Warren Zevon, "Run Straight Down"

>> Monday, April 30, 2012

io9 has wrapped up their breakdown of the top hundred albums "Every Self-Respecting Science Fiction Fan Should Own", and it's the kind of thing that's pointless and quibbleful but scads of fun, so you might as well check it out. Since that link starts you off at the end of the list (or the start of the list counting down... however you want to look at it), I'll point out a ground rule that appeared in the 71-100 part of the list: only one album per artist, so as to not have a top ten list consisting of David Bowie albums. (Speaking of which--spoiler alert--the number one entry is a certain concept album whose title rhymes with "twiggy bar-dust land duh gliders bum cars", as if you wouldn't have guessed that going in. I'm sorry, there is no other correct answer for number one, screw you if you even thought it for a second.)

I wasn't surprised Warren Zevon's Transverse City didn't make the cut. Not because it isn't a totally sciencefictional LP but because it tends to get overshadowed in the man's discography. It was a bit of a commercial flop when it came out and in terms of the whole posthumous career retrospective, it has the misfortune of falling between Zevon's '80s comeback/rehab record Sentimental Hygiene and one of his iconic, career-defining records, Mr. Bad Example; and it's a little dated in terms of some of the production and themes.

But then it's a record where the session players include Neil Young, Chick Corea, Jerry Garcia, J.D. Souther, Richie Hayward, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, and (appearing in the above video sporting his Momentary Lapse paunch and mullet), David Gilmour. Et al. Which is a helluva guest list, y'know, the kind of all-star cast that often turned out for Zevon sessions and highlighted the whole musician's musician side of his career through its ups and downs and flirtations with massive success followed by cult-followed downturns.

"Run Straight Down", a radio single from City, is a weird-ass song, I don't think there are two ways about that. Weird-ass and awesome, I mean, and no two ways about that, either. The backing vocal's a polysyllabic robotic litany of carcinogens and teratogens and there's that sobbing, screaming classically Floydey guitar crying through it and Warren singing about robots and poisoned wastelands. Oh, and the title's consciously ripped from William Gibson's Count Zero, another SF nod. On the album, the song is the center panel in a triptych that begins with the title track (about a dystopian futuristic shopping mall) and "The Long Arm Of The Law", a song about a fugitive gunrunner living a decade-plus in the song's future ("Law" mentions a fictional South American war occurring in 1999, ten years after the album's release).

Depending on how you feel about this kind of thing, it may (or may not) be a strike against the whole record that there's nothing as morbidly funny as "Werewolves Of London" or "Mr. Bad Example" or "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", though "Splendid Isolation", a song about the narcissism of a Hughesian self-imposed exile flirts with that kind of thing. On the other hand, I'm not sure any of Zevon's other records had anything quite as hauntingly trippy as "They Moved The Moon", which could probably be best described as a phildickian breakup song. (Didja even know such a kinda thing existed?)

The funny personal story about this album that I'd actually pretty much forgotten until I started writing this: so in 1989, I'm in high school, living with my Mom, and my Dad (if I remember rightly) had pretty much moved out at that point but it hadn't been very long. And Dad had always been a Zevon fan and I wasn't sure if he had access to a CD player or a turntable, so for Christmas that year I got him Transverse City on cassette, figuring he at least had access to a tape player. And I remember him coming over to exchange presents and he hands me a predictably-CD-shaped package (music still being one of the very best gifts you can give me) and I hand him the wrapped-up tape, and we unwrap our gifts and there I am looking at Transverse City on CD and he's looking at Transverse City on cassette, and of course we got a good laugh out of that though I understand you probably had to be there. But great minds and all that.

I still have the CD, though years ago it got ripped to MP3 and now it mostly just sits on a shelf helping prop up the other dust-gathering silver platters. I'd assume he doesn't have the cassette anymore--boy, there's a basically dead technology, isn't it? Anyway, maybe not Warren's best record, but a pretty good one. Might need to take it for a spin again this week sometime.


Waaaait for it....

>> Sunday, April 29, 2012

I think I saw this on Facebook: someone probably linked to The Huffington Post's regurgitation of a story that the Egyptian parliament was thinking about making it legal for husbands to have farewell sex with their recently-deceased wives. Which seems like an odd law even on its face, since there's really nothing precluding anybody in the world from having sex with their dead wives, it's just that it's probably a bad idea for them to talk about it in those localities where it might be illegal or in poor taste. So if you think about it that way, the purported story was really about making it possible for Egyptian husbands to talk about having sex with their dead wives without fearing the conversation might be used as evidence at trial.

"Purportedly" because I see today that Salon's Alex Pareene is pointing to a Christian Science Monitor piece debunking the whole story. Egypt's parliament isn't, in fact, deliberating over whether or not husbands ought to be able to legally have sex with their recently-dead wives, or, more accurately, brag about it afterwards.

Really, the claim Egypt is contemplating legalizing sex with Egyptian corpses should never have passed a sniff test or gotten any traction from anyone at all.

I mean, please--everybody knows you're not supposed to have sex with your mummy.

Glad we could wrap that up.


Checking in

>> Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hi. How we doing today?

It's a grey Saturday down here. Good movie weather, so I went and saw Cabin In The Woods, and now I remember why I used to like Joss Whedon so much; matter of fact, now I love him again. I can't review the damn thing, though, because there's just no way not to spoil it. Go see it, have fun.

This won't be long because I'm checking in from my phone and typing on it is a bitch. I hope you're having an excellent weekend.


Fiona Apple, "Every Single Night"

>> Friday, April 27, 2012

That this is here at all surprises me. I cannot think of a previous incident where I actually liked a Fiona Apple song, though I didn't object to her cover of The Beatles' "Across The Universe". Until now. I heard this in the car the other day, and I admit, I liked it, I actually liked it.

There ought to be a rule that no album title can have so many words you have to pause for a breath and a glass of water before you get to the far end of it. This isn't why Apple didn't do it for me, though it didn't really help. Well before that, there was something about "Criminal" that irritated me even before it was played so many times it was like the butt-end of a splinter under the ridges of your thumb, feeling the size of a cinderblock but to fine to tease out even with the most narrownosed tweezers you have in your medicine cabinet.

There may be an irony in that there was something about precocious young Fiona Apple that suggested some sort of ripping-off-of or riding-the-wake-of Tori Amos, and here's a song that has a very, very Amosian feel, more of an Amosian feel than probably anything else I've heard from Apple, and this one is the one that hits a nerve and lingers. Early Amos, we might add; Tori has gone off some kind of long pier the last few records and I don't think I can swim out past those breakers anymore, I'm sorry, so sorry, so very, very sorry. "Every Single Night" might have been the second single on a Tori Amos EP, almost, nestled between an album excerpt and a strange cover.

Those kinds of comparisons are unfair, I know. Apple is her own woman, her debut album came out sixteen years ago (it will be contemplating college soon, though it's probably more focused on junior prom right at the moment). But we go for the referents we understand in our own heads. "This record," we say to ourselves, "is just like this thing over here," and we do this not just because some things are like others but because analogies, however strained, are the only way we understand anything, ever, at all, pretty much.



>> Thursday, April 26, 2012

I have to admit, I've been thinking about my biases over the past day or so. Because I am completely biased, I'll admit it, and I'm not wholly sure that's a quote-unquote "bad thing"; I mean, we all value the impartial observer, sure, but a lot of times in practice "impartial" is really synonymous with "doesn't know shit". Surely the issue isn't whether you have bias but recognizing it and cheerfully admitting it and trying not to let those biases get in the way of objectivity, of adjusting for what you expect to see when you're looking at something.

I'm a socialist technocratic utopian, or something along those lines. I believe in redistribution of wealth and nuclear power. Blame Gene Roddenberry, probably: in the future we'll have no money and the benign fascists of the interstellar alliance will send spaceships whisking around the galaxy to troubleshoot problems, none of which are too big to be solved in forty-seven minutes by judicious applications of science, reason and empathy. Which is all a little silly when you put it that way, and we also might have to admit that in a lot of ways Star Trek (in any of its incarnations) was often a better idea for a television show than it was an actual show, but, you know, who doesn't want to go around the universe convincing everybody science works by proving their religion is based on aliens and/or rogue AIs?

I believe in capital-R Reason and putting yourself in another guy's shoes as often as possible. Not literally, notwithstanding my belief that those to whom society gives a great deal society is owed compensation and future investment in due course; there is a line that can be drawn at shoes. I believe that technology is generally a force for good, although we all can catalogue the awful applications it can be put to and all of the historic disasters that can be filed under "unforeseen complications". I don't believe in being reckless, by any means.

But if you put to me two options, one involving something scientific and shiny and the other involving something intangible and traditional, I have to admit I'm going to pick scientific and shiny pretty much almost every single time. That's just how my mind works.

I believe that all things follow a dictum of adapt or die: living creatures, institutions, societies. And this sets up a progressive impulse in me, a tendency to think that a new development requires change, not locking down the new development, necessarily. Which is ironic insofar as day-to-day I am awful at dealing with change in my personal life; I think there are aspects of my growing up that have left me insecure and therefore something of a control freak and ergo things I can't control tend to scare me and things I haven't learned to control intimidate me. Some things are easier to believe in than to do, but this is something else I'd like to think I recognize and can try to grapple with. I should also point out that some changes, many changes, aren't good, but that has no impact on the dictum: I mean, a change may absolutely incontrovertibly suck balls but that doesn't mean your choice isn't what it will always be, adapt or die.

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract. I always end up saying that--sometimes aloud, sometimes just in my head--whenever this subject comes up. I don't know for sure, exactly, one-hundred percent what it even means although it's so damn evocative; I feel what it means, I think, even if I don't really know. It possibly means adapt or die. Again.

I admit these prejudices bend my perceptions like a beam of sunlight through a half-glass of yellow wine.


The National, "Runaway"

>> Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This is just a gorgeous rendition of this song. I have nothing to write about here today, and I said to myself, finally, "I'll do a YouTube search for something from The National, why not?" and here was this live performance clip I hadn't seen. Such a tender performance of such a poignantly bitter song. If you're not a National fan I just have no idea why not.

I'm wondering if I even have it in me to talk about politics anymore. NPR played a clip this morning of Mitt Romney talking about how he's going to unite the country, but we're so entirely past that now, aren't we? If the first post-racial, post-Boomer, post-partisan candidate couldn't make an inch of headway with opponents who openly said their only agenda was making him a one-term President even when he was offering up to him items like the Affordable Care Act they came up with (proposed by their think tanks and submitted in the '90s by their legislators and similar to a program signed into law in one state by one of their governors, the same governor, indeed, who says he's going to unite us now--), then we're past unity and solidarity and togetherness and a big we're-all-Americans-together "Kumbaya" group hug-slash-circle jerk. If Romney gets elected, and he might, he'll be my President by custom and law but we won't be united in a damn thing, and it's just kind of sad that this is where we are. But I guess the culture warriors were right all along and there are some things that just can't be compromised on; I don't think much of the prejudices they call "values".

"But I won't be no runaway, 'cos I won't run. What makes you think I'm enjoying being led to the flood? We've got another thing coming undone and it's taking forever." Hm. I guess it doesn't have to be a love song, exactly. But where do you go when you're just in because you're not the sort who cashes his chips but you don't have anything left in the game anymore, either?

Now I've made myself sad.


Natalie Merchant, "Space Oddity"

>> Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A bit o' buzz over at the Gawkerverse: Gizmodo liveblogged the announcement a group of billionaire investors wants to harvest asteroids for precious materials and io9 got excited that stunt filmmaker extraordinaire James Cameron, lately back from the bottom of the ocean, is one of the investors. This is all sorts of exciting.

So I know I've been down on the idea of manned space exploration. And I still am, mostly, though if private investors want to do it, it seems to me I can't object. I think there's a distinction in my mind over science, which is generally a public good, and business, which perhaps generally ought to be in the private sphere unless we're discussing utilities. From where I sit, robots can do better science than people, at least right now. Actually, they can do better industry, too, which is why the investors are focusing on sending out robot prospectors, to be followed by robot miners, though they can't help noting that water would be good for people, too, if any went out there.

Though this is all more complicated than that: I'm not opposed to government nationalizing certain sectors of the economy if they can either run them more efficiently or more justly (i.e. public transit, say for instance, doesn't have to turn a profit or even work that well to be a public good, and a more profitable and more efficient transit system might not be one that provides equal access to everybody; and you could replace "public transit" with "hospital" or any number of utilities). I don't suppose I'd necessarily object to government mining asteroids, I'm just a little skeptical as to whether that's really a good fit for government's obligation to protect and promote the general well-being of the citizenry.

All of which is moot anyway, seeing as how we don't have that civil or economic system in the first place. Constitutionally we have a democratic oligarchy and historically we have a kind of bastardized regulated capitalism.

Which is why we--and by "we" I mean the United States as an entity, as opposed to individual Americans--don't really have a reason to go into space. I don't mean we can't come up with reasons, some of them better than others. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, we made up a reason and that was we had to stick it to the Soviets to prove they sucked and we were win, and also intercontinental ballistic missiles and making sure if anyone had a strategic space advantage that would be the good ol' USA. But (I'm not sure if I'm explaining or justifying this very well) there's not really an institutional reason to do it beyond diplomatic or militaristic reasons; in fact, even when I start thinking about my favorite reason to keep NASA fat as a tick dollarwise, I have to admit that making science is something the Constitution's framers thought gentlemen farmers (and printers, natch) ought to be doing in their spare time and while we have a tradition of government-funded research part of the reason it's such a poorly-funded tradition is this tension between those who think science is a common good for all and those who think science is something corporations do when they need new ways to make money.

I feel like I've gone far astray, somehow. This is what happens when you flail around for a topic near the end of the day and ultimately decide to go with someone performing "Space Oddity" (preferably not Bowie, who we all love but we've heard that ten billion times before and while I really don't get sick of it, I understand some of you might and I take pity; and doesn't Ms. Merchant do a swell job with it, folks? Just lovely) and then add a few comments about a topic of the day that's pretty nifty and exciting but touches on areas you feel a bit ambivalent about like sending people up in tin can balloons and hoping they don't pop all over the place.1

Anyway, rich businessmen in space. Mining water and gold off asteroids. It's so crazy it just might work, and I love it. Good luck and godspeed, gang.

1Speaking of which, let's be clear that if your spaceship suddenly depressurized, you wouldn't swell up like a balloon although lots of nasty things would happen to you and actually there is at least one incident where a person exploded in a decompression event but you'll note they went from nine atmospheres to one and not from one to zero.

As for spacemen, here, read this. Also, this.


Wilco, "Dawned On Me"

>> Monday, April 23, 2012

I admit a certain ambivalence re: Popeye. I have an enduring fondness for Robert Altman's lovable 1980 fiasco starring a still-funny Robin Williams and enjoyable-for-a-change Shelley Duvall, but this is a movie directed by the aforementioned legendary Altman from a screenplay by the amazing Jules Feiffer with music by the late great Harry Nilsson and Brian Wilson's one-time work husband Van Dyke Parks; i.e. this is a movie made by people incapable of doing something uninteresting completely aside from whether what they actually achieved wholly works. Popeye isn't an out-and-out terrible movie and even has moments of utterly lovable brilliance, but even so, I'd rather watch a really lousy movie made by these guys than Renny Harlin's best film ever.

But Popeye himself, y'know: I'm too young to have really gotten a good exposure to the Segar strips, fine though I've heard they are and maybe I need to repair my ignorance. Unfortunately, I'm old enough for various Popeye animated shorts to have been a staple of afternoon daytime television through my formative years, and what sticks in my head (perhaps unfairly, I'll admit) is how terrible and repetitive so many of them are. Granted, again, maybe this is something I'd revisit and be amazed and have to revise my opinion of. But what's stuck in my head is that all the Popeye shorts are pretty much exactly the same to a degree even exceeding the Road Runner and Coyote shorts, and those at least offer up high points of Goldbergesque cleverness with whatever insane whatsit the poor Coyote has put together from the Acme Catalogue this time. Popeye, seems to me, is always the same "and now I eats me spinach and has a sight gag in my biceps" routine. Really it's about as bad as Pepé le Pew when I think about it. (How many ways can a cat get paint on her back, anyway?)

The Wilco video, directed by Darren Romanelli, is licensed from King Features and the video's page says it's the first hand-drawn Popeye cartoon in more than thirty years. Which is something, I guess. I'd love to praise the effort, and I can say it's utterly beautifully rendered and I love the lines; it's just that, y'know, it's the same exact thing as every other Popeye cartoon with the exception that cans of Wilco-Brand spinach may contain singularities and therefore be a little dangerous to open (I hope there's some kind of recall). I know some people erroneously claim spinach sucks, but this seems a bit much. Oh--the other twist in this one is that Olive Oyl gets swept away by Jeff Tweedy, so I guess the pecking order is something like Jeff Tweedy > Popeye > Bluto, which could be something to keep in mind if you're ever in some kind of Popeye trivia contest or you're abducted by aliens who want you to explain the entire human hierarchy in easy terms. (You may or may not want to disabuse them of the notion that guitarists sometimes grab infants to use as violin bows à la Jimmy Page.)

The song, anyway, is great.


Sand in my squee

>> Sunday, April 22, 2012

I am happy, and have to share this though I suspect it won't be particularly interesting to most of the readership, such as it is. But still: even though it's unlikely I'll be able to come up with five people who all have the same five hours to kill in the same room, my copy of Rex is here.

Let me explain, let me go back a little as to why this is made of three-hundred-proof awesomeness for me. Way back when, long ago and not that far away, in the 1970s a bunch of game designers came together in a clutch to form a company called Future Pastimes, which sort of had a mission in mind of making games that weren't your mother's Monopoly set (not that there's anything specifically wrong with Monopoly, mind you; it's a cromulent enough game in its way).

Two particular things about FP: one, they had a fine obsession with asymmetrical game designs. You can go to the link for a nutshell or I can offer you the definition/distinction here: in a heavily symmetrical game, like chess or Monopoly, all players start in more-or-less the same place and have essentially interchangeable positions as play progresses. E.g. everybody has the same amount of money and starts in the same square at the beginning of a Monopoly game, and for the remainder of the game has the same fundamental choices: roll the dice and move unless in Jail, follow the directions if one lands on a special space, if the space is an unowned property purchase it or allow it to go on auction, if the space is an owned property pay the rent due unless the property has been mortgaged. There's a small asymmetry in Monopoly in that the first player to roll the dice at the start of a game has a slight advantage over the next, who has a slight advantage over subsequent players, etc., but it's an almost negligible (and inescapable) asymmetry for most purposes.

In a more asymmetrical game, players don't all start with the same position and aren't essentially interchangeable. A good, basic illustration is the checkers variant Fox And Hounds, a two-player game in which one player has four pieces capable of only moving forward on the checkerboard's diagonals while the other player has one piece which may move in any diagonal direction (forward or backward) (the game ends when the "fox" is trapped by the four "hounds" or when it becomes impossible for the "hounds" to take the "fox"). One player has numbers where the other has mobility, each follows a slightly different ruleset and must apply a different strategy to have any hope of winning.

Future Pastimes, as I wrote, had an obsession with heavily asymmetric games. In probably their best-known game, the legendary Cosmic Encounter, each player chooses a different faction with specialized powers that allow them to "cheat" the basic rules in unique ways not duplicated by any other faction in play: one player might be allowed to count each of his tokens at double-value while another player doesn't lose tokens in battle (instead redeploying them or returning them to his reserve), yet another player might win if his final total in a battle is less than his opponent's (as opposed to the normal rule that the higher total wins) or might be able to force other players to help him. Strategy in a game like this becomes not just a matter of understanding one's own abilities in a game, but also being able to figure out how other players' abilities will interact.1

Which is awesome.

The second really cool thing about Future Pastimes that didn't always quite translate from the drawing board/test version to a final shelf version was that FP really believed a game ought to be something tactile and interesting to look at and play with. The exigencies of game production and the fine margins and holding things together with shoestrings that goes on in a game company's offices and warehouse meant that a lot of times FP's really cool monster design with lotsa brightly-colored fiddly bits and doohickeys often got reduced to four-color processed die-cut flat cardboard bits, and so it goes but is still worth mentioning because, y'know, these dudes were really cool game designers designing really cool games.

At one point in time, FP came up with a game with a Fall-Of-The-Roman-Empire theme that had some neat little gimmicks to it. First, in keeping with the asymmetry thing, everybody in the game would have a different route to winning and different "cheats" they could pull during the game. Second, they had a brutally novel combat system with a nifty tactile component: any time players had a confrontation in the game, they would use a little number dial to secretly commit their forces: the loser would lose everything, but the winner would still lose whatever he committed to the fight. So you had this interesting dynamic where it's not like Risk where you can just move in overwhelming forces and attrit the enemy, but you have to try to read the situation and commit only the barest number you think will overpower your opponent but leave you with something on the board even if you win. Add in mechanics to give different bonuses to the number dialed--including a mechanic where an opponent could use treachery to win without losses regardless of the numbers dialed, and you end up with something really, really clever.

Now, the original concept was a Roman theme2, but the company FP was working with to get the game into print, the late and lamented Avalon Hill (now merely a brand subsidiary of Hasbro, the real company having gone out of business more than a decade ago), happened to have the licensing rights to the Frank Herbert novel Dune, and it didn't take much to see that the mechanics FP were working on could easily be adapted and fitted to Herbert's universe of secrecy, betrayal and war.

The result was one of the best games of all time, and one of my personal favorites of all time. In Dune, each player took the role of the major factions from Herbert's universe--the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Emperor, or the Fremen--and wrestled to dominate the most important planet in the universe, Arrakis or Dune (on a map representing the planet's inhabited-but-inhospitable northern hemisphere). If you were the Atreides player, let's say, you had special rules-bending abilities related to the family's precognitive psychic powers--looking at cards before they were drawn, looking at part of an opponent's battle plan before it was revealed, etc. But then if you were the Harkonnens, you could draw (and keep) extra Treachery cards and extra traitors, while the Emperor had a lot of money and military threat but crippled mobility and the Spacing Guild easy movement but little power. Etc. The only real weakness to the game was that a really, really cracking session required six players, each faction represented and hacking it out.

Avalon Hill eventually lost the license and their company, and (except for a French edition that remained in print through the 1990s) the game was largely a lost treasure for a long, long time. If you go to BoardGameGeek (see the link in the preceding paragraph), a lot of players resorted to making increasingly elaborate hand-crafted replicas to satisfy their obsession.

Comes along Fantasy Flight Games, a company that does an extraordinary good job putting together mechanics and components in their own right and demonstrates their appreciation of a great classic game by getting the rights to republish it (see also: Fury Of Dracula, Arkham Horror, Cosmic Encounter, et al.). FFG decided they wanted to get Dune back out in print again, but somehow the Herbert estate decided they had better things to do with their intellectual property, such as letting Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson skullfuck the franchise into powder with an infinite succession of prequels, sequels, sidequels and NyQuils (the bastards).

So what FFG eventually did was, thank heavens, say "Fuck it, we have our own imperial space opera franchise we can do this with," and that's how we get to Rex.

Which is where we get back to that long-ago start of this post and my happiness and joy, joy, joy. We get to Rex and we get to me having a copy now.

It is, more-or-less, the same exact game as Dune with some tweaks and changes and maybe even improvements. Some of the changes seem minor and convenient and some of them seem significant and I wonder how they'll play out. The flavor is now FFG's Twilight Imperium universe, a far-future tribute to or pastiche of various interstellar empires in decline and now a galactic civil war happened sagas. Instead of fighting for spice on Arrakis, factions are battling for influence on a map of the collapsing Capitol City on the homeworld planet of the dying galactic empire. Instead of a merciless sandstorm circling round and blowing units off the board, we have a really cool 3D stand-up model of the Human spacefleet that is bombing the hell out of the planet on its peregrinations. The Atreides are now the scientists of the Jol-Nar using their advanced technology to gather intelligence and make predictions, the Bene Gesserit have been replaced by the space-turtle diplomats of the Xxcha. All the weapons have new names and all the pieces have exciting new shapes (and are printed on better stock). But it's the same rules, by and large, to the point where a Dune player can look at the vile Letnev's faction card and coo, "It's the Harkonnens!" or pick up a token and after studying it for a minute, without even looking through the brightly-colored rulebook, blurt, "I know what this is!"

Those admirable bastards at FFG even coyly slipped in a "the water is the life" line in the little background short story at the back of the rulebook. Admirable bastards, magnificent bastards.

I'm excited. My friends and I aren't in high school or college anymore, so those copious amounts of free time when you're supposed to be doing homework or going to class aren't there anymore. But I am filled with squee, squee that echoes the rasp of sand on sand and smells faintly of cinnamon and ozone.

1While checking some things for this post, I stumbled upon this pretty cool old interview with Peter Olotka, one of the original co-designers of Cosmic Encounter and Dune, and this comment on asymmetry and the Future Pastimes approach seemed worth repeating:

Key to the design were a set of principles, like there would be no dice in the game, no one could be kicked out the game before it ended, you could always come from behind, it had to have compromise as well as attack as way of making progress, everyone would have to be different.

One thing that emerged from the design was that it created situations that WERE NOT FAIR. So I have added that to the list. It would not be fair.

NOT FAIR IS FUNNY AND SURPRISING. [emphasis in original]

I think the quote is one of those accurate-but-a-little-misleading sorts of things. "Not fair" sounds like it wouldn't be fun, sounds like it would be the antithesis of good gameplay. (We like the idea of games that are "fair".) But the thing is, a game in which there's an obvious disparity can be more challenging and intriguing and surprising and just plain fun than a game in which everything is a carefully-balanced slog. Cosmic Encounter is a game where you can end up with an unbalanced array of factions, so what you do then is people need to gang up against the overpowered--or join them, or waffle from side to side until they can leak out from the press and declare victory (that seems a horribly failed metaphor, sorry).

I guess another way of putting it are that there are different kinds of "unfair", and "unfairness" in the context Olotka is putting it in is part of a list that includes the other things mentioned in the quote: no player is ever knocked out of the game, any player has a chance to come back, etc.

2A lot of gamers will talk about "crunch"--the actual rules mechanics--versus "flavor"--the theme or idea the game is supposed to convey or model or mimic or whatever. E.g. the core "crunch" of Risk is that players shift pieces to areas of the board occupied by other players' pieces and then have roll-offs, the "attacker" getting an advantage in the number of dice and the "defender" getting an advantage in winning tied rolls; the "flavor" of Risk is world conquest, with the areas of the board representing geographic locations in the world and the pieces representing "armies". But you could have the essentially same game (with similar or different effect) applying the same crunch to a game in which the flavor was viruses invading a body, animal populations struggling for ecological niches, tokens representing ideologies rolling-off against rival ideas, etc.

Indeed, the simplicity of Risk's crunch is perhaps a leading reason the original game has since been cross-branded into all sorts of flavors: Star Wars Risk, Lord Of The Rings Risk, whatever. The basic mechanic doesn't change no matter what kind of board you use for it. A game with more complex mechanics might make less sense with mismatched flavor: you could still play it, but it might not be as fun or make as much sense.


An open letter to US Postal Service

>> Saturday, April 21, 2012

USPS Delivery Problem No8738‏

US Postal Service
To ███████████████████

From: US Postal Service (delivery.nr@usps.com)
Sent: Fri 4/20/12 2:30 PM
To: ███████████████████

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Label_Parcel_USPS_ID.45-123-14.zip (23.1 KB)

Delivery information,

Our company’s courier couldn’t deliver your parcel.
Reason deny\Wrong delivery address.

STATUS: not delivered
SERVICE: Expedited Shipping

The label of your parcel is enclosed to the letter.
You should print the label and show it in the nearest post office to get a parcel.

If the parcel isn’t received within 30 working days our company will have the right to claim compensation from you for it's keeping in the amount of $9.74 for each day of keeping over limited time.

You can find the information about the procedure and conditions of parcels keeping in the nearest office.

Thank you.
USPS Express Services.

Dear US Postal Service,

Oh wow! I had no idea you folks were doing this, but let me just say I think this is the best program ever.

Unlike many Americans, I'm actually a great fan of your work. I think it is a remarkable achievement involving a great deal of labor and ingenuity that you are able to deliver unbelievable quantities of mail all over the United States with relatively few errors. And while there are plenty of idiots who will point to your chronic lack of profitability as a sign your days are done and you're a relic of the 18th Century (Wikipedia says you were founded in 1775, making you older than the nation you serve--amazing! I love it!), I wonder if those idiots have contemplated what would happen to businesses that rely on mass-mailings of advertisements, catalogues, fliers, postcards, magazines, etc. (note how your strongest critics tend to be people who style themselves "pro-business", too). Not to mention all the mail you deliver pertaining to public utilities announcements, zoning changes, political advertisements, notices of jury service and civil announcements from drivers license bureaus and such, etc. The vast bulk of what you do is not letters from little kids to their grandmas and cranky notes from newspaper subscribers to local editors who annoy them. (Even if it were, it might say something about certain ideological mentalities if they think small children ought to be paying fourteen bucks a pop to send their technology-illiterate, offline, elderly family members the pictures they drew of parasailing aardvarks eating ice cream or whatever.)

However, like most Americans, I've had the experience of lost mail. Of ordering something and never getting it, or getting it late and damaged, or of being asked if I got a package I neither saw nor tripped over walking up to my front door, etc. It's frustrating, and even someone like me who thinks you're awesome and unappreciated can find himself cursing every Postmaster General from Benjamin Franklin to Patrick Donahoe because of what failed to occur despite your historic commitment to defy rain, snow, sleet and/or hail, namely a parcel placed in my box or left upon my doorstep.

Which is why your e-mail pleased me so! If I understand your new program, all I have to do if there's an undeliverable parcel, is I print out the label (which I will do as soon as I finish this electronic open letter, I assure you, and I won't even scan it for viruses or anything because I completely trust you and know you would never betray me in any way!) and take it down to my local Post Office and you'll give me a parcel.


At the risk of looking a Pony Express mount in the mouth, I do have a few questions. Mostly just out of curiosity.

First off, do I get to pick my parcel or do you just grab one out of the back for me? Is it a random parcel or is it one that is approximately the same value as the parcel that was undelivered? Is this a parcel you bought especially for this program, or do you just ransack the undeliverable mail at whichever Office I take my label to and give me some other schlub's undeliverable mail? If I get traded down--e.g. if you couldn't deliver my brand new laptop, let's say, and I end up getting some random kid's saccharine letter to Santa in exchange--is there an appeals process if I can bring you a printed out purchase order or similar evidence? Conversely, if someone finds out I got their undeliverable laptop (or whatever, this is just by way of illustration) in lieu of an aunt's Xeroxed article about a fifteenth cousin I've never heard of before, do I have to give up my prize? (If so, can I come back and get something else, or am I out a laptop and the smudgey tribute to my distant relative's minor accomplishments?) Also, how do I know you won't try to hand me a badly-wrapped, stinky and obviously opened-inspected-and-resealed five-pound bundle of pot and then call the cops when I'm in the parking lot? (I mean, I love you guys and trust you, but I can see why you might want to get those things out of the warehouse, y'know?)

Also, about this $9.74 daily charge: do I still get hit with that when I get my Mystery Fun Bag replacement or am I charged until someone comes in and draws the package I was supposed to get in lieu of his or her lost parcel? 'Cause, I think you can probably see, that kinda sucks if so. I know you're hard-up for cash thanks to those morons in Congress, but c'mon.

Believe it or not, the question I don't have is how you couldn't deliver a package to my physical address, which you're aware of, but could locate my e-mail address to send me this precious/craptacular (depending) Mystery Bag offer. I figure it's related to that plan I keep hearing about where you're going to start selling virtual "stamps" for delivering e-mail. I am curious, though, where we are on that, and whether you'll be offering bulk rates for when I want to send a funny link to everybody in my contacts folder but somehow don't feel like putting it up on Facebook.

See you on Monday when I come in for my prize! Try to pick something with the word "Dell" on the side! (Kidding! Sort of! I mean, if you can and it isn't all random--did I happen to mention how much I love you guys?)

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


Moments of awe

>> Friday, April 20, 2012

These are things I will never see in person. Well, odds are good nobody alive today will see them. They were still saying we'd be living up there when I was born; I was born only a handful of years after Kubrick and Clarke posited we'd have space stations and moonbases by 1999, ships capable of reaching Jove by 2001, years that seemed both unimaginably far away and very close.

It wasn't unreasonable, not at all: 1903, a coupla Ohio boys on a North Carolina beach get a powered glider to stay up in the air longer than gravity thinks it ought to, 1927, Lucky Lindy hops cross the whole Atlantic without stopping to stretch his legs, top off his tanks and squeegee the bugs off the windshield. By '39 the Germans have jetplanes going. '57 the Soviets page the whole human race with an orbiting beachball. Fifty-four years between just barely getting something to stay in the air and the launch of the space age. Clarke and Kubrick gave the human race thirty-four years to get past the asteroid belt, about the same length of time it took to get from the powered-glider stage to the turbojet-kissing-the-stratosphere stage. Fair enough.

The only thing being there's no reason to send anybody out there, except to say you did it. Let's be honest. Other things happened, radios got more powerful and computers got smaller and smarter. Why do you send a man out to do a machine's job except you want to expose him to almost-incomprehensibly lethal environments to do the same kinds of things a plucky solar-powered scooter could do just as well and for years longer than you could supply a human. Sending anything out there makes whole worlds of sense--if you think knowledge is inherently valuable and beauty a worthy goal.

(Of course people like to discuss the "commercial applications" of space exploration. Which is a red herring tossed down a rabbit hole, is what it is. Maybe advances in materials technology would have happened anyway and cheaper, too, or maybe they wouldn't, but it's a mug's investment to gamble a treasure room on the hypothetical chance you'll get back something worth orders-of-magnitude less than what you put in. The reason to go is for truth and beauty, because there are things we have to know that can only be taught surrounded by vistas that stun.)

I'm saying, I think, that there are things I will never see in person but it's alright because I can see them vicariously, and for this I am grateful. That I am grateful to the NASA folks who made it possible for our robots to obtain the images Sander van den Berg assembles into the scenes above, time-lapsed and epic, these things I will dream of. That I am grateful and greedy, because I don't really want humans to leave footprints all over Mars quite so much as I want the equivalent purchase of hardware landing on comets and looping round Pluto and looking in the windows of former neighbors' where they lived a thousand years past.

(H/t io9)


Filter, "One"

>> Thursday, April 19, 2012

I just kinda love this noisy cover of the Harry Nilsson song that Filter did for the X-Files movie soundtrack way-back-when. No idea what's supposed to be happening in this video (and can you get more nineties than those visuals, by the way?), but it has William Davis' Cancer Man making the creepy cameo, and by the time that movie came out he and Mitch Pileggi were the best things about the show that weren't a gorgeous redhead.

There was sort of an inspiration for sliding this "One" (see what I did there?) out of the Trivial Pursuit longbox: I ran into a piece in Slate, "Facebook Isn’t Making Us Lonely" written in response to an Atlantic article with the troll-ey headline, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" Don't feel obligated to click those links; I have to admit I read the Slate piece and then tried to read the Atlantic piece but found myself tl;dr-ing it and sort of skimmed through it to see if the author, Stephen Marche, actually had anything interesting to say (as far as I took in at a glance, no). The Slate piece probably says everything that might need to be said, though Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post gets points for arguing that the problem with Facebook isn't that it makes you lonely, it's that it ends up sticking you with all the people you thought you escaped from when you graduated high school.

I'm biased, of course: The ScatterKat found me again through Facebook and we agreed to have lunch and one thing led back around to another and now we've been dating a year (this also challenges Petri's thesis, no?). So much for loneliness, anyway. I find that I now have a network of friends--actual friends, I'd call them, whom I trust and would confide in and everything--whom I've never ever met, who I may not ever get around to meeting but we've all enriched each other's lives in various ways. And I remain stunned and impressed by the way in which technology is making it possible to have geographically non-contiguous communities brought together by passions and actual commonalities deeper than mere geographical accidents.

If you want to talk about being stuck with people and being lonely, imagine somebody who is the only _______ in a small town or parochial neighborhood or borough within a larger city; _______ could be anything you like, something ethnic or gender or otherwise or all of the above, as general or specific as you like: the only gay, black, Jewish, Russian-speaking, mystery-reading collector of rare antique knitting needles, maybe, whatever. And here this person is alone in a crowd, wishing he could talk to some other Russian-speaking GBJ dude about Skein Of The Crime, but all his neighbors are so not-into-that. Thirty years ago he would have been suicidal, these days there's probably an online forum where he can chat in Russian with all the other GBJs about Maggie Sefton and Miss Marple trivia.

This is personal for me, admittedly, in that I am a nerd and while I grew up in a big enough city and went to a large enough high school to have around a half-dozen nerd friends, we certainly weren't mainstream in our affection for Star Wars and Tolkien and our gatherings to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons instead of paying attention to sports as all Southerners are implicitly expected to do. Thus, we spent a hideous amount of time being even mopier and more depressed than even ordinary teenagers. Not to mention, I'm afraid I have to clarify, that our batch of nerds was only technically a batch of nerds, in that a couple of us were actually goths who didn't match a set or something and so they didn't necessarily play D&D but they had nowhere else to go and we at least appreciated their vampire fetishes, etc.

Anyway, now those kids who would be like we were then all have Facebook accounts and message boards, and while I don't think adolescence is any more pleasant or kind than it's ever been, I do suspect it's a bit less lonely as all the hideous children now have ways of, if nothing else, discovering that while they may be the only members of their various tribes unlucky enough to have been born in Podunk, the tribe itself is millions-strong and if they can just endure the momentary awfulness of a few years before they can go somewhere else, they have friends amongst whom the squares are the exotic and uncomfortable ones.

Sometimes I like to imagine that we're moving into a world in which there are no national borders, just self-governing tribes of people living in cyberspace. This is just a fantasy, I realize. Please don't jump in and tell me how silly that is, because I already know it's a ridiculous idea and cyberspace is merely an extension of the meatspace history sticks us with. Oh, and, yeah, I should add that meatspace is full of niftiness, and I'm not really glamorizing some kind of utopian ideal where we're all pasty-faced, slack-jawed fatbags drying up in front of our CRTs. Matter-of-fact, most of the stuff that's worth communing about online is meatspace stuff, which I hope is obvious. No, I mean, it's more of an idea of tribal unity based on who you are versus what or where you are. I just think that part of it is beautiful, really.


The Decemberists, "Calamity Song"

>> Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I don't really have anything much to say here at the blog. I feel like there's a dearth of material here, partly because there's just not a helluva lot I've thought worth talking about of late. I dunno, I even considered dropping to a different schedule, but I'm worried going to a MWF or somesuch would get away from one of the personal purposes of this blog, which is to come here every day and put something up, preferably something where I try to write, dammit.

So I decided arbitrarily to post an embed of something from The Decemberists. And how did I miss this when it came out: for "Calamity Song", The Decemberists filmed a chapter from Infinite Jest, a novel by one of my very favorite writers, David Foster Wallace. Much of Jest is set in a tennis academy (DFW was a serious competitive player up until he hit his wall potential-wise around the time he went to college, and he remained fairly obsessed with the sport through the remainder of his life), and one of the favored pastimes of the school's troubled adolescents is a simulation of global thermonuclear war, "Eschaton". There's an excellent breakdown of the video and the chapter here, from Marjorie Foley if you want to know more; it's been long enough since I read IJ that I couldn't possibly give it the same effort. I'd perhaps just mention that Eschaton is, along with the radical Québécois wheelchair assassins, one of the really signature inventions of the book. (Well, there's also the way all the years are corporate subsidies much like stadiums with their naming rights, e.g. instead of a number-of-years-since-Jesus you might have "The Year Of The Depend Adult Undergarment", and there's all the Hamlet riffs... well, it really is a fun book, actually, though even the paperback is massive enough to make a really righteous doorstop.)


An open letter to... uhhhhhh--

>> Tuesday, April 17, 2012

(No Subject)‏

From: CMJorgensen@health-partners.org
Sent: Tue 4/17/12 6:48 AM

We are loan company. Loan Application at 3% (serious inquiries only). if interested, please contact us at: joshalbert1@sbcglobal.net

Carol Jorgensen.

CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE: This message, including any attachments, is for the sole use of the intended recipient(s) and may contain confidential and privileged information. Any unauthorized review, use, disclosure or distribution is prohibited. If you are not the intended recipient, please contact the sender by reply e-mail and destroy all copies of the original message.

Dear... Carol...? ...Josh...?

Regular readers of this blog are aware I sometimes raid my spam mail folder for writing material; some of them have even informed me here and elsewhere that they look forward to these letters. Usually, I try to go for some kind of fantastic or fictional response: replies to spam mail from supervillains, time travelers, deranged deceased Victorians, etc.

Your spam mail, simple as it was, broke my brain. Are you happy now?

It begged for a response. And I tried to think of a clever approach to it. But no matter what I attempted, my brain folded like a rusty Chevy Vega.

It's that first sentence that kills me. "We are loan company." Like Bizarro-speak, like a telegram from someone who decided they could save a penny, like a pronouncement from the Borg if they abruptly decided packaging bad loans was a swifter path to universal assimilation. Indeed, it's this last that sticks in my brain: a mental image of Borg drones running one of those shady lending services you often see popping up in former fast-food chain buildings in seedier parts of town. "We are the Borg. Your payday advance loan has been approved. Your wages shall be garnished at a usurious interest rate and absorbed into the Collective. Resistance is futile. Have a nice day."

I dunno, seems like there's a Saturday Night Live sketch in there somewhere.

But then--and this is fractal awesomeness we're talking about--you follow that clipped Borgian "We are loan company" with that parenthetical "(serious inquiries only)" like a Craigslist ad, like somebody trying to sell a bass amp on the dorm bulletin board, like someone trying to get rid of a car (perhaps, y'know, a Vega--maybe we can get a theme going) in the ads at the back of the newspaper. Because, you know, you're not offering me a loan so much as you're letting me know that if I want to offer to borrow some money off you, you might be willing to entertain my bid so long as I'm not screwing around with you.

Then, third fractal level of awesometude, we have the usual mismatch between e-mails, though, really, that's par for the course for these things and by itself wouldn't be an attention-grabber or anything. Are you Josh Albert or Carol Jorgensen, should I be tendering my loan application and attendant personal infoey bits to a Catholic medical non-profit operating in Kentucky and Ohio or should I be sending it off to a loan company ostensibly contacted via someone's personal AT&T e-mail account?

For that matter, why am I being offered a loan by someone from the publicity department? How do I know if I'm the intended recipient when you leave the address blank? This was a confidential offer to lend me money (if I'm really serious about borrowing it, natch)? Am I now in trouble for re-disclosing it? Will the Internet police kick in my doors now and arrest me and post embarrassing videos of my arrest to YouTube before whisking me away to LOLJail (where the prisoners plaintively rattle their tin cups against the bars of their cells futilely asking if they can haz cheezburgerz and a new inmate's ungoatsed ass is worth a number of bootlegged cigarettes inversely proportional to its diameter, where the death row inmate is informed the governor just issued his pardon only to hear the chorus of "Never Gonna Give You Up" just before the warden throws the switch)?

An amusing typo can trigger an entire short story. A single poorly-wrought, grammatically-dubious sentence can lead to an epic. But you, Carol or Josh or whomever you are, have broken my brain in just a handful of sentences. Congratulations.

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


"It's a great language..."

>> Monday, April 16, 2012

Is there such a thing as an "Ugly Canadian"? P'raps, I dunno: Scott Thompson's monologue, anyway, is fucking brilliant. I'd forgotten all about it until the ScatterKat and I happened to watch the Kids In The Hall episode it shows up in the other night.

Is it a bad thing that the basic joke seems timeless and still relevant, or is it--ironically, to be sure--a kind of reassuring thing that all people in all times seem bad to those living in the times and knowing the people of the era?


Radiohead, "High And Dry"

>> Sunday, April 15, 2012

So Thom Yorke hates it, but so what? This is the thing about art and artists, is a lot of the time you're too close to what you've wrought to get it, you have this hideous myopia and can't really see what's in front of your nose. "High And Dry" isn't just one of Radiohead's most "accessible" songs, it's also just simply one of their prettiest and a fine example of that era in which Radiohead were the finest purveyors of post-modern angst in pop music since Pink Floyd released Animals in 1977.

It's the kind of song, actually, I think most people these days probably wish Radiohead would go back to recording. It's not that anyone really wants a band that's generally seen on the bleeding edge to get all retro--I don't mean that anyone wants a retread of The Bends: I mean, I think most of us would like Radiohead to go back to writing songs with guitars and hooks and relatively comprehensible lyrics, instead of the blippity-bloopity and shreds-of-consciousness stuff that's seemed increasingly like a rut over the last few records. You guys have discovered electronic German music, we get it, we get it, we get it already.

The Bends wasn't the first Radiohead album I bought, it was maybe the second. And no, I wasn't one of the people who ran out and bought Pablo Honey when "Creep" was saturating the radio; matter-of-fact, I remember someone in college playing me the album version and correctly pointing out the way the non-bowdlerized rendition was a completely different song from the okay-but-not-great radio tune ("You're so special, I wish I was special," Yorke sings in the radio version, as opposed to, "You're so fucking special, I wish I was special," a one-word change that turns something whiny and emo into something viciously sarcastic and acidly self-loathing). No, I came into Radiohead via their third album, OK Computer, and wasn't that a piece of pinkfloydian bleakness however much Radiohead resented and resisted that comparison? Computer (I'd figure this out later, after I went back and got The Bends) delivered on the promise (or betrayal) of middle-class martyrdom and trying to keep one's face above the water suggested by "High And Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)". Consciously or accidentally mid-'90s Radiohead picked up where Messrs. Gilmour and Waters had left off with, "...found dead on the phone, dragged down by the stone."

Good times, all the bleakness and aimless anger? Well it's always good to know you're not alone in your troubles.


The Apples in stereo, "Strawberryfire"

>> Saturday, April 14, 2012

So it's obviously Beatles pastiche; it's excellent Beatles pastiche, Beatles pastiche I'd forgotten about 'til it came up in shuffle play a couple of days ago and for a moment even I thought it might be a Fab Four b-side or outtake or minor track I'd misremembered or forgotten.

It's a fun little song, anyway.


Fleetwood Mac, "Tusk"

>> Friday, April 13, 2012

A bit hard up thinking of anything to write about at the moment, and this was in my brain when I was in the shower earlier, so why not?


The Oatmeal better "like" the hell out of this....

>> Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sister Muriel grins and bears it when Mother Superior hits her. There went another tooth. Now she's on the mat, red spit runneling down her chin and the world is canted sideways and sparkling; boys are cheering on the other side of the chainlink and then Mother Superior's foot catches her on the temple and she's down and out.

Undefeated in defeat, Mother Superior.

Feels good to lie down, doesn't it? Muriel's ears are still ringing and she doesn't remember when she closed her eyes. That single fluorescent bulb in its own cage is too much like looking right into the sun so Sister Muriel closes her eyes. She'd pray but she can't remember the words, so she whispers "Goddamn" instead and it's like a prayer.

Time was, Mother Superior would have chastised her for the expletive. But all she does now is cluck, nearly henlike, through her broken lips. Sister Muriel blacked her eye before Mother Superior knocked her out. Time was, a lot of things would have been different. Time was, Sister Muriel would never have called Leslie anything other than "Mother Superior" and in her heart and her head, well, she still can't, though she mostly remembers to call her "Leslie" when she cradles Mother Superior's head between her breasts in the last hours of night.

And Mother Superior smiles and rinses the dirty rag, and she applies cool water to Sister Muriel's bruises and cuts where she sees them. With her other hand she takes Muriel's and rests it, still holding it, in her own lap and from the coarse fabric she feels on the back of her hand knows Mother Superior is still wearing her habit. Sister Muriel is wearing only the thin blanket their captors put in their cell and the dirty, badly-fitting bikini they made her fight in tonight.

There is a low rolling rumble comes up through Mother Superior and up through the cinderblock wall into their cot; the tremor from the explosion's like a high-speed train rolling under the prison, which used to be an elementary school before the invasion.

"Love, they said we have to fight again," Mother Superior--Leslie--whispers. "Tonight. I could try to let you win if you'd let me, Mur. You can't go on like this any longer. And if...." In Mother Superior's silence, they can both here something ticking in the walls of the building, a hum of some machine and then another distant explosion somehow feels like licking a 9V battery; "If I lost you," Mother Superior whispers, and tries to kiss Sister Muriel's asphalt lips but there's too much blood between them.

Inside the chainlink perimeter within the chainlink walls of the institution, the tankers have laid out gym mats that don't soften the blacktop beneath them. They pulled out the gym bleachers and moved them into position round the fence with only a small gap for people to enter, people to leave, the audience and the fighters coming and going the same way, though sometimes the fighters have to be dragged in or out. There used to be a lot more fighters, all the sisters from the convent plus the other hostages the invaders took when they floated into the city on their heavy metal. And animals, too, but the tankers probably ate them all and that's why Sister Muriel and Mother Superior, the last two ring fighters left, don't have to pummel dogs or kill farm animals with their bare hands when the tankers are tired with seeing two women beat each other next to death. Sometimes the women fight in their torn and dirty habits and sometimes the tankers make them wear costumes: cheerleader outfits, bathing suits, one time Sister Muriel had to wear the heavy furred costume of a former local sports team mascot when she was forced to pummel a fat businessman in a gimp outfit (later she found out he was a collaborator 'til the tankers turned on him). Lately it's just been her in the bikini and Mother--Leslie--Leslie in her habit; as if the tankers are bored now, killing time because they can't kill anyone else with the Old Government's robot war machines hemming them in on all sides.

Sometimes Sister Muriel sees the tanks in the once-upon-a-time schoolyard, turrets pointing out into the shadows; she sees why everybody is hunkered down, now. Most of the tanks rest on their bottoms, skirts spread out round them like flat tires. The tankers' flames have gone out, all that 2H melted down to He and blown; she doesn't know this in so many words, mind you, just that the tankers' hovercrafts are clearly dejuiced. They're grounded and using their armor as artillery, cracking off a nuke every few nights just to keep the 'bots from getting any ideas; except if Muriel can tell they're down to just a couple of shells, probably everybody knows it and maybe it explains why the tankers look as beaten down as their fighters and don't even get excited by the matches anymore. (Muriel figures the only reason she and Mother Superior still get dragged out to the cage at all is because the tankers haven't even asked, "Why stop now?" The tankers are waiting to die just like she is.)

The sky is the color of a blood orange, the clouds of civilization mirroring violence.

Mother Superior is dressed like a stripper. She's pushing seventy and Muriel, dressed in drag, is pushing fifty; but Leslie is young in her sixties and used to jog six miles a day before the war started and Leslie is old in her forties and her main recreation was going down to the convent kitchen for a snack while waiting for a compile to finish. (God knows she's lost weight living on nothing but protein pills and gruel these last nineteen months.) Still something proud and defiant in the way Mother Superior stands there in those ill-fitting stilettos they've made her jam her feet into, even with her tits sagging like that, while Sister Muriel looks less like a rake and more like a little girl forced to dress up like a daddy by a merciless older sister using her siblings as living dolls. The tankers are barring the door to the cage with the upright from the baskeball goal that used to stand not twenty feet away from where the nuns face each other beneath the petrofuel-powered Kliegs and reflected firelight from the poison sky. Mur can't do this anymore. The two dozen spectators are cold and quiet as their guns.

When Mother Superior swings, she swings wide. When the second punch connects, it's hardly a slap. Sister Muriel is just standing there like she dropped something. Mother Superior closes and grapples, twisting Muriel over her knee and knocking Mur's hat off when she grabs her hair, but it's all pro-wrestling moves, it's all stagefighting and theatre; Mother Superior has Sister Muriel's short hair wound round her fingers like warp to her digits' weft, but she's pushing, not pulling, so the hair grab might as well be cradling an infant's head. And when she brings her face in to bite Sister Muriel's ear, what she does instead is whisper, "Fight back, Mur, fight back! I'll take a fall but you have to fight!"

Mother Superior pushes Sister Muriel away and it would look like Muriel breaking the clutch if she didn't stumble over her heel and fall on her back. Hits the back of her head on the mat and can see stars in a sky that's been occluded so long no one can remember what night used to look like. Mother Superior is wobbling a circle around her because she has trouble walking in those damn shoes they're using to humiliate her tonight.

And a faceless man stands on the top bench of one of the overlooking bleachers. He pulls the trigger of a megaphone and it gives an electronic banshee shriek and the man shouts, "Bitches will fight or bitches will die," and he sits down while his voice continues to slap back from the walls. The tankers give an unenthusiastic cheer and cock their weapons.

Mother Superior looks round the merciless ring and then she wobbles over and falls to her bony knees, straddling Sister Muriel's waist. She puts her hands around Sister Muriel's head and begins to bang Muriel's head against the mat but in a way that her own fingers take the impacts until Mother Superior begins to bleed around her fingernails. "You must fight. You must fight. You must fight."

Sister Muriel tastes the ocean on her lips and listens to a memory of bells.


Can anyone help me deliver this letter?

>> Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Editor's Note: The original text of this letter was found near the University Hills Duck Pond Park, not too far from part of the Anacostia Tributary Trails, and was forwarded to Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets in the hope that the large and esteemed readership of this blog might be able to shed some light on who the intended recipient might be and help in getting the letter to its addressee. Please feel free to offer any delivery suggestions in the comments section. Thank you.

Dear Mark,

I should have contacted you sooner. I just--I didn't really have the right words or know exactly what to say. I think I thought--hoped--that you would move on. That you would find another and forget about me. I didn't know you'd react by lashing out at black people like that.

I don't know when I started feeling it. I know we had some good times together, yes: riding to clubs and museums, cruising down Independence Ave., hanging out at Georgetown. But there were all these little things that nagged at me.

You were never really easy to get along with, Mark. While I was always yearning for freedom, to feel the wind and the rush of speed, at some level you were always a pretentious git. It's stuff like when you tell people there ought to be a "conservative" Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Okay, so RS is pretty left-wing in its middlebrow pulp culture way with the politics columns by Matt Taibbi and periodic RFK, Jr. "exposé", but Entertainment Weekly?! I never really got that EW was all that liberal, or maybe I missed something, and, besides, wouldn't you want to aim just a little higher than that contentwise? And besides the besides, what would a "conservative Entertainment Weekly" cover, exactly? Ted Nugent, Dave Mustaine and Alice Cooper only release so-many-records every year, or were you going to run lots and lots of articles exposing Tony Kushner's radical gay agenda (gee whiz, and he was so subtle about it, too--so glad you noticed and pointed it out)? (Also, aren't you going to be disappointed now if Spielberg's Lincoln biopic doesn't have all that gay sex you're obsessed with, Mark?)

Or there's your weird paranoia about how liberals "must always take the next step and begin abolishing religion and liquidating people who stand in their way". Like there aren't any Catholic liberals? Anyway, how do you think liberals are going to liquidate everybody once they take away and destroy all the guns? Tofu them to death? (Also, I'm pretty sure liberals will want to keep enough "breeders" around so there are always kids to re-educate and convert to homosexuality and environmentalism and stuff.)

But the thing that really creeped me out, Mark, is something I must have sensed even as we spent so many joyous hours outside, so close together we might as well have been one, even though it didn't manifest itself before I took the serious step of liberating myself and moving away. Yeah, it's the race thing, Mark. The way you'd always talk about how your favorite movie was In The Heat Of The Night--it wasn't even like you'd go the usual route and randomly announce some of your best friends are black so you can't be a racist jerk, which I guess since you didn't do that, maybe they aren't, so maybe there's a weird honesty there after all. I guess I must have noticed, too, how you couldn't treat people as people, but instead singled out African-Americans for "patronizing condescension and obsequious genuflecting to their Absolute Moral Authority gained from centuries of suffering". I guess maybe you didn't notice, Mark, but I did: most of those black people noticed how condescending you were being and thought you were a dick.

It embarrassed me, Mark. Just being seen with you embarrassed me.

So I left. I packed up and left. I had no idea you'd just assume I ran off with some black person, but I guess in retrospect I'm not really surprised, either. You are a racist jerk.

I'd like to say it was me, and not you. But that would be dishonest. It was all you. You're a jerk, Mark, and always have been, and nobody is fooled by the way you try to be "hip" and "cool" when you're really just another smug self-righteous, sanctimonious poseur who Just Doesn't Get It. (Big rock'n'roll fan, Mark? Did you know Dylan wrote a song about you?) You don't deserve me, and I'm happy I finally accepted that and moved on. I'm happy now. Finally, I'm getting in touch with myself, taking the opportunities the world brings me to slowly roll along and enjoy the flowers or madly rush by, swept up in all the joys of this world. Oh, and treating people like people no matter who they are and what they believe (unless, of course, they park in a bike lane--those people suck).

Don't come looking for me, I never want to see you again. It's over.

Your (ex-)Bike.


Privacy defence

>> Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let's say I'm walking down the street downtown. I am surrounded by buildings, most of them multistory; anyone who wants to go up in a second-floor window (or higher) can look down at me walking, walking, walking. They can coordinate if they want to: text message to someone in an adjacent building, "VanNewkirk just walked around the corner, you see him?" (or "cant c d00d u c him?", whatever).

So I'm in a field, and a plane or a helicopter flies over. Or I'm on a side street and a car drives by. I'm in public, I can be seen.

Well, maybe I'm in my backyard; I think I have an illusion of privacy because of my huge wooden fence (note: I don't really have a backyard; this is a pretend backyard with a pretend fence, it's as tall as you'd like to think it is). There's still miles of airspace over me and anyone can look down at me. For that matter, if I have a neighbor with a window overlooking my yard, they can watch me, too. If they want. Maybe they shouldn't and maybe I don't like it, but what's stopping them?

Well, I'll go inside. I'll go inside and I'll get on Facebook or Twitter or I'll write a blog post about my cat or my girlfriend or a book I read or a show I saw. Actually, you know, the truth is it's just a different kind of outside, it's a forum in the classic, no, in a classical sense of the word.

Now, look, it isn't that I might have nothing to hide. It's that I'm already exposed: little is actually hidden. If I get drunk and follow up by hitting the Twitter feed hard, well, y'know, let's not kid ourselves that this isn't a form of public drunkenness. And if I remorsefully go back and delete all those drunken tweets, let's not kid ourselves that they're necessarily really gone, that there aren't fossilized remains embedded in the assorted strata of the Internet, because there are. Let's put this bluntly, that nobody ought to put anything online they wouldn't put on a billboard beside the Interstate; no, wait, let's also point out: these days, fewer people might see the billboard.

Privacy is kind of sort of dead; it isn't sleeping or pining for the fjords, it's pushing up daisies, singing in the choir celestial (to paraphrase one of Cleese's and Palin's best bits). And it wasn't killed by Big Brother, we did it ourselves, for better or worse. We could have all decided this vast repository of information that has become a gigantic collective brain for humanity and continues to become more of one every day was really uncool, just something for the nerds to flame each other and play Spacewar! on, but we didn't do that; we didn't do that anymore than we decided to turn down the various devils' bargains we were offered by Facebook, Google et al. that they could have a Jinn's treasure cavern of personal marketing data in exchange for letting us all be virtual roommates no matter how vastly far apart we were physically in real live space.

So I read something like Jefferson Morley's tremulous post in Salon about the drones coming to America to serve as ubiquitous watchmen, and I have to confess I read it as if I am missing something that is just out of reach: surely the idea of police spies buzzing overhead like so many mosquitoes over a picnic seems unsavory, seems like an Eastern European nightmare, like something Orwell would have used to terrifying effect if helicopters had been worth enough of a tin shit in 1948 to posit a steel sky full of them following poor Winston from door to door. But I am naked; again, no, it isn't that I have nothing to hide, it's that I know I'm not really all that hidden. And what is a police drone going to see that a policeman can't see already? What is a drone going to catch me doing that a cop couldn't have caught me doing on Twitter? What dark secret am I going to reveal that couldn't have been found with Google... or, hell, even with Bing for chrissakes?

So I'll concede there is this:

Photographs of political demonstrators could be fed into facial recognition software on a scale previously unimaginable. Drones can also be weaponized with tear gas or tasers [sic] for remote crowd control. Michael Buscher, president of Vanguard Defense Industries, a drone manufacturer in Texas, told the Daily that police drones could have "rubber buckshot better available for large crowd dispersal." [link omitted]

And that is undeniably awful. Except. Except does that have anything to do with privacy or is it really about how technologies are used or abused? I mean, maybe the problem with protesters' faces being fed into facial recognition software isn't with whether a photo was taken by a drone or from the fifth floor of an overlooking office building, maybe the problem is with the implied use of that identification to pressure someone into surrendering their free speech and assembly rights. Except, see, here's this other thing, which is that we get into the whole issue of whether anonymous protest is part of a functioning democracy or whether political accountability necessitates that a protester be identifiable and willing to stand up for what they believe, which is admittedly a really complicated and tangled subject I can see multiple sides of. The real bottom line in any case, however, is that the problem Morley alludes to isn't really someone being recognized at a protest nor how they were spotted and recognized (which could be as simple as a police officer who knows the person seeing them in the crowd or as sophisticated as employing cameras and algorithms), the real problem is with the ones making the identification using that recognition to essentially blackmail the protester or punish him or her for exercising basic rights, which would be just as evil and wrong if you took the tech out of it and just had old-fashioned moles tunneling the crowd, see? And ditto for the "crowd control": I really don't see the distinction between suppressing political protest with rubber bullets and tear gas fired up close and personal by human beings and doing it with weapons deployed via robots.1

I just don't see the fear.

I do see this: that buying these things is a goddamn waste of money by local law enforcement. But that's a deeper problem than drones: that's the whole way in which the forty-year War On Drugs has corrupted and bent the legal system and police departments, and it's part and parcel of the related problem that paramilitarism is sexy. The first problem you solve by decriminalization, y'know? The second problem you solve by having legislatures stomp their feet for a change and point out that there's no reason on this wide green Earth for the Mayberry Sheriff's Department to have an armored SWAT tank and high-cal semiautomatic weapons just so they can bust Ernest T-Fucking Bass. There's an intersection with Morley's issues and my concerns around here somewhere, which is that some of this technology invites abuses, which is part of why they're a waste of money ("Well, Andy, I don't see why we have a riot tank if we're just gonna park it in front of Floyd's barber shop! And I'll just bet you my bullet those Darlings are running 'shine again! Let me drive it, Andy, just one time! You'll see how good it is!").

But that isn't a privacy problem. A social problem, a legal problem, a political problem, a fiscal problem--it's all kinds of problems. But I don't see it as a privacy issue. I'm not scared the government's going to photograph me doing something I checked into Facebook along with everybody with me; maybe I ought to be scared what they're going to do with that data, but that isn't about "privacy" so much as it's about liberty, and I think it's wise to make the distinction. I do not care if the government takes my picture from four hundred feet above me, though they could have saved themselves the trouble checking to see if one of my friends already took the same picture from four feet away and put it up on their Tumblr; but I'll be twice goddamned if the government is going to say "boo" to me about what's in that image, whomever or whatever took it.

Isn't that what this really ought to be about?

1No. Not wholly true: I see three distinctions, two of which favor the robots and one which favors humans. First, that robots firing crowd control weapons are likely to actually use the weapons from their intended distance, as opposed to doing, f'r'instance, what that dickhead cop in Oakland did when he leaned down and sprayed Occupy Oakland protesters directly in the face from mere inches away. Second, that by firing from a distance and in the air, drones are less likely to get into an altercation in which protesters and cops alike are injured or worse. Third, however, is the emerging problem that remote devices may encourage unneeded violence by disengaging the participants; i.e. a human being up close and personal with another human has an immediate and visceral investment in the consequences of his next action that appears to be removed when the violence is about to happen via a TV screen and videogame controller; maybe a cop with a drone-mounted Taser is even more likely to fire it than a cop with a Taser in his hand (and cops are already too quick and easy with the "nonlethal" weapons even as it is).


Romney's religion

>> Monday, April 09, 2012

Mitt Romney, as you may have heard, is a Mormon. Because Romney will be the first Mormon major presidential nominee in American history, and because Mormonism is still exotic and strange to many Americans, his religion will be an issue. So the people who would like Mitt Romney to be the next president have to work to make certain arguments about Mormonism seem illegitimate. This process has already begun, basically, but by the end of it, everyone who has ever made a "magic underwear" joke will be declared an intolerant liberal bigot.
-Alex Pareene,
"The coming war on Mormon jokes",
Salon, April 9th, 2012.

The normally reliable Alex Pareene has a mess of a column up on Salon today, something like a rebuttal in search of an issue. I mean, it's likely that Mitt Romney's religion is one of the things that's causing him problems down here in the Southern primaries, though that hypothesis perhaps runs into trouble when confronted with the way a lot of the evangelicals down here feel about Catholics like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (counter-rebuttal: Santorum knows how to talk the evangelical talk and Gingrich is a country boy).

But in terms of the general: Republicans should hope that Romney's religion is the issue the Democrats jump on (hint: they won't). Because if they raise lots and lots of ugly questions about Romney's religious beliefs, that will leave them fewer opportunities to use Romney's own words against him (hint: they will).

The fact that Romney can't help sounding like a clueless, entitled, super-rich white guy who is out of touch with 99% of the human race is not news and I don't know that I want to belabor the point. You can find a gallery of quotes here and here, for example, if you really want to, although I think those two sites are actually missing some of Romney's most precious gaffes. And the really bad thing about Romney's gaffes (and his wife's, and his campaign staffers) are that, yes, some of the things he says are taken out of context, but then the context turns out to be even worse. E.g. no, the comment about how much he likes firing people wasn't a gleeful Scroogish bit, yes it was a comment about consumer choice and the privilege of taking your business elsewhere--but in the context of health insurance, which is what Romney was talking about at the time, most people are stuck with whatever healthcare their employer provides, and the people who can feasibly afford to shop around are typically people in Mitt Romney's economic stratosphere. Or the Romney spokesperson's infamous "Etch-A-Sketch" line: no, he wasn't saying Romney's a waffler, it just sounded that way (reinforcing an existing image), but acknowledging that it's a rule of contemporary politics that politicians speak out of one side of their mouth during primaries and the other during the general election (the actual intent and context of the line) isn't any better--in fact, it's exactly that kind of thing that has liberals and conservatives alike disgruntled with the embarrassing spectacle of modern American politics; i.e. it isn't something you're supposed to acknowledge unless you're trying to promise everyone that it isn't what you're doing; Romney's campaign isn't waffling, it's just steel-eyed cynical and opportunistic (some improvement).

Yeah, talking about Romney's religion would probably benefit the Romney campaign in the long run, which is why I have a hard time believing anyone in the Democratic Party is going to be that dumb. (Having said that, Democrats have a rare talent for reaching waaaaaay past Defeat to snatch Armageddon from Victory's gullet.)

No, if they're smart, they won't talk about Romney's God--they'll talk about his dog.


We Were Promised Jetpacks, "It's Thunder And It's Lightning" / Bad Veins, "Gold And Warm"

>> Sunday, April 08, 2012

Bad Veins, "Gold And Warm"

We Were Promised Jetpacks, "It's Thunder And It's Lightning"

Apropos of yesterday's post, a twofer presented without much comment, We Were Promised Jetpacks and Bad Veins. Hope you dig 'em.


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