Remembering a Mysterious Prince Among Dogs

Our dog Finn passed on this weekend, and I wanted to set down some of the things I remember best of him.

We got Finn on Halloween of 2007 from the Peninsula Humane Society. It’s always been a bit mysterious where he came from. He was, by all appearances, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, which is not a terribly common breed anywhere, and particularly so on the West Coast. He had been picked up as a stray (and had the worms to show for it). How a year-old Toller came to be walking the mean streets of San Mateo was a conundrum. My personal theory is that he was a nobleman of faerie, bound to an animal’s form for some roguish transgression or another.

He must have had some sort of home before he came to us, because he was perplexingly civilized. He took to basic commands very quickly, and came to us double secret housetrained. By this I mean that once, a few weeks after we got him, we went on some errand which ran longer than we thought, so he was locked up in our apartment for much longer than a dog can fairly be expected to hold his business. When we got home, we discovered that he had, completely on his own initiative, gone into the bathroom and pooped in the shower.

He was also an absolute glutton; you could get him to do almost anything for a treat, and we had to be extremely thoughtful about where we left food unattended. I remember one time, when we were still learning about his piratical ways, Jen left a cake on the counter while we went out. When we returned, the cake was just as we left it, except for the spot nearest the edge of the counter, which had been delicately and painstakingly licked clean of frosting.

The thing he absolutely could not be deterred from eating, however — his divine ambrosia — was the mud at the dog park we took him to for his first year with us. We lived in Menlo Park that year, and there was a well-attended dog park within walking distance, so visits there were a frequent occurrence. Finn loved all dogs, and he would play with anybody. There was a regular crowd there that we got to know, them and their dogs. It was probably the neighborhood community I’ve been most involved in to this day. I remember one guy named Jim who stood out because he didn’t actually have a dog, he just loved coming and hanging out with the dogs and the dog owners. I never found out what his story was; he was a strange dude, in an affable way. I like to think he was Finn’s inverse, a dog cursed to dwell in human form. Jim and Finn had a certain simpatico.

But the high point of the visit for Finn was that mud. There was a specific spot, in the lowest part of the park where rainwater gathered and the mud was sodden and clayey, and he would furtively dart in there to take a bite and run away before we could chide him.

It was not great for his digestion, though, that and the aforementioned worms. I remember on many, many nights, at 3 or 4 in the morning, I would wake up, feeling that distinct sensation of being stared at. I would turn to look to the side of the bed, and there in the darkness, the slight sparkle of eyes.

“howr,” he would say, the quietest of growls, “howr.” And I would haul myself out of bed to take him around the corner and let him do his business.

He was tremendously sweet with us, and with other dogs, but all other humans were suspect. He barked his head off at anyone who came anywhere near our front door. We eventually got him to ease off once guests had been duly sniffed and barked at, but it took years. I remember one New Year’s party where one of my friends had managed to get Finn to submit to petting, and he was lying there blissed out with the attention, when suddenly he remembered himself and leapt up to bark at her some more.

There aren’t as many good stories from the years after we got used to him, or he to us, but he was always just an amazingly sweet and kind dog. He would try to be helpful, and figure out what we wanted from him, in a way I’ve never seen another dog do. He was endlessly patient with our boys’ toddlery assaults. And he had the best soft, feathery ears I have petted. I do not think we will see his like again.

Scarecrow VRC

Since Scarecrow VRC is open again, however briefly, I thought it would be a good time to finally get around to writing up the thoughts I had about it when I saw it last November.

Scarecrow VRC is an immersive experience implemented as a world in VRChat; three audience members join a live performer in a virtual space for the performance. All the participants are mute, so all communication is gestural. It was a novel experience for me; I am relatively new to the current efflorescence of immersive theatre, and to VR. I attended along with my wife, who is a social VR developer and thus vastly more experienced in this realm than I am. Discussing the experience with her, and reading Kathryn Yu’s review of the experience at No Proscenium, has me thinking about the importance of audience fluency.

I was, for a lot of the show, confused. I spent a while waiting for exposition that never came. I didn’t understand why we were supposed to be doing the things the performer appeared to be exhorting us to do. At one point, I walked away from the others because I get excited about visually exploring virtual environments, and I got lost. I think I missed out on some play while I was trying to figure out where everyone had gone.

I think this is because I did not have the right frames to anticipate, not what was going to happen, but even what categories of things might happen, and what categories of things I might do. I did not have the right set of emotional responses engaged. The point at which the experience began to cohere for me was the moment when, while running around drawing with a magic wand, I realized, “Oh. This is a Happening!” At that point everything fell into place, and I understood what we were doing, and how I might be able to feel about it.

Happenings were the right frame for me because I was a performance studies nerd back in the day. I imagine someone who’s had more experience than me with immersive theatre or social VR would have referents that are probably closer to the creators’ expectation.

The interpretive challenge, for me, was that Scarecrow is a show where the narrative element of the experience is almost entirely unimportant. There’s some exposition at the beginning about firebirds devouring villagers’ hearts, but honestly it’s unnecessary: the nominal story won’t really help you understand any of the things that happen, and the events of the show won’t really answer any questions you might have about the story. It’s an experience of connection, and perception. And I was totally unprepared for that.

I spent the first half of the show trying to figure it out: who are these characters? What are these items? Why are we doing this? What happens next? And that was almost entirely pointless. There were no answers, and resting in that frame kept me from recognizing that the point of the show is the gestural dialogue between the participants, and the play that that enables, and the moments of connection it fosters.

It was, in that respect, somewhat akin to The Under Presents’ Tempest, which is similarly a show that depends on gestural negotiation and connection. However, in Tempest, the performer is not mute, which allows them to more actively guide the experience, and at least for me helped me shape my expectations correctly earlier in the process.

Dan Cook talks about the necessity in game design to accurately anticipate which pre-existing skills a player may have, so that the game’s challenges are neither inaccessible nor boring. I think that all forms of media that demand their audience do some work to make sense of it face this challenge of equipping the audience with the right tools to interpret the work. In forms whose affordances are well-understood, audiences generally have those tools already, but in new forms, it becomes less of a given that the audience will have the tools to read the work correctly.

Weekly Update 4/3/21

It’s Countdown Day! This week I posted four new pieces:

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis, and hiding spinach in the chocolate cake.

Book Review: Metropolis: Values in Conflict – a curiously non-geographic world.

Book Review: The Art of the Start – Oh yeah. Don’t be evil.

The Problematic Ethnic Stereotypes Are Coming – in a post-Gringotts-discourse world, “goblin” is a less appealing solution than I thought it was in 2012.

Update 3/28/21

My apologies for the impromptu hiatus. Since the last update, I posted twelve new pieces:

You Think Too Much – a cosmology of magic for GURPS.

The Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society – a setting element for GURPS Deadlands.

Dinosaur Mind – I can’t figure all those critters out.

What’s Wrong With This Machine? – the problem is that people hate their computers.

Los Panchos – Life is too short to eat bad Salvadorean food.

Alternate Alchemies – sometimes the quintessential balsamic solution is just the vinegar.

Birthright and the Canonical Adventure – what do we *do* in this game, anyway?

Thoughts on the GSL – I have opinions about copyright and RPGs.

The Awesome Power of Combined Nerdiness

More Birthright – Somewhere out there, someone has run a Birthright/Dark Sun crossover. I bet it was awesome.

Larkin Express Deli – when bottled soda is past its prime, something ain’t right.

Biryani Chapati – A restaurant just broke my heart.

Weekly Update 2/27/21

This week I posted seven new pieces:

Taqueria el Castillito – I’m a little scared of the lengua.

Uplift in heroic fantasy worlds – I’m sure the beholders will be happy to field your complaint.

The Trouble-Stones of the Pherissai – a world-shard about misfortune and recycling.

Bristol Farms Breakfast Bar – melancholy in my heart, and an inexplicable hunger in my gut.

The Bestiary of Stupid: The Clich – Phylactery? I hardly know he!

Food Review: Tacos El Grullense – Probably the carnitas, though.

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 9 – Finally some action in this dull-ass tale.

Weekly Update 2/20/21

This week I posted seven new pieces:

Bachelor Cuisine: Kielbasa – swollen and juicy, with a pleasant note of beery bitterness.

The Parable of the Secret Talent – it’s a stupid parable anyway, pass the jug.

Gypsy’s Trattoria – I’ve long wanted a pasta equivalent of the burrito joint.

Ghulhunds, and other dungeoneering breeds – The f***ing dog always checks for f***ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!

Henry’s – discretion with the mayonnaise.

Book Review: Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 8 – Opportunity knocks.

Weekly Update 2/13/21

This week I posted seven new pieces:

Goood Frikin Chicken – the title says it all, really.

The Dwarven Lands – Compulsive building has its uses. And its consequences.

US Chinese Food – Better than Default Chicken, I guess.

I take a certain amount of pleasure in my notes – This namespace isn’t big enough for the two of us.

Burger Joint – full of that elemental heft.

Skelebear – it is weird how children’s media and horror so often run up in close proximity.

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 7 – Everybody loves shopping!

Weekly Update 1/29/21

This week I posted eight pieces:

Reflections on Complexity in Game Design – some personal terms of art

Taqueria Can-Cun – a review of a place where I ate many, many burritos. I also posted a guide to my food review terminology.

VIFF Immersed – the VR offerings at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, and what they made me think about the affordances of 3DOF film.

Cream, God Damn It – there’s more than one kind of nude.

A tale of regional friction – about East Coast/West Coast beef. It seemed topical.

Valazdal the Undying – a world-shard about the tyranny of immortality, and the immortality of tyranny.

Jack and the Mountain and the Stinky Cheese – a bedtime story

Coda to an Age of Heroes, Episode 5 – our heroes look for a job.

VIFF Immersed

Back in October I watched several of the XR offerings from the Vancouver International Film Festival Immersed exhibition, and I have been chewing on some thoughts. If the theme for my thoughts about the Biennale was tempo, the theme for VIFF was affordances.

Every medium has its particular qualities, things that it does and doesn’t do. These qualities offer a particular set of possibilities to a creator using the medium to communicate. Using these particular possibilities — the medium’s affordances — in an effective way is often key to creating good work. Works that exploit their medium’s affordances poorly may still be successful, but they do so despite themselves. There is an elegance to a work that uses its medium to the fullest, that could not have been implemented in any other medium.

XR is a young medium, and creators are still figuring out what its affordances are. Indeed, that process of learning is a lot of what makes this new medium exciting.

All of the pieces that were available to me on the Oculus Quest were three-degrees-of-freedom VR films. I think my takeaway from VIFF, and the Biennale before it, is that the essential affordance of 3DOF film is agency: the ability of the viewer to choose what to pay attention to, and how much attention to pay, within a set of interesting possibilities. The VIFF entries I watched were extremely uneven at exploiting this.

My favorite piece, easily, was Kowloon Forest. It describes itself as “a journey through the private lives of five strangers in Hong Kong,” but I think that doesn’t do it justice, because what made it really interesting to me was the way the piece was structured. Kowloon Forest is a series of vignettes shot in 360 degrees; each vignette places the viewer between two people or representations of people –a woman and her mirror, two friends, a man watching a mukbang video, and a man setting up a livestream. This meant that at every moment the viewer has two major loci of action to choose as their focus. Furthermore, each vignette took place in a really visually dense space, so there were ample things to look at in addition to the characters. I am always a sucker for that urban-palimpsest aesthetic that prevails in Hong Kong, but it is particularly well-suited to the 3DOF form. That visual richness, coupled with the feeling of discovery in exploring that space, was deeply satisfying.

Conversely, the most disappointing pieces were the ones that simply tried to replicate an existing form in VR. For example, Orpheus, a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, was essentially just a play with a proscenium stage, but modeled in computer-generated VR. There was a fully realized 360-degree environment, but none of it meant anything besides what was happening on the stage. (I understand from the blurb on the festival website that the full version of the performance involves some level of interactivity, but I don’t have any way to judge how that played out.)

I should concede that one can approach 3DOF as merely a dumb pipe to deliver more or less traditional theatre and film experiences. I think that’s legitimate, particularly in these times when traditional venues are unavailable, but I don’t think it’s very interesting. Also, the particularities of 3DOF are such that using it as a dumb pipe is perhaps more complicated than creators recognize.

The two Japanese-language pieces in the festival, GEIMU and VR Hero Sakura, illustrate this problem. Both are arguably merely ordinary films shot with a 180-degree camera. VR Hero Sakura is available in full on YouTube, and for my money not a lot is lost by watching it in a browser. Both pieces are about VR — they’re both stories of an immersive RPG gone wrong, but GEIMU aims for horror while VR Hero Sakura is comedy — but neither really tries to engage the distinctive affordances of the medium.

Translating conventional film techniques to 3DOF has unfortunate consequences for both pieces. Most obviously, close-ups shot at a distance appropriate to conventional film place the actor squarely inside the 3DOF viewer’s personal space, which is extremely uncomfortable. In GEIMU, that experience was effective, although I’m not sure if it was intentional. GEIMU tries to evoke a sense of horror and danger, and the perceived violation of my personal space served that end in a way that I’m not sure would have been possible in any other medium; even in live theatre I would have had the option to move back or otherwise react to the invasion of my space. In VR Hero Sakura, meanwhile, the invasion of my space was just off-putting. VR Hero Sakura also chose to place its subtitles into a space midway between the actors and the camera, which meant constantly refocusing between the text and the actors. This is tiring on the eyes, already a problem with VR headsets.

Similarly, neither piece did very much with the 180-degree field of vision. It’s not particularly useful to be able to look anywhere I want when the filmmakers have only given me one thing to look at. VR Hero Sakura in particular failed to take this opportunity in a way I still find baffling. One sequence, a melodramatic exchange between the protagonist and a monster, positions the viewer off to the side of the line between the two characters. The filmmakers decided to film this as alternating single shots. At any given moment, the character who’s not talking is not even within the 180-degree field of vision; you literally cannot look at them. What is the point of offering three degrees of freedom if you’re not going to let the viewer look at things that the story is telling them are interesting? 3DOF is a medium in which the viewer’s agency over their attention is the whole point; bringing in a filmmaker’s customary expectation of total control of the audience viewpoint is deeply counterproductive.

The documentaries in the program also mostly failed to exploit the affordances of 3DOF, largely for the same reasons the documentaries at the Biennale did: most of the time, there was one thing worth paying attention to, and then a lot of irrelevant things you could look at if you want. With the Wind and the Stars, for example, is an interesting documentary about a woman’s journey to launch her own airline, but I don’t think 3DOF adds much. The flying shots are fun in VR, and there are a couple of interesting moments when the camera is capturing semi-candid multi-person conversations, but mostly it’s interview material which is very single-point-of-focus.

Ecosphere: Raja Ampat had a different affordance challenge, which took me by surprise. The segment available to view online is about an ocean sanctuary in Indonesia, with a lot of underwater diving sequences, which initially seemed to me like a fantastic application of VR. What I had forgotten, however, is how much the current generation of VR headsets relies on the power of the human brain to interpolate sense data. I was using a Quest 1, and it just did not have the power to crisply convey hundreds of brilliantly colored, constantly moving fish. Everything seemed blurry and quickly tiring to watch, which wasn’t a problem for any of the other pieces aside from the previously mentioned subtitle issue.

By the Waters of Babylon was the best 3DOF documentary I’ve seen. It tells the story of a group of composers imprisoned at Theresienstadt during the Holocaust through the experiences of the Clarion Quartet performing a work by one of those composers, Viktor Ullmann, at Theresienstadt and elsewhere. The filmmakers really embraced the audience’s agency of attention, and the film combines live footage with computer-generated sequences that took excellent advantage of the expanded spaces that 3DOF can enable. A moment that the film returns to repeatedly as a sort of frame is a scene of the quartet playing the Ullmann piece. In a clever use of 3DOF, the quartet performs in a circle, with the viewer at the center. You can, at any point, choose which member of the quartet to watch, and none are the wrong choice. Similarly, there are several sequences that involve moving through the museum at Theresienstadt, which is an excellent application of the form; in those sorts of historical sites, everywhere and nowhere is the right place to look, and enabling the viewer to explore is perfect.

This, I think, is the hallmark of the 3DOF works that really work for me. Because the viewer can look anywhere, everywhere should be a good place to look, or should guide the viewer’s attention to a place that is. That’s a hard goal to achieve, but the works that do it achieve a level of engagement that is rare for me in a non-interactive medium.