This post contains spoilers for “The Witch”.
Watching Antichrist a couple of months ago stoked a fresh appetite for modern horror films. An unusal choice for me, but I leaned in, requesting one poisoned Blu-Ray after another from my local library. I saw Antichrist’s follow-up Melancholia, and then Hereditary, The Witch, and the 2018 Suspiria remake. Every movie but the last could be crudely summarized as “A family is destroyed,” a commonality of plot I did not consciously seek, but which I found grimly satisfying just the same given the backdrop of our present reality. I want to focus on The Witch now, in part because it’s probably the most accessibile film of the bunch. Further, I feel particular resonance in its portrayal of a family mowed down in a border state by a laughing, capering evil — one resplendent in its power to do whatever it wants with those who cross into its home territory, and seeing children in particular as resources to either exploit or simply consume.
Notably, this home-viewing represented my second swing at the picture, several years after catching it in the theaters. I didn’t like it, at the time; it struck me as a well-shot series of ultimately meaningless scenes. The family succumbed one by one to a variety of misfortunes both weird and mundane, and then the final girl, apparently without anything better to do, surrenders her soul to Satan and floats away. Huh? I didn’t understand why so many of my friends loved the movie so much. But I watched it again on a hunch that I’d come better prepared to appreciate it, between my cinematic horizons expanding and the world itself changing during the intervening years. I proved myself right: The Witch felt far more coherent on re-watch — and even seemed to engage in conversation with other films I’ve seen recently.
I have one friend in particular, a true cineaste, who cherishes this movie. He expressed something like offense after I didn’t initially like it, and relished my tweeted news that I meant to give it another go. For him, the film summarizes to “The Devil rescues a young woman from Christianity.” A legitimate interpretation, and one that let the movie hit him where he lived, given his personal background. The movie carries enough subtlety and ambiguity to allow for this and other layered readings, I’m sure. I would imagine you could even make a case that nothing supernatural in the film happens at all, and the family tears itself asunder after a few bad-luck coincidences trigger a destructive spiral of paranoid mistrust, fueled by religious conviction. However, I felt entirely comfortable skimming along the movie’s surface, taking its events literally, and understanding a perfectly satisfying story from them.
The key scene for my second viewing comes near the start, as the family faces the reality of their exile for the first time. Led by the parents, holding hands and grinning with confidence, they face the forest together, then kneel to pray. The camera cuts to the family’s viewpoint of the tall, dark trees lining the clearing, all shadows behind, and the choral soundtrack ascends into a howling crescendo. I startled, not just from the sonic assault but because this image felt borrowed directly from Antichrist, and in particular its theme of nature — and the wild forest, in particular — as Satan’s church.
And here is the doomed family, praying at its doorstep! What I didn’t see in my first viewing seemed dead-obvious now: from that moment, their grim fate was sealed. The father doesn’t realize until the very end of the picture that he committed the mortal sin of pride by gladly accepting exile, rather than make any attempt to reconcile his philosophical disagreements with the rest of the colony. He couldn’t see until far too late that God is the community, and to leave the embrace of the latter means to leave sight of the former. And so, with that early scene, the family happily blunders straight into the Adversary’s own place of worship, hilariously thinking they’ll homestead there. The true forest-dwellers lick their chops at the fat lambs that have stupidly, proudly wandered right into their den.
The rest of the movie, then, merely depicts the forest-coven playing with its food. After snatching the baby to rev its engines (and giving us another scene straight from Antichrist, characters wandering a forest desperately while an infant cries from an unknowable direction), the coven begins a campaign of harassing the parents and sabotaging their crops, building stress and distraction. From there, the monsters compromise the young twins through animal-whispering, then twist the older boy into a despair-bomb, sending him back home to detonate. Now they can just let things play out, at last claiming the final survivor as their own (with the twins’ fate left ambiguous). And all because dad simply refused even give the slightest glance downward to see the road to ruin he’d set everyone on.
Crucially, the father’s prideful embrace of exile seems the only evil act he commits. The moment we hear Ralph Ineson’s amazing voice speaking defiantly to the town council, we brace for subsequent scenes his family suffering under the blunt cruelty of a Puritain fanatic. But that doesn’t happen, not at all. Within the confines of their spartan existence, the father cares for his family tenderly — and they repsond in kind, to one another, even as things start to fall apart. I would have favored my friend’s take on the film if we saw any indication that the daughter wanted to flee, but as far as I can tell, no such sign appears. Similarly, I don’t buy that she harbors any secret ill will towards her parents or siblings. In our first real moments with her, she plays joyfully with her infant brother. If his subsequently becoming witch-stew fulfilled something in the recesses of her heart, then it’s too subtle for me to catch. None of the family either desires or deserves what happens — it’s just the consequences of a single, willful, enormous mistake.
In a retrospectively delicious irony, we learn that the father, uneasily aware of the older childrens’ incipient adulthood, considers negotiating with the colony he turned away from in order to get the kids — or at least the daughter — off the hook, letting them re-enter society. So she had an escape route anyway, through essentially no action of her own. Maybe that wasn’t enough escape for her, and she wanted to leave the company of humanity entirely, but I still can’t see the evidence for it. Ultimately, I did not see her laughter in the final scene as she sails aloft as that of a woman finally free. Rather, it brought to mind Winston Smith at the end of 1984, gazing with adoration at Big Brother, his mind bent around to love his destroyer. The family’s obliteration, and the Devil’s victory, was complete.
I will end with the observation, somewhat disconnected, that the Devil too is explicitly presented as a homesteader here, in colonial New England. The witches’ coven is as much as colony as the gated British town is. This too comes from a single point-of-view shot at the very start of the film: as the cart bearing the family leaves the English colony for the last time, a trio of Indians trudges across the road behind them: on-screen for just a moment, but center-framed. With passive curiosity, one of them looks over his shoulder, into the camera representing the exiles’ own gaze. It is the last truly human face anyone in the family will see.
That brief glance stuck with me, even though it doesn’t seem obviously close to the film’s plot. (In fact, it helped entice me to see The Witch a second time, since this same shot appears in the trailer that I saw before Hereditary.) It establishes that, yes, we are dealing with colonies here, and the colonies are treating with — and displacing — a native people. The film makes a minimal but unmissiable effort to show their presence. And it all suggests the question: was the Devil in the woods before the white men came? The witches we see all look as pale as the English colonists, which rather implies that Satan must have hitched a ride over on the first colony ships, and has since stayed busy in his own effort to rapaciously claim up land and fill it with his own people. An inevitable shadow cast by any human nation’s colonial efforts, perhaps: converting the land, corrupting the wilds, squeezing out the natives, and ultimately turning on itself.
After playing a work-in-progress demonstration of a new, fan-made modernization of Cyan’s classic adventure game Riven, Zarf wrote this summary of his core criticism with VR as a game platform. I found it compelling and agreeable, putting into words many of my own heretofore half-formed reservations about VR. In particular, I nod along with the observation that one’s memories of a good immersive game already situate one within the game’s world, raising the question of what a VR setup could add to that. The answer, Zarf argues, is immediacy — albeit often like a lightning strike, a stunning shock that fades very quickly.
An immersive game played through the typical medium of a large, flat screen eases you into its world, he writes. If it succeeds at all in capturing your attention, then the finite rectangle in front of you becomes your sole focus, its borders fuzzing away, and its content the only thing you’ll recall later. (See also: watching a movie.) VR, on the other hand, grabs your head (literally!) and dunks you into its world from the very moment you switch it on. You gasp, bedazzled, as the experience hits you like a bucket of water: wow!
This works wonders on trade show floors, when you might have only a minute or two to try a game or gadget, making instant immersion entirely appropriate. But after that shock of entry wears off, it’s just a video game, and needs to win your attention — and stick in your memory — on its own merits. (This reminds me, too, of how the 3D-ness of every 3D movie I’ve seen seems to follow a similar arc. Gum, losing its flavor.)
To these observations, I would add another: games and other experiences that successfully bring your head and your hands into their world, and not just “you”, make for more meaningful VR interactions that last beyond those first moments. But then those games must at core be all about your head and hands; any game with more on its mind with have a tough time crafting a VR mode with any measure of stickiness.
A favorite example: one of the best games for PSVR is Tumble VR, which has you stack blocks. You stack different blocks under a variety of restrictions and circumstances, challenged to make a tall stack on one level, and then a wide and stable pyramid on the next. I doubt this would make for a compelling experience on a flat screen. But in VR? It feels great. Using the PlayStation’s wand-like Move controllers as hands, you snatch up blocks, and hold them close to your face to examine their weight and material. You gently rub them against other blocks to get a sense of their surface friction, and you make the most fine-tuned motions with the real muscles of your real wrists, trying to nudge the virtual blocks into just the right spaces. That’s the whole game, and I love it — and I remember playing it as an intensely physical experience.
Compare to Obduction, the latest full-sized immersive adventure game from Cyan. I can’t recall how long I waited in between my purchasing it for PS4 and its delayed PSVR support coming down the pipe — it may have taken a most of a year. When it finally did arrive, I felt mainly frustration at the unnatural controls, which relied on the teleport-to-move style employed by many VR games as proof against motion sickness. The most memorable interaction I had involved ringing someone’s doorbell over and over by pulling my right-hand Move controller’s trigger to extend my in-game hand’s index finger, then jabbing it forward repeatedly. Fun — but, alas, not an action central to the experience. I took off the helmet and proceeded to play “flat” Obduction all the way through as originally intended, and had a marvelous time that I today remember fondly.
I’ve already written about Rez in VR, where the helmet turns you into a digital basilisk, destroying targets by looking at them, and how that feels quite perfect. (I maintain that the original Rez was a VR-native game, published 15 years ahead of schedule.) I can also praise two games that make you feel present by playing with extreme scale: the mouse-warrior protagonist of Moss seems like she really is two inches tall and — this is key — six inches away from your face as she tumbles through miniature fantasy play-sets. Conversely, Here They Lie contains some amazing set-pieces involving titanically large figures glaring down at you from a mile away, in ways that caught my breath. The same game also has one of my favorite unexpected single VR moments ever: I came across a mirror and caught a glimpse of the player-character, surprised at the specificity of his appearance, all rumpled suit and receding hairline. I instinctively leaned in close to see better — and, of course, “my” reflection did exactly the same, with the same curious head-tilt too.
In all the cases, the VR games worked with my presence in the game-world as embodied, centering themselves specifically around the position and motion of my eyes and hands in space. In subtle but real ways, this is different from treating the player as a floating camera that can do stuff, the perfectly functional mode for standard game controls and so often a clumsy and distracting rig in VR. That, I think, summarizes the update I’d make to my own earlier article on PSVR. It’s not so much that the best, least gimmicky VR games “have presence”, but that they make you feel startlingly, bodily present — and that’s simply not the right approach for every sort of game. Disappointingly, this may include most games about immersive exploration, ones that primarily want to show you amazing vistas and wondrous machines. A familiar controller and nice big flat screen may remain their best home.
A two-step nutshell answer:
Post, anywhere on the web, a reply that contains a hyperlink back to the Fogknife article you are replying to.
Paste the URL of that reply into the “Suggest a new mention” box at the bottom of the relevant Fogknife article, then tap the “Submit suggestion” button.
A long-winded explanation with more options follows.
This blog welcomes direct responses to its articles, as well as public but indirect mentions of them, appending links and summaries to the relevant posts. (This post, for example, has a variety of public reaction attached.) It accomplishes this through technology known as Webmention, which works by letting the responder publish their response somewhere else on the web, and then letting Fogknife know about it, one way or another.
If you stand among the lucky few who already know how to post replies and send webmentions, great! Just do that, however you do it. When you want to post a reply (or a like, or a repost), any Fogknife article’s URL should work as a webmention target, and the right things will happen upon receipt.
Otherwise, you can comment via any of these methods:
Reply to the post on Twitter. Many posts on Fogknife end with a hyperlink reading “Share or reply to this post on Twitter”. This leads to the post’s “official” tweet, which links back in turn to Fogknife. If you “like”, retweet, or respond to this tweet on Twitter, then your activity will show up as a like, a repost, or a reply on the Fogknife article. (It may take a few hours to happen.)
This magic occurs by way of Bridgy, whose maintainers have my gratitude for their impressive and inspirational work.
Create a reply with Comment Parade. An experimental but nifty service by Christian Weiske that will host comments and send webmentions for you. Go to the main page, plug in the URL of the specific Fogknife article you’d like to reply to, and follow the prompts from there. (For this simple purpose, you may disregard the language about IndieAuth endpoints and logins.)
Publish a response anywhere you want, and then tell Fogknife about it. Every Fogknife article-page ends with a simple form labeled “Suggest a new mention”, comprising a single text-field. If you plug in the URL of a page anywhere on the public internet that itself contains a hyperlink to the Fogknife article in question, then Fogknife will create the appropriate webmention.
So, you can write something on your own blog, or on a service like Mastodon, or even just publish a stand-alone webpage that responds to the post, and then come back to the Fogknife post and share it. So long as it links to that post, the article should treat it as a comment.
Advanced technique: If you take this latter path, you may wish to try marking up your article with microformats that identify it specifically as a response to the Fogknife article, and not merely an article that happens to mention it. These microformats can also contain information about you, the response’s author, and a separate summary of your response (if it’s on the longer side).
This article by Aaron Parecki can teach you how that works. When you’re done, plug your page’s URL into the Fogknife article’s form, as described above.
And then if you find yourself intrigued by seeing all that Webmention magic at work, do feel free to follow the links at the end of Aaron’s article to dive deeper into the topic, as well as the wider world of the IndieWeb.
I offer two ways to support my writing here. I reward any assistance with a self-adhesive token of my gratitude, per the attached figure.
Method 1: Donate at least $10 to a non-profit organization from the list below. Then send me, via email, proof of your donation — a photographed or forwarded receipt would do nicely — as well as your postal address. If the donation occurred within a month of the date of your email, then I will send you a handsome vinyl Fogknife sticker as soon as I can.
You can also donate $10 or more to a non-profit organization not on this list, and show me that receipt instead. So long as your generosity seems in-line with my own notions of what would make a better world — and I trust you can ascertain the general direction of my philosophy from this list, and indeed from what I write about on this blog — you’ll probably get a sticker. (Honestly, I’ll probably approve anything that isn’t outright antithetical to my beliefs.)
Method 2: Send me, via PayPal, $10 or more, and attach your postal address as a note. My email address for PayPal purposes is email@example.com. I will, on receipt, send you a fetching vinyl Fogknife sticker as soon as I can.
At the start of every month, I will donate 100% of the money collected in this fashion to one or more charities of my choice. Every time I do donate money through this route, I will list the recipients and the totals on Fogknife. (I will not name the original donors, except in extraordinary circumstances, and even then only with their permission.)
Choose this option only if you don’t care which charities receive your donation, and if you trust my own judgment in this regard. If you want to make sure the money goes to a particular recipient, please use the first method instead!
Notably, I will not donate any money collected this way to any non-profit organization on whose board I sit. (At this time, this list contains only one member, the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation.) I would of course be thrilled and grateful if this appeal led you to donate money in that direction anyway, but I wish to make clear that this activity does not represent a sneaky fund-raising effort for any organization I help manage.
How do these donations help Fogknife? I find myself living in a civilization that has chosen to undertake an exploration of its own fragility. It experiments with authoritarian governance and environmental degradation, favoring short-term gains for a few over long-term growth for all.
This trend endagers my ability to write. The resource that I need the most to keep writing and maintaining this website is not money, but time and attention. If my societal freedoms erode too much, I will have to turn more of my attention towards the basic survival of myself and my family, and that will reduce or even eliminate the attention I have to spare for projects like Fogknife.
Supporting causes that can use your money to maintain democratic freedom, defend the climate, and resist authoritarian undermining therefore supports my work here. It may very well support your own work, too.
My inspiration for the first method of support comes from Francis Heaney, a prolific puzzle constructor who published a special collection of crosswords in January 2017 — and set as its cover-price a small donation to a politically progressive or pro-climate non-profit. He offered a list of suggestions, much as I do here. This began my own career as a personal-scale philanthropist, as I wrote about at the time.
The second route offered here is more experimental. I’m not aware of any other writer or “content creator” who offers something like this, and I wanted to try it. It presents a variation of the appeal to donate to progressive charities that I have attached to my own open-source software projects since 2018. I found myself wondering if more people who like my work would actually donate to any of these causes if I made the process as easy as possible for them, acting with all due transparency.
I have no idea if it will work, or if it has downsides I can’t see right now. I recognize too that, as far as rewards go, a packet of original puzzles from professional constructors does not compare to a tiny sticker representing an obscure blog. If all this does turn out to be a bad idea — or an embarrassingly inert one — I’ll call it off, and modify this page appropriately. (If this page does not clearly state some variant of “Oops never mind” at the top amidst a lot of struck-out text, you may assume that it still means what it says.)
In any event, I have no qualms at all about passing through every penny I may attract this way. I have enough money already, and Fogknife is far too humble a publication to squeeze any personal profit from. If I can somehow turn it into a passive financial magnet — however modest — for causes I believe in, I’d rather see that happen.
If you’ve head this far, thank you for your support, or at least your consideration thereof. I will keep writing.
Earlier this month I discovered News API, a service that provides just what its name implies: a handful of API endpoints that result in JSON-based summaries of current news stories from around the world. You can get a stream of new headlines, or search through all recent stories in its database, filtering on various criteria. Its documentation includes some example output.
Using the service requires an API key; one can obtain a free key that allows modestly rate-limited queries for personal or open-source-project use, which earns my attention and my respect for sure. The rather mysterious organization behind the service — its official website has no “About Us” page that I can find — does offer higher-throughput commercial-access plans with monthly pricing that starts in the low hundreds.
News API’s enigmatic nature (Who runs it, exactly? What else do they do, and what’s their overall mission?) prompts me to not assume its future availability as indefinite. But its tight focus, clear documentation, and friendliness towards open-source use encouraged me nonetheless to gamble a couple of afternoons writing the first version of Web::NewsAPI, a new code library that lets you work with News API via Perl. Its source is on GitHub, and I humbly offer the library for consideration as an addition to News API’s officially endorsed implementations.
I plan on using this new module with a near-future release of Brickfielder, my exercise timer. I have, since that program’s inception, had a notion of adding a multiple-sourced “on-board entertainment” system to it, and News API immediately struck me as an excellent resource for this questionable purpose. I look forward to completing and announcing this work later in the year.
This article was also posted to the “code” section of Indieweb.xyz.
I came at this 2018 book by surgeon Arnold van de Laar expecting a popular-nonfiction health treatise, but instead found something far more akin to Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential, which I loved. As with Smith’s book, Under the Knife comes from the pen of a professional who loves his craft, eager to share favorite stories and observations with an audience of curious laypeople. I found the author’s enthusiasm infectious and I loved this book too, even as I squirmed through much of its often bluntly succinct descriptions of human bodies’ failure states and the operations required to repair them.
While acknowledging from the outset that mortality surrounds a surgeon’s work on all sides, Under the Knife ends up a celebration of the human machine’s resilience, its determination to stay alive in the most severe circumstances. Over the author’s recounting of his favorite historically significant surgeries, he frequently mentions the ancient dictum of healing per secundam, where the doctor mere cleans up any acute mess and then allows the body to knit itself back together, because that is what bodies do.
And in this context, van de Laar makes clear that part of the surgeon’s job involves creating wounds, not shying from using that word repeatedly to describe the incisions and dissections that a modern surgeon performs in order to target a problem that might lay many layers deep. The author really gets across the intuitive inversion at play here, so easy to overlook in the age of modern, sterile medicine. Not even two centuries ago, any penetrating wound to the gut, whether by bayonet or scalpel, was almost invariably fatal. This made abdominal surgery, where a single operation might require myriad intentional wounds, quite impossible until relatively recently.
I got the impression that the author relished modern medicine’s allowing him, personally, to explore the wonders of the human abdomen, and then talk to the stitched up patient about it afterwards. The stories that he brings the most enthusiasm to in Under the Knife involve the belly-guts, and he especially loves to imagine himself in the operating theaters, ancient and modern, that he describes. He has particular fun envisioning the emergency surgery upon Pope John Paul II after his shooting, with one head surgeon after another barging his way into the OR until there are no fewer than six hands holding up the pope’s bowels and rooting around behind them to trace and repair the path torn by the assassin’s bullet.
Other “celebrity surgeries”, where the author mixes adds his own experience and intuition to the available historical record, make up some of the book’s other high points. He observes how a throat-wound on JFK’s body, long a favorite of conspiracy theorists as an impossible bullet-hole, was probably an intentional tracheotomy wound introduced by the first surgeon who received the dying president, and then mis-reported in the ensuing chaos. He brings us to the private chambers of Louis XIV during the operation on his anal fistula, marveling at the surgeon’s practiced genius and the Sun King’s bravery. He clutches his head at the disastrous treatment of Queen Caroline’s umbilical hernia, where confused and bickering doctors overlooked clues that should have been obvious even to a surgeon of antiquity, leading to the patient’s miserable death.
There are stories of humbler surgeries too, ones that made the historical annals due to the practitioner’s innovation rather than the fame of the patient. Through these tales, van de Laar does give us a tour us through human internal anatomy, even if often in the context of things going wrong. With obvious admiration he describes the gastrointestinal tract as a single, unbroken tube that runs from mouth to butt, with various specialized structures along the way, and I don’t think I’d ever heard it so described before. I also loved learning about how many bodily failures trace have a root cause in internal mechanisms optimized for a life on all fours. Standing upright may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now all of Lucy’s descendants have to live with varicose veins, slipped discs, and hernias.
For all that, I finished the book feeling both smarter about the body and grateful to live in the era of modern medicine. It can feel rewarding and necessary to read, now and again, one subject-matter expert’s testament on how things do tend to improve when viewed on the long arc of history.
This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.
Twenty years after accepting my first job as a software engineer, I’d like to try picking up some technical-writing work. If I find that it agrees with me, I might well consider refocusing my career into writing full-time, making software development an activity I’d continue to pursue for my own benefit only.
To this end, I have published a new portfolio highlighting some of my better technology-writing since the start of the century, from O’Reilly books I co-authored ages ago through reports I wrote just this year for IFTF. I have also given my résumé its most significant overhaul ever, streamlining and reformatting it to let my history as a writer stand out more.
A lot happened in the first half of 2019 to push me in this direction.
In March, I joined the What Cheer Writers Club here in Providence, offering me a local community and a quiet, shared work-space dedicated to writing — something I hadn’t really experienced since college. I have found myself heading to WCWC’s downtown offices whenever I want to write — and I’ve had a lot to write, this year! This has, of course, included my ongoing commitment to Fogknife — observant readers will note the addition of the club’s logo to this blog’s sidebar, acknowledging the role it has played in my recent blog-writing.
The club also saw me write the community report of IFTF’s accessibility-testing program, describing and delivering upon years of planning and effort by eight subject-matter experts and dozens of volunteer testers. I thought it would take me a month to accomplish, and budgeted as much — but with time to focus and a friendly environment, it required little more than a week from first word to final draft. I feel quite proud of this accomplishment, and prominently link to it from my new portfolio and updated résumé.
So all this has boosted my confidence as a writer, but one event tied to WCWC only coincidentally may have played the most catalystic role in suggesting that I might professionally identify as a writer as well. The very first day I settled down to write in the club’s library as a brand-new member, I received an email from a tech recruiter. A common enough occurence, this, except that instead of the usual enticement to sit in a cubicle on Route 128 and write Java for medical-device firmware or something, this one said that a tech-writing position had opened at a major corporation’s Boston office.
For the first time in years, I felt moved to respond to a recruiter’s email. I said that I’d like to know more about that opportunity, sure, but I also wanted to know how I wound up on a list of potential tech-writing candidates. “Sure, Josh,” came the reply, “send me your résumé and a good time to call.” I did, and heard nothing further. The next week, the same person mailed the same pitch, and I indicated that I remained interested. “Sorry, Justin, could you send that résumé again?” I did — and, predictably, the conversation petered out immediately.
But none of that bothered me! In fact, it got under my skin as a tingling itch, and it stayed there. I may have fallen between the floorboards of that distracted recruiter, but the implication inherent in their contacting me at all, mixed with my new club membership, encouraged me to think of new career directions for myself — just as my well-worn identity as an engineer starts to feel uncomfortably stale. So, months later, with that report done, with Narrascope done, and with a major client project shipped, I find myself turning back to the potential of tech writing.
I want to try it. Jeff Atwood listed tech writing as a sensible career shift for programmers who feel done with programming, and family and friends with whom I have discussed this have proven unanimously encouraging. And, again, I’ve been writing all this time — I’ve written books, for god’s sake. I have reason to believe that I practice more discipline and care in my writing today than I ever have before, and I like to think that shows in my output.
Programming is beautiful. I will continue to program weird stuff for the rest of my life. I am glad that I had comfortably paid decades to get really good at it! And, you know, maybe I’ll end up still doing that for a while longer anyway. (It was certainly the thing I wanted to do more of the last time I used this blog to pitch myself, some years ago.) But I began my career as a writer; my college degrees belong to a writer. I fell into programming by accident. I can no longer ignore the suspicion, borne by another benign accident, that the time has come for me to pack up everything I’ve learned from two decades of software adventuring and come back home at last.
I followed a reference to Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe from this New York Magazine article by Masha Gessen about the recent and much-lauded HBO miniseries on the same topic. Gessen takes issue with the show’s need to have its composite characters say aloud things that any real Soviet citizen of the day would never have given literal voice to, whether growling threats or wailing about consequences. This dialog may have helped clarify the situation to a Western audience in 2019, but the real people — Gessen writes — would have been extremely aware of the political weight they labored under, and far too inculcated (or simply resigned) to take any action that might resemble protest or even hesitancy against the state’s desires. Gessen holds up Plokhy’s book — more than the show’s producers’ own favorite, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl — as an accurate chronicle of the disaster, one focusing more on the whole Soviet state as culpable, rather than than any individual-scale failing.
I haven’t watched the show yet, but I have stood downwind from it via social media, and it has stirred a personal hunger to revisit the topic. Everything I knew about Chernobyl came filtered through school and mass-media channels easily available to an American pre-teen during the 1980s; I felt ready for an update. And in the book’s preface, Plokhy lays out his mission of gathering up all the materials available to him as of the late 2010s, interleaving and summarizing them into the most up-to-date chronology of the accident possible, and filtering it all through his own insight and expertise as a historian of both Ukraine and the Cold War.
I found Plokhy’s style rather dry; perhaps to Gessen’s satisfaction, he has little interest in setting descriptive “establishing shots”, let alone playing up any drama in his narrative. He doesn’t make it easy to visualize the power plant itself, even as he walks us through its chambers and stairwells, or swoops overhead in helicopters. But: I didn’t know any of this stuff at all. Beginning with the fact that Chernobyl wasn’t even in Russia, but in Ukraine, on the Belarus border! So maybe it’s not the most dynamic book available on the topic, but it’s the one that found its way into my hands, and it fit the bill for what I wanted. I’m glad I read it.
In his book, Plokhy draws a startling through-line from the April 1986 explosion of the Unit 4 reactor and the complete dissolution of the USSR only five years later. Because that time-span neatly covered my own adolescence, it feels like an eternity in my memory, the Soviet Union a world power strong as ever until one day it suddenly and inexplicably fell apart. Outside of Chernobyl itself, this book sets its point of view firmly and exclusively in the corridors of Soviet power between Moscow and Kiev, the capital of its Ukraine vassal-state. While he acknowledges that the rest of the world’s view towards the USSR shifted for the worse in response to the half-secretive, half-belligerent Soviet handling of the disaster on the world stage, Plokhy names the ever-present Ukrainian separatists as those who truly held the Soviet system accountable for making the accident possible, and who carried out the Union’s death sentence via their own declaration of independence — with a thoroughly bankrupt Moscow utterly unable to stop them.
Plokhy describes a USSR completely incapable of dealing with strategic realities, but whose people could draw on both grim determination and an enormous population to crystallize around a crisis. The Chernobyl disaster did not result in much immediate loss of human life, or ecological ruin beyond its immediate vicinity, in part because the Soviet Union threw everything they had at it once they acknowledged the situation. This included not just the entire national budget, but hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” bused in to clean and calm the buried, sputtering reactor. Each liquidator worked on-site for only a few seconds before receiving a lifetime’s dose of ionizing radiation — just long enough to dispose of one handful of rubble, and make way for the next one. Older folks among those who participated couldn’t help but compare the swarming effort and its staggering human cost to the Russian resistance to German invasion.
The author describes the final outcome as a bullet dodged for the world, even if it ended up literally shattering its nation. The worst-case scenarios did not occur. Through the frantic and utterly self-sacrificing actions of the Soviet people, the blown-out reactor core did not melt down and poison the water table, nor did it detonate and throw truly unimaginable levels of radiation up into the atmosphere — either of which might have had devastating effects to all of Europe and beyond. But to hear Plokhy describe it, nobody really knows what stopped it, or how big of a role dumb luck played.
Chernobyl acknowledges, in the end, its own point of view from 2018, witnessing a resurgence of autocratic regimes around the world — many of whom eye nuclear power as a way to generate lots of electricity (to say nothing of other mateirals) inexpensively, and showing no more interest in international cooperation than the Soviets did. As an American reader, I also felt very troubled by the descriptions of the Gorbachev-led government’s immediate response to the disaster, which reflexively and openly denied all the objective evidence visible to the whole world, preferring instead to rant about enemies foreign and domestic rather than addressing the crisis with any honesty or transparency. Plokhy closes the book on a note of shrugging hope that the world leaders of today will somehow acknowledge and address the spiraling nuclear issue, applying Chernobyl’s lessons before it — or something much worse — happens all over again.
And what a bitter taste that left me with.
This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.
In my interactive fiction The Warbler’s Nest, which I wrote in 2010, a pivotal scene sees the main character having their attention drawn to an outlier amongst a field of tall plants. They approach cautiously, as the wind blows through the field, carrying strange noises and a sense of quietly escalating dread. When they finally reach the unusual stalk, they discover a bizarre animal crouched there — one whose appearance and behavior sets the tone of the rest of the work.
Here is a scene from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a film from 2009 which I had never watched until only last night. (Be warned that this clip contains a jump-scare and realistic animal gore.)
The absolutely uncanny similarity between the scene in the movie and the one in my game struck me immediately; it felt a little bit like watching a film adaptation of my own work! But of course, I knew the whole time that the movie predates my game by a year, so I considered it a delightful coincidence.
With a day to roll it around in my head, though, I begin to settle on the likelihood that I had watched this scene from Antichrist online while the film was new, months before starting my work on Warbler. Back then, after I saw it, I immediately put it out of mind, just as we all do with the thousands of other multimedia bits and bobs we encounter on the web during any year. But my brain found it sticky enough to index, and so popped it into deep-storage, wiring up reference-handles to it in the utterly ineffable ways that brains do.
And to it came to pass that when designing Warbler a year later, it happened to share enough key abstractions with this unsettling image of Willem Dafoe in the forest that my brain duly retrieved it from cold storage — enough that I could more or less adapt it wholesale into my work, but not so much that I had any conscious awareness of the fact! It absolutely felt like completely original invention on my part. Watching this clip today, underneath my own one-paragraph summary of the Warbler scene, I really can’t believe that any more.
I don’t feel any kind of negativity about this discovery. In fact, I feel quietly thrilled — how often does one get to perform this sort of critical archaeology on one’s own body of work, a decade after the fact? It reveals not just something about my own process but, I believe, the creative process in general: we are one and all remix-machines. With both our physical bodies and our creative oeuvres, we are what we eat.
And I really have to get back into watching more movies.
Note: Antichrist is a provocative horror movie containing lots of disturbing content, including but not limited to explicit sex and brutal violence. I liked it, but would not necessarily recommend it.
Every so often I find myself confronting someone with a penchant for springing pop-quizzes upon the person they’re talking to, despite lacking any real social-context authority to do so. A typical interaction with one of these conversational quizmasters might go something like this:
BOB: Hello, Alice! (Who, for the purposes of this example, is my colleague and peer, and not my teacher or superior officer or something!) I need your help plugging this transcendental inducer into this frobnard.
ALICE: Really? Let’s see that… Huh, Okay. Do you know what the three rules of safe transcendental induction are?
ALICE: [Smiling archly] What are they?
BOB: [Suddenly caught flatfooted] Uhhh…?
(Admission: I assigned the speakers’ genders consciously here to avoid conflating the quizmaster with the mansplainer, a related but subtly discrete phenomenon.)
Alice, beyond being simply rude, has surprised Bob with a sudden intellectual task thrown into his hands. This completely blew away whatever mental frame he brought to this conversation. He’ll probably try to meet the challenge, just out of reflex, much as he’d automatically move to catch a ball that Alice unexpectedly lobbed at him.
The only two possible outcomes of at attempt to answer Alice’s latter question: either Bob stammers out a correct answer, making himself feel vaguely hazed and belittled by a peer; or he doesn’t, making himself feel called-out and foolish. Alice gets to feel superior, either way, and we can imagine that the unexpected opportunity to gleefully knock someone down a peg motivated her.
I therefore propose an alternate course of action to one facing this kind of uninvited quizzing: just sidestep it entirely by asking for the answer right away. Tamp down the impulse, expected by the quizmaster, to chase the bait, and keep your ego unbruised by tucking it away entirely.
So, in the case of the above drama, Bob would answer Alice’s challenge not with a deer-in-headlights stare as he desperately shifted mental gears in order to answer literally, but instead demurring to play the game at all. “Gosh, you know what, why don’t you tell me?” perhaps, with a self-effacing little shrug. Or, in the advanced case, if Bob suspects (or, indeed, knows from experience) that Alice is the sort of person to lead him into a trap for her amusement, he could simply have responded to her first question with a grinning “Nope!”
Taking this tack might involve an apparent profession of false ignorance, which may seem a little dishonest — not just to the quizmaster you face, but to yourself. However, I invite you to reconsider the question not according to its literal wording, but instead as couched in its true, unspoken framing: “What are the three laws of robotics?” becomes “Do you want to amuse me by reciting the answer to ‘What are the three laws of robotics’?” And to this, with a smile on your face, you can say: Why, no!
The effect remains the same: you rob the quizmaster of the satisfaction of watching you squirm, and they experience the lesser pleasure (from their point of view) of simply stating some fact at you. You, in the meantime, can enjoy the subtle relief of keeping your pride uninjured despite this ambush. (Getting want you initially wanted out of the conversation with this disagreeable person, and then gracefully ending it, remains an open problem, of course — but I have faith in the reader’s natural abilities here.)
This whole notion came to me by way of a recent Radiolab episode, when a guest asked long-time hosts Jad and Robert if they knew about a fairly basic scientific phenomenon. As a decade-plus listener of the show, I can guarantee that both hosts knew that topic quite well, and probably had based whole prior episodes around in the past — and yet, they both made professionally curious noises and begged the guest to explain the principle.
Now, they did that because it’s good radio, of course: let the guest do the talking! Just the same, I took notice of the deft sidestep, and it stuck with me. Some weeks later, thinking back on the last time an acquaintance pinned me with an unwanted quiz mid-conversation, the potential application of the same strategy struck me. Just a small thing, and I hope it helps someone — including, possibly, myself — the next time they’re put, with casual aggression, into an awkward spot.
This article was also posted to the “advice” section of Indieweb.xyz.
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