wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: April, 2016

A note about Terry Pratchett, to keep you from getting cocky.

Between 1989 and 1992, Terry Pratchett wrote sixteen books.

Sixteen: 16.

One of them is Good Omens, which admittedly he only cowrote and which I can take or leave, honestly.

Ten (10) of them are Discworld novels, including Pyramids, Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, and the next two — Small Gods and Lords and Ladies — which are considered some of Pratchett’s best work. Small Gods in particular is the consensus pick for ‘peak Pratchett,’ near as I can tell.

Oh, and some short stories and a computer game and so forth. No big deal.

So next time you let yourself think Man, I’m really good at my job…


Terry Pratchett, WITCHES ABROAD.

Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, and young(ish) Magrat head off to Genua to stop a story.

Witches Abroad is the next Discworld book after Reaper Man, and is the most focused in the series so far: the witches are onstage for the entire run of the book, and there’s no ‘B plot’ to distract (the bit with the Wizards in the mall is the only blemish on Reaper Man). Here Pratchett stretches his wings a bit, culturally speaking — there’s a voodoo lady conjuring a loa, and while it’s all a bit broad-brush linguistically speaking, Pratchett imbues her (and her dead friend the god, Mr Saturday) with a powerful ambivalence that lifts the material. The villain of the piece is a Pratchett Villain, trying to control the mere human beings who surround her. The magic is magical. The plot shenanigans at the end stretch on a touch too long. It is, in short, a Discworld novel. After a bit of slow going in the first couple dozen pages, I loved every word of it.

Nanny, Granny, and Magrat (whose poorly educated mother had been aiming for ‘Margaret’ on the birth certificate) amount to an extraordinary achievement: three distinct, fully realized personalities, each with a rich dramatic arc within the book and from volume to volume, each with an understandable mix of motives, each sympathetic and maddeningly mortal. Granny Weatherwax’s climactic monologue about the evil of turning people into characters may as well be a mission statement for the entire series; from any other author it would seem gestural, pretentious, but Pratchett lives and dies by those words, granting his characters an imaginative autonomy that goes far beyond ‘sympathy’ to a kind of soul-projection. Their conversations remind me of The Golden Girls, but without that (great) show’s enjoyment of its own shock value — lived-in, familiar, yet constantly surprising. The greatest triumph of Pratchett’s Witches novels might be the matter-of-factness with which they cast aside the ‘Bechdel Test’; it seems trivial, childish, even to notice that this clear-eyed celebration of old women’s lasting friendships was written by Bestselling White Male Author.

The secret to Pratchett’s masterful rendering of the lives of ordinary human beings seems to’ve been this: he saw people clearly, met them on their own terms, and told the truth about them.

That’s why the villainess of Witches Abroad, the twisted fairy godmother, keeps insisting that she’s ‘the good one.’ That’s why reading Nanny Ogg’s semiliterate postcards feels like celebrating her humanity rather than laughing at her. It’s why Pratchett never draws our attention to the quiet wisdom that Magrat has won from her studies, and why her criticisms of the older witches’ anti-intellectualism are answered with experience but never quite rebutted — she’s right about them, after all. But no one’s right about everything.

The subtle gradations between Nanny, Granny, and Reaper Man‘s Renata Flitworth (and Mrs Cake!) are testament to Pratchett’s humanity. And to theirs. They’re people. I keep saying this, I can’t believe it, but he wrote people. They’re as real as I am. What a gift he had. I’m so grateful that he chose to share it.

Witches Abroad is in some senses better than Reaper Man. I know this. It doesn’t matter. I can only hope you read them both. All of them. The Disc — a great big flat earth on the backs of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle — is as real as the room I’m in. You must go. You’ve got to see it for yourself.

A second thought:

Baron Saturday (Samedi), the wronged king whose horrible vengeance turns out to be not such a happy ending after all, is as impressive a creation in his way as Granny herself — not because of his humanity, but because he embodies a surprisingly complex set of ideas about rulership and justice and family and cultural identity and Right and Wrong and of course Death, plus also voodoo necromancy. Pratchett’s ongoing struggle with the big and small ways that power corrupts (‘I never wore a crown!‘ … ‘You never wanted to rule’) finds its richest expression yet in the figures of Mrs Gogol and Saturday. If there’s an ideological throughline to the Discworld novels, it’s there, in Pratchett’s harsh treatment of would-be social engineers and his determination to see both the value and the cost of men like Saturday and Vetinari.

‘Branded LEGO kits stifle kids’ creativity.’

I hear this all the time, this claim that Star Wars LEGOs fuck your kids up while plain-jane LEGOs encourage their imaginations. I’ve even made the claim myself. I recant. It is not true.

My 5-year-old son has long favoured Ninjago LEGOs, four (then five) elemental-themed ninja and their wily sensei Wu battling a succession of themed armies: warriors of stone, snake-men, robots and AIs, ghosts from a Lovecraftian hell dimension, pirate-djinn, and a transparent Mortal Kombat tournament pastiche with elemental warriors from all over the world. It’s one pastiche and earnest popcult reference after another, honestly. At first I found the toys and the TV show tiresome; now I love the show even more than my boy does.

He’s also got a large selection of Star Wars LEGOs, naturally, plus a couple of LEGO Friends sets (tween girls in a charming risk-averse fantasy land), several Chima sets (dreadful anime-ish fighting animals), and Bilbo Baggins’s house.

He also inherited hundreds or thousands of plain LEGOs from my brother and me, and from my wife and her brother. Yes, there are astronauts and knights and city cops on motorbikes in there; yes, the astronauts’ helmet are all broken in the same way. (I was The LEGO Movie‘s target audience; its makers were freakishly attentive to any details which might play into my nostalgia.)

Here’s how my son plays with LEGOs:

  1. He assembles the kits. Lately, honestly, he can’t be bothered with this step.
  2. Within a couple of days begins cannibalizing the kits for parts for his own improvised creations: multistory houses and spaceships like flying cathedrals.
  3. He swaps out pieces of the minifigures, including individual limbs (which actually unnerves me). Princesses with stormtrooper helmets, construction workers in lizard masks carrying dwarven axes, etc.
  4. As a test of my resolve, he leaves the pieces scattered around the house.

He’s not alone in any of this. Five bucks says this is the standard use case for LEGO models among well-adjusted humans everywhere.

My son doesn’t give a Beyoncé (I’ll explain this phrase some other time, it’s actually complimentary to Beyoncé, trust me) about where the pieces actually go after his initial rush of excitement to duplicate what’s on the box. Indeed, per The LEGO Movie again, I’m probably more anxiety-ridden on that score than him; the idea of losing a piece and so being unable to rebuild a model twenty years from now is for me a soul-rending horror.

For a long time I’ve felt that branded media tie-ins were tacky — and they are, they unquestionably are — but they’re also not anywhere near as bad as I’ve thought. The fact that a given piece was once the sidewall of an AT-AT’s weirdly small storage compartment has no bearing on whether it suits my son’s plans for a maximum-security intergalactic dragon prison.

I do agree with one complaint about tie-in LEGO kits: they’re too damned full of limited-use nonstandard pieces. It is known. The way around this limitation is clear: buy lots and lots and lots of LEGO sets so your children have enough limited-use pieces to make something of them. If you’re reading this blog from a workdesk or in your copious free time, you’re probably already doing this, and the Danes and I salute you.

In Viriconium.

Where the city is at its emptiest we find ourselves full.

The brief In Viriconium pushes the Viriconium world-story closer to suffocation. Where A Storm of Wings revisited the original melancholic fantasy The Pastel City in extraordinarily dense new language but maintained a rough continuity of character and chronology, this tale of Ashlyme the portraitist and the City’s creeping plague of lassitude and despair repurposes names, events, locations without honouring any of the conventions of late-20C fantastic fiction which were the first two books’ points of contact with the old familiar. Where Storm at times conjured a mix of midcentury sci-fantasy pulp and, say, the abstracted urban dreamscapes of (say) Terry Gilliam’s Aeon Flux, this third puzzle-piece’s Viriconium is a surreal(ist) mix of absinthe-addled painters and Margaret Thatcher reading the tarot and two mad city-gods, neglected and abusive, cavorting in a sickened stream.

The mood is darker than before — Evening deepens — and this being Harrison, the language is perfectly precise, dense (less dense than in Storm, less bloated and cruel) but never rich. No sugar. I winced at this horribly beautiful image, which thankfully some other disciple typed up:

Everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly; while down below, among the ragwort on the towpath, writhed the thousand-and-one black and yellow caterpillars of the cinnabar moth, some fat and industrious, rearing up their blunt, ugly heads, others thin and scruffy and torpid. The Barley brothers ate them and were sick.

Horrible insects appear en masse and are stepped on and eaten. A knife-wielding dwarf comes onstage, but mostly sits in a tower and arranges liaisons with a fortune-teller (though at one point he does stab a handful of washer women). I’d’ve sworn I heard the wings of a metal bird. Which is to say: this is Viriconium, after all, but its previous identities or iterations play out as backward echoes suggesting dreadful true things — it’s familiar enough that its strangeness is piercingly sad and awful. I kept longing for the Grand Cairo, the addled dwarf, to wake up from this story to his ‘original’ tale, strap on his exosuit, and go off to war. But that dwarf was made (up) for another sort of story, and he died the last go-round, didn’t he? And this is what he died to.

Is Hillary Clinton qualified to be President?

Tiresome disclaimer: I didn’t vote in this year’s MA primary. I stand by my summer 2008 prediction that Clinton would win in November 2016. I’m an admirer (but not a backer) of Bernie Sanders. I proudly supported Obama against Clinton, and proudly support principled and intelligent local candidates regardless of party affiliation, when I know enough to vote with confidence.

In one crucial respect, Sanders is totally unlike Clinton: he’s a political idealist who’s never used his political connections to enrich himself (just look at his suits), while she and her husband have been busy grifters since their Arkansas days. When she suggests that Sanders is unqualified, she’s making a ‘meritocratic’ appeal which should be familiar to anyone who follows the horserace — Sanders has the wrong background and has not Put In the Time and Done the Hard Work. You can agree or disagree with this claim on the merits, that’s up to you, but by taking up the question you adopt Clinton’s framework for thinking about politics.

When Sanders says outright that she’s unqualified, not because of her level of preparedness but because of the specific decisions she’s shown herself to be willing to make, he’s making a different sort of claim altogether, one which is all but unknown in the federal government. From TPM, which (it bears mentioning) is less and less subtly pro-HRC by the day:

Sanders reiterated Sunday in an interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that he thought Clinton has the experience to be President, but questioned her Wall Street donations and stances on other issues.

“I think those issues will tell the American people that in many respects, she may have the experience to be president of the United States. No one can argue that. But in terms of her judgment, something is clearly lacking,” Sanders said.

The idea that (say) noisily advocating for Bush’s invasion of Iraq would disqualify you from high office on moral grounds could never, ever enter into Clinton’s calculations. She is a different kind of person in government for different reasons, surrounding herself with creatures whose presence Sanders would never tolerate, and happily selling her constituents up the river for short-term political gain. She’s willing to lie, to race-bait, to suborn perjury, to call publicly for war and then insist she’s a peacenik, to support the nakedly racist class warfare of the ‘War on Drugs’ while pantomiming sympathy for blacks, to claim the mantle of Advocate for Women while personally hiring private investigators to publicy smear the parade of women who believably accused her husband of sexual malfeasance up to and including rape. These, for Sanders and for people who came of age thinking of politics as he did (and to an extent clearly still does), are her moral qualifications — evidence of the decision-making equipment she has available for the job.

That’s why Sanders and his most vocal supporters can’t abide Clinton. It’s not what you think, it’s how you think — in that respect she’s 100% part of the problem, indistinguishable in moral terms from the Republicans whose ‘vast conspiracy’ famously troubled her marriage twenty years ago. Even if HRC’s current policy proposals are much closer to Sanders’s than to the GOP’s, the difference between the two is that Sanders (by all accounts) treats them as statements of principle, which is why they can at times be maddeningly vague, while Clinton’s policy sheet is — how to put this? — subject to last-minute revision the instant Money says so.

You are welcome to your belief that Clinton will be a effective chief executive. You’re welcome to believe that her liberation from her sociopathic husband has revealed her True Colours. (I might even agree with you.) You’re welcome to vote Democrat down the line, because ‘at least they’re better than the Republicans.’ But the Sanders campaign insists on something difficult: the Dems really are no better than the Republicans if their worldview is no different from the GOP’s. Clinton is part of the Permanent Ruling Party, she has been for a quarter-century, and Sanders has made himself that Party’s enemy at some cost to himself. (Again: look at his suits.)

That is the choice, this primary season.

When Sanders speaks of Clinton’s ‘qualifications,’ he’s not saying she hasn’t been vetted. He’s saying she was vetted by the known liars and predators on her own team, from K Street to Wall Street, and she can’t be trusted.

You can agree or not. But at least think about it. The man went to all the trouble of running for President, after all.

Irreal Life Top Ten, early April 2016.

  1. Loveless: Maybe one of the highest compliments you can give to a work of art is: ‘I go back and forth with that one.’ Well, with this one I do — some days I think the thin boring vocals are a perfect textural element, some days it’s better that they’re buried because they’re terrible and who cares about the lyrics anyway, some days ‘When You Sleep’ is 88% too cute, some days a perilously flat-of-affect alternarock guitar album covered in artful electrosludge really is an alternarock guitar album. Some days a private vision is best expressed by retreating from impulse to share. A song that can’t exist around a campfire is hardly a song, but then here we are watching the seas rise and this sound is in the world providing what diversion it can. And I could probably sing these songs around a campfire too, if I could find them. I enjoy Loveless more today than I resent it, but make no guarantees about tomorrow. What is there to say about the album? Take it or leave it. It’s not the first, last, or best of anything, but the most of something deserves (if not a listen then) a shot. Here’s a handy bonus lesson: right before MBV in my iTunes library is the unlistenable, genetically related Musica Transonic, which handily shows just how accessible Kevin Shields’s overrated masterpiece is.

  2. Family Week: My son’s kindergarten class welcomes one family per week to lead a class activity, do a little interview with the kids, decorate the Dramatic Play area, lay out a little ‘share table’ with mementos from home, and — this is crucial — provide a mix CD of songs that the kid likes. My son chose these ten tracks from the several dozen in regular drive-to-school rotation: ‘We Will Rock You’ (Queen), ‘Tightrope’ (Janelle Monae), ‘Single Ladies’ (Beyoncé), ‘Cantina Band’ (John Williams, Star Wars), ‘Look-Ka Py Py’ (The Meters), ‘Untitled Self Portrait’ (Batman’s song from The Lego Movie), ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ (TMBG’s cover), ‘The Passenger’ (Iggy Pop), ‘Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra’ (John Williams, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and ‘The Inner Light’ (The Beatles).

  3. Douglas Adams: My son has also been digging the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio broadcasts. He likes the silly bits (e.g. the mice), loses patience with Adams’s labyrinthine sentences, and — this is crucial — has demonstrated an ability to parse several British accents. My dad’s from the north of England so this is a survival skill. We just started in on the episode set at the Restaurant. (I recommend the rerecorded LP version, which features superior performances, much fuller sound, and an edited script.) I noticed again that Trillian doesn’t quite register. Pratchett’s women are humans, but Adams’s are just characters. Of course, the same is largely true of their men. Pratchett wrote stories about complex people which at times communicated interesting ideas; Adams wrote stories about complex ideas which contained funny characters. Nearly everyone in the H2G2 universe is ‘unlikable,’ and no one and nothing is lovable. (I identified with Marvin as a kid, and so overlooked what a vicious bit of characterization he was.) His novels’ moments of warmth — the Magrathean factory floor, the cavemen drawing Scrabble pieces, the sight of the burning trees — are genuine and memorable, but they’re always undercut by a hollow echoing laughter in the background: the cavemen are dying pointlessly, the earth’s reconstruction is cancelled by the mice because they’re bored, its forests burn as part of the mad Golgafrinchan currency revaluation program. It’s telling that Adams’s one nonfiction book is humane, empathetic, and largely about endangered African animals.

  4. King of Tokyo: Having played a ton of Richard Garfield’s King of New York over the last 6-12 months, I’d forgotten what pure pleasure its simpler predecessor still offers. Ideal for 5yo kids who read well, and perfectly suited to beer’n’pretzels adult play — the variety of cards and carefully managed randomness give it strong replay value, and the players’ fates are tightly coupled and unpredictable. Heartily recommended as a beginner board game.

  5. Rewatching The Force Awakens: It’s every bit as skillfully executed as it seemed, but the only things I love about it are the four central performances, which have a swimming-upstream quality due to the adolescent writing. Since Daisy Ridley’ll presumably have to carry the next film, let’s hope she’s a touch more flexible next time around. Most importantly — and unsurprisingly, if you’ve read anything I’ve written about the man and his work over the last decade — I see nothing in this film to suggest that JJ Abrams has ever had a human emotion.

  6. Drop bars: It was time for a new bike and the folks at Ace Wheelworks were happy to sell me one. For casual riders and commuters, the theory behind drop bars — y’know, the pronghorn-shaped things the fitness obsessives lean on while pedaling furiously to escape themselves — isn’t performance but rest. With a half-dozen hand/arm positions available you can ride long distances comfortably, varying posture and degree of stretch to maintain good kinesthetic order longer. It’s a little more acutely taxing, but more importantly it’s comfortable enough to tax you in new ways over the long haul; drop bars present new affordances. The American cult of pseudoathletic biking (wearing the padded shorts to ride a few city blocks at a time on the way to the code farm) is an embarrassment. The Euros get it: if you’re in the world, look at the world. But I can’t anymore use those upright stroll-through-the-countryside things. The load is such that I need the variety and power that a proper touring bike offers. So: drop bars, and the word ‘kinesthetic,’ and a promise to myself that I won’t wear those bloody padded shorts, which promise I’ll break at the first twinge of prostate discomfort in 3…2…

  7. Story Cubes: Rory’s, in our case, though the ‘off-brand’ stuff works just as well. For Family Week at my son’s kindergarten we’re making a giant set of Story Cubes with U-Haul book boxes. This is one of the best ideas we’ve ever had, the best family projects we’ve done (all three of us sitting crosslegged on the living room floor painting until bedtime) and you should do it too. Warning: tempera paint is flaky, some sort of varnish will be necessary before the end of the project. What a hassle. Still worth it though.

  8. Beyoncé: I’ve finally listened to a Beyoncé LP, her self-titled 2014 ‘visual album’ or whatever the PR folks call it. I haven’t seen the videos because the music doesn’t interest me. I don’t generally listen to contemporary pop music that isn’t written by its performers, and Beyoncé is widely said to have not one writing bone in her body; without autobiographical Significance, the songs are generally banal, embarrassing. The blowjob song (‘Partition’) is a fine piece of car-stereo pap, except for the line ‘I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker,’ which I choose to take (perhaps unjustifiably) as a deeply courageous comprehensive account of her contribution to the songwriting. The multipart ‘Flawless’ is completely daft: a series of greeting-card affirmations mixed with an extraordinarily petty bit of ‘Bow down, bitches!’ puffery and a dose of feminist Significance from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, opening and closing with the sound of Ed McMahon denying her teen rap group the top prize on Star Search, which presumably the listener is supposed to feel Beyoncé and her crew deserved — you know they lost to a white hair band, right? (Of course you do, that’s part of the point.) ‘Drunk in Love’ would be perfect without words or Beyoncé’s tiresome boor of a husband, ‘Jealous’ is gorgeous, ‘Rocket’ is conventional fun, ‘Blow’ would be better with some of Janelle Monae’s weird vibe, and the whole thing turns out to be stadium-pop in which not a single split second of accident or uninhibited risk-taking is possible or desirable. Effortlessly slick and proficient, and Beyoncé’s voice is gigantic — but help me out, didn’t somebody once sing ‘Your kisses are sweet like honey / But guess what / So is my money’ over a killer beat made by human beings sweating on a bandstand? She had a decent voice too, as I recall; could play the piano as well! — and the goddamn crown doesn’t pass until the Queen does. Respect.

  9. ‘Hacking’: You may not care that the word ‘hacking’ has been devalued to the point where it’s now applied to using an IKEA product for other than its intended purpose, or houseruling Dungeons & Dragons, or setting up a Gmail filter…but as an MIT alum, I remember the word ‘hacking’ being an honorific which you earned by demonstrating ingenuity and respect — by taking risks without seeking credit. This is not a minor semantic quibble. Everything is getting devalued the same way, have you noticed? ‘Genius.’ ‘Activism.’ ‘Identity.’ ‘Entrepreneur.’ ‘Angel,’ even. When the seas rise, we’ll wish we’d been more careful with them.

  10. Buy my books. Do it. Actually, buy them directly from me! I get more money that way. Your best bet is to drop me an email (waxbanks at gmail) or comment or Twitter message. I’ll write strange things in your copy, in addition to the strange things already printed inside. BUY MY BOOOOOOOKS!!!!