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Category: irreal10

Irreal life top 10, late January 2023.

  1. Still Mastodon. It’s quieted down as the panicked #TwitterMigration has slowed, leaving people wondering what the hell they’re doing on a service that provides none of the twitch-speed algorithmic coercion of Twitter and all of the one-to-one accountability of an old-school BBS. What remains turns out to be its own thing — a ‘social’ media network that honestly doesn’t deserve those scare quotes. Clicking the Donate button on our server’s webpage I felt a rush of affectionate nostalgia, reminded so strongly of using Plastic and Metafilter back during GWBush’s first term in office. Mastodon has that energy and that potential, not least because its open and still-evolving platform makes room for innovation (how about choosing your own recommendation algorithm?). If it fails it’ll be fondly remembered as a beautiful experiment. Same if it succeeds, I hope.
  2. ‘You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all.’ (Philip K Dick, Do Androids…?)
  3. What We Do in the Shadows. I never saw the film, and checked out the TV show just to see Matt Berry — only to discover (after the usual, slightly stilted pilot) the most perfectly balanced ensemble comedy in years and years, a sweetly humane study of a semifunctional Staten Island vampire family with a poisoned edge befitting its odd mix of Kiwi, UK, and USA sensibilities. (It’s one of the most sexually progressive shows on TV too, maybe in mainstream TV history.) All five leads could carry their own shows; Berry and Natasia Demetriou, as Laszlo and Nadja, are my favourite onscreen couple ever. And the expansive, empathetic love story of Nandor the Relentless and his familiar Guillermo is as compelling as Sam and Diane. I’m rewatching it, this time with my wife, grateful for its irresponsible lightness and unexpected emotional weight; we laugh embarrassingly loudly several times each episode. A gift.
  4. Hawaii. ‘Island time’ is real. For an East Coast neurotic like me there’s a couple-day adjustment period, but by your fifth or sixth mai tai it all starts to make sense. Preposterously expensive and necessarily parochial in certain ways, for reasons of geography — and with the usual dark colonial history — but the complexly, matter-of-factly integrated present-day culture of the islands gives me hope.
  5. VALIS. PKD’s career was spent exploring themes that eventually (predictably?) overwhelmed him late in life. His hallucinatory/visionary experiences of Feb/Mar 1974 drove him to write his 9,000-page ‘Exegesis,’ from which several novels partially (never fully) escape; after his publisher asked for edits to his first concerted attempt to fictionalize those experiences (published posthumously as Radio Free Albemuth), he instead poured out this first draft in two weeks. Less a novel than an obsessive elaboration and criticism of his own breakdown and reconstruction in the wake of the ‘2-3-74’ events, VALIS splits PKD in two to stage a confrontation and then collaboration between more and less skeptical parts of his psyche. Which is to say it’s a spiritual confession — genre with unanswerable question mark at the center — a funny one at that, and gets away with being monumentally, monomaniacally boring by being incomparably brave in its self-inquiry. Everyone should regularly experience art where there’s no way of determining what it would mean for it to be ‘good.’
  6. Clash Royale. One important but poorly understood bit of Terrible News this terrible decade is that for many many people, ‘video games’ increasingly means mobile games — a commercial sector of very nearly pure and perfect exploitation and mindless sugar-snack pleasure. Because mobile-gaming time is budgeted in 5- and 10-minute increments and largely happens during brief moments of ‘downtime,’ deep thinking doesn’t come into it, indeed can’t. Clash Royale looks like a thinking game (there are ‘cards’) but what scares me is the realization that, for most good players, ‘strategy’ means spending their 3-minute games in a more or less threatening holding pattern until they can pop off a combo. Indeed, that’s all ‘strategy’ means in a broad range of games. Which makes sense, since that’s how typical players spend their workdays and schooldays too — waiting anxiously for a chance to really live. I hate this pay-to-win game with a screaming hatred, and have poured years of my life into it over the last two months. No more.
  7. Bob Marley and the Wailers, Sausalito, Halloween 1973 on KSAN. Because of the incredible reach of Island’s ubiquitous Legend compilation (25M copies sold!), when casual listeners think of Marley they hear the refined sound of his mid/late-70s band, with the I-threes on vocals sweetening the mix and psych-blues guitar washing over or through. No shame in that — the post-1974 Wailers were among the great bands of that decade. But Marley was a hit even before white audiences and stoners picked up on what was going on, and stayed real even after they did. This crew (minus Bunny Livingston) is tight-loose from the gun, with impossibly fluid chemistry and a percussive funk sound sweetened only by Wire Lindo’s organ. Marley’s incredible charisma comes through as always, but without guitar solos or the ladies’ gorgeous vocal harmonies the group ‘merely’ sounds like an all-timer party band — their connection to the source still unmediated. Timeless somatic intelligence.
  8. ‘Outside the cars are beeping / Out a song just in your honor / And thought they do not know it / All mankind are now your brothers’ (Regina Spektor, ‘Human of the Year’) A nice idea, maybe the nicest idea — ‘you are not alone’ — and the first episode of the astonishing Mike White/Laura Dern collaboration Enlightened climaxes with Dern striding with rediscovered purpose toward an uncertain fate as Spektor’s voice broadens and grows, her left hand’s own rising stride matches Dern’s; the actress’s face betrays just a moment of uncertainty and then she looks up past the camera into private light, ‘Hallelujah’ sings the young woman and means it, and Laura Dern’s smile is everything and wise like daybreak; she looks beyond us into herself and sees—
  9. Drafts folder. Museum of you, no wall text, each room an unrecoverable moment. Please step this way, here we have an untitled work dated late 2022: ‘Your eyes will be drawn to what represents life for you (though not only that)’ — no punctuation in the original. But we’re not able to be so free, are we, ladies and gentlemen.
  10. DC charging. The reduced range of electric cars relative to gas, and the sparse availability of charging stations in parts of the country, makes travel with an EV weirdly old fashioned. Planning a drive down the coast with friends quickly turns into a search for waystations, like old Pony Express. Puts a certain kind of idiot nerd in mind of Star Wars of course; in that fictional universe the fastest way to send information across the galaxy is by courier, and news spreads slowly. Ugh, why do I know this shit.
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Irreal Life Top 10, Thanksgiving 2022.

irreal life top 10, thanksgiving 2022.

This is a thing I do sometimes. Title and form after Greil Marcus, tone from elsewheres.

  1. ‘Inclusion.’ Like harm, it’s been defined out of any recognizable meaning by the hall-monitor class of self-styled ‘progressive’ types: you are now as ‘included’ as you feel, and if you can’t instantly see why that’s a problem then I’ll assume you’ve never interacted with humans before. (Hint: I can’t change your feelings, and am not even allowed to assess them for myself — so how can I possibly know or change your inclusion-status, for the better or worse?) The new discursive fashion is to claim that Mastodon (q.v.) is insufficiently ‘inclusive’ because its decentralized, federated — i.e. hyperlocal — structure militates against ideological orthodoxy and the empowerment of a ‘protected’ class. The actual content of the ideology in question doesn’t matter; this rhetorical arrangement is a trap laid by the ascendant self-appointed nationwide HR department.
  2. Mastodon. A slow-moving, high-friction, decentralized/federated halfway point between IRC and Twitter, with a number of built-in checks on ‘virality’ and several judiciously chosen ‘missing features’ (e.g. no equivalent to quote-retweets). Most bourgeois complaints about it boil down to ‘I don’t want to start my Twitter clout-farming over from scratch, and I’m not computer-literate enough to manage the minor irritations built in to this platform’; one common variant is to complain about decentralization making it impossible to set up a status-seekers’ corporate nanny-state like Twitter became. Holds infinitely more promise than Twitter ever had, and is a bigger pain in the ass than IRC — indeed, Mastodon will be a nice low-intensity break for many people, me included, but it won’t (in its present form) get anywhere near Twitter in terms of scale or reach, partly because of the macrocommunity’s desperate longing for paternalistic moderation. That said, the chance to start over is priceless. And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening: a brief bad chapter in USA cultural history is ending. Something else is starting, and we might get to decide what it is.
  3. Alice Coltrane, DIVINE SONGS. I’ve been on Journey in Satchidananda and Ptah, the El Daoud for years like every other fan of weed music, but reached midlife before getting hip to Alice’s own midlife music. She spent the decade after her husband’s death raising her kids and keeping John’s music moving to the next place, but not too far beyond — still in a recognizable ‘spiritual jazz’ subgenre for the most part. Jazz people knew she was serious (see Ethan Iverson’s obituary) but partly because of the ambivalent-at-best consensus about Trane’s post-Love Supreme work, for years Alice was unfairly presented to tyros as the Hippie Widow, a curious footnote to her husband’s final act. Thankfully Alice’s music from that period has been more broadly reconsidered since her death, and she’s now correctly understood as an important psychedelic artist and heavy jazz player in her own right. This collection of homemade devotional songs goes way beyond her 70s work, though, into an astounding fusion of deep blues and rapturous New Age synth-colours(!) — not quite jazz but so what. Religious music isn’t normally this hip. Heroic, fully realized personal expression from a faithful seeker. (Geeta Dayal wrote a great piece for the Grauniad about the Luaka Bop reissue of Alice’s ashram tapes back in 2017; Geeta earlier wrote a beautiful personal essay about Satchidananda for the 2007 Marooned anthology.)
  4. Rian Johnson, GLASS ONION. The sequel to the perfectly executed Knives Out is the smartest agitprop you’ll see this year, a thrilling and funny and unexpectedly harrowing story about privilege, power, and the ideological limits of the drawing-room mystery. Both films are ‘secretly’ about minor(ity) characters whom fans of Doctor Who would identify as ‘companions’: Ana de Armas in Knives, Janelle Monáe here. (Spoilers follow.) Playing a character uncomfortably named after Sandra Bland, Monáe is deliberately underwhelming in the first half of the movie in order to set up its manic second half, which she then carries almost singlehandedly — where Knives Out slowly shifted focus to de Armas’s character while maintaining a relatively familiar formal character throughout, Glass Onion daringly breaks genre-narrative frame to embed a second story about the (fantastic) hero-detective Daniel Craig ceding power to Monáe’s haunting/haunted character. (Maybe that’s why The Last Jedi was doomed — Johnson’s story about handing story-control to a ‘nobody’ was misshapen by the fact that Daisy Ridley’s winning Rey was an empty vessel for wish-fulfillment, both the most powerful being in the story-universe and its sympathy-magnet. The deck was stacked for ideological reasons at the expense of story.) Onion‘s ending is a brazen progressive carnival that’s also perfectly satisfying in genre terms; longtime readers may pick up on the significance of me using ‘progressive’ without scare quotes. It’s that serious. Johnson means every word of this masterful film — he’s completely in command, from sly script to expert ensemble direction. And not for a second does this fiercely political artwork devolve into lecture. It’s just really, really good at everything it sets out to do — even the Breaking Bad homage is funny. And get this: the villain is Elon Musk! I’m sick with envy. See it in theaters so they keep throwing money at Rian Johnson.
  5. Kanye West, ‘Monster.’ Obama was right to dismiss him as a jackass and it’s sad that he’s genuinely lost his mind (rich asshole/fools getting divorced do tend to), but West’s self-consciousness and extraordinarily fertile musical talent made for a run of albums that’ll stand the test of time and deserve to. ‘Monster’ will stand the test of time because, after Kanye spits an ordinary verse with one extraordinary pharaonic couplet and Jay-Z tries for the millionth time to remind everyone he has nothing to say (we believe you Shawn dear), Nicki Minaj throws herself a patently insane debutante ball with an Eminem-level guest shot. The final lines — ‘Now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for / AAAHHH! I’m a motherfuckin’ monster!’ — are pure unvarnished truth, both perfect cathartic narrative resolution and sufficient justification for the rest of her career, none of which has been remotely interesting because Kanye West she’s not. (Ever notice how you can tell an arts-school grad from a mile off?)
  6. DARK. Turns out the thing Lost was missing wasn’t meaning or sense or courage or convictions, but rather a hilariously bad English dialogue dub. This German show is a total waste of a superb premise on pure puzzle-box cliffhanger design, or so it seems from the half-season of melodramatic deferral and scriptwriter onanism I was able to tolerate before realizing I actually like meaning, sense, all that shit. (Spoiler: the cave is a time-travel portal, which you’ll guess from the pilot.) Imagine a miserable, contemptuous version of Stranger Things and you’re halfway there. No need to go further.
  7. Emacs 29. The most impressive piece of end-user software yet written is nearly a half-century old and still embodies an anticapitalist philosophy of freedom which is more dangerous now than ever — that’s why it’s routinely derided by Right-Thinking pseuds just shrewd enough to know that one synonym of ‘dangerous’ is ‘unemployable.’ Version 29 is a massive update to a program that remains far more modern than it looks, radically designed and thoughtfully maintained; that there’s no other software comparable to it is heartbreaking testimony to what was lost when the movement for liberatory personal computing was strangled and devoured by the ascendant industry for personal computers. The fundamental problem with Emacs, from the perspective of the ‘mainstream,’ is that its development isn’t driven by greed; there’s no ‘therefore,’ that’s the problem itself. Freedom is a sickness. Eppur si muove.
  8. Tom Petty. Who’s more overrated? Billy Joel? Jay-Z? Pink Floyd? The fucking Doors?
  9. Hakim Bey against ‘curation.’ ‘The parallel term in sufism would be “journeying to the far horizons” or simply “journeying,” a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies of Islam into a single trajectory, sometimes called “the Caravan of Summer.” The dervish vows to travel at a certain velocity, perhaps spending no more than 7 nights or 40 nights in one city, accepting whatever comes, moving wherever signs & coincidences or simply whims may lead, heading from power-spot to power-spot, conscious of “sacred geography,” of itinerary as meaning, of topology as symbology…travel as the antithesis of tourism, space rather than time.’ (from T.A.Z.)
  10. ‘Protect me from what I want.’ An insightful, if perhaps somewhat politically naïve, essay from Tim Bray calls for bottom-up development of recommendation algorithms for ‘social’ media — and intriguingly suggests incorporating a platform for creating and sharing such algorithms into Mastodon and the ‘fediverse.’ But I’m left with the suspicion that ordinary human minds are constituted such that it’s (all but) impossible for someone to design his own ideal recommendation algorithm — he can satisfy his articulable conscious desires, maaaaybe, but the deep-down stuff will presumably elude expression and understanding by definition. Which leaves me wondering, perversely, whether it’s possible for our own deep desires to be unearthed and played upon without exploitation. Feeling strongly but not simply is the least we can do, so I’ll end here for now.

Irreal Life Top 10, Labor Day 2022.

Working so hard for those clicks that I’m spelling it ‘Labor’ instead of ‘Labour,’ whaddaya think of me now. Nothing irreal about this but there’s no changing the series title now.

  1. Cherry Brown, Kailh Silver. Having made everyone’s second choice of keyswitches (Cherry MX Browns) when I bought my keyboard, and now having bad RSI for the first time in many years, I ended up switching this weekend to Kailh Speed Silvers while casting about for possible fixes. The keyswitches are the spring-loaded mechanism below the cap; you don’t see them and they’re what matters most in terms of keyboard feel. Cherry Browns are ‘tactile,’ i.e. there’s a bump in the key travel which you can feel; Kailh Silvers are linear switches, with no bump, just continuous resistance. I’m making an effort not to ‘bottom out’ or move the keys through their full travel as I type, sacrificing that incredibly gratifying THOCK sound on the altar of hand fatigue. I thiiiiink it’s working? Kailh Silvers are made for gaming so they actuate when you breathe on them, feather-light; the upshot is that I’ve moved fatigue from wrists to biceps, which is fine, and the experience gives much less sensual pleasure. It’s like I’m aging in reverse. I’ve got some Kailh Coppers coming, I think — short travel, light high actuation, tactile feel. Might not be worth it, but they’re not expensive. (I think I got 110 of them for $30, anybody need some keyswitches?)
  2. Harry Potter music. John William’s scores for the first three movies establish a soundworld on the Star Wars model (grounding fantasy doings in symphonic somaticism and familiar leitmotif) which seems inevitable in retrospect, even obvious: brass fanfares and low-string ‘mystery’ themes and the perfect ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ for initial Hogwarts impressions in the tween coming-of-age films, shading into richer darker colours as the generational story deepens and complicates. The third and best-by-a-mile film gets a very fine score from Williams, full of stark contrasts, eerie textures and shapes (the scansion on the witch-song is fucking strange), and several clever transformations and elaborations — check out the wide variations on Hedwig’s theme throughout the finale, ‘Mischief Managed!’ It’s all characteristically Williams in Spielbergian-wonder mode, though he stretched impressively for the Azkaban score. The rest of the series got a different composer every film or two, though: Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper, Alexandre Desplat. Results were mixed. Doyle’s Goblet of Fire score sounds like him and like Hogwarts, though not quite like Williams (without thinking about it, my sense is that the audibly Scots-Irish Doyle seeks/gets a very different brass sound in particular; damn I used to love his Frankenstein score), Hooper’s scores go for whimsical mimesis (the best moment in Phoenix has no music, but his ‘Weasley Stomp’ is a useful reminder that Williams was very much an American tourist in Rowling’s imaginary Britain), and by Deathly Hallows Desplat conjures a diffuse melancholy hardly recognizable as Potter-related, which unfortunately fits those movies well. Unlike, say, the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings scores — which flow together into impossibly rich macrocompositions — the Potter soundtracks stand apart from one another, sonically and thematically, and I’m not tempted to throw them all on for a long day’s listen. But amidst the stupidities of the Rowling-related cultural conversation, it’s nice to be reminded of how skillfully executed these ordinary movies are.
  3. Nuns on the run. On Adam Roberts’s enthusiastic recommendation I’m reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them, the generations-spanning novel of a 14th-century English convent; after 250 pages I’m comfortable calling it the equal of any novel I’ve read in years. I keep wanting to compare it to Le Carré, his subtly barbed humour and skillful interweaving of the individual psychology of desperately focused people and their historical moments too vast to get ahold of, or even know about — only Warner writes men and women with equal mastery, which places her beyond Le Carré in at least that regard. The nunnery feels perfectly real, though the inside of that physical location is barely described (while the local countryside is vivid and clear); the women and men in the community are human beings, fully realized and empathetically, humanely rendered. Just an inspiring, perfectly executed novel. I’m sick with envy.
  4. Firefly. As preparation to run my Traveller-plus-Jedi RPG campaign with the lads, I threw the two-part Firefly pilot on the ol’ TV, and was reminded that Joss Whedon did the best, most perfectly realized work of his life while balancing three TV shows. Firefly is a masterwork in the classical sense, a carefully controlled showcase for every skill its chief maker had learned (though let’s not discount the contributions of his expert cocoreator Tim Minear). Whedon’s never been funnier or wiser, never worked successfully on so many levels at once. But even with inspired scripts and searching direction/production, the show might’ve fallen down without a star on the order of Sarah Michelle Gellar (or Gandolfini/Falco, Bryan Cranston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), someone Whedon could count on to make sense of his characteristic tonal whip-pans and wild register jumps. Here Whedon lucked into a partnership with his most gifted male performer, the fucking Canadian Nathan Fillion, who gave the performance of his life in a role as rich as Buffy Summers — and then, with a sly character actor and ensemble comic (and born Western hero) at the top of the call sheet, the Firefly team surrounded Fillion with an oddball cast of equally multifaceted performers, literally any one of whom could easily have carried a spinoff. Special mention to Alan Tudyk, a comic virtuoso, and the astral projection known as Morena Baccarin, who slowly unfurled maybe the broadest range of talents in a talented cast. (Bonus points to a young Christina Hendricks as Saffron; watching her flirt with Baccarin in ‘Our Mrs Reynolds’ is one of the greatest experiences of my human existence.) The fact that this show existed at all is one of its fallen medium’s rare blessings; the fact of its cancellation is just another fucking crime. The sequel-feature Serenity is an overstuffed and hurried valedictory that boasts several classic Whedon sequences and a magnificent climactic showdown between Captain Tightpants and the impossibly charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor; it’s a nice consolation but can’t touch the original series. Few shows can.
  5. ‘Effective altruism.’ Mostly the same sort of fraud as ‘AI alignment’ and indeed ‘rationalism’ writ large, starring mostly the same sorts of people. @chaosprime definitively sums up on Twitter: ‘Weird that EA converted on a focus that is addressed by nerds getting tons of money to 1) sit in rooms thinking big math thoughts all day then 2) telling other nerds what to do’.
  6. Harvard undergrads. They neatly illustrate, by contrast, how dowdy Cantabridgians are during the sparsely populated summer months; on the other hand, they manifestly couldn’t find their dicks with two hands and a dick map.1 Harvard Square in late August is trying for those of us who find privileged teenagers not just the worst but the most boring thing on earth.
  7. Frisell. How many artists are so powerfully and equally committed to both the gentlest moments of beauty and vulnerability and the weirdest psych-sonics? Listening to his debut In Line (recorded 40 years ago this month!) is one of those improbably deep experiences, where there seems to be too much detail to permit entry, much less immersion — too much pick and prickle — yet the sound slips across and around and then opens into something deep and enveloping, a whole soundworld in less than 45 minutes. Frisell is like Fillion: confident, unassuming, deep feeling, so’s you might not notice his virtuosity. I’ve enjoyed every note I’ve heard him play, but this album (maybe not surprisingly, as it’s half solo/overdubbed tracks) feels close to the bone. And Eicher’s production is just what the young seeker needed, of course.
  8. House of the Dragon. Unnecessary — and after the catastrophe of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, faintly embarrassing — but Fire and Blood, the mock-scholarly Game of Thrones ‘prequel’ it’s based on, startled me years ago by being a joy to read and (fannishly) contemplate. It’s central to GRR Martin’s grand project and obviously dear to his heart, and you might read it instead of watching the show. Then again, I said that about Game of Thrones itself. Then again, I was right.
  9. Provisionality. Louis CK describes his creative technique in an interview: ‘When I develop material that’s in tough places, I have a method: I say the worst version, and then usually, they don’t like it. But I listen to that. I listen to the “Ugh,” and there’s a sound in it… Either I’m gonna take that “ugh” and I’m gonna play with it, or I’m gonna find a way around it… I need to hear the dissent… Sometimes I’m like, “I don’t want to upset these people tonight.” But I know there’s a bit in this that they’re going to like. And I work on it and work on it, to the point where everybody likes it… Every bit that I have that’s a great bit, started as: nobody wants to hear it.’
  10. Oscar and Basie. Peterson was a skillful host of his variety/interview TV show, and the Count was a wonderful guest, but their wordless opening duet is something more than entertainment: it’s a privilege to see an old master simply enjoy himself in the loving company of a younger master. Peterson’s adoration of Basie is evident, as is Basie’s love and admiration for Peterson. Their relationship to one another is their relationship to the music. It’s beautiful. There’s a moment in the video when a closeup of Peterson’s astonishing hands dissolves to a similar shot of Basie’s, gently stroking the piano keys like they’re his wife’s tired fingers and hands. Not much room in noisy transient modernity for quiet moments like this with a cherished elder, listening close to his life’s music. This is one of things jazz is for. This is what it is.

  1. Metaphorically speaking. 

Irreal Life Top Ten, D-Day 2022.

  1. Phish, Spring Tour 2022. I didn’t notice until the eighth and final show of this mini-tour, when they played their second ‘Sigma Oasis’ of the run, that the band was avoiding any song repeats. They do this regularly, most memorably on the 13-show ‘Baker’s Dozen’ stand at Madison Square Garden, such that it’s now almost unremarkable; you can’t imagine how challenging it is to remember 150 songs until you’ve tried learning three — never mind improvising on them, never mind doing so compellingly. Pianist Page McConnell turned 59 a week before the tour started; what other musicians approach 60 in anything remotely approaching Phish’s condition? No other band in American history, in or out of ‘rock and roll,’ has consistently engaged in the kind of musical risk-taking that’s long been Phish’s basic approach to their art. That’s the positive read; the negative is that this was an unexceptional tour in ‘purely musical’ terms, if those exist, on Phish’s terms. The other positive read is that the rare show-opening ‘Character Zero’ from Orange Beach on 5/29 is instantly one of the two or three best versions of that tune, featuring perfectly seamless transitions in and out of an extended open jam, and the other other positive read is that a ‘bad’ Phish show is still one of the best times in American popular music — and they didn’t play any bad shows this tour, not even close. You might not like their music, I get it, but you’re obligated at this point to understand that in 2022 Phish are a miracle.
  2. Mass shootings and matter. We’re at the point where you can accurately predict demographic information about the shooter based solely on whether and how the national ‘news’ outlets cover the event — corporations like CNN are only interested in ‘motive’ when it suits a political agenda they don’t even realize they have, which is only to say that Capital never changes but changes colour. It’s worth asking yourself whether you’re more scared by stories about one lone nutjob going uptown with ten guns, or ten ordinary sociopaths going downtown with one gun each. It’s worth asking why.
  3. ‘AI alignment risk.’ Doomsday cults, like bugs in open-source software, don’t go away just because they’re publicized. Sane people have to fix them. Because the real risk from AI, already being realized (cf. your Twitter feed), seems to be the slow ruin of functional if inefficient social controls, it’s a lot more satisfying for socially disengaged pseuds who did better in Math class than English class to spin nerdfic about murderous superintelligences than to, say, reckon with the real (social) world, its boring politics and unmanageable actual people. See also ‘Effective Altruism,’ a form of fantasy football for people too annoying to play D&D with.
  4. 16″ Macbook Pro. After using a 15″ Retina model at home for years, I got a 16″ lappy from work — last year’s M1 (‘Apple Silicon’) model. This laptop is a proper chonky boi as the awful wankers say, unexpectedly bulky: nearly a pound heavier than the 15″ machine I already thought was unwieldy at just 4lbs. What does that weight buy, though, in addition to the massive gorgeous screen? It is blinding fast and gets wild battery life…not to mention the eerie silence, which I noticed because I noticed I wasn’t noticing fan noise. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’s weary, shrugging insistence, when questioned about the ‘Apple premium’ at a conference: ‘We don’t ship junk.’ A difficult thing to hold onto, in a world where junk is what everyone’s used to.
  5. Thunder. A Fortnite streamer on Youtube, presumably an intolerable late teenager or early 20something. When he teams up with his buddies to play group games he has no charisma, nothing to say, no evident sense of humour; his solo gameplay videos are mercifully silent. But he plays like a fucking demon, a goddamn avatar of death — no gimmicks or trick shots, no comedy, no leaning on dull rote strategy, just the lunatic intensity of a boy in his sensory-integrative prime, perfectly in command of a complex instrument and manifestly addicted to the headlong rush of virtual motion. This kid plays Fortnite like pure poetry; it’s hard to imagine anyone being consistently better. Yet in the competitive scene he appears to be a nonentity — which for me is like being awed by an NBA player and then finding out there’s a human city somewhere, deep in some jungle, where everyone’s twelve feet tall. Put it this way, I check Youtube every day just to find out whether Thunder has posted a gameplay video that day. Best of all: the (rare) videos where he comes in 2nd or 3rd out of 100, and posts the clip anyway.
  6. Sweeney Todd. My son can’t stop listening to the beloved 2005 small-stage Broadway revival with Cerveris and LuPone, neither of whom could do an English accent to save a dying relative — LuPone’s is fucking atrocious, embarrassing, which colours the whole cast album for me (same with Dinklage’s mongrel accent as Tyrion Lannister — though he’s an immeasurably better actor in the role of a lifetime). The leads are very good overall, as they’d better be, and Sondheim’s fantastically complex score is the peak of Broadway composition. But there’s something irritating about the production, perhaps linked to the brilliant and daft cast-as-orchestra staging — a weirdly clumsy artificiality of phrasing, e.g. Anthony’s seemingly arbitrary accents during ‘Johanna.’ I bet it was hell to play. The best single performance of the 2005 revival might be Donna Lynne Champlin as Pirelli; she just kills it on her big number, plays flute and accordion too(!). Alas, the cast album suffers from ‘nearby movie’ syndrome: Tim Burton’s film (w/Depp, Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli) is musically far weaker — marred by ham-handed score redactions and simplifications, e.g. goodbye to Sondheim’s infernal dissonances in ‘A Little Priest’ — but beautifully acted by expert screen performers free to play to the camera and mic instead of the back row. The 2005 recording has its sublime high points (the quartet!) but it’s too wired or something. It’s come to sound…pleased with itself, with its cleverness? Somehow, this all-time classic production lost me.
  7. Renewal. We got an email from The Economist saying the cost of our 12-week autorenewing subscription was going up to $80 — I’ll let you do the annual-cost math on that. Lunacy. Three-year subscriptions cost $210 annually, a savings of 40%. I completely forgot that we were on the ‘gullible idiots who mistake hesitancy for caution’ plan, pissing away money for several years now. Of course, because the whole mad concept of ‘money’ is just a plaque in my brain, I immediately started thinking of ways to piss away the savings on something else. Can’t wait.
  8. Star Wars novels. You have to actually try reading them to remember what you’d tried to forget, all those years ago: they’re almost all just terrible. What a thinly, lazily imagined universe. What a waste of story. The haunting Youtube video ‘Obi-Wan Has PTSD’ is better than any Star Wars novel except maybe Timothy Zahn’s breakthrough Thrawn trilogy — and that’s grading generously.
  9. After the moonlanding. A little more than a month into the grand split/tented/mechanical/programmable keyboard experiment, the haunting realization that my layout — designed for efficiency and sustainability — is a grotesque misshapen waste, with an underutilized left hand on several layers and a couple of dead keys on the primary layer. Right there! Embarrassing, amateur-hour stuff. Why did I even go to college, why do I even breathe.
  10. Community, Season Six. Years 2 and 3 of Dan Harmon’s show were one long delirious dissonant crescendo, a work of sustained self-lacerating genius — one of the most complexly emotionally intelligent shows in TV history. But Harmon was an abusive alcoholic pill addict and an asshole, so they fired him. I suspect it saved him creatively and personally. He went off to do Harmontown, got unhappily married, and came back to do the excellent but uneven Season 5. Then it was off to Yahoo TV or some bullshit for the beautiful Season 6 — stretches of which are the deepest, strangest, darkest, wisest work of Community‘s whole run, culminating in the simple perfection of the finale, one of TV’s surest landings, a rich (self-)reflection on relinquishing and departure more mature than fans of Harmon’s earlier work might’ve thought possible. Harmon’s writing, here and on the impossibly complex and demanding Rick & Morty, deserves not just ‘an Emmy’ but all the Emmys — but so does his heartbreaking performance of Community‘s final monologue, which can stand with The Singing Detective‘s word game or the eulogy for Wild Bill on Deadwood: the highest compliment I can give. I expected to enjoy (again) this valedictory season; I didn’t expect to end up thinking it was some of Harmon’s best work.

Irreal Life Top Ten, allergy season 2022.

Title and form inspired by Greil Marcus, obviously, and little enough to do with ‘irreality’ but I like the name and what, I ask you, what is either of us really gonna do about it. I ask you.

  1. RIP Vangelis. Ευάγγελος Οδυσσέας Παπαθανασίου had a pop songwriter’s instinct for hooky satisfaction and an experimental sonic approach but worked on a ‘classical’ scale, i.e. he wrote Hollywood music and was perfectly suited to film scoring. His Blade Runner score is better than you remember, not just the future-chintz of the main titles and love theme but the ambientronic weirdness of the underscore for scenes like the replicants’ murderous visit to Mr Chew, the man who designed their eyes. Vangelis’s 1975 Heaven and Hell is pure excess and bombast — it even features Jon Anderson on vocals — but at the deepest point of its second half, ’12 O’Clock,’ he manages to wring an unexpected intensity out of the humming and wordless singing of Vana Verouti and choir, bringing a ridiculously pompous synth-prog megasuite to one of those unironically moving climaxes, a passage that works only because it’s both sentimental pop hogwash and the 30th minute of a ‘neoclassical’ work hyperextended to the point of madness. (Don Joyce took this section as the theme to Over the Edge, and one of the greatest OTE episodes is a three-hour improvisatory remix of the Blade Runner score. With a wink of course, it’s Negativland, but not at the expense of the work’s weird integrity.) The hardest and best and most important thing for an artist is to sound like himself. I mean ‘…for a person,’ and I hope Vangelis enjoyed his final years knowing he had only ever been Vangelis. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…
  2. Paxlovid. My wife and I both got this minor miracle-drug, and our worsening Covid-19 symptoms immediately turned for the better and stayed that way. As soon as I stopped the medication, I began to feel that familiar post-viral bronchial thickening — sign that I was over the initial assault and now thrown back into my own body’s well-worn patterns and limitations and miswirings. You start to recognize ‘the devil you know’ as a part of yourself, both horror and comfort. Covid-19 is survivable and manageable for most people, Paxlovid is widely available, and you should do what you can — including lie about comorbidities — to get a prescription a couple of days after symptom onset.
  3. Buffalo. My fury and despair at the mass murder in Buffalo was wrapped up, I’m embarrassed but not sorry to say, in long-simmering anger at the way mere mass death and suffering isn’t enough to engage Audience Attention in this year of our absent Lord 20-and-22. There needs to be something to sell, a Compelling Narrative Hook, which in this case — for this seemingly neverending moment — is White Supremacist ideology. A decade after the Columbine massacre, it began to be understood even by our determinedly witless national press that Harris and Klebold were (respectively) a psychopath and a depressive, and that their horrifying mass murder/suicide wasn’t fundamentally ‘about’ anything, and reflected only their alienation from normal support networks, i.e. loving parents and other adults able to understand their lives and willing to put in the time. Their grandiose rhetoric masked something stupid and banal: they didn’t like being alive and didn’t see any reason to keep at it, and the kids at Columbine High were luckless scapegoats for their rage. The ‘motivation’ for their act was, in other words, the sickened world around them, of material plenty and poverty of meaning. The vicious little son of a bitch who killed those people in Buffalo lived in their world, in ours, which has only gotten less hospitable to human souls over the last quarter-century. He’s unprepared for the world as it is and the world to come. He really is a racist fool, and the actual problem his actions remind us we must solve is the absolute emptiness that makes racism — about as stupid a set of ideas as you can now imagine — more attractive than whatever else you’re peddling. Which is to say, I’m not interested in his ‘manifesto’ and you shouldn’t be either, by all accounts it’s merely incorrect; what matters is that he managed to reach age 18 without having the faintest idea what the world is like or how to live in it. We must not forgive him, and we must understand him. There is always worse to come.
  4. Digitonal, SAVE YOUR LIGHT FOR DARKER DAYS (2008). Weary instrumental affirmations, that older person’s prerogative: arriving at a difficult middle place and seeing in it the possibility of rest, of being deeply in the time of passage rather than looking always forward or back. Digitonal started out as ‘chillout room’ music but this gorgeous album feels a bit like getting on with life, not just the moment or morning after the beat stops (contrast effect, descendent effect) but over the rest of the ordinary week, sharing private smiles and nods with faces you recognize from mad kinetic nightworld, nonetheless belonging to the waking world. Being here, just here, all the same.
  5. Reeves/Pattinson et al., THE BATMAN (2022). Normally I incline to sympathy when it comes to art that nobody wants, nobody needs, nobody asked for, nobody would miss if it didn’t exist. But there’s not a single joyful or lively frame in this movie, not a single performance (save maybe Colin Farrell’s) that overflows the bounds of what’s ultimately Yet Another Sad Batman Movie. It’s fascinating that Batman has come to signify not ‘moodiness,’ which at least implies tonal variation, but a kind of self-indulgent mopery; the character I grew up with was grim but blackly (or indeed campily) comic, with ‘knight’ right there in his nom de guerre and a giant penny in his Batcave. Hollywood appears to have misunderstood the success of both Christopher Nolan’s movies and Frank Miller’s astonishing DKR/Year One source material, which makes sense; Hollywood is made of money and money is a contagious kind of stupid. I’m with Alan Moore on this, among other things: the point of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t the bad mood. (Y’know who understands this? The Wachowskis. Imagine what they could’ve done with Batman.)
  6. Harald Grosskopf, SYNTHESIST (1980). The Berlin School gives the drummer some — makes sense, his name’s on the cover — and the result isn’t quite a party album but it likes a nice beat just fine. The title track is pure effervescent space-disco, the sound of a car commercial drifting through the rings of Saturn. For a week this didn’t leave my metaphorical tape deck. It’s been that kind of year, and the silly season hasn’t even started yet.
  7. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game (1987-1998). West End Games did the all-time classic Ghostbusters game, an early push toward ‘storygame’ territory that’s still funnier and more clever than nearly everything that’s gone by that name since, but their hit Star Wars RPG fleshed out the earlier game’s minimal task-resolution mechanics to Fast! Furious! Fun! effect — and for years it was the only place to get the kind of paratextual nerdstuff that Star Wars fans wanted. Timothy Zahn famously used WEG’s RPG supplements when working on his trilogy of novels that singlehandedly revived the commercial fortunes of Star Wars — he even commissioned maps from their art department to help him plan out the trilogy’s climactic fight against the Dark Jedi clone ohgodwhydoIknowthis — and repaid the favour by writing several well-received supplements for the RPG line. And what do you know? The game really is fast, fun, and a friendly sort of furious: mechanics are minimal, fights resolve in a couple of (big) dice rolls, and a mildly optimized Jedi character is nigh untouchable, which is why the emphasis of the game was on the storyworld’s Other Guys… Classic supplements like Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters, i.e. ‘Firefly plus the Force,’ helped redefine the Star Wars universe in ways that continue to pay off today for (ugh) Disney, and the best WEG books still give that prickle of innocent excitement even now. There are other Star Wars RPGs, of course; money must be made. But the first is still the best — though picking one of the WEG game’s three editions is a tricky task, and good luck to you with that. (I’ll be running a 2e Revised/Expanded game next month for old friends, maybe with something closer to the 1st edition skill list. Can’t wait.)
  8. ‘Parasite in chief in her idiot hat.’ So wrote Christopher Eccleston, son of Salford, beneath a photo of the Queen in her crown. Salford City Council’s ‘About’ page begins: ‘Where is Salford? … about 200 miles north west of London.’ Which is like describing Boston as ‘about 200 miles north of New York City,’ and fuck you forever, you who teach that the limit of your vision is all that is or could be. She seems like a nice lady but I can’t blame him and he’s not wrong, though other parasites successfully compete.
  9. Trey Anastasio in Boston, 7 May 2022. He comes out for a solo acoustic encore, as is his wont, and in the middle of a beautiful improvisation out of ‘Chalkdust Torture’ he unexpectedly segues into one of the middle sections of ‘Harry Hood,’ such a smooth transition that half the crowd doesn’t realize what’s happened — plays for a minute and a half, then glides without effort back into ‘Chalkdust’ with his characteristic audible smile, Anastasio’s most winning musical attribute. That way he has, now, of being pleasantly surprised that he’s alive in his late 50s and sharing his genius with strangers and family, strangers who welcome one another into strange family. Anastasio’s ego was always matched with a self-abnegating generosity, and that difficult integration found ideal expression in the radical democracy of Phish’s improvisatory method. Anastasio has grown beyond Phish in many ways, but only because of his three bandmates, their own exploratory openness and iron dedication to transformative craftwork, was Anastasio able to discover and express his best self musically. Trey still plays music he wrote with classmates 45 years ago, and every time out he sounds like he just learned it and can’t wait to share it with everyone. His eagerness not just to impress but to bring light was always evident, generously onstage and pathologically in the business world backstage; since he got sober it’s tinged with an autumnal gratitude for the chance — and the second chance — to make a living and a life out of doing so. He’s lost more than a step on the guitar, but something inside him has grown beyond measure. Making and sharing art with his best friends, on their own terms, got him there.
  10. Catalytic converters. Our electric car doesn’t have them, which didn’t keep me from racing down the back stairs when I saw a shabbily dressed guy walk into our backyard early this morning. Turns out he was there to paint the fence, as he had been for several weekends running, which goes to show that I might be the main character but I’m not the hero. He’s done an excellent job painting the fence, by the way. It looks great.

off twitter, sorry i didn't write down the name of the artist.

Irreal Life Top 10: Musk/Twitter edition.

  1. Twitter was already owned and operated by a coalition of fantastically rich dilettantes. Now there will just be one. There’s no evidence at all that the unusually vicious Musk has anything resembling a moral outlook or even a spine, but within his world of autistic trust-fund babies he’s fairly normal. Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, is a similar sort of fool, but he at least gives the impression of having a social life, i.e. a network of interpersonal connections (theoretically) capable of expanding his sense of self. Musk gives no such impression. This is worrisome, but if it surprises you then that’s worrisome too.
  2. Tesla has done enormous good for the world, thus far, by rapidly forcing electric cars into the mainstream. (Diminishing returns have obviously kicked in; Tesla’s ‘software/battery company that also makes cars’ approach is increasingly dangerous. But its existence mattered enormously.) No such revolutionary transformation is possible from Twitter — it’s an advertising platform populated by lunatics, imbeciles, sociopaths, corporate predators, and hundreds of millions of increasingly deranged status-seekers and increasingly vegetative followers. Twitter, like Facebook, is incapable of doing anything net-good for the world at this point.
  3. Musk is borrowing much of the money for this purchase.
  4. One (unintentionally) interesting thing about Musk is that he embodies many of the repugnant things about his rich, cruel, insulated, disconnected tech-industry cohort: he and his silly ex-girlfriend Grimes named their children ‘X’ and ‘Exa’; he owns no home (despite supposedly having ‘joint custody’ of five kids plus the two he conceived with Grimes) and ‘literally couch-surfs’ at friends’ houses; he has no aesthetic sense of any kind; he postures in ‘fuck your feelings’ fashion about the ‘woke mind-virus’ and has teams of private investigators destroy the lives of his critics; uses technical jargon to obfuscate his 101-level grasp of topics his lifestyle insulates him from having to actually understand (e.g. ‘tunnels’); he’s evidently convinced that he can figure out complex problems from first principles and is entitled to be paid to do so; he engages in ordinary college-boy sophistry to justify his unvaryingly self-serving hypocrisies; he opines grandly about war and politics despite having left his home country to avoid military service, etc., etc. These are all perfectly ordinary tech-bourgeois behaviours, amplified by social isolation and deranging levels of wealth (including a massive inheritance). The most pernicious myth about Elon Musk is that he is in any way unique.
  5. The Elon cult/fandom is of no interest to me.
  6. At present I’m convinced that Twitter, like Facebook, is a net liability for the human species, albeit for different reasons. Twitter amplifies dangerous and costly species-tendencies and -traits while mostly suppressing what’s good about interpersonal communication. One of its core use cases is ‘using a telephone to read short self-promoting messages from celebrities, corporate spokesmen, and status-seeking media professionals.’ The one thing that Twitter users agree on, universally, is that everything about the Twitter experience is terrible. It’s long been known that the only sane way to use Twitter is to employ lists as something like broadcast media — a worse version of the previous decade’s RSS feeds which incentivizes bad thinking, hollow writing, and lazy reading. It is universally agreed upon, moreover, that Twitter has monotonically worsened for years now.
  7. The key problem with Twitter isn’t ‘free speech’ or impingements thereon, it’s that Twitter is an intrinsically stupefying and debilitating medium. This is tied to its revenue model — Twitter’s money comes from (1) advertising and (2) selling your private information — but the fundamental problem is that Twitter consists of unthreaded pseudonymous 280-character messages and images, broken up by ads and sorted by the worst possible polarizing algorithmic filters. Twitter benefits from zombification and outrage; its users don’t…
  8. …which doesn’t matter to the company, because the users aren’t its customers, they’re (we’re) the product. Twitter’s customers are advertisers and data-harvesters.
  9. The solution to Twitter’s problems isn’t ‘name verification’ — that’s solely a data-harvesting move, as it was for Facebook. Pseuodonymity is quite healthy at a small scale with sane high-effort moderation and useful barriers to entry, i.e. medium- to high-trust pseudonymity works, and requires thoughtful investment. The poisonous nature of Twitter discourse results from early design choices essential to the platform, and its lunatic devotion to growth and reliance on advertising. The ability to downvote would mitigate some of its flaws, but hopefully you can see what’s problematic about that; if not, trying imagining every subreddit combined into one.
  10. Elon Musk has no idea whatsoever how to run a social network. The most successful Twitter user of all time is Donald Trump; do you think Trump should run Twitter, or own it? Of course not, he shouldn’t even be allowed to use it. (He used Twitter to incite violence, that’s obviously why.) Musk believes he can help Twitter succeed in the role of online public square, but he is incorrect about what that means and delusional about both his and Twitter’s ability to change the network’s role/nature/function.

Irreal Life Top Ten, into 2022.

Most new things are terrible because they’re things, cf. all of ‘social’ media; I tend to stick to the older stuff.

Here are ten things I read or saw or heard or played this year.

  1. Robert Aickman, COMPULSORY GAMES. Aickman was the writer that Kelly Link is slightly too melodramatic to be, hard as she tries (a debt she’s been admirably candid about) — master of a slowly insinuating, deftly handled eerie domestic horror. These stories, ably selected and introduced by the independent scholar Victoria Nelson for NYRB, are even stranger now than when they were written; Aickman’s world is gone, heightening the sense of ghostly presence which his unsettling and subtly comic prose creates. His characters walk amidst invisible ruins and find themselves drawn into old invisible story, bound up in worlds at right angles to their own. Aickman’s singular stories might reasonably be called ‘urban fantasy’ but they parallel his other life as conservationist — a formless ambivalence creeps in its own time at the edges of his characters’ regimented modern lives, something stranger than civilization. The ‘supernatural’ seems to live in the earth itself, on old roads and new, in buildings and on trains. I was blessed this year to discover Aickman’s disturbing tales and must come back. Otherwise I suspect they’ll come for me.
  2. The Matrix: Resurrections. The first third of this deeply personal mess of a movie is a proud and mournful reflection on the legacy of The Matrix by one of its cocreators, which is necessarily a regretful look at points missed and possibilities foreclosed. Its final movement is an attempt by the resurrected Neo to rescue the resurrected Trinity from a perfectly mundane life in San Francisco — a successful bid to resist (momentarily) the reduction of the Wachowskis’ vision of imaginative freedom to mere nostalgic style or ‘cool’ — and this is the part that feels both most precisely autobiographical and, frankly, most sentimental and jokey. The middle is a lot of Matrix-y infodumping and rehashing (with Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris killing it) and I found it hammy and irritating. Distilling The Matrix to a romantic quest-story about twinned male/female avatars reunited through magical (self-)love is…well, it’s myopic, which is to say Lana Wachowski is welcome to bring forward that facet of the extraordinarily multifaceted original, but The Matrix and its two preposterously ambitious sequels are poorly served by this revisit. I was glad to watch it, and desperately wish cocreator Lily had gotten involved too — together the Wachowskis were one of the all-time great cinematic pairings, which is maybe the hidden inner-story beneath Neo and Trinity, come to think of it. (And by the way: seeing Carrie-Ann Moss and Keanu Reeves reunited for this film makes every low-hanging joke and moment of kitsch absolutely worth it. They are simply beautiful together.)
  3. Hex, DIGITAL LOVE. The most 1993 album imaginable, just lovely minimalist ambient textures played on synths that could not possibly sound more dated. The intense ‘X-Files love scene’ vibe of the album goes right to my pleasure centers, its proto-cyberculture cheese the ideal expression of a certain zonked-out placeless nighttime soundscape. Reading Viriconium in a Disney hotel while listening to the first Software album at dawn was one of the peak aesthetic experiences of my dumb life, and this album somehow evokes that combination: it sounds like a computer consoling itself after a breakup. There’s even a track of just chanting, and it’s fine. It’s all perfectly, digitally, lovely just fine.
  4. The Dirk Gently books. Douglas Adams wrote three of the best comic novels of the 20th century, but he was a clumsy and lead-footed novelist and his other novels are all tedious and bad — these two, for instance. No matter.
  5. D.W. Pasulka, AMERICAN COSMIC. This bad book contains one chapter of real substance and the rest is credulous, innumerate, monomaniacal horseshit. What made it interesting, for pages at a time, was my sense of the book as a field recording of Pasulka either getting ‘redpilled’ by ufologist wankers or losing her mind in the most ordinary way — which explanation you choose depends on your levels of charity and credulity. I suspect she went looking for religious conversion, fell into a cult of personality, had a breakdown (check her Twitter feed), and will end up writing overwrought crank books that trade on her scholarly credentials, like her mentor Jeffrey Kripal.
  6. Subnautica, or as I refer to it around the house, ‘Underwater Anxiety Videogame.’ This Minecraft-in-the-ocean game combines mundane fetch-quests with vertiginous terror; if you have even a sliver of thalassophobia you’ll find this deep-sea diving game (which I play on Switch) truly, lastingly unnerving. It sends my blood pressure through the roof. It is lovely to behold, maddening to play, and — when you find just the right bit of salvage or weird fauna on the sea floor and are able to craft just the right item to advance — as purely, simply satisfying as any game I’ve played in years.
  7. Zelda: Breath of the Wild. An excellent candidate for ‘best videogame ever made,’ and better than ever during this idiot pandemic. It’s said that when the design team presented an early version to the creator of Zelda, he spent two hours doing nothing but walking around and climbing trees, enjoying the view and the childlike feeling of freedom. That’s how I play it: walking the vast and varied (psycho)geography of Hyrule, climbing rocks, picking apples, paragliding off mountains, occasionally hearing brief snatches of music like recovered memories. This was my escape in early 2020, and coming back to it this autumn was like slipping back into a familiar dream. On its own terms, as good as Nethack or Go — sublime.
  8. Tom Moldvay’s D&D BASIC SET. This isn’t the version of Dungeons & Dragons that absolutely everyone had; that was Frank Mentzer’s ‘BECMI’ series (Basic/Expert/Companion/etc.), along with Gygax’s ridiculous Advanced hardcovers. And it isn’t the final form of the classic game; that’s Aaron Allston’s 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which collects the entire BECMI line (with variant ‘Immortals’ rules) in a notoriously unreadable hardcover and was for many years the most sought-after single D&D item. It’s neither the newest nor the oldest D&D version, neither its most idiosyncratic nor its plainest presentation. No, this is just the best one-book introduction to D&D and its most elegant little ruleset: quick, easy, improv-friendly, with just enough rules-weight to handle archetypal ‘fantasy’ adventure play but no more. The trend in ‘old school’ gaming is toward ultralite rules systems, but Moldvay’s 64-page distillation of the original D&D set feels good in the hand; there’s a reason millions of people fell in love with it. The current batch of ‘RPGs for kids’ fail to improve meaningfully on D&D run by a cool, sane, caring Dungeon Master — for such a group, this is absolutely the system I’d recommend. An experienced DM should get the canonical Old-School Essentials ‘retro-clone,’ which perfects the organization of the system at the cost of some of its innocent flavour.
  9. Miles Davis live, 1973. Courtesy of the essential The Heat Warps blog, Miles Davis fans are getting to revisit, in order, every known live recording from his early electric period — 1969-1975, spanning the era between the Bitches Brew live airings and the pulverizing, polarizing Agharta/Pangaea band. 1973 was a period of deep exploration for Miles driven by his mad guitar genius Pete Cosey, who was taking Hendrix’s electric experimentation to the next plane; by the end of the year the band had gone well beyond Miles’s arrogant ‘best rock band ever’ boasting into a realm of nightly ritual insanity, hard-rock companions to the free-roaming psychedelic fusion of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Mwandishi’ band. I’m listening right now to the Tokyo show from 19 June 1973, and the screaming undanceable tempos and formless solo wailing mark this as antagonistic experimentation rather than what was already getting called ‘fusion’-genre stuff; the initial emphasis is on aggressive attack rather than funk interlock, somatic but — until the spacious ‘Ife’ gets nasty on the back half — not quite erotic. To what extent Miles’s alienatingly single-minded ‘jazz-rock’ quest should be understood as political is a question for someone who knows the period, and Miles’s biography, better than I do; all I know is, the man who played some of the most nakedly, uncynically romantic music of the 50s and 60s played some of the most angrily in-your-face ‘jazz’ of the 70s, for audiences that sometimes had no idea how to process what they were hearing. Listening to the live shows reveals Miles as committed to a degree beyond curiosity or perversity; something complex and uncomfortable happens on these tapes. It’s some of the best shit I’ve ever heard.
  10. EU Machine Directive. The other day I told my brother I was reading EU regulatory documents for electronic devices the other day, and complaining about their bureaucratic insanity. His response: ‘Of course, why do you think Brexit happened?’ He’s wrong, but he’s not wrong. Such is the world in 2021, I mean 2022.

Irreal Life Top Seven, early plaguetime edition.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. Rediscovery. The ostensible essence is so often only a contrast effect; I won’t be fooled into thinking the world is ‘truly’ this or that just because I long for it to be so under conditions of relative deprivation. Still, the blue sky’s seemed so much bluer, my friends’ faces on the vidscreen so much dearer, that I’m lulled into that sort of thinking: of course I’m ‘rediscovering’ the world, getting back to Reality, instead of seeing it in a way that’s (sadly) only available now that I’ve been away from it so long. ‘All seeing is seeing-as.’ Plaguesight brings ordinary things into sharp relief. Death is near, along with boredom, and people are far away. My perceptions have breathing room, for a time. And when we return to Ordinary Time I’ll go back to another way of living that will come again, in time, to seem inevitable. I’ll call this ‘innocence’ and long to recapture it. I’ll probably call it ‘truth’ or something, too.
  2. Meditation. Before plaguetime I was meditating almost daily, and working my way into Buddhist literature, the Dhammapada not only; now I’m reading more and meditating less, for fanciful reasons mostly, though ‘fancy’ has come to seem both lighter and much weightier than it was. The thought — the recollection, really — that people have survived much worse in living memory, aided specifically by these cultural technologies of survival, has borne me up somewhat. And the simultaneous ambivalence and tight prescriptivism of ancient Buddhist literature, the Buddha something of a repetitive stickler in his canonical form, imbues the ‘come specifically as you are’ practice of breath meditation with a welcome intensity and purpose: programmatic without needing a fixed teleological program, you might say. I miss sitting, though now I’m ‘sitting’ all day in Work From Home mode, but the sense of what sitting is and can be has begun to diffuse through everything else, slowly, partially, one (un)conscious act at a time. The way seems open.
  3. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, 11/25/19. Listening obsessively to the Althea > The Eleven and Reuben and Cherise from this show has reopened the Dead’s songs for me — not ‘their music,’ which was an improvisatory ritual invocation unique to them, but the songs themselves, the astonishing tunes they’ve passed on to contemporary bands facing rock-improvisatory problems armed with the library of solutions the Dead (and Phish even more, if we’re being honest) developed Back When. ‘Althea’ in particular is an extraordinary Garcia/Hunter song, and JRAD pair it perfectly with Lesh’s ‘The Eleven’ — the latter more an excuse for jamming than anything else, which is no insult. A friend describes JRAD as ‘The Dead with cheat codes,’ which I take as praising with faint damnation, as every American rock band after the Dead has made use of their cheat codes. Regardless, Russo and his murderers row sink their teeth into every second of the music, and the full-band crescendos and seamless transitions in ‘The Eleven’ attain levels of Rawk Majesty that the Dead — a psychedelic country-rock fusion band, Back When — never dreamt of. JRAD’s ongoing tribute to the Dead’s legacy is one of the best live shows going: the first new ‘jam band’ since The Slip to fill me with this desperate need to Be There.
  4. San Juan, the card game. Its progenitor game Puerto Rico is a classic for a reason, but it’s also one of the purest mechanical exercises in eurogaming, and frankly takes too long to play; its smartypants tableau-builder brother Race for the Galaxy has a steep learning curve owing to its reliance on a huge icon-set. San Juan, meanwhile, is a perfect little ludic appetizer, with bare-minimum setup/cleanup and an intuitive play structure that takes 5-10 minutes to teach. Not the deepest game in the world, it’s all about compromise: adapting to the shifting boardstate while pursuing a (hopefully flexible, else fragile/boring) strategy. My 9-year-old son tolerated it, then liked it, while my wife took to it immediately, meaning we have another alternative to the goofier King of New York for plaguetime tabletop nights. Not, I’ll note, the wildest fun you’ll ever have — but people are dying by the thousands, and this game gifts me a curious sort of analytical peacefulness for which I’m suddenly grateful.
  5. ‘So What.’ Walking up our street, no cars or pedestrians anywhere nearby — and crucially none expected, rules are rules — I gave myself permission to scat every single note of Miles’s, Trane’s, and Cannonball’s solos, loud as I pleased. More than half my life I’ve known these notes, but I’d not had an experience like this: blowing along with the band in open air, in my own neighbourhood, alone atop the world. For a minute there I lost myself, myself-as-we-now-are, and picked up something I’d lost a long time ago.
  6. Salesforce ‘trailhead.’ Title: ‘Use Sharing Rules for External Users.’ Subtitle: ‘Sharing Rules for External Users.’ Opening line: ‘What’s next in our sharing adventure? Sharing rules, of course.’ Death is too good for these people.
  7. Herbie Hancock Sextet, ‘Rain Dance.’ The first track of Sextant is driven by Gleeson’s experimental synth patterns, which is to say, by Herbie’s interest in the possibilities of electronic sound. The album stands as perhaps the most successful early attempt to imagine Computer Age jazz, relating in a novel way to the way music plays on the ear and the air — jazz as pure sonic experience or atmosphere. Jazz after the Beatles, in other words, designed to stand as artifact without sacrificing a connection going back to King Oliver and before. Electronic ritual music. The entire album speaks to heads, to the head, but never turns from the body: ‘Hidden Shadows’ is a math exercise and a relentless psychedelic funk track, ‘Hornets’ tethers wild free blowing to Williams and Hart’s insinuating sidewalk rhythm. Wandering through an almost entirely deserted Porter Square this morning in grey rain, I found myself lifted up out of my own head into my body, my hips, my shoulders, my feet in 6/8 and then 5/8 and then two bars in 4. Enveloped, every channel maxed out. It seems impossible that music this sophisticated and complex could be this powerfully sensual — but that’s just the yadda yadda of low expectations talking. Of course it could be, and is, and should be.

Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a band that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.

Irreal Life Top Ten, June 2016.

  1. William Steig, THE REAL THIEF (1975): Nominally for children — but more sophisticated in language, story structure, and moral outlook than kids are used to today — this is the story of a palace guard wrongly accused of thievery and the titular real thief, an abject soul every bit as sympathetic as the guard. (Spoilers follow.) The guard’s friends turn on him despite his obvious innocence, and the guilt-ridden thief returns the stolen treasure to clear his name; then he has to go find the guard, who’s in hiding. Their meeting is an extraordinary scene: the guard immediately forgives the thief, because the real villains are his so-called ‘friends.’ Together they agree never to reveal the thief’s identity. The rendering of the thief’s descent into compulsive criminality is believable and harrowing, and the inner life of the guard is vivid and immediately recognizable. Steig’s deft illustrations help bring the story to life, but it’s the writing — compact, insightful, slyly funny — which carries the day. The final sentence is a ‘happy ending’ on par with The Princess Bride. This is a beautiful book.
  2. ‘Video sports’: First of all, don’t call them that — they’re games, not sports, unless those words are to mean nothing at all. But thanks to my burgeoning X-Wing obsession, I finally understand the appeal of watching livestreams of nerds playing games. The danger, of course, is that the commentators will tend to be emotionally crippled manchildren with all the subtlety of humour that God in Her wisdom granted a piece of rotten fruit. The upside is that mainstream tabletop games have gotten extremely sophisticated in the last twenty years (thanks, Klaus Teuber et al.!) and video games are now every inch as ‘cinematic’ as the shit movies they’re stealing their visuals from (and donating their attenuated moral senses to). This high-level X-Wing match is a lovely bit of light comedy featuring two friends flying identical spaceship fleets. They go for each other’s throats and enthusiastically hug at the end. The commentators are personable and reasonably articulate and know the game backwards and forwards. We live in a dark age, but this is good news.
  3. Clinton: Her reputation was salvaged by her stint as Sec’y of State — though I’m sure the number of people who can name an actual accomplishment during her tenure is statistically equivalent to zero, and I’ve heard sound arguments that her job performance was anywhere from middling to disastrous. But she’ll receive an even bigger reputational boost from simple contrast with Trump. We’ve known for a while how this would go down: anyone the GOP could possibly nominate would be humiliated on the debate stage by the oiliest (and now most experienced) of Dem candidates, and the Trump nomination was the undreamt-of best possible outcome for Clinton. Now she has an delusional moron to run against. She is smart and ruthless, as transparently self-serving as Obama said, a shockingly inept campaigner — I hope she says a prayer of gratitude every morning for her opponent. She will win ugly, Trump’s political career will be over. And we’ll keep drinking neoliberal poison for eight years while the sea levels rise. There is, of course, one small danger: if something goes wrong for Clinton during this campaign, the upsurge in fascist sympathies may bring about open streetside conflict not seen since 1968.
  4. Sanders: He’d have been a terrible president. (Everyone gets that, right? The man’s admirable, moral, more thoughtful about foreign policy than he’s given credit for, but his own party would’ve had him running uphill both ways to use the goddamn bathroom, never mind the Republicans — and try to imagine a Sanders TV address on 9/11/01.) Yet we need to say it over and over or it will be true forever: by dint of his political beliefs rather than his sex or gender, Sanders had the harder race to run. And he came dangerously close to winning despite lacking even a single structural advantage (ignore the eagerly self-clowning Josh Marshall et al. when they snark that the caucus system is ‘rigged’ in favour of insurgent candidates). The essential Sanders postmortem right now is Matt Taibbi’s furious piece on Dems learning the wrongest possible lessons from this primary season — bookmark that page, by the way, since it’ll apply in 2020 as well, assuming Clinton’s serious health problems don’t recur before then.
  5. Max Richter, SLEEP: New Age music for the New Yorker crowd. Beautiful, then boring, then beautiful again as it pushes past ‘interest’ into simple coexistence — then boring all over again, this time for the rest of its eight-hour runtime, assuming you can bear to listen to more than an EP’s worth of orchestral swells and closing-montage piano chords. I haven’t tried sleeping with Sleep on the stereo, but by process of elimination it must be perfect for the task; after all, there’s little point having it on while you’re awake.
  6. GAME OF THRONES and VEEP: Two years ago you could make a case for these as HBO’s best shows: Veep, a merciless comedy about the venomous incompetence of Washington, boasts a couple of TV’s best comic performances and Armando Ianucci’s signature subtle comedy (which masquerades as a stream of profane insults but reveals its depth at quieter moments), and GoT was compulsively watchable even for those of us who realized how much richer the books were in every way. Both shows have missed the mark this season, though — oddly enough, for the same reason: they’ve had to go beyond their creators’ visions. GoT showrunners Benioff and Weiss are working without a complete book of George Martin’s to base the season on, and while they can still write a strong scene, they have neither Martin’s ambition nor his skill at crafting serial storylines. And they can’t begin to approach the scope of the books’ myth-history or social texture, its step-by-step depiction of the simultaneous rise of several forms of religious fundamentalism throughout Westeros and Essos… There’s a lot more fanservice and lurid nonsense in this season of the show, more big pointless declarations, more coincidence, and fewer moments of unexpected connection and revelations of vast scope. The first few episodes were merely stupid; it’s picked up somewhat, but the pacing’s been inconsistent and the Dramatic Plotty Bits (e.g. Daenerys’s tiresome born-in-fire rerun) haven’t quite hit. Meanwhile Veep has simply lost its verbal wit and its subtlety of characterization; it’s currently just a funny workplace sitcom. It’s surely too simple to blame the missteps on the showrunner transition from Ianucci (a cerebral Scot) to an American who worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I suspect the show has fallen prey to that old TV curse: they no longer have a Genius in the Writers’ Room. If you don’t believe me, watch a random episode from Seasons 2-4. Same with Game of Thrones, by the way (Season 5 featured some extraordinary cinema (Hardhome!) but was marred by e.g. Benioff & Weiss’s utterly cack-handed Dorne storyline, while Seasons 2-4 were as good as their word).
  7. Pulse: I’m writing about these other things because the news this week is horrible, and (even more horrible) no longer unexpected. My heart breaks for the families of the victims in Orlando. I don’t want to dwell on the rage I feel about the hypocrisy and capitulation of ‘sophisticated’ observers quick to pretend these murders were solely about American TV and not a specific murderous form of fundamentalist religious insanity. Talking about TV, or TV characters like Donald Trump, is easier at the moment than facing the horror of 50 dead and 50 wounded and millions terrorized. Forgive my lack of nerve.
  8. Luttwak on fascism: His LRB essay ‘Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future,’ once ‘merely’ sobering, is now terrifying: ‘A vast political space is thus left vacant by the Republican/Tory non-sequitur, on the one hand, and moderate Left particularism and assistentialism, on the other … [T]hat is the space that remains wide open for a product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people. Such a party could even be as free of racism as Mussolini’s original was until the alliance with Hitler, because its real stock in trade would be corporativist restraints on corporate Darwinism, and delaying if not blocking barriers against globalisation. It is not necessary to know how to spell Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to recognise the Fascist predisposition engendered by today’s turbocharged capitalism.’
  9. Adulthood = childhood + discretionary income: The website narrative.ly ran a piece by an aspiring novelist, if memory serves, about how she was afraid to confess to her husband that she collected My Little Pony toys and did My Little Pony cosplay and went to My Litle Pony Conventions and so forth, but then she told him and he didn’t actually care because he collects stupid video game stuff. The deep message — being honest is important — is a banal but useful reminder. The surface content is deeply disturbing. I don’t actually object to adults liking children’s stories, not at all. I object weakly to adults filling their houses with children’s toys, but I recognize that this isn’t so different from filling a house with, say, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, which would seem weird and excessive but not contemptible. I strongly object, however, to the idea that the best use of adult time and money is reliving childhood fixations. Increasingly, the American ideal of ‘adulthood’ is about the freedom to ‘explore (and/or express) your identity’ rather than the obligation to join the community body — and the notion that your identity is what you own is so deeply ingrained that this woman is, as Freddie de Boer points out, the norm. She’s living the dream: her husband helps her surround herself with a fantasy of eternal childhood, and she gets an NYT byline out of it. Funny thing about that fantasy, though: among other things, it’s a recipe for absolute political apathy and cultural atomization. Which is another big reason Maria Cook and her My Little Ponies are in narrative.ly and you’re not.
  10. There is no ten.