Education as Growing Skills vs Accumulating Knowledge

•September 28, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Occasionally I do interviews on podcasts etc to help promote my writing, and a question that’s often asked is what advice I would give would-be authors. I approach this question as what advice would I give myself if I could go back in time ten years or more. And this is what I’d tell my younger self: you can’t learn to swim without getting in the pool.

It’s great to study the masters and read up on literary conventions and storytelling techniques, but ultimately there’s no substitute for finishing a story idea that you’ve started, all the way through. Get it done, polish it up, get some feedback, and move on. This is the skill of writing, of storytelling, and the only way to get better at it is to do it repeatedly. Yes, it’s important to supplement this skill with study, but your top priority needs to be practicing that skill, getting your reps in.

This is the difference between developing a skill and accumulating knowledge. The former is an active process whereas the latter is passive. (Yes, I realize this is a simplistic dichotomy but it’s fine for our purposes here.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and how it applies to our education system. I haven’t studied advanced education theories or policies, etc, so this all anecdotal, but in my experience, growing up, school was by and large focused on accumulating knowledge. The school board designs a curriculum, the teacher delivers it, and the students are tested by regurgitating what they’ve consumed. It’s simple, measurable, and shitty.

For the most part, though, I was fine with it. I’m a big nerd, so I have no problem sitting down and reading about history and Shakespeare. But I can definitely see the cracks. For one thing, not everyone is like me–in fact I’d say most people aren’t. They aren’t interested in learning a buncha shit that has nothing immediately relevant to their lives.

For example, I grew up doing French immersion from kindergarten to grade twelve. Most of what we did was sit down and conjugate verbs over and over, and we’d be tested on our grammar. What gender is this noun? Does this verb use avoir or etre for past tense? Where is the subject, direct object, and indirect object of this sentence? Then, one year, we all went to Quebec for a couple weeks on a school trip and none of us could carry on a sensible conversation with a local. It was pathetic. We had the knowledge but no skill.

Nowadays, there’s an either/or between the humanities and STEM, which I think comes down to the impression that the former is about knowledge, which is about passively consuming knowledge, whereas STEM is about skills and has real-world application. I think this is a tragic mischaracterization. What would history as a skill look like? The ability to seek out and identify reputable sources of information. Knowing what are good sources of knowledge and how to deploy them. What would English as a skill look like? The ability to think and communicate clearly and critically. In our current age of misinformation, I can’t think of more valuable skills.

Hell, even my sciences courses were fixated on knowledge accumulation. Not much about developing hypotheses and testing them. Just memorize the periodic table of elements enough to pass the mid-term. English was more about literature appreciation (great way to engage teens!) as opposed to learning the nuts and bolts of essay structure. Jesus Christ, if you’re not gonna learn what a topic sentence or a thesis statement is in English class, where will you?

The problem is these skills are hard to teach from an institutional point of view. Or maybe they’re aren’t difficult, but our current model of fixating on test results and measurable outcomes doesn’t seem to make room for that. From what I remember, and I don’t think it’s changed much in the last seventeen years since I graduated high school (*sobs*), teachers had to drag their students kicking and screaming through a pool of curriculum that was as vast as an ocean but as shallow as a kiddie pool.

What would a skill-based education system look like? Moreover, let’s expand the notion of skill beyond STEM and the trades. What does skill in the humanities look like? I guess the conclusion of my soapbox rant here is that we shouldn’t be afraid to drill narrowly and deeply. Instead of inundated students with curriculum, go for quality over quantity. Let them dig their teeth in and see what they produce.



Let’s all Point at the Toronto Maple Leafs and Laugh

•June 1, 2021 • Leave a Comment

I don’t write about sports much on this blog, but as a Montreal Canadiens fan it’s my duty to dunk on the Leafs. The Habs weren’t supposed to win this series. Hell, some people, like Craig Button, said the Habs weren’t supposed to win a single game. But Button also put Martin St. Louis on waivers when he was GM of Calgary, so what the fuck does he know. (He’s taken his humble pie well, so I can’t hate on the guy too much.)

For the Leafs, there’s lots of hard questions ahead. And I hope they make all the wrong decisions. But what I’m mostly looking forward to is retiring the narrative that Kyle Dubas is some kinda modern hockey wunderkind. There are Dubas stans out there who will go to the grave denying this top-heavy team is fundamentally flawed. The dude inherited a 105-point team and has failed to make it out of the first round in three straight seasons, two of which were against teams with a negative goal differential.

“But, Brad, that’s not fair! Tavares got hurt in game one!”

That’s true. I won’t deny that was a huge factor. Maybe the Leafs would have won decidedly with him in the lineup? Who knows. What I do know is that injuries happen and teams need depth as well as star power. The Lightning won the cup last year with Stamkos missing pretty much the entire playoffs, and yet the Leafs can’t even beat an “inferior” opponent in the first round. That’s an indictment on their depth.

“But, Brad, it’s not Dubas’ fault that Matthews and Marner didn’t show up!”

Well, yes, it is actually. He signed them to those massive contracts, so their lack of performance goes back to him-particularly with regards to Marner, who’s getting the brunt of the scorn. A lot of people point to the Nylander deal as proof Dubas couldn’t negotiate, but I think we can all agree Nylander’s contract is probably the best on the team right now. It’s really Marner’s deal that’s a stinker. Yes, he’s performed well in the regular season since the deal, but at the time of signing, he wasn’t worth it. His closest equivalent was Mikko Rantanen who is making nearly %20 less. Not only did Dubas invest too much in a top-heavy roster, he also pissed down both legs with those contracts. The young guys are getting top dollar on short-term deals. I could understand if this was a long-term commitment, like Chicago, Pitsburg and Washington did with their stars, but Matthews and Nylander are both up in three years. Just bad payroll management.

“But, Brad, Dubas addressed all the concerns from last year! He got leadership and grit!”

I can only imagine the shit Bergevin would be eating if he made the kinds of signings Dubas did. Thornton, Simmonds, Bogosian and Foligno were all pretty much invisible. Then we had to hear all about how Toronto “re-built” Galchenyuk only for him cough up a game breaking giveaway in overtime. (Habs, Coyotes, Pens, Wild and Sens fans all saw that coming.) The justification for Toronto’s top-heavy roster was that Dubas would work some analytics magic to bring in some low-cost hidden gems. Well, that’s been a categorical failure. He’s traded away the first round pick the last three years for help, and it hasn’t worked. (I will concede that Muzzin is a beast, but he’s not exactly low cost.)

Some people are saying that Dubas foolishly listened to all the “dumbass” pundits who demanded veterans and grit. Well, if they’re so dumb then what does that make Dubas for listening to them? Also, I found it pretty hilarious that the Leafs looked at themselves and said “We’re a talented team that can’t get over the hump? Surely Joe Thornton can lead the way!” The poster boy for underwhelming playoff performances. If Corey Perry was on the Leafs and played like he had, the media would be following over themselves to congratulate Dubas on his scouting.

Before it was Babcock’s fault. He didn’t use the personnel correctly. That’s fair. Chief Keefe was Dubas’ boy, and he had the galaxy brain needed to truly appreciate Dubas’ vision. But he made no adjustments this series. When it was clear Marner and Matthews was struggling while Willy was playing great, he still stuck to his guns, nailing M&M together. Dubas can’t hide behind Babs anymore. He’s also shipped out all the “bad” deals Lou made. This is his team, there’s no more excuses.

Will Dubas get canned for this? Probably not. And it seems to me there’s not a huge contingent of Leafs fans who want him gone. They’re more inclined to blame the players. Dubas also seems to inspire a very dedicated and online cult. Why? Both his supporters and detractors want to anoint him as the poster boy for analytics, and as a result his success or failure has turned into a battle for the soul of hockey. But that’s nonsense. That battle was won long ago. Most pro sports franchises use advanced analytics to some capacity. Moreover, I don’t even think Dubas is an analytics guy. This article does a great job breaking this down, but I’ll just say here that he’s never published any kind of analytics-focused papers, has no training in coding, etc. and experienced a very traditional path to his job.

I’m not trying to make an argument for or against analytics here; I’m just saying that we can cool it with the tribalism over Dubas. His success or failure will not have any bearing on how teams deploy advanced metrics.

Personally, I think Dubas got off on the wrong foot with the Tavares deal. In a vacuum, it’s a great deal. Tavares is an elite player and worth every penny. Some people will say that when someone like that comes available, you sign him, no reservations. I get that. I’m sure there are plenty of scenarios where this deal leads to deep playoff runs. But the problem was that, Dubas was unwilling to make the hard choices after the deal. He basically built this team like a video game. He just kept going after the highest value guys with no regard to fit or chemistry. The Barrie trade is an excellent example. The Leafs desperately needed right-handed defence. So they got a defensively-deficient offensive guy. They already had heaps of offensive talent. Kadri for Barrie makes sense in terms of value, but it was absolutely the wrong deal for the Leafs. And now it’s clear that he doesn’t know how to add players that address the issues they need. If it’s true that he went after Foligno instead of Hall then how can you possibly defend that?

Again, I hear the Dubas stans saying he needs more time, that the team is going in the right direction, etc. But, c’mon, guys, these last two seasons have been especially disastrous. Before the Caps finally won, they were at least getting to the second round and often running into Crosby and the Pens.

Now if you think this all sounds extra salty and that I’m being petty, then you’re correct. This team and its fanbase have been so smug these last few years without having won a thing. Bruins fans can be insufferable, but they’ve at least had success. Listening to Keefe and Simmonds insist they were better team all series and that they don’t care who the Habs put on the ice was just so arrogant. Then I see all the memes of Matthews laughing in the scrums with Leafs fans like “lololol he isn’t fazed!” Dude only scored one goal in seven games; I’d say he was fazed. And let’s not even get into the slander Carey Price endured all season only to remind everyone who’s the best goalie in the league. Leafs fans say they deserve better but they really don’t. Before the series, James Mirtle got dragged on Twitter for considering ways the Habs could challenge the Leafs on his show. These fans only want a circle jerk and refuse to acknowledge the team’s red flags.

Instead of the Lightning who came out with a mission after being embarrassed by the Blue Jackets, the Leafs just acted like the Cup was a foregone conclusion–just completely dismissive of their own embarrassment to the Blue Jackets. So, when they faced some adversity, they didn’t know how to handle it. And that’s what drives me, that sense of entitlement.

Already, I can see the media and fans spinning this as a Leafs collapse instead of Habs comeback. Obviously, it’s not an either/or, but there isn’t much credit being given to the Habs outside of Price. What about the adjustments Ducharme made? He took a lot of flak early for scratching the youths, but he corrected his mistakes. About the great defensive play of Danault against Matthews? The timely plays of Suzuki, Jesperi KK and Caufiled who pounced on whatever lucky bounces came their way? The long minutes Chiarot logged?

I get it. The Leafs haven’t had success in a long time, and this year they really seemed poised to make a run. I can’t begrudge a fanbase for getting excited. And Habs fans are in no position to be holier than thou. (Apparently we bullied Drouin off the team.) But goddamn do Leafs fans make it easy to cheer against them. The “plan the parade” jokes really just write themselves. And it’s not really your fault, either. The Toronto-centric sports media just chugs back that Kool-Aid in the fall and it’s like a buncha youngsters wilding out on sugar. Watching those Sporstnet broadcasts was brutal. Game seven was like a funeral in there. I guess now they’ll have to study up on the names of players on other teams.



Darnell’s Garage: Predator

•May 4, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Hey, welcome to Darnell’s Garage, a series on my blog where I take a look under the hood of stories to see what’s working and what isn’t. My first couple posts in this series have been largely critical, so I wanted to look at something positive in a story.

I’d consider Predator to be a pretty much perfect movie. It’s a classic in the action-horror subgenre. I don’t think anyone would really disagree in this regard, but I do think people tend to dismiss it as well-executed escapism. And while it’s certainly true you can enjoy it purely on a superficial level, I think there are some subtle things going on with the storytelling craft that makes Predator more than just spectacle.

“There’s something out there waiting for us, and it ain’t no man.”

So, what is Predator about? Yes, ostensibly it’s about a scary alien chasing around a bunch of soldiers, but is it trying to say something else? Well, I think it’s pretty clearly about masculinity. From the macho one-liners (“I ain’t go time to bleed!”) to the infamous handshake/arm wrestling competition, there’s a lot of Big Dick Energy on display in Predator. But unlike its knuckle-headed peers who aren’t in on the joke, Predator is subversive. And it’s not just as simple as “masculinity is bad.” It’s championing a specific type of masculinity through its hero, Dutch.

As this Reddit post explains, each of the Predator’s kills mirrors a critique of a certain thread of toxic masculinity. I won’t bother going through all of them; I just want to focus on a few key ones.

Hawkins is the first to die. Interestingly, he’s played by Shane Black who would go on to write and direct The Predator (2018). Hawkins is the scrawny radio guy who doesn’t really contribute much to the group. He doesn’t kill anyone in the guerilla raid and his masculinity is all posturing. Ironically, he’s always trying to joke about how big his wife’s vagina is and the Predator leaves him with a giant open gash in his stomach.

Next I wanna talk about Dillon. You sonuva bitch! Dillon has gone soft pushing too many pencils for the CIA and is easily beaten by Dutch in their arm wrestle. Of course, that’s the arm the Predator slices off with a lazer.

These soft boys are contrasted by Mac and Blaine. Despite all big guns and toughness, they’re also no match for the Predator.

That leaves Dutch, our Final Girl.

(If you’re unfamiliar with the Final Girl, it’s a trope often used in horror where the morally superior girl (read: virginal) either survives or is last to die. This was brilliantly deconstructed in Cabin in the Woods.)

Dutch is tough but without the macho bullshit. He has principles and knows when he’s outmatched. Contrast this to Billy, the last of the soldiers to die. Billy doesn’t swagger and is all about that action, boss. But, unlike Dutch, he’s unwilling to retreat. He tries to square up with the Predator and gets dusted. Dutch, however, is able to supplement his toughness with cunning. He runs and hides and sets traps. And that’s how he defeats the Predator.

just look at those glistening biceps

This is all masterfully set up in the first act. The rescue mission subplot is a brilliant red herring that accomplishes several things. First, it gets them into the jungle and gets the plot rolling. Second, it establishes stakes by showing how these guys are all the ultimate bad asses, which makes the Predator that much scarier. Third, the conflict between Dillon and Dutch reveals Dutch’s character. He abhors adventurism and insists that his team is a rescue unit, not assassins.

I think it’s also worth pointing out this movie came out during Reagan’s America, when the CIA were sending death squads into Latin America to kill political rivals. Dutch is also a Vietnam vet, America’s most infamous military disaster. You can’t help to interrupt Predator as a dig at the military industrial complex and “might makes right” ideology. Yet, at the same time, the story is sympathetic to the soldiers, the grunts on the frontline.



Darnell’s Garage: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

•May 3, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Welcome to Darnell’s Garage where I peak under the hood of books to see what’s working and what isn’t. I’m gonna be looking at The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix, a book I mostly enjoyed but still have a few criticisms. I’ll try and keep this spoiler free.

(By the way, long novel titles are a pet peeve of mine. I think they should be reserved for short stories. I dunno why.)

Southern Book Club is about, you guessed it, a group of suburban, southern women in a book club who discover there’s a vampire in their town. The vampire targets vulnerable members of society while ingratiating himself with the more affluent. The protagonist is Patricia Campbell, who tries to convince her friends and family of the danger but runs up against systemic racism and misogyny.

Any book with vampires in suburbia is going to be immediately compared to Salem’s Lot. This probably isn’t fair, but King’s shadow looms large. Also, Hendrix doesn’t do himself any favours by making two direct references to the Lot. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite have that gift King has for fleshing out a town. Hendrix’s setting just doesn’t feel as realized as the Lot. But, the good news is that this isn’t a Salem’s Lot imitation. Hendrix makes some cool innovations on vampire cryptozoology and uses the trope to explore territory unexplored by King.

Ultimately, I respected Southern Book Club more that I loved it. The execution doesn’t quite live up to the premise.

First, Hendrix lets the cat out of the bag very early in the book. The moment Patricia discovers the vampire is an excellent moment, filled with verisimilitude and humour, but it really kills a lot of the tension for the rest of the book. She doubts herself about whether he’s actually a vampire or if her imagination is running away with itself after all the dark fiction she’d been reading in her book club. But it’s obvious to the reader that it feels pretty tedious.

Secondly, there just wasn’t enough moments of terror. Hendrix has the horror chops. Too much of the book is focus on Patricia’s suburban milieu. As I mentioned in the synapsis, this book has things to say about racism and misogyny, particularly in late 80s/early 90s bourgeois, southern culture.

On the one hand, I admire Hendrix in this regard, not only because he’s tackling heady topics, but also because he doesn’t take the easy way out. He could have easily reduced the rich white women to nasty stereotypes, but he’s unafraid of grey areas.

But, on the other hand, he kinda pulls his punches with the intersectional issues he’s gesturing at. I liked how he drew on how serial killers targeted minorities to fly under the radar. There’s some nice meta-fiction at play when he has the book club discuss famous true crime and serial killer books. But it seemed like Hendrix was self-conscious about a) depicting scenes of the vampire attacking black people and b) didn’t want to come off as preachy. Understandable. These are tricky things to write about. But by nibbling around the edges, it comes across as timid. So, what we get is a book that kinda buries its lede.

After a promising first act, I got really frustrated with the book’s mushy middle, but it really catches its stride again in the third act. Once the plot reaches its endgame, it really clips along and lands with a satisfying climax. It may seem like I was very down on the book based on what I’ve written here, but I gave it a 4/5 on Goodreads. I’d definitely recommend it if you’re into vampires.

Dad’s Career Advice: Craftsmanship vs Passion

•May 2, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Growing up, dad’s career advice to me was, “find what you love to do then find someone dumb enough to pay you for it.”

Pretty easy for dad to say because his job couldn’t have been more perfectly suited to him. He taught a program called “Outdoor Recreation” at a local college. The program’s goal is to teach people how to develop and lead recreational activities, etc. Dad would take students out into the woods for camping and hiking trips, taught them how to build shelters, and all kinds of orienteering kinda stuff.

Not only was this perfectly suited to my dad’s love for the outdoors, it also indulged his other passion: talking to people who had to listen to him. He loved being a teacher and he developed near cult status among his students.

On top of all that, dad pretty much had full creative control over how he designed the program.

There’s usually three main criteria for what makes a job good. First is autonomy. People want to feel like they’re free to solve problems as they see fit without being micro-managed. Dad definitely had autonomy at the college.

Second is the work has to be meaningful. This is obviously subjective, but people want to feel like they’re contributing to society and their job actually means something to them. Dad loved the outdoors, loved teaching, and really believed in getting people active and engaged with their community, so it was definitely meaningful to him.

Finally, is people want to feel like they’re being paid what their worth. I dunno what dad’s salary was, but we lived in a pretty comfortable suburban home, so I guess he was paid a decent wage.

Millennials like myself look at dream jobs like this as unicorns. Seems like we can only find one, or at most two, criterion on that list. Desultory jobs that pay well with demanding bosses, or meaningful work with shitty pay. Seems like we can’t bridge the gap between “find what you love to do and someone dumb enough to pay you.”

dad with a few trout out in the bush

In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport says the problem is that we spend too much time on the first part. He calls it “the passion mindset.” Throughout our lives, we’ve been taught to pursue our passion and make that a career. But there’s a couple problems with this. First, most of us don’t know what our passions are, and we feel like we can’t enter the job market until we discover it. This can cause paralysis by analysis. Secondly, just because we have a passion, it doesn’t mean we can build a career around it.

Instead, Newport suggests going after a viable career option that interests you and building your skills until you can command the things that actually make a good job: meaningful, autonomous and well paying. He calls this the “craftsman mindset.” For example, you may not have a burning passion to be a software engineer, but you have a natural aptitude for computers and find it interesting. So, after developing your knowledge and skills over the years, you get to the point where you can set your own terms. Newport calls this “career capital.”

Newport backs this up with a lot of research. A lot of people who report having jobs they love, say that they didn’t have a pre-existing passion before they started. Rather, their passion grew with their competence. This goes against conventional wisdom because we’re taught to start with passion. But it seems like passion can come later on.

Newport simplifies it as such: good jobs are rare and valuable, and if you want a good job, you have to have a rare and valuable skill. That’s why you need to operate from a craftsman mindset, not a passion mindset. The latter has a “what does the world have to offer me” attitude, whereas the former is “what can I offer the world?” The world is only going to meet you halfway is if you’re too good to ignore.

dad out with his granddaughter

Looking back at my dad’s career, I can see how he leveraged the craftsman mindset. The outdoor recreation program didn’t even exist when he started his career, so how do he get there? First, he got an education degree from university and worked as a gym teacher. In addition to this, he spent a lot of time volunteering with local hiking groups, developing trails. He was also an avid runner and helped organize a number of races. By developing his CV like this, he was able to seek out a great job.

Starting out with a pre-existing passion or calling then trying to build a career around it is like trying to push a square peg into a round hole. Instead, if you develop your craft you can mold both the peg and hole to your advantage. So, if I were to amend my dad’s advice it’d be “Get really good at something then find someone to dumb enough to pay your for it.”



Darnell’s Garage: The Dragonbone Chair

•April 30, 2021 • Leave a Comment

“Darnell’s Garage” is a series in my blog where I take a deep dive into stories to see what makes them succeed or fail.

The Dragonbone Chair, the first in the Memory, Sorrow, and Time trilogy, by Tad Williams follows young, orphan boy Simon as he unwittingly finds himself caught up in the civil war threatening Oster Ard as well as the larger threat of the undead Storm King, a strange dark sorcerer exiled to the frozen north.

If this sounds a lot like A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, then give yourself a cookie because GRRM was greatly inspired by Williams’ work. Maybe a little too inspired. Aside from the Storm King, there’s a large, preternaturally intelligent wolf, a high-born girl disguising herself as a boy, a prince loses his hand, and even a badass knight with a helmet shaped like a hound. There’s actually more examples, but I’ll stop there.

I really wanted to love The Dragonbone Chair. It has so much going for it, and it’s considered a modern classic by epic fantasy readers. But it just didn’t do it for me. The novel just undercuts itself at every turn. The pacing is stilted, the prose is turgid, and there are few memorable characters. By about the 80% mark I just started skimming towards the end.

Before I pop the hood and take a closer look, I’ll say that I’ve tried to keep this fairly spoiler free. But if you really want to read this book then it’s probably best to go in fresh.

If I were to pick one issue to fix in TBC it would be perspective. The story’s core is really Simon’s arc. Much like Jon Snow, Simon is a lowly orphan who dreams of glory. The story is mostly told through his POV, but occasionally shifts to other characters. The problem is that, unlike GRRM who uses a great variety of POVs fairly systematically (although there is room for criticism here), Williams does this haphazardly and without any kind of rhyme or reason. The result is jarring for the reader.

I see what Williams was trying to do here. He’s trying to give some background on the political milieu surrounding the larger plot that Simon finds himself in, but there’s two problems.

Firstly, it’s both too much and not enough. We get all this information on Oster Ard but it doesn’t feel very relevant to our protagonist. And because we don’t get that ensemble of POVs like GRRM uses, the world never feels fully fleshed out despite all the info dumps.

Secondly, the minor characters are very interchangeable. They all feel like a poor man’s Aragorn. One thing GRRM really nails with ASOIAF are the memorable minor characters. Brienne, Jaime, Hodor, Ramsay, Little Finger. All these minor characters are so distinct. The reader can easily differentiate between them. We know what they want, their flaws, their strengths, what they look like.

Williams really should have just kept the story limited to Simon’s perspective. Kinda like Harry Potter. Rowling did a great job showing how Harry fit into this larger conflict while keeping the focus on his arc, which was the series’ core.

After the issue with perspective, the next biggest problem is pacing, particularly with regards to Simon’s arc. I was never really sure what Simon wanted. He feels insecure because he’s an orphan working in the kitchen and getting bossed around. But whenever he’s given a chance to pursue these desires, he just mopes around and complains. He also has a few love interests, but again these are never really articulated. Mostly, he kinda just gets swept up with the story and does what the plot needs him to.

Contrast this to Jon Snow. We always know what Jon wants and he’s always trying to get what he wants. When we first meet him, he wants to go to the Wall so he can make something of himself. When he gets there, he wants to be the best. There’s always something pushing his character forward.

Yes, I understand that real people aren’t always like that. Many of us struggle to identify what we want and pursue our desires. But that doesn’t make for a compelling character, especially a protagonist. Still, there are ways to still represent that indecisiveness in a compelling way.

The key to a strong character is to create conflict between what they want and what they need. Again, let’s look at Jon Snow. He wants to become a ranger in the Night’s Watch. But what he needs is to accept the fact that he’s a bastard and be at peace with himself. Tyrion even explicitly spells this out for him. The whole stuff with the Night’s Watch is an extension of Jon’s insecurity. His arc is to kill the boy and let the man be born.

(As a quick aside, I’ll say this is where the series fails because after Jon finally becomes the man he’s supposed to be, his arc falls flat and becomes reactive, like Simon, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Because TBC’s protagonist is so wishy washy, the story feels like a dog chasing its own tail. There are several times in the novel where I felt like his character was finally going to take off but he just remains clueless and petulant.

What I liked most about TBC, aside from the lore, is how Williams created some interesting non-human characters. The Sithi are an interesting spin on elves. The Storm King, also named Ineluki, is a fallen Sithi. I found his backstory very strong. It’s clear that GRRM was really trying to do something similar with the White Walkers but struggled to give them as a good a backstory.

Binabik the troll and his wolf Qantaqa are the real standouts. His parts were always my favourite moments in the story. Imagine Syrio Forel riding a dire wolf. Alas, if only the rest of the book was so memorable.



Scentless Apprentice: A tribute to Kurt Cobain

•April 29, 2021 • Leave a Comment

A couple weeks ago I entered into another Nirvana phase. Then I realized April 5th is the anniversary of Cobain’s suicide. I don’t put any metaphysical stock into those sorts of coincidences, but it’s still eerie when they happen.

I’ve been a fan of Nirvana ever since I first heard them and saw their videos on MuchMusic. Some of the first songs I learned on guitar were tracks like “Teen Spirit” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” They’re a great band to study as a beginning musician because the songs are technically simple but the compositions are deceptively sophisticated.

The great separator between Nirvana and the horde of imitators that came after is Cobain’s ear for melody. It’s easy to listen them and dismiss it as just a bunch of screaming and moaning. But take a closer look. As stripped down and aggressive as the performances are, there’s a lot going on behind the madness. Here’s a great video breaking down “Smells like Teen Spirit”:

If you don’t enough music theory to follow along with the video, the point is that Cobain chose unorthodox notes to form his melodies. What does that mean? Herbie Hancock calls certain notes “butter notes.” These are notes that fit really nicely within chords and are what most people gravitate towards when improvising. I’m sure you’ve listened to the radio for awhile and felt like all these songs sound the same. That’s because they’re all using chord tones for their melodies. Whereas “colour tones” are notes that feel a little more left field, not so obvious. Cobain used these “colour tones” for his melodies. That’s what makes them so captivating.

Cobain also used punk rock aesthetics to highlight the melody, using bare-bones power chords and simple riffs. For a lot of the verses, there’d only be Novoselic’s bass before exploding into the chorus. This sort of minimalism really created space for the melody to shine through.

As Beato points out in his video, this sort of analysis of Nirvana’s music inevitably raises questions of whether Cobain really knew what he was doing. People like to dismiss him as some sort of savant. I’m not an expert on Cobain’s life, but my understanding is that he didn’t know much music theory. But neither did John Lennon. They had great ears and probably spent a lot of time breaking down their favourite music.

Many practitioners can’t properly explain their craft. Through practice, they’ve developed a deeply personal method for modelling and creating their projects. This is true for music, literature, cooking etc. I think people like to dismiss them as “naturally talented” because they’re resentful and too lazy to put the work in themselves.

I think the biggest rebuttal to the idiot savant argument is how Cobain usually reproduced the melodies for his guitar solos. Clearly, he’s not just going into the booth and singing whatever comes into his head. There’s a pattern in his mind that he’s capturing.

I think a lot of people only started to appreciate Cobain’s voice after the unplugged performance

Personally, what I love most about Nirvana is the marriage of punk rock fury and pop-song craftsmanship. Cobain really understand how to craft memorable hooks and songs that built and released tension. This is what makes any music great, no matter what the genre. But he took the same formula that made the Beatles legendary and couched it in a modern punk dynamic. It comes off as simplistic because the craftsmanship is so masterful.

Like a great novel, you don’t see the plotting and character arcs; you just get swept up for the ride.

This is what Nietzsche termed the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo is associated with logic, order, and rationalism, whereas Dionysus is associated with chaos, instinct, and emotion. The ancient Greeks saw them as a pair, not opposites. You need that balance. Work that’s purely Dionysian is often an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The flip side is work that’s uninspired and boring.

And I think that was Nirvana’s formula for success.

Yes, Cobain screamed like he was “boiling nails” (as Dave Grohl described), used a lot of distortion, and even (purposively) played sloppy. But no one wrote better hooks and melodies than him. It’s why people still listen to Nirvana but not Puddle of Mudd or Seether.



Darnell’s Garage: Christine

•April 18, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Been awhile.

I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging, so I’m starting a new series called “Darnell’s Garage” where I try to repair busted stories. So, I figured I’d start off with the book that inspired the name: Stephen King’s 1983 novel Christine. Warning: spoilers and car puns ahead.

Gotta admit, that’s a siiick cover

OK, here’s a drinking game to play while reading Christine. Take a drink every time a character does some variation of “car bad? no, it’s just car. I’m crazy.” By page 50 you’ll be as wasted as King probably was when he wrote this. Yes, everyone knows King struggled with drugs and alcohol at this point in his career. I shouldn’t rag on him. It’s also tempting to blame this mess on his substance abuse. But he also wrote great books during this time, too, so that’s not the issue.

My suspicion is that after the detour of Different Seasons, a collection of capital L literary novellas, which is now a classic in King’s oeuvre but at the time was a flop, King needed to get back on track. He dusted off this old manuscript and rushed it out the production line. (I’m pretty sure he sold the film rights before it was finished, which makes sense because it came out the same year as it was published.) A lot of the book feels like a younger King. Much of the prose is awkward and purple, the mark of an insecure author trying to impress. And the dialogue feels very wooden. It just doesn’t have that smooth-rolling, natural storytelling voice he’d mastered by The Shining.

Christine‘s plot is pretty straightforward. Arnie Cunningham is a nerd whose only friend is Dennis Guilder. Arnie falls in love with a beat-up 1958 Plymouth Fury owned by a creepy old man named Roland LeBay. Arnie buys it regardless of the condition and starts restoring it (or her, rather). As he makes progress on Christine, he starts to lose his acne and finds a new swagger. He starts dating a pretty new girl at his school named Leigh Cabot (any relation to John Cabot, I wonder?). But then things start getting weird. He begins taking on the mannerisms of LeBay. Some bullies trash the car, but overnight it’s as good as new. Oh shit, the car is possessed. Christine kills the bullies and anyone who messes with Arnie. Dennis, Leigh, and Arnie’s parents all realize something is up with the car and try to convince Arnie to ditch it. He won’t and alienates everyone who cares about him. Dennis realizes the car must be destroyed. There’s a smash up derby and Christine is destroyed along with Arnie. Or is she…

Despite such a simple story, King really manages to run this thing into the ground. First, the perspective inexplicably shifts from Dennis’s first person POV for the first third to an omniscient third-person narrator in the second third then back to Dennis for the final third. The jarring effect is enough to give you whiplash. King said it’s because Dennis has a football injury that puts him in the hospital, removing him from the action of the plot. He didn’t know how to continue the story without him being involved. Seriously?

The obvious solution is to simply write the story completely from third person. Not only would this solve the awkward shift in perspective, it would also get us out of the POV of who possibly King’s worst protagonist. Dennis is painfully boring and devoid of pretty much any flaw. His relationship with Arnie makes no sense to me. Yes, it’s possible that a star football player could be friends with a nerd, but Dennis doesn’t seem to have any other friends aside from his hot girlfriend he refers to only as “the cheerleader.” Yes, he doesn’t eventually fall for Leigh behind Arnie’s back, but it doesn’t feel like a betrayal. Similar to Dennis, Leigh has no flaws and is painfully dull. She feels like an early King characterization of the main love interest. Like Susan Norton in Salem’s Lot, she is the Girl Next Door TM.

I think it would have been much more interesting if Dennis and Arnie had been childhood friends but drifted apart as Dennis became more of a jock. Then they reunite during their summer job and become friends again. Once back in school, Dennis struggles to accommodate Arnie into his social circle and feels guilty about bowing to the pressure of the high school caste system. Dennis tries to redeem himself by trying to protect Arnie from Christine but ultimately fails. I think this would have been more realistic and would’ve added an interesting layer of conflict to their dynamic.

Arnie is really the novel’s core. I found his arc very compelling. He’s a sympathetic and tragic character. One of King’s great insights into his characters is that hurt people often hurt people. Arnie is like a male Carrie. But King buries the lede here by focusing on Dennis. Yes, there are lots of novels that shift the perspective from the most important character, like The Great Gatsby, for example, but here we miss out on so much of Arnie’s downward spiral. We don’t get to see much of Arnie and Leigh’s relationship in it’s early stages; they just sort of happen. Also, there’s a 100-page subplot about Arnie running cigarettes for Will Darnell and getting arrested by the feds, which goes pretty much nowhere.

Frustratingly, King undermines Arnie’s arc by pivoting away from a story of Christine corrupting him to LeBay possessing him. For most of the story, it seems to be about Christine exploiting Arnie’s worst traits, but then LeBay comes back from the dead, and it’s actually him taking over Arnie’s body. It then becomes unclear whether Christine was evil or if it was all LeBay. (The movie wisely simplifies this and makes the car evil from the get go.)

Then, in the end, King has Arnie die “off screen.” Yes, it makes sense that Arnie has left town as an alibi while Christine did the dirty work, but surely we need him there for the big climax? To have him and Dennis face off for the big dramatic payoff. That would’ve made sense given the scene beforehand when Dennis and Arnie fight outside of school. Arnie is now fired up and throws caution to the wind. (Again, this was another improvement in the book.)

Then there’s the book’s namesake, Christine. A lot of people blame this book’s failure on its silly premise, but I actually like King’s more pulpy ideas. Christine is probably the quintessential example of the Family Guy joke that King’s bread and butter is “what if normal thing was BAD.” Of course, those of us who read King know that’s a snobby strawman. King is at his best when he’s using these horror tropes to explore character and comment on issues. I also thought the kill scenes with Christine were a lot of fun. There’s also two scenes where Arnie and Dennis are haunted by the ghosts inside Christine along with surreal, nightmarish visions of the past.

In the case of Christine, I thought King had some real insights here into the role of cars in the life of a teenage boy. Cars represent freedom and maturity. They’re also dangerous and claim the lives of many reckless teens. The way Christine absorbs the negative energy of the tragic events that happen inside her is a nice metaphor for the ways we as humans imbue objects with significance. Unfortunately, there’s a missed opportunity here for King to reflect a bit more on how men tend to feminize cars and other objects. There’s also some insightful commentary on the dangers of nostalgia and being obsessed with the past. King is one of the rare baby boomers willing to look honestly at the time of his childhood.

It certainly seems like King was self-conscious of the book’s premise, though. He doesn’t stop at the first bit of exposition with LeBay’s wife and daughter dying in the car. That would’ve been enough. Instead he goes on with human sacrifice and changelings and the possession bit I talked about. It’s like he doesn’t trust the audience to just roll with the premise of an evil car. Instead, he commits the mortal sin of over-explanation and just makes it worse. He’s looking for nuance in the wrong places. He should’ve gotten into the weeds with his characters instead of turning Dennis into some shitty paranormal detective.

That brings us to who I guess is the real antagonist, Roland LeBay. At first, he was pretty effective minor character. But King elevates him to the roll of main villain, effectively stealing the spotlight from Christine. It would’ve been fine to just have a few scenes with him riding in Christine as a corpse. There’s another superfluous chapter where Dennis calls LeBay’s brother George where he just doubles down on more awful shit Roland did throughout his life. Like, we get it. He’s a bad dude. LeBay Bad, Christine Bad. Move on.

There’s also a lot of inconsistencies in King’s characterizations, which is odd for him considering he’s often so good with character. For example, Arnie is immediately characterized as socially awkward. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t make a good impression. That’s partly why people rag on him so much. But then later in the book, he woes Leigh’s parents and King says something like “Arnie could be charismatic when wanted to.” LoL what? And this isn’t because of LeBay’s possession either, because that guy was famously known around town as the biggest asshole ever. I know this sounds like a nitpick, but it just demonstrates how lazily King approached this book.

Then there’s Arnie’s parents. King couldn’t seem to decide whether he wanted to outright villainize them or make them sympathetic. I liked his characterization of them as naïve liberals who talked all about open-mindedness and love for the proletariat, but lived in a bourgeois bubble and refused to hear of their son becoming a mechanic. But this plays into this Goldilocks-esque resentment King has for people. He doesn’t like academics, or rich people, or white trash, or evangelicals. In order to escape his scorn, it seems like you have to be a public-school teacher or some middle-class professional, who enjoys watching sports in the evening and reads middle-brow paperbacks. Loosen up, Stephen.

Mostly, Christine‘s worst sin is that it’s just boring. The story is bloated and meandering, wandering down dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs. It’s really a checklist for all the criticisms detractors have thrown at King. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it more than some of his other books like Cujo, Dreamcatcher, or Gerald’s Game. And that was thanks to Arnie. Sadly, he is the victim in and of the story.



Layered Snake: What Writers Can Learn from Metal Gear Solid — Engen Books

•October 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Hideo Kojima, the creative force behind the Metal Gear Solid series and, most recently, Death Stranding, is one the gaming industry’s great auteurs. With each entry in the MGS series, he pushed the envelope with regards to how a video game can tell a story. In this blog post I’m going to talk about some strategies […]

via Layered Snake: What Writers Can Learn from Metal Gear Solid — Engen Books

Welcome to the Loser’s Club: Some Thoughts on It Chapter Two

•September 7, 2019 • Leave a Comment

Guys, have you heard the news? It: Chapter Two is long. Like really long. Like really really long. You’re gonna have to go nearly three hours without checking your phone. I heard it was so long, someone died while they were watching it. It’s that long!

Joking aside, yes, the movie is too long. But it’s getting a little exhausting seeing every review immediately prefaced with a diatribe on the run-time. Has our attention spans gotten so bad that watching a slightly overlong movie now qualifies as some kinda torture?

Personally, I didn’t start feeling the length until the ending. There’s an unnecessary LOTR-style multiple closings. I’m gonna try and keep this blog post spoiler-free as much as possible, so I’ll just say there’s like three possible endings and they should’ve just stuck with one.

Of course, when people complain about run-time, it’s really pacing they’re complaining about. And It: Chapter 2 is definitely guilty of some pacing issues. On top of the ending, I thought some of the flashback sequences were too long, which came at the expense of developing the characters as adults. I would’ve liked to have seen more time spent with the adults in the current lives. That first act felt very rushed. The Muschiettis really wanted to get them all to Derry as fast as possible. If they’d trimmed the movie by like twenty mins, it would’ve been perfect. Or at least better prioritized screen time.


Overall, I was really pleased with It Chapter 2. But I probably came in with lower expectations than most, because the old TV mini series’ part 2 is just so spectacularly awful. Also, the adult sections of the book tend to be the most boring. So the Muschiettis had their work cut out for them. It’s also worth noting this is the first big time movie for them. Yes, It was very successful, but it had a much smaller budget and exceeded its expectations. I feel like they really wanted to do justice to the story and reached a little too far with scope and editing etc.

The movie’s greatest strength is definitely the casting. Bill Skarskgard was a great choice as Pennywise, and James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are solid as usual. But Bill Hader and James Ransone really steal the show here. Real talk, Ransone as adult Eddie Kaspbrack might be the most inspired casting since Brando as Don Corleone. OK, maybe I’m being hyperbolic. Maybe.

In terms of the direction, I would argue that, in some ways, It: Chapter 2 better captures the tone of the novel than the first movie. There’s a manic energy in this movie that is so rare. It felt like it was a comedy where the horror intruded, which we don’t see a lot in western horror films. Muschietti seemed inspired by Korean horror like The Host or The Wailing. This is appropriate because when Stephen King is at his full powers, he manages to combine melodrama, comedy, and horror into a delicious cocaine-fueled stew. It: Chapter 2 is best in the moments that it manages to capture that vibe.


It has always been my favourite King novel, even thought it’s not his best (I’d say Pet Sematary is). I read It when I was 14 and can remember being shocked by its content. I didn’t know you were allowed to publish that kind of stuff. There are scenes in that novel that are unfilmable — and not just *that* scene.

The novel’s structure also makes it a challenge to adapt. Rather than halving the book chronologically like the TV mini series and films, King bounces back and forth in time. This leads to a double climax that is one of the most amazing conclusions I’ve ever read. The last 200 pages or so of It is King’s best writing. I’d reason It would work best as a longer TV mini series in the vein of Mike Flanagan’s recent Hill House. Maybe in another twenty-seven years I can hope for the next adaptation lol.

It is also King’s most Lovecraftian novel. Pennywise is very much inspired by Nyarlathotep. But It is more than just a Lovecraft pastiche. There’s also a Shirley Jackson-esque critique of small town America. It is the King novel that contains all King novels. He called It his dissertation on the horror genre. This is clear with all his homages to classic cinematic horror monsters as well as the frequent meditations on phobias and nightmarish visions.


More than that, It really shows King’s core philosophy. Unlike Lovecraft, who was consumed with a cynical nihilism, King is willing to gaze into the abyss without succumbing to despair.

Pennywise serves as a metaphor for inherent cruelty of life. He is presented as a chthonic force, millions of years old. The town of Derry is built atop his nest, and he thrives under its indifference. The Losers are terrorized by Pennywise and Bowers but the adults do nothing. King’s message is clear: the world is a nasty place and all the institutions you think are meant to protect you (family, law, community) will fail you.

But this is where King and Lovecraft part ways. Instead of his characters all dying or losing their minds, they fight back. Instead of succumbing to the abyss, they create friendships that are stronger than any familial or community bond. I love this earnestness in King’s writing. In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Gertrude Stein says “We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” When the Losers defeat Pennywise, King is showing how friendship is the antidote to despair.

So It isn’t just King’s love letter to horror, it’s also a testament to friendship. I’d argue the Muschiettis really grasped this duality, which is why their two movies shine despite their flaws.