wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: March, 2016

Some new-to-us board games.

On Wednesdays we get together for our Gentlemen’s Nights (aka Nerd Nights), which consist of…

  1. one or two beers apiece (I generally drink water)
  2. parental/marital/professional commiseration
  3. board games.

What a great word ‘commiseration’ is, eh?

Some games we’ve recently (re)played:

Settlers of Catan

The old warhorse. We’ve played a million times over 15 years, of course. I’ve no idea whether the boardgamegeek obsessives still like this game; I suspect the heavy randomness now puts many of them off. It remains, though, a perfect (relatively) casual eurogame, with a handful of paths to victory and plenty of interesting choices to make. The trading system is ingenious; it’s the most fun element of the game and essential for victory, which seems to me like a case of correctly identified design priorities. Yes, the initial placement phase can be nearly determinative, but if you play with minimal savvy you can’t lose the game at that first stage — being shut out of wood/mud early on means you need to focus on cards, cities, and pushing hard into trade, and control of the Thief (and the Largest Army) will be essential for you.

Settlers doesn’t get as much attention as it used to; it was the first big stateside eurogame and has been superseded over the last 10-15 years by other novel creations (e.g. Dominion, the most perfectly pitched the best eurogame I’ve played). But Settlers hasn’t lasted because it was first. Along with Cosmic Encounter and Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the most effective social game I’ve played that has any real substance. Just as every copy of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters should be magically replaced one evening by a Mwandishi album, every copy of Monopoly or Taboo should be replaced with a copy of Settlers — and I say this despite being an ice-cold murderer at the Taboo table.


Setup for our first game took more than an hour. We didn’t even make it through our first game in three hours of play. It felt like a disaster. We tried again a week or two later with three of the same players and a newbie; everyone played a different strategy and the three second-timers finished within a handful of points, with a surprise come-from-behind one-point(!) victory.

Like Clash of Cultures (below), Hawaii has a bit too much stuff on the table, and an enormous amount to keep track of in your head. The rulebook’s enormous — not Mage Wars enormous, but admittedly that’s a special case — and it seems at first like every fiddly little subsystem is a new hassle rather than an opportunity. First-time players won’t love it. But it grows on you. I haven’t played the games it’s compared to on BGG (Vikings, Stone Age), but I can tell you that randomness plays a small part and it falls equally on all the players; the fiddly little subsystems fit together ingeniously; there’s room for a wide variety of approaches; the pace of the game picks up as at progresses, building drama quite nicely.

Best of all, the rules really do become second nature after a play or two. I don’t think we could bring our playtime down to an hour, but it could definitely be a 90-minute game. Heavier cognitive load than the mechanistic Puerto Rico, less direct interaction than Settlers, but this is a very rewarding game. Props to the designer of the tiny icons indicating the function of each piece — they do a lot of heavy lifting.

Clash of Cultures

We played last night. Once you know what you’re doing it speeds up immensely, but this took ages; for all that, it’s a surprisingly effective game, immediately reminding everyone of the Civilization computer game (none of us have played the Sid Meier board game, though my fondest childhood gaming memories are of Avalon Hill’s classic Civilization) but taking on an interesting dynamic of its own.

We haven’t yet fully wrapped our heads around the interplay of Clash‘s mechanical systems, and here’s the main reason why: you’re keeping track of 7ish resources and 50ish(!!) civilizational advances, and at least half of the latter entail situational modifiers in play — so there’s a huge cognitive load unlike that of relatively light games like Settlers or the great Carcassonne (or pre-eurogame American games, of course). At my age, I don’t generally want that kind of upfront hassle — I can’t abide complex character creation in RPGs, for instance. But once you have a sense of the pace and scope of the game, how many choices you’ll actually have time to make, it’s possible to string together great millennia-spanning strategies which pay off in the final two rounds.

Best thing about our first play, mechanically and thematically: the way random elements shake up the game and afford new opportunities even while foreclosing on strategies to an extent. Because of the random board layout, I ended up hamstrung early by Barbarians, opting to abandon my initial strategic notions (science! education!) in favour of a war footing and deal sharply with my local belligerents. This ended up being a path to near-victory for me — wiping out a big barbarian tribe brings major rewards (gold) and can transform your economic status. Andrew’s strategy kept getting delayed by the vicissitudes of fate too — but by the time we quit for the night he’s established a mercantile empire that had begun to soak up enormous amounts of gold every turn. Ian’s ‘ISIS strategy’ — fanatical militarized religious zealotry — proved hugely effective, as his smartly optimized early buildup of Advances let him march triumphantly across the board in the midgame.

He insisted on wailing allahu akbar after each act of sterile illiterate savagery, i.e. constantly. So that was tiresome. But his strategy worked perfectly.

I can’t say whether the game’s a complete success, but I’ll say this: I’d definitely play again despite the time commitment. I’ll also say this, though: it had me longing for AH’s Civilization. Since Civ is a stone classic, that’s no insult to Clash of Cultures, which seems like an excellent game. But I do wonder.

Mice & Mystics

Clever, this! Feels almost exactly like D&D 4th edition pared down to a minimal engine — perhaps a bit simplistic but that’s OK — combined with a relentlessly forward-moving ‘story engine’ of sorts. Everyone’s always engaged, the challenges are judiciously selected, and the story’s charming and surprisingly immersive. A compelling middle ground between a combat-focused RPG and a relatively simple board game. Not the deepest game in the world, sure, but a perfect frame for a low-key evening of game-centric socializing.


Descent of a derogation.

This is only about words, haha:

As I kid I used to think ‘hypochondriac’ belonged to the same category as ‘nutjob,’ i.e. synonyms for hopeless case. There was nothing to do for a hypochondriac, always going on about problems they don’t have. They’re too much trouble: they’re simply wrong, pathetically so.

Now that I understand what the term actually refers to — run-of-the-mill free-floating anxiety with its chief locus in health concerns — I’m disappointed in myself for never having wondered whether the term had a non-editorial purpose.

Children don’t ‘learn the meanings of words’ in some abstract sense; there isn’t a word/definition pair that simply slots into an empty memory bank somewhere in your brain-cabinet. They only use words, and silently absorb gigantic amounts of information about how words are used around them. If grandpa can’t help but curl his lip in disgust when he says ‘German,’ his kids and grandkids won’t even think of Germany as a country in the same sense as their own — for them it’ll exist first of all as a stimulus to disgust, and they’ll know first that the word is a unit of speech with that effect.

The kids will see ‘Germany’ in the emotional colour of grandpa’s reaction, and their own reaction to his anger, and so forth. Other colours too, needless to say, but emotional channels are wide open in such family settings. The emotional intensity of that environment grants special depth and primacy to the impressions we form there, whether or not we understand or appreciate that primacy. That’s what family is for, in part; that’s why it matters so much.

People seem to think of sentences as shipping containers for pure information, but much or most of the time the weight of significance actually rests on the emotional over/undertones of speech. You say ‘I love you’ and I barely process the words, but rather I hear proximity, vulnerability, softening (or hardening) of tone, tempo, pitch: the music which predates language.

The term ‘body language’ is itself a childish derogation of our primary method of communication.

We delay or deny our children access to their full powers of reasoning if we teach them that ideas have no meaning or value outside the emotional reactions they get out of us. And we fuck up our kids further by ignoring the massive amount of physical/emotional information transmitted along with every word.

It would’ve been useful for me to learn early on that ‘hypochondriac’ is a straightforward description of a bundle of feelings and behaviours, not an invitation to sneer. I might’ve realized more quickly that I was becoming one, and acted accordingly. Words get in the way.

‘Pitch me, baby!’ or: David Pogue’s ego blocks our view of a much deeper, much scarier cultural problem.

From the archives: July 2011. The last of today’s batch. My contempt for gadgetbloggers (also ‘Apple pundits’) is limitless, as you can guess. I used to love venting my spleen like this. Now I tend to feel bad about it, though obviously not bad enough to keep this to myself. –wa.

David Pogue, a freelance gadget columnist best known for his work at the NYTimes, recently spoke (for pay) to an audience of PR professionals. The talk was entitled ‘Pitch Me, Baby.’ Last week the NYTimes ombudsman described Pogue exhorting the publicity men to suggest column material to him:

In the presentation, Pogue jumps out of the gate with a Power Point page inviting the audience to “Pitch me, Baby!”” The presentation goes on to offer do’s and don’ts and emphasizes his own close reliance on pitches that come his way from professional public relations people.

On a later slide, he displays eight recent New York Times columns and identifies five as having come from public relations people. Pogue explains that, as a reviewer of new gadgets, there is no comprehensive database he can rely on to learn about new stuff. Hence he relies on companies and their hired pitchmen to tell him about new products.

Pogue’s basic advice boils down to two imperatives: 1) “Save me time,” and 2) “Don’t be a robot.” This means that public relations people should tailor the pitch to its audience (avoid spamming, in particular) and avoid jargon and other extraneous matter.

This strikes me as a violation of journalistic ethics, not to mention good taste. The NYT agreed; Pogue has been forced to curb his appearances at such little get-togethers. But I don’t care at all about that aspect of the article; my disgust at Pogue’s behaviour isn’t new, nor is it unique; nor is he different in that regard from, say, Judith Miller pawning off Cheney/Rove PR as reportage. We don’t use the term ‘corporate media’ for nothing.

The deeper issue, which doesn’t seem to be getting talked about this week, is this:

Pogue’s job consists of advocating for the business interests of large corporations. That’s it. Like so many other ‘tech columnists,’ he masquerades as an advocate for better living with/through technology, but it’s easy to see that he’s always been a paid shill, nothing more: he’s only capable of talking about technology on a corporate PR timeline, within a logic of consumption rather than creation. He’s an advertiser for The New (and Expensive).

If Pogue mattered, he’d be writing about amazing! new! corporate! technology! with an eye toward an actual alternative: i.e. instead of saying ‘Should we buy the new iPhone or the new “iPhone-killer?”‘ a serious critic would ask, ‘Should we buy this new tech at all?’

A simple thought experiment: if you’ve bought a new computer in the last five years, why did you do so? If you’re a grownup, chances are you didn’t do it in order to play the latest video games. So ask yourself: what does your new computer enable you to do that your last computer didn’t? If your last computer was less than four years old, the answer is probably nothing.

My first iPhone altered the way I traveled (thank you location-aware computing) and used email (thank you 3G data service). My new one lets me shoot video, take better pictures, and run the old apps faster. I can imagine needing to replace it when it breaks, but what in the world could I possibly want from a ‘better’ phone?

Pogue and his fellow tech writers would answer by listing the features of next-gen phones. But ‘Why should I buy this phone?’ isn’t a question about a phone, it’s a question about me; and Pogue and his ilk should know it. Their defense is always the same: Well, you don’t have to buy what we recommend. And that’s true, of course. But these idiots then turn around and write about ‘tech’ from the perspective of collectors, ‘early adopters,’ fetishists. And they orient the culture toward these perverse logics.

Pogue isn’t a commentator on the ‘gadget industry,’ he’s part of it. He’s a servant of his corporate masters, who provide him with free shit in exchange for free publicity. But in his capacity as an NYTimes columnist, he’s presented as something else: a servant of his readers.

The only thing he creates in this world is a misperception of the need to buy new things.

So no, David Pogue’s recent bout of new-money tackiness isn’t a ‘journalism story.’ It’s not a ‘tech industry story.’ A paid advertiser got spanked by his bosses, who rely on paid advertising for their livelihoods. So what.

The actual story is that at this point, we can’t imagine ‘modern life’ without people like David Pogue. We are fucked.

Trouble online, trouble behind.

From the archives: August 2011. I’m not proud of this one but ‘as writing,’ but it was important to write it, and it hurts me to read it. So here it is. –wa.

I don’t get along with people online, and that’s the plain fact. It’s taken me a while to be matter-of-fact about it, but there it is. I spent a bunch of time discussing the situation in therapy a couple years ago, but never did arrive at a satisfactory solution.

OK. The the problem goes deeper than incivility.

The summer after 10th grade (1995) I spent five weeks at Johns Hopkins, taking classes in the Pre-College Program. (It’s different from the well-known precocious-child program, CTY.) I got my first C (in a molecular biology lecture) and worked hard to get a life-changing A (in a small, prescient ‘Explorations in Text-Based Virtual Reality’ humanities seminar). Both grades were portents, but I didn’t understand them.

The focus of the seminar was MUD/MOO/MUSH culture — ‘A Rape in Cyberspace,’ Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,’ Neuromancer, some Bukatman, some Dery, that kind of thing. One of the requirements was to spend a bunch of time exploring the Diversity University MOO (moo.du.org:8888). I did. I also signed up for LambdaMOO (lambda.moo.mud.org:8888).

I’d never used the Internet before.

Some days I would get up, read the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog or my newly-purchased Principia Discordia for a while, then head over to the computer lab for a 12-hour stint in Lambda. I missed meals. I even missed class (see above re: ‘my first C’). Tuition for the program came to $3,600 for five weeks. My dad mowed lawns to raise a few hundred dollars. A wonderful man in my hometown lent us the balance of the tuition and it took us a long while to pay him back; or else we never did.

I got some sun but not as much as I needed. I fell hard for a girl in the next dorm, who didn’t notice me. Then I fell for someone with the username ‘Sirena,’ and that’s one of the weirdest stories of my whole life, I think.

I learned to ‘speak in public’ on LambdaMOO but I learned plenty of other things as well; and I came to rely on it. When I went home at summer’s end I felt totally disconnected from my hometown. I told myself and my family and even my couple of close friends that I just missed Baltimore, had a great time ‘at college,’ had never been around people who shared so many of my interests, just needed a little time to adjust. Junior year ahead, yay. That kind of thing. All of which was true, I suppose —

— but it occurs to me today, for the very first time, that as much as I missed the people and the school and the freedom, I was also going through withdrawal from the online world where my new self was being born. I mean that literally.

The term we’re looking for is addiction, of course, more specifically a form of ‘Internet addiction,’ which in the late 90’s was a subject of no small concern in the press and in academia.

You never hear about it now. Once everyone does some activity all day every day it’s not an addiction, it’s just ‘part of life.’ Like TV, or worrying about work, or hating the government.

I check my email several dozen times a day, yet I fail to respond in a timely fashion to friends and acquaintances. I may in fact be the worst correspondent I know. Yet I don’t immediately forget about the ‘need to respond’: indeed, waves of anxiety about my Inbox full of unanswered emails continue to ripple for weeks and weeks. I am never, ever free of anxiety about these communications — but I avoid responding.

I’ve destroyed friendships — and strained family relationships — this way.

When I have spare time, I read websites and occasionally comment on them. Sometimes I do this even when I don’t have spare time. Altogether I spend hours (hours!) a day looking at webpages and retaining almost nothing. I take no great pleasure from this activity. Indeed it has the dry sterility of pure compulsion, like pulling the arm of the slot machine.

I’ve posted to this blog more than 3,100 times since 29 September 2003. In that time I’ve been banned from one website, slunk away from several others, and stormed off several more. I get into fewer ‘flame wars’ than I used to, but it still happens. I still feel anxiety about websites I’ve ‘stopped reading’; indeed, at the site where I’ve been banned, I continue to comment under a different name.

I feel contempt for such behaviour but haven’t found a way to stop it, as yet.

Since 2009 I’ve posted upwards of 150 reviews to the phish.net — but I’ve only posted one or two since June, during which time I’ve posted 50 comments in discussion threads and in response to the admins’ blog posts. I consciously avoided any such discussions until this summer. This correlation between ‘chatting’ online and posting more thought-out frontline pieces (reviews and articles) has held, in my case, for many years.

After building a (very very minor) reputation as a thoughtful writer at whedonesque.com, I’ve all but scuttled it by turning into a persnickety, ill-tempered commenter. Unsurprisingly, none of my posts have been featured there since I started commenting more regularly.

The term isn’t brand dilution, but then what’s the term? Would I be happier if I knew?

A longtime netizen (remember that term?) told me this when I was banned from phishthoughts.com (for ‘trolling’):

You are a highly intelligent, very cerebral and I believe well meaning person but it seems that you have some form of internet Asperger’s which makes it impossible for you to determine what is and is not socially acceptable in many circumstances online.

I wrote him a long email telling him, essentially, that he had no idea what he was talking about and I was perfectly justified in what I said about the site’s owner and EVERYONE NEEDS TO THICKEN THE OLD SKIN, ETC., ETC. But I didn’t send it. My wife approvingly refers to this kind of thing as de-escalation and always looks so relieved when I choose not to carry on such exchanges. The look on her face breaks my heart. I realize, at such moments, that I don’t actually know how much damage I do to myself — or I won’t acknowledge it, or (worst of all, and most likely) I’ve decided I need to hurt myself ‘socially’ in order to continue living as I am.

Last summer I wrote this:

I think we should purge the books and sell them, to alleviate my guilt (not a writer, not a devoted enough reader, nothing special…) and maybe recoup a bit of money. My wife thinks we should keep the books around[…] And dust them. I try to explain that life will stop and start over, better, if she’ll just allow this one gesture; I mistake my self-indulgence for patience.

She evidently believes — insists — that life can’t start or stop, can only continue, so we might allow ourselves to do the same. I imagine that our future must resemble my past. The books, I’m certain, are signs of my…well, my irresponsibility, profligacy, compulsions, status-consciousness. My individual failings, you might say. Don’t I get the future I darkly deserve?

But what comes next is ours, not mine. `Mine’ is just for comfort — like the books. In our future[…]I’m glad my wife[…]made me keep the dreadful damned books way back when, and frustrated my urge to reduce our life to my story.

In grad school I went to a conference and met a young professor from some college out of sight/mind, and over the course of several joyful drunkening hours it became clear that we wanted to fuck each other, quite, but I was dating someone and she had to get back to her friends’ house where she was staying, and in any case it would have been an absolutely colossal mistake, quite, but unforgivable? Who knows? Probably yes and deservedly so I’d say (were the situation reversed). Well. One of those stories I hold onto in which I ‘miss an opportunity’ to have a conventional ‘good story’ but still come close enough to some inner horizon that the light goes strange and new (or very old) things are revealed. So how bad a story can it really be, what I’ve got now? She was a Buffy fan too and I definitely should have called her when I was single, later. But I wasn’t ever really single.

I mention it because, though I can’t find the email she sent a few days later in response to my own message, I’ve memorized these phrases:

  • ‘maybe too smart for your own good’
  • ‘extremely socially awkward’

I’ve used ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ as a term of derision.

I am ashamed. This is inappropriate and callous.

It would be, even if I were Oprah Winfrey.

Everyone wants his favourite band to also be The Very Best Band. This is really important to teenagers, who in this country have nothing else to do, but it stays important to nominal adults. Like me. Same for books/films of course. (Phish, Coltrane, James Joyce, Fight Club, etc.) Same for people, though I wouldn’t know. I can’t imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t map my tastes on to the cosmic quality scale.

The point being that there are two problems compounding one another: I compulsively fiddle about on the Internet, either getting into arguments or zoning out pretending to be interested in what Ezra Klein and Arthur Silber have to say about anything, but at the same time I have very serious trouble maintaining a civil tone and spirit of congeniality in online fora. I tend to monologue at people — ever notice how rarely I respond to the wonderful comments around here? When the conversation gets two-sided I lose control of something (maybe just the conversation), and I end up saying things I regret. ‘Being misunderstood,’ HORROR!, but more than that: no longer trying to understand the people I talking to. Not reaching out.

And that’s where I am this morning. Worried, if you’re wondering, that I’ll slowly lose friends and alienate readers and never stop doing the things I most hate about myself. And — you must know this is deeply related — worried, too, that I’ll never write freely because it will always be about me.

You want 100% employment? Assign every single citizen to border patrol. The true meaning of the nation-state right there, the geographic Self. OK, hold one guy back to make dinner I guess. One guy for laundry. And someone to make sure the cable bill gets paid.

My son will probably wake up soon, and my wife with him. The day will start. Real life will start. This…this is the shadow. If you walk toward the light it’ll hide from your sight, but not as a favour: your shadow will follow you wherever you go.

Twaddler/toppler: morning notes starring our 11-and-a-half-month-old baby.

From the archives: August 2011. I hope posts like this bring you even a fraction of the joy they brought (and bring) me. –wa.

  • I lie on the ground pretending to be unconscious because I’m a good and caring father. He crawls over to me and begins to poke me in the face with one of his wooden drumsticks. I get up before he has a chance to begin whacking me on the skull.

  • He mounts a low Amazon.com box in order to climb to a slightly higher one; falling backward off the low box, he lands on one knee, then rises up en pointe (without the benefit of e.g. ballet shoes or professional dance training) and executes a sly leaping maneuver to get back on the low box. I grab him before he has a chance to mount the coffee table and destroy all our possessions.

  • I challenge him to a duel, i.e. I grab one of his drumsticks and start whacking the drumstick he’s holding. At first he is confused by the obvious stupidity of this activity. Then he shifts his drumstick from right hand to left and closes on me with a series of attacks learned from the master Thibault. I am driven back nearly to the edge of the Cliffs before realizing I can, in fact, simply reach over and pick him up or crush him like a grape. Sobered, exhilarated, flushed with battle, I surrender manfully.

  • Places his drumstick gets caught during his solitaire game of ‘Whack the puree-pouch lid around on the ground, hockey-puck-style, with my drumsticks while dad watches’: his diaper, my underpants leg, folds in the blanket, eddies in the spacetime continuum.

  • My, that is an enormous quantity of vomit, isn’t it.

  • My friend Farhad once proposed to write a rock opera setting the water-stealing backstory of Chinatown in outer space. Among the songs he listed ‘Love Song of a Dying Robot.’ What he does not know is that I’ve actually written and even recorded several versions of the song (and other songs from the cycle, including ‘Space Ace’ and a variety of asteroid-miner shanties) in the intervening years. I’ve never been happy with any of it. Sample lines:

it takes these words ten minutes to reach you
a million miles away
longer still when you were in my arms
dear, that’s why today
feels much like yesterday

and of course

oh, row, the sailor sings
of polycarbon starship wings
oh, row, the solar winds
carry me across the galaxy

  • now i’m going nowhere
    but there’s nowhere else that i would rather be*

That sort of thing.

  • We listen to parts of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… and my son’s actions take on a somewhat louche character. He plays with his outlandish Sassy foam-grippy-rattle-ball object, possibly the most psychedelic/seizure-inducing item I have ever seen in real earth life, with a kind of fin de siècle dissipation, as if biding time in the unlit corner of some cabaret waiting for the secret police to cancel not just the performance nor the fun, but the very idea of progress or continuance; as if aware that he can’t stay a twaddler/toppler forever. His cynicism, if that’s what it is, is elliptical. Or is it resolve? Or does he need a diaper change? I put on some Duran Duran to lighten the mood but it all feels very, very several-years-too-late…

  • He attempts to climb onto the futon/couch. Mercifully, it’s too high for him. He contents himself instead playing with my hospital ID bracelet, which I take away because it’s probably the single least sanitary object in this impressively unsanitary apartment. Then he reaches for the nightmare toy, about which I will say nothing more at this time in case it reads my blog and decides, in retaliation, to steal my eyes while I sleep.

  • He engages in good old fill’n’spill behaviour with his colour/shape blocks, with a twist – he only pulls the blocks out of their little pail in matching pairs (two orange stars, two green squares, two red triangles). I encourage this racist behaviour because of how I was brought up, in a rural area.

  • Yay! Stackers!

  • Yay! Affectlessly throwing all the stackers over the side of the playpen over and over and over again!

  • I would do anything for him. Indeed, I suspect I will: the scariest thing about parenthood, which is to say in the right light the most joyful, is that twenty or forty years from now I’ll remember sacrifices and transformations that today, 20 August 2011 in Cambridge, I couldn’t possibly have imagined. I have no idea what he’s becoming. I have no idea what I’m becoming.

Meanwhile my wife catches up on sleep just offstage, which she desperately needs because as hard as I feel like I work, she works ten times harder, dies a thousand times when our son cries, is lifted up and lifts me up with each stumbling advance or strange detour he takes. She is the molten core; she’s his light, and mine.

  • Duran Duran do not have a limitless supply of great songs.

Oh Sunday.

From the archives: December 2011.

Pain of the past in its pastness. Today I’m thinking about…I don’t know what. Nothing really. In the car with my son sleeping in the backseat and inside the apartment (a few feet away) my wife and the organizer lady, Erin, just a couple years out of college, are getting the place ready for deleading. I miss my parents. My mom is nine years dead. My dad is old, alive, warm, slowing down, far away, a good man I’ve never known quite how to emulate. He feels in a language I don’t know. Mystery to me since I was young though I’ve long known I was meant (meant!) to come up like him, good and strong and sure. A straight-backed man bent only by time and care. He hasn’t lied or wormed his way around, ever. Nothing to hide. He is a good man and I worry that we’ve never understood each other; or not worry: I mourn. Early to be mourning. He is a living man and good and true, wants nothing but love for his sons. But I fall into the solecism — or I mean solipsism, I guess — of mourning.

Meanwhile we’re all sick. I feel old. But small and young — old, I mean, before my time, unearned. Which is to say weak. I mean I’m sorry I’ve never undertaken to make myself into the strong straightforward man I was to have been. Wheels spinning against inner wheels. I have to go indirect to get to things. To what I think I want (am ‘meant’) to say.

I got a fine education but I suppose it’s done now, in the formal sense. Though learning continues thank god. My brother asked me, back in middle school or high school, to exchange books with him. I suggested ‘Dune’ and he gave me ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ More than 15 years ago. And I never did read it. Never did read a single word of Dickens in my whole life.

All the ways I’ve hidden from my family. Meeting them always far less than halfway.

Hitchens died at the Anderson center in Houston. My mom went there for examinations when she first found out — was finding out? was living with the discovery that? — she had cancer. Today we go to a bed & breakfast up the street where we’ll stay for a few days. Then to see my in-laws near Denver. The apartment will be full of poison dust for a few days. I wrote maybe 47,000 words worth of a new manuscript in November. I had to stop writing just before the 30th, and haven’t taken it up since.

I’m never able to talk about my family, or death, or my friends, or even just time’s passage, without talking too about writing.

It is not my job, I realize. It’s how I think. Wasn’t always but there you have it.

I don’t know what I did before I wrote.

I might have a job for spring semester after all. Then we’ll be able to afford day care for my son. I’m unusually well-suited to this job and would be happy to have it. All the more reason for things not to work out: I haven’t earned that kind of happiness, have I? It’s a ‘writing job’: actually, I’d be teaching writing to bright technically-minded college students. Almost a dream.

I am preoccupied with the people I’ve been.

I never say ‘men.’

Well what sort of man am I. Sitting here in the car sickly and my boy is sleeping in the backseat. I don’t know that I respect myself. I used to piss in the kitchen sink so as not to wake our son walking up the stairs. After a while it stopped being a problem — walking noise I mean — but I took a while longer to stop pissing in the sink. I’d gotten used to it. So much easier than going all the way to the bathroom upstairs. Now we live in a one-story apartment and the floor outside the bedroom is squeaky all over again, but I’ve unlearned my shortcut. I thought of it as generous. But I walk on by him now and feel civilized pissing in the toilet. I didn’t used to think of it as any big thing. Maybe that’s a small win. For me, I guess? Or Western civilization?

I quite like it, you know. The West. Absolutely devastating to authentic self-knowledge, but it’s alright.

This week my brother finally disposed of a gigantic sombrero he bought in Texas. He took a long train trip with my mom. I was in college, or maybe grad school. Perhaps they were going to the Anderson center even then. Maybe she was given a schedule at that time, pertaining to the order in which her internal organs would be crippled and destroyed by cancer. First your DNA turns against you, as I understand it, babbling in a new language, mutated — apoptosis undone too — so that the logomaniacal babble can no longer be stopped even by death; and your immortal cells band together and grow into a tight-knit community which eats you. Maybe they put the schedule on a nicely-formatted spreadsheet for my mom to peruse while she died by degrees. Your colon, charmingly, to begin; and later on your lungs. Quiet your beautiful voice and steal your cultured appetite. All your learning. No sleep and no rest. Forget how to read. Here is a sombrero for your boy to wear at the train station while carrying all the suitcases. He looks so small surrounded by those bags and you will die long before your time.

Your eldest son will not watch every moment of your collapse and disintegration because he will be ‘living it up’ in Boston. Too far to quickly drive. Please do not again ask what he plans to do with his graduate degree in video games. He will later fly home on a ‘bereavement fare,’ though, saving a substantial amount of money on that one-way plane ticket. The world revolves around a dying star. He isn’t thrifty but he’s not the fool he seems. He’ll know he’s failed.

If I could only tell you how much I hate myself for not being part of my mom’s last years on earth, for not working to preserve and restore and join our shared family body. If I could quiet down long enough to breathe in simple facts like All Things Pass.

The first time I meditated I nearly cried at the realization that I wasn’t alone in the office building where I sat. Think of that so tiny thing. That it could mean so much to a man. Not to be alone in a city of millions!

I could be a better friend to my brother. Really I could. We disagree on so much. I told him to ‘piss off’ two days ago on the phone and he hung up on me. No talking since.

I guess I’m saying this to him. Hello Come back. Or to her, I guess. Come back hello I love you in spite of myself.

Probably spelled ‘library’ with one L again, poor bastard.

From the Archives, April 2012: a brief celebration of the extraordinary darkness at the heart of my favourite funny books. –wa.

The quite good joke that leads off the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — in which Arthur Dent’s house is destroyed to make way for a bypass, but he’s not around to see it because he’s fleeing Earth, which is being destroyed to make way for a (hyperspace) bypass — deepens by degrees throughout the first four volumes of the series, until it attains a kind of comic grandeur. A quick overview:

  • In the first volume, we start with the aforementioned good (but simple) joke on mindless bureaucracy. The planet is blown up, and the earthlings’ protests come too late — the plans have been on display at Alpha Centauri for decades. But it gets better: Earth wasn’t even a planet, it was a computer designed to find the Ultimate Question, destroyed at the moment of readout. Life on Earth was just part of a computer program.
  • In the second volume (Restaurant) we find out that (1) Arthur has the Question in his brain, (2) it’s not even the right question, and (3) the reason for this cockup is that the simple peaceful cave-mammals populating prehistoric Earth were killed off by a bunch of idiot telephone sanitizers and management executives judged too stupid for their own planet. Earth was, it turns out, a backwater’s backwater. And by the way, the Vogons were actually hired by Zaphod’s analyst — who didn’t want the Ultimate Question interfering with his business. Even that cosmic conspiracy is absolutely petty in motivation. (And the whole thing might take place in Zarniwoop’s literal ‘pocket’ universe anyhow. Adams was fearless about tossing out his premises…)
  • Then we get to Life &c. — in which we revisit Earth but just twenty pages or so at the beginning and another five or ten at the end, where we encounter one bloody clusterfuck after another, mostly revolving around the Ashes, which (I’m told) are something to do with cricket, which is what Englishmen play when they find baseball too fast-moving and stress-inducing. Earth — basically a floating calculator populated by stumbling morons, our hero included — is a bit player in the great drama of Krikkit. Arthur and Ford hang around long enough to be annoyed, and Arthur asks to be dropped off elsewhere.
  • But in So Long and Thanks, he comes back — and meets Fenchurch, the crazy woman who figured out the answer to the Earth’s many problems on the first page of the first volume. They have a bit of sex on the wing of a plane and end up leaving Earth anyway. The series’s recurring nostalgia object isn’t, in the end, worth the trouble. There are other matters to attend to anyhow — the laughing truth-teller and God’s last message to His creation among them.
  • I can’t remember Mostly Harmless but I’m sure it’s nice. There’s food in it, and some jokes about TV.

One extraordinary thing about this series of increasingly Weird treatments of Earth and its fate — too big to be a comic ‘runner’ but so lightly handled that it’s easy to miss its centrality to the (ahem) trilogy’s (ahem) philosophy — is that Douglas Adams kept finding new ways to tell grand jokes about the true nature of the human race and its beautiful, broken planet. The bit about the mice would’ve been a fine topper to the initial gag, but the Golgafrincham sequence manages to strip away its sentimentality while achieving real emotional resonance — we killed what was true and good about the Earth long before the Vogons justifiably did us in.

The contemptuous ease with which various beings (mice, Vogons, Halfrunt, the galactic judiciary, Disaster Area’s stage crew) kill off or otherwise terrorize various other beings (usually Arthur and his companions, but also the entire population of Earth, the telepathy-stricken inhabitants of Belcerebon, Prostetnic Jeltz’s crew, the billiards-ball planet in Ford’s story, et al.) is the blackest joke in the whole series. Of course in Adams’s ass-over-other-bits Darwinian cosmos, this is the nature of life, universe, everything. Which makes his ‘true’-nature-of-Earth revelations all the more bleak: they follow an emotional line straight toward dissipation and despair, and Arthur can only respond with an exhausted shrug.

Here’s one of Adams’s bleakest interpolated narratives, in full:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it’s always reality that’s got it wrong.

This was the gist of the notice. It said ‘The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.’

This has led to some interesting consequences. For instance, when the Editors of the Guide were sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Tralal literally (it said ‘Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists’ instead of ‘Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists’), they claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing, summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was Life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true. The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that Life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present before going off to enjoy a pleasant evening’s ultragolf.

The entire Hitchhiker’s Guide universe runs just like that. The destruction of Earth in chapter 1 of the first book fits this pitch-black comic mood perfectly, but it’s also a comfortingly benign event at the time, because it seems so utterly out of measure with readers’ expectations. After all, England runs more or less the same way, is the obvious satiric point, but it’s all more civilized in a way, isn’t it? There’s contempt and then there’s contempt, right?

Well. By the end of the series, in an ironic ‘triumph’ of worldbuilding, Adams has lifted up Earth — or rather the various mutually-contradictory Earths — to the status of full participation in the carnival of malice and cruelty and offhand, even accidental, genocide which is his (nonetheless quite funny) titular Galaxy.

The only consistently nice, earnest, curious creature in the whole series is a mattress, which flollops around in a swamp.

From the same work in progress.

Two fragments from the same project as the previous post. –wa.

A meaningless coincidence: the FX guys at Industrial Light & Magic (our best-named corporate entity) added hieroglyphs of C-3P0 and R2-D2 to the walls in the Well of Souls, site of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders. Were I some kind of dreadful nerd I’d now tell you that this establishes as ‘canon’ that Raiders and Star Wars share a narrative universe. And of course Star Wars, a fantasy with SF trappings, happened ‘a long time ago.’ It is quite literally an ‘ancient astronauts’ story, and one that insists over and over that Everything Is Connected. ‘Luminous beings are we! Not this crude matter…’

I’m trying to have it both ways with the word ‘meaningless,’ there. When I insist that I’m both an adamant materialist atheist, on one hand, and a believer not just in six-and-more senses but in varieties of transformation for which no scientist will likely ever have a convincing name, on the other, I’m not trying to be cute, nor to buy legitimacy for kookery; nor am I playing semantic games. Magic isn’t real, but it works. Since I understand art to be machinery for effecting psychotropism over great (spatial/temporal) distances, this strikes me as no contradiction at all.

After playing in the pulps, the ‘eroto-mystical Nazi lunacy’ meme first gained widespread purchase with, you guessed it, The Morning of the Magicians and The Spear of Destiny (which freaked me out as a kid) … But Spielberg/Lucas/Kasdan’s Raiders is the best-known media instance of that conceptual complex, not to mention a classic example of conpsiratorial High Weirdness in mainstream drag. Between Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade we have Nazi ice queens wielding riding crops, suited G-men stowing ancient relics in a government warehouse, Exodus as both dream-history and actual history, medieval knights Grail questing in Turkey, secret societies guarding occult treasures, treasure maps built into Borgesian library architecture, secret Luftwaffe experimental programs, and American traitors pulling a reverse Operation Paperclip to chase archaeological (rather than nuclear) supremacy. Add in the failed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and you’ve got von Däniken-esque ancient astronauts, Commie infiltrators, and Men in Black at Area 51 to boot.

From a work in progress: Nomic and net.culture.

Rough draft, work in progress, claims nonbinding, etc.

For Hofstadter, unresolvable self-contradictions and infinite regresses aren’t failure modes for play or argument, they’re toys. And the same holds true in Nomic play — finding and exploiting a ruleset self-contradiction ‘wins the game,’ but figuring out how to keep play alive beyond that individual victory is one of the major challenges every nontrivial Nomic has solved (footnote deleted –wa.) at which point the players enter the odd state of simply living with/through paradox, in a state of exultant philosophical strangeness unlike anything else in gaming. As much as we went on about The Rules (a/k/a ‘all that’s holy, man’), our true focus was on the ever-shifting texture of experience within them, the space for improvisation and experimental sociality and playful ideation that the rules opened up.

The online world of Nomic was a corner of early cyberculture that had more in common with, say, the collaborative fictional project alt.devilbunnies or the roiling cauldron of Dobbsian lunacy that was alt.slack than with any aspect of today’s ‘games culture.’ In retrospect, it makes sense to think of net.nomics as experiments in (ahem) ‘stateless’ living, close cousins to virtual communities like LambdaMOO, miniature models of the disembodied digital utopia that John Perry Barlow imagined in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. 1

  1. The Declaration is, of course, mortifying to read today — a handy summary of everything ridiculous in early cyberculture discourse. He wrote it in Davos, for Christ’s sake. But it’s dangerous to read that document through a modern lens, when his rhetoric has been terminally co-opted by Silicon Valley execs. We now grant ourselves permission only to imagine what life online can do for our precious mind-bodies, our anxiety/productivity levels, rather than what it could and does do to nation-states; it’s hard to imagine in 2015 that Barlow’s global revolution could ever have been. But for a second there, however hackneyed the language, you could believe it. You’d telnet to lambda.moo.mud.org:8888 and give yourself another name, another body, another gender, another species. You’d type ‘say Hello’ and greet a ‘room’ full of imaginary strangers, each stranger than the last, stranger than they’d ever been. There in the aether, the absolute otherness across the Ethernet, playing freely with every idea you’d ever been, every rule of thought and deed seemed purely mutable. You could be a paradox and keep playing, iterating and experimenting and binding yourself to a self-made system of selves until your own private ruleset generated not ‘sense’ (who cared?) but play. Joy. Right there and then, for as long as you could hold your breath and float through the water, the mad idea that a nation without nations could take form in a realm beyond the senses was not just real but obvious; it was already here, I was there; I swear you could almost taste it. 

Irreal Life Top Ten, two days after the last one.

  1. The Invisibles: Not my first try with this book, but my first go-round with the 1,500+ page hardcover omnibus edition (via MIT Libraries — I don’t have $150 to spend on something like this), which makes the physical act of reading almost impossible but eases the burden of acquiring the damn things in the first place. Morrison is, let’s say it, one of the only geniuses ever to write a comic, and while The Invisibles isn’t his ‘best’ work — his shorter collaborations with Frank Quitely, e.g. We3 and All-Star Superman, are more perfectly formed — it’s his masterwork, showing off the full range of his powers, revealing his limitations and pushing eagerly past them. I’m surprised to find myself giving this advice to first-time readers: read up a little on Morrison’s interests, e.g. chaos magic and ritual uses of psychotropic drugs, just enough to convince yourself that the series isn’t just a grab-bag of impulses but an ecstatically weird longform improvisation within a system. Knowing that every single ‘random’ exchange has some mythic or ritual parallel invests the proceedings with their intended awesome significance, and even if you don’t buy into Morrison’s magical theories (which are much subtler and more playful than he’s credit for) you’ll enter into the reader/writer contract on the appropriate terms. The art, by the way, is all over the map. I’m head over heels for Phil Jimenez’s version of Ragged Robin.

  2. The Flaming Lips, instrumentals: I’ve rarely enjoyed the Lips’ individual instrumental tracks in context; as with a lot of rock bands accustomed to the singer being the center of attention, absent Wayne Coyne’s singular voice the Lips tend to rely on vibe and uhhhh sensibility rather than a compelling melody line or sensible harmonic movement or any of that boring old shit. (Remember how deflating ‘The Observer’ is on the heels of the merely perfect ‘What Is the Light?’ or the way ‘Yoshimi…Pt. 2’ seems unimaginative filler after three killer songs? At least the sleepy ‘Pavonis Mons’ actually moves…) But the goal-directedness of the Christmas on Mars soundtrack seems paradoxically to focus them: the album’s all but melody-free, yet the tracks get stuff done, sustaining a mood of lonely sci-fi psychedelia that perfectly matches the no-budget visuals of the (underrated) film. As I said in my 33-1/3 Phish book, the primitivist backlash of punk and hip-hop at the 70s/80s turn so shifted the critical Overton window that ambitious longform work now (still!) gets tarred as ‘pretentious’ instead of merely ‘ambitious’ and ‘long.’ The hell with that. Pair Mars with Cliff Martinez’s Solaris score for a trip into heartbroken innerspace.

  3. Phish and Bernie: Sanders was mayor of Burlington, the college town where Phish came up. Phish are one of the biggest rock bands of the last twenty years, and have always been good to their adopted home of Vermont. Their drummer and bassist have played Bernie benefits and campaigned for him. They’re also — believe it or not — a good band. I’m most interested in what goes on in the head of someone whose first and only response to [Sanders’s comments] (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bernie-sanders-on-phish-one-of-the-great-bands-in-this-country-20160302) was to roll his eyes at what a shit band Phish are. Who still thinks that? Who ever thought that was the last word on Phish? Anyone who works harder than you ever have at something more complex than you can imagine deserves, if not respect, if not your ticket purchase, at an absolute minimum your attention, briefly, if you please. But Phish have never been the sort to ask. They just do what they do. How dare they.

  4. Vernacular: Anytime you’re motivated to use the phrase ‘Last one in is a…’ you should instead bust out the swinging archaism ‘…and the devil take the hindmost!’ It recalls the glory of warfare and the omnipresence of Satan; the Americanism, itself archaic, sounds like kids’ talk, which is — yes, I understand — The Very Thing in this relentlessly infantilizing shitscared world. As usual, the hipsters with their wonderful-childhood-wonder-that’s-also-a-little-sad fetish were ahead of the curve. The devil take them too.

  5. Playdates: Now that we have a 5yo son we have one party a year — his birthday — and never just ‘hang out’ with friends anymore, with the noble exception of my weekly ‘gentlemen’s night’ playing nerd games at Rugs and Lindsey’s house, and my roughly biweekly lunches with my bald doctor friend Jeremy. Our circle of close adult friends consists solely of other parents; our crew of beautiful curious children will run this world someday, if there’s justice and sense. And our social lives revolve almost solely around the children. As a result I’ve all but lost the ability to judge whether I’d hit it off with another adult. So if you and I were destined to be fast friends and I’ve sidelined that possibility in favour of occasional Twitter hellos and the like, don’t take it personally. Instead, get (someone) knocked up and in a couple of years text me about a playdate. There’s a couple of great parks nearby and the weather’s nice.

  6. The rebooted X-Files: A frustrating mess. The TV showrunner usually ends up guardian or avatar of the show’s organizing vision, which makes sense; it’s usually her idea in the first place. But Chris Carter, like George Lucas, is a clumsy dialogue writer and ambitious but technically limited producer/director who misuses an excellent cast yet still manages to come up with one haunting tableau after another. (In both cases, an epochal soundtrack and excellent production values help.) The opening of ‘Season 10’ was an embarrassment, but for the middle three episodes the show went from strength to strength, showing off the key features of the original series — tongue-in-cheek Forteana, coolly intense small-group melodrama, sharp-eyed (if at times cack-handed) cultural analysis, genuinely subversive antigovernment (etc.) paranoia, and a moving sympathy for the mad and marginal — with newly softened edges courtesy of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, still one of the all-time great TV couples after all these years. (They’ve both aged miraculously, and Anderson in particular is now a formidable technician.) The show remains a fish out of water, poorly matched to the lazy credulity and banal partisanship of the post-9/11 era. But Carter’s vision of America’s inner schizologue retains some of its original power. Assuming we can stop the ‘critics’ babbling about the incoherence of the mythology and whether the one-offs were better than the serial eps (hint: ‘every episode is a mythology episode’) and Carter doesn’t completely piss away the goodwill he and his actors have built, The X-Files will be known as one of the essential premillennium American screen entertainments — among the most accurate maps of that decadent era’s unspoken urges.

  7. Apple and privacy: Now that no one’s paying attention but the hardcore — making this bullshit request at the height of an insane presidential campaign was pure coincidence, I’m sure — expect the government to reach up its sleeve and pull out something ugly. Then take a minute, or even just ten seconds, to ask whether you should be paying closer attention to what will either be a near miss for the good guys or a huge step toward the end of our democratic experiment.

  8. Wearing pants inside out: No big deal, really, as long as the pants are clean. You’re not making any kind of statement or pushing any boundaries but other than the zipper and pockets you’re not making life hard on yourself. Less daily labour than a mohawk, probably. However! If (like a certain 5-year-old boy in our damned house) you take a dirty pair of pants, a pair of pants you’ve already worn a couple of times this week because they’re your favourite gettin’-into-trouble pants and your favourite roughhousin’-with-the-lads pants, and put those on inside out, you will be taking a dozen floors’ worth of gross shit and just rubbing them all over your legs all day. Sonny boy, it’s important to make mistakes. But it’s no good making that mistake twice.

  9. Flying Lizards, ‘Money’: Knowing nothing about this track (off the Wedding Singer soundtrack) except that it was a cover of a song I knew from childhood, I played this for my son and experienced extremes of disgust, confusion, and elation over the course of 3ish minutes. A joke like this doesn’t take much follow-through — it sounds like a first take — but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. Norr funny, mind you, though it actually is, thank God. All the way through! Robert Fripp was in the Flying Lizards at some point, which is even funnier; everything involving Robert Fripp is a little funny to start out with. If I were Barrett Strong and I’d written Motown’s first hit single and these no-talent assholes came along and pissed all over my song I’d be pretty annoyed, which is (I suspect) part of the point. That’s not funny, not even a little bit.

  10. Respiratory ailments: You live in the country, you get asthma exacerbations when you exercise. You live in the city, you get them when you stand up from the couch. Between these two poles is a poem I can’t write.