More thoughts on writing comics
There was a Q&A session at a comic book signing i went to once. Sushu pointed out how you can tell the fans from the aspiring comic authors: the fans ask about the fictional characters, the aspiring authors ask about the writing process. Fans ask questions like "what was character X doing between the end of part 1 and the beginning of part 2?"
From an author's perspective, questions like this make no goddamn sense! Do fans think these characters really exist somewhere, having adventures, that the author observes and reports on? No! It's made up! The characters don't exist outside of what the author has written about them, and if the author chose to leave something out the book, it's usually for a good reason: that part of the character's life is boring and unimportant!
Trying to write fiction for real forever changes the way you relate to it as an audience. I used to get swept up in a story, forget it was imaginary. Now I'm always thinking about "why is this character in this scene" "why does this scene happen at this point in the plot" etc. The ability to get lost in a story has been taken away from me. (But in exchange, I've gained the ability to appreciate the craftsmanship in what I'm reading. It's a fair trade.)
Trying to write fiction has given me a new appreciation for cliche. That is, I still don't much enjoy reading it, and I don't want to write it, but I understand why it's so common and what function it serves. Cliches are structures that have proven themselves to work reliably.
Take the "journey to the other end of the map", favorite cliche of fantasy authors. It works because it lets you take the reader on a vicarious tour of your setting without too much infodumping. It lets you show off how the diversity of nations and cultures in your world and demonstrate how they're all suffering because of the Dark Lord, it taps into the universal human interest in exploration, and the journey across the map can be, like, a metaphor for an internal journey of self-discovery, like wow man did I just blow your mind?
One of the most common science-fiction plotlines is "Hero is the only one with a technology that can change the course of a war". It works because it gives enormous moral weight to the hero's decisions (important) while letting us explore how a new technology can upset the balance of power and change the status quo (one of the primary, central themes of science fiction). Plus it gives us an excuse to have lots of cool battle scenes.
Why do horror movies always have the phone lines get cut or cell phone reception mysteriously go out? It's so the protagonist can't just call the police and let them deal with it, which is the first thing any sane person would do in real life.
If you want to avoid those cliches you need to come up with an alternative structure that accomplishes the same things, and that's really hard. People have been telling stories for a long time across a lot of different cultures. No matter how brilliantly original you think your idea is, somebody's probably written something at least a little similar to it before, and so they've had to solve the same structural problems as you have. The problem I posed in the previous post - how to decide what happens, and in what order - gets a lot harder when you're purposely avoiding the most reliable and popular patterns!
There are easier ways. You can disguise the cliche so it's not so blatantly obvious - throw out false clues to trick the trope-aware reader into expecting one plot twist, then go with another. Or you can accept cliches in your structure and try to be original in the contents. (You didn't invent the sandwich, but you can experiment with new sandwich fillings.) An interesting cast of characters can make a story worth reading even if the plot structure is something you've read before.
I think that trying too hard to avoid cliche is a trap that beginning writers fall into. You read TV Tropes and say to yourself "I'm not going to do ANY of these things!" until you realize that ripping out all the tropes is like ripping out the skeleton -- if you don't have something to replace it with, your story will flop around on the floor and be unable to move anywhere.
My story is about Japanese computer programmers in the near future, so every cyberpunk cliche ever is readily available. Right now I'm giving a lot of thought to which ones I might want to try to put an original twist on, and which ones I want to avoid entirely.
On Writing Webcomics
1. I'm not good at this.
The main reason I stopped working on Yuki hoshigawa was frustration at my inability to get the story moving. I didn't want to write a plotless slice-o-life comic where Yuki comments on society and feels depressed and nothing else happens. I wanted to write a science fiction story, emphasis on story. But what I wrote instead was thirty pages of meandering introduction, basically.
I made a classic mistake. Combine an initially passive protagonist with a distaste for arbitrary forcing events (aka a desire to have story emerge organically) and you have a recipe for inaction. It's exactly like a role-playing game where the players make characters with no intrinsic motivations and the GM refuses to railroad. Yuki had no reason to do anything besides mope around.
Plot doesn't come real naturally to me. The inspiration for Yuki Hoshigawa (starting almost ten years ago!) has all been about theme and character development and setting, not plot. That's how writing fiction goes, I think: sometimes the plot comes to you and you need to fill in the characters, soetimes the other way around. Ultimately you need all the pieces working together to build an interesting story. I've got this swirling nebula of related themes and character issues in my brain, but I have great difficulty expressing it as a linear series of events, or even describing it to close friends.
Years ago I figured out an ending for what was supposed to be chapter 1. I'd been refining it ever since. But sometime around last summer, I decided to get serious about writing a solid plot. I re-examined my planned chapter 1 and realized it sucked big time. It was an accumulation of scenes that I liked but that didn't have much to do with each other. (I would tear it up and throw it away, but to do that I'd have to print it out first.) I started over.
In January I wrote an outline of a ~20 pages standalone story. But that one wasn't good enough either. It was too goofy, and the action too contrived. Fun, but it didn't feel "Yuki" enough. Writing it was good practice, but it's worth the time I would have to spend drawing it. I filed that one away too, to plunder some of its better ideas later.
Now I'm working on yet another draft, from scratch. My biggest problem is that when I try to think of a climax, most of the scenes that come to mind don't fit the buildup. I know the shape of the hole and now I'm searching for a peg that fits there.
But I'm pretty excited about where it's going. I'm looking forward to drawing again, when I can work from a plot outline that I love.
2. The advice out there for writing comics sucks.
I started reading a lot, looking for advice about story structure and how to craft a plot. There are people out there who make a living doing this and they know how to do it. But good advice is hard to find -- especially for comics.
If you just search for "writing" you hit a lot of articles that assume you're writing a novel, so they're all about paragraph breaks and how to write descriptive sentences and "he said", "she said". In other words, they're about the surface-level presentation of a text format. Completely useless for comics, which have an entirely different surface-level presentation. I want to know about the deeper structure, the stuff that comics and novels have in common -- pacing, character development, dialog, etc.
OK, so I search for "writing comics". Now the results are even worse! Now all the articles you get assume you're submitting a script to Marvel or DC. They're all superhero-centric, they assume a 32-page format, and even worse: they assume that you're writing a script for somebody else to draw. So there's a ton of stuff about the right way to format a script and very little about how to tell a story. A ton of stuff about describing panels and none about laying out panels.
Finally, if you search for "story structure" you get a lot of stuff aimed at people who are trying to break into Hollywood script writing and are looking for the right formula to use to sell their script to a studio. They'll tell you that you need to hit a certain plot point by a certain page in your script and a lot of other rigid, formulaic stuff like that. Frankly a lot of it sounds like superstition - follow these rituals exactly, or else you will anger the script gods!
I've found some helpful material in resources aimed at playwriting and screenwriting. Both of these media have a much more well-developed body of theory and analysis than comics do. (Going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact.) And they're more similar to comics than novels are. Stage plays are all about dialog; screenplays are all about telling a story with images; lessons about either of these things apply directly to comics.
One of the better books I've found on the subject is Story by Robert McKee, an infamous and curmudgeonly teacher of screenwriting. Boring, shallow, cliched, lazy writing offends him on a deep moral level, and he will not tolerate it. Nor will he tolerate people looking for shortcuts to fame and riches. Reading the book is kind of like hearing a grouchy old man rail against the degeneration of modern society. But I learned a lot. And apart from one chapter about script formatting and written description, all the rest of the book is applicable to comics as well as screenplays.
3. Why writing is hard
I had an epiphany today: the space of everything you could possibly write is the real numbers, the space of stuff that's interesting to read is the integers. They're both "infinite" but if you pick something at random, the chances it will fall in the latter category is infinitesimal. (And, um, the fact that I had to use a math metaphor to understand writing tells you a lot about why this doesn't come naturally to me.)
The hardest part of writing isn't having ideas or getting motivated or finding the deeper meaning or making characters believable or polishing dialogue or any of that stuff. The hardest part is deciding what things are going to happen in your story, in what order. Yes. That sounds kind of like "duhhhh" but it's surprisingly hard and nobody wants to talk about it. It's easy to have lots and lots of ideas but hard to know which ones fit together and which ones don't.
You've got infinite combinations to choose from, but your choices must satisfy a gauntlet of contradictory requirements: The chain of cause and effect must be clear, logical, and internally consistent; the pacing must be good, with rising action and tension and relief and no boring stretches; the reader must get enough exposition to understand the situation, but without infodumping; setup must come before payoff, payoff must be worth it; characters' motivations must make sense and character development must be beleivable; it must be the protagonists' choices that drive things and those choices must express the character development and the results of those choices must express the theme; and we should try to do all this without falling back on cliche or being too predictable. Oh, and since this is a comic, the events have to be drawable, visually interesting, and expressable via panel flow.
It's a tall order, all of that together. I used to think that you could just start drawing a comic at page 1 and keep drawing until you got to the last page and the story would emerge as a spontaneous outburst of creativity.
That's... not really how it works. (At least not for me. Maybe there's some insane genius out there who can do it that way.)
Drawing a story that's more than a bunch of random stuff that happens is craft. It doesn't happen by accident. It's a lot of work and planning and rewriting. It takes deep understanding and a willingness to kill your darlings. You don't work from the first page to the last page; you work from idea to outline to rough draft to script to thumbnails to pencil sketch to inking. You try to catch and correct problems as early as possible, because it's much "cheaper" to fix them early, e.g. fill a plot hole or cut out a boring dialog scene before you've spent time drawing anything. The reader never sees any of the work you did prior to the inking stage; what they read is the last stage of a long journey, but if you did it right, it has the illusion of spontaneity.
Goin' to Peru in a week
For Sushu's spring break.
Itinerary: Lima -> Trujillo -> Chiclayo -> Chan Chan -> Sipan -> Cuzco -> Ollantaytanbo -> Macchu Picchu -> Lima
TODO: explore Chimu and Moche ruins; see totally sweet Inca mummies; eat guinea pigs; get altitude sickness trying to hike in the Andes; attempt to hablo Español; eat ceviche and unfamiliar kinds of potatoes; observe legacy of colonial exploitation and try not to let it make me hate all Spaniards forever.
I will be off the Internet for the whole week from April 6 through April 13. I expect there to be such a huge email backlog when I return that in all honesty I will probably never reply to it. So if it's important, send it again after April 13.
Last week there was a lunch at work, and after some discussion it turned out every single person at the table was married to somebody from a different culture than them.
For example, Jinghua's Chinese, she's married to Oscar, who's Venezualean, but the two of them met in Denmark; Oscar's parents live in Canada and his brother is married to a Romanian.
And that's not as unusual as it used to be. Everyone at the table had a story about negotiating a compromise between their family's marriage customs and those of their husband's family or wife's family.
This is the future! International families are on the rise, and may even eventually become the norm. We're just a little ahead of the curve, here in immigrant-heavy, majority-minority Silicon Valley.
I hope that in the future, this trend will make people less eager to go to war, because more of us will stop and say "Wait a minute, I have relatives over there in [Iran/China/Russia/Israel/America]. They're not as bad as you're saying."
(Then again, maybe I'm too optimistic: lots of North Koreans have relatives in South Korea and they're still technically at war.)
The artist of Axe Cop is doing a new comic (this one with a coherent storyline). It's called BEARMAGEDDON and thus far it is living up to exactly what the title promises. I'm finding it very entertaining. But you already know just from the title whether you'll like this comic or not. Those who don't want to see graphic images of bears eating people (why wouldn't you?) should not click that link.
Grognard Capture, or "Why Sushu Can't Jump"
Watching our friend Chris play Mass Effect 3, me and Sushu were like "hey this looks like a cool choose-your-own-adventure story, too bad it keeps getting interrupted by these shooter levels". I'm kind of interested in the story but not interested enough to play shooter levels, which I suck at and don't enjoy. I would rather have a choose-your-own-adventure visual novel, you know?
"But", Sushu asks, "Would it still be a game without the shooter levels? If it was just dialogue choices?" Eh, maybe. I've got no interest in arguing about the definition of "game" but I would "play" something like that, whatever it is.
What I think is interesting is how the economics of video games effctively prevents a major game company from making a game that's just dialogue choices with no shooting. Indie games could do it (and they have). But in the realm of "AAA titles", game budgets continue to get higher and higher, development teams continue to get larger, and to recoup their investment they need something that gamers will pay $60 a pop for. So every AAA game needs to have a zillion hours of gameplay, insanely detailed 3D graphics, professional voice acting, numerous granular and highly crunchy subsystems, cutscenes, achievements, and other bells and whistles that have nothing to do with the core gamplay mechanic.
Like, Mass Effect apparently has a whole intricate weapon-customization subsystem with a zillion different kinds of high-tech guns? Chris kept picking up all these scopes and silencers and ammo clips and whatever. Why? The story's about the fate of galaxy-spanning civilizations, right? Do we really gotta spend this much time focusing on the exact kind of gun one particular person has?
I'm guessing market research shows that gamerdorks prefer games with detailed gun stats to games with less detailed gun stats, therefore AAA game economics require developers to put in more gun stats whenever possible.
Designer Greg Costikyan coined the phrase"Grognard Capture" to describe a process that all video game genres undergo. Fans of the genre complete lots of games, master the basic skills and demand more advanced challenges, more detail, etc. Later entries in the genre target those advanced players, skipping over the basic stuff. Eventually the genre evolves to where new games are completely unplayable to newbies.
I can observe the effects of grognard capture every time I watch Sushu try to play a game that involves jumping. She finds it frustrating and not fun at all. She fails repeatedly at jumps that I wouldn't even notice. This isn't her fault: it's the fault of game designers who assume everybody is good at jumping, because they've been playing jumping games since the 80s and have mastered every possible permutation of moving platforms and low cielings and overhangs and whatnot. Go back and study the level design of the original Super Mario Brothers and see how the first few levels hold your hand through the most basic types of jumps, gently teaching you the skills you'll need for later. It was an entry-level game; it assumed no prior experience. Too many of today's game designers seem to have forgotten how to do that.
And is it just me, or have (AAA) video games been getting more and more indistinguishable from each other? Action games, RPGs, and Adventure games used to be distinct genres. Now everything's a first-person 3D action game with character improvement mechanics and halfhearted puzzle quests. If AAA games are all one genre now, maybe this whole sector of the industry is undergoing grognard capture, turning into something that only appeals to a smaller and smaller group of hard-core "gamerz", and abandoning the much larger market of casual gamers (e.g. anyone not a 16-25 year old boy).
Avatar: the Legend of Korra
Yo, it's happening. First two episodes are online already. I just watched them and they look promising! Great animation, cool music, pretty backgrounds, solid characterization, funny jokes, sweet martial arts, inventive setting, hints of major plotlines to come: what's not to like?
Kind of unusual for a kid's show to be like "Hey kids! 70 years have passed, most of the characters you like have died of old age, sorry." That's how the Avatar Cycle works, though. They're being true to their mythology. I'm pretty excited that they allowed technology to progress enough in the intervening time that their fantasy setting has effectively been transformed into an early modern setting with some fantasy elements. I can't think of another series that's made that jump (except maybe Final Fantasy, but that has no continuity anyway). I'm looking forward to lots of stories about crime and political corruption and future shock. (Kid-friendly, of course.)
Yet more wretched Silicon Valley cliches
"Circle back" - yet another way of saying you'll talk more about something later. Because "touch base", "follow up", "reach out", and "get back to you on that" weren't enough synonyms.
"Keep banging the drum" - publicize; talk about your work.
"Move the needle" - have an effect, get somebody to notice. (I guess it's like the needle on a seismograph or voltmeter?)
Nobody cares about your stupid idea? Don't give up! Tweet about it some more! Keep banging the drum until you move the needle!
"DNA" - experience. If a company has something "in their DNA" it means they have employees who have done that thing before.
"Drink the kool-aid" - to my horror, I have heard this reference to the horrifying Jonestown cult suicides used in a neutral or even positive sense to say that someone has internalized corporate ideology. I think people are starting to say this without knowing where it came from.
"Level-set" - I had to ask what this meant the other day. It's a synonym for "get everyone on the same page".
(Previous Silicon Valley cliches here, here, and of course here.
1. Time getting home: In a job like mine, quitting time is highly variable. After my last meeting of the day it's up to me how much longer to stay, although late afternoon/evening time is often some of the most productive for programming so I usually want to stay later. The time I get home further depends on whether I bike or take a train, which depends on whether it's raining, etc. Left ot my own devices I might get home anywhere between 5:30 and 8pm. When I lived alone, I didn't even think about this. But it inconveniences Sushu when she doesn't know what time I get home. She can't plan around it, she doesn't know if she should eat dinner without me, or what.
Easy solution: any day that we don't have something prearragned I email her to let her know what time I'm coming home. We figured this one out in the first year and it hasn't been much of a problem since.
2. The wait cycle: Say we were planning to take a walk together after dinner. But then I start reading something, and while Sushu is waiting for me to finish reading, she starts sketching a comic. Then I finish reading, but she's sketching a comic, so while I wait for her to be done with that I start doing some accordion practice. Then she finishes sketching but has to wait for me to be done practicing so... We could cycle like this for hours and never leave the house.
Now when Sushu's doing something waiting for me, she'll say out loud "I'm wait cycling". And vice versa. This usually ends the cycle rapidly. (Sometimes just naming a problem gets you most of the way to fixing it.) We just figured this one out this year.
3. Social event warning: I'm an introvert. I have energy for only a limited amount of socialization per day. The last thing I want to do, after getting home, is have to talk to somebody I don't know. There were some times in the first year when I would get home and then find out that somebody was coming to visit or that we were going to somebody's house. It stressed me out.
Now Sushu gives me a couple days' advance warning of any potential encounter with strange humans (and usually offers me an exit strategy).
4. Time horizon for trip planning: Sushu likes to plan trips a few months ahead of time, reserving plane tickets and hotel rooms way in advance so she can relax until it's time to go. I have trouble even thinking about anything two months in the future -- two weeks is about my time horizon at which future events start to feel concrete; anything beyond that feels like "someday". It used to be that Sushu would start making reservations and ask me questions like "Do you want to stay in Trujillo or Chiclayo on Wednesday night?" and I'd be like "Where the hell is Trujillo? How should I know?". She'd end up planning the whole trip herself and be frustrated that I wasn't participating, and then later when the trip entered my mental time horizon I would realize I had missed my chance to give input.
We're still working out a solution to this. For our latest trip planning (we're going to Peru next month) I told her I needed some time to clear out space in my head. We scheduled a weekend to do the planning. I bought a guidebook, a Spanish phrasebook, and a paper planning calendar (the only one they had at Office Depot was a "kitchen calendar for moms" with purple flowers all over it; talk about pointlessly gendering products. Whatever, I like purple.) I've been reading up on Peru and writing trip details on the calendar; it helps make things more concrete, and this time I feel like I'm having more input.
5. Bedtimes: Sushu needs to get up earlier than I do. So she needs to sleep by 11. But sometimes I want to stay up later than that. But it turns out she has trouble falling asleep until I come to bed. So if I stay up late, it limits how much sleep she can get.
Just this week I resolved to go to sleep the same time as her every night. I'll ask what time she needs to wake up, and aim to sleep 8 hours before then. If this gets me on an earlier and more regular schedule, great! Bonus.
None of these are, like, huge romantic sacrifices or hardships or any of that. They're just minor things that we're gradually figuring out to make living together more functional. I think mutual willingness to keep doing small adjustments is important to make relationships work in the long run.
Why Settlers is not my favorite game
I had a very painful game of Settlers of Cataan (cities & knights expansion) on Saturday which got me thinking about the problems with the design of that game. (I also got to play a fantastic samurai-themed Burning Wheel one-shot, and a fun round of the new D&D board game, so game day was mostly good.)
Settlers is insanely popular lately; it seems to be the one board game that even non-gamers have heard of and are willing to try. It's the new "Monopoly", in a way. I've even heard that it has replaced golf as the main schmoozing game for rich businessmen in Silicon Valley. It's much less terrible than Monopoly, in that it has the fun of trading and building without the pointless board-circling, and it's possible for a game to actually end. (The Monopoly rules might as well say "play until everyone gets bored, then quit. Nobody wins.") Settlers was a big step forward in game design in 1995, almost every Eurogame since then owes something to it, and it's worth playing and studying, but it's got some big problems which lead to un-fun gameplay situations.
The Kingmaker problem: towards the end of the game, you get into a situation where you can't win, but you can choose which of the other players will win by who you choose to throw your support behind. (in Settlers: who you trade with, whose roads you block, and who you put the robber on, basically).
Some game designers might not see kingmaking as a flaw, because it doesn't obviously break anything in terms of game math. You would have lost anyway, so what? The reason Kingmaking is a problem is social: having to be the kingmaker puts you in a really awkward spot socially, especially when the leading players start saying things like "I'll give you a cookie if you help me" or "You have to help me, I'm your wife". Now you are no longer playing a strategy game: you are playing the game of popularity-via-social-leverage, and most people got enough of that back in high school.
The Bucket O' Crabs problem: I am coining a phrase here. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, as soon as one is close to crawling out, the other crabs will grab its legs and drag it back down.
The endgame of Settlers can drag on way too long, because as soon as one player is close to winning, everybody does everything possible to stop that player. How often have you heard "Don't trade with him, you'll help him win!" ? And when people stop trading in Settlers, the game slows to a crawl.
People know that the leader will be targeted, so nobody wants to be the leader. Everybody's vying for second place while trying to take the leader down. This drags things out even more.
The screwed-by-the-dice problem: sometimes a string of bad rolls means you don't get any resources for ten or eleven turns in a row. This tends to happen to the player with the fewest settlements/cities meaning that the player who's already farthest behind tends to fall even farther behind. But the worst part isn't the game balance issue - it's that Settlers is insanely boring when you don't have anything to do (except offer people trades you know they don't want) for thirty minutes. That's the kind of situation where you wish you could just drop out of the game and go do something else, but Settlers doesn't believe in player elimination. I wouldn't mind losing so much if there was at least something to do on my turns while I was losing.
Another form of screwed-by-the-dice is when you have the resources to build a city, but then lose them before you can spend them because somebody rolled a 7 and you were holding 8 cards. I know this rule is in the game to discourage card hoarding, but sometimes you're trying to spend cards and you just can't. There's no skill to it, you just get randomly hosed by the dice. It happens even more often in the cities & knights expansion because there are more kinds of cards to hold and more things you need to save up for.
Setting the end conditions for a multiplayer (n > 2) game turns out to be an extremely difficult design problem, if you want the game to remain fun for all players up until the last round. Most multiplayer games have some kind of weird issues with the endgame.
Game design, music, and storytelling
Games: We start by telling the players the win condition, so they understand what they're trying to do. Each player forms a strategy which they think will take them to victory and then chooses moves according to that strategy. But their desired moves are blocked by the opponent's moves, or are stymied due to random factors, or hidden information, so the player has to rethink their strategy on the fly. This increases the tension as the players are forced to make difficult choices, with the chance of victory riding on the outcome.
Music: The initial notes establish the key of the piece, letting the listener hear the tonic and the root chord. The melody and chord progression take us farther and farther away from that starting point, while creating a tension that can only be resolved by returning to the tonic / root chord again. E.g. the chorus of a typical rock song might have chords C -> F -> G -> G7, setting up a tension which makes the listener desire resolution. Then it goes back to the C chord at the end of the chorus, satisfying that desire.
(The listener doesn't have be able to consciously identify the chords or even know what a chord is - it still works. It's magic.)
Storytelling: Exposition in Act 1 introduces the protagonist and sets up their motivation, so the reader knows who to root for and what's at stake; they expect that the resolution of the story will see the protagonist either getting the stakes or not. Act 2 increases the tension, using complications to challenge the protagonist, put the resolution in doubt, and force some character development. Each complication raises new questions in the reader's mind. Act 3 has some sort of climax, the moment of maximum tension, where the protagonist faces some life-defining decision and whatever was motivating them finally gets resolved.
I'm sure you can think of exceptions to these simple schematics: non-western music may not have a root chord, some computer games deliberately obfuscate the goal in order to create more of a feeling of discovery, etc. Whatever. I'm not going for comprehensive definitions right now.
What I'm saying is: see a parallel here? The ending gives meaning and direction to everything that comes before it, so the game designer/musician/storyteller must hint at the ending. But it's the tension that makes things interesting, and the tension comes from the frustrated desire of the player/listener/reader. To create tension the game designer/musician/storyteller must tease an ending but deny the obvious path to that ending.
We even use the same language - "tension" and "resolution" - to talk about all three art forms.
Finding your guiding principle
I saw an amazing talk yesterday by my favorite computer-idea-guy, Bret Victor. (The same Bret Victor` who wrote "Kill Math".)
This time, he's talking to an audience of engineering students about the possibilities available to them in their careers. The talk is called Inventing on Principle. The video is almost an hour long but worth watching all the way to the end.
There's two parts. First he talks about the principle that guides his inventions, which is that creative people need tools that give them a direct connection to their work. Ideas are precious and fragile, and there are all sorts of ideas that you'll never even think of if your tools are keeping you disconnected from your work.
He has some jaw-dropping demos of what programming, circuit design, and animation might be like if we had tools that truly connected our hands to the essence of what we're doing. If we didn't have to spend most of our brainpower guessing how the computer is going to interpret our instructions. "This is what it might be like to design an algorithm without a blindfold on.", he says. Bret's a very humble person. He doesn't say things like that lightly. He really means it; after catching a glimpse of how things could be in a better world, coming back to the tools we have now feels so primitive.
The second half of the talk is about other people who invented things according to their own guiding principles, like Larry Tenser who went on a personal crusade against modes in software. Bret suggests this path to the students as an alternative to the career paths that are usually offered to engineers (e.g. "define yourself by the skill that you're good at"). He points out it's more like being a social activist except that you try to change things by inventing instead of changing things by organizing people. He talks about how you might try to find a principle of your own, if you choose this path.
This is inspiring, and it comes at just the right time for me since over the last year I've gotten increasingly disillusioned with the software industry. I spent 2008-2012 trying to make things according to Mozilla's principles, not my own. Before that, I spent 2005-2008 trying to make things according to Aza's principles, or more accurately according to Aza's dad's principles. Working on other people's dreams isn't enough to motivate me anymore. I want to do my own thing. This might involve leaving the software industry or it might involve starting my own company. Either way, examining my guiding principle(s) will have to be part of it.
Miyazaki Jr. is not off to a promising start
Going to the Ghibli Museum made me want to catch up on the more recent Ghibli movies I never saw, so after I got back from Japan I watched Howl's Moving Castle and A Wizard of Earthsea.
Ugh. They were not good.
Howl's Moving Castle had a lot of interesting elements in it, but they didn't seem to add up to much. A lot of time was spent setting up the war and setting up The Witch of the Wastes and then neither of them did anything in the resolution. It felt like one of those roleplaying sessions where the players all lost interest in the original plot hook and focused on a side plot until it became the main plot. I haven't read the original book so I can't compare, but from Sushu's descriptions it sounds like they took a unique story and crammed it into the "generic Ghibli movie" mold.
I can compare the Wizard of Earthsea movie, though, and wow. As a huge fan of Studio Ghibli and an equally huge fan of Ursula le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, I was originally pretty excited to hear that the former was animating the latter. Then I heard it sucked. But dayum I was not prepared for this level of suckage. It was way beyond "disappointing". It wasn't just that it completely missed the point of the books (thought it did): it completely failed to work on the most basic level as a piece of narrative fiction. There are whole scenes where nothing remotely relevant to the story happens at all. Just beautifully animated scenes of dudes plowing farmland and eating stew, and plowing more farmland and eating more stew, for what feels like forever. I got so bored I started yelling at the screen, "Plot! Plot! Where did you go, plot? Are you ever coming back?"
The story, such as it was, is a fanfictiony mash-up that pastes elements of the first and fourth books onto the basic idea of the third (The Farthest Shore). This is an odd choice since it means Ged isn't the main character; he's the Wise Mentor Guy who leads Prince Arren around offering spiritual-sounding but extremely vague advice.
There's an intro scene where a king and some wizards fret about the magic seeping out of the world and the balance of nature and stuff, then we never see any of those guys again. Almost all of the movie takes place on land, which is a damn shame. Ged drags Arren to live in a farmhouse with a woman he knows from Book Two. They eat stew and plow fields for so long that this movie should have been called "Farmhand II: The Plowening". Ged goes off to do Wizard Stuff we never get to see. The standard Miyazaki tropes show up: Generic-faced destiny girl? Check! Viscous black goop representing black magic or industrial pollution? Check!
Finally about half an hour before the end the movie shifts gears and starts rushing towards what feels like the climax of an unrelated story. There's some fights and about three speeches in a row about how Death Is An Important Part Of Life And The Cycle Of Nature So Trying To Be Immortal Is Really Bad. This was a big theme in the book, but the difference is that good writers like Ursula le Guin express themes by having characters live them. The characters in this crappy movie just randomly decide to make heavy-handed philosophy speeches that come out of nowhere and have nothing to do with the story.
The only decent things about this movie are a well-animated midair fight between two dragons (which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie) and a nice drum-and-flute song called Kachoufuugetsu -- which we're now learning to play in our taiko class.
Can we make it to the Ghibli Museum?
Back in January when I was in Tokyo for Mozilla Vision 2012, I got a chance to go to the Studio Ghibli museum.
I hear that tickets for the Stuido Ghibli museum are really hard to get. But one of the guys from the Mozilla Japan office, who goes by his IRC name "Dynamis", pulled some strings or something and got two tickets for me and another visiting Mozillian named Chris Heilmann. Thanks, Dynamis!
The tickets were for 4pm the next day and were covered with very dire warnings that they could ONLY be used to enter the museum at the designated time and if we showed up late we would not be able to get in. Many Japanese institutions can be absurdly strict about seemingly pointless rules so I figured we'd better take the warning seriously.
The museum's in a neighborhood of western Tokyo called Mitaka, and it looked like about three train transfers to get there from the Mozilla office, so I figured we should leave by 3pm at the latest to get there. However, Chris was off having an adventure of his own looking for a place where he could get cash yen with a foreign ATM card (there aren't many) so it was like 3:20 by the time we left. I didn't think we'd be able to get there by train in time so I suggested taking a taxi.
Big mistake. The taxi drove into a tunnel and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam. The driver estimated it would be at least 4:30 by the time we got there. Ugh. The train would have been better after all. I felt terrible that we were going to miss the museum due to my incompetence at trip planning.
When we finally got out of the tunnel, we passed Shinjuku station so I asked the taxi driver to drop us off there and we got back on the train system. It was about 4:00 already but we decided to press on; if we couldn't get in, then oh well.
It was drizzling cold rain and the sun was setting as we hustled down the sidewalk from Mitaka station and it was 4:30 by the time we got there. I was expecting to be rejected and had already apologized to Chris several times about it.
Turns out it wasn't even a thing. They let us in no problem. Huh.
They strictly disallow photography in the museum, so I don't have any pictures to show you. Except one: Chris Heilmann snuck his phone out and took a picture of me sitting in the life-sized Catbus. A uniformed attendent immediately ran up and started telling him he couldn't do that; I told him to put the phone away before it got confiscated. Later he put the one picture up on Flicker labeled "Illegal photo".
Anyway, the place is really cool. There are about seven short films by Studio Ghibli which have apparently never been released and can only be watched in the tiny theater at the musuem. The one we saw was called "Chuuzuumo" and was about mice doing sumo. A frog is the referee and the audience sits on shiitake mushrooms. An old man and woman stumble upon the ring and are upset that the mice from their house are losing to the visiting mice, so they prepare a feast for their own mice to bulk them up for a re-match. It was intensely cute and funny and well-animated.
The museum is clearly designed with kids in mind; most things are touchable and there are lots of tiny tunnels and walkways and staircases and child-sized secret pathways to explore. There are life-size reconstructions of not only the Catbus but the robot from Laputa, the cursed restaurant from Sen-to-Chihiro, etc.
There are plenty of interactive exhibits of old-timey animation technologies in action - zoetropes and illusions with strobe lights and hand-cranked film projectors and all that kind of stuff. Gorgeous watercolor background paintings and storyboards hanging up everywhere. Animator's desks on display with cells and light tables and stacks of tracing paper and racks and racks of different colors of paint, etc. Their deep respect for the craft of traditional hand animation really comes through strongly.
The other thing that was really interesting was all the inspirations they have on exhibit. I expected to see lots of old-fashioned flying machines, zepplins and biplanes etc. because it's obvious how much Miyazaki loves all that stuff. But there were also shelves and shelves of European children's picture books - Pipi Longstocking and Tintin and stuff like that. I hadn't ever thought about it before but the Ghibli aesthetic owes a lot more to that oevure than to anything from the Japanese comics industry. Finally there were tons of pictures of nature everywhere: books full of reference photos of deep woods, craggy beaches, moss-covered stones, insects, decaying old wooden temples, etc. Theirs is a culture that loves nature, and demands deep study of the reality of whatever it is they're animating.
Good animation is inspired by life and nature; mediocre animation is inspired by other animation.
Me and my family are Yankees from Connecticut. One of the less wholesome aspects of the culture I grew up in was that people around me tended to look down upon, and make fun of, Southerners.
(I never even got to try Southern food until grad school. Which is, like, a crime, because Southern food is freakin' awesome. I took my first bite of collard greens at age 24 and I was like WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE. These days I go to "Home of Chicken and Waffles" in Oakland every chance I get.)
Anyway one of the main disses that Northerners like to use against Southerners is to claim that (white) southerners are all, like, super-racist.
When I was younger I accepted this view uncritically. Later I realized that "southerners are all racists" is something that northern white people like to repeat because it makes them feel superior -- it is a way of distancing themselves from racism without actually confronting it or addressing it: just make it sound like somebody else's problem.
But racism in America has never been just a southern problem. The South had slavery and Jim Crow, but the North had "sundown towns."
Never heard of sundown towns? Neither had I, until recently. It's not something that tends to get covered in history class.
You should read this 2006 Washington Post article about them: "When Signs Said 'Get Out'". It was an eye-opener. (Here's a single-page version so you don't have to keep clicking Next.)
They were called "sundown" towns because they had signs warning black people not to let themselves be caught in the town after the sun went down -- or else risk being murdered by a mob of white supremacists. And they were all over the Northeast, Midwest, and West.
According to the article, a town in my home state of Connecticut had a sign saying, "Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark". Darien, CT (a wealthy NY suburb) forbid Jews as well as black people.
This went on from about the 1890s through the 1950s - from the backlash against Reconstruction until the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. This was the era of Jim Crow laws in the South; it was horrible and I don't want to minimize that fact, but white people in the rest of the country weren't exactly innocent either. It's just that instead of making black people sit at the back of the bus and use a separate washroom, the northern variety of white supremacists preferred not to let black people live in their towns at all, using violence, intimidation, and discrimination laws (e.g. not allowing black people to buy houses in certain neighborhoods) to enact what was effectively ethnic cleansing.
The small towns in Connecticut where I grew up were almost entirely white, and now I'm wondering if that's a demographic accident, or if they were made that way on purpose and the history has been covered up.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a parallel wave of ethnic cleansing was going on against Chinese immigrants. Chinatowns in cities all over California, Oregon, and Washington were burned down and their citizens forced out by armed lynch mobs. Chinatown in San Jose, for example, was intentionally burned down in 1887 and apparently several other times as well.
I wish I was making all this up, because it's horrible, but I'm not. Anyway, the main point I wanted to make is that racism was, and still is, a big problem in all parts of America, not just the South. And to my fellow (white) yankees: implying all southerners are racist hicks is not cool. I know a lot of southerners who are very enlightened. Try meeting a few and getting to know them personally. If somebody you meet turns out to be racist, by all means give them a hard time about it. But maybe learn some more about your own history before judging a whole region of the country.
Oh, hello internet!
Wow, I haven't blogged in two months. Um, hello Internet, did you miss me?
There's an ever-growing list of stuff I want to blog about - life, politics, technology, comics, music, games - but one thing I've realized is that I only have time for so many hobbies; blogging is itself a hobby as far as time commitment is concerned; and I don't want to drop anything else, so whenever there's a time crunch blogging gets the axe.
I did a lot of Twitter between November and February (I'm @jonoxia over there). At one time I thought of Twitter as a lower-time-commitment substitute for blogging, but when you factor in the time I spend reading links tweeted by others, I think it's actually more time consuming. So I quit cold turkey again. I have a really weird relationship with Twitter. Love/hate. Hot/cold. I'm not sure it's healthy.
(Oh, funny story, Twitter offered me a job interview. I wasn't really interested, but I chatted with them on the phone for a while about internet censorship and protecting the identity of dissidents and stuff. I pitched them my idea that Twitter should make itself into a decentralized protocol instead of a single server, to be more resilient against censorship attempts. They seemed vaguely receptive to the idea but maybe they were just being polite.)
Anyway, another thing I've realized about blogging is that if I write a draft of a blog post and don't post it immediately, the chances of me ever posting that post drop to about 10%. It's like, once I type my thoughts into a text file, my impetus to write about that subject dissipates, so the draft just sits around in the file and never gets polished up.
It's very similar to how once an email drops off the first page of my inbox, the chances of me ever answering it drop to about 10%. Putting a star next to it does absolutely nothing. I hate looking at my email inbox because it's a litany of failure, a giant reminder of my inability to answer people in a timely fashion. Or at all.
There's also that thing where I took like ten trips last year to foreign countries and tech conferences of various sorts. I failed to blog about them, but that's not all; I met the most fascinating people in each place that I went, and each time I resolved to follow up with them and stay in contact after I got home, and I never did. I'm really bad at that.
All of those unfinished blog posts, and all those unanswered emails, and all the cool people who I failed to stay in contact with - they form an ever-growing psychic burden, part of what I call my "guilt cloud". I can feel it exerting drag on my brain.
But the amount of time I'd have to spend writing words to people on the internet, in order not to feel like I was neglecting something, would be enormous. Lately I've reacted by shirking ALL writing duties.
I need to try to find a better balance. Maybe blogging will work better if I go for shorter, more spontaneous writing. No drafting in text files - write and post immediately, or not at all.