wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: highweirdness

Cubes or GTFO.

My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.

My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —

Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.

So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.

SO!

For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.

Bombs away!

What’s troubling the villagers?

(Roll d30, season to taste)

  1. traveling circus freaks cursed by witch-child to wander forever
  2. kobolds in heat seek willing sheepdogs
  3. shapeshifting bears
  4. rogue cops seeking reputed nearby bandits (not necessarily for justice)
  5. mage-acolytes collecting material components
  6. mummified grey aliens roused by scanning signal from distant star
  7. escaped experimental subjects trying to get home, maddened and starving
  8. moth-women experimenting w/deposed wizard’s breeding-vats in nearby floating castle
  9. hallucinating archaeologists
  10. a regiment of vampire soldiers coming to aid of prophesied infant messiah
  11. acting troupe lost in time; century of origin TBD
  12. undead construction slaves seeking supplies for project 1,000 miles away
  13. mercenary company bearing pretender-prince, bivouacked in haunted castle
  14. hedge wizard’s henchmen trying to confirm success of spell
  15. ghostly rat-catcher escaped from stage play
  16. plague of mechanical locusts under control of malicious child-psychic
  17. liberated pseudodragons establishing colony in nearby wood
  18. colossal blind earthworms building bunker to escape predicted worm-holocaust
  19. alien oozes harvesting humanoid heads like coffee beans
  20. misinformed treasure hunters
  21. well informed treasure hunters
  22. ogres searching for kidnapped/stowaway ogre-youth
  23. bards
  24. a trove of buried statues coming to life seeking bloody vengeance on every living dog
  25. resumption of transmissions from a long-lost alien radio
  26. weeklong sacrificial ritual to restore dead village god
  27. druidic civil war sparked by villagers’ encroachment on ancient druidic sex-magical restoration ritual
  28. every 50yrs myconid gathering fills air w/hallucinogenic spores
  29. earthquakes caused by nearby weeklong stone-giant bacchanal
  30. cursed sentient scrying-money spent by profligate visiting noble

From the same work in progress.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic circles. Mundane circles.

Reminder: this is an impulsive, insomniac first draft. ‘I’ll have to think about it.’ –wa.

In game studies, the term ‘magic circle’ has been borrowed from Huizinga to mean, basically, the peculiar ritually charged piece of spacetime that gameplay occupies. It’s a temporarily transformed place and moment, within which the dream of play is not only possible but inevitable, where rules like ‘no throwing the pancake-ball if you’ve gone past the hitting-each-other line’ make perfect sense.

In an earlier post — which is, as it says on the tin, an ill-tempered outburst — I said this:

…remember that most of us now watch our movies at home — in a domestic, distraction-filled ‘curated’ environment, rather than the sense-heightening identity-submerging collective ritual strangeness of the movie theater. We’re too ‘enlightened’ to recognize the importance of the magic circle of ritual transformation which surrounds the theater, and too lazy to seek it out, at fatal cost to our imaginations.

There is no magic circle around the Web. There can’t be.

The ‘magic circle’ makes possible a total transformation of perception and action and relation and desire within gameplay. But that’s only half its purpose. It’s also there to keep the gameworld, the storyworld, the transformed magical field, from leaking out into the ‘real’ world. It’s topologically equivalent to a mundane circle around the other, largely boring things we do, and we’re quick to scold those weirdos who too eagerly violate the circle’s integrity in either direction: the fantasy football dweeb who delays the start of a work meeting by gabbing about his league, the hardcore Trekker wearing Spock ears to drop their kids off at school, the Christian fundie proselytizing at bowling night, the Deadhead blasting a 40-minute ‘Dark Star’ on the cafe stereo, the feng shui devotee rearranging his work area (and only his) in the immunology lab, even the child who passes on her imaginary friend’s messages at the dinner table.

The circle divides us from the dream — for its protection and for ours.

And so that quote about watching movies at home.

The biggest difference between the (movie) theater and home screen-viewing has always been TV’s domesticity. TV long favoured reassuring depictions of functional civic institutions (the city hospital, the police force) and endlessly talky domestic melodramas; in the 60s and 70s network TV assumed film’s role as consensus storytelling medium, freeing Hollywood up to enter its 70s Golden Age of subversive and oppositional storytelling and worldbuilding. Movies prefer detectives to cops, and fighting to conversation. TV comes into our living room, it talks to our kids when we’re not there. You don’t dress up for it or make an effort to attend. You just let it in through the door, into the chaos and recrimination and fatigue and mundanity of every day life.

With a number of exceptions statistically indistinguishable from zero, TV has more in common with Chap-Stik than with art.

The theater doesn’t work that way. At the theater you sit in the dark listening to strangers breathe, your body falling away, the screen so large you can’t escape it, noise coming from everywhere, to see stories which you’ve opted into — you’ve chosen to subject yourself to that ritual transformation, and so license can be taken. Something’s at stake. Before TV (have you ever thought about this?) we could only watch news footage at the movie theater — and those weekly glimpses of current events were charged with ritual energy. ‘News’ meant something very different then; it wasn’t yet ambient noise. TV domesticated audiovisual storytelling, fictional and non-.

(And if you think things are fundamentally changing — TV getting smarter, movies getting dumber — then consider taking the $15 you spent to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron and go watch a new movie with no explosions in it. They still make those! They make astonishing quantities of those movies. The real question is why nobody cares.)

The cost of TV’s domesticity, its ease of access, is banality. Here’s where we miss the magic circle. At home, watching Game of Thrones On Demand whenever we want, slurping microwave ramen in stocking feet with one eye on Facebook, there’s no magic circle at all — maybe you turn down the lights, but the ineffable quality of transformation, of journey, has been lost. You know this as well as I do. You control every aspect of the presentation. You can pause the experience to tweet about how freaked out you are by what’s happening in the story, if you want, and to be reassured that your ‘followers'(!) have had the same experience in their own time, on their own terms. And no matter how good the story is, how fine the craftsmanship, how ‘cinematic’ the ‘production values’ (ugh), the show’s there first and foremost to satisfy you. It is a home-delivered product and it is beholden to you. The real world leaks into the art, and the art’s power diffuses through the environment.

At the theater (as long as your turn off your cell phone), nothing can protect you. And that’s good for us! As Joss Whedon said in the NYT a few years ago, speaking against ‘spoilers’ (ugh) and in favour of surprise as a storytelling tool, the sense of humility and smallness that great stories give us is a holy emotion. It’s essential for our development as social beings able to imagine a universe that doesn’t revolve around us.

TV can shock us, it can dropkick our souls, it can change our lives, but it rarely inspires awe. Even now, that isn’t its purpose — and even a 48″ plasma HD screen is peanuts to the smallest theater at the Cineplex Odeon, not because the screen is smaller or the bass less deep but because our identity in the theater is so different from who we are at home. The movie screen lies inside the circle. What works on TV, in our living room, works not least because it’s in our living room, because it starts from that relationship of banality and trust and takes advantage of it. (‘It’s not TV. It’s HBO’ and all that.)


Reagan was a movie star.

Trump is a TV star.


This isn’t really about TV, of course, it’s about Donald Trump, Internet-accelerated atomization, ‘Republic 2.0,’ the way computer-mediated communication has deepened an already massive generational gap and made possible phenomena like the ‘lost generation’ of retired Fox News addicts, the destabilizing mix of postmillennial deflation and post-9/11 enervation, the invisible but crippling mental/physical health crises which our screen dependency has brought on, the 24hr ‘news’ cycle’s role in our present inability to conceive of timescales (e.g. for seismic shifts in Iraqi society) beyond the presidential-electoral, the humourlessness and irony-aversion of even the ‘intellectual’ threads of our national discourse — boring stuff, I know. And it all ties, in complex ways, to the slow-moving tectonic shift in modern cultures toward pseudosocial interaction, the pseudoagency of the consumer, an addiction to carefully filtered and ‘curated’ pseudoknowledge: a world designed for machines, for money, in which we (less and less) happily take what pleasures we can as consolation for the fact that joy, a built-in feature of most human minds, is less and less affordable, can only be experienced with a permission slip from your boss or your shrink or your political fellow-travelers.

I think that I’m mourning something called ‘magic.’ I think we’re scared of it, but we weren’t always.

soundsense

renaissance ‘world of knowledge’ texts took poetic form for a variety of reasons, some terrible (e.g., all good things echo God’s plan so all disciplines are linked).

but the ultimate reason is good and simple: engaging the imagination and emotions strengthens your teaching.

you listen harder to story

Smart people who ‘believe in “synchronicity.”‘

(Wrote this three weeks ago, never got around to revising it. I’m of two minds about the book under consideration, because it’s really two books, only one of which seems to me to be of lasting value — and unfortunately, the other book takes over toward the end, leaving a sour aftertaste. This is, as you can see, a first impression rather than a proper review. –wa.)

Having recently read and enjoyed Jeffrey Kripal’s (mostly very valuable) Mutants & Mystics, I’m again left wondering about the attraction of ideas like ‘synchronicity’ and alien visitation. To me, ‘skepticism’ means not dismissal of possibility but a tendency to favour parsimony, systemicity, provability in explanation — e.g. the idea that extraterrestrials exist and regularly visit earth rests on a number of physically impossible premises, massive coincidence, and conspiracy in order to be true, so I am ‘skeptical’ of same. There are better explanations for the alien-visitation phenomenon available, which I favour but not exclusively.

This isn’t ‘materialism’ except coincidentally; I’m starting with an epistemological position and from there working my way to an assumption about visitors from other planets.

Kripal’s book deals with a number of mid-20C writers and artists, and he’s generally quite good about rendering their experiences in a balanced way — what happened in Philip K Dick’s head in 1974, say, is less important to us readers than what he made of it in his art, so Kripal spends most of his time talking about the art. That’s good; his handling of Dick’s story is sensitive and insightful. But then there’s stuff like this:

A neuroscientist may want to invoke something like temporal lobe seizures, and Windsor-Smith himself may or may not find these sorts of descriptions appropriate as neuroscientific labels of what his brain was doing at the time. But again, what do such “explanations” really mean? Is the filter really the filtered? And how do such easy labels explain the objective fact that the artist saw, in precise detail, two events in 1970 that did not occur until three years later in 1973? Just how much of [Windsor-Smith and Philip K Dick’s] courage and honesty do we need to savage … in order to protect our little materialist worlds? …

The easy explanation is that Barry Windsor-Smith didn’t actually experience precognition, only believed he had and acted accordingly, and that Philip K Dick’s VALIS experience was as accurate an account of reality as, say, Saul’s seizure-induced conversion on the road to Damascus — i.e. whatever those great writers claim they ‘saw,’ it didn’t mean anything until they started fictionalizing around it. Kripal goes further than this, though: he seems to want to claim that Windsor-Smith and Dick experienced a kind of higher or deeper reality, caught a glimpse of a secret of the universe. (Victoria Nelson’s superb Secret Life of Puppets, which I’m very profitably reading right now and which (if I remember right) Kripal approvingly cites, tends strongly in the same direction.)

The problem is that he’s cagey about his subject. He starts the book with a coincidence — he finds a cross-shaped piece of jewelry or something on the ground in a parking lot, thinks it’s the X in X-Men, and is startled into writing this long book about comics — and the closer he gets to talking about the experience, the more he favours ‘magical’ explanation. It’s not enough that this random occurrence had personal meaning for him; something else, something Significant, had to’ve been going on. But since that idea is ‘problematic’ in Kripal’s field of religious studies, something he talks charmingly about in the book and in interviews, Mutants & Mystics gets vague and handwavey at the precise point when it should be…skeptical, in the sense of ‘precise and limited in its determination, expansively agnostic in its inquiry.’ The book is admirable and excellent on that second point, but wishy-washy on the first.

Kripal can point to something like Whitley Streiber’s ‘visitor corpus’ and talk for dozens of pages about how strangely wise and beautiful it is without ever asking whether the whole thing isn’t a record of, in a word that’s nastier in its connotations than I mean it to be, delusion — a record of a state of alternate consciousness which Streiber, living as he does within his own perceptions, will fictionalize around in order to keep from experiencing a debilitating break with reality. (The alternative explanation, that it’s all a cynical fiction, is unappealing — I’ll take Kripal’s word for it that Streiber’s a decent man with no intent to deceive.) I don’t require a purely ‘materialist’ explanation, e.g. hallucinations, but I do ask that critics not throw out the scientific method in order to make the reasonably correct but arguably trivial claim that Life Is Special and Interesting and We Are Capable of So Much More If We Just Awake to the Beautiful Dream.

On fans, phans, mystery, and informational density.

Went to an interdisciplinary graduate conference on music at Harvard today, to root for Jake Cohen (@smoothatonalsnd), who was presenting on Mike Hamad’s @phishmaps project. Jake and Mike were my partners at our panel in NYC earlier this month. As the wise men say: we are everywhere!

Jake knocked it out of the park, of course. God willing, some of those soul-scorched affectless grey-sweatered academics will buy my book.

I gotta say, I was surprised by Jake’s talk — while his paper contained some nitty-gritty musicological material, it was largely concerned with fans’ relationships to Mike’s maps, and the question of why such dense infographics are so popular with an audience that, by its own account, has little idea what the maps themselves mean. In other words, Jake was veering toward fan studies — my old haunts, back when I was old — which are rough waters, and crowded these days.

I’d like to dilate on one point raised by the talk and Q&A.

The mystery at the center of everything

I often joke about Phish fandom as a ‘mystery cult’ or initiatory secret society, but you should know that I’m more serious about that analogy then I seem. At the heart of Phish fandom is an essentially mysterious shared private ecstatic esoteric experience, which is bound tightly to a specific place and time but which lives on as exoteric historical record (‘the tapes’). Phish fans are very good at distinguishing between, say, improvisatory episodes — but very few of us are up on the analytical langauge with which musicologists, or even musicians, would characterize those episodes. So when a tight groove coalesces in the middle of an abstract ambient passage, folks in the crowd might go crazy, and can richly describe how the moment feels…but if later that night you asked them why, they’d likely have no idea. No language for capturing that content.

So why are the same fans who confess to not knowing what the hell Mike’s analytical schematics ‘mean’ so excited to buy prints for their wall?

At the talk I asked Jake if there was an analogy to be made between Mike’s maps and religious artworks — which can be understood by scholars of religion as theological arguments but which have value for normal human beings as evocations of something ineffable, something maybe only loosely connected to those artworks’ ostensible ‘content.’ Think of a Bosch painting, which ‘articulates a worldview’ that no one gives a shit about and which is popular (and valuable) because it’s a grotesque ‘visionary’ fantasia. Think of Dante’s Commedia, nearly unreadable when burdened with Historical Significance but everlasting in its depiction of, among other things, one of the all-time great dungeon crawls. Think of Milton’s Satan, once the subject of theological speculation but remembered and valued for poetic reasons.

Think too of Lost or Star Wars fan speculation — pseudoanalysis most valuable for the parallel world it creates, which touches on the original filmic texts but stands or falls as imaginative creation. (Don’t be fooled by the gendered baggage these terms carry: most fan ‘analysis’ is fanfic patterned after actual analysis.)

Think, for that matter, of Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, or Auerbach’s Mimesis, or Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: critical works which are widely read not because of their relationships to their subject texts but because they create their own imaginative worlds, so that Campbell becomes a tool for screenwriters, Frye is advice to roleplaying gamers, Auerbach’s formal analysis becomes an autobiographical paean to the resilience of the human imagination within the great wave of history.

These are hugely information-dense critical/analytical texts in their way(s), but the audiences that treasure them do so because of their powers of imaginative evocation. Not Italian politics of the 14th century but a vision of Heaven; not a formal analysis of myth but an exhortation to imaginative independence; not a timeline of a nonsensical TV ‘mythology’ but a story in its own time.

Mike’s maps are plenty informative — listen as you look and their depth is revealed. They’re really impressive work. But as Jake suggested, their deeper value is in the way they evoke the (let’s say) energetic content of Phish’s improvisation. The improvisatory character of the maps, the way they jumble space and time…

My hypothesis here, coming back to the topic of fan studies again, is that cultural formations which center on a mystery — as trivial as ‘What will happen next on this TV show?’ or as consequential as ‘What does it mean that Jesus died “and was resurrected?”‘ — will tend to generate these info-rich peripheral/derivative fan-texts, which emerge from a desire to engage with content (Milton’s desire to explain the ways of God to man) but which attain poetic autonomy and end up circulating among fans/initiates for the latter reason. They remain dense with information, they serve an enormously valuable purpose down the line for historians of their moment, but their lossy transmission directly to fans, that purely affective link, is where the real action is.

Scholars/critics — and cynics — tend to fixate myopically on Churches as something like embodied arguments, and so miss the real story, which is Faiths as cultural motive forces. Faith can only be realized in action, in transit. It is not a destination, it’s a pathway, a segue (see, we’re getting back to Phish now). From the outside, on the map, the middle of the path is no place at all…

…but for the initiate, the seeker, the opposite is true. The path itself, the inquiry, the act of transformation, the logic by which experiences generate one another, the arc of desire rather than its satisfaction — c’mon, I wrote a whole book about this! — these are the Deep Places. For us, they are the Thing Itself. Between tension and release is a state of blissful anticipation. (Here we go again: the erotics of listening.)

And so you miss the show and get the tapes the next morning instead, listen to the music, argue (insanely) about its comparative value; but fundamentally, what happened on the night is a mystery, and if that mystery comes out of an experience’s ambivalence rather than ambiguity (i.e. if its implications are open-ended, instead of being closed off like a multiple-choice question; this is the difference between complexity and complication, between The X-Files and Lost) then the culture that coalesces around it will tend to throw off commentaries that take the shape of analysis but which are meant, at their deepest level, to generate a parallel mystery. To provoke us to wonder.

I suspect that’s the answer to the big question I asked above. We value Mike’s work because something in it resonates with our sense of the beauty of the music that the maps are maps of. It gives us the feeling of what Lovecraft called ‘adventurous expectancy.’

It recalls for us, in its own language, with its own music, the mystery itself.

Esotericapocryphapocalyptica.

The core appeal of esoterica and apocrypha isn’t the experience of secret knowledge, but its promise — which had better go unfulfilled, lest banality set in. The ‘secret of the universe’ is just that the universe is more complex than the human mind can readily deal with, ‘fractally’ so, the motivations of the beloved family dog (or family member) hard enough to puzzle out without worrying about the downstream press of the second law of thermodynamics or the bizarro intimations of quantum entanglement. ‘Ultimate knowledge,’ i.e. godliness, is a strange strong attractor for the mind of the seeker, but it’s only advertised, never actually sold. Which is fine until you sign the check.

The core appeal of (in Ken Hite’s charming term) ‘eliptony,’ in other words, is the feeling of adventurous expectancy that comes from suggestion and evocation, free association — the pleasure of private pattern-matching and worldmaking. It gives pleasure in passing. The instant you get what you think you’re looking for, the whole thing falls down.

Which is maybe just a roundabout way of saying that the fraction of Tolkien readers who make it through the appendices to The Lord of the Rings is statistically indistinguishable from zero. If Middle-Earth were really real, the really geeky, poorly socialized hobbit- and elf-nerds would get together online to argue about realist novels in which white human women academics experiencing quiet revelations of their own mortality while having affairs with students. They would reread these books endlessly, to spend as much time as possible in (diminishing, ever more familiar) tension.

The real esoteric promise is: The road goes ever on and on…

Free (to) play.

From an essay I’m working on:

The rise of ‘free to play’ or ‘freemium’ video games offends me for a reason that’s less small-minded than it may seem at first: that phrase, ‘free to play,’ means the opposite of what well funded video game companies claim it does. Freedom to play is true freedom; ‘free to play’ games are neither free nor playful, and they free no one. This isn’t a semantic quibble. Either the idea of imaginative freedom matters to you or it doesn’t. Either you serve it or you don’t.