Monday, May 25, 2020

mass culture appendix

I almost want to apologize in advance for this one.

This is what happens when I don't have the nine-to-five limiting the amount of time I can reasonably engage in dirtbag-intellectual snipe hunts, and when I've got a little too accustomed to talking to myself all day.

The context: a friend of mine read the previous post and emailed me some thoughts about it. My efforts to organize my ideas and answer her went completely off the rails. I've arranged some of my more coherent notes below, lubricated for your comfort with some pretty (but not remotely relevant) images from my camera. The sick thing is, this accounts for only sixty to seventy percent of the notes I took. I need a change of scenery.

Anyway, Claire writes:
I think the thought that I jump to after this is the question of whether "globalization" inherently means a cultural watering down. I know this isn't exactly the same thing that you're writing about, but there's that idea with "diversity" too that it essentially just means assimilation and whitewashing—that we think "inclusion" will lead to a more vibrant integrating of cultures when what it often means is that one culture drowns out the others and any "variety" is minimal or superficial. So, in order for us to live a connected existence (in the way the internet allows us to), will there also be a pull towards a single, dominant, location-less but probably "western"-influenced/dominated "universal culture" that people will come to see as their own more so than any location-based identity? (I guess we already have some language built for this with concepts like "digital native"...)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The American background: from active strain to estrangement

Edward Hopper, Intermission (1963)

Two months in, it might be measurable in petabytes: the internet traffic to newspaper articles, thinkpieces, and short YouTube about the ways in which COVID-19 has unraveled the fabric of day-to-day life in the United States. To be sure, sickness and death, a six-month freeze in public education, and the frightful economic costs (which undoubtedly are being and will be borne most by wage-earners) are nothing to be dismissed. But the parts of our day-to-day repertoires that stay-at-home orders and social distancing have left unaffected also deserve some attention.

A joke circulated on Twitter in mid- or late March; I won't pretend to remember where it originated or in what form (it might have been a comic strip), but the gist of it was:

"What did you do yesterday?"

"Oh, you know, I stayed at home, bingewatched Tiger King all afternoon and then stayed up until two in the morning playing Doom Eternal."

"Well, it's good to give yourself a break from worrying about the pandemic."


"Americans are," runs the headline of a Forbes piece from early April, "Excessively eating, drinking, smoking pot, playing video games and watching porn while quarantined." So—what we've already been up to, but a bit more of it. Businesses have closed their doors and self-isolation guidelines preclude public gatherings or events, but American cultural life doesn't look that much different from before—especially if you're in a sub-middling income bracket and are not yourself a Highly Effective Person or keep such people in your company.

The museums, concert halls, and community theaters have closed—but let's be honest, most of us weren't visiting them more than once a year, if that. Ditto libraries and bookstores. Those of us upset about the closure of our favorite little coffee shops are probably less disappointed about missing out conversations with other regulars or open mic night than having nowhere else but our own homes to hunch over and punch at our laptops. The average sports enthusiast is more likely mourning the national leagues' hiatus than disheartened at having to miss out on attending or playing games on an amateur team. If we go out to see local bands play in small venues more often than never, odds are we're in our twenties and personally know at least one person taking the stage that night.

Subcultures and small arts scenes do exist, but to most of the population of a given city, these strains are irrelevant.1 Those who are not directly involved in them pay them no mind (possibly while deriding its participants as "hipsters") while they watch Netflix, follow strangers on Instagram, read middlebrow thinkpieces by people living in Brooklyn or San Diego, pantomime congregation on Reddit, play video games, or watch remote strangers playing video games—like everyone else does everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mardi: Devil Fish, Bone Sharks, Killers & Thrashers

some inexplicable impulse recently led me to pull my copy of Herman Melville's Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849) off the shelf and leaf through it a while. As you may remember, Mardi was the young Melville's first "true" novel (as opposed to a roman à clef), and it's a goopy hot mess.

However awkwardly Mardi's individual pieces fit together, there's a lot to like about it. Revisiting the early "open boat" chapters was an especial delight, and today I'd like to share one of them with you. The book's thirteenth chapter is a brief introduction to marine life for the nineteenth-century landlubber, and I've supplemented it with visual aids. Enjoy!

A contextual note: at this point in the novel, our as-yet-unnamed narrator and his Scandinavian companion Jarl have absconded from the whaling vessel on which they were employed, and are floating on the South Pacific current on a small boat. In an earlier chapter, our narrator likened the craft rising on and descending the swells to a mountain goat—hence the "Chamois" appellation.

A paratextual note: I consulted Richard J. King's Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (2019) for help matching the nineteenth-century critter names to their modern-day equivalents. All the photographs but one are from Wikipedia, and the exception is noted in the caption.

CHAPTER XIII — Of The Chondropterygii, And Other Uncouth Hordes Infesting The South Seas

At intervals in our lonely voyage, there were sights which diversified the scene; especially when the constellation Pisces was in the ascendant.

It's famous botanizing, they say, in Arkansas' boundless prairies; I commend the student of Ichthyology to an open boat, and the ocean moors of the Pacific. As your craft glides along, what strange monsters float by. Elsewhere, was never seen their like. And nowhere are they found in the books of the naturalists.

Though America be discovered, the Cathays of the deep are unknown. And whoso crosses the Pacific might have read lessons to Buffon. The sea-serpent is not a fable; and in the sea, that snake is but a garden worm. There are more wonders than the wonders rejected, and more sights unrevealed than you or I ever ever dreamt of. Moles and bats alone should be skeptics; and the only true infidelity is for a live man to vote himself dead. Be Sir Thomas Brown our ensample; who, while exploding "Vulgar Errors," heartily hugged all the mysteries in the Pentateuch.

But look! fathoms down in the sea; where ever saw you a phantom like that? An enormous crescent with antlers like a reindeer, and a Delta of mouths. Slowly it sinks, and is seen no more.

Doctor Faust saw the devil; but you have seen the "Devil Fish."

Manta ray ("Devil Fish")

Look again! Here comes another. Jarl calls it a Bone Shark. Full as large as a whale, it is spotted like a leopard; and tusk-like teeth overlap its jaws like those of the walrus. To seamen, nothing strikes more terror than the near vicinity of a creature like this. Great ships steer out of its path. And well they may; since the good craft Essex, and others, have been sunk by sea-monsters, as the alligator thrusts his horny snout through a Caribbean canoe.

Monday, March 30, 2020

more math, more games: lumines, abstraction, operators

Lumines Remastered (via The Verge

I've had a lot of time on my hands lately.

During the first week of social distancing, I was hitting the calculus textbook pretty hard; a thirty-six-hour moratorium has been placed on the calculation of antiderivatives in my household. It wouldn't surprise me to learn the standard calculus course's "strategies for integration" unit is the pons asinorum of the college-level math student. It's been kicking my ass. So I'm gonna collect my wits, maybe develop a flowchart (for the sake of testing the elasticity of last session's "game is math" metaphor, we could liken this to drafting a map for an NES- or DOS-era RPG), and come back to it in a few days.

So when I haven't been editing the n-v-l, making myself go on bike rides, or informing myself into a low-key panic attack, I've been playing Lumines Remastered on Steam. I love the game as much as I did its PlayStation 2 iteration, Lumines Plus (in 2008–9, it was my go-to after coming back from smoking spliffs in the woods on hot summer nights), though even now I couldn't clear the board to save my life.

As perhaps you know, Lumines is a brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, and like his cult-hit rail shooter Rez, Lumines evinces  Mizuguchi's fascination with synaesthesic experience. Its exogenous marriage of block-puzzling and input-synched audiovisual sparklepop make Lumines a rare bird in an expansive aviary of Tetris clones.

Comparing Lumines to Tetris—as I heard myself doing when trying to convince my roommates to stop playing Animal Crossing and get the Switch version—is almost unavoidable. Tetris is the fountainhead of geometry-puzzle video games; without it, Lumines wouldn't exist. Dr. Mario, Puyo PuyoPuzzle Bobble, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and the rest can each be conveniently summed up as "Tetris, but with [blank]." In light of this ubiquity, it's tempting to attribute a universality to the Tetris experience. There's something almost primordial about its format and function: simple forms composed of four unit-squares in seven different spatial configurations, an evolving problem of optimization, and a time limit imposed by simulated gravity.

In truly excellent instances of minimalist design, the object imparts a sense of inevitability, as though it could not have taken any other form without violating an irrefragable principle of its conception. Tetris is so elegant, so elemental, that it might not be entirely crazy to conjecture a timeline without Alexey Pajitnov eventually producing something a lot like it.

Since its 1984 debut, Tetris has been playable on more platforms than I care to look up and list, many of which were quite basic by modern standards. If the endurance of the tune to "Korobeiniki" in the ears of American millennials is any indication, the lime-and-grey, blooping and crunching Game Boy version was for many years the title's most popular iteration. I first played Tetris on the NES, and an MS-DOS version snuck onto the family PC at one point. Every now and then, I used to see a coin-op version in a diner vestibule or a lonely corner in an arcade. My roommate is currently playing Tetris 99 on the Switch. But no matter what format, Tetris always recognizably performs as Tetris, and can be enjoyed as Tetris.

But it's difficult to imagine Mizuguchi signing off on a version of Lumines with four colors, four sound channels, no stage skins, and two songs on the soundtrack. The project was predicated on the availability of a platform that could interweave spatial reasoning imperatives with vivid, high-definition splashes of color and sound—the intent being, as Mizuguchi puts it, to braid left-brain logic with the emotional content that buzzes the right hemisphere. Tetris, on the other hand, was initially developed and ran on a Soviet-era IBM desktop computer, and most of the changes that came afterward were more aesthetic than functional.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

math & games: presentation & functionality

László Moholy-Nagy, Q 1 Suprematistic (1923)

In case anyone's keeping track: I acknowledge the very late update (and thank you for noticing). Revisions for the new n-v-l are on page 460 out of 700-ish, and proceeding agonizingly slowly. I'm beginning to doubt it'll all be worth it in the end, and it's getting to where I'd almost rather be writing a series of essays on Dissidia Final Fantasy.


This awful project's been cutting into my other hobbies and projects, too. It's been a while since I last read any meaty 700-page nineteenth century novels. My backlog of short story ideas is becoming less of a queue than a clogged sewer pipe. And it's been at least a few months since I last picked up the ol' calculus textbook.

Yes, yes—I'm still working through James Stewart's Single Variable Calculus: Concepts and Contexts after like eight years. In my defense, I have zero congenital talent for mathematics: I consistently scored D's in Algebra II, and I'd still blanch to show an actual math student my scratch paper. What's more, I've been proceeding in fits and starts, and whenever I take a break for a while and pick it back up again, it takes at least a week to reinstall the mindset, to go back and make sure I actually learned the contents of a previous chapter, and reacquaint myself with all those damn formulas. (Come on, like you never forgot that cos x cos y = 1/2 [cos (x − y) + cos (x + y)] and couldn't be satisfied until you'd worked it out for yourself.)

I'd be more ashamed of advancing so slowly if I weren't pursuing this study (if you can call it that) on a purely recreational level. I'm not good at this stuff, but I have fun doing it. Somehow or other, it became a de facto substitute for video games. Instead of playing Metal Slug III, Einhänder, or Half-Life after dinner, I'll attempt to work through a few implicit differentiation problems or work out the volume of a three-dimensional form created by rotating a curve around a given axis. It can get pretty intense, let me tell you.

People in my life tend to find it odd that I do math for fun—possibly because most of the people in my life are arts and/or humanities people. Tonight I'd like to try explaining how and why I've been getting my kicks from calculus, as opposed to video games, in my latter years.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Swamp Formalism

The Black Run Preserve in Evesham, NJ

No post this month, but I've a couple of updates:

1.) A short story of mine appears in the latest issue of The Southwest Review. It's print-only, but please don't let that stop you.

2.) Third novel is almost 50% through the revisions process—page 338 out of 698. Slow and thirsty work. Seems like every two pages I've had to interpolate new passages and completely rewrite old ones. (This would be why I haven't a burnt-on-the-outside-frozen-on-the-inside essay about defunct philosophies or a radical-behaviorist cultural analysis to offer you this month.) My hope is that this new book will be among the longest, most meticulous self-published novels read by the fewest number of people in (un?)recorded history. I might not even make an announcement when it's done: I'll just drop it on Amazon (not thrilled about using it, but that's a conversation for another time) and quietly get on with my life.

Awful lot of grief for such a small prospective yield. But if nothing else, it's keeping me off the drugs.

Since I've promised myself that I'd put something up on this thing at least once per month, I'd like to share a short essay by the late Jack Collom, transcribed from his collection Second Nature (2012). As I've said before, my acquaintance with Collom was brief, but in the years since I've come to think of him as an indirect guide and mentor. If I myself had conceived of and written "Swamp Formalism," I'd be proud to call it a manifesto.

Swamp Formalism 
"Eco-ethos-eros." What we're in the middle of, what we think about it, what we feel about it. Lots to talk about. 
I'm going to try to recite a personal thought-process.
In the early 1940s, when I was 13, I read about a situation on the Kaibab Plateau, north rim of the Grand Canyon. The wolves and cougars had been shot off; hence the deer multiplied; thus the browse and vegetative cover was largely destroyed; therefore the starving deer sickened and died; ergo not much nature left, on the surface anyway. 
I've been a Balance-of-Nature fan ever since.