Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Review of Dual Transform

All of us in the RG (this is what our return address stamp says) household have been unwell this week. I initially blamed food poisoning but am now leaning toward some malevolent virus. For some reason, it hit the parents far harder than the toddler, though he has had it longer.

In any case, I haven’t been able to concentrate on much sustained reading. It’s probably easier to read with a headache than with terrible stomach distress, though the involuntary caffeine withdrawal I went through earlier this week left me with what are undeniably the worst headaches in memory. (I think it also—the caffeine withdrawal—affected my judgment; I decided a few days ago that the only thing I could stomach was pho, which I then proceeded to order with tripe and immediately douse with as much spice as I could reach, only to wash it all down with a particularly acidic Vietnamese lemonade. I leave the outcome to your imagination.)

So, a day or so ago, I decided to try out some of the entries from a recent competition put on by an outfit named Jay Is Games. The premise is escape games. I have been an IF enthusiast for almost twenty-five years now, and I still get a great deal of satisfaction from solving the puzzly kind, though I’m starting to wonder if I’m as good as it now as I was then. The first entry that drew my attention, after reading a little about them was Andrew Plotkin’s (Nigel Smith’s) Dual Transform. I have been a particular fan of Plotkin’s work since re-discovering the genre sometime in the early aughts, and it turned out that this game had something in common with another thing I had been thinking about: the role of Gödel, Escher, Bach in the Bruce Ivins investigation.

Before I got sick I read that entire report and paid particular care to the discussion of Hofstadter’s book in it. I’m not sure that the agent understood either the book or why Ivins would have been interested in it, for one thing, nor do I think that the explanation of the code allegedly used makes much sense. (“FNY” ? Really?) I mean, someone working with genetics is, in all likelihood, going to take a bit more away from it than that, and I would suspect, if Ivins was as paranoid as he seems to have been, that his reason for getting rid of the book had a more private cause.

Plotkin’s game involves, as I mentioned, some thoughts about self-reference and representation. Metafictional references occur frequently in the medium, with Implementor jokes being common in several of the Infocom games, for example, and they (metafictional references) form a key part of an early revival game called Perdition’s Flames, which I wrote about a while ago.

The game presents you with an environment and teaches you how to manipulate it. This process is cleanly handled and intuitive, and, while I did get stuck for a bit when I thought I might have made an irrevocable decision (increasingly rare in modern IF design), some continued experiment quickly revealed a solution. The representations of the various forces and what those forces are supposed to constitute exactly didn’t work as well for me, and I kept picturing the workspace itself as a gelatinous cube, which, while certainly a private quirk, was mildly distracting. The ending, while consistent enough with what came before, would have worked better as type of strange leap out of this frame of reference altogether. For me, at least.

I know that’s vague beyond almost all recognition, but there’s a convention not to give away the details of these games which I tend not to recognize, so I’m trying it out for once. I will now probably return to puzzling over Empson’s responses to Laura (Riding) Jackson when she accused him of not crediting her properly in 7 Types.

For My Commonplace Book

‘In England a schoolboy of [James] Watson’s precocity and style of genius would probably have been steered towards literary studies. It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of quite outstanding ability – much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about.’

From a Mark Ridley review of Peter Medawar’s Pluto’s Republic. (The comment is Medawar’s; the article is only available to subscribers.)

I suspect that Leavis’s response to Snow might be in the background somewhere, but it does make me think a bit about the current rhetoric of justification of literary studies, broadly defined. There’s the gadgetry hypothesis, the literacy gambit, and the ever-reliable culture capitalizing of taste and distinction. Empirical studies of literature (and literary response) may be an underutilized resource here, one that might have even gratified a Popperian like Medawar.

Empson on Joyce

William Empson was a man of strong opinions:

This horrible nastiness of Eng. Lit., which makes the teachers preen on themselves on being too smart to attend to the story (so that they can tell any holy lie they choose instead) must I think derive from the short-story technique of Chekhov, though he would have been astonished and exasperated by it. (Selected Letters, ed. Haffenden, p. 481)

The context there is a discussion of King Lear, and I just chose it to illustrate the often-vehement intentionalist-line that Empson took in much of his criticism. (It’s remarkable how often he’s grouped by loose reference to the New Critics.) Empson’s theory of Ulysses is that Joyce wrote it to honor not his meeting of Nora Barnacle but rather to commemorate his sexual encounter with an older woman which gave him the self-confidence he needed to leave Ireland with Nora. The projected end of Ulysses, for Empson, is that Stephen takes up Bloom on his offer to sleep with Molly (in addition to Italian lessons, etc.), thus increasing the chances that Molly would bear him another son (by him, not Stephen, in Empson’s view).

It’s fascinating to see how Empson formulated this idea before either the notes to Exiles or Ellmann’s biography were available and then updated them in accordance with that evidence. Here is a late rendering:

As it happens, no contact will be needed: that is the point of making Bloom a voyeur. Still, Bloom has to be gazing while Stephen and Molly perform the act, and when Stephen has reached crisis the thoughtful husband will need to see that the condom is still in place and unbroken. Stephen will then retire to the spare bedroom, no doubt making one of his jokes, and Molly is pretty sure to be still unsatisfied: thus the married couple are in an ideal condition to overcome their obstacle. It does not much matter whether Joyce was medically correct concerning this treatment for the phobia: the point is that he labours throughout the book to offer it as a plausible one. (from a LRB review [subscriber only, I'm afraid] of Kenner’s Ulysses)

I haven’t investigated the matter completely, but it does not seem as if there’s a Joyce critic who agrees with Empson about the plausibility of this scenario, with several using biographical evidence of Empson’s own personal life to explain why this would occur to him and seemingly no one else. I’m currently writing about a piece on Exiles, which I’ve worked on for some years now intermittently; and Empson believes that Joyce first treated the Edwardian triangle problem there, unsuccessfully. The notes to the play are immensely suggestive and strange, and I’m not sure that I’ve yet read a plausible explanation of them.

So Probable

Like many citizens, I’ve followed the Google in China case somewhat. This Wired article caught my attention for a different reason. Look at this quote:

“If you’re a law firm and you’re doing business in places like China, it’s so probable you’re compromised and it’s very probable there’s not much you can do about it,” Mandia says.

Is there a way of parsing this other than “it’s like so probable” ? Not that I can see. (“It’s so [holding up hands to measure] probable” ?) When I read the breathless write-ups in venues like Wired, I think of the alternately amusing and terrifying possibility that these various attacks are so nested, so concealed within levels of duplicity, that two guys in adjacent cubicles are unwittingly doing it all to each other. Or, even better, that some type of obfuscated PHP code has become self-aware and is targeting a similarly self-aware bit of code with results ultimately not dissimilar from what you see in Lem’s Fiasco. If I were to write a novel using this premise (its lack of novelty is part of the amusement, I think), I would have to call it Thank You, Thank You, Little Dinosaur. (Or, The Rain-drops on Feste’s Tabor, with the added twist that one self-awarelet taunts another with Feste’s wellfed wit.)