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.

This Trump Jr. story is interesting for several reasons.  My take:

1. Strange though it may seem, I think this actually makes it seem less likely that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia to steal the election.  My impression is that Trump Jr. was lured into the meeting without having much prior knowledge.  This is based on the email exchange, which reads to me like an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

2. If Russia actually wanted to release anything incriminating they had on Clinton, they wouldn’t do it via the Trump campaign. That would be stupid, since it would automatically make the information seem suspect. Instead, they would distribute it through some friendly-but-seemingly-independent media outlet, and let the Trump campaign pick it up later. Indeed, this is actually what happened with a lot of the Russian-supported anti-Clinton/pro-Trump propaganda that was circulated online during the election. This also makes it seem unlikely they actually gave the Trump campaign any useful information.

3. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the Russians would be unlikely to tell the Trump campaign about their election interference.  Rather, they did the election interference independently, and then arranged the meetings with campaign personnel in order to undermine the people’s faith in the electoral process.

This meeting is totally consistent with that. They lured Trump Jr. into a meeting by claiming they had dirt on Clinton, and then didn’t give him anything, knowing how bad it would make him look when it came to light.

In summary, I don’t think Russian operatives would ever work with the Trump people to interfere with the election, simply because many of the Trump people are too incompetent to be trusted with anything like that. The Russian intelligence operatives could handle it by themselves.

My sense is that the Russian plan had two distinct components: one was to influence the election in favor of Trump. The other was to play on the amateurishness and arrogance of the Trump campaign staff to goad them into doing stupid stuff that could be used to undermine them later.

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.

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!

Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

All done?  Good.

The part I loved most was this:

“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”

This is a highly significant point.  On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.

But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.

Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express.  It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.

We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.

All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.

However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up.  Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?

Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan.  Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people?  All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.

This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see.  If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?

The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.

Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation.  You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.

But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all?  Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.

This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.

If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick.  But it’s hard to see any other explanation.

Here’s a rarity for you, readers: I’m going to agree with Donald Trump about something. In February 2016, then-candidate Trump said “It takes guts to run for president.”

He’s right. In fact, it takes guts to run for anything these days; since every political contest is seen not only as having huge national implications, but as being the front line in the battle between Good and Evil. It tends to make people… passionate.

The Georgia 6th district election is the latest example. The most expensive Congressional election in history, it drew national attention. Trump tweeted his support for Republican Karen Handel before the election, and tweeted congratulations when she won.

Everyone viewed it as a proxy battle in the national contest between Trumpism and anti-Trumpism. Everyone, that is, except Rep. Handel and her Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. They both tried to keep their campaigns focused on local issues.

The district is historically Republican, so it stands to reason that Handel’s strategy would be–no pun intended–conservative. But Ossoff, rather than shying away from the national fight, should have fully embraced it and positioned himself as the bold lone warrior–the last line of defense against tyranny.

Hyperbolic? A bit, sure. But in political campaigns as in military ones, “Fortune favors the bold”.

One reason Trump’s campaign did so well is that he was willing to take political risks and say shocking things that most politicians would never dare utter, but that riled his core supporters into a frenzy.

This strategy is, of course, risky. Trump alienated a lot of people–probably the majority of people, in fact–with his statements, but the people who liked them really, REALLY liked them.

Trump’s campaign created the following cycle, which it used continuously from its first day to its last:

  1.  Trump says something outrageous
  2. Press and politicians react with horror
  3. Trump refuses to back down.
  4. This galvanizes Trump’s core supporters

This strategy made sense, because Trump was the underdog. When you are the underdog, you have to take big risks, because it’s the only way to change the calculus that has made you an underdog in the first place.

The central gamble of Trump’s campaign was that it was worth it to alienate moderates in order to get a really fired-up core of supporters. It worked. (Barely.)

Now: what did Ossoff do to try to whip his supporters into a frenzy? As near as I can tell, not much. I knew little about Ossoff except that he was the Democrat in Georgia who people thought might pull off an upset. That’s nice, and if I had lived there, I would have voted for him. But that’s it–there was nothing I heard about the man himself that made me think, “Ossoff is the only one who can save America!”

Ossoff portrayed himself as a generic, clean-cut Democrat. That would have worked if he’d been in a Democratic-leaning district. But as it was, he should have been more willing to embrace the theme that he was fighting to save the last bastion of freedom on Earth, rather than to make things more fair for the people in the 6th district.

People might say that I’m just Monday Morning Quarterbacking, and I guess that’s a valid criticism. But all we know for sure is that the Democrats lost an election they thought they could win. Again. Maybe my ideas on campaign strategy won’t work, but at this point its fair to say that what the Democrats have been doing isn’t working either.

I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.

I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Torment has over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.

Scene from “Planescape: Torment”

Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.

Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.

I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.

It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies.  It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.

The economy of any piece of writing is a very important consideration, but few people ever think about it. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia that I really learned to appreciate it.

Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.

So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.

Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.

Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.

It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas-also by Obsidian.)

The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.

To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”