wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: writing

Pursue confidence, not comfort.

There’s this idea that once you feel good about your writing tools, you’ll be able to use them more effectively. This is precisely backwards, and stupid. Once you get some experience working with a tool, you recognize what it is and isn’t, what it can and can’t do — and you feel good about knowing what’s up. Bringing your perceptions in line with reality feels good, and creates a sense of confidence (which is what people who look for ‘comfort’ actually need, much of the time).

Seek confidence, not comfort; begin by learning about your world, e.g. tasks and tools. Nothing is as comforting as realism.

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Initial zettelkasten thoughts.

  • It’s not as complicated as newcomers think, nor as interesting as adherents think. But it’s a little complicated, and interesting.
  • The method has little to do with ‘taking notes’ and much to do with ‘outboard cognition.’
  • The self-published semischolarly book on the subject is a good read: Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes. Ahrens is a true believer, which could be intolerable, but he’s also a scholar and teacher, and hammers home the central point that the slip-box is part of a comprehensive creative-intellectual workflow — i.e. his book looks like self-help but doesn’t read or work that way.
  • The ‘digital garden’ is only alive in traversal, i.e. when you are thinking it through. Meaning you need to be revisiting your notes regularly; the output of the zettelkasten method is the zettelkasten, parts of which you can gather and revise for publication.
  • My misunderstanding, a common one, was that the zettelkasten method is about storing notes. That is incorrect, badly and essentially so. You store notes in a box. But a brain isn’t a box, it’s a network of machinery. It constantly acts, it churns. The ‘second brain’ metaphor is precise: the associations formed between notes themselves constitute a kind of thought. This is non-neural cognition, of a sort. Think of it as a unique inorganic living thing, a cognitive supplement: a thinking-machine.
  • In other words, you don’t store material inside it to think with; you think inside it.
  • The zettelkasten argues implicitly. Nodes aren’t thoughts; the connections between them are thoughts. Following connections is following a kind of argument. This is nothing like, say, Wikipedia, where each node is a discrete info-drop.
  • All of this is to say, the slip-box (theoretically) makes you a better writer and thinker by making writing into thinking, and making everything writing.
  • This quasi-mystical gobbledygook is characteristic of the zettelkasten community, which has produced almost nothing of value but a library of blogposts about zettelkasten. (Where are the interesting writers/thinkers using this method?)
  • Org-roam is a good implementation whose main weaknesses are (1) you gotta be in Emacs to use it, which you almost certainly aren’t, and (2) viewing and following connections is a frustrating experience at times. It wants shorter entries in org syntax.
  • Obsidian is a good implementation geared toward the same people nearly every such product is geared toward — productivity bloggers. It wants longer entries in Markdown syntax.
  • Denote isn’t strictly a zettelkasten implementation at all, which is a big reason for its excellence: all it wants to be is a great note-taking system for Emacs, using long rich filenames as primary sort/search tools (i.e. no database reliance, so slower but better integrated w/Emacs at large). It’s a new package, but sanely designed and rationally opinionated and therefore not just immediately useful but immediately helpful. It wants whatever you’ve got, form/sizewise.
  • If you pay money for zettelkasten software you’re a fool.

A bright center to the universe.

What is this? This is my one-page pitch/teaser for our upcoming Star Wars Roleplaying Game campaign — played by a bunch of my college housemates. The primary texts, beyond the sacred Original Trilogy, are Galaxy Guide 6: Tramp Freighters (a great West End Games sourcebook by Mark Rein-Hagen et al.) and a short-lived serial too obvious to name.

Things used to be simpler. A sly captain with a skilled pilot, a smart crew, and a fast ship could bring in thousands of credits running cargo on the up-and-up — and tens of thousands of credits, hundreds of thousands (or more…) if he had a little larceny in his soul and some hidden compartments in the hold.

A busy life for a more civilized age.

Things are different now.

Under Sheev Palpatine’s rule, the central government out of Coruscant — now unquestionably an ‘Empire’ — has moved to federalize control of transport, shipping, and interstellar cargo. Massive bulk freighters ply the spaceways on plush Imperial contracts, and starports from the Core Planets to the Outer Rim operate under Imperial scrutiny and oversight. Sector and system bosses, now almost exclusively human, are the usual corrupt mix: lazy bureaucrats, dimwit nepotism hires, minor tyrants, gladhandling political types, violent lunatics, true believers, even one or two competent functionaries trying to keep the starlanes open. The wrong customs officer in the wrong mood on the wrong afternoon can ruin a shipment or a career, toss you in irons on a made-up charge…and there’s not much to do about it, unless you know the guy on the next rung up the ladder.

The Republic had been a mess before the civil war, everybody knew it: stretched too thin and starting to break down at the edges. The Separatist confederacy were nuts, but they had a point — the Senate was a snakepit and the Republic only bothered to help the Right Sort of citizens. Yet it all still worked, more or less, right up to the end. A decent crew could make a decent living, especially at the edge of the galaxy or its underside, and if you could keep the engine running and the lights on, your biggest obstacles were more likely to be uselessness or venality (or mynocks) than…well. Than evil.

But that was 20 years ago.

The Emperor and his ‘ard boys (along with the usual soft ones) keep the star freighters running on time, pretty much, but his Moffs and stormtroopers and idiotic ‘purity’ laws replaced a relatively open but inefficient system with a draconian and corrupt one. ‘Madness and stupidity,’ to borrow Moff Tywin’s favourite phrase. No one likes the Empire who isn’t getting paid on it — but you keep your opinions to yourself, or else get labeled an insurrectionist.

It’s said a handful of star systems are in open rebellion. Maybe you sympathize with them, maybe you don’t. But you’re not in the war business, and would rather the gods bless and keep the rebels…far away from your ship. There’s an old Corellian curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Alas for you and yours, you do.

There is money to be made. There’s cargo to move around, and other stranger jobs when things get tight. There’s work. You might not live well, but you might live free.

Republic or Empire — or whatever comes next, if that’s how things go — the goal is the same, and it’s simple: find a job, find a crew, keep flying.

After the Moonlanding.

Note: This meandering, at times uncomfortably personal article overlaps in places with the much shorter, more straightforward Tips for creating a Moonlander keyboard layout post. If you just want advice on getting started with a Moonlander, go read that one. If you’re on the fence about trying one, try this:

I’ve been using a ZSA Moonlander keyboard as my ‘daily driver’ since a couple of days after it arrived in the mail — what, six weeks ago? I love working with it. Like my Baltz and Karas Kustoms pens, Hobonichi Techno planner, and Apple Airpods Max headphones, the Moonlander affords me the unique sensual/cognitive pleasure of using a thoughtfully designed tool that’s better at its task than anything I could have imagined. The concept of ‘a pen that’s a joy to write with’ simply didn’t exist for me before I was given the Baltz; now I have a handful of gorgeous pens and writing by hand is an opportunity to experience a tiny sort of music. The pages of the Hobonichi Techo aren’t just thin and nice to write on, they’re impossibly thin and unspeakably nice to write on. The Airpods Max’s built-in Transparency Mode isn’t just a good idea, it’s a minor miracle — as is their effortless, automatic switching between Apple devices; they provide beautiful solutions to what I hadn’t even realized were problems.

The Moonlander is like that. It is unnecessary, and it is incredible.

The first computer I used was probably a Commodore 64 at my elementary School in the mid/late-80s. I played a lot of Zork in the late 80s, and consequently became a fast hunt’n’peck typist in elementary school. In middle/high school we had a typing class, where I learned to touch-type with high accuracy at 80+ wpm. In college I spent a hell of a lot of time on my computer, and was up above 100 wpm by the time I wrote my Masters thesis. All of which is to say, I’ve beeen typing fast for a long time.

Recently I topped out at 140 wpm and 98% accuracy on a split/tented mechanical keyboard (the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB, my previous ‘daily driver’ and quite a fine piece of ordinary equipment). For a while I was using a really serious tenting angle — 45° or so. Challenging to learn but potentially excellent if you can solve certain setup problems,1 and I had.

All of which is to say: until a month ago I had a decent setup at home, I was an expert user of my writing/typing tools, and strictly speaking, I didn’t need a new keyboard, much less a Luxury Keyboard.

Well-made tools tend to be expensive

Permit me to talk briefly about money, before we talk about homerow modifiers.

The Apple Airpods Max are probably the best noise-canceling nonprofessional headphones you can buy, but they’re $500. My Baltz pen was a Christmas gift, from their first Kickstarter — $200. For a goddamn pen! A Hobonichi Techno A6 planner runs, what, $40? $50? And until recently you had to have it shipped from Japan.

The ZSA Moonlander keyboard costs about $350 all told. That’s an enormous amount of money — nearly as much as a cheap iPad, if I remember correctly.

When I was in elementary school we bought an Apple IIgs with 512kb of RAM, and it was the only best-of-its-kind item in our home — a joy to use; everything else was Good Enough for Now. In middle/high school money was really tight, and our shopping got even stingier. For a long time I understood belt-tightening to be not only necessary but morally correct behaviour, less about saving for the future (which might not happen, and anyway it’d take a miracle to save enoough) than about denying the present: you resign yourself to never owning anything really well made, and to replacing your junk painfully often; you console yourself with the idea that you did the Virtuous Thing, always and only optimizing for ‘making it through the month’ even when a longer play is possible. There’s a sad sort of ‘honour’ in being downtrodden in this way, with no good choices. You adapt to it, and start to think it’s inevitable if not natural.

This is poverty logic, though at the time I didn’t understand that.

Now my wife and I can afford well made things. In our early 40s we’ve passed through a socioeconomic phase-boundary or thermocline: on one side, the cycle of buying shitty things to replace the shitty things that wore out too soon; on this side, a quite different cycle of saving in the long term because you can afford to buy good things when you need them. We’ve moved, in other words, from constantly spending in a trickle punctuated by larger catch-up expenses, to spending in big but rare bursts. The amortized cost of sane buying at ‘higher prices’ ends up lower, if you put some thought into it, than the cheap’n’cheerful ‘low cost’ solution.

Put another way: if you walk through three pairs of Payless shoes a year, you’re spending more than if you buy a decent pair that lasts a couple of years. Same for buying a crap laptop instead of a Macbook, etc. This is ‘privilege’ and luck among other things, and it’s one of many reasons why the rich get richer while everyone else gets poorer. The system is built to reward money with more money.

A Moonlander keyboard is designed to be a forever device, one that eliminates your all your typing-related problems all at once, even the ones you don’t know you have. It is never bad; everything about it is qualitatively better than what you’re almost certainly just enduring now. After the first two weeks of adapting to the many strange things about it, it’s revealed as obviously correct. Are there better keyboards? Depends on your needs. Could be the intense contours of a Kinesis Advantage2 are right for you, etc. For me, the Moonlander is perfect.

So I sit down to use a perfect device every day, and anticipate doing so every day for at least a decade. For that, $350 is a steal.

Steve Jobs used to describe the first Mac as ‘insanely great.’ I choose to take that to mean: good in ways that defy sense; overflowing the boundaries of the comfortable and familiar. In retrospect, not only obvious but inevitable. A tool that seems ‘magical’ because its makers rejected convention, and so opened up new avenues of possibility. We might say: ‘uncompromising.’ It takes a while for such tools to become affordable for people on both sides of the phase-boundary, that’s one way they keep you in your place. A good keyboard is already worth it.

All of which is to say: if it’s even occurred to you to think about keyboard ergonomics, then you would be a fool not to let your money solve this problem.

Ordinary limits

What’s invisibly bad about ordinary keyboards?

  • Non-split, non-tented (wrist problems). Again, I’m not going to sell you on this, which I now consider a nonnegotiable feature of any keyboard I’ll use in future. (My company paid for the Freestyle Edge, and if I had a software engineer job instead of a tech writer one I’d’ve asked to be reimbursed for the Moonlander — though I do want to own one outright.) Having a single typing device that you have to contort your arms/wrists/hands to use is an ergonomic disaster and you owe it to yourself to switch.
  • Pinky work. On an ordinary keyboard, Enter/Return and Backspace/Delete are right-pinky keys. The left pinky deals with Tab and Escape — and both Shift keys are for pinkies as well. But all these keys involve a shift/stretch: either splaying the hand, rolling the wrist, shifting the arm, or (if you’re mad) actually just stretching out your poor pinky finger. This is lunacy. Your pinky is terrible at these tasks, and even if it weren’t slow it’d be under unnecessary strain.
  • Stretching for modifiers. If you’re like me, you’re constantly hitting Cmd+S to save, Cmd+Z to undo, the various Cut/Copy/Paste commands… Bad enough on a Mac, where Cmd is largely a thumb/index key but on the bottom row; much worse on a Windows/UNIX machine, with the Ctrl key out at the edges of the bottom row. More pinky work. Typical users go through contortions to use these keys. As above, eventually muscle memory makes up for the extra stretching time, but the ergonomic cost is real.
  • Numbers/symbols. Be honest: have you memorized the layout of the number-row symbols? At this point in history you should know that Shift+2 yields the @ symbol; can you hit it without looking? Most can’t — partly because the number row is a two-key stretch from the homerow, which leads to some hand-placement imprecision, and partly because of the next issue.
  • Asymmetry and stagger. Maybe you’ve notice that the rows on a typical keyboard are staggered. That’s a weird historical artifact but you can live with it, obviously. But have you noticed that the stagger is goddamn asymmetrical. In other words: the qwerty row is shifted way left of the homerow, so the left index finger has a short reach to hit T while the right index finger goes much further to land full on the Y key. Never mind why things are this way; think about what it means for touch-typing numbers, and even the zxcv (bottom) row. Then consider: historical typewriter-related questions aside, if staggered rows were good in themselves, why can’t you buy a staggered numpad?
  • Distant arrows. I can’t be unusual in needing to use my arrow keys all the time, all the time. The fact that I need(ed) to reach for the most remote part of my keyboard to navigate through a large piece of text — whether hunting Home/End, PageDn/PageUp, or the arrows themselves — imposes a small but nonnegligible cognitive tax, not to mention slowing my hands themselves. You can find those keys by location in physical space, sure; you can even take your eyes off the screen for a moment if you need to, no harm in it. But what if they were already under your fingers the whole time? What if all arrowkey usage was lightning-quick mode-switching, like in vim?
  • Arbitrary Shift+ assignments. It makes sense, maybe, that square brackets and curly braces share keys. (For non-programmers, it makes no sense that curly braces are even available as first-class characters rather than special chorded ones, oh well.) But why isn’t there a dedicated open/closed parentheses key for prose writers? Why are parentheses way off at top right? Why must you press Shift for both? In God’s name, why are relatively frequently used symbols like % and $ still hidden up in the number row?
  • Every key does only one thing. This is the essential limitation of the standard keyboard: the number of single-stroke commands is limited by the number of physical keys. asdfjkl; occupy billion-dollar real estate beneath your resting fingertips, and in a standard setup those keys serve one purpose each (plus who needs ‘k’ that often?); to get more out of them you have to reach for modifier keys, or foot pedals if you’re one of Those Fascinating People. It needn’t be this way. The keyboard isn’t just a bank of levers now; like the piano,2 it can benefit from smartening up.

Dvorak, Colemak, etc.

There are non-QWERTY layouts, and I’m sold on their advantages. QWERTY is an artifact of the mechanical-typewriter era, I know the history, etc. But at this point I’m not going to switch, and it’s extremely unlikely that you are, either — QWERTY is a common physical device-language, and several mnemonics are built around it (e.g. cut/copy/paste are all adjacent qwerty keystrokes). If you’re serious about absolutely minimizing your finger travel while typing, lemme propose that (1) your energy might be better spent elsewise, finger travel isn’t the only thing that matters, and (2) you probably don’t need this blogpost.

Bring the keys to you

The Moonlander’s marquee features, as I see them:

  • Columnar layout. It’s confusing, then good, then intuitive. (It’s not a strictly ‘ortholinear’ layout — the columns are vertically staggered to account for finger length. This is good, though it looks silly.
  • Split/tented. Yup.
  • Thumb clusters. You have no idea how good these can be until you try them.
  • Extreme programmability. This is the big deal.

One of the mantras of the ergonomic-keyboard community is: Don’t reach for the keys, bring the keys to you. With a programmable keyboard, you can relocate important functions within the 40-50 most commonly used keys and move little-used commands to the fringes, or to another layer. You can implement redundancies (e.g. additional Shift keys to reduce pinky stretching), combine complex chords (e.g. Cmd+Ctrl+Shift) into single keys, and group linked functions (e.g. open and close paren) together instead of scattering them. The goal is ergonomic sanity and sustainability, which is partly ‘efficiency’ and partly comfort. In an ideal world, your fingers would never have to leave the home row; this can be the next best thing.

Note that the beloved/reviled text editor vim is built around this principle: you can pop out of typing mode into navigation mode and the right homerow keys turn into arrow keys instead of letters. Hit space in nav mode, though, and you can start typing an extended command. Escape always takes you to Normal (‘do stuff other than typing’) mode; hit ‘i’ and you go right back into inserting text. Expert vim users are terrifyingly fast at navigating files and manipulating pieces of text/code. A programmable keyboard brings some of the power of that modal editor into systemwide usage. Again, the goal is to fit the work to the body — to bring commands to your hands.

Note that ZSA makes a crafty little 47-key keyboard called the Planck EZ, which also uses ZSA’s brilliant Oryx configurator. It is certainly a neat idea — its sheer portability is impressive, and the idea of ZSA’s fine build quality in a tiny board (with full-sized keys) is appealing, in an ‘expensive novelty’ way. But you absolutely should not be using something like the Planck for your ‘daily driver.’ The keyboard you spend most of your time using should be good for your body and the Planck, its many merits aside, simply isn’t. Your wrists deserve better.

How I’m doing it

My current Moonlander layout tries to take advantage of vim-like modal commands, and includes some major usability improvements over standard keyboard layout.

  1. Homerow modifiers. My keyboard has four Command keys, four Option, four Control, and (until I winnow my homerow down to what works best) six Shift keys. This is ludicrous, except it’s not: common commands like Cmd+S for Save are now entirely homerow chords, and my strong/fast index finger is enlisted to replace my weak/slow pinky for my most common key combinations.
  2. Enter, Esc, Space, and Backspace to the thumb clusters. Spacebar on the thumb makes intuitive sense, though I’d previously trained myself to hit Space with both thumbs so that took some work; Escape on the Moonlander’s infamous Big Red Button(s) is logical. It even looks like an Escape key. And hitting Enter with your thumb seems sensible, right? It’s not where you’d expect, but given the lack of a dedicated Enter key at far right, you’ve got to put that key somewhere accessible, ideally somewhere visually distinctive. You don’t hit Enter often enough to want it in the main four-finger body of keys, but it should obviously be on the main layer. So: right thumb. And Backspace for the left thumb is easily the most challenging part of the whole layout for me — yet it’s infinitely preferable to the whole-hand stretch for the top right, once you stop stumbling over it mentally. (Honestly, I’m thinking about replacing that key with Opt+Backspace, but let’s leave that aside.)
  3. Arrow layer. Oh, baby. This is the other trickiest part of switching to this keyboard — complicated enough to merit its own section below.
  4. Number pad. It turns out — and I did not expect this — that I can touch-type the number pad very quickly. Probably a combination of Nethack, old-school calculators, and telephones. At any rate, I hit the ‘Layer 3’ key with my left thumb and there’s a number pad directly beneath my fingertips, including arithmetic functions. This feature is always one of two things: totally irrelevant, or indisipensable.
  5. Square brackets to the right thumb. A bit random, you might think — but Cmd+[ is the Back button in a web browser, and Cmd+Shift+] is a standard ‘move to the next tab’ command. My thumbs naturally curl to the space between the thumb clusters and the left Cmd/[ keys, so one of my most commonly used browser/window nav commands is just right there. That might sound ‘handy’ to you, or ‘neat,’ but once you build muscle memory around it, it is revealed as Strictly Better than the previous setup. Honestly, I’ve forgotten where the square brackets are on a normal keyboard. They make sense where I’ve got them.
  6. Open/closed paren together. To make this work, you employ the Moonlander’s — or rather, the QMK firmware’s — astonishing, retrospectively obvious/inevitable quadruple-function keys, known as ‘tap dance.’ Tap the paren key and get (, double-tap it and get ). This takes getting used to, particularly the timing/speed issues — you end up with some accidental (( entries before you get fast enough. But once it’s in your hands, it’s simply strictly preferable to the old setup, which had you reaching for Shift+9 and Shift+0…
  7. Lights. Obviously the layers are indicated w/different lighting schemes — but crucially, individual keys are lit up in their own colours. You start out thinking this is charming but a bit ‘extra,’ as they say, and then for a while you rely on it…not least to indicate visually which ‘mode’ the keyboard is in. (I’ve done a lot of accidental arrowing-about, thinking I was in nav-mode on Layer 1 instead of insert-mode on Layer 0.)

The arrow layer

My arrow-key setup is wild, and it’s the one part of the setup that’s been slow to pay off — ergonomically it’s an instant win, and I’m even faster arrowing around on that inverted-T (like WASD but on the other side) than I was on regular arrow keys, because of my wrist angle. But key combinations are a hassle, because I’m trying to do too many new things at once, and the only solution to that is time and muscle memory (and probably a practice program).

My most frequently used arrow-key combinations are:

  • Opt+Left/Right. Move to the next word-boundary.
  • Opt+Up/Down. Move to the next paragraph.
  • Cmd+Up/Down. Move to the top/bottom of the page or document. In the Finder, pop up and down one level on the directory tree.
  • Shift+various. The hard part: select one of the above three ranges of text.
  • Ctrl+Left/Right. Irritatingly, this is the ‘swipe’ maneuver to move between desktops and fullscreen applications. Right now this chord is S+leftthumb+L, which isn’t bad but I have no muscle memory at all. The trouble here is that either I don’t need this command or I need it frequently, e.g. when moving between an essay and a browser on a single screen.

Note: I use Opt+Backspace a lot, which deletes a word at a time — indeed I normally use this in place of plain Backspace, since I type quickly enough that it’s usually worth it for me to shitcan an entire word and retype it rather than delete one character at a time. Right now this has a nice convenient chord: K (i.e. Option)+leftthumb, basically just striking resting-position keys though the thumb cluster isn’t strictly the ‘homerow.’ There’s a part of me that wonders if I shouldn’t remap Backspace to Opt+Backspace…

The current solution I’ve hit on is groovy — essentially a numpad of navigation commands, with Home/End in a sane place, Opt+Up/Down as single-stroke commands, Opt+Right/Left the same, PgUp in the 9 spot, and PgDn mapped to ‘,’ — but having these oft-used commands on a ‘separate’ layer means mentally remapping one of the most basic elements of my computer interaction model. I’ve had arrow keys in basically the same spot for 35 years! Switching up is very difficult.

This is basically equivalent to learning vim’s interaction model and nav commands — in my case, at the decreasingly neuroplastic age of 43 — but for the entire system, every app, with no way back to the ancient conventions. ‘Tricky.’

Yet in the long run, I’m confident it will be worth it. And here’s why: this mental remapping is also reinforcing little-used commands that are enormously handy in my daily work, like trusty Ctrl+A and Ctrl+E (goto beginning/end of line). With homerow modifiers, Ctrl+A turns into L+A. Think about that for a second, will you? And L+E to hop to the end of the line. Instead of visualizing a layer, which I currently very slowly do, I can be hopping around lines/paragraphs by remembering simple two-letter chords. Now add the semicolon key, which doubles as Shift when held, and ‘Select the paragraph up to the caret’ is L;+A. When I remember to use it, that’s just rad.

Adapting to the new world

How slow is the learning process?

After a month or so, I’m back up above 100 wpm with ~95% accuracy. I’m not quite where I was — the brain/screen connection is no longer seamless, which has definitely affected my productivity and even the nature of my writing work — but I’m back to top-2% typing speeds, i.e. I need to be grateful to have regained expert facility so quickly and I need to practice systematically. When my son practices piano, I remind him that playing scales is boring as hell but you have to do them, have to, because (1) all they take is time, and (2) they make it possible to play actually interesting music without worrying about those low-level mechanics. And the fact is, just playing a passage over and over again won’t do the trick. Instrumentalists all know this: you have to break it down, return to the boring atomic elements. That’s the discipline.

I’ve been a fast typist so long that I’ve forgotten that it ever took discipline. Moving to sane, sound ergonomics and sustainable practices is like…well, it’s like fixing a bad embouchure. You’ve been routing around your own bad habits, and becoming aware of them and deliberately correcting them is worse in the short term — then in the long term you can do things you had convinced yourself were simply impossible. After a while, the ‘impossible’ becomes natural.

But it’s slow, yeah. Compared to some other things anyway.

The first couple weeks were rough. My first extended writing sessions after getting the Moonlander, I packed it away in its (very groovy) neoprene travel case and regressed to the Freestyle Edge for a few hours. My hands were flying — man, it felt liberating. Now I’m experiencing long moments of peak dexterity using this new tool. It’s not quite the same, it doesn’t yet feel like going home, but I’m learning not to misread my intimate familiarity with the old weird staggered single-layer qwerty setup as healthy or preferable.

And honestly, every time I pick up a stupid conventional keyboard I want to tear my hear out — they’re just full of terrible goddamn ideas.

Shoutout: ZSA’s Oryx configuration software has made adapting much much easier than it might be — it’s trivial to swap/remap keys, flash the keyboard firmware, and see how the new layout works. Its search feature, which lets you browse other Moonlander users’ publicly shared layouts, is a great way to comparison shop. Indeed that’s the killer app — and it better be, because the default Moonlander layout is notoriously terrible. My own layout started out as a clone of some other Mac user’s vim-inspired setup; I’m still paring away the unnecessaries, e.g. the mouse-emulator buttons on my Media layer.


OK, enough of this.


  1. I won’t try to sell you on split/tented keyboards; either you understand that they’re straightforwardly better for touch-typing ergonomics or you don’t. If you type a lot and have pain in your neck and upper back, just buy one. 
  2. Acoustic piano is irreplaceable, but for everything else there’s…everything else. 

about writing.

  1. edit for clarity. know what you’re trying to say (but know too what you’re actually saying)
  2. first drafts record the writer’s encounter w/something (incl. ideas, own emotions, etc.); revisions/rewrites make the results of the encounter legible and useful to readers
  3. ‘knowing grammar rules’ =/= ‘using grammar artfully’
  4. you may have to repeat yourself
  5. if sharing a draft in progress undermines your ability to complete it, keep it to yourself. share it when it’s finished. there’s no good reason not to share your work except that you disavow it (why’d you write it?)
  6. your ‘signature style’ is what you keep coming back to; it’s what you get good at
  7. ‘style’ is how you solve writing-problems. all prose has some style. if readers are paying attention to style then they’re not immersed in the piece. style isn’t interesting in itself except to other technicians.
  8. write daily. stay in shape. writing long is very different from writing short, so practice both.
  9. first drafts are almost always too long, but good writers know when to add material to aid comprehension — including at a distance, e.g. extending paragraph 3 to make paragraph 9 hit harder (and vice versa)
  10. why edit and revise? so that page 1 and page 200 work toward a shared objective. saggy first draft often indicates the piece not knowing what it’s doing
  11. read christgau’s record reviews to see maximally dense, perfectly formed evaluative criticism — which gets more valuable not less as you register his limitations, some of which are serious liabilities
  12. don’t write to ‘express yourself.’ if you have something to say, say it. you write to communicate — to create something and give it to the reader. a thought or feeling isn’t more important just because you’re the one having it
  13. i SAID, you may have to repeat yourself
  14. a book that’s blurbed solely by other writers is probably bad. if ‘common readers’ can’t get it, don’t bother.
  15. please don’t write that thinly fictionalized story about not-Your cliché-ridden revelatory mundane encounters with other bourgeois assholes. and once you’ve written it, move right on to the next thing.
  16. pick a writing tool and stick with it. eliminate obstacles to getting the words down. have a tool for ‘capture’ (e.g. pen/notebook) that travels with you. type in a minimally invasive text editor that lets you work quickly.
  17. explain in writing how to make a PB&J sandwich. explain it to a cook. explain it to a child. to an alien. to someone whose kid has a peanut allergy. to a pet. to god. to yourself.
  18. youth is inexperience per se
  19. just finish the first draft.
  20. habit isn’t ritual. you only need ritual if your habits don’t get you to a headspace for doing good work. expend a small amount of energy creating a healthy writing environment, but don’t dwell on it. test it by working
  21. write a lot. with practice you’ll understand more quickly whether a piece is working, which is called ‘wisdom.’ one cost/benefit of wisdom is: fewer interesting blind alleys. ‘interesting’ isn’t all that interesting.
  22. all writing is finding technical solutions to creative problems and vice versa. there’s no essential distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘technical’ writing — only different expectations/norms to internalize
  23. if you have time and are offered money to write, take it.
  24. the 33-1/3 series affords its writers extraordinary creative freedom in return for (1) making word count (2) hitting the deadline (3) writing with passion and generosity
  25. writing can be lonely work. make friends and do right by them.
  26. sometimes you don’t know what the piece is until you finish a draft. that’s ok. but in that case you should edit to make sure the thrashing-around isn’t undermining the piece. maybe cut it; maybe shore it up. maybe it helps.
  27. anyone can tell you whether the piece works for them. weak/new writers can help you see where problems are manifesting. good writers can help you locate their causes, which might be remote from the symptoms.
  28. all feedback is useful, but you have to know how much weight to give it. young writers don’t. but you have to start somewhere.
  29. is bertie wooster a ‘character’ or a device?
  30. write when you travel. take advantage of the headspace, but also be where you are
  31. ‘social’ media fragment your consciousness. great writers don’t fuck around on twitter (the only exception is @dril)
  32. the correct response to every compliment is ‘thank you’
  33. the myth of the writer-drunk should be put aside. alcohol worsens almost everyone’s writing all the time and drug dependency ruins your life. manage your impulses and decide whether doing good work matters to you.
  34. get in touch with people from your childhood. you know nothing
  35. shorter isn’t necessarily better, but the work should cross a certain meaning-density threshold. ‘make sure each word does work’ — but that’s vague, and length (unlike meaning) is measurable
  36. indeed, word count is a beginner proxy for discipline. first you cut the obviously useless stuff — then you wonder why you wrote it. the brevity-mantra turns you on to your own creative process.
  37. writing in public is usually grandstanding. don’t let that stop you
  38. be honest with yourself about how you take criticism. the goal is to identify what you need to hear (hint: it’s often uncomfortable), face it, and leave the rest. be honest about friends’/colleagues’ ability levels
  39. the people close to you mean well, but that doesn’t make them good readers or writers. you have to honestly, correctly judge that for yourself
  40. music with lyrics can be distracting while writing; then again it can inspire. figure out what works for you.
  41. be ruthless. be patient.
  42. print it out and read it aloud. everywhere you are forced to stop, scratch your head, wonder what you meant, lose the thread, detect dissonance — everywhere the mouthfeel isn’t right — make a note. those are symptoms
  43. good writing answers important questions
  44. oftentime young writers burn energy on ‘style’ because they don’t have much to say beyond ‘i’m young.’ being young is hard. but young people don’t understand how hard, or why. lucky for them. perspective like wisdom seems boring
  45. keep your body in shape. minds are things bodies do.
  46. the differences between ‘prestige’ publications and everyone else are (1) money and (2) ‘prestige,’ i.e. money. the New Yorker actually thought malcolm gladwell was important and impressive
  47. most successful young contemporary writers grew up with money and that’s why they’re successful. don’t demean yourself by chasing them. be brave and work with actual human beings
  48. the ‘oxford comma’ usually aids clarity. mentioning the oxford comma in your twitter bio is a cultural signal that you wanna be in the Writer Club but will probably settle for Assistant Editor, pretty please
  49. most editors are useful. some editors are bad. some are both. if you’re afraid to write STET on a misguided edit then you’re fucking yourself up.
  50. try writing a play for a small group of characters. the nakedness and constraint will reveal limitations
  51. a screenplay is an incomplete set of instructions for making a movie. reading (and writing) screenplays is hugely illuminating. doing it for money is another thing. most paid screenwriters have talent, skill, nothing to say. ask why
  52. ask yourself why so many comicbook movies are interchangeable. (the answer is ‘capital.’) ask yourself why so many ‘prestige’ movies are interchangeable. ask yourself why so many actors are interchangeable.
  53. most effects are, at some level, contrast effects.
  54. if you can’t imagine what The Other Side sees in donald trump (or joseph biden) then you can go ahead and try to write but you’re lacking an essential capacity — hopefully just temporarily, but why would any editor bet on you?
  55. the five-paragraph ‘essay’ form you learned in school is designed to facilitate grading, not writing. what do you suppose you were being graded on?
  56. ‘TK’ is a rare substring in english, outside of Atkins Diet clinics. stick it in a draft to mean ‘to come’ or ‘revisit this’ or ‘look up later’ — it’s easy to find all the TKs later
  57. read poetry. i know, you’re out of practice, you’ve never ‘gotten’ poetry, modern poetry is just diary entries with weird linebreaks. i know. read poetry. read it aloud and mean it.
  58. the music of a written line is a useful indicator of its function and effectiveness
  59. if you have writer’s block, change something significant
  60. keep a journal so it’s harder to lie to yourself about what you felt and thought
  61. as christgau says: the first step is to know what you think
  62. ‘erotica’ is good porn. try writing some
  63. it’s fine for writing to call attention to itself. it’s boring for writing only to call attention to itself
  64. come into the scene as late as possible and get out as quickly as possible
  65. find writing tools you like using, then use them. don’t fetishize tools; it interferes with the work.
  66. read the first page of Finnegans Wake along with McHugh’s annotations. that’s how much prose can do and stay (just) readable — and funny, and musical
  67. read House of Leaves, and Only Revolutions. don’t write like danielewski — just remember that someone somewhere is paying that much attention to the form and layout of the novel
  68. most ‘literary’ fiction is bad; ‘literary’ names style/tribal markers, not quality. among other things it’s a common term for novels in which nothing happens to boring author stand-ins
  69. ambivalence is a virtue, ambiguity is a failing. attend to details and have the courage of your convictions
  70. go back and make it denser. does it work?
  71. read Queneau’s EXERCISES IN STYLE. revel in it. then consider the fact that it was translated into English by Barbara Wright
  72. technical writing is less viscerally thrilling than ‘creative’ writing but the ultimate satisfaction is the same: clearly and elegantly saying something important to a distant human
  73. if M. John Harrison is one of the greatest living writers in english, why haven’t you heard of him? who else haven’t you heard of?
  74. fine paper, smooth ink, a well made pen: the purest sensual pleasure. decide on a budget, buy only what you’ll use. (i like Karas Kustoms pens.)
  75. strong critic-practitioners combine creativity, curiosity, and the sense of doubleness essential to sophisticated work. they’re essential. and: most critics are not just worthless but actively harmful.
  76. Dave Hickey. Roger Ebert. Ellen Willis. Pauline Kael. David Thomson. Robert Christgau. Greil Marcus. Lester Bangs. Stephen King. Erich Auerbach. Robert Graves.
  77. read it because you need to for your next project, or because you Want To.
  78. 30,000 words is a lot. 1,000 words is a lot. 50 words is a lot. don’t take up space you don’t intend to use.
  79. ignore awards ceremonies. don’t chase awards. get better at writing and try to sell it
  80. don’t emulate joan didion’s voice or her character. emulate her discipline and commitment to craft.
  81. david mamet’s best essays are as good as his best scripts, and shorter. read the pieces on hunting and whisky in JAFSIE AND JOHN HENRY, his warmest book.
  82. at times you may have to repeat yourself
  83. go back and make it simpler. does it work?
  84. if you locked down and ‘worked from home’ during covid-19, you just found out how much writing you’d get done if you had no social obligations. face this knowledge honestly
  85. exercising for 30 minutes buys you hours of heightened energy, productivity, focus. warming up your writing instrument works the same way. take 15 minutes to ramp up intentionally
  86. breath meditation isn’t a breath exercise, it’s an attention exercise
  87. read a lot. write about what you read. watch movies made for adults. write about them. look at art. write about it. try to put into words what you see, what you feel. think about what you are asking of your readers.
  88. HP Lovecraft’s writing is ‘notoriously bad’ and also, for many readers, astonishingly effective. read his best stories. think about what he’s trying to do, what he’s doing, and the gap between them. ask what really matters to him.
  89. read pynchon for his humanity. yes the limericks are bad. ask why someone who has mastered every skill available to the novelist would write limericks so ungodly awful.
  90. read SEXING THE CHERRY and RIDDLEY WALKER. read THE CYBERIAD and COSMICOMICS.
  91. why do you read new fiction? for novelty? as market research? fashionable fiction is bad, almost without exception, and most people (and media orgs) recommend what’s fashionable. ask wise friends which books have surprised them.
  92. if a book’s blurbs tend to mention its sentences, it’s likely humdrum MFA-checklist ‘litfic’ — in which case you can ignore it without missing anything
  93. good writing tells the truth beautifully.
  94. ‘fashion’ is poisonous
  95. put stickers on your laptop, making it (1) readily distinguished from others and so slightly less likely to be stolen at a coffee shop (2) no longer pristine. don’t be precious about that.
  96. ‘book twitter’ is a nightmare, ‘YA twitter’ is worse
  97. freewriting is a good way to start the writing day: type without stopping, deleting, ‘getting it right.’ after a while your head is likely to catch up with your fingers
  98. self-publish a small collection of your best stuff. print a few dozen copies with your author discount. give them away.
  99. the truth is the easiest thing to remember
  100. wisdom is universal and sustainable, and benefits from simple presentation
  101. install f.lux on your computer so you can work later at night without completely wrecking your sleep
  102. it’s important to cross a threshold, coming and going. the most important feature of a good writing space is that you leave someplace else to get there — even symbolically
  103. consider not wearing a watch while writing.
  104. ‘where do you get your ideas?’ isn’t helpful
  105. try summing up a subject that interests you in 100 words. it seems like too few, then feels like too many. then it’s just the job
  106. get a day job that affords you unbroken writing hours. figure out how much time you need at a stretch to get real work done, and don’t lie to yourself about what you’re willing to give up to get and guard that time
  107. rhyming is easy, rhyming beautifully is fiendishly difficult
  108. if you make puns, make sure they’re very good (few are) or nauseatingly, vertiginously bad
  109. don’t be interesting, be interested and get beautiful work done on time and to spec
  110. someone else with even less talent than you is willing to work twice as hard for the opportunities you’ve been given. they’re your competition — not yesterday’s geniuses but someone young and hungry who wouldn’t piss away this chance
  111. words don’t matter, music does
  112. be proud of your hard work and dedication, but get over yourself. talent is cheap and plentiful
  113. writing won’t make you rich and probably won’t make you happy, but it might make you more human
  114. learn to tell the difference between pleasure, happiness, and joy. pursue joyful practices — remember that joy and pain are not opposites
  115. get good sleep. your bleary-eyed writing isn’t more real, it’s less clear. eat a decent breakfast, stay hydrated. you write with your body
  116. find the first notebook that you’re eager to write in, buy ten of them, and don’t go on about it
  117. help people help you
  118. get fluent with your writing tools. back up your computer regularly. avoid proprietary data formats and cloud-based software tools that will vanish sooner than you think.
  119. don’t blame your lack of work ethic on anyone, including yourself. just figure out what it takes for you to get good work done, and do that every day
  120. all wisdom is isomorphic
  121. in lieu of coffee, a steady infusion of tea plus occasional dark chocolate
  122. one reason ‘active voice’ is often preferable to ‘passive voice’ is that it makes causality and responsibility clearer, i.e. it’s closer to the truth — it was never about style
  123. get your vision checked, and if you need glasses, get them. even slightly blurred vision imposes a tax on your every action that’ll drain you over time
  124. ‘writing’ is actually several processes involving a wide range of mindsets and work structures. research, outlining, drafting, time away, review, rewriting, revision, polish — and at every stage, planning (plus dreaming)
  125. the reason you outline is that it’s easier to move a line on a blueprint than a wall at a construction site. the necessary skill is: looking at a blueprint and imagining the house. this takes careful practice
  126. any amount of focused writing is good but if you’re writing extended prose pieces then aim for at least a thousand (unpolished) words a day. come back to them later, prepared to throw them out
  127. a good writer has a solid ‘theory of mind’ i.e. can vividly imagine the audience’s experience of the text and track/project audience knowledge
  128. it’s not important to ‘identify’ with characters, it’s important to understand what’s at stake for them and invest in how their stories play out. write murky motivation, sure, but clear situation
  129. relatedly: don’t worry about ‘relatability.’ write clearly, raise the stakes, show us an effort of will (even the will to avoid, or just to know)
  130. the reader isn’t you. you need to model her mind, which means you need to know (i.e. imagine) who she is. reflect on your own prior knowledge and imagine hers
  131. never impose unnecessary cognitive tax on the reader. stay out of your own way and hers. clarify your intention and clarify its presentation. make sure there’s an unbroken reading-line through each sentence, through the piece
  132. outlining should be thoughtful. drafting should be fast. editing should be ice cold.
  133. take time between drafts to get perspective on what you’re actually doing, unobstructed by what you want to believe you’re doing. minimize downtime within a draft to maintain continuity and focus
  134. my varsity baseball coach, whom i intensely disliked but who damn well knew his business, had this mantra: PRACTICE DOESN’T MAKE PERFECT. PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
  135. writing teachers love going on about hero-journeys and story structure. in trivial form what you need to know is: ‘heroes’ want, exert will to get, face themselves, and exert will to return home more experienced
  136. that said, campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES is a great read.
  137. this is a good start on the nontechnical stuff.

Pandemic work.

I get stiff writing about my writing projects, it’s hard to be slangy or relaxed about it. So much of me is wrapped up in this shit, can’t just let go. Definitely can’t joke about it, alas.

The greater fool

In 2020 I wrote the latter 2/3 of a sequence of essays structured by the major arcana of the tarot — one for each of the 21+0+0 cards, followed by a bunch of unnumbered responses and sequelae. I’d started the sequence a decade ago, but shelved it when other things came up; in 2020 I was able to see the work in a new way and fell back into it, first with passionate intensity and then with a little more inner resistance.

After the essays sat in a drawer (on my blog) for a few months, I gathered them up, lightly touched up a bit, and wrote a handful of ‘reversed’ essays responding to/correcting/chastising the early (resentful) ones. Haven’t shared those. It turns out I was writing, all along, about midlife crisis — that painful transition from acquisitive youthful living to integrative, sustainable adulthood.

It’s a book’s worth of stuff, I’m happy to say, with a book’s shape. With some refinement, it deserves to be read. Printed a couple of copies to mark up, read one with some satisfaction and begin to red-pen the thing. There is the problem of the centrality of copyrighted illustrations to the work; let’s deal with that later.

Maybe The Greater Fool will see print this year. That’d be right; it belongs to plaguetime.

The ‘high weirdness’ book

The second chapter of my 33-1/3 Phish book was consciously structured, though not entirely consciously written, as a kind of ‘backdoor pilot’ for what’s turned out after eight years(!) of on-and-off work/avoidance to be a long manuscript about antirational thought and practice. In 2020 I couldn’t bring myself to work on it with any commitment — and wrote the tarot stuff instead. Last summer, with the fog of Covid-19 seeming to lift, I started riding to Central Square in the mornings to write at an outdoor table at 1369, my favourite coffee shop in town. This project began to bubble up to the surface again, and I pushed through some material that’d been frustrating me.

Now I’m able to imagine finishing it.

Not to say it’ll happen soon. I suspect the soonest this manuscript will become a book is 2023, though I’ll have to scramble to make it. Also it needs a title. (I have an absolutely perfect title for the chapter on Nomic, and am afraid to share it before its time.)

A big portion of the planned work is a ‘syllabus’ of texts, weird and not, but weirdly read — shorter critical pieces in a shared key. I’ve written a lot of words here but have covered only a small fraction of the intended topics. The limiting factor here is actually reading time: I skim and pick and synthesize very quickly but now only get through about 50 books a year cover-to-cover — a humiliating loss, as reading constantly and quickly was a big part of my identity when I was younger. To increase that number I’ll have to eliminate ‘recreational Internet’ entirely; imagine having run marathons in college, then spending ten years smoking two packs a day, and you’ll get a sense of the nature and severity of the problem.

This work is the closest I’ve come to a Statement of Purpose, personal and vocational. A good sign: the other day it occurred to me to print up a handful of pocketbook editions of some completed portions of the work, to share with friends and see if it works. A threshold has been evidently been crossed.

I Ching

A small number of notebook pages I’ve given over to conversations with the I Ching oracle. (‘Oracle’: in the sense of ‘the oracular power of dice.’) This is an intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging activity and I heartily recommend it, though it’s fallen off for me these last few months. Part of my practice here was meditating on the call/response afterward, which led in just one instance to an astounding, heartbreaking private vision that’s continued to shape my ongoing encounter with self/world throughout the year. I’ve not regretted even a moment of working with the book, which is unusually high praise for someone with such a hard time maintaining focused unself-conscious attention.

These are precious pages to me though few.

Dungeons, delving

In winter/spring 2021 I ran a D&D campaign for my son and his friends, using Moldvay’s Basic rules from 1981ish. It was wonderful, and I filled many a notebook page with plans and schemes and notes and after-action reports. It’d be nice to kick it off again this spring or summer, in person. I count this as ‘work’ because (1) it involved shitloads of writing over a long stretch of time (2) running the game itself was terrifying, high-stress activity (because it was my son and his friends, and it felt like a lot was at stake). If you don’t know, now you know.

Time to go for a walk.

Steaks: low.

Lance Mannion died — real name Dave Reilly, was a well known figure in ‘left blogistan’ back when that phrase meant something, back when I used to post thousands of words a week to my own Typepad blog. He started his blog in 2004 and kept it up until his death. Respect.

This week I went home — my other home, I mean, the village where I grew up in Western New York. I say ‘village’ though my family actually lived in a hamlet (pop. 800) bordering the town (pop. 1,500) which contained the village (pop. 500 then, now down to 380), and my school was actually in the next town over (pop. 2,000). Well I went there anyway, handled some things, and one night in the hotel I thought that I’d forgotten how to sit down and just write. My daily leisure/work activity, one of my life’s loves. No idea. It comes and goes, I guess. What was missing was wanting: I couldn’t write because I didn’t know how because I didn’t want to, really, though I wanted to want.

Wanted in other words to believe myself whole. I’m tough to convince.

All through spring and summer I worked on the tarot book. It’s a ‘book,’ did I tell you? I printed a couple copies just to get a feel for it in the hand, see if the pages were page-sized, if I could stomach the ‘style’ and ‘personality’ and ‘dubious fact-claims’ of the thing. My first response:

… And was shocked to find that the early chapters, on the ‘earthly’ trumps, are much better than I’d given them credit for, while the later chapters just tired me out. … Anyhow I’m proud of myself for having written it, and proud of having faced my ambivalence to read and discover and be surprised. Proud of giving myself the opportunity to be proud.

Well, it’s a book. Next question is is it a good one, and no I think no I won’t no — it’s maybe a good something but prolly a middling book. Or else I’m being too hard on myself. Or else I just can’t tell it’s too close it’s too personal. Or else I can’t yet tell and need someone else to read it. But then once read it schrodingers into being for real and how can I back out? Who’m I obliged to at that point? On the other hand I had that shit novel from 2008 that I binned without great regret after a couple of people read it without great pleasure. Precedent: there is it.

You didn’t come for this sort of thing, we know. We sorry.

On the ‘Hour of Slack’ (another excerpt from syllabus-mss in progress).

You know the drill. –wa.

Hour of Slack

Idiotic freeform radio show out of…Texas, I believe, now relegated to the Internet with the rest of the culture-corpses. For a time Ivan Stang’s radio bullshit was a beacon of performative insanity, audio nonsense as media critique, lashing out at the absolute hollowness of postwar consumer culture (rather a grand term; ‘shopper culture’ seems more appropriately derisive?) while functioning too as an actual-existing cynical cult — a meta-cult maybe. I mean you can still pay them, though I’m not sure you’d want to. Anti-heirs to the Discordians — neurotic not sociable, pissed off not agog, their sarcasm at the reader’s expense instead of the Man’s — the Subgenius represent(ed) a once-hyperlocal adolescent-male response to postwar conformity, religious and secular; their milieu was both millennarian and terminally late, both nervous about the coming millennial apocalypse and cynically certain it wouldn’t matter anyway since everything was bullshit. Their yetis and UFOs and false gods scan now as an expression of disappointment in the failure of late-20C fantastic to get the guys laid or at least deliver flying cars, poisoned too by uncertainty over whether the atomization which drove late-20C conspiracists/cults (crazy/nowhere) was their own fault. It’s not, not really, but you kind of want to blame them for it anyway, since they’re assholes. Funny ones.

And that’s baked right into the premise: Stang and his fellow (former?) stimulant addicts are at least smart enough to realize, here in late middle age if not before, that the ‘Bob’ pseudocult’s full of people who came within a hair’s breadth of an uglier life by picking up the Principia Discordia (or Penthouse) as teenagers instead of Atlas Shrugged. I think the unpleasantness of it all is accounted for; it must be. So then the melancholy self-consciousness I pick up from peak-era Subgenius stuff is probably bleeding through from High Weirdness by Mail, Stang’s sarcastic denigration/appreciation of hyperlocal 80s mail-order weirdo culture. That book’s a glorified listicle but really does possess a profound loneliness — the loneliness of the Max Fenig character on The X-Files, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (‘Meet me in Montauk’) — and the Subgenius’s whole borderline-Extropian ‘street corner prophet’ shtick has always sounded to me like the prelude to a nervous breakdown, which I’m guessing Stang would say is societal not personal (and HWBM gets entered as evidence either way). The sole recognizable human feeling in the Subgenius act is resentment, which is fun for a while, and the open wound that High Weirdness by Mail represents is probably the reason why. You can only live lonely for so long.

On POEE (excerpt from syllabus-mss in progress).

From the ‘syllabus’ section of the endlessly gestating manuscript in progress. –wa.

POEE

The Discordian Society is a perfect example of late-20C antirationalist cultural practice — a bong-hit spoof on (dis)organized religion as wise as any real one:

To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order, is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder. To accomplish this, one need only accept creative disorder along with, and equal to, creative order, and also willing to reject destructive order as an undesirable equal to destructive disorder.

The Curse of Greyface included the division of life into order/disorder as the essential positive/negative polarity, instead of building a game foundation with creative/destructive as the essential positive/negative. He has thereby caused man to endure the destructive aspects of order and has prevented man from effectively participating in the creative uses of disorder. Civilization reflects this unfortunate division… (from the Principia Discordia)

I’ve had a POEE membership card in my wallet since 1995, printed in the office of our church rectory and ‘laminated’ with scotch tape. I do not take this seriously or literally, but I’ll fight you over it. Or not — probably not, I dunno, that does seem like a lot.

The Principia Discordia (first published in skeletal form 1963, greatly revised and expanded throughout the 60s) is, or at any rate should be, one of the key texts of the American counterculture. Its comic invocation of the Bavarian Illuminati links it to the late-20C conspiracist fringe, as do its odd connections to Jim Garrison and Lee Harvey Oswald. (Kerry Thornley, one of the original Discordians, was a buddy of Oswald’s, etc.) The book combines the vaguely ‘eastern’ wisdom and pop syncretism of the 60s occult revival with a loving/critical evocation of backpage mail-order weirdo culture, forming a bridge between a beatnik’s chaotic but largely harmless vision-quest and the (virtual) street-corner ranter figures of the Church of the SubGenius (whose messiah figure is a pipe-smoking 50s salesman-cartoon named JR ‘Bob’ Dobbs). There’s a juvenile sexual curiosity to the Principia, which after all is subtitled ‘How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her,’ but it’s genuine curiosity.

Mind you, the most important thing about Discordianism is that it’s funny — it’s a good time. The jokes don’t all work, but a lot of them do, and the best of them bring across stoned-intellectual insight, but the fact that a genuinely productive critique of religious piety can be so welcoming and lively is itself a decent critique of piety. There isn’t actually a system to Discordianism, of course, but of course that’s part of both the joke and the message; Erisian nonsense demonstrates that devotion to self-consciously antirational, anti-systematic weirdness can generate magical effects. (‘Chaos magic’ is a similarly inspired but at times disappointingly self-serious cultural sequel-strain.) Crucially, Discordianism ‘works’ even though everyone involved knows it’s a joke, indeed because everyone knows that; the idea that theophany is delayed or occluded by theology is intuitively obvious when you’re dancing (or playing SINK), and the quoted passage above — on the Curse of Greyface, i.e. the moralist-dualist trap — is an abstraction formulation of the Principia‘s bisociative principle. Taking Discordianism neither literally nor seriously, but with a sustained comical-imaginative intensity, opens up the ‘all-creative trip’ that was possible to imagine in the affluent 60s.

The Discordians embody a kind of serenely apolitical opting-out from the protest/countercultural politics of the 1960s, while the Church of the SubGenius (q.v.), like Peter Lamborn Wilson’s theory of the ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (q.v.), is the self-conscious response of a consumer-political subject to a constantly broadcasting/surveilling capitalism. Indeed, Ivan Stang’s church originally served as a media-damaged spoof of New Age woo, and Wilson’s politics are consciously linked to both anarchist and spiritual-mystical counterpolitical traditions. Mal-2 and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst had the luxury of consulting their pineal glands in relative isolation and comfort, if not quite innocence; Stang and Wilson simply take ideological corruption per se for granted, which is why the Principia opens up an apolitical pleasure and its successor-texts aren’t as good a time.

Of course, in the late 60s the Discordians themselves would participate in the explicitly political pranksterism of Operation Mindfuck, along with Robert Anton Wilson (q.v.), as documented/dramatized in the Illuminatus! trilogy (q.v.) — that project shares its subversive/performative lineage with the Situationists, the Merry Pranksters, the Diggers, Bread and Puppet Theatre…

As part of that cluster of groups, since we’re feeling pretentious, we might think of Discordianism as a kind of placeless meta-bohemianism — a (subconscious? conceptual? which might perhaps be to say, ‘magical’ or ‘fantastic’?) attempt to adapt the postures/gestures of bohemian community and culture to a dispersed, telecommunicative, telepresent condition. The Society is known primarily for publications not events, after all, and since its earliest days in Whittier CA it’s existed quite independent of geography. Discordians are, to borrow a phrase, ‘people of the book.’ This distinguishes them from the pamphleteering SubGenii with their ‘devival’ tents or the Situationists and their dérive. Perhaps it makes sense to link them to space-age American performative and textual nonconformisms — Devo, say, or the midwestern cargo-cult gaming subculture which Dave Arneson and (even more) Gary Gygax (q.v.) would turn into a lucrative and then massive business beginning in the mid-70s.

It’s worth noting, though, that the Discordian rap is largely an absurd synthesis of found materials — Chaos, Illuminati, Eris. Not mainstream elements but not private jokes either, which distinguishes Hill/Thornley from Stang’s ‘Slack’ and the endlessly elaborated SubGenius schtick. There’s an analogy here to the successor-relationship between the Grateful Dead (q.v.) and Phish, and more broadly to the way youthcult anti-traditions of the 60s beget private syntheses in the 70s beget isolated paracosmic fragments in the 80s, taking a certain atomized revelry for granted: the difference, maybe, between free shows at the park, sports-arena events, and inscrutable dancefloor rituals in the basement club…

Revisiting unpublished 2016 thoughts on Trump and the election.

On the eve of the 2016 election I wrote and didn’t publish a couple of essays on the campaign. I wrote this the week before the election:

As I’ve said and written over and over for the last year, Trump’s candidacy is an ongoing media phenomenon manifesting as a political event rather than a primarily political phenomenon, and the most worrying thing about his candidacy isn’t the old problem of ‘white nationalism’ but rather the more recent catastrophic devaluation of democracy and political participation. Bernie Sanders ran against politics-as-usual, but Trump has harnessed Americans’ disgust with politics of any sort — which is why Hillary Clinton, who was handed a Senate seat by the DNC (who promised that she would face no primary challenge in 2000) and is perceived by many to’ve been given the Secretary of State job as a résumé-booster, is in a sense the best possible opponent from Trump’s point of view, the living embodiment of D.C. insider political scheming. The straightforward corruption of the Democrats’ 2016 primary process is catnip not only for Republicans but for any voter who loathes what Trump refers to as a ‘rigged system,’ and confirms their sense that voting can’t fundamentally change anything. The fact that Trump is a pig-ignorant TV game-show host rather than a person with any knowledge of government or policy isn’t a weakness in his supporters’ minds; the whole point of voting for Trump is to reject the rapidly transforming cultural mainstream. The best possible inoculation against the dangerous ignorance of Trump and his hardcore supporters is more robust community ties and more open communication between individuals and groups across cultural/political/identitarian lines. But while fulfilling and healthy, that’s not as satisfying as the tribal combat which has powered the Trumpist movement.

Correct.

From the same essay:

Though I saw clearly the threat Trump posed to the conventional (not necessarily to say ‘mainstream’) candidates — who were forbidden by systemic norms from responding in kind to Trump’s stinging criticisms of their various hypocrisies and inadequacies, and who in any case were and remain every bit as corrupt and/or feckless as Trump said — I wrongly assumed that the GOP continued to have decisive influence over its own nomination process, and didn’t realize that the massive field of GOP wannabes would work so strongly in Trump’s favour, or that the loser candidates would commit so many unforced errors. Still, I think I got the big points right: Trump’s candidacy will shape not only the content but the form of future campaigns, and (as has been clear for a decade) the GOP’s tenuous political arrangement of kowtowing to multinational corporations while buying working-class votes with culture-warfare is no longer sustainable.

Partly correct. I’m ashamed to have fallen for the ‘Party decides’ determinist stuff that — what a coincidence — Nate Silver explicitly cited as the latest, and therefore most important, thing he’d read.

My last claim, about the GOP coalition no longer holding, might be wrong — it doesn’t take into account demographic/cultural realignment, and probably overestimates Democratic seriousness. And it failed to take into account the creeping authoritarian ideology of an ascendant hypercapitalist ‘Left’ that hates democratic compromise as much as the protofascists do. In other words: the post-Trump GOP coalition might itself be big enough without the GOP ceasing to be, as a national Party, straightforwardly evil. (I believe a sane conservatism is possible and indeed desirable, essential; the Republican Party simply isn’t that.)

From the same essay:

A lot’s been written since 2004 about the end of middle-class white Christian hegemony. The election of a black president and the full integration of women into the workforce have only sped up the transformation, as has the immiseration of millions by two decades of deepening corporatization and a decade of economic crisis, not to mention the rapid (and closely related) decline of Christianity as a political force after its last gasp under Bush. ‘White nationalism’ is in no small measure a rear-guard action against this transformation — and I use that violent/military metaphor quite deliberately, as people will die from what will be a generation-long conflict between cultural dead-enders and the rest of America. But the outcome is foreordained: an ideology that leaves its adherents less able to survive and thrive in the world as it merely is, must adapt or collapse, and the immovability of fundamentalists ends up rendering them immobile. Which, by the way, is why radical theocratic Islam is doomed in the long run: isolationism, which is baked into such stupid reactionary religious fundamentalisms, is unsustainable in the world as it is.

We’ll see. I’m unsure about that last sentence, indeed I wonder if I haven’t gotten it precisely backward: reactionary isolationism is more appealing than ever in This Of All Stupid Worlds. My guess, or bet, was that deepening interconnection would make fundamentalist isolation impossible despite its obvious attractiveness. The trouble is, I won’t know whether I’ve gotten that claim right for several decades. Let’s hope so — though there’ll be loads of bad news to come, either way.

Unfortunately, I also wrote this:

Clinton will win; I’ve assumed this since 2008 and have never doubted it.

The bothersome thing about this claim is that the first bit’s wrong but the self-reinforcing second bit’s true: I didn’t doubt Clinton would win, in no small part because I’d assumed it for so long. I believed the polls, and the poll-aggregators and ‘analysts,’ and massively overestimated the Clinton campaign’s competence even as I was appropriate distrustful of her/its motives and outlook.

Excerpt from an unpublished first-draft essay about Trump as a participatory media phenomenon

I wrote the following in April 2016. The third paragraph is missing a logical step: the Trump campaign was an effective critique of the political system, and supporting him was partly about hitting back at that system, analogous to (but also different from) supporting Sanders. Well, it is what it is.

Donald Trump is easy to make fun of: he’s a friendless gated-community xenophobe of George W Bush levels of rodentine intelligence, who looks to the ‘little guy’ for validation when none of his peers will take him seriously. He babbles like an aphasic TV pitchman, is fetishistically obsessed with his receding hairline, and (for flavour!) is running for president of the United States despite lacking even the most basic qualifications for the position. He’s such a bad candidate that even the dainty authoritarians at National Review had to repudiate him, not that there were any readers left to notice — so bad, so witless, so obviously without principle or percipience, that the priced-to-sell uplifted tortoise Mitch McConnell can’t imagine a way to work with him.

He will lose the general election. Serious People will act as if virtue has prevailed (though our new Madame President, waiting impatiently for Her Turn since 2008, will be a neoliberal wolf in bourgeois pseudoprogressive clothing with a dangerous sociopath for a First Lad). And On January 20th, hundreds of millions of voters will go right back to where they are now, with no prospect of economic betterment and no major party willing to take even the slightest risk to help them.

The popularity of Trump’s candidacy is easy to explain: in a time of massive and rapidly growing inequality, at an unstable moment of profitable secularization and viscerally exciting fundamentalist reaction, with the passing of simple white male hegemony (Obama’s presidency, Hamilton‘s Pulitzer), as gay couples marry and transgender Americans queue distressingly for the bathroom and Prince is celebrated as the modern Ellington, while mere human empathy is phased out through a mix of predatory corporatism and the extraordinary communications technologies those corporate predators sell us — in a world, by the way, where the first of hundreds of millions of victims of anthropogenic climate change have already begun dying, fortunately far from the TV cameras, and only a vanishingly small number of people have even the faintest idea why their ability to read this essay online has actual existing armageddon as its cost — it’s no surprise that a billionaire TV gameshow host with a private jet and a trophy wife and absolutely no scruples would do well. Trump candidly points out what’s wrong with Washington (money) and lets his supporters know they’re not alone in feeling like the country is moving away from them.

[‘…lets his supporters know’ should’ve been ‘makes his supporters feel.’ –wa.]

It is. Has been for ages. This is only news if you’ve deliberately insulated yourself from very obvious long-term trends, by (for instance) watching the costume dramedy called ‘TV news,’ in which actors portraying journalists nod ‘sagely’ while paid operatives yell non sequiturs and everyone involved pretends the boot on America’s throat isn’t theirs. Trump is running as a Republican because that’s where he’ll do well, but there’s nothing ‘conservative’ or indeed particularly Republican about his appeal to voters. Trump’s vibe, a mix of self-pitying authoritarianism and careful image control, is aimed at the gossip pages, which is to say ‘TV journalists’; he doesn’t talk policy because his campaign isn’t about policy at any level. He doesn’t need to ‘play politics’ to win the nomination because Americans don’t particularly care about politics (and care even less about governance) — we understand ‘Washington’ as a distant, abstract villain who pops up periodically on TV to twirl its moustache, deliver monologues about its big world-changing plans, and occasionally wage war on the darkies. (This is true even of ‘sophisticated’ types who only ever talk to a Trump supporter when he’s writing them a speeding ticket.) Trump’s appeal isn’t about governance, and it’s not really about politics. He’s the media figure, the character actor, that his media-obsessed supporters (and their better educated but otherwise essentially identical media-obsessed opponents) crave and indeed deserve.

Trump and the monstrously vapid Kardashian family are, to borrow a phrase, two cheeks of the same derriere.

As such, when it comes to Trump, it’s a mistake to look to politics for precedent and illumination. When you see craven veterans sucker-punching protesters at Trump rallies, you shouldn’t be thinking of the event as ‘political’ in the sense that you’re used to.

[I’ve cut some material that links this setup to the ostensible meat of the essay, which I’m not sharing.]


What is your involvement in politics and governance? Don’t answer glibly: think for a second, and sit with your answer. Be honest. No points for reading this essay, by the way.

How do you stay informed about politics? Do you read primary sources — laws, treaties, the actual words and written instruments of the people in power — or even aspirationally neutral journalism? Or (much more likely) do you rely mostly on ideologically friendly pundits and ‘news analysts’ (read: pundits) to digest your information for you? Do you vote in off-year elections? Are you annoyed by my use of the casually dismissive term ‘off-year’ in that sentence? Have you ever read the platform of a major political party — or a minor one? Do you attend or even pay attention to debates? When you watch a debate, do you go in rooting for one side and always come out confirmed in your belief that your side is right?

Do you know the names of your City Councillors? Do you know how your city’s budget has worked out over the last few years or decades? If your town does participatory budgeting, do you participate? Do you vote in school board elections? Have you ever written a letter to your representatives in congress? Have you ever demanded accountability for your political donations?

One of the reasons Donald Trump has locked up the Republican nomination is that, if we’re being honest, nearly every voting-age American’s answer to most of these questions is something along the lines of ‘I just can’t.’

[The next bit, about ‘turn up every four years to vote in elections where our votes don’t really matter, and can’t be bothered to vote in the ones where they really really do,’ has been cut because you get the point.]

Sigh

I give myself partial credit and am comfortable with that.