The Lottery Ticket

by Anonymous

Episode 2 of A Study in Stateful Media with Narrational Agency
Abuses
2022

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Modernizing and Interactivizing(?) Chekov, a quick foray, November 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

This review may be more about what I believe Dorian Passer is trying to achieve in general, or tried to achieve, rather than the specific work, though I think in this case, a Chekov short story you might not be aware of works better than Cost of Living did for ParserComp 2022.

It feels like there should be a cottage industry for stateful narratives and their relatives, well beyond the Cliff's Notes my teachers warned me against in high school, and of course well above the synopses you can pull from websites that offer to write an essay for a fee. I always felt Cliff's notes got dragged down in symbolism, and anyway, the good teachers knew what was in the Cliff's Notes, so you could only really avoid bad grades that way. What did help (he said cynically) was knowing what the teachers liked, their unconscious biases. So I was always a bit suspicious of English class and the next great short story. I enjoyed nuance, sure, and figuring what could be. But it always felt that people who were working for that A were a step ahead of me. They knew what to say, and they knew how to say it without some pretty smart teachers detecting that they knew, or if the teachers knew, the students knew how to put in enough that you couldn't argue they didn't deserve the A. This doesn't discount that some people deserved an A, but there is some cynicism about studying a work and trying to interpret it that I still haven't shaken off.

And I don't mean "cottage industry" as a derogatory term or "this isn't high art." I'm well aware other people could turn that argument, or something more harsh, on my own stuff. It's that I think we need something that will require minimal effort for us to twiddle, to see changes based on a few things we try. The payoff will surely be better than, say, FreeCell where we've developed that strategy to win 90% of the time and sense it's useless to get to 95%, but darn if we don't keep doing it, because each card-shuffle feels different, you know.

TLT, or a replication of its idea, feels in the same vein as chess videos where, say, GothamChess or Agadmator, two Youtubers with over a million subscribers, go through a game or list of games. The basic presentation is formulated, and they even have catch phrases that have developed naturally, as a way to keep us involved. They analyze sidelines, some worthy and some boobytrapped. And it feels like there's room for more in that boat, which is good for knowledge and variety but bad for my free time. Agadmator is more likely to cover classic games, or lesser-known games from a grandmaster's simultaneous exhibition. GothamChess is far more current. Hikaru Nakamura, who needs less introduction, can discourse at length about his own game.

Why the heck can't we have those options with literature? Well, one problem is, literature doesn't have the equivalent of a programmable chess engine, and it's even harder to say "that phrase is good" or "that paragraph is bad." Understanding is more organic. Sometimes it's based on realizing that, say, that poem of Robert Frost's means the opposite of what it means from a cursory glance and seeing why it goes beyond "simple sincerity." And it's just more fun to look at a chessboard than a bunch of words or to say "hey, look what the engine is saying, this is something the presenter couldn't have fit in to a fifteen minute video. I'd like to do my own exploration." For me, it was tough to find that exploration. There were simple what-ifs to ask. Sure, I enjoyed a story with a surprise twist, or where it wasn't clear what the narrator meant, or what the character did after (either option seemed equally likely,) but even there I could picture Mister I-Know-How-To-Get-A's dropping his two cents in, over my shoulder. Even if I hadn't seen him for a while.

TLT inverts that for me, and that seems both due to the subject matter as well the author's general intent. Chekov's story is relatively simple. Someone thinks he's won the lottery. Suspicions pop up. Could and should he hide the news? Windfalls going bad have been done before and will be done again, but there's always a new perspective. Chekov really Gets It, and in a more visceral way than Cost of Living did. I mean, Cost of Living was prescient, but when it starts talking about debt and interest rates, it potentially loses some zing, even though the issues (keeping up with the Joneses, being in debt over items you didn't want to buy, and so forth) are very relevant. So I can see why I might not have heard of the author but I still enjoyed CoL as well as their other stuff, though I was glad to be exposed to the story. The main thrust, though, is this: change a few things that may seem fixed or obvious, and we can reinterpret or reimagine it in a more modern vein. What do certain words mean if we ascribe different intent? Sometimes, it's obvious, but with the right stories, it gives us insight into human nature, and maybe even times where we ourselves have been fooled or confused and don't want that to happen again.

Chekov's story is ancient but in parallel with something more modern-day. It's odd to remember that a much smaller amount of money was once paid out in lotteries, but certain things remain. The administrators get their cut, so the expected value of a lottery ticket is less than its purchase value. I know that even if the lottery ticket paid out more than you spent, after taxes, there's a concept called marginal utility. (In plain English, that second million is a lot less useful than the first.) People have no idea how to manage money and go into debt. It's sad. I read a book by a person who negotiated lump-sum settlements for lotteries paid out over 20 years (and yes, the lotto winnings don't mention this payout, and that $1 million 20 years from now has less value, because inflation.) The person eventually felt awful about their job, and I remember how they noted starving horses at the farm of one lotto winner. This is all relatively technical.

Modernizing TLT feels like it would be a trivial jump, and maybe it is, but it's one worth making. In Passer's remake, you get to choose a few adjectives. Is someone genuinely happy they might win the lotto? How willing are they to actually share? How much of friends' sharing via instant messaging is actually altruistic? Anything seems possible.

You can play through a few times, and if the game text doesn't change, the text still has a different flavor based on what you say. Well, to me. Your friends' accusations (eating the sauce you're cooking raw, thus depriving your friends of a bit of it, is contrasted well with how much of your lottery winnings you might share) are constant, and I didn't keep very rigorous notes, but acting with bravado or standoffishness does change things. And at the end you seem to want to buy one more lotto ticket, despite having UBI and so forth. Which brings up a lot of questions–the lotto is about more than just having more money, it's about dreams, and yet on the other hand, those dreams, once realized, are ruined. And there have to be better ways to bring people together than the lotto, but it's sort of taken over, because it's the easiest way to find something in common.

Now, a writing like TLT clearly seems to have limited range for any particular story it may cover. But on the other hand, it feels like it could be applied to many other writings I always wanted to read but never did, when I'm not quite ready to read passively. I like that it doesn't pretend to be an exciting, sweeping new modernization of a famous old tale. It simply reminds us that things are, in many ways, as they were, despite technology creeping up and the size of a lottery growing astronomical. Chekov's summer villa we'll never use becomes timeshares or a yacht we can't use often. There is only so much to say about this subject, and that's okay, because there have to be others, from stories by authors famous or not.

I really do wish I had something like this in my inbox every day, or even a couple times a week, to poke through, because it would be time far more well spent than clickbait. Maybe that "it does what it can, and that's good" seems faint praise compared to "well, this is soaring art," but it's good and needed and if more of us did this for favorite authors or stories the rest of the world didn't know about or should, the Internet would be closer to the repository of ideas or questions that people dreamed TV would be in the '50s. There's enough great stuff, of course. It can soar, if you know where to look (e.g. the Daily Show gives news and asks questions and reminds us that some people in power or the public spotlight, or constantly seeking that sort of thing are, in fact, those who least deserve it.) You don't need to write a thesis in a 300-level college class to have access to it, either. There's a snappy trade of ideas that leads you into a hall with a lot of doors. Perhaps a lot of those doors leave you disappointed to know you're not so original to have thought of X before, but then you realize others have given you a boost to where you can start with the real ideas.

I think we've reached that self-sustaining point for more concrete stuff. Math, chess, etc., are some examples. I'm saturated with videos there, along with Youtube channels on psychology and building social skills. But videos don't seem to work as well for written words as, well, this sort of thing does. And I recognize it might lose something in mass-production. But I remember being awed by a library as a kid and thinking "I never could read all this" but I would so love to make a dent, and works like this give me confidence I still can. (Of course, this may already be out there in some form. I'd be glad to be wrong. But we can always use more, in quantity, quality, and tone.)