Popularity in the Digital Age

I don’t know how many of my readers aspire to publish publicly and have their words read by an audience. I suspect that it’s a fairly large percentage. I know this is something that I have always been drawn to, since I was young. It’s not that I wanted to be famous, though I suspect that all human beings are tempted by fame. Fame makes some very empty promises very loudly. But there are othaser good reasons to want to have an audience. In particular, having an audience enables one to give away knowledge that one has been given. Next to learning, there is nothing more satisfying than teaching. (In learning we are looking at the goodness of God directly, in teaching we are (by God’s gift) taking part in God’s self-gift to others.)

The commonality of wanting an audience for one’s writing, combined with the way that technology has made publishing all but free, has resulted in there being so much writing that finding things is incredibly difficult. Further, with so many options on offer, we all look for those voices which speak to us very effectively. Since there’s so much available, there’s a lot of sifting to find the things we really like. Thus the problem in the age of handwriting was copying, the problem in the age of print was distribution, and the problem in the digital age is discovery. How does one find an audience, which is really the question: how does one’s audience find one?

Aside from large amounts of money, there do not seem to be any sure-fire answers. At least quick answers. How does one get a sizable audience in six months without spending a ton of money on advertising and cross-promotion? Heaven knows. But it does seem to be the case that longevity is a major component of finding an audience without a ton of spending. This is for two reasons, I think.

The first is that much of stumbling into an author that one enjoys reading is by luck, and luck takes time. Over the course of several years, some people will stumble into one’s blog and like it. The other is that recommendation (posting on social media, emailing, etc) is itself something which grows with the size of one’s audience. A small audience rarely recommends posts, a larger audience recommends posts more often. Thus the few people who find one initially will occasionally recommend one’s work in a way that puts other people who enjoy it together with that work. Over time that builds, as well, both because there’s more time for that to happen but also because there’s more time for older posts to become relevant to some conversation or topic.

In essence, the key to winning the lottery is to buy a large number of tickets; the way one does that in blogging is by writing a lot of blog posts over a lot of time. Something similar applies to YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, etc.

Once again it turns out that patience is the most practical of the virtues.

Game Design and the Rule of Cool

The Rule of Cool is, I believe, actually a TV trope, it applies to video games as well. The variant I’m thinking of is when all inconsistencies between game play and the story are waved away as game play being more important than consistency with the story.

Now, in fairness, games must be unrealistic in order to be games. If a game was perfectly realistic, it would be a simulator, not a game. And people would mostly only do them to train for doing the real version. Thus wounds must heal in seconds or minutes, not weeks or months. Thus is should take minutes to build a hut, not days. And so on; there are a lot of things which need to be cheated in order to have a game and not a simulator. This I grant.

Having granted that, it’s important to point out that it does not follow that no thought should go into how one cheats reality in order to make a game. This is not true, of course, of pure games, such as tic-tac-toe or tetris. But in games that have a story, it is extremely important to consider how the gameplay fits in with the story. Recently I’ve been playing ARK: Survival Evolved, so I’ll draw my examples from there. The one thing that you need to know about ARK is that it’s a survival-type game (i.e. you gather resources and craft tools, structures, etc) with dinosaurs. An the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

Of course, the first problem is that ARK isn’t really a survival game. It’s a team assault game where the weapons are gathered in a semi-survivalist sort of way. I say semi-survivalist because after a certain point all of the resources are gathered by heavy machines. It just so happens that the heavy machines are dinosaurs, but aside from having a setting where they can aimlessly wander around and having a breeding mechanic, they are designed just like heavy machines would be. There are heavy trucks (brontosauri), light trucks (diplodocuses), tanks (rexes), armored assault vehicles (allosauruses), and so on. There are even spy helicopters (pteranodons), attack helicopters (tapejaras) and cargo helicopters (quetzals). You might think that flying reptiles would be more like planes, but they’re all slow, very maneuverable, and extremely good at hovering. The more heavily laden they are, the slower they move. It makes sense as a game mechanic but makes absolutely no physical sense. If a slow moving animal flapped very slowly, it would fall like a rock.

And the problem is that this takes you right out of the story. When flying reptiles are actually swimming through the air in entirely impossible ways, the beauty of the models loses most of its effect. The same is true of the walk-cycles which don’t adapt to the ground, but I think for different reasons.

Granted, walk cycles which don’t use physics to adjust the skeleton in natural ways for locomotion will never look entirely right, but I think that we’d forgive scripted walk cycles far more if the dinosaur which was walking imperfectly was actually moving with a purpose. But in ARK they aren’t. Or rather, they almost never are. On occasion a predator does run at another dinosaur to attack it. But under normal circumstances the dinosaurs simply wander around completely aimlessly. The herbivores do not eat, nor do the walk towards plants. They are simply on a random walk. And I think that the fact that their movements are completely pointless make you far more likely to notice that they’re not walking correctly.

And this problem carries over to appreciating the models for another reason. It’s great that the triceratops looks almost exactly how you’d picture it, but it’s hard to notice that when they’re not behaving at all like how you’d expect. They’re a herd animal. You should see them in groups and they should move around with some relationship to the others in the herd. That they don’t just breaks the illusion even more.

And of course everything has terrible eyesight in ARK. Predators don’t notice prey until they’re within about 50 yards. Prey doesn’t notice predators until the predators have  actually bitten them. No creature in ARK has a nose.

Of course, none of these are likely to be overly noticeable if you’re playing in team-versus-team since you have to be on constant lookout for other teams who will try to kill you if you’re alone.

I should note that the dinosaur taming also suffers from the idea of gameplay-over-story. With exceptions, dinosaur taming is accomplished by using tranquilizers to knock a dinosaur unconscious, then feed it its favorite foods while it’s unconscious. Once it’s eaten enough it then instantly forms a lifelong bond to you where it is willing to go on suicide missions on your command. Granted you have to cheat taming an animal somehow for this to be a game and not as simulator, but this is extremely stupid. Worse, as you are shooting the dinosaur with tranquilizer-soaked crossbow bolts in order to knock it out, once it’s torpor falls below a certain point it realizes that you are trying to tranquilize it and runs away at its top speed. This is very stupid because tranquilizers make animals slower, not faster, but it also makes taming dinosaurs frustrating. There’s also no way to vary the amount of tranquilizer being delivered per shot, so larger, higher level dinosaurs require very large numbers of shots to tranquilize. That’s tedious, not fun. (This is another case where the game is made for multi-player, because using one of the many multi-person dinosaur mounts makes chasing after dinosaurs much easier since one person drives the dinosaur while the other person shoots. It’s also the case that, for example, four people can deliver 4x as many tranquilizing shots so chasing may not even be necessary for teams.)

A mechanic where you feed the awake dinosaur until it likes you would have been much better. This does actually exist with a few dinosaurs, but even here this has been screwed up so that it isn’t too easy, by which I really mean, too fun. There’s a dolphin-like marine reptile which likes to come up to survivors (what the players are called) and nuzzle them. You can give them meat and this tames them, except that once they realize you’re trying to tame them, they run away. This makes no sense, and is no fun. Apparently the most important game mechanic is that the player must struggle for everything.

Ultimately, ARK is an absolutely beautiful games which isn’t very much fun to play in single player mode because its central theme is being a tribal warfare simulator where it takes hundreds of hours to build up assets that get destroyed in a few minutes during a raid. The later stages of the games are even fought with automatic weapons and heavy artillery; the dinosaur seem almost out of place among auto-turrets and C4 bombs.

But the upshot is that the game really doesn’t work as a single player game. It really looks like it should work as a single player game. There should be an enormous amount to do all on one’s own. But it’s mostly ruined by inattention to the story. It’s not possible to suspend one’s disbelief long enough to enjoy it. Which is a great pity because the dinosaur models are gorgeous.

Advance Review Copies of The Dean Died Over Winter Break

The first bit of news is that Silver Empire Publishing will be publishing my novel The Dean Died Over Winter Break. It’s due out on early February. And as you might be able to guess from the title, it’s a murder mystery.


And on that note, if you are interested in an advance review copy of The Dean Died Over Winter Break, please contact Russell at Silver Empire (russell at silverempire dot org). As I understand it the only requirement is that you agree to read it and leave an Amazon.com review on the publication date. Which, I should point out, is a very kind service to perform. Amazon reviews are extremely helpful in connecting books with people who might enjoy reading them.

Falcons Are Murderous Parrots, Not Raptors

At least, so says this biologist. Basically, the idea is that instead of being a splinter off of raptors (hawks and eagles) which specialized for speed, falcons are actually a splinter off of parrots who specialized for speed and meat eating.

The article goes on at length about how shocking this is, but having been very into studying falconry in my youth and having once had a pet parrot (well, a cockatiel, but it’s in the parrot family), I’m actually not very surprised. Eagles (mostly) look kind of like large hawks, but falcons just don’t look much like hawks at all. They actually look more like short-tailed parrots. This is especially true of their wing shape. Falcons have long, narrow wings where the flight feathers stick together forming a (mostly) solid surface. Hawk’s and eagle’s flight feathers stick out independently, looking almost like outstretched fingers. Parrot’s wings look extremely similar to falcon’s wings, with the flight feathers touching each other.

Granted, looks aren’t dispositive, which is the point of the original article. I just think it’s worth noting that it goes out of its way to emphasize the ways that falcons look like hawks but not how they look dissimilar.

And it should be noted that the results of convergent evolution are, in the end, convergence. That falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks means very little; you can train hawks and falcons for falconry (hunting), but you can’t train parrots to hunt. Falcons don’t talk like parrots do, and you interact with them much more like hawks than like parrots. Hawks, eagles, and falcons are all fairly solitary creatures.

So while it’s fascinating trivial that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks, it’s not actually useful information. You still shouldn’t name your gyrfalcon polly, or offer it a cracker.

That Story That Modern Screenwriters Can Tell

Recently, I wrote about The Story Modern (Western) Screenwriters can Tell. I realized that the modern story can be put even more succinctly: the main character decides whether he’s going to be completely worthless or only mostly worthless.

Usually the thing which precipitates this crises is that the main character wants to be completely worthless, but the plot makes it such that if he is as completely worthless as he wants to be, many people will die (or at least suffer). In the end, we find out if he’s willing to go beyond himself to alleviate their suffering in the way that only he can do.

This has nothing to do with heroism, but it is mistakable for heroism by people who primarily think in terms of story beats (i.e. of plot points broken down by scene, the way that screenwriters do when writing or editing stories). Real heroism is not about whether someone will do the minimum necessary, but whether he will go beyond what is necessary. At its core, heroism is about generosity. That’s why it moves us so much—it’s about being a true image of God.

I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that modern writing is primarily concerned with how imperfectly the main character will be an image of hell.

What Atheists Would Actually Do If They Came to Believe in God

Apparently there’s a popular type of video for YouTube atheists to do where they answer the question, “If you became convinced that God exists, would you worship him?” I explain what they’d actually do if they came to believe in God. You can also view the video on YouTube:

Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)