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second-best since Cantor

Category: personal

Pilgrim’s halting progress.

One manifestation of my catastrophic indisicipline is the fact that I’ve always got like ten or twenty half-finished books in progress. Some samples from the fiction shelf:

Blood Meridian. A fantasy apocalypse starring a doomed boy and the Devil. The description of the judge as ‘clever’ raised the hairs on the back of my neck — strong Riddley Walker flashback, ‘Mr Clevver’ yes yes — and the embedded narrative of the massacre in the volcanic crater is horrifying despite containing almost no actual violence. I say ‘fantasy’ in the familiar sense: this is a Dying Earth story about black magic, and a sharper critic than me could make hay by reading McCarthy’s vision against Stephen King’s (anti)parallel apocalypse The Stand, with Flagg standing for Holden. I’m reading a couple of chapters a night, because a boring logistical matter keeps me from falling asleep with…

The Honourable Schoolboy. Le Carré’s sequel to Tinker Tailor represents a big leap in ambition for him over his early work; he plays games with narrative time and voice which give the book an unexpected intimacy, as if he were letting me in on the story’s own private thoughts. Le Carré’s rendering of George Smiley refers repeatedly to Smiley’s ‘myth,’ which (paradoxically) further humanizes him: in Tinker Tailor he achieved wonders beyond any expectation of him, while in Schoolboy he’s measured against his own idea, and at times found wanting. And the occasional narratorial leaps forward heighten this effect by pointing out Smiley’s misjudgments and weaknesses, so that an otherwise inexorable march toward heroic confrontation (I bet the ‘good guys’ win) is coloured with thoroughly modern ambivalence. A little more than halfway through, I can feel the noose beginning to tighten — I now fear for Westerby’s safety, and should have done from the beginning — and I’d be falling asleep reading it if it weren’t an ebook on our old iPad Mini, which interferes with my sleep even with nighttime colours. Hellfire!

Robert Graves’s Greek Myths. Graves was mad, let’s say that right out; my teacher Professor Thorburn warned me not to take his monomaniacal speculations too much to heart, and I’ve read enough of The White Goddess to see his weirdnesses coming. But this long collection (I’m halfway through after months of nighttime sampling) is ace, the resolutely deflationary footnotes no less than the at times misshapen renderings of the myths themselves. Graves’s laconic synoptic insertions (‘others say it was not Athene who slaughtered the oxen but an eagle sent by Zeus; or it was Poseidon who raped the entire family to win a wager with’ some other mad god, etc.) underscore the alienness of the myths, their oddly unstorylike quality of reflecting a foreign (group-)consciousness without any effort at communicability, translation. They were never meant to be read, certainly not at spatial or temporal distance, and Graves barely treats them as stories in his footnotes — for him they’re historical evidence to be interpreted by a kind of literary forensics, and you’d never know from the text whether he thought them exciting or bewildering or beautiful. That lack of apology, of any framing that might ease the imaginative abrasion, is wonderfully alienating. Graves is the High Weirdness uncut and unfiltered, baby — and reading him before and after Tolkien is, of course, perfect.

Wizard and Glass. I got through the insufferable train-riddles portion of this Stephen King novel, the fourth volume in his Dark Tower series, only by a herculean effort of will; now we head deep into story-within-a-story mode, to hear about Roland’s first love and such, but my problem with the Dark Tower books — rapidly diminishing returns — kicked in roughly 1.5 books ago, and has not gone away. The Gunslinger is superb, Drawing of the Three is very good on very different terms, and in a world where Viriconium exists, I’m just not convinced I need this series as much as I once did. Still, I’m intrigued by post-accident King’s turn toward metafiction (a term he detests) and self-conscious continuity, and am curious about the last three volumes. At any rate, King’s books fly by; I’ll finish this one in a few months.

Illuminatus! I started over last year, got most of the way through the first volume, and stalled out. Yes to libertinism, yes to groovy occult psychedelia, but Wilson and Shea just weren’t great writers, no way around it. And at this point I’ve been exposed to so much of this kind of nonsense that the ‘guerrilla epistemology’ schtick doesn’t have the impact it had when I fell for this series in high school — for one thing I’ve finally read a couple volumes of the ‘Montauk mythos,’ a less artful or funny or cynical (and much less benign) specimen of breathless dot-connecting eliptonic horseshit. Oh! and Thomas Pynchon himself, who’s better at everything involving the written word than RAW or Shea. Better, come to think of it, than almost everyone who writes in English, and if there’s a reason not to read Illuminatus! it’s the fact that Gravity’s Rainbow is there on the shelf, waiting for a reread of its own…

Fallow feels.

Haven’t written much here lately — the news is so dark, and talking about media consumption seems not just inadequate but exactly wrong — but I’ll be back to it in early 2017. ‘The world must be peopled!’ and all that.

From the annals of brilliant marketing…

My 6-year-old son and I were at Pandemonium Books & Games today, poking around the X-Wing/Pokémon TCG stuff. While my son cavorted and browsed, I complained to the guy at the counter: ‘Pokémon isn’t a very good game.’

‘Nope.’ He looked kinda bummed out by the game’s popularity. I don’t blame him. Pokémon is fine for little kids, but it’s not very rewarding for grownups.

Me, wistfully: ‘But I feel like Magic is a little over our heads.’

‘It’s not.’ He said this without the tiresome, clueless, aggressive insistence that tends to characterize nerd-store employees. This endeared him to me.

He rummaged around the shelf behind the counter and brought out two ‘Welcome Deck’ boxes. Each contained two playable 30-card mini-decks. He handed them to me.

I was touched, not realizing that these are in fact the cleverest imaginable promotional items. The first taste, as they say, is free…

He said to come on back after we’d tried them out, and he’d rustle up the others (there are five such Welcome Decks, one for each of the game’s Land types).

As it happened, my son and I ended up visiting my wife — she’d spent the day working alone in her office, because she’s both (1) extraordinarily devoted and attentive toward her clients, genuinely desiring to help them out of a jam, and yet also (2) a terrifying obsessive — and didn’t go home to get the Pokémon decks we’d planned to bust out this afternoon.

So we gave Magic a spin, using these little 30-card single-color (or -colour) decks.

It was his first game, my third, though I’ve read a lot about it over the years.

It’s weird to think that the two greatest tabletop games of the 20th century — Magic and Dungeons & Dragons — are published by the same company.

(Yeah yeah, Cosmic Encounter and Advanced Squad Leader and Third Reich and Dominion and Bridge and blah blah blah. We can argue about this some other time.)


NOTE: The rules insert in the Welcome Deck is totally inadequate if you’ve never actually played or watched the game before. The 16-page basic ruleset PDF, eminently googleable, will suffice for beginners. The comprehensive ruleset runs to more than 100 unnecessary-for-normal-people pages.

Nightmares of mine.

Heros quest dangerousplace1

Lately, insomnia.

Of a peculiar sort: I fall asleep reading with the light on around 9:30pm and wake up ‘refreshed’ at 2:30am. Most nights I’m in and out of sleep, or at least half-awake hallucination, for a couple of hours after a prolonged period of tossing/turning — and then up for good by 6am.

Three nights ago I slept seven or eight straight hours and was so happy when I woke that I cried.

Two nights ago, back to the usual.

Last night — last night the almost-usual. No return to sleep after the 2:30 awakening.

On the plus side, I’m getting some reading done in the middle of the night. I’m nearly finished with Charles Mann’s expertly assembled (if slightly repetitive) 1491 and have gotten into the more than slightly repetitive middle section of Graves’s Greek Myths.

On the minus side, insomnia.

Here’s how I ruined any chance of getting back to sleep tonight: I thought about the alleged string of recent clown hoaxes. Do you know? You know: idiots dressed as clowns hiding in the woods in order to mess with people.

You almost want to blame it on Trump or global warming.

In the dark in bed I imagined myself riding my bike and coming across an idiot dressed as a clown. I imagined myself jumping off the bike and beating the clown to death. I imagined myself on a bike path, and riding up to some jogger asking them for help because a clown was walking slowly imperturbably after me. I imagined that person, my last hope, turning into a clown, and then everyone else on the bike path transforming too.

Then I decided I wasn’t likely to sleep, and it was time to go downstairs and talk to you.

hungry wolves are not to blame

I opened the good ol’ reliable ~/Downloads folder to find a subfolder called ‘dragon wars,’ which contains a copy of a computer game I used to play as a kid. It came out in 1989. This is what the world once was: the credits page at the front of the manual lists one programmer, two designers, one visual artist, two producers, a design consultant, a music designer, Boris Vallejo on cover art duties, and two people writing the manual.

More people worked on the user manual than programmed the actual game.

How is this possible? I’ll tell you: the manual contains 19 pages of instructions and a map, followed by 23 pages of ‘Dragon Wars Paragraphs’ — read-aloud text which constitutes the bulk of the description offered by the game. You couldn’t play, in other words, without several thousand words of this sort of thing:

137) Bound in chains upon this lonely Isle of Woe you find the dark queen Irkalla, Mistress of Magan. The chains are made of enchanted silver, and she is unable to move. “Topsiders!” she snarls when she sees you. “It’s always the same. The water level rises, your toilets back up, and everyone rushes to the Underworld for help! Well, I have problems of my own, as you can see. That filthy halfbreed Namtar chained me here, and gave the key to the one creature who owes me no favors.”

Irkalla regards you. “Perhaps you could be of some use,” she says, her tone suddenly becoming incredibly seductive. “Find the Silver Key and” (etc. etc. etc.)

The programmer’s Afterword, which follows the warranty at the end of the manual, begins: ‘Imagine my surprise when my boss told me I had to create a top-notch fantasy role-playing game in four months and four disk sides…’

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I didn’t make it very far in Dragon Wars as a kid. Looking at this image I remember the Jail Keepers, and I remember the game having a certain austere quality which — historical note — characterized so many early fantasy/SF computer games for primarily technical reasons. (The magnificent desolation and loneliness of the hugely influential Zork games, say, isn’t just an aesthetic choice; in a text adventure, crowds of NPCs don’t play quite right.) I didn’t know the word ‘austere’ then, but I knew Zork, which was a lot better than Dragon Wars. Though maybe if I’d finished…?

Now it’s 5:52am. Yesterday I wrote a long forum post but didn’t share it — as I finished up I realized that I was in danger of becoming a person who shares long forum posts. After closing and saving the file I realized that’d happened ages ago; spirit crushed, I retreated to bed, where…well, you know how the story begins.

James Luceno, LABYRINTH OF EVIL.

Very rough-drafty first-impressiony, this one. For a change!

Prequel to Revenge of the Sith. I’ve been on a Star Wars kick lately, what with all the X-Wing Miniatures Game I’ve been playing with my son, so I was tempted by the comparatively strong reviews this book had gotten — an io9 rundown of the Expanded Universe said the ‘Dark Lord Trilogy’ was the one thing that deserved to survive the EU’s demise or somesuch, back when ‘the EU’s demise’ meant the Star Wars thing and not the other thing.

Well, I’ve got three or four hours to spare, may as well.

Luceno’s talents are unequally distributed. There’s a bad case of vocabulary ostentation syndrome (starting with a faintly embarrassing mention of Thomas Pynchon in the acknowledgments), some pseudoscientific shenanigans, and a number of surprisingly boring action sequences — Luceno makes an effort to clearly lay out the physical space for his battles, but it all feels like rote combat moves set against familiar stage backdrops, and the long descriptive passages feel a bit like his heart isn’t in it.

Against those liabilities we have a superbly effective evocation of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s parental/fraternal bond, a much needed deepening of the Grievous/Dooku/Palpatine scheme which imbues Dooku and Grievous with unexpected tragic sympathy, thoughtful handling of Mace and Yoda, a healthy application of elbow grease to matters of series plot consistency, and the first rendering of Anakin the apprentice’s psychology which has felt real to me. I come back to the only memorably intelligent monologue in the whole prequel trilogy, Anakin’s ‘Jedi are required to love’ seduction/rationalization, and see that Anakin — more powerful than smart, more passionate than loving, desirous of connection yet unable to comport himself like just another human being now that he knows he’s secretly Paul Atreides — in Labyrinth of Evil. The Anakin/Obi-Wan relationship is the core of the book, as it’s the core of the whole prequel trilogy, with a (comparatively) richly imagined Palpatine/Sidious moving subtly, inexorably, to sever their partnership; the action scenes are tedious but as long as the major players are onscreen it all seems unusually meaningful, for a Star Wars story.

I feel obligated to state that not only is this not Great Literature, it’s not even a particularly good novel; if you don’t know the story already, I can’t imagine it making much sense. Not even even a middle chapter, it’s spackle, filling the holes in the prequel trilogy and connecting the Clone Wars series to the main text. It accomplishes the work of literature with about the proficiency you’d expect, but its spacklework is handled with extraordinary aplomb.

Star Wars matters to me. It always will. I like the prequels even though they’re hilarious, disastrously incompetent in so many ways. I’m glad I read this book. It brought me home for a time.

Manic Mumday.

My wife got over her weird GI bug just in time for me to badly injure my back, plus I think I have warts on my thumbs and right foot. Happy Mother’s Day!

(p.s. Warts are (1) contagious and (2) painful, so that’s just awesome. But they’re also easily treatable and jes’ plain viral, i.e. not signs of underlying horror. So that’s OK.)

Panjanconundrum.

Desperate to write something, trying, trying, but it’s all just shit.

How’s your Sunday?

‘Branded LEGO kits stifle kids’ creativity.’

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

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

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

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

Here’s how my son plays with LEGOs:

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

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

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

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

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

Some new-to-us board games.

On Wednesdays we get together for our Gentlemen’s Nights (aka Nerd Nights), which consist of…

  1. one or two beers apiece (I generally drink water)
  2. parental/marital/professional commiseration
  3. board games.

What a great word ‘commiseration’ is, eh?

Some games we’ve recently (re)played:

Settlers of Catan

The old warhorse. We’ve played a million times over 15 years, of course. I’ve no idea whether the boardgamegeek obsessives still like this game; I suspect the heavy randomness now puts many of them off. It remains, though, a perfect (relatively) casual eurogame, with a handful of paths to victory and plenty of interesting choices to make. The trading system is ingenious; it’s the most fun element of the game and essential for victory, which seems to me like a case of correctly identified design priorities. Yes, the initial placement phase can be nearly determinative, but if you play with minimal savvy you can’t lose the game at that first stage — being shut out of wood/mud early on means you need to focus on cards, cities, and pushing hard into trade, and control of the Thief (and the Largest Army) will be essential for you.

Settlers doesn’t get as much attention as it used to; it was the first big stateside eurogame and has been superseded over the last 10-15 years by other novel creations (e.g. Dominion, the most perfectly pitched the best eurogame I’ve played). But Settlers hasn’t lasted because it was first. Along with Cosmic Encounter and Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the most effective social game I’ve played that has any real substance. Just as every copy of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters should be magically replaced one evening by a Mwandishi album, every copy of Monopoly or Taboo should be replaced with a copy of Settlers — and I say this despite being an ice-cold murderer at the Taboo table.

Hawaii

Setup for our first game took more than an hour. We didn’t even make it through our first game in three hours of play. It felt like a disaster. We tried again a week or two later with three of the same players and a newbie; everyone played a different strategy and the three second-timers finished within a handful of points, with a surprise come-from-behind one-point(!) victory.

Like Clash of Cultures (below), Hawaii has a bit too much stuff on the table, and an enormous amount to keep track of in your head. The rulebook’s enormous — not Mage Wars enormous, but admittedly that’s a special case — and it seems at first like every fiddly little subsystem is a new hassle rather than an opportunity. First-time players won’t love it. But it grows on you. I haven’t played the games it’s compared to on BGG (Vikings, Stone Age), but I can tell you that randomness plays a small part and it falls equally on all the players; the fiddly little subsystems fit together ingeniously; there’s room for a wide variety of approaches; the pace of the game picks up as at progresses, building drama quite nicely.

Best of all, the rules really do become second nature after a play or two. I don’t think we could bring our playtime down to an hour, but it could definitely be a 90-minute game. Heavier cognitive load than the mechanistic Puerto Rico, less direct interaction than Settlers, but this is a very rewarding game. Props to the designer of the tiny icons indicating the function of each piece — they do a lot of heavy lifting.

Clash of Cultures

We played last night. Once you know what you’re doing it speeds up immensely, but this took ages; for all that, it’s a surprisingly effective game, immediately reminding everyone of the Civilization computer game (none of us have played the Sid Meier board game, though my fondest childhood gaming memories are of Avalon Hill’s classic Civilization) but taking on an interesting dynamic of its own.

We haven’t yet fully wrapped our heads around the interplay of Clash‘s mechanical systems, and here’s the main reason why: you’re keeping track of 7ish resources and 50ish(!!) civilizational advances, and at least half of the latter entail situational modifiers in play — so there’s a huge cognitive load unlike that of relatively light games like Settlers or the great Carcassonne (or pre-eurogame American games, of course). At my age, I don’t generally want that kind of upfront hassle — I can’t abide complex character creation in RPGs, for instance. But once you have a sense of the pace and scope of the game, how many choices you’ll actually have time to make, it’s possible to string together great millennia-spanning strategies which pay off in the final two rounds.

Best thing about our first play, mechanically and thematically: the way random elements shake up the game and afford new opportunities even while foreclosing on strategies to an extent. Because of the random board layout, I ended up hamstrung early by Barbarians, opting to abandon my initial strategic notions (science! education!) in favour of a war footing and deal sharply with my local belligerents. This ended up being a path to near-victory for me — wiping out a big barbarian tribe brings major rewards (gold) and can transform your economic status. Andrew’s strategy kept getting delayed by the vicissitudes of fate too — but by the time we quit for the night he’s established a mercantile empire that had begun to soak up enormous amounts of gold every turn. Ian’s ‘ISIS strategy’ — fanatical militarized religious zealotry — proved hugely effective, as his smartly optimized early buildup of Advances let him march triumphantly across the board in the midgame.

He insisted on wailing allahu akbar after each act of sterile illiterate savagery, i.e. constantly. So that was tiresome. But his strategy worked perfectly.

I can’t say whether the game’s a complete success, but I’ll say this: I’d definitely play again despite the time commitment. I’ll also say this, though: it had me longing for AH’s Civilization. Since Civ is a stone classic, that’s no insult to Clash of Cultures, which seems like an excellent game. But I do wonder.

Mice & Mystics

Clever, this! Feels almost exactly like D&D 4th edition pared down to a minimal engine — perhaps a bit simplistic but that’s OK — combined with a relentlessly forward-moving ‘story engine’ of sorts. Everyone’s always engaged, the challenges are judiciously selected, and the story’s charming and surprisingly immersive. A compelling middle ground between a combat-focused RPG and a relatively simple board game. Not the deepest game in the world, sure, but a perfect frame for a low-key evening of game-centric socializing.

Descent of a derogation.

This is only about words, haha:

As I kid I used to think ‘hypochondriac’ belonged to the same category as ‘nutjob,’ i.e. synonyms for hopeless case. There was nothing to do for a hypochondriac, always going on about problems they don’t have. They’re too much trouble: they’re simply wrong, pathetically so.

Now that I understand what the term actually refers to — run-of-the-mill free-floating anxiety with its chief locus in health concerns — I’m disappointed in myself for never having wondered whether the term had a non-editorial purpose.

Children don’t ‘learn the meanings of words’ in some abstract sense; there isn’t a word/definition pair that simply slots into an empty memory bank somewhere in your brain-cabinet. They only use words, and silently absorb gigantic amounts of information about how words are used around them. If grandpa can’t help but curl his lip in disgust when he says ‘German,’ his kids and grandkids won’t even think of Germany as a country in the same sense as their own — for them it’ll exist first of all as a stimulus to disgust, and they’ll know first that the word is a unit of speech with that effect.

The kids will see ‘Germany’ in the emotional colour of grandpa’s reaction, and their own reaction to his anger, and so forth. Other colours too, needless to say, but emotional channels are wide open in such family settings. The emotional intensity of that environment grants special depth and primacy to the impressions we form there, whether or not we understand or appreciate that primacy. That’s what family is for, in part; that’s why it matters so much.

People seem to think of sentences as shipping containers for pure information, but much or most of the time the weight of significance actually rests on the emotional over/undertones of speech. You say ‘I love you’ and I barely process the words, but rather I hear proximity, vulnerability, softening (or hardening) of tone, tempo, pitch: the music which predates language.

The term ‘body language’ is itself a childish derogation of our primary method of communication.

We delay or deny our children access to their full powers of reasoning if we teach them that ideas have no meaning or value outside the emotional reactions they get out of us. And we fuck up our kids further by ignoring the massive amount of physical/emotional information transmitted along with every word.

It would’ve been useful for me to learn early on that ‘hypochondriac’ is a straightforward description of a bundle of feelings and behaviours, not an invitation to sneer. I might’ve realized more quickly that I was becoming one, and acted accordingly. Words get in the way.