Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The Chinese Room

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In 1980, the philosopher John Searle presented a thought experiment that has become known as the Chinese Room. I first encountered it in William Poundstone’s book Labyrinths of Reason, which describes it as follows:

Imagine that you are confined to a locked room. The room is virtually bare. There is a thick book in the room with the unpromising title What to Do If They Shove Chinese Writing Under the Door. One day a sheet of paper bearing Chinese script is shoved underneath the locked door. To you, who know nothing of Chinese, it contains meaningless symbols, nothing more…You are supposed to scan the text for certain Chinese characters and keep track of their occurrences according to complicated rules outlined in the book…The next day, you receive another sheet of paper with more Chinese writing on it…The book has further instructions for correlating and manipulating the Chinese symbols on the second sheet, and combining this information with your work from the first sheet. The book ends with instructions to copy certain Chinese symbols…onto a fresh sheet of paper. Which symbols you copy depends, in a very complicated way, on your previous work. Then the book says to shove the new sheet under the door of your locked room. This you do.

Unknown to you, the first sheet of Chinese characters was a Chinese short story, and the second sheet was questions about the story, such as might be asked in a reading test…You have been manipulating the characters via a very complicated algorithm written in English…The algorithm is so good that the “answers” you gave are indistinguishable from those that a native speaker of Chinese would give, having read the same story and been asked the same questions.

Searle concludes that this scenario is essentially identical to that of a computer program operating on a set of symbols, and that it refutes the position of strong artificial intelligence, which he characterizes as the belief that “the appropriately programmed computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the same sense human beings have minds.” According to Searle, it’s clear that there isn’t any “mind” or “understanding” involved here:

As regards the first claim, it seems to me quite obvious in the example that I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing.

I’ve never been convinced by this argument, in part because I approached it through the work of Douglas R. Hofstadter, who calls it “a quintessential ‘bad meme’—a fallacious but contagious virus of an idea, similar to an annoying childhood disease such as measles or chicken pox.” (If it’s a bad meme, it’s one of the all-time greats: the computer scientist Pat Hayes once jokingly defined cognitive science as “the ongoing research program of showing Searle’s Chinese Room Argument to be false.”) The most compelling counterargument, at least to me, is that Searle is deliberately glossing over how this room really would look. As Hofstadter notes, any program capable of performing in the manner described would consist of billions or trillions of lines of code, which would require a library the size of an aircraft carrier. Similarly, even the simplest response would require millions of individual decisions, and the laborious approach that Searle presents here would take years for a single exchange. If you try to envision a version of the Chinese Room that could provide answers in real time, you end up with something considerably more impressive, of which the human being in the room—with whom we intuitively identify—is just a single component. In this case, the real “understanding” resides in the fantastically complicated and intricate system as a whole, a stance of which Searle dismissively writes in his original paper: “It is not easy for me to imagine how someone who was not in the grip of an ideology would find the idea at all plausible.”

In other news, a lawsuit was filed last week against John Searle and the Regents of the University of California, where he has taught for decades, accusing him of sexual harassment. The plaintiff is a twenty-four-year-old woman, Joanna Ong, who was employed as Searle’s research assistant for three months. The complaint states:

On or about July 22, 2016, after only a week of working together, Searle sexually assaulted Ong. On that date, he asked his previous research assistant to leave his office. He then locked the door behind the assistant and then went directly to Ong to grope her. Professor Searle slid his hands down the back of her spine to her buttocks and told Ong that “they were going to be lovers,” that he had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual,” and that he was “going to love her for a long time.”

When Ong took her story to the director of the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, she was allegedly told that Searle “has had sexual relationships with his students and others in the past in exchange for academic, monetary, or other benefits.” No further attempt was made to investigate or respond to her claim, and the incidents continued. According to Ong, Searle asked her to log onto a “sugar daddy” website on his behalf and watched online pornography in her presence. The complaint adds: “On one occasion, when Ong”—who is Asian-American—“brought up the topic of American Imperialism as a discussion topic, Searle responded: ‘American Imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now.’” When Ong complained again, the lawsuit states, she was informed that none of these issues would be addressed, and she ultimately lost her job. Earlier this month, Searle ceased to teach his undergraduate course on “Philosophy of Mind,” with university officials alluding to undisclosed “personal reasons.” As far as I know, neither Searle’s attorney nor anyone at the university has commented on the allegations.

Now let’s get back to the Chinese Room. At its heart, the argument comes down to a contest between dueling intuitions. Proponents of strong artificial intelligence have the intuition, or the “ideology,” that consciousness can emerge from a substrate other than the biological material of the brain, and Searle doesn’t. To support his position, he offers up a thought experiment, which Daniel C. Dennett once called “an intuition pump,” that is skewed to encourage the reader to arrive at a misleading conclusion. As Hofstadter puts it: “Either Searle…[has] a profound disrespect for the depth of the human mind, or—far more likely—he knows it perfectly well but is being coy about it.” It reduces an incomprehensibly complicated system to a user’s manual and a pencil, and it encourages us to identify with a human figure who is really just a cog in a much vaster machine. Even the use of Chinese itself, which Searle says he isn’t sure he could distinguish from “meaningless squiggles,” is a rhetorical trick: it would come off as subtly different to many readers if it involved, say, Hungarian. (In a response to one of his critics, Searle conceives of a system of water pipes in which “each water connection corresponds to a synapse in the Chinese brain,” while a related scenario asks what would happen if every Chinese citizen were asked to play the role of a single neuron. I understand that these thought experiments are taking their cues from Searle’s original paper, but maybe we should just leave the Chinese alone.) And while I don’t know if Searle’s actions amounted to sexual harassment, Ong’s sense of humiliation seems real enough, which implies that he was guilty, if nothing else, of a failure of empathy—which is really just a word for our intuition about the inner life of another person. In many cases, sexual harassment can be generously viewed as a misreading of what another person needs, wants, or feels, and it’s often a willful one: the harasser skews the evidence to justify a pattern of behavior that he has already decided to follow. If the complaint can be believed, Searle evidently has trouble empathizing with or understanding minds that are different from his own. Maybe he even convinced himself that he was in the right. But it wouldn’t have been the first time.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2017 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

The whole and the good

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The task of maintaining oneself as a locus for the free resolution of conflicting responses will make a far greater demand upon one’s “moral” energy than any that has been made before. For the good person to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a straight and narrow path compared to which one’s previous rectitude was flowery license. To have no more responsibility for oneself is to become incessantly responsible; and from the place where that paradox has meaning it is easy to discern that what is called “moral responsibility” is only a somewhat crooked expedient for avoiding all real responsibility whatever.

John Middleton Murry, God: An Introduction to the Science of Metabiology

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

The utility composer

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In literature, the man who has neither the vision, the imagination, the sense of beauty, or the wit that are popularly supposed to go to the production of a poem, novel, or play, can turn his literary skill, such as it is, to the production of advertisements, book reviews, and crime reports. He is a utility or workaday writer. In painting, the same type of man, able to use a pencil and brush with some skill without attempting to be a Cézanne or a Picasso, can profitably and pleasantly spend his time in such varied ways as the designing of book jackets, the faking of old masters, and the painting of presentation portraits. In the three-dimensional arts one can distinguish even more clearly between art and craft, and the carpenter who makes a chair can claim to be satisfying a universal demand which is not met by the sculptor. A chair is undoubtedly more comfortable to sit on than all save a few examples of the sculptor’s art. But in music there can be no such thing as a chair opposed to a painting, or the craftsman opposed to the pure artist.

The whole theory of utility music is based on the misconception that one can distinguish between the aesthetic and the useful in this particular medium. Apart from music for organized and non-aesthetic action such as military marches and foxtrots…music is only useful if it is good music, whether light or serious. Unless it provides one with some vital experience which no other art can convey it is not only useless but a nuisance. The objective craftsman that Hindemith sets up as an ideal is far more of a sentimental luxury than the despised aesthetic “tone poet.” His daily covering of music paper is a task as essentially fruitless as those strange tasks assigned to the innocent dupes in the stories of Sherlock Holmes, the man in “The Red-Headed League” who copied out the Encyclopedia Britannica or the stockbroker’s clerk who was set to making a list of the pottery firms in Paris…

With an altogether praiseworthy modesty Hindemith appears to imagine that by ceasing to write for his own satisfaction he is necessarily writing for the satisfaction of others. There is an old and trite saying “If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will,” and in music it may with equal truth be said that if a composer is not interested in his own music he can hardly expect others to be. Even the most nauseating of popular tunes, that would appear to be written solely with the desire to satisfy the public taste at its least critical and most mawkish, must mean something to the composer, and be primarily written for his satisfaction, if it is to “get the public.” Purely “occasional” music whether deliberately vulgar or deliberately refined always brings boredom and distrust in its wake. Unless the composer has some definite reason for putting pen to paper, he had far better play patience or do a little gardening.

Constant Lambert, Music Ho!

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2017 at 7:01 am

The dark side of the moon

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In March 1969, Robert A. Heinlein flew with his wife Ginny to Brazil, where he had been invited to serve as a guest of honor at a film festival in Rio de Janeiro. Another passenger on their plane was the director Roman Polanski, who introduced Heinlein to his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, at a party at the French embassy a few days after their arrival. (Tate had been in Italy filming The Thirteen Chairs, her final movie role before her death, which she had taken largely out of a desire to work with Orson Welles.) On August 8, Tate and four others were murdered in Los Angeles by members of the Manson Family. Two months later, Heinlein received a letter from a woman named “Annette or Nanette or something,” who claimed that police helicopters were chasing her and her friends. Ginny was alarmed by its incoherent tone, and she told her husband to stay out of it: “Honey, this is worse than the crazy fan mail. This is absolutely insane. Don’t have anything to do with it.” Heinlein contented himself with calling the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, which confirmed that a police action was underway. In fact, it was a joint federal, state, and county raid of the Myers and Barker Ranches, where Charles Manson and his followers had been living, as part of an investigation into an auto theft ring—their connection to the murders had not yet been established. Manson was arrested, along with two dozen others. And the woman who wrote to Heinlein was probably Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, another member of the Manson Family, who would be sentenced to life in prison for a botched assassination attempt six years later on President Gerald Ford.

On January 8, 1970, the San Francisco Herald-Examiner ran a story on the front page with the headline “Manson’s Blueprint? Claim Tate Suspect Used Science Fiction Plot.” Later that month, Time published an article, “A Martian Model,” that began:

In the psychotic mind, fact and fantasy mingle freely. The line between the real and the imagined easily blurs or disappears. Most madmen invent their own worlds. If the charges against Charles Manson, accused along with five members of his self-styled “family” of killing Sharon Tate and six other people, are true, Manson showed no powers of invention at all. In the weeks since his indictment, those connected with the case have discovered that he may have murdered by the book. The book is Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, an imaginative science-fiction novel long popular among hippies…

Not surprisingly, the Heinleins were outraged by the implication, although Robert himself was in no condition to respond—he was hospitalized with a bad case of peritonitis. In any event, the parallels between the career of Charles Manson and Heinlein’s fictional character Valentine Michael Smith were tenuous at best, and the angle was investigated by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who dismissed it. A decade later, in a letter to the science fiction writer and Heinlein fan J. Neil Schulman, Manson stated, through another prisoner, that he had never read the book. Yet the novel was undeniably familiar to members of his circle, as it was throughout the countercultural community of the late sixties. The fact that Fromme wrote to Heinlein is revealing in itself, and Manson’s son, who was born on April 15, 1968, was named Valentine Michael by his mother.

Years earlier, Manson had been exposed—to a far more significant extent—to the work of another science fiction author. In Helter Skelter, his account of the case, Bugliosi writes of Manson’s arrival at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1961:

Manson gave as his claimed religion “Scientologist,” stating that he “has never settled upon a religious formula for his beliefs and is presently seeking an answer to his question in the new mental health cult known as Scientology”…Manson’s teacher, i.e. “auditor” was another convict, Lanier Rayner. Manson would later claim that while in prison he achieved Scientology’s highest level, “theta clear.”

In his own memoir, Manson writes: “A cell partner turned me on to Scientology. With him and another guy I got pretty heavy into dianetics and Scientology…There were times when I would try to sell [fellow inmate Alan Karpis] on the things I was learning through Scientology.” In total, Manson appears to have received about one hundred and fifty hours of auditing, and his yearly progress report noted: “He appears to have developed a certain amount of insight into his problems through his study of this discipline.” The following year, another report stated: “In his effort to ‘find’ himself, Manson peruses different religious philosophies, e.g. Scientology and Buddhism; however, he never remains long enough with any given teachings to reap material benefits.” In 1968, Manson visited a branch of the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, where he asked the receptionist: “What do you do after ‘clear?'” But Bugliosi’s summary of the matter seems accurate enough:

Although Manson remained interested in Scientology much longer than he did in any other subject except music, it appears that…he stuck with it only as long as his enthusiasm lasted, then dropped it, extracting and retaining a number of terms and phrases (“auditing,” “cease to exist,” “coming to Now”) and some concepts (karma, reincarnation, etc.) which, perhaps fittingly, Scientology had borrowed in the first place.

So what should we make of all this? I think that there are a few relevant points here. The first is that Heinlein and Hubbard’s influence on Manson—or any of his followers, including Fromme, who had been audited as well—appears to have been marginal, and only in the sense that you could say that he was “influenced” by the Beatles. Manson was a scavenger who assembled his notions out of scraps gleaned from whatever materials were currently in vogue, and science fiction had saturated the culture to an extent that it would have been hard to avoid it entirely, particularly for someone who was actively searching for such ideas. On some level, it’s a testament to the cultural position that both Hubbard and Heinlein had attained, although it also cuts deeper than this. Manson represented the psychopathic fringe of an impulse for which science fiction and its offshoots provided a convenient vocabulary. It was an urge for personal transformation in the face of what felt like apocalyptic social change, rooted in the ideals that Campbell and his authors had defined, and which underwent several mutations in the decades since its earliest incarnation. (And it would mutate yet again. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, which was responsible for the sarin gas attacks in the Japanese subway system in 1995, borrowed elements of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy for its vision of a society of the elect that would survive the coming collapse of civilization.) It’s an aspect of the genre that takes light and dark forms, and it sometimes displays both faces simultaneously, which can lead to resistance from both sides. The Manson Family murders began with the killing of a man named Gary Hinman, who was taken hostage on July 25, 1969, a day in which the newspapers were filled with accounts of the successful splashdown of Apollo 11. The week before, at the ranch where Manson’s followers were living, a woman had remarked: “There’s somebody on the moon today.” And another replied: “They’re faking it.”

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2017 at 10:09 am

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