Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What I'm Playing: Legend of Zelda, Breath of the Wild

A lot of ink has been spilled over the latest entry in the Legend of Zelda series, almost all of it highly complimentary. And the praise is well deserved. It is an amazing game. So I won't try to compete with what has already been said.

But I will point out a few things that make it such a treat, from a player's perspective. At least, this player's perspective....

Besides the graphics that are, as might be expected, a serious step up from previous titles, the first thing you notice is that this game skips the lengthy prologue so many Nintendo titles use. In five minutes or less you are out playing the game. And in that five minutes you learn enough to make yourself comfortable with the controls, dressed (yes, dressed), and ready to go adventuring. This fast startup was not only a surprise, but an unalloyed pleasure. I have begun to dread the opening of games because I rarely have the 30-60 minutes needed just to get through  the openings! To be able to turn it on, get right into the mood and get started was a sheer joy.

Second, there are squirrels! And lots of other things. but squirrels! I have no idea whether the squirrels (and other wildlife) play any serious role in the game. In fact, it doesn't matter. Just watching them hop around and then scatter at your approach is delightful — one of the innumerable ways the game draws you in unrelated to the challenges and mechanics of game play. I could spend days just wandering around without taking on any challenges just to revel in that sense of wonder and newness the game aims for.

Which brings me to my last point. None of this is new. The graphics are tremendous. But other games have achieved this level of world-building before. Superfluous animal life appears in other games (the birds and lizards in Shadow of the Colossus come to mind). Other games have cooking (e.g. Monster Hunter). Ditto climbing and limited stamina (again Shadow of the Colossus and Monster Hunter). The same is true for large open worlds (name your favorite: Red Dead Redemption, etc.). So it is not unique play mechanics or game features that make Breath of the Wild stand out. It is the whole; the sum of the parts and how they are used in just the right amounts to make a wholly engrossing, delightful, internally consistent, and surprising world that makes the game the major achievement it is. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reading Chinese Poetry

"I am a guest of the mountains and the woods."
When I was younger and my parents and I went to pick up my older brother from college, there was a drive-in movie theater at the turnpike exit. As you approached the exit, then again as the exit ramp circled around, and one last time as you passed through the tollbooth you got a few seconds glimpse of the film they were showing. With no soundtrack and mixed in with the whir of tires and roar of semis going by, you could occasionally catch enough to guess what movie it was. But more often than not it was simply incongruous flashes of an imagined life rising unexpectedly out of the corn fields of northern Ohio.

The experience of reading Chinese poetry is very much like that for me. Momentary images — without context or logic — arising out of a jumble of words. Part of the problem is that I don't read Chinese, so I must read the poems in translation. The same is true of other foreign poetry: Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, etc. But the disassociative sensation is not nearly as severe in other languages as it is in Chinese and Japanese.

There are a number of forces at work here:
  • First, there is the language. I must read the poems at a distance due to translation.
  • Next, there is a difference in culture that is likely to create some gaps in understanding.
  • Add to that the distance in time — especially when reading classical Chinese poetry (Li Bai, Wang Wei, etc.) — which can further detach the reader from the shared contemporary zeitgeist of the poet.
  • Finally, there is the syntactic difference between the Chinese and English languages which seems to make translations particularly difficult.
Add all of these distractions together and you have what appears to be an impossible separation to overcome. But strangely enough it appears to be the last item, the syntactic difference, that causes the most difficulty.

The lack of articles in Asian languages as well as the difference in sentence structure seems to overwhelm many translators. They get caught up in conveying the linguistic structure as much as the actual meaning of the poem, creating instead a mutant child belonging to neither world. For example:
I hear the apes howl sadly
In dark mountains.
The blue river
Flows swiftly through the night.
Meng Hao-jan translated by Greg Whincup

The translation sounds like  missing pages from Fun with Dick & Jane — all adjectives and adverbs: sadly, dark, blue, swiftly. The words may approximate the original poem, but somehow both the poetry and any sense of subtly is lost.

And the situation can get even worse when the translators try to be precise and seem to lose track of English as a language.
 This night to the west of the river-brim
There is not one cloud in the whole blue sky,
As I watch from my deck the autumn moon,
Vainly remembering old General Hsieh....
Li Po translated by Witter Bynner

Why "river-brim"?  There are so many other expressions in English that would seem better suited: river's edge, river bank, shore...  or is "brim" the key term? As in "brimming over"? But that connotation doesn't help the poem at all (or be supported by what follows).

Finally, some translators give up on poetry all together and seem to translate the poems at pure text — prose, or some variety thereof. For example:
A bend of the river brings into view two triumphal arches;
That is the gate in the western wall of the suburbs of Hsun-yang.
I have still to travel in my solitary boat three or four leagues—
By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.
Po-Chu-i translated by Arthur Waley

This might come close to a literal translation of the original text. But it is like trying to appreciate a song by reading the lyrics: without knowing the melody or hearing the music, at least half if not more is lost: the essence is missing.

So what can we do? Short of learning Chinese (which is not out of the question, but given the number of languages in the world, even that is just a partial solution) our best offering is to try again. And again. And again.

Each time I read a translation, I get another tiny glimpse into what makes this literature so enduring. For example, the quote I opened with ("I am a guest of the mountains...") strikes a chord with me. I don't even remember  what translation I found it in — the rest was not as memorable — but this brief passage is English. It is lyrical. And it conveys a message and a feeling you are not likely to find in western literature.

But is it accurate? That I cannot tell. Ultimately, the goal is to find literature that touches you, speaks to you, across the languages and cultures and centuries that separate you. Literature that adds to what you know and, at its best, how you want to be as a human being. That is what I am looking for.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Ode to Favorite Book Stores

On a recent visit to Norwich Vermont I stopped in at the Norwich Bookstore, a lovely little book store — warm, welcoming with a small but smartly chosen selection. If you ever get a chance, stop by.

It reminded me how much I love book stores: browsing through what seems like an infinite amount of fascinating possibilities. Even after I was familiar with most of the current work in my particular areas of interest (modern poetry, mainly) book stores could surprise me with something new, something unknown, something unexpected.

Which got me to thinking about my favorite book stores. Which in turn got me to thinking about how many of my favorites are no longer around. It's sad, but not surprising after 30-40 years. And also not too sad since the fact is I have very fond memories of each store that keeps them in my thoughts. As I look over my bookshelves, certain books are intimately connected to the store in which I found them.

So here's an ode, an elegy if you will, to some of my favorite book stores that are no longer with us.

Phoenix Book Shop, New York  City  

I had no idea of the heritage of Phoenix Book Shop when I found it, near where a friend lived in Greenwich Village. I just knew it was a tiny store chock full of amazing poetry books in the lower level of a residential street. I found old copies of Big Table magazine there. And I found a copy of the original The Nights of Naomi by Bill Knott. It was like discovering King Tut's tomb. What's more it was affordable! The price written in pencil on the inside front cover is $3.50. Even then, unnaturally cheap for a book whose publisher went out of business before it could be distributed. I took it to the front where the person sitting at the desk looked at the price, looked at me, then looked at the price again and said "This can't be right." I felt like a thief caught in the act. But after what seemed like 2-3 minutes silence he shrugged and sold it to me for the price as marked. The store was full of beautiful volumes, most well beyond my means. But even a few old magazines and the rare find like the Knott book made me feel like I came away with buried treasure.

Gotham Book Mart, New York City

What can I say? It was Gotham Book Mart.  The holy grail of book lovers, and particularly poetry lovers, in New York City. So much to discover. Barely room to stand up. The books (at least in the poetry section) were double stacked on the shelves, making browsing a physical challenge. But always worth it. And then there were the tables with stacks of books (recommended? I guess) when you got tired of struggling with the shelves. Anything but a relaxed ambience, but you had the feeling you were knee-deep in literature itself.

Compendium Books, Camden Town London

When I was in London in 1977, someone told me about Compendium Books. So I took the train over to see it and ended up making several stops there before I had to leave England. Wow! It was like Gotham Book Mart, except in London and without the NYC bustle. More relaxed. The shelves were crammed, but the aisles were wide enough you could take your time. Camden wasn't hip then — just a cheap place to rent space. And the ambience was more hippy flea market than NYC subway. Among the British poets, they had a surprising array of American poets too, including a number of Kayak books. I found Charles Simic's What the Grass Says there. And it was my first discovery of Portugal's Fernando Pessoa in Jonathan Griffin's exquisite translations published by Carcanet. I always felt like I came away with only a fraction of what I needed to know or experience. But even at their prices, I only had so much money — and time — to spend.

Asphodel Books, Burton, Ohio

 I didn't know Asphodel when it was located in downtown Cleveland. I discovered it after James Lowell moved it into the garage of his house in Burton Ohio. Not a regular bookstore — you had to call to arrange a visit. But Lowell's"shop" was packed with the most amazing collection of books. Given his history, and my lack of funds, I'm surprised he put up with me. But I was in love with modern poetry and he liked to talk. So he let me look through his shelves oohing and aahing over marvelous books (most of which I clearly couldn't afford). He talked about visiting Ian Hamilton Findlay — one of my recent personal "discoveries" — and complained about how Findlay never took enough care packing anything so half of what he ordered arrived damaged. Which is why he would go in person to Scotland once a year to restock. Asphodel is where I first saw an original copy of Andre Breton's Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution; several issues. I don't remember what I bought there. Probably not much. But I did buy a Findlay silk screen of tug boats entitled "Triptych". (Sadly, lost during one of many moves over the years.) And James gave me a signed pamphlet by Robert Bly for free. Because,  he claimed, "Bob gave it to me to make a few extra bucks off people who can afford it."

Spring Church Book Company, Spring Church, Pennsylvania

  Before there was the internet, before there was Amazon, there was mail order. And if you were interested in modern poetry, Spring Church was an absolute necessity and life support system. I don't know who told me about Spring Church — maybe Tom Lux or David Young, maybe Phyllis Jones my freshman college English professor. But whoever did, thank you. Spring Church was a mail order book service originating from Pennsylvania focusing on poetry. Living in Ohio in the 70's it was difficult to know what was happening in modern poetry. Spring Church provided three invaluable services: 1.) a catalog of recent books sent out four times a year or thereabouts, including many small press offerings; 2.) recommendations of books of particular note; 3.) a discount on the books themselves!  I lived off Spring Church much of the time I was in college and the two years after while I was still in Ohio. I suspect I bought more books from them than from all of the traditional book stores combined. They were a lifeline, a source and trusted companion in this new world I was exploring.

I have since found other wonderful book stores and many happy surprises in quite ordinary shops. But these four in particular are experiences I will never forget and I will always cherish as significant milestones in my growth as a poet, a reader, and a person. I will always be indebted to the people who made such wonderful oases of art and literature available. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Art & Society: A rant

At times it seems like the United States is coming apart. Or more accurately, tearing itself apart. The daily reports of black citizens being killed by policemen in the most menial incidents (such as traffic stops) with little or no provocation. Egged on by the incendiary and anti-constitutional ravings of the current GOP presidential nominee, all playing to the basest instincts of the (WASP) population.

It is not a question of whether to respond or not — you can't help but react emotionally to violent schisms in the social fabric. But the question is how to respond.

First you need to decide how you wish to respond as a individual; as a member of society.  This in itself is no small feat. Silence feels like implicit acceptance. Railing against injustice with words, although cathartic, seems like an empty gesture, especially from those of us not directly in the "line of fire" so to speak.  So, action. But what action? The options, from silent protests to direct confrontation, all have their pros and cons, which it is up to the individual to decide between. Ultimately, few if any reach a completely satisfactory balance between appropriate scale without breaching the moral boundaries of the actor. (Violence as a response to injustice does not breed justice. Or simply put: two wrongs do not make a right.)

But if you are writer, or some other form of artist, words (or your medium of choice) are your primary weapon. It just feels wrong to write cheerful poems that ignore the storm outside the door. Silence may be implicit acceptance, but changing the subject feels downright complicit.

However, more often than not, art that attempts to address immediate political or social upheaval often falls flat. And the more pervasive and violent the upheaval, the less successful the art tends to be.

I am reminded of this fact by Juan Felipe Herrera's poem on about the latest police shooting of a black citizen. The poem is clearly heart-felt and well-meaning. More importantly, coming from the current U.S. poet laureate, it probably will have more of an impact than work by any other poet. However, the impact comes from the poem's context, not from the art of the poem itself.

It's not Herrera's fault. It is simply hard for a work of art to address horrific events of such scope and depth. Attempting to encompass the scale of the issue within a poem  tends to result in abstractions and generalizations, that make the poem flabby; trite rather than touching, stereotyped rather than transformative.

But the artist has no choice but to try. And it strikes me that there are two options that tend to have a higher record of success than others. To encompass the horror without being consumed by its incomprehensible size, the artist needs to take the poem to an even higher, almost mythic level. Think of Robert Bly's Teeth-Mother Naked at Last, for example. The other option is to drive the poem deeply and inexorably towards the personal, to bring the issue down to size. An example of this is James Dickey's The Firebombing.

By personal I mean individual in scale, not personal as we tend think of art, as self-absorbed. In Dickey's case, he forces us to empathize with the bomber, not the victims, creating an uncomfortable union where we as audience must experience the separation and dehumanization needed to carry out acts of war. Another more recent example is Ross Gay's excellent poem about Eric Garner. This time, Gay focuses in flat objective language on the absolutely trivial, most human,  aspects of the victim. The small but essential things that have been snuffed out, rather than attempt to capture the man as a whole.
An aside: part of what makes  Picasso's Guernica such a remarkable work of art is that it some how  manages to approach a horrific event from both a mythic and deeply personal point of view at the same time. 

So what happens if you don't write about it? Well, that might be considered the third option. If you choose not to write about what is happening around you, and continue with the other parts of your life and art, something strange happens. You might be in the  middle of a poem about the Edo period in Japan and its attitude towards western intrusions. Or might be writing about how the light at dusk filters through the leaves to form ever-changing patterns on your living room wall. And suddenly the writing takes a dark and ominous turn. Subjects come up you didn't expect. Your writing is hijacked by an emotion that demands to be heard.

Essentially, whatever emotions you do not address, start to seep into your work, ooze out of your pores, and inform everything you do. This might not be recognizable by anyone else.  But as an author, you immediately detect the loss of control, the invasion of another, more influential consciousness on your work. Will it help? will it impact others? Unlikely. But it is the consequence of not taking action earlier. Or even writing a bad poem rather than no poem at all, when situations demand it.

As an artist, you may not be able to sway society, to influence for the common good, or change the course of nature. But then again, maybe you can. Maybe if you stop being an artist for a few minutes and just be a citizen, a member of society, a human being. Maybe what you say will have an impact. No more nor less than any other human. But collectively, as a voice quiet and firm, demanding that we, as a whole, act on our better, if sometimes flawed and susceptible, nature.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Beautifully Frivolous Technology

I bought a PS Vita so I could play Tearaway. Skipping, for the moment,  the question of whether it was worth it to buy a system just to play one game (hint: once you start playing Tearaway, it doesn't matter), the PS Vita itself is a strange device.

Make no mistake about it, the Vita is a beautiful piece of technology. The screen is gorgeous. The device has a heft and sheen to it that makes it look and feel expensive. Is that superficial? Yes, it is. But that doesn't take away its value to the overall impression the device gives off. And as a gaming device, the two analog sticks work perfectly and provide a unique portable gaming experience.

However, for all of its top-notch features, the PS Vita also comes with some odd, unnecessary, and in several cases cheap and badly designed components.Why?

To start with, the game cartridge slot has a cover — a plastic cover — that is attached by four thin pliable plastic tabs. The first time you open the slot it is clear that these tabs are likely to be the first thing to break. Why is there a cover on the game slot at all? (It just gets in the way of changing games.) But if you need one, why such a shoddy design?

You can almost forgive Sony for thinking that the primary direction for games is digital downloads. But that clearly didn't work with the download-only PSP Go. And even if that is their direction, the audience has not fully transitioned from physical to digital media. So cheap design only makes the device seem unsuited for those interested in playing more  than two or three games. (What can fit on Sony's extraordinarily expensive memory cards.)

And then there is the software user interface. What is going on here? There is plenty of flashy interface to deal with. But why? I bought a device to play games on, but none of the games fit on the first screenful of icons there are so many unnecessary "social" apps pre-installed.

Where are the games?

And the unique "peel" mechanic where you have to pull each screen from the top-left down and to the right to go back, what's with that? It is a pretty animation. But why create a mechanic different from every other mobile device except to say "we're different" and frustrate all of your users?

There are so many decisions (3d quivering buttons, the "peal" mechanic, so many "me too" annoying and irrelevant social apps) that just scream "we don't care what you want, we want to impress you". And when I am paying $200 plus, I am not interested in being impressed. I want to be wowed by the function I want to use — the games I want to play. And on the positive side, the PS Vita supports just that with an outstanding screen, well-designed controls and even a little extra (such as the back touch pad). If only all the rest of the device stopped getting in my way....

Monday, July 13, 2015

Best. Documentation. Ever.

I recently picked up an OP-1 synthesizer from Teenage Engineering. The OP-1 is a marvel of design and engineering. But I already knew that, which is why I was so interested in it. What I didn't expect is that it has some of the best documentation I have ever seen.

Of course, saying it is the best documentation ever is a bit of an exaggeration. Kind of like saying Rembrandt is the best painter ever. Better than Renoir? Better than Tintoretto? When you get into the realm of art and genius, comparison becomes irrelevant. What is important is that they far outshine any of their contemporaries.

The same is true for the documentation of the OP-1. To start with it isn't "documentation" per se. There is no manual. There is no paper Getting Started guide. When you open the package (which serves as its own case, which is also pretty neat) there is a clear plastic overlay on top of the synthesizer, describing each of the controls. That's it.

Well, not quite it. Because in the available space over the keyboard the overlay also includes a 8-step "QuickStart" for getting started using the OP-1. Just enough to show off some of its key features and get you playing with it (literally and figuratively).

Does it cover all features? No. Does it go into detail about what each knob does? No. But it makes you comfortable trying them to find out for yourself. Besides, there actually is a more detailed printable user's guide available online. But you won't find that until you've at least looked over instructions on the overlay and tried it out a little. (There is a link to the online document in the lower-left of the overlay.)

Is it perfect? No, not quite. The plastic overlay can get a little wrinkled and not lay flat. Also, since much of the OP-1 is light gray, the white printing on the overlay can be a little hard to read when it is actually covering the device. But these are minor quibbles. For 95% of its purpose, the "documentation" for the OP-1 is as well designed and inspiring as the device itself. Nothing short of exceptional.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

I Did Something Stupid (Wearable UX)

I did something stupid today. I disagreed with one of the leading experts in interface design, mobile, and specifically the soon-to-be-released Apple Watch.

The argument is over a chart Luke Wroblewski (@lukew) posted about the distraction factor of a smart phone vs. a smart watch, indicating use of a smart watch lets you be "more connected to the people around you..."

There are two problems here:
  • First, the chart is fiction. It measures "real life" vs. "lost in phone" — concepts of psychological state which are hard to define, never mind measure.  Perhaps there is some real data behind the charts, but if so the labels do it no justice. I suspect the diagram is more a representation of belief or expectation than fact. In which, why is it a chart?
  • Second, it is not the phone that this the point of distraction. It is the information on the phone — phone, watch, iPad, eye piece, etc — and not the device itself that is the distraction. So putting the notifications on the wrist may reduce the time it takes to switch from in-the-present to in-the-data, but it does not alter the distraction factor that data provides, whether it is in my pocket or on my wrist.
One of the most disturbing studies in this area is recent research into the use of "hands free" devices while driving.  I would equate Luke's proposal that data-on-the-wrist is  less distracting from "real life" to the arguments that hands-free phone technology is less distracting to driving. However, the National Safety Council published a report arguing that hands-free does not significantly reduce the risks to distracted driving.

"Hands-free devices often are seen as a solution to the risks of driver distraction because they help eliminate two obvious risks – visual, looking away from the road and manual, removing your hands off of the steering wheel. However, a third type of distraction can occur when using cell phones while driving – cognitive, taking your mind off the road. 
The amount of exposure to each risk is key. Crashes are a function of the severity of each risk and how often the risk occurs. Most people can recognize when they are visually or mechanically distracted and seek to disengage from these activities as quickly as possible. However, people typically do not realize when they are cognitively distracted, such as taking part in a phone conversation; therefore, the risk lasts much, much longer. This likely explains why researchers have not been able to find a safety benefit to hands-free phone conversations.  "
Understanding the distracted brain:
Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior

National Safety Council White PaperApril 2012

One argument is that the data on the smart watch is primarily uni-directional — not requiring a response. For example, a "be there in 5 mins"  message  But if that is the case, how are those messages being generated? By smart watch wearers pulling out their phones to push the messages? And the fact that the message doesn't require a response doesn't mean it doesn't require cognitive effort — and distraction from current activities — to process it.

Wearables such as smart watches may eliminate the time and effort required to pull out the smart phone. But I have my doubts (unfounded, uninformed, as they may be) that they actually reduce the distraction that modern streaming personal data causes.