wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: archival

RPG review: VOR RUKOTH (2010).

Note: I wrote this review of a D&D 4e product in, what, 2015? 2016? Earlier? Anyway, sometime after 4e had died. In general I stand by it and I’m publishing the old draft unchanged here. In retrospect I’d only add that WotC’s 4e-era ‘Points of Light’ (‘PoLand’) setting — a placeless setting-framework — was an interesting idea, not necessarily to say a good one, but predictably executed without wit, style, or imaginative freedom. Hasbro D&D is boring. That’s their house ‘style.’

In terms of D&D history, the most telling feature of 2010’s Vor Rukoth: An Ancient Ruins Adventure Site is its second sentence:

[Vor Rukoth] is not intended to present a cohesive adventure path, but rather, dozens of locations and hooks that you can weave into an existing adventure or campaign setting.

The idea that players/DMs expect their supplements to be ‘adventure paths’ isn’t surprising — D&D’s chief competitor isn’t Pathfinder, it’s the largely linear world of video games, and has been since the days of 1st edition — but it’s bracing to be reminded that the imagined audience for 4e products sees/saw the illusionist hybrid creature known as the ‘adventure path’ as the baseline D&D experience.

Certain tensions inherent in the product seem to arise from this conception.

Vor Rukoth details an adventure site, which — as the name ‘Vor Rukoth’ clearly signals — is eeeeevil: a former human settlement whose rulers made a diabolic pact to repel a dragonborn army and were thereby transformed into tieflings (devil-people, a core species in 4e and 5e along with dragon-people). The city’s ruler opened a gate to hell, devils overran both invaders and citizens, and Bob’s your uncle, now the gate is the lich-ladylord’s phylactery and everything in Vor Rukoth is bad.

Vor Rukoth was ‘lost to civilization’ for centuries, but now a hobbit-but-wait-there’s-a-secret-here named The Coyote has established a tent city on the outskirts to provision would-be explorers. It’s a Deadwood-ish, Mos Eisley-ish place; the bartender at the saloon(!) is a devil-woman named Inferna. There’s none of the imaginative brio of Mos Eisley nor the poetry of Deadwood, but how could there be? Anyhow that’s just the first few pages. Things are bound to pick up.

So what’s inside?

There’s a generic, uninspiring city map. There’s some breathless workmanlike prose. There’re factions, each with a clear agenda and a subversive working against it, usefully cross-referenced to adventure hooks in the gazetteer (thanks, WotC, for nailing this simple bit of textual apparatus). There’s a list of Events which contains this suggestion…

As a locale where opposing forces are constantly at work, Vor Rukoth is active even when the characters are not there. One way to make the city seem more alive is to introduce events that disrupt the balance of power or change the geography of the area.

…which sounds sensible enough, but then the listed events include ‘earthquake floods the streets with lava’ and ‘prophesied alignment of the heavens brings catastrophe’ and ‘new emperor arises with a hell-army.’ The framing text emphasises verisimilitude (not ‘realism’ duh) yet the actual Events list is basically ‘minor apocalypses that change the tactical situation,’ none of them fleshed out — par for the schizo-course in a supplement that advertises itself as a ‘living city’ and spends a sixth of its page count on factions.

Locationwise, Vor Rukoth is sketchy but not evocative, as by now you’ve perhaps come to expect, and is neither detailed enough to run as-is nor compelling enough to improvise with. Each district of the city gets a bunch of backstory which the players will probably never learn, and a handful of standard D&D hooks (mostly of the ‘a patron with a Hidden Agenda wants to send you off treasure hunting’ variety). There’s magical treasure everywhere. The ‘skill challenge’ mechanic is suggested several times; it remains an awkward, blunt instrument. Flavourwise, stylewise, it’s…well: ghostly prostitutes wander the former red light district, half-orc slavers have supernatural help, there’s a cavern full of blood worms. Everything is Dark and Serious and dull.

In keeping with 4e norms, no effort at naturalism has been made. The city’s built for setpieces, not the slow burn of an urban campaign — it’s a treasure-filled dungeon. Instead of ‘mere (un)life,’ the city’s full of extras, the equivalent of stage actors whispering ‘peas and carrots’ to look like they’re conversing.

The biggest surprise in Vor Rukoth is how little 4e this 4e product contains: just twelve statblocks, only five of them for threats (the others are items), and no bestiary as such. It’s practically an edition-neutral product, which is a good thing — beyond a few holdouts, there’s no 4e market left anyway. So how does it stack up against, say, other recent D&D adventure material, official and fanmade? Not too well, I’m afraid: it’s a standard WotC product, all workmanlike writing and generic fighty-fantasy art and Abandoned Streets echoing with the Cries of the Angry Dead. It certainly brings the sketchy 4e setting to life; the trouble is, that setting is utterly undistinguished. Beefy fighers with lots of buckles on their armour fight weedy little spellcasters in colour-coded robes, and the sound of your name advertises your alignment: if you’ve ever looked at a d20 product before, you’ve seen this one. On the open market for imaginative RPG projects without edition buy-in (lock-in), Vor Rukoth is a weak entry.

Summary judgment: I didn’t feel compelled to steal any ideas from this book, and I bet you won’t either.

A note about evocative writing

WotC’s D&D is like a network TV drama: no swearing, no nudity, no eroticism (but the occasional brief scene of soft-focus missionary sex), no consequential violence, no idiosyncrasy, no poetry — and no useless beauty, i.e. no time given over to the ‘vivid continuous dream’ of fiction. Whether for lack of talent, lack of editorial freedom, lack of taste, or lack of will, WotC’s work is never really terrifying or beautiful; it never quite evokes madness or the Weird; its content (for what it’s worth) is adolescent despite the creative team’s pretensions to seriousness. Mostly, it’s boring: WotC’s writers and artists never ever surprise you with ideas or presentation. (Anyone who’s ever been brought up short by a WotC product’s ingenuity just isn’t reading widely enough, sorry.)

It’s not impossible to write beautiful, compelling RPG books that double as highly functional technical writing. Plenty of folks have managed it: S. John Ross writes evocative prose (extraordinary, actually). Ken Hite too. Zak Smith and Patrick Stuart do it. Gareth Hanrahan and Robin Laws at Pelgrane, Stolze and Tynes and Detwiller at Arc Dream: check. Jonathan Tweet gave us Over the Edge and Everway, c’mon. Jenna Moran can’t not write interesting prose. Vincent Baker, Luke Crane, even the ludicrous Ron Edwards: boom. Greg Stafford, Greg Costikyan, Aaron Allston, John Varley. James Wallis — you realize his Munchausen game is an honest-to-God literary classic, right? Benjamin Baugh. Malcolm Craig. The odd damaged people responsible for GURPS Goblins and The Whole Hole. The late John M Ford and Tom Moldvay. Zeb Cook. Bruce Cordell. Bambra, Morris, Davis, and Gallagher (the Night’s Dark Terror and Death on the Reik teams.) Ansell, Brunton, and Forrest (Realms of Chaos.) Schwalb. Wick. Some White Wolf dweebs whom I don’t know because I can’t stand White Wolf’s house style. And a host of amateurs and obsessives who’ll go unnamed today.

Notice anything about that list? (Other than the fact that RPG publishers need more women writers, I mean.) Several of those folks have written for WotC — but with the exception of Planescape’s Zeb Cook, they’ve all found the creative freedom and institutional support to do their best work elsewhere. (Monte Cook made his name at TSR/WotC, but he’s best known for his 3e design work; like Stolze, he can sound a bit tiresome and familiar when he’s off in Imaginationland.)


Repost: We who guard the (low-literary) mystery.

Wrote this in 2007. I share it not because it’s good — it is not good — but because 2007-me would have simply despised 2018-me. And if we’re being honest: vice versa, bastard. –wa.

I came across a book last week at a flea market, in the basement of a church on Massachusetts Avenue, that may be of interest to you, Reader(s): Aldo Mortimer’s Glasheen, a novel of less than 200 pages written in 1972 but not published until 1980. Mortimer (who died in 1985 at the age of only 51) was an American poet of no renown who turned to prose in a bid for commercial recognition; as you’ve no doubt surmised, his plan was unsuccessful, and he died nearly destitute. His artistic legacy is limited to two novels and a book of sonnets, which won a minor literary award but found no audience. Glasheen, by unenthusiastic consensus his best work (good luck finding anything else in print or in the library!), concerns itself with an American girl vacationing on one of the Channel Islands — a locale Mortimer had visited twice as a boy and rendered, in the book, in naive terms, as stage-for-fantasy rather than full-blooded real-world setting. His protagonist, Young Mary Glasheen (the ‘Young’ is one of the novel’s many arbitrary, irritating affectations), wanders into a bit of forest and comes out on the other side, not of the island but of the world. The story proceeds as a pastiche of Flann O’Brien and Lewis Carroll, presenting odd encounters with fantasy figures (two Chinese men in an upside-down boat, a singing stone, a Cast of Characters, four talking books containing no text, and a brief unflattering appearance by ‘The Author Himself,’ who gives Mary amusingly inaccurate metatextual directions home) and mixing in the occasional (il)logic puzzle.

If that sounds pretentious or silly — and let’s just stipulate, it is both — then wait until you hear the kicker: Young Mary is able to speak only in birdsong. She communicates in gestures and melodic onomatopoeia, and though her inner monologue is narrated in (faltering) ersatz ‘Victorian’ prose, her interaction with the outside world presents the author — and the Reader(s) — with an enjoyable literary problem. ‘Treeeelltweet’ she says to the Chinese fellas,

‘…burr burr, chip chirp twee chip chip.’ The Orientals stared at her, grinning. They seemed, if it was even possible, to know precisely what she meant. The coxswain placed his hand over his heart and said, ‘My name is Raymond.’ He then pointed to the unfortunate heavyset man with the oars and said, ‘This is Vernon. He rows the boat.’ His accent, Young Mary noted, was pure Brooklyn. She cheeped once in acknowledgment, undecided for the moment as to whose utterances — hers or Raymond’s — were more fantastical.

Young Mary’s ingenious efforts to signal the island’s inhabitants mirror the author’s own admirably misplaced effort of systematization: according to published excerpts from his journals, Mortimer created a full dictionary of birdsong for Young Mary, so that her cheeps and chirps are consistent throughout the book. That integrity of construction is usually the kind of thing that appeals to me, and I feeloddly sympathetic toward Aldo Mortimer, who clearly wasn’t up to the aesthetic task he’d set for himself, even as he quite handily surpassed readerly expectations w/r/t the technical task of making up and maintaining this bird language. The book isn’t precisely good, but it’s interesting, and it ends on such a weirdly dark, discordant note — Young Mary meets her parents on the shore and they cook her up for dinner, thinking she’s an unusually large pheasant —
that I wonder whether the whole thing isn’t simply some kind of demented, alternately clever and lazy first draft. In any case, I enjoyed the experience of reading it, and rather than praising the text or its author I’ll praise that experience. And commend it to you, however you might find it. Even secondhand. In your own head or out of it — or in mine, for that matter.


Began this months ago, before the Scorsese/Marvel kerfuffle. The disgust hasn’t worn off and I’m right as always, so I added everything after the first break and here you go. –wa.

The new slate of ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ fantasy and TV series was announced this summer at San Diego Comic-Con, an annual industrial trade show (i.e. advertisement). Thousands of fans attended a panel to see a series of logos pop up on a screen for just over an hour while the lead actors in each show looked happy to have Disney jobs.

When the MCU first spun up, I guessed that its target audience was a mix of middle-aged comics fans and their children. And the films were, to a degree now unfashionable to point out, naked nostalgia plays: their initial sales pitch was nothing more than ‘We finally have the FX capability and industrial integration to adapt the comics of your youth.’ Superseding the comics was the inevitable result (the goal) of the films’ commercial success, so it’s easy to forget that the Marvel movies are adaptations and remakes, each with more or less ‘creative vision’ coming from the writers/directors rather than the C-suite. They say no one has original ideas in Hollywood anymore, and Kevin Feige and Marvel had the (not unprecedented) gall to pass off their formulaic, derivative, repetitive films as ‘mythology,’ i.e. ‘Risk-free retreads and exploitations, but young people won’t notice and old people won’t care.’

The MCU was certainly an impressive endeavour — the press is happy to go along with this angle since there’s nothing to say about the films’ aesthetics — but it was and is, ultimately, little different from Game of Thrones: an international industrial-scale attempt to make yet more Streaming Video Content out of an existing, well-known Media Property. ‘See Iron Man come to life onscreen! Watch the ultimate battle with Thanos…in Technicolor! See King’s Landing buuuuuurn…in amazing 3-D!!’

It’s unfashionable to complain, just as it’s unfashionable to mention ‘the means of production.’

Ten years and 20+ films on, the Marvel films are buttons labeled PUSH TO MAKE MONEY, and the buttons themselves have a fandom — while the room at the trade show was full of the usual continuity nerds and starstruck obsessives, it’s certain that most viewers have never even heard of at least some of this upcoming batch of comics adaptations. (Shang-Chi? The Eternals?) There are young adults, now, who’ve been fans of the Marvel movies for half their lives; they feel nostalgia too, but it only goes back to the first Iron Man movie. It really is like that.

Those people — the New Believers, a large part of the target audience for the next slate of Marvel movies/TV shows — imprinted on the Marvel films early, and have come to understand them, along with Star Wars and perhaps the Harry Potter movies, as…how cinematic storytelling works. In other words, their formative cinematic experiences have been anxious attempts to Do Justice to the Source Material (big asterisk here for Rian Johnson’s iconoclastic/ironic The Last Jedi) while Updating the Demographics to appeal to a Modern Global Audience, i.e. without offending Chinese money.

‘Kids today’ think that ‘easter eggs’ hidden in frame are there for storytelling rather than advertising purposes; they see to it, with their Youtube search patterns, that looking on Google for ‘nameOfFilm scene’ will turn up fight scenes foremost. They’ve never known Hollywood as a laboratory for experimental storytelling. They know what to expect, they know ‘The Snap’ will be undone, they know characters die only when their actors’ contracts are up, if then.

(Would it be cynical to point out that the Comic-Con announcements read like a ‘Locating New Market Opportunities’ whitepaper? I wouldn’t dare — though cynicism is certainly in fashion, at least until the Chinese run the FCC.)

I was 20 years old during the perfect cinematic storm of 1998-99. Think about this.

1998: Run Lola Run, Dark City, There’s Something About Mary, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, The Thin Red Line, Out of Sight, Rushmore, Pleasantville, Babe, Bulworth, Shakespeare in Love, The Spanish Prisoner…

1999: Three Kings, Eyes Wide Shut, The Iron Giant, Office Space, The Matrix, American Beauty, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia, The Talented Mr Ripley, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Straight Story, Galaxy Quest, Election, Dogma, The Limey, The Virgin Suicides…

Notice anything there? Of those 30+ films, just a third are adaptations (of ‘literature’) — and none of them are franchise pictures, though The Matrix would become one. What an outpouring of creativity, of artistic goddamn risk! In those days I was at the movie theater every week, because every week there was something new to try — and you didn’t have to work to find it.

What are the interesting American films of 2019 that anyone except devoted cineastes heard of? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Midsommar? The Lighthouse? Joker?

I’m not in touch with art cinema anymore. But 20 years ago you didn’t have to be.

The greatest trick Marvel — excuse me, Disney — ever pulled is convincing the world that turning ordinary superhero comics into ordinary action films is an aesthetic feat rather than a corporate-industrial one. The sad thing is that we’ve already seen what happens when a generation of kids grow up believing it — grow up, in other words, rooting for money. I work with loads of them at my day job (Greater Boston tech startup, yadda yadda). They have no idea that grownup films are possible anymore, precisely because capital has convinced them otherwise. And like all young people who grow up thinking age (‘uncool’) is an affliction, they don’t yet want to know. They will eventually, of course, but by then it won’t matter.

A sane culture would teach the value of artistic risk, rather than repeating contemptibly stupid mantras like ‘Everything is a remix.’ That was a big theme when I was in grad school, y’know — not coincidentally just at the moment when DJs were becoming stars, even on the academic circuit. (DJ Spooky was the curiosity du jour.) It’s simply not true, though, but even if it were, it would be enough for the kids I work with — for any young people, who someday will rule the world — to believe otherwise.

The Marvel movies make it harder, not easier, for children to join the adult world — not merely because they’re bad, but because they make it harder to recognize what’s good. They set terms of understanding and experience which are bad for whatever our souls are metaphors for.

Repost: An adventure.

from 2012. no one’s idea of a banner year. –w.

we had an adventure today

oh really what happened

well we went out for sushi

damn i hate sushi

you don’t travel enough. afterward

what do you mean i don’t travel enough

afterward we were driving back

from where

the valley

shit you drove to the valley just for sushi, there’s that great place down on fifth and balencia



jose’s sushi/tatoo parlor, seriously


so anyway afterward we were driving back

how’d you go

the mclaren


nah it’s a bye week

oh shit yeah

like i was saying for god’s sake driving back and kimiko was driving and we HIT this guy


no he was ok and everything


the cops came and he left in an ambulance. we didn’t hit him hard

with your car you didn’t hit him hard

i don’t think he had broken bones

were you going like five miles an hour

we just didn’t hit him hard

or like SIX


how do you hit someone softly with a car

can i finish

wait is this why you didn’t RETURN my CALLS

yeah that’s what i’m trying to tell you, we clipped this guy and i was holding my phone with the window open and kimiko like SLAMMED on the brakes and we skidded

oh you lost your phone

see it nailed kimiko on the head THEN i lost it so i had to drive the rest of the way


because SHE got a concussion out of the deal

oh that’s why she didn’t return my calls either

no i think that has more to do with not liking you


she says you’re racist about asians

Repost: One tiny Internet-era pleasure…

…is watching the semifamous dude who banned you from commenting on his blog descend into alternately childish and crazy bullshit in his comment threads — and realizing that just because he decided you were the bad guy doesn’t mean you were actually the bad guy.

(this is from 2012; in hindsight it’s become clear that, at the time, i wasn’t a good guy, but the aforementioned blogger was both the bad guy and a fucking bad guy. –w.)

Repost: DNA.

(Wrote this in 2012, I think, for the old blog. I miss him. –w.)

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.

‘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.