather than present a coherent alternative, Sheldrake just dances around, slings a bunch of intellectual horse droppings, and hopes you won’t notice.

In his introduction, he lays out “ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.” Some of his items I would agree are debatable. I’m not convinced that his taking aim at item 4, “The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning….” is off the mark. It seems to me that we’re right to question that idea.

But to get there, we have to pass through item 1. The scientific world view, he says, is that “[e]verything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms.” No, no, no! That’s not a tenet of science at all! The scientific tenet is that living organisms are complex mechanisms. Sheldrake begins by setting up a false dichotomy. He’s accusing scientists of something that scientists don’t in fact believe, and in the process he seems somehow to be assuming that those scientists have a category called “living organisms” that does not include dogs. This is a naked flimflam job, right there on page 7.

But that’s just a warmup. On page 9 he quotes Francis Crick’s son as saying that Crick hoped “to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism.” Vitalism is a now-discredited theory that there is some sort of innate vital force that is present in plants and animals but not present in inanimate objects. Sheldrake puts it this way: “Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are truly alive, and not explicable in terms of physics and chemistry alone.” The second half of that sentence is fine, but the first half is gibberish. Sheldrake hasn’t defined what he means by “truly alive.” Even the most materialistic scientist would acknowledge that a tree is “truly alive.” It has a metabolism, and that metabolism does stuff.

It’s a shell game. It’s a tap dance. Sheldrake isn’t doing science, he’s just waving his flag and hoping you’ll be suckered into taking his ideas seriously.

Jumping forward to page 37, we find him failing to understand how evolution works. He drags in the “theory” of so-called Intelligent Design, and fails to refute it. And I quote: “Proponents of Intelligent Design point out the difficulty, if not impossibility, of explaining complex structures like the vertebrate eye or the bacterial flagellum in terms of a series of random genetic mutations and natural selection.” Notice the verb there — “point out.” Sheldrake is hoping you’ll intuit that some other force must be at work. Implicitly, he is endorsing Intelligent Design. The fact that eyes and flagella did indeed evolve gradually, over the course of tens of millions of years, is not even open to debate, Rupert, sweetie. It happened. And Richard Dawkins ripped the preposterous notions of Intelligent Design to very small pieces in a book that Sheldrake could easily have purchased and read.

If he did read it, it would be incumbent upon him to explain precisely how Dawkins erred. But no, he’s just going to rush onward, spewing out a bunch of twaddle.

He quotes Alfred North Whitehead, and then expands on Whitehead’s idea: “In Whitehead’s words, ‘Biology is the study of the larger organisms, whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.’ In the light of modern cosmology [Sheldrake goes on], physics is also the study of very large organisms, like planets, solar systems, galaxies, and the entire universe.”

Do you see what’s happening there? Sheldrake has ripped the word “organism” free of its moorings in natural science. It is now a free-floating germ of poetry. A galaxy is an organism! Never mind that what we know of galaxies suggests not the faintest similarity between galaxies and the living organisms on our own planet. Galaxies do not reproduce, for starters. Nor do they eat. But Sheldrake wants you not to notice that. He wants you to wallow in and be cleansed by the waters of his mystical poetic view.

He gets into the Big Bang, compares it to ancient myths about the Cosmic Egg, and then says, “Our growing, evolving universe is much more like an organism….”

In the margin, with a pencil, I wrote, “Horseshit.” I should have used a pen.

Posted in evolution, random musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment