“Trust” and “Safety”

In June of 2013, I apparently filed a complaint with Kickstarter that voiced concerns about a specific project that was seeking funding, and was ultimately funded, on the service. I vaguely remember it, it was a while ago. It wouldn’t have come to mind at all…

…except that Kickstarter got back to me about it.


Seven years later.

I got a form letter response, from Kickstarter’s Trust and Safety division (which, let’s face it, probably has all the force and intelligence of a ‘bot), more than seven years after the fact. The form response indicated that the project did not violate their community standards nor their terms of service. The project is no longer visible on their site, however.

Safe to say I find no Trust nor Safety in Kickstarter as a result.

It’s entirely baffling to me. Especially when I looked it up and found that Kickstarter apologized for their mishandling at the time, though they did not end the Kickstarter and the author got his money at the time. The product is currently available from Amazon. He uses the fact that he broke Kickstarter as part of his sales pitch. It’s just grossness all the way down.

I mean, whatever. I’ve scarcely backed anything on the service since that time; doing a search for Kickstarter in my email folders spins for a long time and I’m just assuming that means it’s looking on a hard drive somewhere out there in the cloud. But ugh, if this is what passes for “Trust and Safety” at our tech companies, we are indeed in dire straits. Part of the reason I’ve been withdrawing from all of this stuff so much in the intervening seven years, I guess.

There’s probably some weird stray cosmic ray¹ thing going on here, because why else would this have happened. I did entertain a brief envisioning of a beleaguered solo reviewer at a functional desk taking the printed copy of this and stamping it and putting it in a box marked June 2013 and sighing, “That’s the last of those” before looking over at a pile of boxes marked July 2013. But anyway: Ugh. Gross.

¹This a term I use for a bug that is just kind of so weird that it’s almost not worth tracking down, though it makes me wonder how many people suddenly got an email all these years later reminding us why Kickstarter wasn’t really for us.

The Americans

Note: minor spoilers about The Americans inside. Well, unless you consider answering “what’s this whole show about” a spoiler, in which case, major spoilers, I guess.

Over the last month or so I’ve been watching The Americans, it’s all on Amazon Prime right now and I wanted something I could watch over dinner each night. I haven’t really watched any television in a while, kind of felt like this was a spot in my life where it fit okay.

Last week I was talking about the show with a friend, and I said, “You know, what I love about the show is that although it’s about spies, what it’s really about is how fundamentally unknowable other people are.” And he looked at me like I was crazy.

Almost at the very end of the third season, putting it almost squarely at the center of a six season show, Sandra Beeman¹ had this to say to one of the leads:

It’s hard in a couple. […] Even in a relationship that’s really new, you run into things, you have to work through it. […] It’s about everything. Learning how to be open. Really knowing yourself. Someone really knowing you. I’m not sure anyone in my life has ever really known me.²

And I said to myself, “well, that’s it then, that’s sort of the whole ball game.” They’ve told us what the whole show is about and to their credit, I was already at that point quite a number of episodes earlier. But: what now? What are they going to do for the next three seasons? The show obviously really isn’t about the KGB or the FBI or even the 80s, which mostly only appears as sort of background decor most of the time.

The answer, it seems, is that on the one hand, they’re going to have a bunch of plot. Which is fine, as far as it goes, honestly. It’s a well-plotted show and I’m often genuinely curious about where they’re going to go next and at times they surprise me. They are starting to wear a bit of a patch in the carpet around some issues: often, for example, an approach to solve a spy problem will have the two leads disagreeing about a course of action, and something will happen that gives them more time and space to process, and one of them will cave to the other and say, “you’re right.” This is all fine and good. It works as a show, there are multiple intersecting arcs, it’s all interesting enough.

On the other hand, now they seem to be also playing with the audience, teasing us with questions of how well we understand the characters. Leaving us in that ambiguous space where some big plot point is happening and we are no more sure of what one of the leads is thinking than the other lead is. I kind of love this, because it makes us empathize with these characters through this pretty fundamental, universal truth about people: we are unknowable to one another. I admit that I also kind of hate it because they are not good people: not because they are spies or Russians but because, well, they kill people.

That scene above, with Sandra Beeman, it happens after an EST session, a self-actualization fad/program/thing that ended in that form in the 80s, though I gather it maybe transformed into some other things; I’m not being dismissive, I just don’t care too much. Erhard Seminars Training being a real thing was actually one of the surprises in the show for me, I thought it was a stand-in for a general self-focus vibe that actually did feel pretty ego-driven 80s to me. It’s the perfect spot to make this declaration as to what the show’s about, because the underlying sentiment is that part of the reason we’re so unknowable to each other is that we’re pretty much unknowable to ourselves.

I feel like I have a million more things to say about this, touching on things like the fact that once a generation or so (the 60s, the 80s, the early 00s, and… gestures around uh… now) we as a culture have a real crisis about identity, whether at a personal or a national level or often, both. Or the ways in which parents leave marks on their children, and how they take responsibility for that, which is something on my mind a lot lately. Or, sometimes, the plot. Or a dozen other things. I’m just happy I’ve found a show I can watch for a little while every night that makes me think.

I’m also happy to learn that this show ends well; multiple people have commented on that to me. I’m curious to know whether I’ll feel that’s true. I’m not sure what ending this show well looks like to me. Or more accurately, whether my idea of ending this show well lines up with others. Because I feel like I just can’t know you people. 🙂

¹Wife of an FBI agent on the show, portrayed by Susan Misner — really well, actually, a great supporting cast almost universally.
²I’ve stitched together a few things here, but it all takes place in about thirty seconds, all from Sandra.

Announcing my mentoring program

Recently I read an impressive description of mentoring elsewhere with respect to writing, production, and marketing for indie games. I was really impressed that they offer that and, as a person typically having served as a lead in the past, I’ve been missing that aspect of my work.

I’ve been programming professionally for games for more than 20 years now. I’ve probably been a lead for at least half that time, though I’ve never counted it up, mentoring and leading programming teams from three or four people up to more than a couple dozen. I’ve learned a lot about building games in that time and the skills required to be a good contributor and a good leader. Although I hope I’ll still be doing this for decades to come, I’m in a position right now to be a mentor outside of my daily responsibilities. And to be honest, it’s something I miss, as right now I’m the sole programmer on the project and have been for more than a year.

Here’s what I can offer:

  • Help with the programming skills. I’ve been doing this a while, and I have learned the ways I’m most effective at the pure aspect of writing code. This includes things like code structure, algorithms, what-have-you. The software stuff.
  • Help with the less tangible stuff. Things like scheduling, communication, productivity, working with both programmers and other departments, and how you might approach your work differently at different times of the project.
  • Practically speaking: access to me via email at whatever frequency works for you. An hour or so video conference once a week. Maybe a longer session (or several hour-long sessions) in our first week just to get to know each other better and maybe set some goals.
  • Code review. I won’t do this on a daily basis, but it’d be great to look over some code you’ve written or a project you’ve done and talk about techniques to improve it in various ways.
  • An invitation to a Slack that I’ll create just for this; my hope is that as I continue doing this for more people, it’ll be a small community of programmers that help each other out. Admittedly, in the beginning it’ll just be you and me.
  • Let’s start with six months of this; not an obligation but I think longer-term regular contact is probably beneficial. We can talk about continuing this level of intensity as we approach the end, and possibly extend, and similarly, if a few months turns out to be all you really need, we can slow down the level of contact/mentoring earlier too.
  • Hopefully, a lifetime professional contact. I’ll be happy to introduce you to people I know as opportunities arise, whether at conferences (I attend sporadically, but expect to go to a few next year).

Here’s what I can’t offer:

  • I won’t program for you. I’m more likely to ask you a bunch of questions than tell you an answer. You will know better than I do in so many ways anyway.
  • I’m not an intermediary with your company. If you should end up having issues with people, they’ll be yours ultimately to navigate, though I’m happy to offer advice based on what I know.
  • I’m not looking for who I next hire where I’m working. I mean, it’s not like it could never happen, but you wouldn’t necessarily have a leg up.
  • I’m not a teacher looking to specifically teach someone language X or whatever. We may do some readings together and discuss them, but coding basics in your primary language I assume you’ve picked up somewhere else.

The ideal candidate I think has a few characteristics:

  • Near the beginning of his/her/their career. Maybe in the first five years?
  • Part of a team, whether AAA or indie. A lot of what I have to offer isn’t necessarily of use to someone who is working solo.
  • Probably a generalist, game, or systems programmer — I will not be the best person to help someone with shaders, for example, or DSP programming for audio, except in a general way.
  • Willing to share honestly the problems he/she/they face on a day to day basis, both technical and those that involve working within a team.
  • Probably working in a C-adjacent language. Although language isn’t really super important, I’m going to be fairly useless on language skills to someone who wants to program all day in Haskell or Ruby or something. While I’ve used tons of languages and while I think a lot of what I have to offer is language-agnostic, there are still likely limits to what I can do to mentor someone working in something totally alien to me.
  • Ideally, different from me. I’m white, cis, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied and male, which is to say I play life on the easiest difficulty level. I can learn from you if you’re different from me along those lines, and that’s important to me, too. I’d love to expand game programming in whatever small way I can, and reaching out specifically to people who aren’t just younger versions of myself I think would be helpful. Consider this a strong endorsement that people who are different from me should write in.

Reminder: matching up entirely with my “ideal” candidate characteristics is not disqualifying. I’m aware that under-represented groups will often take themselves out of the running earlier if they don’t match up perfectly with some list of “requirements.” These are just some things I’m looking for. It’s unlikely that every applicant will meet all of them. How you present yourself in your email introducing yourself will probably make a big difference to me. I’m not giving out a certain number of points or anything like that, this is more of a “feel” thing, I think.

How to apply: Send me an email at brett_douville@yahoo.com with the subject line “Be my mentor”. I’m not especially interested in your résumé, really — I’m more interested in you telling me a little story about who you are, where you feel you are in your career, how you got there, where you want to go, and what challenges you face. Let’s talk. Even if you’re not the person selected this time out, maybe I feel like I have time for another in a couple of months. Hopefully we both get an opportunity to grow from this experience.

Quick Answers to Random Ask.FM Questions

Almost all of these seemed random and not particularly directed at me (and some I just ignored), but here are very brief answers to the oodles of these things that have been piling up for some time. (Also, I find it highly irritating that just logging in to ask.fm will cause it to throw a question at you immediately afterwards, to… keep you engaged, I guess? It annoys the heck out of me.)

How often do you read stage plays? Virtually never.

How much of a mess is your room? Not too bad, lately. Definitely dusty but otherwise pretty orderly.

Is it possible to break down programming a game on the scale of Fallout or Skyrim? For example 70% coding the game,25% rectifying problems,5% fixing bugs. It’s possible in theory, I suppose, but difficult in practice. You could look at the core team in the credits and get a percentage by headcount that way.

Mind sharing what’s going through your mind right now? Meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow.

Can you sum up your day so far in just one word? No.

If you had the opportunity to go somewhere and start a new life, where would you go? What job would you have? And how do you imagine your house there? Always wanted to be a writer, likely in the Pacific Northwest, with a house spare in everything but books.

If someone wants to talk to you , what are the steps they should proceed to reach your acceptance of giving them a portion of your time to listen to ? I answer non-spam email from virtually anyone, on the topics of game development and programming therefor.

What do you like in life? To see my enemies driven before me.

Are you happy with the amount of information in your head? No.

Would you rather be a philosopher, an astrophysicist, or a psychologist? Why? The questions of philosophy tend to interest me most.

Do you believe in super natural powers? Nope, I’m a materialist.

If you had one word to describe yourself, what word would it be? Unsimplifiable.

Do you prefer to ask questions or answer them? Asking questions without making an attempt to answer them seems pointless.

If you could replace anything from your body, what would it be? The joints.

If you could travel the world with only one person who would you take? I have a high school friend whose conversation never flags and often fascinates.

Are cats or dogs smarter? Essentialist arguments are b.s.

Do Moorcock’s novels age well for you? The Elric novels mostly did, though they have the sexism problems of the age, but having read a couple Hawkmoon books I probably won’t read any more of him.

Why Quit Twitter?

I’ve left Twitter, deleting as much of my history¹ as I could as I went out the door. Why?

There’s a million reasons, I think, but fundamentally it’s this: I need more space in my life. I find that I often fill the empty space in my life with dopamine-seeking ephemeral activity, and I think that’s unhealthy for me. One of the biggest things I’ve spent idle time on in the last decade or so² has been social media, and since I left Facebook some time ago, that’s meant Twitter³.

It’s this itch I can scratch all day long. Heading up to the bathroom? Why not check Twitter before I head back to the basement office? Done the crossword but water still boiling for coffee? How about a few minutes on Twitter? Walking by where the phone is charging? Why not check Twitter? Reading, watching a movie/baseball game/TV show/cutscene? How about Twitter?

And the minutes just add up. I find I’ll look up from my phone and ten or fifteen minutes have just disappeared. Just gone, forever. It’s the unthoughtful way this happens that bothers me — I know I’m always going to lose some time in my life to just being idle in one form or another, but Twitter takes me out of the world in a way that I find really not good for my self. I spend that time and I might find a link to an article (that I’ll probably skim) or get enraged over something (that I’ll not do anything useful about) or go down a rabbit hole of looking at the account of someone who’s just followed me or who has been retweeted or “liked” into my timeline and it just… never ends, and nearly all of it is entirely forgettable to me. I can’t really remember much of anything that happens on Twitter, and that might be argument enough for me.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just running out of minutes to spend this way. This has been coming for a long time but I’ve noticed I just feel lighter without my phone in the last few months. I went to a film festival this past June with a friend and decided that although I was certainly going to bring my phone, I’d just leave it in the safe and use it when I was in my room. Part of that was that I’d be in screenings mostly anyway, of course, but part of it was that I just didn’t want to miss out on time with my friend, who I see far too infrequently4. On occasion she’d dip into a store and I’d just take a break from shopping and wait outside, and little moments would happen in my life that wouldn’t have happened if I was looking at my phone, little things I’d notice or moments of small connection with another person, just eyes meeting or a friendly word exchanged, even a nod.

I ended up feeling more present than I have felt in some time. On the drive up there I had started getting myself ready for this lack of phone time, and when I stopped in a diner for lunch I had left it in my pocket. While I waited for my sandwich, I listened to5 an old woman who related a story from when she was a waitress probably fifty years earlier. It was a delightful story that I won’t repeat here because I’m going to use it somewhere else some day. If I had been looking at my phone, I’d have missed it entirely… and it has stuck with me in a way that nothing on Twitter ever seems to. I go into the Twitter fugue, and I come out of the Twitter fugue, and I don’t know that I am enriched by that.

That week started me thinking about my relationship with my phone and being online generally, which was not the first time I’d thought about it. Someone had said to me on Twitter a little bit ago that being on Twitter was itself conversation, when I mentioned that I hadn’t talked to anyone for days. That really struck me, because I feel like Twitter is not remotely like conversation at all. There’s so much missing! Tone of voice, all those subtle facial queues, the rhythm, the gaps. That’s so much richer. Twitter is not conversation, and please do not impoverish conversation by saying that it is.

So, I’m leaving Twitter. There are things I’m sure I’ll miss, and there are other reasons I’m leaving, but this is probably the root of it all. Mostly what I think I’ll miss hasn’t been there for quite a while, and that was the smaller sense of community from when I started out on it. But that hasn’t been there for a long time, and no amount of curation of my experience will get that back. I like blogging better, and my early Twitter experience really just grew out of blogging. I don’t know if anyone will be reading, but you can find me here.

Here’s a quote from T. S. Eliot that I jotted down in my notebook earlier this year. It seems somehow apropos. It’s from Choruses from the Rock:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

¹Turns out, I deleted about nine thousand tweets, but apparently it won’t retrieve them back beyond a certain point. I used TweetDelete and it was kind of fun to watch 3200 disappear at a time. (back)

²Eleven years, according to Twitter, which notified me while I was on the break during which I considered this change that I’d had my “Twitterversary,” which is not a real thing. This is kind of an insidious thing that corporations do, to adopt the trappings of richer relationships or events. Twitterversary. Egads. Reason enough to leave, really. (back)

³I gave Instagram a brief trial period of maybe six weeks or so earlier this year, then remembered it had been acquired by Facebook, and struggled for a bit with that. Facebook has been shown to be damaging to a free society, and so I won’t be a part of it. I also had a mastodon account I used for about ten minutes, and Peach? Remember Peach? I never did figure out what that one was for. (back)

4There was actually another thing that happened while I was at the film festival. I had seen a movie star on the street outside my hotel on the way in and had tweeted it. And I learned that people have Twitter searches on movie stars, which makes sense in retrospect but was not something I had previously considered, as I’ve literally never used Twitter that way myself. And so there was suddenly a bit of a kerfuffle in my mentions about it and I deleted the tweet to stop the madness as quickly as I could. What a weird world we live in. What a strange world we decided to build. (back)

5Okay, okay, I was eavesdropping. But eavesdropping is a total pleasure sometimes, and one I will not deny myself and you can’t make me. (back)

Solaris and Solaris

I had the great fortune this past weekend to be able to watch both versions of Solaris on the big screen, in the main theater of the AFI Silver. Tarkovsky’s 1971 version has recently been restored in a 2K digital version, and the 2002 Soderbergh print was also very clean¹.

Both tell roughly the same story, but in very different ways, and so I’ll give a very high-level plot description. There is a space station orbiting a planet whose oceans seem to be alive with thought. A psychologist named Kelvin is sent to investigate the station, and soon after his arrival and first sleep, he is visited by his dead wife, a suicide. He is shocked; he tricks her and sends her to her death. When he sleeps again, she returns, and he this time attempts to protect her, even against herself, when she tries to kill herself again but miraculously heals. There are slight variations in how the film reaches its end, but in both, Kelvin is shown apparently on the planet’s surface, perhaps a recreation himself.

It’s quite illustrative to see these films back to back. The first is a nearly three-hour meditation, paced almost glacially, with a great deal of running time devoted to Kelvin’s introduction, to nature photography, to a sense of his place on Earth, to the bureaucracy of the study of “Solaristics,” which is in crisis due to what were potentially hallucinations by a pilot. There’s an extended sequence that is simply the filming of traffic, more or less from the perspective of a car in it. We are perhaps an hour in before we have arrived on the station itself, where everything is clutter and disaster, wires pulled out of walls, not the clean lines we would come to see in many versions of the future. The second film dispenses with much of this introduction to Kelvin’s life on Earth, and gets him to the station much more quickly, only to find it in similar but more dire disarray: there are trails of blood leading away from the docking port where he arrives.

The central difference in which the films operate is in the treatment of the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, who confusingly have different names in the films, one Hari and one Rheya². In the original film, we don’t really fully understand the relationship between Hari and Kelvin; she’s quite unknowable, and although we come to know that she killed herself, we don’t see anything of the relationship between Kelvin and her. However there’s at least one telling detail, which I particularly love: she wears a dress that while in theory fastened in the back, actually doesn’t function like clothing should, and he has to cut the dress from her so that she can get into bed with him (and he does so twice). In 2002, we get the relationship between Chris and Rheya in a series of flashbacks, mostly in dreams, some simply in memories. We see them meet, become attracted to one another, we deepen our understanding of each of their characters, we see her suicide, we see him discover the body. We get their relationship in glimpses³.

Each uses these details to underline what these recreations of the women are: echoes of the men’s mental representations of them, and not the women themselves. If the film weren’t so strange, we would even take the dress in the first film as a sort of joke about the fact that men have little understanding of how women’s clothing works. It was perhaps his favorite dress of hers, but he had no idea how she got into it.

Both films end with their protagonists themselves recreated in the great seas of Solaris, though this is revealed in different ways. Both end with these Kelvins seeking connections, though with different people4. Both are in some sense adrift, and the tone of one is very Russian and the tone of the other is very American. 🙂

In both cases, what I think appeals to me so much about these films is the underlying sense of loneliness, the meditation on the essential unknowability of another person. In the second film, this is made explicit as Rheya is very upset at the fact that while she has memories of the events of their relationship that we’ve been seeing, including her suicide, she has no memory of actually being in them, the memory of what it would have felt to be the person acting and not being seen to be acting. This provokes an attempt at another suicide, via drinking liquid oxygen, though as an unreal person she survives and is healed. The original is braver, I think, in simply making her unknowable; we only have the sense of her through how Kelvin behaves towards her, and we know nothing of this inner turmoil when she also tries to kill herself with liquid oxygen. Being bred from Kelvin’s memories, which include discovering the original’s corpse, each simulacrum has as a central characteristic the drive towards self-destruction.

I say that the loneliness appeals to me, and that might seem strange. It’s a fact of the human condition that no matter how much time we spend with another, we will never fully understand what it’s like to be inside the other’s mind. We can never know everything about the others around us, even the ones we love the most. There is a bridge of connection we can never fully cross. We can only stand on our side of the bridge and trust that there’s someone standing on the other side, too.

I try to look at this as a comfort; at least I’m not alone in this loneliness. And that’s what these films do for me, in such very different ways.

¹Sadly, the projection on the 2002 version was not as expert, which was very out of character for the theater. The picture was at one point slightly and maddeningly out of focus, and at another point switching reels was not properly synced. Highly unusual, but there it is. (back)

²I had to look up her name in the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Although I’ve read the book, it was around thirty years ago and the films have erased my memory of it entirely, which is a whole ‘nother discussion to be had some day. That said, apparently the original has her as Harey, and the English translation had her as Rheya, which is an anagram of Harey. (back)

³And this is the shorter film! It’s very efficient. (back)

4This is another essential difference in the films, and one that adds to the running time of the original. 1971’s Kelvin also imagines up his mother, and this underlines a sense of loss of connection, because that’s the one time in our lives where we are truly connected to another person, and we can’t even consciously remember it! (back)