Reflections 2

by radimentary

Fighting Spirit

A few days ago, I had a transcendent dream.

It was 8:30pm, I had just passed out woozy from a long and uncomfortable flight. An image lept before me of a StarCraft player at the height of his dominance – perhaps Jaedong, in the middle of a very special kind of StarCraft game. These are the ones that bring tears to my eyes: games in which players make an extraordinary effort, far beyond what the game expects of them. Two such games forever lodged in my memory: MMA vs. DRG Game 7, GumiHo vs. Soo Game 4.

Then, the scene shifted. I am the one playing now. Adrenaline is pumping, so that I’m practically unable to concentrate from the anxious shaking it produces. My SCV production begins to slip. I forget to build a key factory add-on. My scouting reaper dies; only thirty seconds later, I notice it is missing. I’m feeling hopeless – one day, when I’ve mastered my mechanics I can finally get on to playing real StarCraft like Jaedong.

Day[9]’s disembodied voice comes through, playing a variation of the heartwarming message from his Let’s Learn StarCraft series.

There’s an illusion I want to dispel right now, that in Brood War, you need to master your mechanics before you get to really play the game. There’s this idea that if you practice for three months, you’ll have your mechanics down, and then you get to play the strategy portion. This is totally false. If you watch any fucking pro play, literally Flash, Jaedong, Bisu, Stork – the four best players of all time – stuff is going wrong all the time. All the time. They’re losing track of dropships and missing macro back at home and they have a geyser with one dude in it and they forget to expand. Stuff is going wrong all the time because it’s hard to be a commander. So if you’re sitting there thinking, “Aw man, I can’t wait to get good at the mechanics so I can play StarCraft,” I want you to know, you’re playing StarCraft right now. If you’re constantly pushing the boundary of your own competence you’re playing the same game that Flash, Jaedong, Bisu, and Stork are playing.

I have always loved the map “Fighting Spirit” for one reason: its wonderful name. It’s the kind of name a great StarCraft map deserves.

High Resolution – Continuation

Kierkegaard’s alter ego writes about a bead of sweat on the nose of a desperately boring lecturer:

Nearly in despair, I suddenly discovered that the man perspired exceptionally much when he spoke. This sweat now absorbed my attention. I watched how the pearls of sweat collected on his forehead, then united into a stream, and ran down his nose, and ended in a quivering globule that remained suspended at the very very end of his nose. From that instant everything was changed; I could even have delight in encouraging him to begin his philosophical instruction just in order to watch the sweat on his brow and on his nose.

Kierkegaard described his method as the “method of crop rotation,” i.e. a way of planting new crops on old fields. This idea is echoed all over the place. An old TA of mine described anthropology as the art of “making the familiar strange.” Much of modern art is devoted to this endeavor, probably pathologically so. It roughly rhymes with “what you were looking for was right in front of your eyes all along.”

One of my favorite teachers in high school, my senior year art teacher, taught extensively about removing symbols from art. A symbol is something like a low-resolution visual stereotype that allows you to look without really seeing. A stick figure. A smiley face. Two arcs and a circle for an eye. One of the hardest exercises in that class was practicing realism by measuring the every single proportion of a face before putting them on the page. Everything was so far off from my mental conceptions: the eyes being exactly halfway up on the head, the ears way larger and more intricate than I imagined, the exact curve of the eye being so particular. As soon as I abandoned my two-dimensional cartoonish symbols and actually looked at the subject, everything descended in to chaos. And it’s no wonder I didn’t want to do this – my portraits took twice as long and briefly suffered in quality. Everything fell into an uncanny valley of awkwardness once the comforting crutches of anime eyes and stick figures were pulled out from under me.

The older you get, the more heavy-handed your brain gets with symbols. Try walking down any street – you’re not really seeing the buildings on either side. Instead, your head sees “house house house store.” You don’t really see the people on the street. Your brain sees “happy couple, black man, homeless guy.” You consciously register one bit of information for every ten thousand received.

Whistling Vivaldi had an exquisite story about breaking mental symbols. Brent Staples, a young black man graduate student, was ill at ease walking in the streets of Chicago.

I became an expert in the language of fear. Couples locked arms or reached for each other’s hand when they saw me. Some crossed to the other side of the street. People who were carrying on conversations went mute and stared straight ahead, as though avoiding my eyes would save them…

I’d been a fool. I’d been walking the streets grinning good evening at people who were frightened to death of me. I did violence to them by just being. How had I missed this…

I tried to be innocuous but didn’t know how…I began to avoid people. I turned out of my way into side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked…Out of nervousness I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet – and also in tune. On the street at night I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The tension drained from people’s bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark.

What happens when you break a symbol or stereotype? Jordan Peterson would characterize this as chaos breaking through order. Walking down the street, everything is in order: along each side of the street is house house house store. On the street around you are simplified people: happy couple, black man, homeless guy. It’s as if you’re wearing a visor protecting you from the high resolution of reality. Then, a pinprick of the unexpected breaks through that visor. The black man is whistling classical music. You blink three times. You are not where you thought you were – your entire conception of the world is momentarily discombobulated. In this case, it is only a small change. You allow yourself to integrate the new information and return to your routine.

Living the high resolution life is about breaking your own symbols instead of waiting for sophisticated black men to break them for you. Invite the chaos – the unknown unknown – into your life, a little bit at time.

Watch the storefronts go by the next time you’re in the passenger seat. What whole communities and subcultures have spawned, thrived, and gone extinct in that strip mall down the street you never looked twice at? That homeless man – you’ve seen him before, but never looked at him. Allow yourself to really look at him. Notice the holes in his jeans where pockets used to be, notice the way he sits on his left side as if nursing some unknown affliction.

Individualism is an idea I keep circumambulating. Living the high resolution life means fractionating the human population all the way down to the level of the individual. Every person is almost unacceptably strange, and the way we cope with that is to put up simplifying personas and stereotypes in order to have civilized discourse. If these walls are broken down just a little, you will find that the people you thought you knew are far more beautiful and courageous, far more delightfully sadistic, far more pathetic and self-sabotaging than you could possibly have imagined.

Stare at someone close to you – really look at them. Does one of their eyes open wider than the other? Is there a particular way in which they bite grapes? All other things equal, do they prefer proof by induction or the extremal principle? Did they devote their whole life to medicine because they want to save the suffering, because they like money and status, or because they think they’d look good wearing a stethoscope?