fountain pens and inks: last year’s obsession

A little over a year ago, Mr. Saturn finally got me into fountain pens and inks. The advantage is that I don’t need to press on the paper at all, just glide the pen over it. Fountain pens are not an expensive habit unless you’re in it for fashion/jewelry. Some of my favorite pens are under $15 and they should last me many years. A fill of ink will cost anywhere from fifteen cents to seventy-five cents. That tends to last me at least ten pages, given that I use medium or bold nibs. I keep a half dozen pens so I can alternate between colors (useful for editing). My biggest expense in writing longhand continues to be paper, as I like pretty covers and shiny paper. But CVS puts out some worthwhile spiral-bound notebooks that I can use fountain pens with.

If you’re not sure if you want a pick up a Pilot Varsity for $3.50 (in the US). It’s disposable, and then if you like it, you can explore further. My favorite value for money is the Platinum Prefounte. $12, refillable, and a comfortable experience. The only problem is that an ink converter so you can use bottled ink is an additional $9.

I started writing longhand to see if I wrote different words when I had a different kinesthetic experience. What I found was that it is very difficult to fast draft by hand, but it’s more restful to write background material and plan timelines, plots, and scenes without looking at a screen. I’ll continue with this hybrid approach more this year as I get back to drafting.

publishing fiction vs. releasing music

I published Razor Strike, a cyberpunk novel with romantic elements, on 15 May 2022. A year later, I’ve worked on some drafting for a VN and another novel, but I haven’t made any progress beyond that. Instead, I’ve been working on music. I joined the band Thou Merciless Graves and worked on activities I’d trained for decades ago: music arrangement, engineering, and performance. I am sorry to my readers that I do not have any material with a near-future release.

I’m an extravert. I love to read and play solo video games. But I get my energy from activities with other humans. Writing takes alone-time. It’s lonely work, and I have to spend more time at my primary job than I used to. Also, finding a reader is more difficult than finding a listener. To get a listener, I can point them to a single song that will take them several minutes, which is a block of time humans in most modern societies are willing to budget for.

A consumer sees a book as a several hour active commitment, as opposed to a several-minute potentially fun thing, and a concert may be several hours but it isn’t as active a commitment as reading. During a music show, the attendee can plot themselves into a location and spend several hours letting it wash over them. They do not have to engage with the material as actively as they would if they had to read it. I do this myself: I’ll go to a concert where four or five bands are performing and sometimes just take in the vibes. If I like them, I buy the music.

Music is also a smaller commitment timewise for me because I can compose, record, and produce a song in a few months’ time. When I’m working primarily as an arranger instead of a songwriter, this can go down to several weeks’ turnaround. I haven’t been able to write short stories that I want to share. My first novel took me seven years to finish, and I anticipate further ones will take four. While I like big projects and the level of planning needed for them, it’s still a very long time for me to spend in isolation before getting to really talk about the project with anyone.

I recently finished up the post-production of our band’s forthcoming EP. As for writing, I’m back to re-reading the first draft of a near-future visual novel I wrote last year. If I think it’s something that merits publishing, I’ll continue revising it. Otherwise, I will continue scribbling various scenes in my notebook and pick up another old draft to review.

attaching moral qualms to fictional characters

While my family’s experiments with GPT-3 based engines are disappointing from a creative point of view, I got a kick out of some of the results.

People of the Internet (the worst kind of people) given access to GPT-3 worked hard to make the AI say things that are not considered prosocial by the people of OpenAI. Most of this work involves tricking the AI not to use the Assistant personality it’s trained to present. Programmers at OpenAI in turn have trained GPT to be resistant to various kinds of user manipulation.

This has resulted in GPT trying to present a more prosocial reality…about fiction. We asked ChatGPT to summarize the first chapter of The Shadow of the Torturer, a novel by Gene Wolfe. In the summary the AI repeatedly makes remarks about the main character Severian’s discomfort with torture.

The Book of the New Sun’s fictional world has torturer as a professional occupation. There’s a torturer’s guild and a bunch of bureaucracy to go with it. Severian is a torturer by occupation. For him, torture is a somewhat banal experience. He never reflects on its morality, nor does anyone else in the series. But GPT attempts to ascribe its own morality (which is also mine) to Severian.

Severian must be the hero of the novel, so the AI can only attribute heroic words and thoughts to him. The engine does not know what morality means. It only knows which words often follow each other in the English language. The output may only be useful for characters whose morals we agree with.

This is interesting to me in a creative tool sense. It’s possible to use GPT as inspiration for writing prompts, as long as the user looks up everything it declares to be true. For example, I could ask it to list objects in an abandoned warehouse. It would likely come up with some plausible ones and a marmoset, or something equally as preposterous. (The trouble is other things I might have to research)

Again, this engine is derivative by design. I don’t expect to get anything truly creative out of it. For writing prompts my first line of use is various thesauri by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

If novelists jump to using using this model to generate their stories, the stories will not only sound derivative, but the characterization will be muted. Good people will have fewer messy flaws than they do in real life. No amoral protagonists, or ones that have morals different from those agreed upon by the scientists at OpenAI!

By reading the same things over and over not out of choice (comfort reads are a different phenomenon that I enjoy with no guilt) but because they’re what’s most easily accessible, we’re more likely to live without challenging ourselves or examining our world views. I find torture horrific, and Wolfe has some sensibilities similar to mine. He sets up an alien society where Severian is uninterested in analyzing his day job. Violence is less remarkable in the The Shadow of the Torturer. But a person in a modern society may have qualms about owning a gun or buying from a shady business, although these activities are common in adjacent cultures.

I find that characters with morality systems different from mine force me to take a look at my values and why I hold them. What would be my values if I held them in a significantly different society? Exposure to different moralities makes us grow as human beings. The magic of a novel is access to infinite ways of life. With this exposure, maybe we can become better people.

The previous generation of AI text output

Lately I’ve been reading articles about corporations experimenting with chatbots that use GPT-3. GPT-3 is an artificial intelligence with the ability to generate a short text article from a text prompt given to it.

Mr. Saturn and his brother and I have played around with various implementations of GPT-2, the previous iteration of the technology. We found the output gloriously absurd and inspirational. Mr. Saturn’s brother tried prompting the engine with “Mr. President, I am writing to you today to…” and we got the following output, which I will attempt to analyze:

Mr. President, I am writing to you today to request an immediate briefing regarding concerns raised by my staff regarding a forthcoming event organized by the U.S. Embassy at the Russian Consulate in Chicago.

GPT-2 assumed that the letter to the President was to a government president, not a corporate president, and it was the President of the United States of America. When I was growing up in the US, one of the school activities everyone had to do in elementary school was write a letter to the President. So there is probably a large amount of letters from people to the US President. I am not sure if this is also a common practice in other English-speaking countries which have a President as head of state.

However, the letter’s opening paragraph suggests that it was written by an adult in the political sphere, as most schoolchildren do not have their own staff. But the idea in my brain is that the President of the United States primarily receives letters from two kinds of people: schoolchildren and bureaucrats. What else do those two populations have in common, besides writing letters to high-ranking politicians? I am not a good enough comedian or philosopher to elaborate on that.

I must note that this text was generated in 2019. At that point, the President of the United States was Donald Trump. Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine. And why would anyone be worried about disrupted events in Chicago in particular? I’m not sure. When I think of disrupted events, I think of Washington DC or Los Angeles thanks to the bubble I grew up in. However, Chicago is a big city, so I’ll allow it.

I understand that the U.S. Embassy will host several prominent political figure-slaying clown bands at its upcoming June 22 event at the Embassy’s Washington Park facility. The Embassy, however, is concerned about the event going forward because of concerns raised by our employees and the local community about the possibility of political violence from the various clown bands.

The fact is that such an event is not in our best interests.

Several political figure-slaying clown bands! I am not the most well-listened person in rock music, so the only clown band that comes to mind is Insane Clown Posse. I am delighted by the idea that ICP would come to a US Embassy to represent us to another nation. Russia is apparently famous for clowns, so I suppose there’s a connection there. Also, I love the political/legalese language of this sentence. It fits the tone of the letter about diplomatic event security.

The Embassy supports the right of individuals to express themselves freely in their neighborhoods. However, given our concerns regarding such clown bands and other political performers in Chicago, the Embassy cannot stand by idly while local residents engage in dangerous acts of violence on behalf of political clowns. The Embassy’s understanding is that the upcoming visit to the U.S. by representatives of “Mr. Trump” will likely include an event scheduled with the participation of the aforementioned clowns, who represent our political leader. In the event of such an event taking place, the Embassy believes it would be helpful to learn more about these clowns and hear from one of their agents.

In 2019, “Mr. Trump” (I love the scare quotes here), was the President and would not send representatives to the United States, as most of his representatives already lived here. However, GPT-2 didn’t know who the President of the United States was, or even what the job of US President was. It only knew what words tended to follow each other in political correspondence at.

However, the phrase “the aforementioned clowns, who represent our political leader” mimics a lot of dialogue by Americans who feel that way about people who vote differently from them. This was especially true of people who disliked the cronies of Mr. Trump.

Sincerely yours,

John Podesta.

What a wonderful punchline. For those who are unfamiliar with him, John Podesta is an American political consultant from Chicago. If I were looking for the name of a person who might write a political letter to the President, John Podesta seems plausible enough. The irony here is that Podesta was affiliated with Clinton, Trump’s opponent, during her presidential run in 2016. The text was generated in 2019, and my friends and I had a good laugh at the time at trying to imagine these concerns leading to this letter being written1.

In any case, this letter, the fruit of machine learning, gave me such joy because the form of the writing was close to what I anticipated a letter to the President from a political operative to look like, but the contents sound outlandish. The beauty of GPT-2 is that it forces us humans to acknowledge and define why its assertions are so funny or disturbing. In that, we can learn a lot of lessons, such as “many humans are afraid of clowns” and “most people think politicians, especially ones mentioned in the same conversation as the word Trump, are not serious and perhaps even clowns.”

Unfortunately, our experiments with GPT-3, GPT-2’s successor, are so far nowhere near as hilarious or enlightening. I’ve found the output boring and derivative.

1. Today, Podesta serves as an advisor to President Biden of the United States. Given the events of 6 January 2020 at the Capitol, the letter would make more sense if it were to be written more recently. And now an image of Juggalos defacing a bust of Zachary Taylor lives forever in my mind.

2022 look-back: reading

I tend to read about 35 books a year for the past few years. This past year, I read and especially enjoyed:

  • The Jaguar Knight by Ann Aguirre
  • Clean Sweep, Sweep In Peace, and One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews
  • Enemy Storm by Marcella Burnard
  • Only Bad Options by Jennifer Estep
  • The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin
  • Hunt the Stars by Jessie Mihalik
  • Once Upon a Marquess by Courtney Milan

These were all genre novels: paranormal, Victorian historical, science fiction in space, and Tang dynasty historicals. Not in that order. I already knew I mostly remember novels that aren’t in simple popular genres, especially within romance. Some heavy topics show up in these books: torture, assault, temporary disability, and the Opium War. I like pure fluff sometimes, but less in my novels than in webtoons, it seems.

Last summer, I fell down a webtoon rabbit hole. I practically inhaled these, and wow they were tropey and fluffy. Good for when I needed a distraction, but also gave me good feelings. Here are the ones that stayed with me beyond the reading:

  • Another Typical Fantasy Romance
  • Marriage of Convenience
  • Marriage and Sword
  • Pick Me, My Queen
  • The Not-Sew-Wicked Stepmom
  • Straight to the Red Carpet
  • Roxana
  • Villainess in Love

These are all swords and sorcery with lords and ladies. Some of them have light novels but the art makes things go right down. My substitute for television, really.

Rereading older books

I think it’s important to reread books and that I don’t do it often enough. Readers love to stay current and discuss the latest releases with our writing buddies. Many good books blur together in my head. They’re fun and I’ll recommend them, but they won’t stick with me over the years. I am focusing on books I read in the aughts, and some from ten years ago, before the age of book blogging and social media.

I’m interested in how books show their age: JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books, for example, mention the Motorola Razer quite a bit. I read the books when they were initially published, so this makes me smile. But I do wonder what a younger reader, who never encountered the Razer, would think. For me, the use of objects current in the contemporary gives the voice of the book and the attitudes context.

I’m hoping that rereading books will help me codify what I think makes a book memorable: if I want to reread a book, something must have stuck with me. Ideally I can incorporate it into my own writing. I’m going to start with Meljean Brook’s Guardian series. I fondly remember the golden age of paranormal romance!

NieR: Reincarnation – what is it?

I’ve been trying to write up an exegesis on NieR: Reincarnation, a mobile f2p gacha that’s part 2D walking simulator, part 3D walking simulator, and part turn-based RPG. The analysis may have grown beyond my grasp, but I will post some thoughts rather than continue agonizing about it.

After several weird games with compelling stories (Drakengard series, NieR: Gestalt/Replicant), Yoko Taro struck platinum (terrible pun there) with NieR: Automata. I feel like he had finally said what he wanted to say and got his message out to people, and from here on he’s trying new things and having fun. SINoAlice debuted a year and a half ago, and NieR: Replicant got remastered for modern consoles. NieR: Reincarnation followed this year, and Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars will be available on PC and console 28 October.

I have played the stuffing out of NieR: Reincarnation through Chapter 12, and I’m still not sure how it relates to the other NieR games. The different methods of gameplay have been used in previous NieR games and the aesthetic is the same (crumbling ruins, muted tones, soulful music), but that’s all I’ve been able to glean.

For the first few stages, the player controls a sad girl who walks around in a giant floating tower-structure called The Cage. While there, she attempts to restore stories. So The Cage is the frame story. I think. Each story-within-the-Cage is associated with a weapon, a call-out to most of Yoko’s older work: when the player upgrades a weapon in a NieR or Drakengard game, they get a macabre story about the weapon’s wielder. In NieR: Reincarnation, that mechanic is core gameplay, and the story isn’t just text.

The weapon stories are explored with a 2D walking simulator instead. In each story, the player controls the weapon’s wielder and learns flashes of their history by walking through stylized diorama scenes and interacting with objects that have exclamation points over them. The stage always ends with an ATB RPG battle: the conceit being that the black birds are making the story go awry, and you have to fix it. I still don’t know how the weapons ended up in The Cage, or whether they are relevant to the world of the frame story. Tutorial text suggests that they are dreams from other realities.

Only parts of this game are VN-like, but I stopped to analyze it because the game does some things with story that I like. Most of the chapters are vignettes about important moments in the character’s life. The short stories contrast with the expansive environments. Often, the story we are told is the climax of a much bigger story. The settings of each story are spare, and there’s enough left unsaid that they could conceivably be all set in the same world at different times. Genres change from late nineteenth-century tech level to space robots.

Additional content allows the player/reader to unlock other vignettes of the characters presented in the weapon stories. These flesh out the characters some more with backstory or continued story, shedding light on the events of their weapon stories.

I have finished the main arc of the story, and I’ll be satisfied whether the game makes a new arc or not. I bought the soundtrack, but didn’t spend any money on this game otherwise. I think I would have paid $20 for it. I found this game inspiring because I am very interested in stories that are told out of order, and I think that conceit works very well in a digital format where the reader can easily cross-reference clues and events. It makes me think about the story and ask questions of it continuously.

Taisho x Alice thoughts

Taisho x Alice (or Taisho Alice) is made as several games: Episodes 1-3 and an Epilogue. Episodes 1-3 each have two routes, and the Epilogue has one. Each route features a love interest who is a twist on a fairytale character. I’ll let you read the summary elsewhere.

taisho alice box art
Box art for the full Japanese Vita version.
English version is on Steam only as of 8/2021.

Do I recommend this game? Depends on who you are. I enjoyed it, but there are plenty of caveats in there. Don’t treat this game as an otome, and you will be the happier for it. Several of the later chapters deviate sharply from genre expectations. The main character is unique in a way that doesn’t go over well with everyone.

HOLY TOAST CONTENT WARNING: mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation, sexual assault (not by any LI), body dysmorphia, eating disorders, violence, depictions of blood, and mild sexual language. It’s a lot. Episode 1 is pretty light but then things get hyper dark. The Kaguya route is especially heavy, and then there’s a bunch of creeping dread in Snow White’s.

Does she look maniacal here or is it just me?

The storycraft is the game’s strength. Each episode has details in it that reward you if you pay attention. If you skim the story, you will still understand it, but it will lose many of its “oh wow” moments. Something feels not quite right? Don’t discount your instincts. When I went back to replay some scenes, I said to myself, “This important story element was right in front of me, and I somehow didn’t pick up on it the first time, nicely done.” So this game is definitely worth replaying and reinterpreting if you enjoyed your first playthrough.

There are quite a few choices per route, and some routes are minefields full of bad ends. I’m looking at you, Kaguya.

The game takes on many mental health issues. I don’t know what the Japanese treatments or diagnoses are for many of the symptoms presented. In the US, I believe they would be handled differently. But it’s not something I’ve seen in a Japanese VN before. Primula is a smaller studio than Idea Factory, so they may be willing to take more risks.

episode 2
Okay this seems like the dudes are a bit more sinister, which I guess checks out for the chapter

The heroine, Yurika, is not a normal person. Keep that in mind and you’re more likely to get a good ending. She’s a lot of fun to watch, but she also does several questionable things that made me think she needs some psychiatric help and therapy before she gets involved with anyone. The heroes also tend to have deep trauma, and I’m not sure that any of these relationships are healthy or could be without a lot of intervention. Bottom line: these kids need a lot of therapy. The adult figures in the story all let the leads down at several points.

Does it end happily? As well as it can. But the reader should come in prepared for plenty of pain and issues that get handled in a way that may have non-Japanese audiences scratching their heads. The frame story is a love story, but later the chapters handle more of a mystery plotline with less romance. If this sounds like it’s your cup of tea, then yes, I recommend it. Otherwise, I’d do more research if you’re not sure you’re in the mood for some dark themes.

Cafe Enchante thoughts

I finished playing Cafe Enchante for Switch a while ago, but my sister-in-law just blitzed through it. Also I found this article half-written and thought I’d better just force something out.

First note: Aksys advertises this as “the Hallmark movie of otome games.” Someone on a Discord server, I can’t remember who, said this was only true if in the Hallmark movie the Christmas trees ate people. The advertising and the trailer are happy lighthearted things, and due to other VNs, readers are conditioned to think of cafes as places of deep navel gazing and inner truths.

And there is some of that here, but there’s also far more action than I was anticipating. Also tragedy. I went through a lot of tissues reading this, and I didn’t even get to any bad endings. I’ll put the marketing miscalculation on both Aksys and Otomate- the opening movie is far too cute.

the box art

The good news for those who enjoyed Code: Realize is that this game has the same writer and narrative structure. There’s a long common route with lots of clues in it (eight chapters), and each character route has 4-6 chapters. I’ll let you read synopses elsewhere. If you don’t like long common routes, this may not be for you. Each route has a good ending and one or more bad endings, and the bad endings don’t add anything to the story. So I would skip them, you’ll get plenty of sadness anyway.

Unfortunately, the translation is not good. There are typos everywhere. If that bothers you but you want a similar experience, I’d play Code: Realize instead.

What stood out to me in this game is the heroine, Kotone. She’s feminine, with a quiet but unshakeable strength, which is something I don’t see a ton of in otome. She understands her shortcomings and the role she can play in each story. She doesn’t go rushing into danger. If you’re looking for an action girl, she is not it. But she pulls off something in the common route that is every office drone’s fantasy, and she does some brave emotional deeds for her love in each route.

The love interests are all good men, and I do adore that. The side characters all get to be plenty involved. I do wish there was more than one other female character Kotone really got to talk to. It felt a bit harem-y otherwise. There is also Vennia, who Kotone calls he but is nonbinary. I would have liked it if the team had stuck with “they” pronouns. Also, we have adorable mascot critters: a narwhal demon beast thing, and a clay doll.

shady assistant
I am sure there is nothing shady going on with this side character.

I loved all the routes. They managed to make a tsun I liked. Rindo’s route emotionally affected me in a way that VNs rarely do, because I have asked a lot of the same questions of my future as he did. The final route goes places I did not expect. The story in general goes some pretty dark places. No sexual assault or anything like that. But there’s plenty of existential despair, loneliness, and real danger for those who like to have their heart stomped on by their VNs. The final ending was not strictly happy. The couple ends up together, but the circumstances are not convenient for them. They have to pay for their happy ending.

these side characters, on the other hand, are probably the real heroes of the story

For me, the game was a fantasy that was just real enough that it holds a special place in my heart. I hear this game can feel slow-paced to some readers, especially with its long common route. If that’s usually a concern from you, I might pass. There’s also nothing too spicy that will make your grandmother clutch her pearls here, besides a tongue-kiss CG. If that doesn’t dissuade you, then I’d recommend Cafe Enchante.

welcome back

to blogging!

I’m working on programming a UI for Melow’s upcoming game Colors of Fate. I’ve learned a bunch and am happy to share it…once my code is finalized.

I’ve also realized that people like otome recommendations. Personal curation isn’t something you can always get from Steam or VNDB. So I’ll do some spotlight of games I recommend. These are not precisely reviews. I don’t like giving scores or grades.

So I’ll see you around again now that it’s 2021. Here’s to a better year than last.