The gentle layered failure of Spyro the Dragon

I love it when a game feels like it’s rooting for you.

Over this ten day weekend that comprises the holidays, I’ve been playing the remake¹ of Spyro the Dragon. So I want to talk about the way the game handles failure gently and in a way that tries to give you a leg up to success.

I need to give you a bit of a sense of the structure of the game to discuss the topic, so here we go. As a platformer of its time, it has “lives².” Spyro has a starting number of lives, like Mario does; when he runs out of lives, the game is “over” in some sense (we’ll get to that). The world in which the game takes place consists of a number of hubs, which are themselves game levels, from which Spyro can reach other levels via magic portals; additional hubs can be reached by accomplishing certain in-game goals. The current state of the game is saved every time Spyro enters or leaves a level, or when he rescues a dragon. The game state consists of what collectibles he has collected (gems that are either distributed loose, in chests of different kinds, or dropped by defeated enemies), which dragons have been rescued, and a smattering of other small details. Collectibles, once gained, are gained forever³. That’s the rough outline, and I’ll fill in more as we go as I discuss the various ways the game makes you feel like it wants you to succeed.

So, the first way it wants you to succeed is to make it harder to lose a life. Spyro is accompanied by a dragonfly named Sparx, he flits alongside him as he has his adventures. Sparx acts effectively as a renewable shield; Sparx will take three hits for Spyro before he disappears, and then Spyro will be unguarded and further damage will end this particular life of Spyro’s. It is as if Spyro has four hit points, which can be depleted one-by-one by environmental hazards or walking into enemies or being hit by their attacks. The three hit points belonging to Sparx can be regained by finding non-threatening ambient critters (sheep and rabbits and that sort of thing). All of this is fairly standard mechanical stuff going back to Mario and probably before; Mario eats mushroom to get big, Mario can now take two hits before he dies, if he takes one he can eat another mushroom to regain it.

One way it differs from Mario’s 2D games is that these ambient creatures are both fairly plentiful and more importantly, they respawn a little time after Spyro has gotten Sparx to consume them. So although good level design tends to place these critters after significant challenges for Spyro and the player, it’s almost always possible to go back and find some before you engage in these challenges. The game is happy to have you be at your best before you take on its challenges. So that’s one layer of encouragement to the player, to protect these lives.

Above, I mentioned how rescuing dragons saves the game state; it’s also true that returning to a place where Spyro has rescued a dragon will save the state again; typically we call this a checkpoint. The game state that is maintained while Spyro still has lives includes which enemies are alive or dead in the level he is currently in, but as noted above, collectibles such as gems are collected once and forever. If Spyro loses a life, therefore, any enemies he has encountered since the last save point are restored — this is done to maintain a level of challenge to the actual moment-to-moment play4.

Since gems dropped by enemies are collected once and forever, the game then goes further to give the player another benefit from defeating them a second time. On any subsequent defeat, an enemy will drop an orb which, when Spyro grabs it, will fill up a meter that grants an extra life once filled. It’s as if the game is saying, “Oh, I see you had trouble with this section, perhaps this will make it up to you.” Enemies similarly respawn whenever Spyro re-enters a level, and since the hubs are themselves levels, enemies will be recreated whenever one returns to them, giving Spyro an additional chance to earn these orbs and thus earn extra lives. There are also items in the levels which grant a whole extra life at one go.

Finally, on “game over,” the game can be continued and Spyro will be returned to the hub nearest to his final death — since enemies are restored when levels are entered, the enemies in the hub will be restored. On continuing the game with five new lives, then, the player is subtly encouraged to go ahead and add another life or two before continuing with whatever challenge ended his prior game.

I love these sorts of layered failure states, which is why I went into all of this so pedantically. It just feels like a pat on the back from the designer, a sort of “hey, you got this” cheer and a little boon to help you finish the game. It allows you to fail with a sort of forward momentum at each stage.

Sadly, none of these carry over into the final level5, which requires a nimbleness of the player which hasn’t really been strictly required up to that point, except occasionally. That final boss requires real agility and doesn’t contain any enemies that allow you to start building up new lives. If I were a player who had leaned heavily on the fail forward mechanics of the rest of the game, I’d be frustrated. Endings are hard.

Just thought I’d document all of that to help explain to myself why playing these games again feels like seeping in a warm bath.

¹I was surprised to discover it’s a remake, actually. I had assumed it was a remaster of some kind though I realize how difficult that would likely be and it’s not something we see too often from PS1 to PS4. (back)
²”Lives” mechanics are a holdover from the arcade era, where they were used to force a “game over/put in another quarter” loop. As of the PS2 era, I remember talking with Nathan Martz about how the mechanic was almost certainly going to die off. I’m sure it hasn’t, entirely, but it’s no longer a staple and indeed when Insomniac released its first PS2 platformer, Ratchet and Clank, they had abandoned it. (back)
³To be fully pedantic about this, collectibles once gained could be lost if the game were turned off before another save, but as long as the game is running, a collected gem is Spyro’s forever. (back)
4As a collection-based platformer, returning to empty levels just to search for remaining collectibles might be more tedious without combat distractions; mileage will vary for and individual player’s tastes. (back)
5Sadly, these mechanics do not apply at all to a certain class of level, in which Spyro must fly through a timed obstacle course; however, it might be possible to complete the game without engaging with these levels at all. I didn’t do the math, but I generally skipped them in favor of returning to them after I had defeated the final boss, so I think that’s the case. I did come back to them later, for the cheevos. 🙂 (back)

A little economic analysis

I’ve been seeing a repeated commercial through the World Series about relief donations for hurricane relief from a major mobile carrier. They’ll give $10K per home run in the series, up from $5K per home run in the post-season generally. They’ll also give $2 per tweet with a particular hash tag, but I’ve never seen it trending¹, so we can probably assume that’s negligible.

It would be unusual to see as many as four home runs per game in the series, but even if it hit that, and even with a seven game series, you’d only be looking at 28 home runs. So, they are looking at a donation that is probably at an absolute stretch no more than $300K.

One thirty second spot of advertising for the World Series in 2014 cost $520K. Each night, there’s at least one thirty second spot and usually three or more 15 second spots, as well as mention by the announcers. There’s probably some bulk economics at work for this as a large ad buy, but I think it’s reasonable to think that they are dropping $1M per game.

If the series goes all seven games, that means they’ll have at a minimum spent more than 20 times as much to tell us how charitable they are than they are actually spending on charity. And that’s with me being very generous to the offense of the teams.

I’ve looked and this carrier has, like other carriers, provided free service to those affected by hurricanes in the past, as well as providing some support services in those areas to help people get chargers and phone use as well.

I’m glad this company provides those services. But I’d sure love to see them spend a lot more on the charity and a lot less making us think about their charity.

¹”But Brett, I thought you were off Twitter!” And I am, but I still maintain the Dev Game Club twitter and check it every so often even when watching the game. (back)

Softening the landing

Caveat lector: this post discusses the end of the book Bel Canto, so if you’d rather not know, you’ve been warned.

Today I finished reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I had been reminded of because recently there’s been a film adaptation¹ and I had wanted to read it when it was originally out but I did not have the same amount of time to read then that I do now. I was happy for the reminder, through it on my holds at my local library, and picked it up a couple of weeks ago.

Reader, it is terrific. It’s everything I could want in a literary novel, cleanly written yet capable of deep insight, drawing you into these characters’ lives, allowing you glimpses of their soul. You kind of get lost in it. I even copied out a couple of brief passages to the notebook I carry around with me. It spoke to me, often. I may even give opera another try.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it’s fiction based on real-life events. In late 1996, hundreds of people at a party in the Japanese Embassy in Lima were taken hostage by a little over a dozen revolutionaries². They were in a heavily fortified building and the standoff lasted for 126 days; I can remember it happening. As far as I know, the only hostage who died was killed when the military stormed the building. All of the revolutionaries were killed, and some of them were later determined to have been killed “extrajudiciously,” which is to say, they were murdered after having been subdued or having surrendered.

So, I knew where this book was headed. Talking it over with my friend who had also recently read it, I said that the process of reading it was like watching an enormous tree that has been cut through, to fell it, and much of the book felt like watching a moment where the tree was teetering before it fell. Except that here, that moment lasts the hours it takes you to read the book. And, more accurately, I felt that for a few hundred pages, I was that teetering tree.

As I neared the inevitable, I started to wonder how the ending would be handled. I thought a little bit about how I might end the book; I considered that I might end it just as the assault began, just cut it off entirely short, let the reader envision the violence. I thought maybe the book would end in the violence itself, with the shock of the survivors as they were rescued and witnessed the deaths of these people they had spent months with, who they had come to know and who had revealed surprises about themselves. Both would have been kind of staggering gut-punches.

Both of those endings and others like them seem to me to be maybe the very male way to end the book. To attempt to gain for the book a little more critical heft, leaving the reader in that state of being just absolutely drained emotionally by what they’ve read. I can even imagine the sorts of words the reviews would use: daring, unsparing.

Patchett took a different approach. She attached a very brief epilogue, the specifics of which I won’t go into but which look just a little bit forward. It’s hopeful, and it’s tender.

It’s also very generous to the reader. Having been through what we’ve just been through, in those final pages of the novel, just how gut-wrenching it has been, in part because of how it’s been building to its inevitable conclusion, Patchett gives us a moment of comparable grace. It feels like a more feminine approach, I think — it cares more for the reader, it gives you a glimpse of a future, a reason to go on. It doesn’t throw you to the wolves, it doesn’t leave you soaking in the pain.

I felt really well cared for in those last few pages, and I think the novel is better for them. I felt like the author was there with me, knowing the ache I had in the pit of my stomach, that sadness I was carrying with me as I was preparing to set the book down. I felt her holding me for just a few pages, helping me return to the world. Helping temper that sadness. Helping me go on. Reminding me that you can. We do.

¹Reading it, it seemed like a film adaptation would be a tough job, one that would need a truly visionary director to find the heart of and communicate, like a Schnabel or a Todd Haynes or others along those lines. Although I understand why they chose the director they did, because of superficial similarities between this and a show that director executive produced, Mozart in the Jungle. Looking at his film credits, I think it’s safe to suspect that this was a cynical, near-Oscar-season kind of attempt at a prestige grab and I am going to pass. Overall it seems critics have not been tremendously kind. (back)

²Generally speaking, they are referred to as terrorists in what few articles I’ve read. I’m not really comfortable with that term, based on the events. Absolutely they took hostages, and did exchange gunfire with the military, but were not notably violent towards their hostages. I’m not sympathetic to their violent acts by any means, but terrorism is the inspiration of fear as the tactic, and this was more like a negotiating tactic. (back)

An unexpected trip

We hadn’t been dating very long, though we had started sleeping in the same bed, from time to time.

Her dog was just a puppy, still, but a big breed, more than 60 pounds already. Energetic and exuberant and proud of some of the privileges he had. Including sleeping on the bed, which there wasn’t as much space for when I was over. More reason to claim it as early as possible.

We were getting ready to go to bed at her place. She was adjusting the sheets or something, and the puppy decided that her presence in the bedroom meant it was his time to get up on the bed.

He jumped, leading with his skull. Her forehead was in the way. Skull met brow and it opened up three quarters of an inch along the ridge of her eyebrow. I wasn’t in the room, but I heard her yell, and by the time I got there it was already running down her face and she was staunching it as best she could.

Maybe not a million-to-one shot, but somewhat long odds.

We got in touch with her daughter, who in her sociology work had seen this sort of thing from time to time. She thought that it would need to get looked at.

In the end, we agreed. Ice hadn’t slowed it much, it was clear it might need stitches or glue. We went to the hospital. At ten o’clock at night. An apparent couple, the woman with a facial wound and the man unharmed.

At every stage they tried to separate us, and eventually I realized why. When we first came in and filled out the paperwork, they asked her to join them in another room and she said, no, he can stay with me. When we were in an examination room, the nurses would ask if maybe she’d rather just be alone with the doctors. The doctor did, too. And the nurses did again. I say it like it was a handful of times, but in retrospect each step probably had a couple of different ways of trying to separate us. So that the truth could be known.

I don’t think it was the first time they tried to separate us that they thought I had hit her. It may not have even been the second time. Certainly by the third time it had dawned on me the assumptions they had made. They had seen it all before. I definitely hadn’t.

She ended up with a bunch of stitches.

I ended up a bit queasy at having been thought to be the cause.

Here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go on the offensive, once I realized what they were insinuating by trying to separate us. I didn’t let any anger burst out of me. I didn’t accuse anyone of anything. I didn’t shout, or get red in the face, or tighten my lips, or sweat, or demand anything of anyone, or ask barbed questions like whether the doctor ever hit his wife.

I just realized what they so often dealt with. I appreciated what they were trying to do. Sure, I felt some shame, that they thought this of me. But the demographics were not in my favor — white guy, late 30s to early 40s — I got it, once I got it. She understood it a lot sooner than I did, which is why she kept explaining that it had been the dog that had done it.

It hadn’t stopped them asking.

It was subtle enough that it took me awhile to even realize what they were trying to do, to separate us so that she could tell them I had hit her. Even if I hadn’t.

But that was what they saw. And a lot of indignant male partners, husbands or what-have-you, who didn’t want to be separated. Who didn’t want her telling her side of the tale.

She’d say later that I went above and beyond the call, that night, early in a relationship. I didn’t feel that way, even though I had realized what was going on, and had mentioned it to her even as we waited for a doctor to come in and put in the dozen or so stitches. I felt it was just what you did — you’re with someone, they get hurt, you go with them.

I guess she meant the assumption that I had been the cause. It was a reasonable assumption, though, however wrong it had been in that case.

When I see a man railing against how awful and unfair it is that they be questioned? I think: that’s a guilty man. Because the rest of us, if we’ve been paying attention? We know the score. We know why the questions get asked. We might feel a sense of shame that someone might think that of us, but we also know: they don’t know us. They know the statistics, and they know their personal experience. Their personal experience is: it’s never a fall, or a door walked into, or good-effin’-christ a dog? Are you kidding me? It’s the man who brought them in.

The systems which question aren’t wrong. They are born from experience. It’s the rage, the “how dare you,” that is wrong. That’s the guilt talking.

In the end, the scar was nothing. It faded within a year or so.

The understanding, on both of our parts, that stayed. She knew it already. It was my turn to learn.

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 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)

The pleasures of roller derby

On Friday in the midst of work I had two words pop into my brain unprovoked, and those were “roller derby.” I’d never been before, but I looked it up on the Internet like you do and learned that not only is there a Maryland league, there’s a team which plays very nearby to me and although they only play out of their home rink a few times a year, the next derby was literally the next day. So Saturday, I went. Can’t ignore kismet.

Most people will be unfamiliar with the sport, so here’s a quick primer¹. The sport is played by women on roller skates (not inline, the ones with four wheels and a front brake), and on a flat track running counter-clockwise. The unit of a derby competition² is the jam; one member of each team is designated the jammer, and these jammers score points by passing the members of other other team (once they have done so once). The first jammer to pass all of the rest of the other team becomes the lead jammer and has the ability to call off the jam at any point by making a motion to her hips with her hands. Both jammers can score points, however. Each team also has a member who is the pivot, who can become the jammer if the jammer hands off the equivalent of a baton — a cover that goes over the jammer’s helmet to indicate her role. Most of the time, a pivot simply acts as another blocker. Contact is part of the sport, but blocking is not allowed with hands, elbows, head nor feet and must be between thigh and shoulder, I think. Jams end after two minutes if they are not called off by the lead jammer. A derby consists of two half-hour periods with an intermission in-between.

There’s a fair amount of strategy inherent in these rules, and there are probably some rules I’m missing, but that is the gist³.

It’s quite fun to watch, which is the first pleasure. As you start to appreciate the rules and what’s going on out there, you find yourself noticing particularly nice approaches by a jammer to a group of blockers. There were a couple of jammers in particular who were quite nimble on their skates, and seeing them approach the opponent and dance around them without going out of bounds was really quite interesting once you knew what was going on.

Next up, I have to say, is the culture of punny names. Rather than compete under their own names, each competitor chooses her own sobriquet and these can be quite amusing4. From the team I was watching, the Rockville Rock Villains, quite a number stood out: there was The Oxford Commakaze, Grandma Seizure, Gin Demonic, and Too Fast Tofurious (who, I would learn later, wanted to be Artichoke-a-bitch, but was told that would have to be censored). I gather this is a hold-over from when the sport wanted to be an athletic entertainment like wrestling rather than a competitive sport, but I’m glad they kept it.

The atmosphere at a derby is pretty positive; absolutely, as with any athletic competition, people are cheering for their team. But I don’t think I ever heard anyone cuss out a ref, which was unusual for me coming from coaching youth baseball when my kids were younger5. It wasn’t for lack of passion on the part of the athletes nor of the crowd, there was tons of cheering. Just not a lot of screaming or complaints about missed calls or wrong calls. That was really refreshing.

The other thing I noticed, and this may have contributed to the positive atmosphere, is the variety amongst the competitors. There’s a wide range of women’s ages and body types represented, and any woman might participate as any of the roles. I saw women who were very good jammers turn around and serve as blockers as well (they may have been pivots in that situation, because the pivot only became clear to me if she changed role to be the jammer). Jammers tended to be the smaller competitors but not always; larger women could be very effective jammers, though they might approach a group of blockers differently. The women were racially diverse as well.

Finally, there were a couple of things that happened when the derby was over that I thought were great. First, on the rink itself, fans were encouraged to come up and line around the rink and stick their hands out for high-fives from both teams. The victors went first, skating around and slapping hands with all the spectators, and when they finished, they made a tunnel of their arms for the other team to pass through on their way to slap hands.

Second, they invited everyone to join them at a nearby barbecue joint for fun afterwards. A number of the competitors were there, from each team, and I met both The Oxford Commakaze and got the story about Too Fast Tofurious’s name directly from the source, as I had complimented each on their skating.

All in all, it was a really pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I’d encourage people to go, if they have roller derby teams nearby — I gather that there are hundreds of leagues around the world in more than twenty countries.

¹Many thanks to “Fury,” from the other team, who was really patient with me and my many questions over the course of the derby. Fury had recently had a third child and was not competing that day, but was there to cheer on her team nonetheless. I would footnote the use of “Fury” above but it’s one of the pleasures, so you’ll have to keep reading the main article for that. (back)

²Derby refers both to the sport itself but is also the name of the competition between two teams. In tennis, they have matches; in derby, they have derbies. (back)

³In particular, there are fouls for inappropriate contact and for inappropriate offense (such as a jammer being knocked out of bounds and coming back in ahead of someone on the other team whom she was previously behind, that’s called “cutting the line,” if I recall correctly). These lead to imbalances in the teams at times which can be additionally exciting, but I didn’t quite get all of them and so figured I’d just throw them here in the footnotes. (back)

4They also pick their own numbers, it seems, and these were all over the place. There was a 666, a 404 (I wondered if she worked with the web), and quite a variety of others. It seemed part of the whimsy of the names. (back)

5There are any number of stories I could share about being a coach of youth baseball about parents who get a little out of control. But the one that has always stood out to me was during an “all-star” game when my older son was 8 or 9. At that age, base coaches were also responsible for umpiring the bases they were at (and coaches were in the field as well). I made a close call at first base where I called one of the kids on my team out — that was what I saw. The parents were not happy, but were happy to let me know that. I walked over and told them that since coaching was all-volunteer, they were all equally welcome to come out and coach a team. This was a totally meaningless game (which describes almost all youth competition at that age) and the response to one call was definitely out of line, but not out of character. (back)

The old blog lives

FYI, you can find the old blog from a link to the right — I had to go and write a python script to update all the links. Not going to worry if anything doesn’t work quite right (for some reason, the pictures are wrong, not sure why, oh well), certainly new comments won’t work because the back-end is gone. But the old comments are preserved, too, and all the links should work. Let me know if anything is egregiously wrong, thanks.

Oh Capitalism, You Make Everything Worse in a Glittering Array of Ways

I was texting with a friend this morning, talking about what we’ve been reading lately like we do. And I was reflecting on some positives and negatives about the book I started last evening, ending with a remark that indeed it feels like We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Gone Girl meets The Omen as apparently Entertainment Weekly described it¹.

And of those three sources, The Omen was underlined and I had no idea why. I don’t remember seeing that behavior in text messages in the past². So I tapped on it out of curiosity.

And of course, up pops an ad atop my text window, for a 2006 Liev Schreiber remake — a film whose existence I had no concept of now, if I ever did³. The only model which makes sense, given the context — in which two other films (both adapted from books) did not similarly get underlined — is that whomever was in charge of marketing this particular film splashed out some money for advertising that is only slowly being spent. Presumably the other two films were more popular and if they were similarly pushed, they already served out their marketing sentences. Apple isn’t doing this just to get the slice of money they’d get for selling or renting these to you via iTunes; no, they need further inducement. Apparently they aren’t interested in selling you the books via iBooks, either.

You can see the marketing thinking here, I guess. “When people are talking about our movie, we’ll give them the opportunity to buy it right there.” But for me, it’s a hugely unwelcome intrusion, a distraction. It’s another little slice of human soul given up to pointless consumerism. Another tiny fragment of attention stolen from a day, taking a little bit of me away from a conversation with a friend.

I do my best to avoid these things. I use an ad blocker — I used to white list sites I visited frequently but at this point, I can’t imagine doing so, what with ads out there installing trackers into your browsers and collecting data for themselves, and ads that can apparently simply grab passwords by asking for them in off-screen forms and letting the browser aid-and-abet the privacy violation. I support a handful of sites with subscriptions, and yes, I more or less freeload the rest, if there’s no alternative. Sites that won’t show you content unless you disable your ad blocker I simply don’t visit.

It’s clear from the landscape online that the only way ads have of working is by paying extremely little for each of these tiny little attention violations. It’s the model that works. And so by being part of it, we encourage it to find new ways to steal little bits of attention, as here in my text messages, an ad revenue model that didn’t exist ten years ago.

It makes me think of baseball, and how different it is to see a live game, particularly a high school game or something. You go, and the game has a sort of rhythm to it, and yes, there’s a lot of space between the actions. Maybe thirty seconds to a pitch or more, et cetera, and then the burst of activity around a play. I’ve read in books descriptions of listening to a game on the radio, and seen representations of that in films such as A League of Their Own and it used to be a listening experience itself that was filled with little silences. Now, watching on television, those spaces are carved into a million little opportunities for ad reads — “Tonight’s line up brought to you by yadda yadda yadda,” “Tonight’s umpires brought to you by and so on and so on,”4 and a new read between each batter in the line-up it seems, if they could sell that many. Each of these costing a little bit. Each cutting away a little bit of soul.

I know there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. I’m just finding myself more fearful of new experiences because I don’t want the ads. I stay away from mobile games for the most part because I expect there will be an ad at the bottom of every page. Before I look something up on the web, I ask myself whether I really care to know, because I know it’ll mean clicking through garbage to get at what I want. Some times it’s better just not to know.

And taking a break from Twitter, at the moment, I wonder too about the unhealthy ways it’s changed me. I’m still finding myself reaching for my phone often, and then having a moment where I realize that it’s a reflex and not a need. A search for that bit of dopamine, I guess. I’ve been quitting all these things lately, and looking for the interactions with the world that enrich me. I started up an Instagram account but killed it off after a month or two; I reactivated Facebook only so I could delete my account permanently (it had been years, and the amount of digital cruft that built up in there was terrifying, a million little notifications, each another little cut). The Twitter break. I miss the people that I’d be connecting with in that way; but those connections seem so thin. Built on memories of people and not people. But a lot of that is a separate issue; the focus here is the million little cuts of advertising that I have to suffer to have these experiences.

Instead, I want the more focused experiences — the art museum, all my reading, my (ad-free) podcast, this (ad-free) blog. Those last two actually cost me — a few hundred dollars a year for hosting costs, and I pay it willingly, because it feels like a more human connection, conversations with a buddy and an audience5. All that other stuff serves a mode of being which doesn’t really serve me, and I just have to let it go. While I still have a bit of soul left.

¹The book in question is Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth, one of this summer’s crop of thrillers. I read a fair amount of thrillers, actually. Well, I read a lot of everything, to be fair. (back)

²To be entirely accurate, and this may be germane, it was actually an iMessage, since I was typing away on my iPad, an experience I find more comfortable than thumbing around on a keyboard on the iPhone. I have a USB keyboard for my iPad, much better for doing the crossword puzzle every day. (back)

³And glancing at the “Tomatometer” which accompanied the pop-up, it seems I should be glad I never did. Eesh; that is maybe not the strongest way to sell a movie, to throw a “27%” right there next to it. (back)

4I actually originally wrote this bit with the actual sponsors I hear every night watching the Red Sox broadcast, but I then realized I was doing the same thing I’m inveighing against. And not even getting paid for it. (back)

5I realize this comes from a place of privilege — not everyone can afford to spend money each year to have their little ad-free voice out there. I’m lucky. (back)