Monthly Archives: January 2014

The most interesting characters in Downton Abbey are the writers

Downton Abbey is a ridiculous, pandering, soap opera with writers
who must be a team of high-tech robots perched over a tank full of
vivisected, but still living, human organs and brains. The
production, by which I mean the camera work, the sets and costumes,
the period research1, and, why not, even the acting, are
great.

The fourth wall, falsely divided.

The fourth wall, falsely divided.

As such, Downton Abbey’s most interesting characters are the
writers themselves. How this can be is interesting in and of itself,
but first let me explain what I mean.

The Titanic

Downton Abbey begins with the heir to the Earldom of Grantham dying
on The Titanic, and so, immediately, the viewer knows what kind of
show they are in for. This show is going to be
superlatively historical, just like an episode of Star Trek on
the holodeck2. There are, of course, lots of ways for
people to die in real life. Hell, there are lots of ways for them to
die on Television. There are even plenty of ways for them to die in
historically appropriate ways. But the fact that The Heir to the
Earldom of Grantham dies on The Titanic forces us to ask at least one
of the following questions:

  1. What kind of people are these
    writers?
  2. What kind of people do they think we
    are?

But here is the interesting thing: we ask these questions.
We ask them instead of turning the TV off. And so we must ask,
as viewers, what is going on here?

What is going on?

Downton Abbey is the television production equivalent of Get Smart,
and just as Maxwell Smart can only be Maxwell Smart, and hence
carry the show, if Agent 99 plays the dutiful straight woman, cleaning
up after him and making everything run smoothly, so too must the
actors and production teams, the cinematographers and talent scouts,
play Agent 99 to Downton Abbey’s writers.

We3 would never tolerate melodrama with the frequency,
boldness, and ridiculousness of Downton Abbey without the rock solid
grounding of the production. When not one, but TWO, women get chills
when their romantic partners are injured on the battlefield of World
War One (at the same time!), we might laugh, roll our eyes, or express
our incredulity to our friends, but we don’t stop watching. When the
supposedly dead heir supposedly shows up horribly disfigured by the
war, we can tolerate it. We can even tolerate it when Edith falls in
love with him, God help us.

And because we don’t stop watching, we can engage not only with the
show, but with the writers as a character in and of themselves.

Not breaking the fourth wall

When I watch Downton Abbey, I find myself trying to understand the
psychology and motivations, not of the characters, who are pretty
transparent, but of the writers. When a character might possibly have
cancer, and the writers would never simply reveal this sort of juicy
plot point outright, they must make us stew a bit, I find myself
saying: are the writers mean enough to give this character a
terminal illness? Do they think we think that this will
be compelling or “over the top?” When the show really surprises you,
you can’t help but feel that the writers have scored a point. And you
can’t help but wonder “Obviously the writers expect us to swallow this
shit and call it chocolate mousse, but are they eating it too? Is
that possible?”

What is surprising about this interaction is that it is between the
viewer and the writer, and that it takes place entirely through, but
without breaking, the fourth wall

Elevated to the Peerage

Below, in the footnotes, I remark that Julian Fellowes, the creator
and sometimes writer of Downton Abbey, is himself a member of the
British Aristocracy. It is difficult, in light of the observations
I’ve made up till now, not to read Downton, then, as a kind of
propoganda, and to read the antics of the writers as the hysterics of
propagandists everywhere. Certainly the show portrays Aristocrats as
almost uniformly selfless and dignified. While the servants are
portrayed as no less dignified, their dignity derives from their
dedication to service and not from more individualistic concerns.

Perhaps we can understand Downton, then, in the absence of any real
justification for propaganda, as a kind of Pornography of Britishness.
Maybe this even explains its popularity with American audiences, as,
generally speaking, the kind of dopey, harmless pornography that
Downton Abbey is usually has pretty universal appeal.

But I can’t help but feel that the unique tension of the show,
where the production is working its hardest to keep a veneer of
believability on a story which is spasming its hardest to break
out is part of what keeps us watching.

Footnotes

1: Although sometimes I feel that this aspect of the
show
is not
as excellent as it appears.

Incidentally, in that article, the show’s producer and
writer, Julian
Fellowes
makes the following statement:

The real
problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to
show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote
their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than
your knowledge, … The fact of the matter is that the really posh
people are pleased to see something on television that isn’t about a
dead prostitute in a dustbin, and they seem to just be enjoying the
programme.

On this quote I wish only to make two
observations:

  1. Julian Fellowes is himself a “real life”
    “aristocrat” who was recently elevated to the peerage
  2. Holy
    balls this guy must be a real delight at parties.

2Speaking of which, has anyone else observed how
influential Quantum
Leap
has been on shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey?

3I’m pretty sure I mean the “Royal We” here.

What I learned from playing “Dark Souls” and “Kentucky Route Zero” in the same night.

Kentucky Route Zero

Equus Oils

Dark Souls

Crunch.

Because the world has not yet gone utterly mad, I had the chance, on my last vacation, to sit down and play video games with my friend Marlin and my brother. As a professional person living a semi-standard contemporary lifestyle, I don’t usually have time for dedicated gaming and so this hobby, which I enjoyed substantially at various stages of life when time was more easily spent, has fallen by the wayside.

In the same evening we played both Dark Souls and Kentucky Route Zero. I learned something about myself that night, and something about these weird things we call “video games.” Here is what I learned:

VIDEO

“Kentucky Route Zero” and “Dark Souls” are radically different experiences. In the former, a disgustingly slick visual presentation delivers a series of significantly meaningless choices to the player as it explicates a mood, a setting and a story. The the latter game, just as much staggering expertise is devoted to the development of a perfectly balanced interactive system of punishment and reward. As a matter of course, “Dark Souls” furnishes its own fairly well developed and delivered mood and setting, but it is unmistakably the context for the play rather than the point of it.

“Kentucky Route Zero” is, undeniably, a fine piece of craft which is aware of itself and its cultural surroundings. And I have to admit, I found the experience engaging, particularly as a kind of spectacle. But “Kentucky Route Zero,” for all of its awareness of itself as a supposed “game,” seems mostly interested in undermining itself as an interactive experience. A great recipe for alienation is forcing a person to make choices which she knows do not matter, and “Kentucky Route Zero” seems pretty interested in this trick. Early in the game the player is forced to guess a password based on the fact that it is a “long poem, which really sums it all up.” They are prompted with a series of three choices of lines from three different poems and any series of choices works. The poems themselves are nice, and one does get a pathetic little frisson of pleasure at the prospect of mixing and matching them but in the end, the decisions don’t actually matter.

The entire game is a series of little, often very well conceived and executed vignettes in which the player’s choice doesn’t really matter. At the very best we can think of the game as a kind of psychological test which is never evaluated by anyone. This is thin gruel, and we might wonder why the creators of the game, who are clearly in possession of tremendous talent and skill, bothered with an interactive experience at all.

GAMES

Let’s contrast this experience with “Dark Souls.” “Dark Souls” is the quintessential videogame, or at least the most quintessential game I’ve played recently. What do I mean by this? Well, “Dark Souls” is too a product of apparently profoundly skilled craftspeople, but where in “Kentucky Route Zero” the craft is devoted to style and narrative substance, “Dark Souls”‘s creators devoted most of their energy to the invisible, mechanical systematics of the game and to the job of communicating those systems to the player, clearly.

It has been for some time de rigueur for videogames (of which Final Fantasy VII or Metal Gear Solid are exemplars) to pack their narrative into “cutscenes,” which are just non-interactive, generally cinematic or intended as such, scenes in which story is advanced. “Dark Souls” has essentially none of these, recognizing them as fundamentally alien to a fundamentally interactive medium. Instead, “Dark Souls” thrusts you immediately into the business of moving your avatar through space. After a very brief interactive tutorial, the player finds herself contending with a series of interactions, diegetically presented as medieval combat, which require attentive reaction to an interlocking set of concerns.

The player has a weapon, a shield, health, and stamina. She generally faces similarly outfitted, sometimes oversized, versions of herself. Holding up one’s shield prevents one’s stamina from regenerating, as it does rather quickly, otherwise. Blocking a blow costs stamina, as does an attack or a dodge. If one’s stamina is drained she can neither attack effectively nor defend or dodge. On top of these actions, the game layers timing: it takes a moment to raise your shield, it takes varying amounts of time to strike, time which leaves you open to counter attack. It takes time for one’s stamina to regenerate, time during which the character is vulnerable. These systems, in and of themselves, are well designed but not particularly unusual for videogames.

What distinguishes “Dark Souls” is that it is not afraid to make the primary focus of the game these simple, balanced systems. It isn’t afraid to offer real reward and punishment for understanding them. The designers of the game were confident enough to sell the experience of “Dark Souls” as primarily the gameplay, rather than circumstantial narrative content. As such, “Dark Souls” can afford to apply a gentle touch to the subjects of setting and narrative. There is a latent story going on here, but, while we can enjoy it, and it may motivate us to play, the story is definitively not the game.1

YOU DIED

Like the snooty intellectual I so obviously am, I have often bemoaned the boringness of videogame subject matter. Do we really need another game about big dudes hitting eachother with things until one of them dies? From this perspective I welcome the arrival of games like “Kentucky Route Zero,” as refreshing alternatives to mainstream game content.

However, “Dark Souls” reminds me that there is still enormous material to be mined the realm of mechanics, which are the elements of videogames as a medium which cannot be reproduced elsewhere. It is a definite problem that his material is being mined in a pretty boring, heteronormative context of dudes hitting dudes, but I can’t help but feel, at the end of the day, that “Dark Souls” is better at being what it is than “Kentucky Route Zero.”

Footnotes

1: I’d like it if we could stop saying that “Dark Souls” is “hard.” “Dark Souls” is only “hard” because the relationship between the superficial and significant elements of the game, the progress the player makes in the world or plot vs the progress the player makes in her mastery of the mechanics, is misleading. The player experiences lots of progress in terms of her knowledge and ability to work the in-game systems, even when the false progress through the story or environments of the game is stalled.

Hey, what is up with you and Lisp?

Yeah. What is up with me and Lisp? Maybe you are a Lisp programmer and you’re interested in why I choose to spend so much time in parentheses. Or maybe you’ve never programmed in Lisp and you’re interested in why someone might choose to.

Well, these days, the question of why a person might choose Lisp is somewhat difficult to definitively answer. Time was, Lisp could make the claim, along with cousins, like Smalltalk, to be among the most forward thinking of programming languages, but contemporary life is littered with languages just as clever, dynamic, ergonomic, or mathematically sound. So while the question is, in many ways, more difficult to answer than ever, it is also more salient than it has ever been1.

(Maybe it’s not the) Metaprogramming

It bears emphasis that Lisp isn’t a single language, but a family of dialects with widely varying semantics, and significantly varying syntaxes. This misperceived closeness among dialects is a somewhat unusual aspect of the Lisp family or the culture around the culture around Lisp1. For instance, Lua and Javascript are much more closely related than, say, Clojure and Common Lisp, yet we do not instantly group the former pair into a language family, say of, `table based dynamic programming languages`.

However, the one thing Lisp dialects tend to have in common is the ease with which one can metaprogram, and I think this is a major component of the Lisp experience and this at least seems to be related to their distinctive, fully parenthesized, s-expression based syntaxes. And I would like to advance that it is in the area of syntactic simplicity that Lisp’s true appeal lies, at least to this author.

So what, right? The observation that metaprogramming is the reason to use and/or like Lisp is hardly new. Sure. But what is true is that metaprogramming is now hardly the exclusive domain of Lisp. Contemporary programming languages all support aspects of metaprogramming in one form or another. In Ruby, for instance, blocks give you 70% of what you want out of metaprogramming for 10% of the price you pay in Lisp2, Python uses decorators to expose a limited set of metaprogrammatic techniques, C++ allows psychopaths3 to template metaprogram, language-level support for monads in Haskell constitutes a kind of metaprogramming in that it exposes an interface for the nature of binding in certain contexts4. And if these language features don’t strike you as rich enough to compete with Lisp’s `just mess with the code before the compiler gets it` approach, most languages have these sorts of facilities these days.

So what is it that you can’t get from other languages that you can get in Lisp?

What you get

At the outset, I want to say that I’ve had the luck to work in Common Lisp for the past two years and that, after an initial period of adjustment, I’ve come to see the language as extraordinarily well designed, if lacking, somewhat, in modern sensibilities. So if you choose to work in Common Lisp, you get a very pragmatic, extensively well thought out, extremely powerful base language to work with. As a matter of comparison, Common Lisp is more cleverly and extensibly object oriented than Ruby, with semantics carefully thought out so that most implementations can acheive significantly better performance. So if you have the expertise and the temperment, you can rely on a good Common Lisp implementation to get you where you need to to go.

But that isn’t really the point of this little essay. I’m not primarily interested in the best language for getting a project to completion. If that is your interest, lots of factors will influence your decision that don’t have anything to do with the fact that Lisp might feel like a really well broken in pair of jeans.

Ultimately, I think Lisp’s real strength is the unpretentiousness with which it exposes the underlying nature of the programming system. While the Lisp community might be accused of pretention from time to time, I think the language is decidedly straightforward: in most languages you go through the, in my opinion, silly exercise of denoting a program tree using some large set of syntactic conventions, and then the language runtime converts that into a syntax tree, which is then operated upon to produce executable instructions of some kind. In Lisp, you are able to pretend, at least5, that you are denoting that intermediate tree directly.

This is not profound. On the contrary, it is essentially pragmatic6, and it has the appeal of the essentially pragmatic.

One source of feelings of alienation, in my opinion, is to be expected or forced to act in ways which one knows are meaningless. It might be argued that your average algol-syntaxed language is asking you to do that which is alienating: denote what you know is simply a tree as something which requires a complex transformation to arrive there.

The benefits of this simplicity extend beyond vague feelings of empowerment. They enable, for instance, one to engage in code transformations without the conceptual overhead of source to source transformation. Of course, the runtime is performing a source-to-tree transformation, but it feels trivial, and your own code which operates on the parse tree can, most of the time, be written as though it is operating on the thing you typed, rather than the thing which is produced by the runtime. Once you encompass backquote, unquote, and unquote splice, denoting program transformations requires very little conceptual overhead7.

But the other benefit is the fact that your toolchain benefits in kind from the simplicity of the language. Tools like paredit or the excellent Dr Racket8 further close the gap between typing individual characters and denoting and manipulating, directly, the code tree.

The Anticlimax

So this isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of the language, but that is exactly my point. I don’t think it is credible, in the contemporary programming language ecosystem, to claim that Lisp is significantly better as an existential matter, than a lot of languages out there. In many respects, languages like Haskell are much better considered intellectually, and a language like Javascript is much better positioned to actually deliver a product to someone.

But I do think that Lisp’s simplicity in the arena of “source to parse tree to executable code” gives it a distinctly pleasant, distinctly empowering “feel,” and that probably accounts for a significant number of its deep adherents.

And that is the deal with me and Lisp.

Footnotes

1: That is to say, the similarity is not itself a property of the languages, nor a property of the immediate Lisp community, who somewhat close to the languages in question, tend not to confuse them, but a property of the community of programmers `at large`.

2: Of course Smalltalk did blocks earlier and better.

3: No shortage of these, somehow.

4: A given monad can be thought of as specifying alternative semantics for the act of binding a value to a variable and handling the result of an expression evaluated in the context of that binding. A surprisingly large space of `mini-languages` can be reached by controlling exactly what these two operations constitute.

5: I say pretend because it turns out that your average Lisp reader is really doing a lot of work, and that the data structure you denote and its denotation are, as a consequence, not as close to one another as you might imagine. The key is that they are close enough that you can avoid thinking too hard about it most of the time.

6: Literally. The original intent was to denote Lisp programs using m-expressions, but it was an extra complication that never really caught on, since most programmers found it simpler to just use parenthesized notation.

7: Or so it seems. One shortcoming of Lisp, it might be argued, is that it makes thinking about program transformation seem easier than it actually is. Correct program transformations, in which the resulting code does what you expect it to do in all scenarios is a pretty hard problem. A hard problem which is not even generally conceived of in its entirety by those writing macros, as evidenced by the frequency with which one hears the false claim that `gensym` is sufficient to avoid unexpected behavior.

8: To be fair, Racket goes way beyond Lisp in general in this area.