Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”

One of the best things you can say about a work of fiction is that it changes how you think about life.  To my mind, what makes something truly great Art is if it gives you a new perspective on everyday life.

This might be why a some people don’t think video games are Art. Nobody does anything different after playing, say, Pac-Man.

This is where Chris Avellone‘s games come in.  Avellone’s design philosophy is heavily focused on “reactivity” in gameplay. Last year I wrote about why this means the plots, characters, and mechanics of his games are so thematically integrated.

To summarize briefly: “reactivity” means that the game world reacts to the player character’s choices.  Rather than just being a set series of tasks the player performs to advance the story, a reactive game environment means the player can influence what happens in the game world.  This means a game has multiple endings at a minimum, and usually different ways to complete tasks or different story arcs to follow as well.

Reactivity makes for a satisfying game experience.  You feel like you are really participating in the game-world, rather than just pressing buttons to turn the pages in someone else’s story.

This is where the “applicable in real life” part comes in: people like reactivity in the real world, too.  We don’t typically think of it in those terms, but it’s true.  People like to feel like their actions mean something.

Usually, people are at their most unhappy when they feel powerless. We want to feel like we have some measure of control in our lives, and some input in what happens in the world. We never have total control, of course, just as the player of a game doesn’t either–there is always the possibility of losing.

For example, people like it when other people listen to them. If somebody presents an idea, they like other people to engage with it, rather than just dismiss it. At a basic level, listening to people’s ideas is a kind of a reactivity–it sends the message that their input matters.

The fact that people like it when you listen to them isn’t a revelation. A guy named Dale Carnegie wrote at length about it in the 1930s. So did Stephen Covey in the 1980s. But reactivity is a handy way of understanding the concept.  If you think of everyone as a player character in their own video game, you know that what they are looking for is the opportunity to influence the world.

Published by Simon & Schuster

I won’t even attempt to give a summary of this book’s plot. It’s too madcap to describe. I’ll simply say that the protagonist is Ray Parisi, a former sports analyst with a serious gambling addiction, and the book chronicles his increasingly outlandish attempts to win back his ex-wife.

This is the plot in brief, and to realize that it can be laid out so simply is stunning to me, because that doesn’t even begin to do the book justice.  Parisi’s mis-adventures lead him to encounter all sorts of memorable characters and surreal situations.

At times, the book reminded me of John Kennedy Toole’s classic Confederacy of Dunces. The plot is not as intricate, and its final act is not as satisfying, but it has that same tragicomic charm.

For all the strange (and sometimes awkwardly contrived) scenarios, the book never loses touch with reality in terms of how its characters behave.  The plot may be implausible, but the human interactions are as true-to-life as can be.

And make no mistake; the plot really strains credulity. Parisi is on the run from the law throughout the book, and it seems hard to imagine he could evade capture as long as he does; especially given his downright reckless behavior.

Credulity is imposed upon further by the segment in which Parisi inherits some $600,000, increases it to over $1 million by playing Blackjack in Vegas, loses it all in a fit of despair, then somehow gets all the way back to $2 million through yet more gambling. (His comeback requires, among other things, successful bets on 11 and then 23 in roulette, followed by more uncanny wins in Blackjack.)

Plots that hinge on things like specific cards being drawn at a given time are always in danger of seeming ridiculously contrived. (See Gayden Wren’s criticism of the opera The Grand Duke, for example.) But Tambakis manages to keep us invested enough in Parisi’s epic, ill-advised quest that we forgive the byzantine coincidences it takes to sustain it.

I suspect that most readers care more about characters than they do about plot. They will forgive an unlikely coincidence, or two, or even more, if at the end of it they have a compelling situation in which they can fully engage with a character. Implausibility is the cornerstone of all fiction–if it were plausible, it would cease to be fiction.

And it is because of its engaging characters that Swimming with Bridgeport Girls truly shines. Parisi is, by any objective measure, a bad man, and yet we cannot help liking him all the same.  In the Las Vegas section of the book, there are several memorable passages in which he clearly explains the logic of an addict.  It’s so well-written that you can almost see his point of view, even as you wish he would stop destroying his life.

Each chapter is written from Parisi’s perspective, but prefaced with a quote from his ex-wife’s journal.  These quotes offer a different perspective on events in the novel, and help remind us that as likeable as he is, Parisi is also terribly selfish.

The ending–which I won’t spoil too much here–is not a happy one, though not completely tragic either.  In fact, it feels like more of a tragic ending than it truly is, if you know what I mean.  I just can’t help thinking that it should have ended on a more hopeful note. Parisi hardly deserves a fairy-tale ending, but he also doesn’t deserve the really gloomy note on which his story ends, either.

The book is both extremely funny and intensely sad; hopeful and despairing–sometimes in the same chapter. I think it’s best if you can read it in a short period of time, and allow yourself to get caught up in it, just as Parisi himself is, and rejoice at all his triumphs, short-lived and short-sighted though they are. It makes the pathos of the ending that much more powerful.

Robert W. Chambers, author of “The Repairer of Reputations”

As long-time readers know, I love the story The Repairer of Reputations, by Robert W. Chambers. I wanted to write an analysis of it, but it’s such a carefully-constructed story that I didn’t know how to do it without quoting huge sections at length.

Then I had an idea. The story is in the public domain. (It was published in 1895.) So, I thought, why not post the story with my comments included? That will be an easy way for people to read the story and for me to comment on specific things that I think make it work so well.

So that’s what I did.  It’s so long that I put it on its own page rather than do it as a blog post. You can read it here. I hope it’s useful to anyone who wants to write weird fiction.

So I started reading Paradise Lost by John Milton. But before I even got to the poem itself, there was this:

“The measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of it self, to all judicious eares, triveal and of no true musical delight: which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to Heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.” [All the typos are in the Wikisource text, and I assume are as found in some original.  I think they are due to the fact that English spelling had not yet been standardized.]

Clearly, Milton was not a fan of rhyming. Or rimeing.

I think it’s sort of funny that he started out his Biblical epic by kvetching about rhyme and meter. I like to imagine that some poor sap saw a draft of Paradise Lost and asked, “Why doesn’t it rhyme?” And it set Milton off.

I particularly enjoy the “It may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers” bit. That’s brilliant!  I think I’m going to put a disclaimer at the start of all my writing from now on: “Readers, if you don’t like this, it means you’re stupid. It’s a work of genius.”

Paradise Lost may be a great poem, but I think it’s fair to say English rhyme is still going strong in spite of Milton’s objections.

Johnathan found himself feeling rather down.  It was the zeitgeist; for everywhere there was corruption and vice. Decency, civility, industriousness and all the other virtues had gone out of the world. Decadence and rot, from the upper echelons of society down to Johnathan’s own place of business, had worked their worst.

And so as he walked through the dingy back-alleys to his gloomy little apartment, his mood was understandably grim.  As he approached the stained white door, the faded American flag next to it caught the breeze and hit him in the face.  He cursed and, in the imprudent fury that occasionally possesses a frustrated person, tore the banner, pole and all, from its fixture beside the door.

Grumbling profanities, he opened the door and went inside the dark apartment, flag and pole tucked under his arm. He set down his briefcase and entered his kitchen to make himself a meager dinner. The kitchen was dark; barely illuminated by the dim light that filtered through the window by the stove.  He fumbled for the light switch and finally found it. But on turning on the light, he found he was not alone.

Seated at his kitchen table was a tall, olive-skinned woman, dressed in a style that Johnathan would have described as “Victorian”, though in fact that was not the correct period.  She wore a full-length red and white striped dress, with a shiny blue caraco, with golden epaulettes at the shoulder.

After dropping the flag and recoiling in surprise, Johnathan managed to blurt out, “Who are you? What are you doing? I’ll call the police!”

The woman smiled slightly. “No need for that, my friend,” she said coolly. “Although I request that you pick up that lovely flag you have rather unceremoniously left lying on the floor.”

“What, this?” said Johnathan stupidly.  “It’s old and faded. I may as well pitch it.”

“Please don’t,” said the woman, in a tone of annoyance that told Johnathan he had better pick up the flag already. Having done so, he returned to his line of questioning: “What are you doing in my apartment, ma’am?” he asked, and then added, “I did not invite you. Please leave before I call the police.”

“I have not, and will not, steal any of your belongings, nor harm you in any way.” she said calmly. “I only want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Johnathan said, with ill-concealed irritation. “I don’t even know who you are!”

“Columbia is my name,” she answered. “And I want to talk to you about America.”

“You want… what?” he said in confusion. “Well, I don’t know why you want to talk about that, but if you want to know what I think: America’s going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a disaster.  The government is nothing but criminals and liars, out to make a buck.”

“Ah, but that is politics,” she replied. “That is not America.”

“Well, call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is nobody has a clue what they’re doing. They can’t hold anyone accountable, they can’t do their own jobs right–it’s chaos everywhere; people are out of work, they can’t afford decent food or a decent place to live, and criminals are all over the place–killing people, stealing stuff, and, and–and breaking into people’s houses in the middle of the night!” (He concluded this speech by pointing towards Columbia.)

“Can you really think of nothing good about the country?” she queried.

“Oh, it used to be better, back in the old days.  People weren’t perfect, but at least they tried,” he muttered.  “It was a great country once, but it’s all ruined because people are too stupid or too afraid to try to fix things anymore.”

“And what was it that made it great?” she asked.

He shook his head,  “I… I don’t know.  Do you think if I knew that I would be here?”

She folded her hands. “Let me tell you something about America: it does not have as much history as other parts of the world do. People who come here are looking to build something new–without all the baggage of the old world weighing them down.”

“Well, what of it?” said Johnathan.  He tried to sound as disinterested as possible, and yet he found himself sitting down to listen to her all the same. “It’s all failed now, anyway.”

She replied crisply: “I believe it’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure’–those are things that only apply in a contest with a clearly defined end. The beauty of creating something new is that it is a risk. You do not know how it will turn out–but there is courage in trying.”

“That is what really matters, you see,’ she continued. “When anything–a life, a country, anything–begins, there is no guarantee of ‘success’. And yet, if no one were ever willing to run that risk…”

She trailed off, and Johnathan now found himself mesmerized by her speech. He stared at her for a few moments. Her brown eyes had a strange calming effect upon him, and he felt like he was becoming hypnotized as he studied her dark, angular face.

“But what’s the use of any of it now?” he asked, forcing himself back to reality. “There’s nothing new here–it’s old and rotten and falling apart!”

Columbia closed her eyes for a moment and smiled patiently, as though she had expected this from him.  She opened her eyes, looked directly into his, and said: “And don’t you think that in the past, others have felt just as frustrated and lost as you do now?”

“Yes,” he admitted, after a pause.

“And what did they do?”

“They… created something new.” he answered quietly.

“That’s right,” she said with a satisfied nod. “They faced their challenges, assessed them, and overcame them through courage and ingenuity. That is America.”

The two of them sat in silence after that.  Columbia leaned back in her chair and glanced around the room with an expression of mild interest. Johnathan simply stared at her, the strange feeling of hypnosis growing stronger all the time.

A loud bang from outside jolted him to his feet.  For an instant, he thought it was a gunshot, but when he rushed to the window, he saw glittering white sparks in the air and realized it was a firework display.

“Look at that,” he said with a smile, as more bright showers of light exploded in the darkness overhead. “Columbia, come and see–”

He turned to beckon her to the window, but she was gone.  The chair was empty. Johnathan looked around in confusion. He ran back through the kitchen and out the front door on to the porch, looking around for her as he went.

She was nowhere to be seen. Johnathan stood on the porch in a daze, listening to the crackle of the pyrotechnic display building to its climax.

He looked around and caught sight of the empty metal bracket beside the door. The flag and pole, he realized, were still under his arm. He hurriedly unfurled the flag and restored it to its place.


Poster for “The Lego Batman Movie” Image via Wikipedia

The central thematic conceit at the heart of The Lego Batman Movie is–

Oh, who am I kidding? It’s Lego Batman, for Pete’s sake. So I’ll spare you my usual line of in-depth socio-philosophical analysis. The only thing you need to know here is that it’s a really funny family-friendly movie, with tons of humorous references to various other incarnations of Batman–especially the late, great Adam West.

It’s true to the spirit of Lego, in that it is good-humored and full of crazy, giant battle scenes with characters from different franchises fighting each other all willy-nilly.  It’s exactly like the way I played with my Lego as a kid. And it’s a lot of fun.

The one way in which it can perhaps be analyzed as something other than an entertaining trifle is the part involving the new Gotham city police commissioner’s plan to make the police force less dependent on Batman. She even uses the phrase “It takes a village” to emphasize the collective effort.  Given when the movie was released (late January), I can’t help but wonder if they were expecting that line would have more political relevance.

But never mind that stuff!  It’s a nice, entertaining movie. Sometimes the action moves too fast for anyone but a hyperactive child to follow–but then, that is the target audience.  And there are plenty of jokes that will keep everyone entertained throughout, even when the battles become incoherent.

It all started when I read this post from Carrie Rubin.  In it, she describes how people make money by entering book giveaways on sites like Goodreads, etc. and then immediately selling the free books they have won, without reviewing or even reading them.

I have an economics degree, so I began thinking about the incentives that cause this, and what adjustments you could make to the market to fix it. It made for a nice thought experiment. And, well, maybe it got a little out of hand.  But I’m posting it anyway; just for fun.

First of all, we need to discuss the concept of expected value. Wikipedia has a nice summary, using the game of roulette as an example, which I quote below:

Suppose random variable X represents the (monetary) outcome of a $1 bet on a single number (“straight up” bet). If the bet wins (which happens with probability 1/38 in American roulette), the payoff is $35; otherwise the player loses the bet. The expected profit from such a bet will be

E [gain from $1 bet] = -$1 x 37/38 + $35 x 1/38 = -$0.0526

i.e. the bet of $1 stands to lose $0.0526, so its expected value is -$0.0526.

Note that the expected value of a bet in a roulette game is negative.  This is why casinos make money and gamblers typically don’t.  The game is designed to be rigged against the player.

In the book giveaway scenario however, the “player” is not required to pay anything to enter.  The only cost to them is the opportunity cost of the time it takes to enter a giveaway, which is minimal once you have created an account.

Of course, to have a realistic shot at winning anything, you have to enter a lot of giveaways.  So the expected value is the sum of the value of each book times the probability of winning it.

Since there is no monetary cost to entering giveaways, the “player” only stands to gain by doing it.

The author, on the other hand, has little incentive to give the book away.  They only will benefit if the recipient likes the book and makes it known to others.  A bad review, or no review at all, goes down as a loss for the author. If the recipient then sells the book to someone else, it’s an even worse loss, because now multiple people are getting the benefit of the book without payment to the author.

How can we fix this?

One way would be to charge a fee to enter the contest, as in the case of the roulette example.  This would probably work too well–nobody would risk losing even $1 unless the potential reward were an extremely valuable book.  Hence, no one would enter the contests.

Another way would be to impose some limit on the number of giveaways a user is allowed to enter in a given timeframe.  After all, for it to be worth their while, the contestants must be entering a fairly high number of giveaways. Placing a cap on that could deter the book-scalpers.

But remember the original intent of the giveaways.  In an ideal world, the way it works is that the reader gets a free book, reads it, and reviews it.  Both the reader and the author benefit–in economics jargon, this means the outcome is “efficient”.

As part of my research for this post, I decided to find out if Goodreads takes reviews into account as part of the algorithm they use to pick winners.  According to this site, they do–citing the giveaway terms and conditions:

“If more people are interested in a book than there are copies available [which is nearly always the case], we will pick the winners at our discretion. The factors that go into our algorithm are: randomness, site activity, genre of books on your shelves, current phase of the moon, and more.”

I notice they say “site activity”, which is pretty vague, but I’ll assume it means that somehow or other they factor a user’s review track record into their chance of winning.

Tweaking that algorithm might go a long way towards fixing the problem.  But I don’t know what their algorithm is, so for the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume that it’s perfect.

Instead of changing the algorithm, another idea would be to change the terms of giveaways.  If a winner doesn’t post a review in some period of time (e.g. 30 days) they are required to pay a small fee–less than the price of a new copy of the book, but still enough to decrease the profitability of re-selling it.

I think this would increase the effectiveness of giveaways.  It incentivizes (to use that horrible word that only an economist could write) giving reviews, but while still benefiting the recipient, since even if they don’t review it, they are still getting the book at a cheaper rate.

That said, there are some potential problems with this plan:

  1. What is the mechanism for charging people?  Goodreads does not require credit card information to make an account. (It’s much more straightforward on Amazon; there, all users have some sort of account that can be billed.)
  2. It could lead to lots of garbage reviews.  People are likely to post short, unhelpful reviews to get their free copy.

We can still do better than this.

Remember, only physical books can be re-sold.  They can’t do much with a free eBook.  So, how about this: when someone wins the contest, they automatically get a free electronic version of the book, but to get the physical copy, they have to review it.

Amazon has a free reader app that runs on almost anything, so chances are, if you have a device that can be used to enter a GoodReads giveaway, it can also read an eBook.  And Amazon owns GoodReads, so it would be easy enough to set this system up between the two sites.

There’s still potentially a problem with an incentive to give garbage reviews, but it’s lessened considerably by the fact that the reader gets rewarded for posting a review, rather than punished for not posting a review.

What do you say, readers? Could this work?  Is it totally insane?  Do I think too much about weird stuff? Is this why everyone hates economists? Let me know what you think!