Falling Stars

Back in the day (it’s been 50 years now — gawd!), I was a Jefferson Airplane fan. After Bathing at Baxter’s was the first rock LP I ever bought. I saw them at Fillmore West a couple of times.

They went through changes. In ’76 they transmogrified into Jefferson Starship. Jack and Jorma had left the band, but Grace, Paul, and Marty were still the front line. With some new players, they released an LP called Spitfire.

Today, in an LP-spinning mood, I grabbed Spitfire off the shelf and had a listen. Man, what a sad piece of shit. I’m sorry, but there’s no nicer way to say it. The songwriting and the mixing are just plain bad, and the instrumental tracks are blah. Balin’s passion, Kantner’s naive but energetic political views, and Slick’s knife-edge lyrics are nowhere in evidence.

They didn’t even print the lyrics in the album sleeve. Or maybe I just lost the insert, but I doubt it. I had to go looking online for the lyrics, because I didn’t trust my ears. Here’s Marty Balin: “Cruisin’ down the freeway is all I want to do / Let’s go cruisin’, that’s all I want to do / Cruisin’ in my automobile.” Were we to dare compare that to, let’s say, a line like, “Small things like reasons are kept in a jar,” the difference would be rather apparent.

Here’s Grace Slick: “You get what you give if you give what you get / Don’t forget it / Hot water, cold water.” Compare that to, for instance, “Woman with a greasy heart / Automatic man.” Is your head spinning yet?

And here’s Paul Kantner (probably — the songwriting credits are as confused as the rest of the liner notes): “Don’t let it rain on me tonight / Don’t let it rain.” A sad and trivial complaint. Shall we compare that to, “Tear down the walls, motherfucker”? Maybe we shouldn’t.

It’s not just the lyrics. None of the mixes have a strong solo vocal. It’s as if they were trying to hide the bad songwriting behind a cloud of bad production values. A couple of the instrumental jams get going, but David Freiberg and Pete Sears just aren’t Jack Casady, and Craig Chaquico doesn’t have the stylistic edge on lead that Jorma Kaukonen had.

If I had to guess, I’d guess that drugs had a lot to do with the failure of this effort. I could be wrong. Maybe I can find an online interview with Grace where she talks about what happened to the band. But maybe I’d rather not know.

I think there’s a lesson in this for any artist, not just for rock bands: Just because you’ve done some great work, there’s no guarantee you’ll do something great next time. It’s always a new day. You never stop having to work at it. Sometimes the magic is there and sometimes it’s not. If you’re trying to make a living at your art, when the magic isn’t happening you’re in a tough spot. I don’t have any answers. It’s kind of scary, that’s all, and it’s never scarier than when it’s artists you once admired.

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Tumbling Dice

Most modern board games include a few random elements — a deck of shuffled cards, rolls of the dice, or items drawn out of a black bag. I recently bought a new game called Trajan, and when it arrived yesterday I set it up and had a play-through. It’s quite a nice game — a complex Euro-style point salad, but with some very interesting elements.

Afterward I had a look at a YouTube video in which some serious gamers played Trajan and then discussed it. They seemed a bit distressed by the amount of randomness in it. In truth, it’s no more random than a lot of games. I think there’s another reason, an unacknowledged reason, why they didn’t find the game as exciting as they had hoped.

Card games, to digress for a moment, are entirely random. You start by shuffling the deck! And yet some people are fine card players, while others aren’t. Cribbage provides a perfect example. A good cribbage player will always beat a novice, because the number of possible patterns of card play in cribbage is rather small. In every situation, a good player will know the best play.

Bridge is a much more difficult game. In rubber bridge, the good partnership will usually win, but there are a lot more factors to consider, so once in a while a pair of novices might outscore the experts. But it’s still essential to understand the winning plays and to know the locations of the traps into which the unwary may tumble.

In games like chess and go, there’s no random element at all. Perhaps for that reason, they’re more challenging. Playing a casual game is less likely to be fun, because the only thing that will cause you to lose will be your own ineptitude. You can’t blame it on bad dice rolls.

What’s non-random in Trajan is the mechanic with which you choose your next move. It’s what we call a mancala mechanic. Mancala is an ancient game that’s still played throughout Africa, under various names and with some variations in the rules. As with chess, success in mancala is purely a matter of skill; there’s no random element.

In Trajan, you have six “bowls” (they’re actually flat places, but the graphics make them look like bowls) in which are distributed 12 little tokens in various colors. Each bowl is associated with one of the six possible actions. To select an action, you scoop up all of the tokens in one of the bowls and distribute them, one by one, around the circle of bowls in a clockwise direction. Wherever the last token lands, that’s your action for this turn.

In a typical situation, you’ll only have three or four possible moves. There will be bowls that you can’t currently reach, because no other bowl has the right number of tokens in it. You may be able to make a preparatory move that will set up the move you want to make, so that you can make it on your next turn. Or, if you’re not careful, you may make one good move and thereby spoil another!

I’m pretty sure Trajan can be compared to cribbage, in the sense that an expert player will have learned the patterns of tokens in the bowls and will be able to plan as much as three turns in advance, so as to take the desired actions. The novice will make sub-optimal moves time after time, and will end up frustrated.

Of necessity, the people who make board game videos for YouTube — and yes, I watch a lot of them — are always encountering a new game for, at best, the second or third time. (For a silly example, you might check out the Shut Up & Sit down review of go. To play go well requires years of study.) I suspect that a lot of online game reviewers either like or dislike a game for the wrong reasons.

Colorful bits of wood and plastic are lovely, as are gorgeously illustrated cards. But for me, the fascination of games is that a game is a procedural space, or a procedural universe if you like. It’s a space in which a certain set of procedures is defined, and in which a given action has specific results. There may be some randomness in the results, but the randomness is always constrained. You know you’re not going to roll a die and get 5,793. It’s a space in which analysis, planning, and also intuition play a decisive role.

A game in which luck plays too large a role and planning is too narrowly constrained — Yahtzee is a fine example — quickly becomes boring. One wants to feel that, no matter what storms may buffet the vessel, one’s own hand is securely on the tiller.

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Devices and Desires

Sometimes I write, and sometimes I play music. The older I get, the less I feel the need to prove anything to anybody. It’s enough just to have fun. If something isn’t fun, why do it?

Writing novels is, let’s admit, often frustrating. The fun part … remind me again: What’s the fun part?

This year I’ve pretty much given up playing the cello. The cello is not an instrument that’s much fun to play by yourself. The fun part is playing in a group with other people — and when you’re playing in a group with other amateurs, that’s not guaranteed to be much fun either. No offense to my friends; let’s just say that when a string quartet is sight-reading and none of the participants is a Juilliard graduate, the intonation sometimes leaves something to be desired.

I love playing the piano, but I learn new pieces so slowly, and my moment-to-moment finger precision is so uncertain owing to advancing age, that that’s not much fun either. I just cycle through the same 20 memorized pieces over and over. Sometimes they sound pretty good, but not always.

Making music in my computer is still fun. I have two main apps that I use for this — Reason and VCV Rack. In some ways they’re similar, but in other ways they’re quite different. This week I’m exploring which one is more fun, and trying to discern why that is.

Oh, and by the way, the content of the Oblong Blob may be in the process of broadening. I have a separate blog for my music-making, but I may decide to fold its content into this space. It’s all one thing: It’s what I do. Why live in a split-level home when everything could be wheelchair-accessible?

Here’s a tiny sound experiment I did this morning:

So anyway, about Reason and VCV. Reason can be used for wild-eyed sonic explorations, but its basic orientation is toward producing music that’s organized in a conventional way — with sections, transitions, intros, endings, all that sort of thing. Convincing VCV to do a piece with a conventional form is possible, but it’s rather like building a ship in a bottle, or like juggling toothpicks. VCV supplies a vast set of tools that can be patched together however you like. Some of those tools are utterly brilliant and their interactions with one another can be exciting, but controlling when there will be, for instance, a drum fill is very awkward indeed.

I love musical experiments, but at heart I’m an old-fashioned composer. I like writing pieces that have intros and endings. Oh, wait — here’s one I did last weekend. You might recognize the tune:

One of the things VCV does very well is what we call step sequencing. A step sequencer is a device that iterates through a series of steps (possibly with some variations) over and over and over. Essentially, a step sequencer creates a pattern. My VCV installation has more than 200 different step sequencers, and of course that’s both a redundant collection and an embarrassment of riches. Twenty good ones would be enough to keep a musician happy for a lifetime.

Well, Reason has pattern generators too. My Reason installation includes at least 20 of them. Each of them has a slightly or radically different set of features, and several are at least modestly visionary. Reason’s add-on devices are typically more expensive than VCV’s, and I’ve spent a fair amount of money acquiring these things, but that’s a trivial detail. The point is, I need to devote more time to learning how Reason can make patterns. Because that’s pretty much all that VCV can do, at least the way I use it. (It does have live MIDI input; you could play it onstage from a standard keyboard.) When I think of VCV as being about step sequencing and Reason as being about song construction, I may be missing an important facet of the question.

That’s really the point of today’s ramble, I suppose, if you’re looking for a point. When exploring possible alternatives for your life, have you really taken the time to work through what’s possible or likely with any of them? Or have you fallen into what one of my ’70s new age psychology books described as “premature closure”?

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More about Gawd…

Attempting to read the Old Testament as literature is, at best, not likely to produce either an enjoyable read or a satisfying critique. Trying to ignore the social dimensions of what’s going on in the stories is only one of the problems you’ll encounter. The flat impenetrability of some of the text is also an issue. I’m thinking now of the passage where Abraham meets three men who are Jehovah, and then the text goes back and forth between “men” and “the Lord” with no explanation at all of what’s going on.

But what interests me at the moment, by way of a literary/cultural analysis, is what the heck is going on with Lot’s daughters.

On the one hand, Jehovah is clearly very concerned about the idea that Sarah might be getting it on either with the Pharaoh or with Abimelech. These couplings are Abraham’s idea, not Sarah’s and not the other man’s, but Jehovah never bothers to scold Abraham for trying to pimp out his own wife. Instead, Jehovah sends plagues onto the Egyptians and makes Abimelech’s other women barren.

The message is clear: You’d better not be messin’ with another man’s wife. And the reason, culturally and in terms of anthropoid evolution, is that it’s important for a male to be secure in the knowledge of who his offspring are. Even if the man is such a coward (as Abraham quite evidently is) that he’s willing to pimp out his wife, the other men are being warned not to take him up on it.

However, when Lot offers his virgin daughters to the mob so they won’t gang-rape his male visitors, Jehovah shows no concern at all. True, shortly afterward he destroys Sodom, but the male visitors (who are angels) state explicitly that Jehovah had already decided to destroy Sodom. They have come to the city in order to do that. Thus, it’s not specifically the threat of gang-raping the young women that is the focus of Jehovah’s ire.

And then, shortly afterward, we’re told that Lot’s daughters get him drunk and lie with him in order to get pregnant, because they want to be pregnant and there are no other men around. Now, this is a flagrant fish story. It’s a transparent lie. Quite apart from anything else, if he’s too drunk to recognize his own daughters, he’s too drunk to sustain an erection. No, what’s really going on here is that Lot has been raping his daughters all along and is claiming that it was their idea, that he was too drunk to resist.

Jehovah has nothing whatever to say about this. And why? Because the daughters are unmarried. They’re their father’s property. He’s free to do with them whatever he likes.

This is not far from the passage where Jehovah commands Abraham to start the custom of circumcision. Abraham promptly gathers the men of his tribe together (and we know there are at least 300 of them) and has all their foreskins whacked off. Symbolically, Jehovah is asserting ownership of the men’s penises.

Culturally, this is an assertion that henceforth the rules of reproduction (that is, where men do or don’t get to put their dicks) will be part of the religion. Your dick is no longer your own; it belongs to Jehovah. But what you do with your women, be it Sarah or Lot’s daughters, is not seen as a religious issue. You can do whatever you like.

But that’s all sociology. From a literary standpoint, what we have here is a fictional character (Jehovah) who is obsessed with penises. If the men of Sodom want to put them in the wrong places, Jehovah is going to destroy Sodom. (No other wickedness or sinfulness in Sodom is ever alluded to. This is well before the episode of the golden idol.) If Abimelech even thinks about putting his in the wrong place, even though he never actually does it, Jehovah is going to strike his womenfolk barren.

Jehovah is a bloodthirsty psychopath. And he’s worshiped by millions. Go figure.

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Gawd…

One of the advantages of being retired is that I can spend a whole day chasing rabbits — intellectual rabbits, that is; I never leave my chair — if it pleases me. Yesterday a Facebook friend who is an ardent Christian posted a message that said, “The Bible isn’t a book about how to get into Heaven, it’s a library of poems and letters and stories about bringing Heaven to Earth now, about this world becoming more and more the place it should be. There is very, very little in the Bible about what happens when you die. That’s not what the writers were focused on. Their interest, again and again, is on how this world is arranged. Does everyone have enough? Are the power structures tilted in favor of the vulnerable? Has violence been renounced, or is it being kept in circulation?” This is apparently a quote from someone named Rob Bell. (He’s not my FB friend.)

In response, I suggested that when Jehovah commanded the Israelites to massacre a whole town and take the women and children into slavery, that was maybe not a great example of bringing Heaven to Earth.

My friend was deeply upset by my comment. “There are a number of things about the Bible and about Christianity,” he said, “that would surprise you. Your knowledge of these topics is rather shallow.” He recommended that I read a book called God: A Biography “to gain some understanding of images of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The matter is far more complex than your rehash of tired, superficial atheist critiques indicates.”

I’m not sure that’s a legitimate defense. Surely the massacre of a whole town is not something that can be nuanced, much less excused, by a deeper dive into scholarship. But what the heck. The book is only fifteen bucks for Kindle, so I bought it and read the first couple of chapters. The author, Jack Miles, is described as a former Jesuit. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for biography, which is flatly ridiculous. You can’t write a biography of someone who never existed. The title of the book is merely a rhetorical flourish. One wouldn’t have expected the Pulitzer committee to be taken in by a rhetorical flourish, but that’s what happened.

Setting that detail aside, I find that it’s a stunningly disingenuous, deceitful book. Miles sets out, he tells us, to approach the Hebrew Bible (the same books as the Christian Old Testament, but in a different order) not from a theological or historical standpoint, but as literature. That is, he proposes to analyze Jehovah as the main character in a book. (Could a book about Hamlet qualify as a biography? Never mind.)

In fact, he does nothing of the sort. Again and again, he projects his own theological understandings onto the text of Genesis. Again and again he makes statements not about the Jehovah character in the Bible but about “God,” a fictional entity whom he, Jack Miles, clearly can’t stop seeing as real.

The book is, in a nutshell, a work of Christian apologetics. Miles’s goal is evidently to help people feel more comfortable believing in the “God” of the Old Testament. He does this by acknowledging the complexities and contradictions with which this fictional character is presented, but without for a moment acknowledging either that the Bible is a dismal failure as literature or that Jehovah is a vicious psychopath whom nobody in their right mind could ever worship.

To give just one example, Miles repeatedly asserts that in the early part of Genesis Jehovah feels “regret.” This idea is not supported by anything in the text. At no point does Jehovah say, or even think, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”

In an echo of the traditional Christian view of the Trinity, Miles tries to maintain that “God” and “the Lord God” are two distinct persons, and yet they’re the same person. Consider this passage: “God and the Lord God differ strikingly in their attitude toward mankind as created in the divine image or otherwise akin to the deity.” And yet, in an earlier passage, “The Lord God is God. There are not two protagonists in this text, only one. But this one protagonist has two strikingly distinct personalities.” [Italics in original.]

What are we to make of this? Does anything in the text of the Bible support the notion that it’s a book about a deity who is suffering from multiple personality disorder? I doubt it.

“Though the deity thus seems different when he is the Lord and when he is God,” Miles tells us, “it remains true that whatever is predicated of him under either name is predicated of him under both names. He is one character with, at this point in his life, two … personalities. Just this ambiguity raises the level of emotional tension in the story of Cain and Abel.” I’m sure it’s true that authors sometimes create ambiguities in their characters in order to ramp up the emotional tension. That’s not at issue. However, the book of Genesis has no author! That is, there’s not a single author; it’s a compendium of stuff that may have been written decades or centuries apart by different people. Really, that’s why the descriptions of Jehovah don’t fit together. It’s specious to suggest that there’s some sort of literary point in having a single character who is sometimes good and sometimes a sadistic monster, sometimes a liar and sometimes a gift-giver. This is after-the-fact pleading. It’s as if an actor playing Hamlet were suddenly to burst into a Gershwin medley, after which a critic claimed that Shakespeare did it on purpose to increase our perplexity at Hamlet’s mental state.

I could say much more about this awful book. I’ve taken a lot of notes, and I’m only a tenth of the way through it. But let’s not get into tl;dr territory. I’ll conclude with my own literary analysis of the opening chapters of Genesis. And bear in mind, I’m a writer. I’m not a newcomer when it comes to literary analysis.

In Genesis we have a character (Jehovah) who is revealed in chapter 1 as extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily competent. But in chapters 2 and 3 we find that he’s a liar and a con man: He deliberately puts a tree in the Garden of Eden that he didn’t have to put there, strictly in order to tempt Adam and Eve, and he tells them if they eat the fruit of it they’ll immediately die, which is not true at all.

He then punishes them in a vindictive way for giving in to a quite natural impulse. He’s frightened that if they eat from the other tree, they’ll become gods like him, and he wants to be the big cheese!

He denies Eve her equal rights as a human being. He slights Cain for no reason that Cain could have anticipated and then kicks him out. He massacres billions of living creatures in a flood not because they have done anything to offend him but because he’s so inept he can’t manage to just deal with the evil humans and leave nature alone. He worries that he may do it again, so he puts up a rainbow to remind himself not to. He’s childishly flattered by Noah’s burnt offering.

What sort of person are we looking at here? Basically, we’re looking at a Bronze Age paterfamilias. He’s cruel, he’s arbitrary, he’s forgetful, he’s clumsy, but he responds well to gifts. The business in chapter 1, where he allegedly creates the entire universe, can easily be put down as a bit of boasting. Probably he didn’t create the universe at all, he’s just saying, “If it wasn’t for me, you’d be nothing! You’d be nobody!”

I’m entirely baffled by why people take this whiffy pile of twaddle seriously.

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What’s Your Story?

In pondering the perplexities of modern life, I’m finding it useful and perhaps even comforting to reflect that stories aren’t just things that we find in books. Everyone has their own story — the things they tell themselves about who they are.

When pondering how to act in or react to a situation — any situation at all — we consult our own internal story. The story tells us what to do, or more specifically, “What a person like me does in this type of situation.” In the absence of this half-conscious narrative, we wouldn’t know what to do or even what to think. We would be as lost as a shipwrecked sailor on a raft with no land anywhere in sight.

Strange as it may seem, it almost doesn’t matter what the story is. Any story at all will give our drifting sailor a star to steer by.

Not only that, but once we have internalized our own story (and this happens at a very early age) we will resist changing it. Change is not easy! Certainly, there are former Christians who became atheists, just as there are former atheists who became Christians. But this is less a change of story than it might appear. What happens, in such a case, is that an individual has two internal stories that don’t fit together well. Eventually, one of them forces its way forward and pushes the other out.

The supporters of Donald Trump share a common story. It’s an insane story, foisted on them and constantly reinforced by conservative propaganda, but it’s a story that gives meaning and structure to their lives. Their otherwise incomprehensible behavior makes perfect sense when seen in the context of a strong internal narrative.

A punk drug dealer has an internal story that tells him how to react in a great variety of situations. A kindly kindergarten teacher also has a story. In many situations in daily life, these two people would act very differently — but it’s not because they’re any different from one another biologically. It’s because, in the moment, each of them consults his inner story, and the story tells him how he will react to this type of situation.

Writers of fiction are advised not to rely on types of characters, except for very minor background characters — and even if you’re writing a scene with a taxi driver who will never appear in your novel other than in that one scene, relying on a type (a stereotype) can be dangerous, especially if it involves an ethnic stereotype.

We’re advised to make sure all of our important characters are three-dimensional. But even then, the parts of a three-dimensional character will all, ultimately, be types or characteristics that that character feels she possesses.

“I’m not just an accountant; I grow beautiful flowers.” There’s the start of a 3D character. The accountant story (a type) and the gardener story (a different type) may live together happily for years — or they may come into conflict with one another, forcing your character to choose which story to embrace and which to discard. But in any case, your characters will be telling themselves half-conscious stories about what sort of person they truly are. Those stories will shape their experience of the world.

My story is that I’m smart and creative. What’s yours?

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Desktop Publishing Does a Reboot

Long-time readers of this space (both of you) will be aware of my ongoing fascination with interactive fiction. This is partly because hobbyist-level computer programming is fun, partly because designing an interactive fictional world is fun, and partly because, back in the ’80s, I got hooked on the immersive excitement of text adventure games.

I’ve written and released six or seven text adventures and used three different development systems. Like the first-generation programs in the ’80s, these are parser-based games. In a parser-based game, the reader/player types commands such as “get lamp” and the game will respond in some appropriate way. It may say, “You pick up the lamp” and add the lamp object to your inventory, or it may say, “You’re carrying too many things already.”

At the time when parser games were invented, all computer users knew how to type commands at the command prompt. That was how you copied and deleted files, started programs running, and anything else. The command prompt system was already a metaphor: The computer was pretending to be a teletype machine. In a real first-generation computer, the commands would have been stored on punch cards or rolls of paper tape. Nonetheless, the teletype metaphor was universally understood by computer users.

Not so much anymore. The command line interface (CLI) still exists in your desktop or laptop computer, but 99% of computer users never encounter it, and wouldn’t want to. For today’s computer users, the CLI is about as familiar as ancient Greek. It has been entirely replaced by point-and-click user interfaces. Also by tap-and-swipe, but for convenience we can consider those actions a subset of point-and-click.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that the design systems for writing parser-based text games are looking pretty old-fashioned. There’s not a lot of fresh development work going on: Inform 7 (the most popular system) hasn’t been updated in five years. Beyond that, the presentation layer — the manner in which an Inform or TADS game presents itself to the user — is not pretty. There are tools with which you can spiff it up a bit, and I won’t say it’s as bad as putting lipstick on a pig, but you can only do so much.

And then there’s Twine. I’ve looked at Twine a few times in years past, and backed away from it. The root of my discomfort is that I like having the world model that a parser-based game deploys. Also, there’s the mystery factor. In a decent parser game, you don’t know quite what commands will have an effect. You have to think. In a point-and-click game, either a command is visible as a highlighted link, or it doesn’t exist at all. There’s no mystery.

In spite of which, I’m now seeing Twine as the wave of the future. Not just because more than half of the entries in this year’s competition are Twine games or written in some similar system but because Twine is in active development — and just as important, because it gives authors ways to make their stories look good.

Writing a story in Twine, a story with branching links (what we call a choose-your-own-adventure or CYOA story), is dead easy. Digging deeper into Twine so as to design puzzles or take advantage of special effects — that’s not easy at all. But what the heck. Hobbyist-level computer programming is fun.

Twine is based directly on JavaScript, and that’s both the good news and the bad news. Your Twine story will run natively in pretty much any web browser, and you can do anything in your story that any web page can do — pop-up tool tips, embedded animations and audio, you name it. Your story can look as spiffy as the most glamorous web page, and your readers will be able to interact with it exactly as they already understand how to do.

If you want the good stuff, though, you’ll have to learn a little, or more than a little, about JavaScript and CSS.

The thing about desktop publishing — sorry to take so long to get around to the point of this little homily — is that Twine offers a viable alternative for indie authors. Some advantages, some disadvantages, it’s a mixed bag. But you might want to consider it.

Let’s call our typical indie author Jane Auteur. Jane writes a novel, or perhaps a shorter work, and then wonders what to do with it. There are dozens or hundreds of web-based services that will help Jane get her novel formatted and up on Amazon as a real e-book and paperback. Jane will, however, have to pay handsomely for these services. Instead, she can roll up her sleeves and do the file formatting herself. That will save money, but there are various technological hoops to jump through.

At the end of the day, Jane will have a book that she’ll have to promote. It will be accessible to people who have an e-reader, or who are willing to wait for the paperback to arrive. She may make a few bucks on sales. Okay, that’s one option.

Instead, she could download Twine (which is free), jump through a few different technological hoops (if she chooses), and end up with an html file that anybody in the world can read in their web browser. One downside is that there’s no easy way to make money selling html files. Also, she’ll still need a way to host the html on a web server somewhere. On the plus side, it’s enormously easier to make a web page look good, with color and graphics and maybe some background audio of gentle rainfall, than to make an e-book look good. And a print book with an animated purple background? Don’t even think about it.

Publishing to browser may be the wave of the future. E-readers like the Kindle feel a bit like a Sony Walkman to me — thrilling technology that will obsolete itself before too very long.

At the moment, good tutorial information on how to use Twine is a bit scattered and very incomplete. But that may change. The tutorials on JavaScript are very good. Twine’s development environment is sort of maybe okay, I guess. It’s not really good, but it’s simple and easy to use.

The issue that I’m still puzzling over is how to write branching or point-and-click stories in a way that produces a convincing narrative. But that’s a topic for another time.

Footnote 1: After poking around for a while, I managed to find a couple of decent Twine tutorials and a cookbook (not the official Twine cookbook) with some spiffy code. I’m now able to do text and background colors, add a bottom border with some text, and a few other things. Most of it is to do with CSS (the story stylesheet). It will take a little longer to get a handle on things that will behave a certain way when you click on them. The IF Forum is a great place to post Twine questions, by the way. A couple of power users were very helpful today.

Footnote 2: If you write your fiction directly in the Twine text editor, you’ll get straight-up quotes and apostrophes, not curly ones. This is ugly. What’s worse, if you should import a story from a real word processor (which will probably have automatically converted to curly quotes), when you add new text directly in Twine you’ll end up with a mishmash of straight and curly quotes. This is a nasty problem, and I don’t have a quick fix.

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Don’t Splash on Me

I’ve never properly learned a foreign language. Okay, I had three years of Latin in high school (from a not very adequate teacher, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention) and a couple of quarters of German at UC Berkeley, but English has always been enough for me.

A year or so ago, at the tender age of 70, I decided I’d like to learn French. I had been hankering for a language learning experience prior to that, and had rejected Hindi and Thai as too challenging. French seemed (and seems) about right. The vocabulary is dead easy. The irregular verbs and the pronunciation, not so easy.

So far I’ve been using DuoLingo. It’s free, and it’s well structured. I can see I’m making progress. But the DuoLingo system has started to annoy me. There’s a lot of repetition and very little in the way of explanation. I’m a top-down learner: Having concepts explained to me clearly is my preferred way to learn.

Also, DuoLingo tends to assume you’re going to travel to France. The examples lean heavily toward phrases you’ll use in hotels, shops, and train stations. But that’s a side issue.

In looking around for an alternative to DuoLingo, I’m finding a great many online opportunities to learn French. Unfortunately, a regrettable number of them teach by immersion. “We’ll just drop you into the great big tub of French, and you’ll learn naturally! That’s the way you learned language when you were a kid! It’s easy and fun!”

Well, no. It’s neither easy nor fun, not if you’re a top-down learner. On the contrary: It’s infuriating.

I’m hoping to find a structured learning curriculum. “This week we’ll teach you negative constructions.” “This week we’ll cover the most important irregular verbs.” “This week: Twenty common idiomatic phrases.” “This week: How to ask questions.”

I don’t insist on a free course. I’d be happy to pay for a course, if it were structured along those lines. Haven’t found one yet.

I’ve bought a few books, but most of them are immersion-based too. Here’s one: Ten bilingual Fairy Tales in English and French. It’s a nice little book — alternating paragraphs side by side, so you can see what the French sentences mean. There is, however, no explanation of anything. In the introduction the book suggests, “Don’t try to understand everything the first time around.” So, just bathe in it. That’s the explicit methodology the book advocates.

In years past, I’ve learned to do stuff in a couple of different computer programming languages. I have yet to encounter a book on programming that says, “Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything in the code. Just read through the code and try to get a general sense of what’s going on.” That is not how computer programming languages are taught.

Admittedly, French (or any human-spoken language) is a lot more complicated and fuzzy than a programming language. But that’s not a reason to just toss students into the deep end of the pool. That’s a reason to provide more detailed explanations.

Glub.

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Aromaa

This week I’m thinking about the design of board games. I’m not an expert! But I love these games, and it’s an interesting topic to ponder.

A few years back, an enterprising fellow named Omar Syed designed and released a game called Arimaa. The game was designed to be playable using an ordinary chess set, and his goal was to make a game that would be difficult for computers but easy and fun for human players. Arimaa has enjoyed some success — it has a web page and all. But in the end, I don’t feel it’s a very good game. It may be useful to consider how it falls short.

First, it’s not colorful. In fact, the official Arimaa set (designed and sold by Z-Man Games) is less colorful than it could easily be. The two sets of pieces, officially called gold and silver, are not very dissimilar optically. And because Arimaa is not in the public domain, nobody else can produce a nicer set. You’re better off playing this game with your favorite chess set, though you’ll probably want to lay down poker chips or something on the four Trap squares.

The lack of color isn’t just physical. All of the Arimaa pieces move identically, one square orthogonally in any direction (except for the rabbits, which can’t back up). The pieces are distinguished from one another only in that they’re arranged in a conceptual hierarchy: each player has, in order from most to least powerful, an elephant, a camel, two horses, two dogs, two cats, and eight rabbits. A piece can do things to a weaker enemy piece, but it can’t do anything to a stronger enemy piece. The Z-Man camels and horses look quite a lot alike, as do the dogs and cats. Both optically and conceptually, the array of pieces is meh. And of course the 8×8 chessboard is not known for its evocative geometry.

The best of the modern board games have rising action. At the start of the game you can do only a few things, but as the game goes on you have more dramatic options; the pace of play speeds up, and the events tend to become more exciting. Chess is rather the opposite: as the game progresses, you lose pieces, so your options narrow. But in either case, the game-play has a definite shape. Capturing pieces in Arimaa is difficult, so the opposing armies tend to mingle with one another in a chaotic way. The end can come unexpectedly, or the game can drag on. Once you’ve got past the first few moves, the game has no clear shape.

The other factor that I feel hurts Arimaa is that in a given turn, a player has too many choices. After playing a number of the newer games, it seems to me that ideally a player should have from four to six meaningful possibilities to think about in a given turn. Fewer choices than four, and the game becomes a bit trivial. More than six and it risks becoming a bewildering conceptual tangle.

In each single turn in Arimaa, a player makes four simple orthogonal moves. You can move one piece four times, two pieces twice each, and so on. You can also push or pull your opponent’s pieces, and a push or pull uses one of your four moves. The multi-move turn is a vital part of the game’s mechanic, and it opens up some very interesting tactics! But let’s say you have 12 or 15 pieces on the board, most of which can move. (Some will likely be temporarily frozen.) If each of your 10 active pieces has two possible moves, the other two squares to which it could move being blocked, the number of possible turns you can take is on the order of 20 to the 4th power. That’s roughly 160,000 possible combinations to consider — on each turn.

Compare that to chess. At a guess (I haven’t worked it out), a chess player has, at most, 50 to 75 possible moves to consider on any given turn, and many of those will be obviously useless or dangerous, so it’s relatively easy to spot the six or eight that need to be thought through. The Arimaa board, in contrast, is likely to be in a rather chaotic state, so there’s no clear way to see which combinations of moves are most likely to be advantageous.

In chess, there’s one goal — the opponent’s king. In Arimaa, you have to defend against six or eight enemy rabbits at the same time, and any of your rabbits might be the key to winning. So again, the structure of the game is chaotic rather than clear.

In some ways it’s a brilliant game — but I don’t feel it’s actually a very good game. There are too many possible actions per turn, there’s too little color, and it lacks a clear dramatic structure.

There are other factors to weigh in game design. Is there a theme, such as acquiring real estate or solving a murder mystery? Is the theme truly integral to the game’s mechanic, or is it just pasted on to add color? How much randomness is there due to the use of cards or dice? Is outside knowledge, such as the vocabulary you’ll need to succeed at Scrabble, a requirement? Can you reliably see the result — at least, the immediate result — of an action before you take the action, or does the game involve taking a risk and pushing your luck? Do the players have perfect information about one another’s resources, as in chess, or is some information hidden, as in card games? Do the players compete directly against one another, perhaps grabbing coveted objects such as the tricks in a game of bridge, or does each player simply build his or her own engine to add to the point count? And of course, is the art work good?

I’m not an expert, but yeah, I’m working on designing a new game. There’s a lot to think about!

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Halma, Tell Us!

The game of Halma was invented in the 1880s. By today’s gaming standards it’s very old-school. The board is too large, and play with four players is bound to be rather tedious. You can read about it on wikipedia. It was later adapted to a hexagonal board and marketed in the U.S. as “Chinese checkers,” though it has nothing to do with China and very little to do with checkers.

(Sorry about the blog title. It’s a reference to a song by Tom Lehrer about Alma Mahler, and I can’t get it out of my head!)

The idea in Halma is to get all of your pieces across the board into the locations where your opponent’s pieces started. The first person who does this is the winner. There’s no capturing. Pieces can either slide or leap over one another.

Playing a variant of Halma on a chess board with chess pieces is very feasible. I’m not the first person to suggest this; there’s a variant called Chelma on the Chess Variants website, but I don’t think much of it. I’d like to propose my own version. I haven’t given it a name, but if you want to call it Lehrma, you may.

Instead of setting up the board with the sides facing the players, turn it 45 degrees so that the corners point to the players. Here’s my first suggestion for how to set up the pieces:

Pieces can either move (by sliding) or hop over other pieces. The bishops and rook make non-hopping moves exactly as in chess. (You’ll notice that all of the bishops, both yours and your opponent’s, are on black squares.) The pawns can make a non-hopping move by sliding one square orthogonally in any direction. It may be important to note that “orthogonally” means with respect to the squares on the board, not with respect to where the players are sitting.

In a hopping move, a piece can leap over any other adjacent piece and land on a vacant square on the far side. Hops must also be orthogonal. You can continue hopping, making multiple hops in a single turn, as in checkers. However, hopping moves are optional (unlike in checkers). You can hop over either your own or the opponent’s pieces in any combination, and change directions while hopping. You can only hop over one piece at a time, not over two pieces that are adjacent to one another.

Allowing diagonal hops, and allowing the pawns to make diagonal sliding moves, is a feasible alternative. I kind of like the orthogonal-only rule, though. Only the bishops’ sliding moves can be diagonal.

To win, it’s not enough to get your pieces into the opponent’s opening area. They must conform to the initial setup, with the rook in the corner and the bishops adjacent to it.

A problem in Halma-type games is that your opponent can force a drawn game by failing to move one of his or her pieces out of the opening array. One way to handle this is to require that each player vacate the opening area by move 30, but I don’t care for this, because it forces the players to count the moves. Instead, I suggest that if your opponent’s piece is still in its opening area, your piece can move onto its square and thereby swap places with the offending piece, it being moved to the square that your piece has just vacated. A swapping move cannot be made by hopping, and you can’t swap places with your own pieces, nor with an opposing piece that has left its opening area.

The limitation with respect to swapping is that the bishops have to remain on dark squares. As a result, pawns can’t swap with the opponent’s bishops. A rook can swap squares with the opponent’s bishop only if the rook is starting its move from a dark square.

Here’s a slightly more complex setup, if you’re up for a challenge. The rules are the same:

Here again, only the bishops and rooks that start on bishop-friendly squares (in this case, the light squares) can swap with enemy bishops that haven’t left their opening area. A knight’s non-hopping move always changes from light squares to dark or vice versa, so a knight can’t swap with a bishop. Knights, bishops, and rooks all make hopping moves exactly the way the pawns do.

The key to winning a Halma-type game is to make as many multiple hops as you can. Sliding moves by the pawns are not efficient. I’m pretty sure this game is playable; I hope I’ll have a chance next year to try it out!

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