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No time for tenure, Dr. Jones!

Written by taogaming

August 5, 2020 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Linky Love, TV & Media

Media Of the Quarantine

What I’ve been reading/watching:

  • I watched the extended version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Maybe its my exposure to rational fiction (which has an explicit rule against deus ex machina), but I swathes of this annoying. Still good, but it grated at parts. And I literally didn’t remember  the middle 90 minutes (even discounting the new scenes).
  • Finally watched Mad Max Fury Road, which is pretty much what I expected: Over the top.
  • Re-reading Steven King’s On Writing. Excellent. I finally bit the bullet and got some writing software (to help organize my writing), but I’m just playing with a few ideas.
  • Finished Metalapocalypse. A great final season with a weak final episode. But I’m a sucker for the “successful idiot” genre.
  • Trying again to read Infinite Jest. Failing again.
  • Finished Mad Men since my last media update. Very good.
  • I’m watching Samurai Jack, which I’d only ever seen the first season of. Gennedy Tartakovsky’s use of silence intrigues me. A Kurosawa-ian take on children’s cartoons. Primal takes that further, eschewing dialogue altogether. I’ll probably finish both.
  • Better Call Saul remains excellent.
  • Last night I saw the first episode of the Midnight Gospel. Strange. Will continue. I’m not deliberately picking animated shows, but they just seem more interesting.
  • Slowly working through the second season of Altered Carbon. It’s OK.


Written by taogaming

May 19, 2020 at 6:32 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Why I wrote Draco Malfoy and the Practice of Rationality; and How I’ve Been Able to Enjoy it Again

(Warning — Non-gaming content. And a narcissism alert. But where else would I post this?)

Like the Starman sings, it’s been Five Years since Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality ended. And five years ago I was wishing there was more.

(This essay could end here. That’s enough of a reason. But that seems a bit short).

Years ago I read James Gleick’s book on Feynman (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman), and there’s a line I remember (paraphrasing): There are two types of genius in the world. The first type, you look and think ‘If I just studied more, worked harder, applied myself, were a bit more gifted, I could do that.’ And for the second type you are just bewildered. Those geniuses have thoughts and do things that would never occur to you.

Feynman (and Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres, whose exact name I still have to look up to spell correctly despite having written literally over one hundred thousand words in that universe) are the second type of genius. In HPMOR McGonagall (whose exact name I still have to look up….) has this exact thought about one of Harry’s insights. As for Eliezer Yudkowsky (whose exact …), the author, I’m not sure. I’ve never met him. He clearly rates highly on the mathematical aptitude scale, but I myself won the city-wide math prizes in contests (in a city > 1M), so i can see myself aspiring to the levels of math/CS proofs he does.

But never in a thousand years would the thought of writing Harry Potter Fanfiction as a teaching tool occur to me (more prosaically, neither would the existential threat of a non-malevolent AI, or many of the other ideas I saw on Less Wrong). So he certainly may be.

I’ve wanted to be a writer for decades. As a teenager, I took a summer workshop with famed editor David G. Hartwell on “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,” at which point I got my first taste of how difficult writing is. Why SF&F? Well, as a reader I have two axis that I’m looking for:

  1. Interesting ideas
  2. Beautiful language

As a teen, I favored the first reason — and SF writing has enough great ideas in the tropes. As to the writing, well, in published SF it was often acceptable. It wasn’t until later in life I started reading for beauty. I don’t find it often. But there are stories (and books, and series) where literally nothing happens (at least, as to plot) but I can remember the small turns of phrase, the tiny scenes.

These books are often filed under “Literature” in book stores. Some are quite good.

Anyway, I was reading “exquisitely written” books (when I read fiction) when I stumbled on HPMOR over a decade ago. (Fan Fiction lists the first chapter as published in Feb 2010 even thought I’m reasonably certain I read Chapter 100 in 2008, but perhaps that’s just FF’s publication date). For interesting ideas, HPMOR was off the charts. The writing was at least as good as the writing I’d put up with — or perpetrated — in SF&F. I was already familiar with some of the lessons (having read LessWrong, etc, as well as my own studies in Cognitive Science, decision making under pressure, etc) but even discounting those I’d found a story overflowing with ideas.

(And do not discount repetition. At least one of the lessons I knew intellectually, but was restated in such forceful and personal language that I re-evaluated some of of my life choices. Sometimes knowing a thing is quite different than understanding it).

HPMOR had a framework of cognitive science, with the fun part of exploring magic, the “aha” of seeing something in a (great) kid’s book being twisted to an unintended use! It had a villain who wasn’t just a story book character acting as a foil, simply feeding the hero to sharks-with-frikkin’ lasers then leaving and assuming the hero would die. And while HPMOR is clearly an “idea” story, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were beautiful moments and character beats that gave me the shiver up my spine that I associate with moments of true beauty, and that are rare enough that I cherish them, no matter the source. There’s a joy to reading something — almost anything — written with true love. I like baseball; but even if you don’t you can read Bill James (at least, in small doses) because he clearly loves it and thinks about it and it shines through his writing. (Also, Bill James can turn a phrase). And EY had that going, too, but on a topic that I am deeply interested in, much more so than baseball.

And it had Harry Potter. Catnip to me (and so many others). And then …  it went dark for years. I switched jobs (twice by FF’s date, three times by my memory) and was at a new job when it started back up. And unlike so many stories, it seemed to be ending strongly.

Then came the final exam, and I wrote up a quick solution. In an uncharacteristic move I also reached out to some media outlets shopping around an article about the final exam and my theories that he was using this as an actual research experiment. (I reached out to E.Y. for an interview, to no avail). I eventually posted it here, although my premise turned out to be wrong (as I admitted). As the final chapters rolled out over the next two weeks, I rushed home from my career appointed task that gave me no joy to my daily dose of reading, thinking about, arguing online, etc.

And then it was over. But I wasn’t ready to let it go. And I discovered (via r/hpmor) sequels and branching fictions.

Let me be charitable and say that the few I tried were generally uninspired, had too many grating moments, or just felt off. In at least one case I closed the web page after the first sentence. So, I despaired. But, while the thought of writing HPMOR would have never occurred to me, writing a sequel fic seemed do-able. I decided to try it. I was writing it for me.

And — for once when writing fiction (as compared to writing about games) — the words flowed easily. I enjoyed it. I quickly set up some ground rules for myself, because all art is defined by constraints.

Draco would be the main character, because I’m not the second type of genius (or the first, really). I doubted I could plausibly write HJPEV. (Actually, that’s not necessarily true. If I spent a day or week or month coming up with a contrived clever thing, then have my character think of it in a flash, that could work, and I did use that trick). But also because Harry explicitly removes himself from the role of hero at the end of HPMOR. The other (obvious) constraint would be that this was a simple continuation fiction, and HPMOR was canon. And I did not feel that I ‘got’ Hermione. But Draco …. well, my training wasn’t quite as exquisite as his (and was in a vastly different field) but I could work within Draco’s constraints. And let’s put it this way. I’ve been accused of having some  … Slytherin tendencies. A college friend (and still friend) once described me by saying “If [Tao] knew the cure for cancer, he wouldn’t tell anyone until he’d figured out the implications.”

So, Hermione I am not.

DMPOR wasn’t great stylistically but I wrote the first chapters quickly. I didn’t even really bother editing it, I just put down the words (as is obvious from time to time) and fixed gross mistakes. (I did in fact go over each chapter several times, but like many people I mentally autocorrect any writing if I know what the author means, and as the author I always knew what I meant).

It was fun. After all, this was just a lark, my trying to draw out one last hit of my recently cut-off supply, as well as knocking off some cobwebs off a dream discarded years ago. I decided to post the link to my fiction to r/HPMOR and see if anyone else thought it was any good, and got a generally positive response, so I got that little bit of Whuffie and an endorphin rush, kept it up and knocked out the prologue (Ch1-9) in a month or two.

By this point I had decided to continue and also what I wanted my themes to be. One of those themes is a note of mild caution against HPMOR (the story) itself. There are (many) good ideas in there, but as I heard long ago (and the saying is older than that), “there is no difference between theory and practice …. in theory.” I’d had that in mind from the first moment of writing, hence the “practice” of rationality (and the Sorting Hat’s song). One point (that EY made himself, quite forcefully in the final chapter) is that HJPEV isn’t perfect or necessarily even a great role model. He has a very useful skill set, but everyone should be aiming for the type-one genius of Hermione. Work Hard. Be Nice.

But I could never make myself want to be like Hermione. (“A man can do what it wants, but can’t want what he wants.” —  Schopnhauer). I knew I couldn’t capture her point of view, not in the big picture.

I could easily want to be HJPEV (or at least, a more mature version). Or Quirrell. And I’m not alone in that. I had that in the back of my mind from Day 1. And I also had in mind the idea that “every advantage has a corresponding weakness.” If you’ve ever played one of those role playing games where you ‘buy’ a character (X points gets you more skills), you’ve likely been tempted to make yourself.

I’ve wanted to build a game where you can take as many advantages as you want, but each one has a package of disadvantages. Want to be Sherlock Holmes? Fine — because of your acute attention to detail and knowledge you are also easily bored (to the point of doing drugs), irritable, generally unpleasant to be around, unwilling to learn anything that has no practical value, etc. Everyone wants to be Batman, but minus all the dead parents and decade of angst and training.

HJPEV is a great protagonist, yet simultaneously a cautionary tale. DMPOR is both a sequel and also a (gentle) rebuttal, but again no more so than Chapter 122.

While writing the prologue I’d come up with some clever ideas, so I decided to continue but I needed to nail down my theme and general course.

— Broad sweeping Spoilers for DMPOR below but you can skip until the next section —

Continuing the rivalry between the triumvirate seemed obvious, and obvious doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Within the constraints of the world, it would undeniably happen, and its interesting. Significant Digits (which didn’t exist when I started; if it had I doubt I would have written anything) also latched onto this (in some ways working the opposite of I did, but in others along similar paths that struck me). Both our stories got a sort of ‘first movers’ advantage of premiering so soon after HPMOR ended, but SD is undeniably better written. But back to my story…..

There was not much room for Harry/Hermione antagonism, which led me to the obvious conclusion that Draco/Harry antagonism would work. I remembered the first few episodes of Smallville I only watched two or three before giving up, but I liked the idea of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor growing up together and ending on the opposite sides as adults. (This also echoes The Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales, which I had read).Yes, its the BigBandFriend trope to have the villain be the guy you were hanging out with, but that works. I mean, if the reveal is that your nemesis is Joe Blow from Accounting. that’s realistic, but hardly dramatic. And this Draco/Harry interaction in many ways mirrored the Harry/QQ interaction (“I don’t have to hate him, I just have to win”). Symmetry is also enjoyable.

But I didn’t want to make Draco the villain. I wanted to make him a tragic heroic figure. In some ways I wanted this to work as a work like a Japanese story, where the heroes often kill themselves because of what they perceive as duty (think of the Forty-seven Ronin). I didn’t have everything plotted out, but by the end of the prologue (where Harry’s slip let’s Draco understand that he spoke with Voldemort extensively). As a sidebar, many readers objected to the Draco’s internal monologue saying that Harry had “chatted” with Voldemort, saying it was imprecise.

Perhaps, but I wanted to draw attention to that fact, and I wanted to draw attention to how Draco viewed that fact.  I’d also foreshadowed how that night would haunt him for years. I decided on the general idea of how Draco would work (self-obliviation with the help of his diary, and his vast resources) and why (including a little nudge from Dumbledore, who may still be operating under prophecy, which I thought would help the readers come to grips with his eventual decision, because even then I recognized that this was not for everyone).

Now I just needed to work out the details.

— End Spoilers —

(Also, I just had to look up how to spell Voldemort. It’s been a while).

Anyway, with the prologue out of the way and the broad strokes as to the “Hows” of the main plot, I went on my merry way. Before starting to write I’d re-read the Chamber of Secrets, which gave me some ideas for twists (such as Draco’s magical diary), red herrings and jokes. I had a goal but no strong urgency to get there, so I could sidebar with whatever interested me, and this let me put in some of my knowledge on Recognition Primed Decision Making, or anything else that held my fancy.

And I made a lot of mistakes. Not just factual mistakes, but story-telling decisions and shortcuts that some readers (and later, myself) disliked. I cut short the battle sequences because having Draco always win would be unrealistic, and he would often be unconscious, and because frankly they didn’t interest me as much. This was called “teasing” and annoying. I wanted to show viscerally the unreasonable effectiveness of ambushes. To call it a theme would be too nice, I had characters come out and say it over and over again. So ambushes would work. (I’ve seen ambushes — social and/or political instead of physical — up close and personal and they are devastatingly effective). So, I tried to have my story show my lessons. Some of this was unconscious but some was decidedly authorial intent.

I put in the”Thirty Four Years Later” epilogue (mirroring the one from Deathly Hallows with Adult Harry and Hermione but not Draco) as foreshadowing and also because I felt it would have more impact there, but that didn’t go over very well.

And then there was ‘the heist.’ The last third of the story.

I’d early on given up on the idea of having a final exam, but I wanted something big and bit off more than I could chew. To say that the last third of DMPOR kept me up at nights is both literally true yet feels like gross understatement. Trying to come up with a plan to achieve what I’d set out to do was hard. I’d built the world up and published mostly as I wrote (I was often 10k words ahead after the prologue, but I knew the ending would take a while. I kept having ideas then — a day or two later — spotting holes. Rationalist fiction has rules and they were liberating: when I wasn’t trying to make an Ocean’s Eleven style show piece.

The structure of the ending annoyed many readers but seemed (to me) fair in the sense that Harry, has to reconstruct it. This let me reveal things in what seemed a better order (instead of strictly temporally ….) and also gave me wiggle room in case I’d overlooked something. It worked (ish), but the last few months were not nearly as enjoyable as the first two thirds of the book.

I can honestly say that If I’d just written whatever came to my mind during my daily commute and breaks and then wrote out would have probably made both myself and the readers happier than the choices I made to make the heist “work.” There were a few chapters in the later parts that really moved me, but overall it was a massive relief to finish. I’d told the story I wanted to tell.

And I got some praise, but also ugly reviews, emails, because many readers did not particularly want to hear a story with. I often use the reviewing phrase of “a noble failure” for a game that tried interesting things but didn’t quite work and I came to the conclusion that DMPOR was a noble failure. I’d tried to tell the story and I thought I had foreshadowed most of the controversial points (excepting the ones that I had to make on the fly, but that also seemed to have a symmetry with HPMOR and regular canon), but the readers were not particularly happy. Or so I thought.

But I was done. A year or two later, while reading the Poems of William Blake I was struck by some lines from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that I felt captured … something of what I was trying to say. The dichotomy between rationality and human interaction. I’d always toyed with the idea of a distant future epilogue which had the symmetry of all three of the triumvirate having an impromptu and unexpected re-union and so I wrote it up (farily quickly), dropped it, then deleted my fan fiction password so I wouldn’t be tempted to read the reviews.

Done and done.

I heard from a few friends who read the story but that I closed the book on that chapter of my life. But at some point after the new year (and new Decade) I was ltaking inventory through my old works (in general) and was wondering about timelines and noticed HPMOR ended five years ago. I re-read a few bits, then  went to fan fiction and re-read DMPOR. It wasn’t bad. I still feel the memories of dread when reading the last third, but it was OK. I realize that some of the themes and things I was working through at the time mirrored what I was working through in Essay form in Thinking About Imperfect Thinking (and if you are here from r/HPMOR, I suggest you read that).

Looking at that article, I see the line–

I never thought “Well, I will become recognized for being a good writer.” So there’s no pressure.

That wasn’t true when I was finishing DMPOR. (At least, for the scale of fan fiction).

But its no longer true, I think. I’ve mostly let it go. Perhaps the last little burden was lifted when I saw a recent thread on r/HPMOR with several people listing it as the best sequel, including a few user names that I respect. (although, in all honesty, I’m not exactly sure why in some cases. I think I’ve chatted with them about other things, but it was years ago). I personally think Significant Digits is better … just because the writing is so much better and the plotting and ideas are great, too. And if his ending felt a bit ungainly, well, I know all about that.

At the time I finished I just wanted to throw my hands in the air and say “Well, if they didn’t get it, oh well.” But certainly its the writer’s fault if things aren’t clear. So I felt that now would be a good time to spell out what I was trying to do at some level. Maybe not exactly, but hopefully (particularly with my last essay) you’d get a feeling about my fascination and unease, both with Harry Potter (etc etc) and myself, and perhaps a little more insight into what I was trying to achieve.

Have I learned any lessons? — I am faster to give praise now, probably improving my rating from “geological time” to “snail” or perhaps even “tortoise.” I never used to comment online (and still don’t), but the experience of writing this affected me. This is one of those things I should have known, and did know intellectually, but I really felt it. A line that hits me every time I read HPMOR is Dumbledore’s line to Hermione ” As you would be kind to others, be kinder to yourself as well.” That is a lesson I’m slowly learning. I don’t consider myself a particularly harsh self critic, but I’ve been dropping things that used to gnaw on me as unimportant.

Now I can add this to the list.

I’d like to find another fiction project that inspired me like the first half of the sequel. I’ve had a number of good ideas (ideas are cheap) and every time I’ve started I just stare at a blank page. The number of times I’ve written anything where it flows I can count on the fingers of maybe two fingers. Maybe one day I’ll get another. I’d like that.

(If you came here from r/HPMOR, this is mostly about boardgames, but feel free to look around).

Written by taogaming

March 10, 2020 at 2:45 pm

How have I never heard of Max Richter until now?

Thanks to Kottke’s link to his tiny desk concert (and Amazon Music, free with Prime) I’ve been listening to him all evening while the Spire Slays Me. (I did get to the final boss on an Ascension 20 Silent fight, and I’m up to A18 or so with Defect and ~12 with Watcher). As someone who listened to a high amount of Philip Glass, I found him in my wheelhouse. (I discovered, courtesy of his Wikipedia page, that his a post-minimalist to Glass’ minimalist style, which makes sense).

And while I hadn’t heard of him, it turns out I (and anyone else who saw Arrival), have heard him.

Anyway, recommended if you are into that sort of stuff. Watch the tiny desk concert.

Written by taogaming

February 22, 2020 at 10:00 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Recent Media

Let’s see ….

  • I finally saw Stop Making Sense (the concert movie). Hypnotic and excellent.
  • The Good Place is starting its final season. Finally hooked up my fire stick to watch it (Amazon discontinued support for my TV).
  • The Spy (starring Sacha Baron Cohen) worked as a slow burn period piece.
  • Read a Jack Reacher book. It was Make Me (the 20th)  but I’m not sure it matters. Pulpy fun. Picked up a second one (the bridge club also has a giant rotating library of books people are done with).
  • I just started Mad Men, which is decent.

I also enjoyed the Invader Zim movie (“Enter the Florbus“) on netflix, despite not watching much Invader Zim back in the day. It’s the right combination of stupid and stupid.

Written by taogaming

October 10, 2019 at 6:15 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Some Media for your Summer

I finished Neal Stephenson’s latest (“Fall; or, Dodge in Hell“). I usually enjoy his logorrhea  (I re-read Anathem a month or two ago), but this was not worth it. I was saddened to learn that the title related to the character Dodge (from the unmemorable REAMDE) and more annoyed when Enoch Root showed up. The ending was actually reasonable and the last 75 pages moved at a pace that — had it been kept for the first 800 pages — would have cut the book down to a nice brisk 200-300 pages.The twist/hook was M. Night Shamalayan obvious.

I now noticed that I missed his last book, so I may check it out. How is the D.O.D.O. title, if you’ve read it?

Exhalation — the latest short stories by Ted Chiang — is excellent. Only two collections of short stories (that I know of) and practically every one is powerfully stunning. One story (“The Great Silence”) was originally text on a video art installation you can see on YouTube. His stories (3-100pages) are clock work masterpieces … Twilight Zone or Black Mirror episodes, but sometimes hopeful and inspiring. One of the blurbers put Chiang on par with Poe, Kafka, etc …. and if that’s a stretch its a small one.

Get Out — Finally saw this. A decent flick.

A Quiet Place — Excellent.

Annihilation — OK (but excellent looking).

Good Omens (TV) — Amusing.

Toy Story IV — Great.

Just started Aggretsuko S2. It’s a fast watch, but I’m probably over this.

Written by taogaming

July 14, 2019 at 3:51 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Fall Media

The “Still excellent” category includes Better Call Saul, BoJack Horseman, and hopefully The Good Place (which needed a few episodes to find it’s groove in S3, but I think it’s got it). (I started to listen to The Good Place, the Podcast as background during Factorio).

Two episodes in and I like the 13th Doctor, but the show? It’s OK.

I gave up on Iron Fist S2. Then Netflix gave up on it. Watched a few episodes of Daredevil S3.  Will continue.

I actually enjoyed Norm MacDonald has a show. (Yes, it has some of his weird anti-humor (and I skipped the David Spade episode) but it had interesting conversations. Also watching the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina which is just all over the place and not great but I’ll probably finish. I want to see Castlevania S2 and Big Mouth S2, but they are lower priority.

I’m also rewatching Babylon 5.

Written by taogaming

November 1, 2018 at 4:57 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Bonus Media

John Mulaney — Kid Gorgeous at Radio City may not be the best standup special I’ve seen, but its damn near perfect.

Written by taogaming

May 3, 2018 at 9:50 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Media of 2018 (so far)

Been a while, so let’s see —

I have not, in fact, progressed past S2E1 of Stranger Things, so I guess I’m done with that. At least for now. Other series that are in my queue without motion include GLOW, The Dark, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (I found my limits on cringe comedy), Black Mirror (and cringe SF). I like many of the new series in theory more than in practice.

I did binge Better Call Saul S3 and the latest Father Brown season (6), but those are known quantities. (Better Call Saul is, in my mind, the best show on the air, one of the few doing interesting things with shots and letting action build tension. It does sometimes rely on the audience’s foreknowledge, but often it subverts it).

Retsuko — the netflix anime about a 25 year old red panda working as an accountant for a large company, and doesn’t it say something that shows like this get made? — surprisingly amusing and short (10 episodes of 12-15 minutes).

I watched Mindhunter S1 and finished it, but don’t really recommend it.

In the “Media is more than just Netflix” department — I read the entire Three Body Problem trilogy. Recommended.

Written by taogaming

April 26, 2018 at 6:44 pm

Posted in TV & Media

Media Gluttony

Stuff I liked:

While playing Mage Knight with the TaoLing my wife was watching some BBC documentary and I kept hearing …. weird things. Like “Many people consider Yellowstone park the world’s greatest park. Mainly American people, though, sniff” and “Some wildebeests will be killed by crocodiles while crossing this river, but none of the ones you have gotten emotionally attached to, so don’t worry.” After about 30 minutes we finished the game and then went and watched Round Planet, the BBC mockumentary featuring brilliant footage and smarmy commentary from Matt Lucas.

I had low expectations for The Punisher, but I liked it. For Marvel on Netflix, only Daredevil S1 and this have been actually good, but I’m their huckleberry and will watch anything. Still, this gets a B+, although it still could have been shorter.

Finally caught up on The Hateful Eight, which was like a David Mamet mugging a Tarantino cast plus Walton Goggins, who I have literally never seen in a bad show. (If he’s been in one, don’t tell me about it).

I’m sadly finished with Father Brown (and re-reading the original stories).

I have already noted my love of The Good Place, the first half of S2 was wonderful. Waiting for the second half (after New Year’s).

I theoretically like Strange Things II, but I’m watching it a snail’s pace.

OK Go has a new video out.

Stuff that’s OK (but not OK Go):

I’m watching Enterprise, and its …. ok.When it was on TV I remember using the phrase “Oiling the Vulcan” after the pilot and there is that, but I don’t think it’s much worse than Next Generation (which had a lot of klunkers early on, too). I don’t think I’m going to be a completist for Star Trek (I’m looking at you, Voyager), but at some point the queues get low….

I watched Chappie, which was amusingly bad like most movies that feature musicians “acting”. (Die Antwoord in this case).

Slowly watching Longmire (the Netflix seasons).

Stuff I turned off:

I liked the first two seasons of Rectify, but I can’t get back into it. The delay may have been too long.

Tried to watch Little Evil.


Written by taogaming

December 1, 2017 at 10:26 pm

Posted in TV & Media