Philosophos

Lists

I can predict without fail whether a working day will be an exceptional one or not based solely on whether I make a list in the morning.  

I cut my teeth on the old Franklin planners, back before they were Franklin-Covey. I've tried moving to electronic task lists a dozen times since then, using any number of tools. The Handspring Visor, Tiddlywiki, Reminders, Things.app, Remember the Milk. Probably a dozen more that I abandoned and forgot within two weeks. I had a long, successful run with Entourage, which managed intermittently recurring tasks with a brilliance I've not seen since, but my calendaring and email needs have brought me elsewhere over the last decade. 

Yet I always come back to pen and paper. Maybe a pretty notebook, with thick, creamy paper; maybe a grungy Moleskine with stickers on it. And pens! Gel pens, mostly, or my beloved Waterman Audace fountain pen, one of my most well-loved possessions. Smudgy pencils only as a last resort.

For years, I've tried to explain to myself why paper works when digital fails me. It's not like me. I'm an early adopter. A technophile. A full-on digital native. And yet every electronic task system falls short for me, cluttered up with things I no longer intend to do, or things I can't possibly get to until next week, or simply ignored until the shame of restarting becomes too heavy to bear.

But with paper, every day is a fresh start, if I need one. Just... turn the page. Coffee, pen, paper, ten minutes for contemplation of time and energy and deadlines.

And not just one list; I have many. One of all my active projects, so I remember all the flaming swords I'm juggling. One for things I want to remember to do, so I don't lose track of them, but don't mean to get to today. And one, carefully curated, spelling out the shape of this today. Big things: writing a thousand words, a conference call, read and sign a contract. Smaller things: shower, water the plants, paint my daughter's toenails.

There are days, weeks, months where I don't make any lists at all. I get some stuff done in that time, surely I do. It might even be about the same amount of stuff, to be honest. I can't know. But those times are a bleak and hazy wasteland in memory. Those are the days I'm tired, the days I fritter away, the days I stay where I am instead of moving toward what I want.  

But even knowing this, knowing how important a list can be, how it can make or break a day, I don't always make a list. I mean to, of course, but sometimes I just can't bear to, I don't have it inside me to write one. A chicken/egg paradox, it would seem.

I've come to realize that my lists aren't about productivity or planning. Not really. To me, my lists are a signifier of intent and potential, and that is why I can't move to digital. Glancing at a screen pre-populated with the stuff I thought today should be for, all chosen sometime last week? This isn't the same fundamental action. It's the making the list that's important, not merely having a list.

Making a list is creating an arcane focus for the mind. It's an act requiring a summoning of will in the moment. It's not really that a list makes a better day, I think. It's that it's only on a good day that I'm capable of making a list.


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Juvenile Glaucoma, Health Insurance, and the New New Year

When we rang in 2014, it wasn't a fresh and optimistic start like one might hope. I had two big problems that needed immediate attention. First, as of Jan. 1 we were switching to a new insurance plan, and we didn't have membership cards or even numbers yet. When we called the new insurance company to try to get that information ourselves, they'd never even heard of us. We were functionally uninsured.

Second? A routine optometrist visit the day after Christmas had ended with an urgent referral to take my younger daughter to the ophthalmologist. She showed some concerning signs of juvenile glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a progressive disease; it slowly steals the sight from your peripheral vision, hair by hair, until you see the world through a tiny window. One day, even that window closes. It's slow but relentless. The vision glaucoma takes can never be recovered.

So for a short time early this year, I got some firsthand experience with the terror of knowing your child requires immediate medical care, but not knowing how to pay for it. Our choices were: wait until the insurance issue was sorted out -- which could take weeks -- or pay for a visit to the ophthalmologist out of our own pocket and cross our fingers that it might one day be reimbursed. That would be $250, the office staff told us.

They urged us not to delay.

Our insurance was held up by paperwork; the insurance broker hadn't submitted our enrollment in time, or maybe the enrollment hadn't been processed fast enough by the insurer. Nothing to be done, it was an act of god and government.

We were by no means alone. With the ACA coming into effect, insurance companies were overwhelmed with a glut of new enrollments, but we would be covered retroactively. In theory, anyway; in practice, the inability to get an insurer-approved referral from a primary doctor might nix the chances of reimbursement. And the process of actually getting that money back could take as much as six months.

We're very fortunate that in this case, we could afford the financial hit and see the ophthalmologist anyway. Even so, the days before that appointment were harrowing.

The Appointment

There was an examination. The doctor, whose manner with children is so playful that he's very nearly performing a standup routine, turned to me with a sober expression on his face. Her optic nerve was enlarged, just like the optometrist had said. He explained the cup-to-disc ratio to me.

"In a healthy Caucasian," he said, "it's normally 0.1 to 0.2. In an African-American, you expect 0.2 to 0.4. Your daughter's is 0.9."

He told me not to worry. It's never glaucoma, he said; in his 30-year-career, it had only turned out to be glaucoma once, and that had been effectively cured with a simple surgery. The odds were overwhelmingly in our favor. "Don't be worried," he said. "You can't be worried if I'm not worried, and do I look worried?" But his face was somber, his tone grim, and he pressed me to promise I'd wait no more than three weeks to bring her back for follow-up testing. Promise me, he said. No matter what.

Those tests would be expensive, he added. So very expensive, in fact, that insurance companies themselves will balk at paying if you perform more than one of them on the same day. I scheduled the follow-up appointments (at a potential $250 a pop, plus unknown additional fees for testing, with intimations that they'd run into the thousands of dollars.) I crossed my fingers hoping the insurance company would come through before then. What other choice did I have, after all? In a pinch, well, there's credit, or family. We could find the money. It would be OK.

Meanwhile, she needed glasses immediately. Not for her vision -- she only has a mild astigmatism -- but to protect her freakishly enlarged optic nerves from impact damage.

Even if it was glaucoma -- and it probably wasn't -- we could treat it. The equation for us was more one of managing discomfort and inconvenience than walking the line of catastrophe.

Still, these days in January were agonizing. It becomes difficult to concentrate, to sleep. In such a situation, you run through a million scenarios. What if it is glaucoma? What if one surgery doesn't do the trick? What about complications? How will she endure that? What if we really don't have insurance, and something has gone so horribly wrong that we won't be covered in time? And what if it costs so much that we can't find the money after all? 

A tightness settles into your chest. You cry more easily, you snap more easily. Perhaps you can keep it together during the day, when you're soothing worried relatives, when you're shuffling children off to school and cooking dinner and signing homework sheets. Mustn't frighten the children; they can't see you worry. 

It erodes at you, this worry. Maintaining the illusion that nothing is wrong nibbles away the edges of your ability to cope. If it keeps up long enough -- well. There are marks.

Toward the end of the month, the insurance came through, and the ophthalmologist scanned my daughter's retina with lasers. He was visibly relieved. The result was good -- so good that we moved additional follow-up testing to late May. We've since discovered that an older relative has a similar ratio, and no apparent glaucoma. So: a family congenital anomaly. No big deal. It's possible my kid has some field-of-vision problems, and she appears to have problems with color perception in one eye... but this is a hell of a lot better than surgery and looming blindness. We'll take it.

(And this isn't even including the almost-fire we had the first week of the year, which required we air the house out to eliminate smoke on the coldest night in twenty years. Which is its own blog post, in a way. Polar vortex, huh?)

Single-Payer

When I wasn't busy being scared, I thought a lot about fairness in that time. I thought about poverty and privilege and insurance. I thought about the role of government in society.

I thought about all of the families for whom it really was glaucoma (or cancer, or diabetes, or leukemia, or...) who didn't have the resources to pay out-of-pocket and damn the insurance. People who still have no insurance, or have a plan with such a high deductible as makes no difference. The ones for whom that decision would mean missing rent or missing meals.

I've always been an advocate of single-payer insurance. No family should have to weigh those factors. No child should suffer a treatable illness with permanent or fatal results because their family doesn't happen to be comfortably middle-class. Oh, sure, health care is available to everyone at an emergency room. But you know what? You can't get glaucoma (or cancer) treated in an emergency room.

In New York State, the Working Families Party is now pushing for single-payer insurance. I would urge you with all my heart to support such legislation in your own state (if you're American, anyway.)

This is not an economic issue, and it's not a public health issue. This is not a matter of controlling costs or ensuring a healthy workforce. This is a moral issue. 

The New New Year

Even with such a crisis averted, the parts worn away from you by stress take their time to regrow. I've been very fragile this year. It doesn't seem to be returning to normal as quickly as one might hope.

So on midnight going into March 1, I declared it a New New Year. It looks like 2014 has been really rough for many of us, not just me -- the relentless weather, to be sure, but there's also been a zeitgeist of uncertainty and fear. We're quick to anger. We're prone to falling victim to brain weasels. It's been a bad time.

But spring is right around the corner.


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What Happens When You Don't Like a Friend's Work?

Over the years, I've become twitterfriends with quite a lot of writers: SF/F writers, games writers, transmedia writers, bloggers, and on and on. They are to a one funny, clever, insightful people. (Then again, if they weren't I wouldn't be following 'em, so there's that.) One of my ambitions for this year is to do a lot more reading, particularly the work of all these people that I love and respect from social media.

Which raises an interesting question: what happens if I read something written by someone I really, really like... and I really, really don't like it?* And of course there's the flip side of that: what if someone I'm friends with really, really doesn't like my work?

Various writers have talked about whether or not they should ever write negative reviews of another writer's work. These are often couched in terms of reputation and career -- negative reviews might rob you of a valuable connection, negative reviews might rob the reviewee of potential sales, etc. etc. 

But there's not a whole ton of attention paid to what I think is a deeper underlying issue. Genre fiction, in particular, is a fairly small community of creators. Many -- maybe most! -- of that peer group are friends, or at least friendly. So in a negative-review situation, the problem isn't just one of what's best for your career. Often the question is how to manage a potential source of conflict and tension in your relationship with somebody you really like a lot.

Even aside from outright reviews, if you simply talk a lot to another writer and find their work not to your taste, poorly executed, or otherwise lacking, do you tell them? Do you just keep quiet and hope it never comes up? Do you cherry-pick one thing you kinda liked and talk it up?

Whether to be open and honest about the not-liking is going to heavily depend on the nature of the relationship. In general the closer you are, the more honest you can be; there's not much point in going out of your way to tell a nodding acquaintance that their latest book just didn't rev your engine, or you think they must have been drunk on bathtub gin and battery acid to write so poorly.

In a closer or warmer friendship, it can be a lot trickier, to be honest. There's no one right way to handle it, because human beings aren't a one-size-fits-all kind of deal.

But one thing is absolutely clear: if you find you dislike something created by someone you really like, it's important to remember that taste varies. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you don't like something, it is unlikeable. That if you don't care for the writing or the characters or the plotting or the worldbuilding, it's because the writing is actively and objectively bad.

This is not the case. Let's say that again: Taste varies.

For my part, I'm totally fine when friends don't like something I've done; I've never thought I'd receive universal love and acclaim to begin with. My writing isn't perfect, nor will it ever be. And even if I were to execute perfectly on my vision, eh, different people enjoy different things. Sometimes, what I'm putting out there just isn't what someone else wants to pick up. And that's not just OK, it's to be expected!

A healthy separation between the creator and the creation is always, always important -- especially for the creator. It's tragically easy to feel like the way that someone reacts to your writing is a referendum on your worth as a human being.

But the fact is that no writer, no artist, has universal appeal. Taste varies, perception of quality even varies, and that's cool. We can all still be friends.

* ...And to all of my suddenly worried and more than slightly neurotic writer friends, I really, REALLY promise this isn't about you. It's not about anyone in particular. Relax, we're cool.


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WTF is Transmedia? (2013)

It's become fashionable to hate the word 'transmedia' in some circles. 

The T-word has been very good to me. It's netted me any number of speaking engagements and website hits and sold me a book, among other things, so I feel a certain loyalty to it. I don't think I'd be enjoying the same degree of professional success if I hadn't very consciously embraced That Word back in 2010 or so. 

But I will admit that we have a problem with the T-word. Or maybe not the word itself -- maybe the problem is how we're trying to use it.

Rehashing the Past

If you're looking for historical context on where I'm coming from, you may be interested in these earlier posts, though some are missing their pretty charts now: WTF is an ARG? (from 2009)WTF is Transmedia? (from 2010)WTF is Transmedia? (from 2011)

In a nutshell, though: I come from the community of alternate reality games, and for several years, I tied myself in knots trying to view every innovative piece of online or pervasive or physical narrative through that lens: Gameplay + Story + Community. The problem was that a lot of the projects I was enjoying (and even making myself!) didn't fit into that Venn diagram. Not at the center; maybe not at all. 

We speculated that 'alternate reality game' was just a subset, then, of something bigger and potentially more exciting. And then our little games niche intersected with the Henry Jenkins and Jeff Gomez crowd, and bam! We finally had our umbrella term: transmedia storytelling.

The Definition

In A Creator's Guide and elsewhere, I've become comfortable using what is more or less the Prof. Henry Jenkins definition of transmedia: the art of telling one story over multiple media, where each medium is making a unique contribution to the whole.

It's a simple definition, an elegant one, and it's big enough to cover all manner of creative works in its leafy shade: alternate reality games like Perplex City and ilovebees, entertainment franchises like Star Wars and Pokemon, hybrid works like Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Cathy's Book, How I Met Your Mother.

Complaints against the T-word vary. It doesn't mean anything, it's too vague. It's nothing new, it's just media, everything will be transmedia. We need a different word. We don't need a word at all. 

And of course years of heartache have poured into arguments that amount to, "If what I'm making is transmedia then what you're making isn't," which grew particularly heated when bodies like Sundance, the PGA, and Tribeca began various new media/transmedia/emerging media efforts to try to spotlight, accredit, or foster new forms.

But if "transmedia" adequately describes an enormous swath of new and old forms of narrative... it yet elegantly and entirely misses the heart of what many of us get so excited about when we talk about transmedia. That standard-op definition for transmedia is lacking key words like emergent, collaborative, adaptive, pervasive, interactive, tangible, collective. 

And this is exactly correct by our definition: for something to be transmedia, it can be all of these things, but it doesn't have to be. ...So then what's the word for the stuff that is?

Redeeming 'Transmedia'

Let me go out on a limb here and suggest that the conversation about the word isn't really about the word at all. 

The controversy is the result of people wanting to have meaningful conversations about their art and finding that they cannot, because there isn't enough shared, precise language. And what shared language exists often means different things to different people, adding to the post-Babel frustration. A 'producer' in film parlance is a pivotal creative force; a 'producer' in games is primarily a project manager.

These are the inevitable growing pains of an emerging form. By and large, nobody argues much about what a "book" is; if we see a collection of bound-together leaves of paper, we're pretty comfortably sure it's a book. But you can't say anything true and compelling about "books" when you mean "alt-history paranormal romance." Someone who thinks "book" means "DB2 manual" will probably disagree with everything you say, and for good reason.

And yet even with as established a form as the book, similar debates still burn on in the emerging edges where art is born, like stars fusing into being. New genres are invented, flame bright, and die. Science fiction becomes speculative fiction explodes into a splintered mass of terms like New Weird, biopunk, post-colonial fantasy.

Each of us wants a word to describe exactly the things that we're making. "Transmedia" simply isn't precise enough, through no fault of its own.

It doesn't make it a bad word, nor even an unnecessary one. It's just that ARG found its umbrella term, and now we need names for all of our cousins, too.

Toward a Taxonomy of Transmedia Forms

Part of the free-wheeling joy of transmedia storytelling is that the structure itself is a part of the creative expression. Nailing down any particular structure and saying transmedia is exactly that necessarily excludes other things, things so amazing we can't even picture them yet. So we've been resistant to naming structures. I get that.

But for approaching fifteen years now, we've more or less ignored the fact that there are certain family resemblances to some structures that get used again and again. Naming them might facilitate a better quality of discussion, though, and even help us fumble our way toward still more new forms. And so I'd like to propose a fledgling taxonomy for specific forms of transmedia narrative. 

Alternate Reality Game: What's old becomes new. A story played out through media embedded in the real world as though the fictional events were really occurring. Often meant to be played by communities rather than individuals; often incorporating gamelike challenges like puzzles. (Perplex City, Why So Serious?)

Franchise Storyworld: A series of standalone pieces of traditional media (such as books, comics, films, games, TV shows) that each tell an individual story, but that tell a larger, inter-related narrative when taken as a whole. (Star Wars, Pokemon.)

Tangible Narrative: A story making heavy use of physical (and sometimes digital) story artifacts in service of another more traditional single-medium narrative. (Sleep No More, Cathy's Book, Laser Lace Letters.)

Web Series++ (or Film++, or Novel++): A single-medium narrative that makes light use of supplementary social media, video, etc. to add non-critical flavor and depth to the main work. (Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Dirty Work, How I Met Your Mother.)

Expanded Documentary: A nonfiction project that incorporates multiple vectors for propagating information about the topic, often in service of raising money or awareness for a specific cause. (Half the Sky, Bear 71.)

You'll note that none of this is exactly brand-new terminology. But I think it would help a lot for us to take that single step toward precision when we talk about transmedia, to qualify whether we're talking about transmedia as a whole (like one might talk about "books" or "video games") or a specific kind of transmedia narrative (like one might talk about "travelogues" or "hidden object games.")

Take this whole thing as provisional and imprecise. These particular terms definitely overlap -- you could potentially create a single work with elements of all of these in it. Still, I'm hoping that this can move the conversation toward better conversations about craft. Not just "How do I get funding for my transmedia project?" but on to "How do you help an audience to navigate a tangible narrative?" or "How much additional content becomes burdensome or overwhelming for a Web Series++?" or "How do I channel the traffic from my expanded documentary into direct action?"

It may even be my categories are thrown out in favor of something else. And I'm cool with that. I'm hoping that others will take this ball and run with it. Maybe by this time next year we'll have so many named forms that we hardly ever need to talk about 'transmedia' at all.

Language can shed light, and it can obscure. The fault never lies in the words themselves; it's all in how we use them.


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Games, Story, and An Extended Metaphor

There's a thought out there that all games have a story, because even in a game without an authored plot, you're constructing a narrative in your head of what's going on. This is what is the most important part, say its adherents; the experience you come away with is the story.

This has never sat well with me. To my mind, this is nothing but a semantic argument intended to obfuscate a real and meaningful difference between games that do, and do not, have an authored narrative. I maintain this is an important distinction, and trying to erase it on vague philosophic grounds does us all an enormous disservice.

But I've been hard-pressed to explain why. On the face of it, these semantic arguments aren't wrong, not exactly. And yet agreeing with the idea that you still get a story even out of a game without a plot misses an important point.

Inspiration has struck! So here I have an extended analogy to explain why I find that way of thinking so insufferable, so dismissive of authored narrative, and why there is a qualitative difference between the two kinds of experiences.

A game with an actual story in it, like Mass Effect, is like a restaurant. A game without, like Minecraft, is a grocery store. They both have the same net result: You get a meal (or an experience). But the process by which that meal arrives is so markedly different that you simply can't elide the two experiences under the banner of 'eating' and expect everything you say about the one to hold true of the other.

Look at how this analogy plays out: In a restaurant, you get fewer choices about the meal you're going to have (but not none!) In return, you can expect the chef to provide you with a certain baseline quality of cuisine -- a story with good pacing, characters, internal consistency. In a grocery store, the choice you have is vastly larger, but you're also going to have to put a lot more work into the experience to come away with an actual meal -- or a story that compares to what a chef might prepare.

As with games, sometimes the home-cooked meals will be the most meaningful to you; the holiday dinners with your grandmother, for example. But few of us are professional chefs, and so if we're looking for a sublime and surprising culinary experience, heading to the grocery store is not our best bet.

But there are also hybrids; buffet-style restaurants, if you will. These are games like Skyrim; series of authored pieces, where it's up to you to determine whether and how to fit them together into a proper meal. Not quite an authored story, not entirely a sandbox.

And there is no value judgement here, either. Both are valuable and necessary components of the food economy. But they are not the same thing, no matter how many surface similarities they have. You would never mistake the one for the other.

The experience isn't the story. The story is the story.


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