Friday, August 29, 2014


I use reflexive pronouns entirely too much in my own writing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An Error of Age

A new countdown has begun! That is: how long before someone at my new school mistakes me for a student there?

At every school I've worked at, I have been mistaken for a senior there. (This also happened when I was student teaching in LaGuardia.) Waltrip has the record for speed: it happened before school began when a teacher thought I was there to register for classes. KIPP took the longest - it wasn't until the third quarter when a guy thought I was a student. NYOS was in the middle, with me being mistaken for a senior about halfway through the year by a parent.

So! As the school year of Austin ISD draws near, we shall see how quickly this mistake is made once again. Will they break the mold and avoid it entirely? Or somehow tie Waltrip's speed during general teacher orientation? (Makes me feel young every time. Especially as the gap increases.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

School is Coming

School starts today! Sadly, that means this blog will likely update less often. "Tidbits" on Fridays will continue and I have some other articles front loaded, but the Monday and Wednesday regular posts will diminish.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Non-Aggression Principle

The Non-Aggression Principle is an axiom of philosophical and political thought that states that the initiation of aggression (such as punching someone in the face when they haven't hit you) is bad and should be avoided. Unlike pacificism, it allows for violence in cases of self-defense, so if someone attacks you, you are allowed to hit back.

A common myth people perpetuate about the principle is that it leaves you vulnerable to attack. However, if you have reason to think someone might attack you, you are allowed to take measures to defend yourself, such as buying armaments or reinforcing your home. Just because you shouldn't lash out prematurely at someone doesn't mean you just sit there waiting to be picked off.

The Non-Aggression Principle is very conservative in how it manages risk. Let's say there's a person. They are doing suspicious things you don't like. They are either a) going to attack you or b) doing things differently from you. You can choose to attack or wait/prepare. There are four outcomes:

  1. They are going to attack you, but you attack them first.
  2. They are going to attack you, but you wait/prepare for it.
  3. They aren't going to attack you, but you attack them.
  4. They aren't going to attack you, but you prepare for if they do.
In situation 1 and 4, everything is fine. You either stopped them from attacking first or left them alone when they weren't planning to do anything to you. However, in situation 2 and 3, you made a mistake and suffer a penalty. So you have a 50% risk of making the wrong choice.

The Non-Aggression Principle says that the loss caused by attacking when in situation 3 is greater than the loss caused by waiting in situation 2. If you prepared correctly there's only so much harm that can be done to you in that initial salvo of situation 2. You can reduce and minimize the risk from that situation in a non-violent manner.

However, situation 3 creates an enemy where once there was none. By attacking, you injured innocent people with no gain. Now the person you attacked can justifiably return the favor and you've locked yourself in an unnecessary conflict. Therefore, the principle concludes, the best course of action is to always wait/prepare and not attack first. It eliminates the chance of situation 3, the worst possible outcome (i.e. murdering innocent people).

It seems straightforward. Why don't more people hold to it? The trick is that you don't have to agree with the principle's weight. You may think the downside of situation 2 is greater, such as discounting the preparation ability due to budget constraints or political will. Then you would conclude that preemptive strikes are better than waiting. That's where a lot of foreign policy debates come from.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Prom Theme

"Have you chosen a prom theme?"

"Yes. Cannibals!"


"Is there a problem?"

"Why not something more...romantic?"

"Cannibals are totally romantic! They're all about heart! And lungs. And kidneys. And spleen."

(Inspired by this "What If?" from xkcd.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Romanticism of Superheroes

"Thrillers are the product, the popular offshoot, of the Romantic school of art that sees man, not as a helpless pawn of fate, but a being who possesses volition, whose life is directed by his own value-choices...Thrillers are a simplified, elementary version of Romantic literature. They are not concerned with a delineation of values, but, taking certain fundamental values for granted, they are concerned with only one aspect of a moral being's existence: the battle of good against evil in terms of purposeful action." - Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto

As people, we crave art that portrays a vision of humanity that is elevated and above our current existence. We enjoy works that idealize and present us in a positive light. Seeing a hero overcome obstacles and define life on his own terms is refreshing and inspires us not to settle for things the way they are, but to go forth with courage and strike out to improve our own lives.

Contrast that with a lot of the films we have in theaters today. As I mentioned before, Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey portray bleak passive outlooks on the nature of love. Many comedies portray reality as bleak and harsh, with no purpose other than our immediate moments and any attempts to plan a cause for mockery. Pointlessness to existence and the elevation of primitive emotion over reason are the themes in many films.

However, one genre has succeeded not only in defying the predominant themes but also in finding popularity: superhero movies.

Superhero films are almost entirely derived from comic books/graphic novels. As many have observed, these comic books form our modern mythos. Our pantheon of today is not filled with Zeus or Vishnu or Thor (well, maybe that last one), but with aliens from other planets, billionaires investing in fighting crime, and teenagers given great powers.

These heroes have something major in common: they have a great hand in shaping the world around them. Indeed, most of the stories of heroes involve them defying the odds, overcoming obstacles that would break lesser beings, and changing what seemed inevitable. That concept - that one or a handful of people can change the world an defy the odds - is a value ingrained into the genre.

With a several notable exceptions, many comics are not complex or deep. They fit squarely into the thriller subtype of romantic works, much like the spy thrillers of the 1960's. Just as James Bond achieved critical and popular acclaim for the thriller aspects presents, so today have modern superhero films brought back an interest in romanticism and romantic works as people rediscover the refreshing feeling of watching a clash of values.

Values of the Superheroes

So what are some of the values of popular comic heroes? What are some of the romantic notions embedded into their fabric, apart from the "good vs. evil" plot device? There are many takes on that. The field of comic studies has produced many fine essays on the topics. These are my opinions on the matter:

Superman - Unlimited capacity, mentally and physically. He is what we hope to one day be ourselves in all respects. The ultimate goodness and power of humanity in a single form.

Batman - Man at his peak. He is what we could be in this lifetime, with enough dedication and discipline.

Captain America - The leader and soldier. He is the leader who has earned his place through his own efforts.

The Question - He is someone who hunts doggedly for the truth and lets nothing stop him from revealing it, no matter how much personal sacrifice he has to experience. (I refer here to the original Steve Ditko version.)

Spider-Man - "With great power comes great responsibility." The everyman who, gifted by something extraordinary, shoulders the burden of the world's ills on his back.

That's just a small number. You can fill in your own for other characters, such as Wonder Woman, Hulk, or Iron Man. In general, most of the iconic comic characters, those who have stayed with us for decades, have these fundamental - if simple - values attached to them.

Value-Free and Interest-Free

Comic book heroes don't always have values attached to them, of course. When they don't, the usual result is they fade away.

The 1990's saw the trend of "extreme" heroes catch on: much of Image comics and other indie comic publishers tried to break free of the "goodie two-shoe" mode of storytelling. They creates heroes who were violent, grim, gritty - and wholly forgettable. Linkara of Atop the Fourth Wall has done some very good jabs at Youngblood and other work from this era.

The core problem with the 1990's was simple: the writers focused on the superficial aspects of the genre. To them, heroes were about action, explosions, costumes, etc. It was about appearances. What they forgot were the themes, the defining traits that drove the characters to behave how they did - the values that prompted the character to be who they were. Without values, all they had were people in silly costumes shooting guns.

Some publishers turned to sex, loading the market with "nude cover" variants of their female "heroines." Instead of a heroic amazon warrior like Wonder Woman, they just banked on cheap titillation to get people reading about their generic female characters.

We see this issue today: DC's New 52 has been "grim and gritty" all over again, often discarding the basic values of the heroes in favor of "realism." In doing this, they make the same mistake as Image in the 90's, spawning stories driven by fancy art and action rather than any appeal to the characters' fundamental nature. That kind of comic is empty and hollow, unable to inspire or attract fans.

Some blame anti-heroes for the problem. However, anti-heroes can be done well. The Punisher, for example, acts from a very black and white view of justice and a belief that vengeance is best dispensed by his hands. His values often bring him into conflict with others who oppose those kinds of measures, such as Spider-Man.

Creating New Heroes

Now, it is possible to create new heroes that stand-out. Alan Moore has done this multiple times in a last few decades. Tom strong, Promethea, and V are all amazing values-driven characters. He and other writers show us how we can generate memorable heroes.

First, start with the moral, idea, or concept they represent. This isn't their powers or their name or origin. It's the fundamental value that is central to their being. It determines how they will act, how they'll respond to adversity. This value also comes from you: what opinion or perspective from your worldview do you want to put out there for others to see? Stan Lee created so many wonderful characters because he had views he wanted to share with the world. Be bold and do the same!

Now that you know what you want to express with the character, then come up with an origin, name, and powers. Try to keep them consistent with the idea you picked before. Use symbolism and myths to flesh things out. By knowing what you're trying to say first, the creative choices at this step become easier.

You can also flip these as needed - if a clever idea for a power hits you, by all means see if you can create an ideal to fit it. The important thing is to remember the concept. Skipping that step is what gave rise to the "extreme" heroes of the 90's. One of the critiques of Venom, the famous Spider-Man villain, is that while his powers were neat, he lacked that grounding concept behind him (at least at first). Interestingly, Carnage, with his belief in chaos, nihilism, and that life is meaningless, has arguably had a stronger ideology base to his actions.


Real people are complex and don't perfectly adhere to principles - and that can be an element in your writing. Straying from our ideals is one of the ways we make mistakes and then improve. Here's the trick: you can't introduce that kind of development unless your character has those principles to begin with. There has to be a path to stray from.

In creating Daizhong and the other facets of my new steampunk world, heroes obviously play a role. When designing the characters I want to serve as heroes and villains, I use the techniques I outlined here. I start with what values I want to express in my world and then think of ways for characters to express them. It's not easy - it's so much simpler to just rely on cheap hooks and flashy outfits - but I find it gives them much more life to them. I comprehend what they are much better because I have poured some measure of ideology into them.

In many ways, values are the spark of a life for a character the same way they are the sense of life for us.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Random Dialogue

"I'm not sure I should be taken dating advice from you."

"What do you mean? I'm an expert on creating awesome dates!"

"You took Natalie to a Brazilian Steakhouse."


"She's a vegan!"

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Remembering Kubert

As Comics Coordinator for Comicpalooza 2012, it was my honor to work with Joe Kubert. He was a font of wisdom and knowledge in the creation of comics who remained eager to share with the younger generation. As a teacher and a comic creator, I found him a great source of inspiration.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Chains and Foundations

Two dominant forces in anyone's life: chains and foundations.

Chains bind us, holding us back from success by limiting our upward climb. These can be addictions, phobias, inaccurate preconceived notions. They are the barriers to progress and growth that hold us back from fully utilizing our strengths.

Foundations support us, allowing us to stand with sure feet. Good physical care, diet, learning are all things that support a person and allow them to operate at peak efficiency. The emotional support of loved ones is another major foundation.

Tragedy is when someone believes they are breaking the former, but they are in fact smashing the latter. There are many people who believe that the regularity and routine that comes from fostering a good foundation - for example, getting a good night's rest - is in fact something to discard. They become so caught up in discarding every pattern that they fail to judge between them. That lack of judgment, the decision to avoid making decisions and instead generalize, is a key component to self-destructive behavior.

I have found this sort of tragedy common among hedonists. People who advocate that the goal of life is to "feel good" or who seek pleasure at the expense of all else seem more likely than others to view the short-term sacrifice of maintaining the mind and body as undesirable and therefore reject it in favor of immediate gains in comfort.

The consequence is that their long term prospects are diminished, because they lack the foundation to rise higher than their current position. So, in response, they indulge even further, coming to believe that growth is an illusion and pleasure is all that matters. It's a very bleak existence.

Friday, August 8, 2014


"I can never find my peanuts and caramel dipped in chocolate when I want to snack on them! They keep disappearing!"

"Look at the box. You bought Ninja Turtles by mistake."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Romanticism: A Primer

One of my favorite styles of writing, movies, and art in general is Romanticism. It's a genre that is surprisingly common today, albeit in a very simple form, and underscores many of the major blockbuster motion pictures.

Romanticism can be summarized as a piece of art that represents a "clash of values" or some kind of value-statement about the world. That is, the artist has one or more values or ideals they are using art to express in some way, shape, or form. What the values are can vary widely - the uniting theme is that they are present and create a lens through which the art is supposed to be taken.

Victor Hugo is arguably the best known romantic author. His work displays characters who are driven by an adherence to a set of values and who come into conflict because of this. At the same time, their actions are consistent with the values they hold. In "Les Miserable," you have Jean Valjean representing the spirit of redemption and man's capacity to improve pitted against Javert, who adheres to a strict black-and0white view of good and evil.

Romanticism has many forms and subtypes. On the high end, Hugo's "Les Miserables" is regarded as one of the most complex romantic novels ever written. That could be considered a high-water mark for the genre. Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle - arguably the greatest opera ever created - is a thoroughly romantic work, with themes and symbolism drawn from myths that depicts man's clash with the gods. "The Dark Knight" is another, reflecting a clash of vigilante order (Batman) vs. orthodox order (Harvey Dent) vs. total chaos (The Joker).

You also have simpler forms of romanticism. "Good vs. evil" morality tales, such as most superhero comic book movies, are romantic, if very straightforward. They belong to a subtype of romantic works called "Thrillers." Thrillers are designed to provide quick and easy stimulation of the emotions, but not the kind of deep thought provoking reaction of Hugo or Wagner.

It speaks to the power of the genre that it has found such large appeal - see the total gross of "The Avengers" - among people. Many film critics make the mistake of dismissing these stories as "children's tales." They get one facet correct - that Marvel movies are not complex in scope - but then make the mistake that every movie of their ilk is immature. The truth is that "good vs. evil" tales are just an entry level gateway to a much larger and satisfying complex philosophical genre.

Romantic works are able to move people on a primal, passionate level. We are wired to enjoy and seek out a conflict of values - it speaks to our natural talent at judgment and decision making. The most thought provoking conflict stems from two sides, both with claims to being correct, but neither of whom can reach compromise. Only romanticism contains this kind of clash as one of its innate components.

The values in a romantic work do not have to conform to any preset notions of "good" or "evil" to qualify. There can be a romantic work that extols the virtues of communism and romantic work that praises capitalism, both equally valid. The presence of "good" itself is even optional. A main character can be a villain, out to mold the world to his values. (This kind of work would, of course, be rather dark - but it would still be romantic in nature.) The values themselves are not what determine the worth of the piece - it is a) their presence and b) how well the author integrates those values into the structure of the piece.

Romanticism is not a magic seal of quality, of course. There are bad or poorly conceived romantic works just as in any genre. Not every "good vs. evil" story is worth watching. Michael Bay's "Transformers" movies, for example, are "good vs. evil" but largely trash. Ironically, the "Atlas Shrugged" film adaptations fall into this disappointing category. Despite having a clash of values from the source material, neither film is particularly well-crafted.

Romanticism, for me, has always been my favorite type of work. This could be because of my childhood cartoon habits. The original "Transformers," "Thundercats," "He-Man," and other major 80's cartoons all had strong themes of good vs. evil. The Autobots represented courage and teamwork, while the Decepticons were about opportunistic strikes and back-stabbing. It was because of those traits that the Decepticons always lost.

As I go through creating Daizhong and crafting my own steampunk fictional world from which to tell stories, I find myself going back to romanticism as my style of choice. I want to convey values and principles, show them in motion and coming into conflict. I think that will make my writing much more interesting then generic adventures.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Soft light,
Touching figures.

Entire forms,
The glow radiates,
Warmth pours.

Subtle motions,
The search for life.
Ocean of sensation,
Sailing across skin.

Wave motions increase,
Intimate turbulence.


Sparks across flesh,
Dancing bolts.
Writhing dynamos,
Powerful comfort.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Game Systems 2: Isomorphism and Immersion

Isomorphism is the mental process where we take abstract concepts and connect them to things in our sphere of imagination or experience. When we process math, we often use concrete models in our heads to clarify the meaning of the symbols. These concrete models can lead us astray, but with role-playing games, it’s this kind of isomorphism that is explicitly asked for on the part of the player.

In games, the typographical decision rules are the rules of the game itself, the core mechanics of game play. The role of typographical decision rules is to take the axioms (the game materials) and to give players an understanding of what constitutes a valid theorem, i.e. what they can do with the materials. By inference, the rules also tell the players what they cannot do with the materials, putting limits on them. (I may deal with negation and recursion later.)

Isomorphism enters use when a game asks the player to translate the decision rules into real-world or imaginary contexts. The decision rules, for example, may outline how a player rolls to set a mine and how the result impacts the grid on the map. But it is isomorphism that allows a player to translate that into an explosion in their mind. Often, a game will specify the kind of isomorphism they want the player to make by using descriptive language. It’s how one game may treat an area effect as the result of a mine, while another may treat it as the result of a magical fireball being lobbed.

What is immersion, then? Immersion is when a player accepts the isomorphism requested by the game. When a player agrees that the decision rules the game is using are consistent with a way to model the imaginary world they link it to in their mind, they are immersed. Their personal vision and the formal system are in sync.

What causes immersion to be disrupted? When the imaginary world they’ve created diverges from the rules of the game. For example, a person using a firearm wishes to make a trick shot. However, the rules for that trick shot are not in the game. It is not a valid move and therefore not a valid theorem of the formal system. The player balks, “knowing” that the trick shot is possible and that therefore the formal system should allow it. They have rejected a facet of the formal system and lost immersion.

This is not always a bad thing. “This game is not for you” is a valid result, one born of a player who wants rules that allow them to perform a certain set of actions, but not finding it in the current game. In these cases, the rules simply do not allow them to take the actions of their imaginary world they desire. The solution is for them to find a different game. There is nothing wrong with this and anticipating who will fail to be immersed is a part of audience selection.

Look at how Tephra handles firearms: there are four classes, from light to super-heavy. Players are free to flavor their guns however they like, but those four classes and associated statistics are all that’s there. A player who wants a more detailed gun system would then be expected to look elsewhere, because those aren’t the valid theorems admitted here.

As stated before, isomorphisms of formal systems can lead us astray. A common trap is to think that because you interpret a system as having a certain meaning, that this meaning must exert force over the system. This is untrue - the formal system exists independently of the meaning the person assigned to it. In some cases, players simply need to accept that not every detail of the world will be included in a certain game. It’s when a player becomes too attached to their isomorphism that they ignore the original rules that conflicts between players and narrators occurs most often.

Next, we’ll look at ways game developers can influence isomorphism and with it the immersion level of their game.