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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.

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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 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.

My energy ebbs and flows. I have good days, bad days, and runs of each which last weeks and sometimes months. Every time I have a few good days or a few bad days in a row I feel like I’ve figured a bit more out about how I work, how to optimize and improve, and perhaps gradually approach a better version of my life by trial and error. I’ve also been thinking about studies with giving animals rewards on a random schedule, and the weird random irrational behaviors they began to exhibit as they tried to determine how the reward was ‘earned’. How much of self-improvement boils down to superstition, to trying to behave the way you did that one time you felt good instead of the way you did that time you felt crappy? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between wearing a lucky t-shirt and getting 8 hours of sleep. They’re both supposed to help, and proponents have a way of writing it off when they don’t.

Okay, yeah, I suppose this is what science is for, analyzing empirical evidence while accounting for secondary factors, but that’s really only helpful for analyzing trends across a population. When it comes to what works for me, what makes me feel better or worse, what makes me more or less productive and satisfied, I have a sample size of one with an unknown time delay between input and output. There’s a lot of noise in my signal, and it takes a lot of samples before I can be satisfied that I feel shitty and tired because of something I ate, something I did, something I failed to do – any and all of that may be just background noise on top of a signal which may just indicate that maybe I just feel bad sometimes.

Trying to debug a system that you live in is difficult. It’s difficult when it’s your body and it’s difficult when it’s your culture. Everything you change changes you, and everything that changes you changes your capacity to observe the system. It’s easy to get discouraged. The only advantage we have is the depth and quality of information we receive: We don’t have to wait for something to break, we can just tell when something feels wrong. In some ways that really sucks, because it means we spend a lot of the time feeling something is wrong without knowing what. Sometimes we’re afraid it’s nothing – sometimes it is nothing. Usually, though, if we feel there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong.

Many people prioritize the logical over the emotional, deriding those who would say that something just ‘feels’ wrong. A lot feels wrong at this point – another thing making the systems we live in difficult to analyze. But telling people to ignore these feelings is as shortsighted as telling them to ignore any other pain – pain is an indication that something is cut or broken, and even if we sometimes experience it for no good reason there’s never a good reason to ignore it.

Just because there is noise does not mean there is no signal.

I thought of a piece to write but I realized I didn’t have much to say about it. I was going to discuss the texture of canvas and brush and how they work to create texture in a painting, how that becomes part of the painted scene, standing in for the pebbling of goosebumps or the rough surface of a stone – I was going to compare that to the texture created by pixels and polygons and how these can work to sell interesting visual illusions. Maybe someday I’ll have something to say about it, but in order for it to be any good I’d need lots of visual examples. I definitely didn’t feel up to that tonight.

I thought about another piece about how difficult I find it to ask for anything, how my usual strategy is just to do my thing quietly in a corner and hope that things work out. I didn’t want to write this piece because I feel that it’s a rather self-pitying topic and one that I’ve touched on already a few times recently. Yes, everyone knows that men are terrible about asking for directions, and no it’s not really that interesting that this toxic stoicism has a tendency to derail other parts of one’s life when taken too far. This is probably a helpful topic for me to remind myself of every so often, but not so much an interesting topic to write about more often than perhaps once every six months or so.

I thought about another piece about the habits of skepticism and what a pain in the ass they make me to be around. Most people don’t like being questioned all the time: Maybe this is part of the reason I’m enjoying watching Columbo so much. I sometimes feel like I’m a pain in the ass in very similar ways to those in which he is a pain in the ass – though, unfortunately, I don’t get to arrest so many rich people. I do value questions I think more than I value answers – I trust questions more than I trust answers, since they’re more rarely lies. Maybe not much more rarely, as it’s actually easy for a question to be a lie, or at least extremely misleading – but a bit less easy than it is for an answer.

Then I started writing down all of my aborted ideas for a piece, and maybe they became something new. Sitting under a grating where bits of jigsaw puzzle fall through every once in a while by happenstance, trying to assemble a picture that makes sense out of pieces that were never meant to go together. The second two fit together okay – asking and questions are thematically similar. But the first… I guess the message is that the thing we make isn’t a product of the choices we make, but also the context they’re made in. Sometimes, a bunch of disparate ideas can be thrown together and create something worthwhile. And, sometimes, they can’t.

Just gotta keep jamming those suckers together to see how they look.

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been trying to livestream more gameplay (currently with a tenuous schedule of Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday @ 8pm, http://twitch.tv/problemmachine ). It’s interesting the sorts of pressures that streaming your gameplay puts on you – it pushes you to play the game in different ways than you probably would left to your own devices, and also pushes you towards different sorts of games than you might otherwise play. It makes you a showman as well as a contestant, playing performance and audience at the same time, trying to balance that experience – to act on the game, then react to its reactions for the crowd.

The experience of playing a game, as with any artistic experience, depends a great deal on the context we engage with that experience in. And, as someone who cares a great deal about games and tries to give each game I play its due, there are a lot of games I simply don’t feel comfortable playing on-stream, that I feel like I wouldn’t be doing justice by talking and joking and generally trying to be as entertaining as possible throughout the playthrough. Additionally, I’m emotionally reserved enough that I’m hesitant to play a really emotional and intense game on-stream, because I’m not super into the idea of sharing those reactions.

Sometimes I worry that trying to stream more means I’ll end up playing less of these games, have fewer introspective and emotional experiences out of games in favor of more systemic and improvisational ones. Sometimes I worry that trying to stream more means that I’ll play some games in a way that is shallower and less meaningful to me. The first is more of a problem than the second, but either way something is lost, and it’s a leap of faith whether what I gain in return is worthwhile.

That’s always the way it is, though. Every time you choose something you give something else up, and wanting everything is a quick shortcut to getting nothing. Right now, I choose to stream: In the future, perhaps I’ll choose otherwise. I’m a greedy man who hates to give anything up: My philosophy when faced with a choice between two things is usually to take both or neither. Still, that’s a philosophy with its limitations, and perhaps it’s just getting older but I feel like I’ve been hitting those limitations more often than I used to.

I suppose there’s a difference between reading a play and watching a play and acting in a play, and these are all precious and worthwhile experiences. However, the way you experience the play for the first time will forever shape your relationship to it, so which of those experiences you favor is based on what you need from your art, what you’re hungry for. Me, I’m always hungry for everything, and I want all the experiences. Dilemmas don’t sit well for me.

If there’s a saying that’s haunted me over the years, it’s “Jack of all trades, master of none.” There’s a sense of causality implied here, suggesting that being a jack of all trades necessarily implies being a master of none – which makes a certain amount of consequential sense, given that we only have so much time to dedicate to practice, and that practicing one thing must necessarily take time that could be used practicing another. And yet… well, I really would like to be a master of, if not all, then several trades.

I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, but the better I get at anything the more I see how much I have yet to learn, and the more time passes the more I’m scared that I don’t have enough time or energy to learn anything to the extent that I would like to. Every bit of pleasure I take in seeing my art improve drips into the gap I perceive between that improvement and what it is possible to achieve with the medium. And yet, can I give up on anything? Can I stop writing, stop drawing, stop making games, stop making music – how can I stop, when I’ve already come so far? I don’t feel okay with stopping – I don’t even feel okay with the idea of stopping starting, since there are other skills still I want to pick up and improve at, and I also want to push my abilities along new avenues – to write different kinds of words and music, make different kinds of art. I just started streaming games on Twitch a while ago, which is developing a whole new set of verbal performative skills, a category of art I’ve barely approached before in my life but have felt a subtle yearning for.

Yet I also don’t feel okay about being broke, though that seems to be where I’ve gotten with these trades and practices and skills thus far – either because I’m not confident enough to sell the products of my labor or because the products of my labor are of insufficient quality or breadth of appeal to find purchase. I’m trying to work on both of those right now as well, but it’s slow going and in the meanwhile, as I chew through my monetary reserves, I feel quite broke and somewhat worried.

There’s no good way I can see besides the way I’m doing it. If I try to raise money through more traditional venues (IE get a job selling coffee or burgers) I have dramatically less time and energy to develop my abilities and create new works, further reducing my capacity for self-improvement and self-sufficiency – though, I suppose, I might gain some additional and unexpected skills through the work itself.

Maybe I’m greedy. I just can’t let anything go. It’s a privileged position to be in, still. Most people don’t get a chance to make this choice. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making the most of it, but all I can do is my best, and it’s also an opportunity I can’t let pass – though I know that, as with everything, this, too, shall pass. I just have to be ready before that happens.