wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: June, 2017

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 

Fly casual: My first X-WING tournament.

I played in tonight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game tourney at my FLGS, Pandemonium Books and Games in Central Square. It was my first grownup X-Wing experience; until tonight I’d only played with my son and his friends, and he’s six. C’mon now.

I played two matches, then kibitzed awhile and headed home early. How can I put this? It was fantastic.

For the first hour it was as if I had loaded dice; for the second the godly favour went to my opponent, which seems fair. I went 1-1. And I loved every minute of it, except maybe the bit where my TIE Striker boiled away into space after taking a single desultory potshot.

Among the nerds

I felt incredible social anxiety about going, but as my wife could surely have told you well in advance, I needn’t have worried. The X-Wing community’s official motto is perfectly chosen, and they mean it: ‘Fly Casual.’ This manifests in big and small ways — casually lending out tokens, helping each other out with rules questions, trusting your opponent to handle maneuvers and check ranges on the far side of the table, not freaking out when ships and obstacles get bumped… This was a seriously nerdy crowd, man, with a full quota of fat pimply nerd dudes in ill-fitting Star Wars shirts, and everyone was incredibly kind and relaxed to the extent that he or she was physically able. (The one player with the offputting inability to modulate his facial expressions or tone of voice turned out to be an easygoing helpful guy able to laugh at himself.)

It was a young crew, mostly guys in their 20s (the organizer is a redheaded trans valkyrie named Cat), and the vibe was unfailingly supportive and relaxed — again, to teh extent that everyone was able. My second opponent was (1) socially awkward, no question about it, but (2) endearingly trying his best, meaning any lingering awkwardness was my problem not his, plus he was (3) super easygoing about rules and norms and chitchat once we got past my thoroughly unheimlich lack of preparation or sang-froid.

It was glorious. Am I making that clear? As I said to Cat on the way out, if I’d had a store like Pandemonium as a kid, a community of nerds like that one (this one), I’d have been a completely different human being. At a minimum, maybe I’d have been less of a teenage grump.

I can’t wait to bring my son back to fly as partners.

And — this should go without saying, but times being what they are, nothing wonderful goes without saying — I’m so grateful to my wife for clearing space for me to go out for the evening.

This bit’s for X-Wing types

Here’s my 96-point dogfighting squad:

Carnor Jax — PTL + Royal Guard TIE + Targeting Computer + Stealth Device (34pts)

The Inquisitor — Lightning Reflexes + Tracers + TIE/v1 + Shield Upgrade (32pts)

“Duchess” : PTL + Adaptive Ailerons + Engine Upgrade (30pts)

It’s a casual homebrew list, can you tell? I wanted to be dodging arcs all sneakylike and using Carnor to shut down my opponents’ action-economy tricks, but I kept failing to avoid jousts, which worked against an ARC/Y-Wing list but failed utterly against a tricked-out Ryad/Inquisitor/OmegaAce list. The Defender hits goddamned hard! That tractor beam is murder; I’m not sure how to neutralize it, and don’t want to read too much about strategy online.

I was flying three fragile ships, and even with Stealth and Shield++ on Carnor, I needed to be more detail-oriented, um, than is my wont. Hot dice bore me through a Y+TLT assault in the first game, but Carnor was up against three target-locked killers in the second.

If I go back next week, I’ll proxy some Autothrusters for Carnor, or else try out a Fenn/Manaroo list, which looks super fun (Fenn will give me the daredevil experience I like best about X-Wing, and Manaroo will force me to manage resources and fly like an adult). On the other hand, do we really need to see more toilet seats in competitive X-Wing?

C’mon now.

TFW, Depeche Mode edition.

TFW, as they say — TFW you have copies of neither Tears for Fears’s ‘Head Over Heels’ nor Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ in your iTunes library.

Very top of the very morning.

In the middle of my 60th or 70th jumping jack, after the ‘core-blasting’ planks and some cat/camel back stretches and the shoulder rolls — which I narrated here alone in our living room, ‘You see the shoulder roll and the arm circle actually serve very different functions,’ to audience nodding and later applause — in the middle of the jackjumping stretch where I decided that the right thing to do was to try with each jumped jack to touch my hands together overhead arms extended (to ‘reach for the sky’ as movie-Al Capone or Dick Tracy’s own Flathead might’ve said) I started smiling so big that I started laughing aloud (audience applause and later the throwing of roses, panties, wadded-up $billion bills), thank Christ there were no children neighbours spouses or other authority figures nearby to be weirded out.

Exercising completely changes who I am in the short, medium, and long term. The obvious immediate result is that I’m happier and feel more attractive. In the medium term I’m less irritable, sleep better, and am more inclined to opt into physically active stuff. In the long term, I die later (statistically speaking).

The difference in my mood from yes- to no-exercise days is absolute. And while it’s been hard to accept this fact, I’m beginning to understand it: I’m in a position to set the mood of the house. This isn’t an inappropriate (‘masculine’) arrogation of power, it’s a (masculine) service.

This has been your semidaily unedited first draft update on yr humble author’s state of mind. Now back to the eggs and b., Reader(s), and good luck.

Comey note: what matters and what very definitely does not.

Comey was ‘the bad guy’ when the entire Democratic Party turned on him and is ‘the good guy’ now that the entire Republican Party has turned on him, from my/our perspective, but the local lesson is that he was always just a man in a job, and the global lesson is that only Power benefits when we get wrapped up in the dumb psychodrama of modern media-politics.

The question of whether Comey is a partisan jerk wasn’t really ours to worry about, since there was nothing we could do about it one way or the other. (And anyway he doesn’t actually seem to be.) This is one of the deep problems with today’s news media: they can’t pose the questions that matter, because those questions can’t be answered or even substantively addressed in the context of the 24-hr ‘news cycle.’ This is about instant satisfaction beating deep fulfillment, ‘free’ beating ‘cheap,’ frictionless beating meaningful: the only thing that matters on TV news (and in Internet punditry) is the soundbite — moreso now than ever, in our era of ‘viral’ video clips substituting for actual journalism. TV (synecdoche for sensation-journalism) can’t ask, ‘What could Comey’s motivations for the Clinton revelations have been? What do we not know about the situation?’ So instead it asks: ‘Is Comey a partisan jerk?’ Or: ‘Do you think Trump did something wrong?!’

We hear these questions precisely because nothing at all is at stake in addressing them. A highly classified investigation of the White House inner circle is going on; there’s every chance it will find that the president obstructed justice and colluded with a foreign power. Your opinion of all this doesn’t matter; it’s being handled by actual experts, in appropriate secrecy and silence.

Meanwhile the Senate Republicans are steps away from gutting our healthcare system for short-term political gain. This matters, and more to the point, they can be stopped by the application of political pressure. Something is at stake.

It is too important to be left up to the people.

Which is why you’re not hearing about it on the news.

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)