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Essays

It’s easy to stop seeing things. Playing Super Hexagon, it’s easy to get lulled into believing you know what the pattern is even when you haven’t been looking closely, to dodge what you believed the obstacle was only to run smack into what the obstacle actually is. Drawing from life, as well, it’s easy to begin drawing the things you don’t actually see, the fingers that aren’t visible and the shape that you know a nose to be rather than the shape needed to convey the image of a nose at that angle. Over and over this pattern repeats – the pattern that there is no pattern so consistent that following it is an adequate replacement for paying some goddamn attention.

It’s impossible, though, to always be vigilant. Sooner or later, everyone slips up. It turns out something that we never noticed was a huge problem waiting to manifest, and the fire catches. We were not made to be panopticons, but to be a series of watchtowers, each covering one another. To make modern life manageable, we’ve designated some people to be attention-payers so that we don’t have to be constantly vigilant: Reporters, emergency workers, various supervisors and surveyors, researchers and teachers.

It’s not a coincidence that these are the people who are being most actively sabotaged or corrupted by the reigning government right now. The obvious effect of controlling the groups who manage this flow of information is that it makes it more possible to misinform and propagandize. The less obvious effect is that the veracity of this information is now poisoned. If we accept this information is compromised, then the burden of vigilance, without benefit of expertise and experience, falls back on our shoulders. Those in power have a vested stake in making us too tired to be vigilant. In making sure we can’t trust the news, or the schools, or the research.

After a certain point, vigilance metastasizes into hypervigilance. After a certain point being woke turns into sleep deprivation. Vigilance and action both take energy, and it’s so difficult to manage both, especially when there’s so much to see and so much to act against both at the same time.

The worst part is that, now that we’re paying attention, it means knocking away even more of that support structure. Now that we look, those who we thought we could trust turn out to no longer be trustworthy, and must be replaced – and there, again, the load of vigilance increases. People we knew we couldn’t trust are fired and replaced, and we must again be vigilant to be sure this replacement is suitable.

Is the idea of every person voting realistic when the burden of being informed about the issues and those who represent them becomes this heavy? We are in a situation where we demand people make important decisions without equipping them with any tools to make those decisions well. They turn to ask whoever they think they can trust most, and in turn that person asks whoever they think they can trust most, and eventually they probably reach someone who isn’t trustworthy. Because the demands of awareness are unappeasable, democracy becomes a merit-test for the most convincing and efficacious liar. Because there isn’t enough time and energy to survive and to do the research needed to be informed, we’re all operating on partial information, fake information – so the one who can sow the most doubt wins.

We have few ways of dodging this burden too heavy to bear. Everyone puts their trust in someone, and many of us put it in the wrong someone, or in someone who puts it in the wrong someone. Once you make that decision, it’s really hard to change. No matter how terrible that decision was, it’s hard to go back on it because it means accepting, first, that the person you thought you could trust you cannot – and, second, that the burden of eternal vigilance now, again, rests on your shoulders.

So we make excuses. It was probably a lie, it probably wasn’t that big a deal, it’s probably not what it looks like. What we are seeing now is a really terrifying glitch in democracy: The more horrendous the worldview of a political organization, the heavier the burden that falls on those who had heretofore followed that organization. In order to break with the organization, they need to not only accept that they’d propped up people who had done great evil, but to believe that they could be vigilant enough to keep from doing so again in the future.

Faced with this terror, most will just vote along party lines.

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This is the last of a month of daily Problem Machine blog posts. It’s been a tiring month. I’m looking forward to never writing another word for the rest of my life, or at least a few days. I guess this is the time to reflect back over what I’ve learned.

  1. Ideas are not rare

I worry sometimes that I’ve already thought of every topic that I’m going to think of, that the barrel is dry and I’m just scraping out splinters. I don’t consider that a reasonable worry but also I don’t consider it an escapable one. What’s been driven home over the last month is that not coming up with any ideas has more to do with where I’m at on that day – that when I can’t think of anything it’s not a permanent affliction, but just one day where my brain is interested in doing different things that aren’t coming up with ideas for something to write.

Unfortunately, when I’ve committed myself to doing daily essays I can’t really allow my mind the extra time it wants to come up with something, so I end up having to push myself to write after several hours of thinking and false starts. This is the most exhausting part: The actual writing is usually (not always) fairly effortless, comparatively.

  1. Ideas do, nevertheless, become scarcer

The first 10 days or so were fairly forthcoming and exhilarating, though it still took a certain amount of pushing to get myself to come up with concepts, and a while to build up momentum. The next 10 days were probably the easiest, where I had my habits built up and still had a creative reservoir, but I started feeling the strain.

The last 10 started really taking a toll. It might also be the weather changing for Winter I suppose, but I’ve been very tired. Nearly every post now takes a few hours of sitting and thinking and reworking before I can turn it into anything, and this isn’t leaving me a ton of time and energy for other work. Fortunately, for today’s post I had the incredibly convenient pre-made topic of this being the last daily post to write about!

  1. Super Hexagon is a good video game

I’ve written in the past about how I like to use Super Hexagon as a creative tool, almost a form of meditation, since it requires such acute spatial concentration it really leaves the verbal/abstract parts of my brain free to think about this and that. Thus for the last month, as I try to write every day, I have been playing approximately one shitload of Super Hexagon – enough to actually get good at the game again and beat most of the best times on my friends list.

It’s a relief, when I’m drilling myself on the abstract ideals of improvement at art and what that means in this world, at the unsolvable dilemmas of game design and how to do better, to spend time in bits and pieces in something that I can definitely and quantifiably improve at. Many games promise this idea of visible improvement, but few single-player games in particular can satisfyingly offer it – frequently offering upgrades to equipment and characters instead of instilling a direct change in the player’s skill. The aspirational goal being measured in mere seconds is pleasing in both its straightforwardness its limitedness: Even an amazing time, for me, would be at most a few minutes, which is something I can definitely fit in my schedule. Even though I described the last month as having contained one shitload of Super Hexagon, in fact I think I’ve spent less than 10 hours actually playing it over the last 30 days – it just feels so dense and active that it felt like many more.

What’s next? I think I’m going to be going back to weekly posts for the immediate future, though I’ll probably be skipping this Saturday for obvious reasons and will probably be a bit spotty through December for other obvious reasons. At one point I was considering going twice-weekly and starting a Patreon to support my writing, but though the readership seems to have increased a bit – around 30 views a day, which is encouraging but not astounding – I don’t think I have much of a readership base sufficient to really offer significant support. Feel free to pipe up in the comments if you feel differently.

That said, I do generally feel more confident in both the quality and consistency of my writing ability now, so I’ll probably be working on collating a bunch of past Problem Machine posts into some sort of structure and begin the process of converting that into a book. At a rough estimate, I think I probably have about 5 years of weekly 500 word blog posts, and between overlap and unsuitability I figure I’ll probably be able to use maybe half of these, so this book will start with around 60,000-70,000 words, which I can then revise and add supplementary material to to round it to probably around 100,000-150,000 – pretty substantial. We’ll see when I get there, but I think it could be something I can be really proud of when it’s done, and encompass a lot of the philosophy I’ve put into this blog.

Part of the reason, as well, that I think I’d like to put a book together is pursuant to one of the ideas I’ve been talking about recently: The idea that to be a good artist is to be a good promoter of your art. It’s not an approach that comes easily to me, but I think as a naturally cautious person I have a much easier time promoting the idea that this thing I have made is good than the idea that this thing I will make will be good – I am generally very chary of making promises about what will happen in the future. Having one discrete thing that I can promote as my work sounds very appealing. If people then take that work as evidence that I can produce work of similar quality in the future, that’s on them – even if I, too, hope and believe that they are correct in that presumption.

I will probably also do another month of daily work in the near future, even if this one made me want to die a little bit. December’s no good, and I will need to stabilize my money situation a bit – this writing-binge was enabled by a small windfall I received a few months ago, which I’ve tried to be careful with but which half of has already eroded. Probably next up will be a daily music project: I’ll post the results here probably in weekly digests. This is all up in the air, but I thought y’all might be interested in hearing where I’m going with this.

So, to close out this month, here’s some of my other stuff you can check out:

As I just mentioned, I write music. Here’s where most of it is:

http://problemmachine.bandcamp.com

I also stream on Twitch! My current schedule is Tuesday, Thursday, Friday at 8pm Pacific time, Sunday at 6pm Pacific time:

http://www.twitch.tv/problemmachine/

I’m also working on a game! I’ve been having to dial back my efforts on this recently due to increased focus on the blog, but I post about my progress on that project here as well.

https://problemmachine.wordpress.com/category/devblog/

Thanks for checking out my work. Every view and every like means a lot to me, since it’s so easy to feel isolated and powerless in the world today. I hope I’ve brightened your day or broadened your perspective a bit, as well, through the work I’ve put in over the last month, and the last five years.

It’s a tough banana to split, knowing how much better you could be while trying to convince yourself you’re good enough. The more one improves the more capable one becomes of seeing room for improvement. Now, the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that at the highest level of skill one becomes able to confidently assess one’s ability as being extremely high. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone at this level of skill. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect ever reaching that point, at least not in the near future. The experience of art that I have now is probably close to the experience that I can expect for the next decade: Being better than many, but also just good enough to see how much worse I am than I could be.

The good news is that this is one of the exact traits – along with enthusiasm, patience, and, I dunno, talent if that’s a real thing – that I will need to improve. The bad news is that it’s real fucking annoying.

Skill isn’t everything. I mean, when it comes to art it’s hard to even quantify what skill means. The idea that being a skilled painter equated to perfect photo-realism went out of style when cameras came in and did that job better. Who the hell even knows what being a good writer means? We just know it when we read it. Except we usually don’t, considering the career of Dan Brown, who I’ve never read but also I don’t want to because I’ve heard he sucks and I believe it. We have the production of near-identical ‘good’ movies down to such a science that people hunger for less competently made films in the hope that they at least provide something new and interesting. Good art and bad art are mostly just signifiers of what we value, nothing intrinsic to the work. Skill is the ability to produce the thing that’s closest to what you think of as good art.

It’s a real pain in the ass if what you think of as good doesn’t line up with what other people think of as good. When that happens, the better you get, the less you rely on cliche, the further away you drift from what people want. Poor Van Gogh, making the best paintings he could in a style only he could achieve, and no one wanted them. Only later did the definition of good art shift enough to make room for his work.

That’s the third rail in this banana split: Even if one were to somehow achieve perfection, to perfectly realize the dream art floating in your brain, to really pour yourself onto paper or canvas or celluloid, whether that’s ‘good’ or not depends more on the world than it does on you. Which is why most of the job, the actual work of being an artist, if you want an audience, if you want money, is to convince people that whatever it is you’re doing is ‘good’ – to bring their idea of good art into alignment with your own by any means available.

It’s bad news for those of us who have just been locking ourselves away and practicing. We got to the late game and realized we leveled up the wrong skills. Of course, if food and medicine and shelter weren’t issues, we could roll with it, hope that maybe someday the world’s tastes would coincidentally come along and align with our own, just like they did too late for Van Gogh. Unfortunately, we don’t have that sort of leeway.

Maybe not by nature, but by necessity, making art is a sales position.

There’s a proverb, “genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains.” The main thing that determines our capacity to do well at a task is how much we work at that task; the main things that determine how much we work at a task are our interest in the work and our freedom to pursue it. If, as a society, we want to see a lot of great art made – as well as, incidentally, a lot of great everything else – the path to making that happen lies in creating environments which foster a deep and powerful interest in pursuing the act of creation – and which allow the freedom to pursue that creation.

This is not the environment we live in. Most of the education we provide is shaped to develop a keen interest in the rewards work can bring rather than an interest in the work itself. People who show an interest in work for its own sake are usually branded nerds or dweebs of one variety or another. Moreover, we seldom have the resources to wholly pursue our interests, being forced away from them by the pressures of financial solvency or other obligations to society. This is why most successful artists come from wealth: It’s not that wealth enables them to train more effectively at art, it’s that wealth enables them to focus entirely on art in a way not available to others.

Both of these are problems that need fixing. The latter, of how to provide everyone with the freedom to pursue their own interests, is at this point a matter of fierce debate – though not generally couched in those terms. We talk about this kind of freedom in terms of health care, in terms of food and shelter security, in terms of basic income: These are the tools that might grant freedom to people by shielding them from the elements long enough for them to do work they actually care about.

The former is a bit trickier. How do you make people care? Why is it it we think it’s uncool to care? Is it even ethical to lead people to care in a world where precarity makes taking an interest in more abstract subjects potentially dangerous?

There’s something vital at stake here. If we stop creating, we are done. We are in a desert, and though we are starving and dying of thirst, it is the worst time to stand in place. We have to keep moving – and, to move, we have to want to move. We must create, so we must find our passion for creation.

Or maybe that’s just self-serving. Maybe I just want us to keep creating because that’s what I care about, and this passion is a path to our self-destruction. The point remains, though, that interest, or passion, is a limited and vital resource, and that we so often just let it drain out through our fingers without even noticing it’s there. When you pay attention, there are no refunds.

Way back when I started this blog, one of the first essays I did was about conceiving of a game as the combination of three related spaces – physical, mechanical, and narrative – and gameplay as the act of allowing the player to explore these spaces. I think this perspective is still useful, though sorely in need of revision now, five years later (I’ll likely return to it at some point in the future). However, whenever I think about how different games emphasize one or the other of these attributes, whenever I try to draw a hard line between where one space begins or ends, I run into a bit of difficulty making that division. The mechanical and narrative spaces are fairly easy to delineate – one is the actions you can take in an environment and how that environment reacts to those actions, the other is the story that is told about those actions and the context in which they take place. However, the physical space, which one would expect to be the most intuitive of the three, is a bit more difficult to delineate – and I think it has to do with how we create physical space in games.

The problem I keep running into is that the physical space of the games is actually created by means of mechanical and narrative elements. The mechanical aspect of the space is your ability to move around on some parts of it and to have your movement blocked by others, and the narrative aspect is the colors and textures and what they suggest about the world you’re in. Together they create something that feels like a chunk of physical world to explore, but there’s nothing actually physical there. A sense of physical space is created, but it is not separable from the mechanical and narrative elements that contribute to it – not in the same way that the mechanical and narrative elements are separable from each other.

It may be extremely obvious that the physical reality of the game world doesn’t exist, but it’s suggestive that we create the illusion of a physical reality through recreating the parts of reality which interest us most as humans. That is, when we encounter an object, our concerns are a) what can I do with this? And b) what does it mean that this is here? This, of course, has very little to do with the actual material world, where objects are made of many different bits and pieces, covered with bits and pieces of everything else, subjected to forces we have an incomplete understanding of. What’s noteworthy is not that we are simulating a reality, but that we are simulating outwards in, out from the superficial aspects we find ourselves most interested in, down into the more fundamental aspects such as mass and warmth only as we find those necessary to power the superficial simulation.

Tangentially, I am now quite certain that if we had any way to simulate texture and taste in games we would have done so long ago, as these are also superficial aspects of great interest to human perception.

It’s fascinating that we so many of us consider what we’re doing to be realistic. What we do with games is render exclusively that which can be seen: every 3d object is an empty shell, every character who is modeled is simply their exterior with nothing inside, and interior parts only created as they become necessary to render when they are ripped apart from the exterior (a common scenario in games). We see what a human, or a house, or a rock, looks like, and reproduce what we see, when that is inherently only the most superficial possible version of that thing.

Something from physical reality is translated into signals for our brain, is stored as a symbol representing that object; then our brain conducts our body to create an object that can reproduce those signals in another brain. That is what we call art – or, at least, representational art.

So, with games, we started from the simplest version of the most superficial reality, and from there we’ve managed to make more detailed and convincing forms of that representation. Perhaps we could simulate a reality based more on what we know to be there than what we see to be there? Even a primitive simulation of a more complete reality could lead to new and interesting artistic pursuits. Or, perhaps, since we are unmoored from the physical basis of reality, we could create a simulated world far wilder and stranger than we can while paying lip service to material reality.

Mostly, though, I just find it amusing how much we like to act like we’ve come anywhere near a reality simulation when our approach is in essence purely superficial. How very human of us.

There’s an idea I have a hard time getting myself away from: The idea that it is necessary to create. The idea that it is necessary to add value, to contribute, to build up. That is, the idea that our purpose is our contribution, the things we make for society. And this is such an overwhelmingly entrenched maxim in my mind that looking at it in print I already feel like it makes me look bad to even be questioning this idea, but I feel like if we actually spend a bit of time to dissect it it starts to look pretty fucked up.

Let’s just say outright: Contributing is good! Doing things which make more people’s lives better is good, doing things which advance human knowledge is good, doing things which broaden our understanding is good! These are all great! That does not, however, make them, on a person by person basis, necessary. Your humanity does not rest on your ability to contribute. It doesn’t even rest on your ability to not do harm. These are good things to try to do: But they don’t make you you. No one thing makes you yourself except for your actual presence in the world.

The part that struck me most forcibly just now is the phrase “the value of human life.” Is this actually an okay way to think about human life? As something that can be valued? Is this how deeply the idea of competitive economics has drilled itself into us? The word ‘priceless’ was made to describe the idea of something being not measurable in terms of value, of having a deep significance, of being irreplaceable, but nowadays we just use it to mean extremely expensive. It feels, too, that when we speak of human life having value that is what we are saying, that our bodies and minds have value, that we might be expensive but we can still be bought and sold.

Fuck every life being precious, every life is more than that – it’s life.

It gets hard to live it when that life is spent trying to calculate how to maximize its own value.

This valuation of human life maybe made sense at one point, when we had enough food to keep half the village alive through winter and we had to make some hard choices about who got fed, who would be able to best keep the village going after winter ended. We have enough now to feed everyone. The problem isn’t that it’s too hard or too expensive to keep people alive, it’s just too unpopular. The only reason why we continue to evaluate ourselves this way is because it’s advantageous to those who would extract that value. It’s better for those on top if those below spend the rest of the time fretting how to make themselves ‘better’, how to produce more for less, how to be a bargain.

I’m tired of trying to be better. I still want to be, desperately, but I’m tired. Tomorrow I’ll probably continue to practice, to create, to expand: Like it or not, this is who I am now. But I still need to remember that it’s not all of who I am: I am also me.

I’m thinking about how I think; I’m processing my process. For whatever reason I seem to be a weirdo who ends up thinking about things a bit too much – most of the time this is super inconvenient because it makes it difficult to communicate with people who aren’t me and aren’t related to me. Sometimes also it lets me make interesting things, perhaps finding an novel angle or perspective someone else might not find. Or maybe I have the cause and effect in reverse here: it could be that the act of creating interesting things has tweaked my brain away from the standards of human discourse and into weird and specialized pathways. Likely some combination of both.

Perhaps these approaches will be interesting to you. Perhaps not. I’m trying to spend a little bit more time understanding how other people approach problems and creative tasks, so perhaps you may be interested in learning my approach as well.

What do I do? I ask a lot of questions. From any one fact, you can start pulling at threads, start prodding at what has to be true as prerequisite to this being true and what must be true as consequence of this truth. From any one fact you can then unearth a network of facts, from any one question a cluster of further questions. This is helpful for the direct problem-solving stuff, figuring out what logistically needs to be lined up in order to make something work, but it’s also useful for philosophical exploration.

Really what I’m talking about is applying programming logic to situations more complex and nuanced than a program. I’m used to programming, so I always try to find the most general case. If there’s something that is common knowledge in one field, maybe it has more general applications – helpful metaphors are often born this way, such as when we take our knowledge of the way rot spreads through produce and helpfully inform people that one bad apple spoils the bunch. Unfortunately then people use the helpful phrase “one bad apple” to say oh it’s just one bad apple so it’s not a big problem, which is the exact opposite of the intended meaning of the phrase. It may be that we don’t have much call to skin cats any more, but there’s probably still more than one way to do that if we really want to, and probably more than one way to do most other things as well. Metaphorical aphorisms are usually just using a specific description of the best practice within a field that to describe a more general case. In, um, exactly the way that I just did by beginning this paragraph with an analogy to programming.

Of course, these metaphors are often bullshit. That is, what’s good for the goose may not actually, in practice, be good for the gander. So somewhere in this spectrum, from the specific application of an idea out to the most general application of the idea, there’s usually a point where it stops actually being useful and becomes extremely bad advice. Somewhere there’s a discontinuity. These breakdowns are also an interesting point to start exploring from, to trace out from the specific case to the general until we find where it breaks down, to then describe the consequences of using this concept, that has been accepted as generally good advice from a specific application, outside of the scope of its utility.

Sometimes something just feels wrong, or disproportionately satisfying, in ways that aren’t readily described, and these are interesting places to begin to explore as well. Why does this feel different than I’d expect it to? What does it say about the thing that it instigates these emotions? What does it say about me thant these emotions are instigated? Or, inversely, if others seem to be reacting unusually strongly to something, what does that signify? What sort of unfed hungers are indicated when something becomes explosively popular, what kind of unspoken rage when something becomes a locus of incandescent fury?

The through-line here is that we probe using emotion and intuition and then dig deeper using logic. Neither of these tools are honestly especially useful on their own – and most people who think they’re being purely logical are actually being guided and biased by emotions they fail to acknowledge, people who sell themselves as in tune with pure emotional truth are guided by logic that they pretend isn’t logic by avoiding giving it any concrete description. Everyone is guided by emotions and by logic, and the only way to navigate with any goddamn clarity is to acknowledge the presence of both and harness them, rather than to try to reject one or the other. The above approaches are really just frameworks for attempting that – likely your own personal creative and analytical approaches are as well.