Category Archives: Bibliophilia

The ReadRe Project: Ready Player One

This is the first of a multipart blog series covering re-reads of popular media about Virtual and Augmented Reality. In future installments, I plan to cover classics like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the anime series Ghost in the Shell. The worn premise of the series is that our collective vision of the future was formed long ago in the past and we are, in many ways, simply walking the path others have set for us in their imaginations. That being the case, the best way to navigate our own futures is by raiding popular fringe culture in order to find the blueprints. In other words, this is an excuse to revisit some of my favorite books, movies and anime.  Each entry in the series will provide a summary of the work, an overview of the AR or VR technology represented, and an analysis of the impact of the work on contemporary virtual world technology – in other words, what lessons can be drawn from the work.

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Non-spoilerish summary of the work

Ernst Cline’s novel takes place in a dystopic 2044 where the world economy has collapsed, corporations have taken over, and the hacker hero, 17 year old Wade Watts, spends most of his life plugged into a virtual reality world called the OASIS while waiting to graduate from high school. He has also spent the past five years of his life as a Gunter – someone on a quest to find the video game easter egg left behind by the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, somewhere inside his massive online virtual universe. To whomever discovers his easter egg,  James Halliday has bequeathed his vast fortune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

The secret to solving Halliday’s puzzles turns out to be an understanding of Halliday’s love for the 80’s, the decade in which he grew up, and an encyclopedic understanding of the popular movies, music, and video games of the 80’s as well as a decent familiarity with D&D. Wade, along with a motley band of friends, fights an evil mega-corporation for control of Halliday’s inheritance as well as control of his online world.

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How it works

The VR hardware consists of a hi-rez virtual reality stereoscopic headset and haptic gloves connected to a custom game console. Basically the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive with much higher resolution. An internet connection is required. Instead of servers, the shared simulation runs using some sort of peer-to-peer networked computing system that borrows compute time from all the machines of all the players. The virtual world itself is a single shared world rather than a series of shards. Everyone who plays, which turns out to be almost everyone in the world, is in the OASIS at the same time.

Monetization turns out to be a major aspect of the plot. The OASIS is not subscription based and does not have ads. Instead, Halliday’s company makes its income through in-app purchases and transportation fees for teleportation from one part of the OASIS universe to another.

This is because the OASIS universe is huge and consists of thousands of planets filled mostly with user created content. To get from one planet to another requires an in-game spaceship or travel through a transporter. Different worlds, and even sectors of OASIS space, are governed by different themes. This is perhaps the most interesting part of Ernst Cline’s VR universe. The OASIS is ultimately a pastiche of imaginary worlds from science fiction and fantasy. The Star Wars sector is just next door to the Star Trek sector of space. Firefly has it’s own area. The Lord of the Rings, Dragonriders of Pern and World of Warcraft each have at least one planet devoted to them. Different sectors of VR space even work under different physical laws, so magic will not work in some while technology will not work in others.

Cline’s VR universe doesn’t involve world-building, as such, but rather a huge mash-up project to recover and preserve all past efforts at world-building.

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Ponder the lessons to be learned at your own risk!!!!

The eighties were my decade and a book devoted to recovering obscure details about it is inherently fun for me. In fact, it feels like it is written for me.

That said, the notion of a future overwhelmed by nostalgia is troubling. Not only is the OASIS effectively a museum for retro-futurism, but the quest at the center of the book is an attempt by a Howard Hughes figure to make others obsess over his teenage years as much as he does.

What if virtual reality is an old man’s game? We all hope that future technology will create new worlds and open up new possibilities, but what if all the potential for VR and AR is ultimately overwhelmed by the obsessions of the past and guided by what we have wanted VR to be since Star Wars movie first appeared on movie house screens?

What if this is the ultimately paradox of emerging technologies: that new technology is always created to solve the problems and fill the appetites of yesterday? We can make our first lesson from the history of VR a paraphrase of George Santayana’s famous saying.

Maxim 1 – In the virtual world, those who can’t let go of the past are doomed to repeat it.

The Mvp Program REORG Explained Through Gamification

Today chief Microsoft evangelist Steve Guggenheimer announced dramatic changes to the MVP program on his blog.

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In case you are unfamiliar with the MVP program, it is a recognition Microsoft gives to members of the developer community and is generally understood as a mark of expertise in a particular Microsoft technology (e.g. Windows Phone, Outlook, Kinect for Windows). In truth, though, there are many ways to get the MVP recognition without necessarily being an expert in any particular technology and running user groups or helping at coding events are common ways.  The origins of the program go back to the days when it was given out for answering forum questions about Microsoft technologies. This is a good way to understand the program – it is a reward of sorts for people who are basically helping their communities out as well as helping Microsoft out. Besides the status conferred by the award, the MVP includes an annual subscription to MSDN and an annual invitation to the Redmond campus for the MVP summit. Depending on the discipline as well as marketing cycles, you may also have access to regular calls with particular product teams. MVPs also have to renew every year by explaining what they’ve done in the prior 12 months to help the developer, IT or consumer community.

As with any sort of status thingy that confers a sense of self-worth and may even affect income, it is occasionally a source of turmoil, stress and drama for people. Like soccer mom levels of drama. For instance, occasionally a product category like Silverlight will just disappear and that particular discipline has to be scrapped. The people who are Silverlight MVPs will typically feel hurt by this and understandably feel slighted.  They didn’t become suddenly unworthy, after all, simply because the product they had poured so much energy into isn’t around anymore.

Some products are hot and some are not, while others start off hot then become not. If you were one of those Silverlight MVPs, you probably would like to point out that you are in fact worthy and know lots of other things but had been ignoring other technical interests in order to promote just Silverlight. You probably would feel that it is unjust to be punished for overinvesting in one technology.

In response to situations such as this, the Microsoft MVP program is undergoing a re-organization.

I’ll quote the synoptic statement from Steve’s post:

Moving forward, the MVP Award structure will shift to encompass the broad array of community contributions across technologies. For our Developer and IT Pro oriented MVPs, we’re moving from 36 areas of technical expertise to a set of 10 broader categories that encompass a combined set of 90 technology areas—including open source technologies.

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The best most fun way to understand this is in terms of Dungeons & Dragons. To do so it is important that I first try to explain the difference between class-based role playing games and skills-based RPGs. Diablo is a great example of a class-based RPG. You choose from a handful of classes like barbarian, demon hunter or monk, and based on that your skills are pretty much picked out for you. At the opposite extreme is a game like Fallout where you have full control over how to upgrade your abilities; the game doesn’t prescribe how you should play at all. In the middle are RPGs like World of Warcraft which has cross-class skills but also provides a boost to certain skills depending on what class you initially choose. Certain class/skill combinations are advisable, but none are proscribed. You have freedom to play the game the way you want – for instance as an elf hunter with mutton chops and a musket. Totally do-able.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game that changes its rules every so often and causes lots of consternation whenever it does so. One of the corrections happened between D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 when the game went from a simplified class-based system to a more open skills based system. This allowed players a lot more freedom in how they customized their characters who could now gain skills that aren’t traditionally tied to their class.

The MVP program is undergoing the same sort of correction, moving from a class-based gaming system to a skills-based gaming system. Instead of just being a Silverlight MVP, you can now be an fifth-level druid with Javascript and handle animals skills, or a third-level Data Platform MVP with interests in IoT,  Azure machine learning, alchemy, light armor and open lock. You can customize the MVP program to fit your style of play rather than letting the program prescribe what sort of tech things you need to be working on.

This, I believe, will help meliorate the problem of people basing their self-worth on a fixed idea of what their MVP-ness means or the bigger problem of comparing their MVP-ness to the MVP-nesses of others. Going forward, one’s MVP-ness is whatever one makes of it. And that’s a good thing.

One Thumb Drive To Rule Them All

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I currently have an HTC 8X windows phone on my desk which I think is one of the best smartphones on the market.  I also have a Surface tablet.   I have a fascinating little device called a Leap Motion sitting on my desk that detects finger gestures.  I also have three Kinect for Windows sensors arrayed around my desk in order to capture images from multiple directions, bullet time style.

The thing that is most precious to me, however, is the 16 Gig Lexar jump drive someone bought for my dev/design group.  It is the fastest USB flash drive currently available.  When I described it to my wife, she said she didn’t realize that thumb drives came in different speeds.  After thinking it over, I realized that before using the Lexar, I hadn’t realized it either.

Or to be more accurate, I realized vaguely in my lizard brain that some thumb drives are slower than others, but I had no idea that some were faster than others.

And above all the fast thumb drives, there’s the Lexar, which feels like it is instantaneous.  For example, a colleague recently needed a copy of Visual Studio 2012 while we were in Manhattan for a retail show.  I put the 1.5 Gig ISO on my Lexar jump drive and he brought his laptop to my hotel room to copy the file over.  He thought he could get the copying started, we’d go to dinner, and hopefully it would be done by the time dinner was over.  But practically before he’d even touched the Lexar to his USB port … ziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip … it was over.  The ISO file was on his harddrive.

I have to admit that I now have a problem even letting someone else use the 16 Gig Lexar – even though it is communal property – because I’m not sure I’ll get it back.  People in our group are constantly asking for the plastic container where we keep our various jump drives … but of course we all know what they are really looking for is one of the two 16 Gig Lexars we own.  Honestly, it’s starting to be a problem, and I’m tempted to just throw these thumb drives into a volcano somewhere.  It causes nothing but friction and jealously on the team.

But at the same time, it is so beautiful and precious to me.  My colleague from New York was instantly won over and talked about the thumb drive for a half hour through dinner.  If you have a tech person you want to buy a nice present for – or if you are someone who needs a little self-care – treat yourself to something special.  They’re a little pricey, and even better than you can possibly imagine.

How To Launch A Cat

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In his wonderful book, Sketching User Experiences, Bill Buxton identifies the 15th century notebooks of Mariano di Jacobi detto Taccola on military technology as some of the earliest examples of “sketching".  Buxton continues by explaining what he means by “sketching”: suggestive, unfinished illustrations of concepts that are provocative rather than didactic.

The illustration above comes from a 16th century Bavarian work called the Buechsenmeisterei or Artillery Master’s Manual.  The anonymous ink and watercolor illustration is labeled “How to Launch a Cat” and is part of the Getty Museum’s collection in Los Angeles. The drawing depicts a cat with a rocket strapped to its back. It appears to be a sketch demonstrating the possible military application of felines in siege warfare.  It may just as well, of course, be a sketch of novel ways to dispose of cats.

“There is more than one way to skin a cat” turns out to be an incorrect translation of an old German proverb.  The correct saying is, of course, “there is more than one way to launch a cat.”  Placed in its proper context, this saying makes much more sense.

There are also many ways to launch a new business – perhaps as many ways as there are to launch a cat.  I am in the process of doing so now.  The business does not involve cats – though it does involve friends.

I am aware of the common adage that one should never go into business with relatives or cats, no matter how cool they may be.  Nevertheless, I find the prospect of launching a cat with my friends to be infinitely appealing.  It is an opportunity to turn work into play.

And all we need do is wait until the cat is up, up and away.

Battlestar Galactica: Corso e Ricorso

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Tonight the final season of Battlestar Galactica commences.  Whereas the original 80’s science fiction series was based on Biblical themes, perhaps even Mormon themes, the re-imagining of the series in the 00’s uses pagan mythology as a backdrop, along with references to straight-from-the-headlines contemporary politics as well as a post-modern self-referentially — due not least to the fact that it is a remake of a popular series.

There is a fantastic quality to childhood that cannot be recaptured, and probably one should not make the attempt.  The Big Mac, I have found as an adult, does not taste as good as it did to my ten year old self.  It is almost inedible.  It also seems smaller.  Going back to see the original Star Wars is an exercise in nostalgia, but along with it is the sense that those movies weren’t really that good after all.  The Catcher In The Rye is a similar disappointment, and the brilliant insights I once thought I gleaned from it are now embarrassing to recall.  (But the literary journey with Holden Caulfield had seemed so deep at the time.)

Which brings us to the original Battlestar Galactica, which I caught a glimpse of a few months ago on the SciFi Channel, and found to be virtually unwatchable.

Giambattista Vico, the 18th century philologist, used this unsatisfactory experience of reviewing the past as his starting point for his interpretation of history.  The prior centuries had been dominated by notions of an Ancient Wisdom which the Renaissance was supposed to be recovering, or re-birthing (re-naissance).  This included, of course, the rediscovery of Plato in the original Greek, of course, preserved by Islamic scholars and philosophers when Europe was suffering through its Dark Age.  It was also intended to include, however, works purported to be written by ancient Egyptian wise men known as The Corpus Hermeticum.

Vico had a particular take on all of this.  He divides the history of various cultures into three distinct phases: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men.  These three phases mirror the three phases of human development: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. 

A child, as any parent can tell you, finds endless entertainment in a cardboard box, and will play with that in lieu of the fantastic educational toys you bought for their birthdays, and which came in said cardboard box.  The adult, seeking to capture this childhood experience will try to magnify the significance of the box in order to make it seem as worthy of his adult attention, and in order to justify his youthful affection for cardboard.  If you read any psychoanalytic works from the 60’s and 70’s, you’ll discover that this is a recurring theme.

For Vico, a similar thing occurs when we look at history.  Because we read ancient writings and find people who worship, say, stone circles, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there was — and still is – something remarkable about those circles.  The mistake comes from thinking that our younger selves see the world the same way we do today.

This makes it seem as if Vico is merely a historicist, or the sort of historical colonialist who tends to look down on the past.  This is far from the case.  For Vico, each advancement in culture comes at a price.  With cultural maturity comes a loss of vitality and a certain amount of cynicism.  While in the modern world we might speak of freedom and the rights of man, we fail to think of them with the frank sincerity of our ancestors.  And the ability to treat these ideal notions as if they were real is something enviable, but difficult to achieve for the modern (much less the post-modern).  How does one go back to one’s youth?

Did I say above that Vico divides history into three phases?  I misspoke.  He actually divides it into six phases, for the three cultural phases occur once, and then recur.  The first series he calls the corso, while the second he calls the ricorso.  The same things, in a sense, occur in both the corso and the ricorso.  In each, there is an age of gods, then an age of heroes, then an age of men.  What distinguishes them is that while in the first series everything happens newly, in the second we can achieve some sort of awareness of what is happening to us, because it has all happened before.  Whether this serves us in a way that allows us to shape the unfolding of the ricorso, following Santayana’s dictum, is hard to say.  Probably not. 

But it does give us a special appreciation for what is going on, in the least.  The modern can draw parallels between the current age of men and the last age of men that came with the slow dissolution of the Roman Empire.  He can find signs of more vital cultures that parallel that of the German tribes, say, who were still in the age of heroes after Rome had long abandoned it, and try to find similar circumstances today that can slow the cultural dissolution that a cynical society portends.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps all that Vico provides us is a tragic framework in which to view cultural history, since the essential power of all tragedies, whether it is that of Oedipus or that of Willy Loman, is that the audience always knows how the play will end.

For those who have not been watching Battlestar Galactica, the new series, now in its fourth season, is about humans in a far off star system — it is unclear whether they are from our future or from our past — who are almost entirely annihilated by a race of robots called Cylons.  Out of the billions of people who once lived in this system, only some forty thousand survive.  They are on a blind mission across the universe, attempting to escape the Cylons who are still trying to eradicate them.  They try to keep up their spirits through their faith though, unlike in the original series, and more like the world in which the audience for Battlestar Galactica lives, their faith waxes and wanes, sometimes bolstered by adversity but more often destroyed by it.  The central tenet of their peculiar religion is a variation on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, "All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again," which they repeat to themselves throughout the series.  In order to preserve good order in the face of a hopeless situation, the last leaders of the human race, in an act of bad faith, tell their followers that they are headed toward an ancient planet known, in their mythologies, as Earth. 

Talking Heads

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I recently rented Children of Men from the corner Blockbuster and, going through the DVD "extras" after finishing the film, was excited to find something billed as Slavoj Zizek’s commentary.

Slavoj Zizek, in case you don’t know him, is a Slovenian intellectual and provocateur who made his mark by analyzing popular culture, especially film noir, in a way that wasn’t completely cheesy.  He has pushed on in the double-naughts to generally pissing off his fan-base by doing what he always does: saying things no one expects him to say.  You may remember him as one of the few big-name intellectuals (besides Barry Smart) willing to contribute to The Matrix and Philosophy, the book which started off the whole popular culture and philosophy series.  His essay is the concluding piece in the anthology, and in typical Zizek fashion, he starts of by discussing how misguided he finds all the attempts to find deep meaning in what is basically a 90 minute animated comic book.

Zizek’s commentary to Children of Men does not disappoint.  He claims that Children of Men is actually a remake of Y tu mamá también, but without the sex.  He continues with a rambling discussion of the sixty-eighters.  Probably the only unexpected thing about the seven minute commentary is its brevity — Zizek’s loquacity is legendary.

For some reason, I had initially thought that the producers of the DVD had hit upon the brilliant notion of replacing the ubiquitous and generally tedious convention of having a "director’s commentary" with a rather clever conceit: placing an intellectual before the screen and recording him as he talks about whatever comes to his mind.

I remember when one of the early selling points of DVDs was that they could hold much more content than videos, and one of the first things that DVD producers tried out was adding the director’s commentary.  It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time.  Who wouldn’t want to hear Francois Truffaut discussing 400 Blows, or Godard explaining Masculin – Feminin?  Unfortunately, what we ended up getting were things like Penny Marshal discussing what she ate on the set of A League of their Own and Michael Lembeck’s commentary for The Santa Clause 2.  In The Lord of the Rings DVD, among others, an interesting twist was introduced by having the film’s actors provide commentary, and it was certainly interesting to listen to Sir Ian McKellen tell his theater stories whenever no one else had anything to contribute.  But even Sir Ian didn’t have enough material to fill 11 hours.

Besides perhaps David Mamet, who is an intellectual in his own right, there aren’t many directors whose opinions I really want to hear concerning … well … anything, and while vocation makes films a seemingly relevant topic for their discourse, experience has shown that most directors are not especially handy at even this.  And actors even less so.

What I would really like to experience is, say, Slavoj Zizek and Barry Smart talking for 90 minutes over a showing of the Matrix, ala Mystery Science Theater;  Christopher Hitchens doing the commentary for The Manchurian Candidate (the original, not the remake); Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky discussing My Dinner With Andre.

Perhaps the problem is that the country which hosts the world’s largest movie industry doesn’t happen to have a particularly strong tradition of public intellectuals the way, say, Britain, France and Germany do.  When I was living in the south of France for a short while I regularly saw, squeezed in between dubbed versions of Dragon Ball Z and Married With Children, discussion shows in which really smart people were asked about important matters, and they were given enough time to provide full and interesting answers to the questions posed.  (It was also on one of these shows that I discovered that Sigourney Weaver is not only really smart, but also speaks excellent French.) 

After watching a few of these talking head pieces, I began to wonder why we don’t have similar public forums in America.   After pondering it some more, I realized that the really serious question is: even if we had shows like that, who would we invite to appear on them?  There aren’t really that many people in America, despite its size, generally considered to be smart people, and among these even fewer whose ideas we think are likely to change our opinions of things.  Perhaps this is the egalitarian streak in American public discourse — we all consider ourselves to be adequately intelligent to form our own opinions, without help from anyone else.  Consequently, when it comes time to look for interesting opinions, we don’t turn to our intellectuals.  Instead, we turn to actors, to opinion-shapers like Oprah and, in a pinch, when no one else is available, to twice-cooked hacks like Thomas Friedman.

Which is really fine with me.  I am more than happy to surrender our public discourse to entertainers and hacks.  I rarely read the newspaper, anyway.  What I am more concerned about is this: now that we’ve got all the movie actors busy discussing globalization and third-world debt, who are we going to get to do our DVD commentaries for us?

Notes From Terra: Moon Music

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Perhaps it happened with the advent of sound in movies — or perhaps with the mass reproduction of music — but it is not uncommon for people to feel an attachment towards a certain piece of music which, over time, becomes the soundtrack for their lives.  In my case, the soundtrack is Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, though Isaac Hayes’s Shaft will do in a pinch.  (I will defer the topic of my desire to be a powerful and confident black man for another post, but surely I am not the only one…) 

The pertinent point here is that music is one of the modern world’s most prevalent therapeutic techniques for controlling and guiding emotions.  To use more archaic concepts, it is a modern tool for building character — or even spirit.  In his second critique, Kant lauds the reading of Roman histories as a way to build the moral sensibilities of young boys.  And in later times poetry seems to have served the same purpose.  Perhaps it is revealing too much, but before every interview or important meeting, I like to recite to myself the immortal words of Wallace Stevens:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Actually, what I recite to myself is "I am the emperor of ice-cream, I am the emperor of ice-cream …" which after a few repetitions fills me to bloating with confidence.  Why this is, I cannot say.

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The moon — once worshipped by pagans across the world; to whom the ancient Egyptians are said to have offered human sacrifices — provided a wonderful display this past Wednesday.  The last full lunar eclipse visible from Earth until 2010, it was the occasion for a party in our household.  We invited some friends from down the street to peer at the moon through our Edmund Scientific Astroscan Newtonian reflector telescope, for which we recently acquired a tripod and a 100X magnification lens.  This eclipse was noteworthy in that the moon was positioned in proximity to Saturn, whose rings we could finally see with the new lens. 

This recent party was not as formal an affair as the one we threw for the March 3rd, 2007 lunar eclipse.  That one involved many more guests, and moon inspired refreshments.  Moon pies, moon cakes, Blue Moon beer, naturally, and mojitos, a cocktail said to have been favored by the older Hemingway and, for our purposes, beginning with the same letters as "moon."  It was also a bit different from the way I saw a lunar eclipse as a child in the early seventies from Southeast Asia, where we placed a mirror in a shallow bowl of water in order to view the astronomical event. 

To this day I do not know whether this was meant to enhance the viewing in some way, or whether it was the result of some local superstition about not looking directly at the moon.  In Greek mythology, Actaeon was transformed into a stag and killed by his own hounds when he happened to espy Artemis, twin to Apollo and goddess of the moon, bathing in a pool.  As mentioned above, we used a reflector telescope rather than a refractor telescope to view the moon, and so are unlikely to suffer a similar fate.

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If you’ve never seen a lunar eclipse, I encourage you to leave your houses in 2010 to see this strange phenomenon.  Over a period of about an hour, the moon is slowly consumed by a black shadow.  And as parts of it disappear the remaining part, shrinking like the evaporating smile of the Cheshire Cat, seems to shine even brighter.  Just as the moon looks like it will disappear completely, a sudden transformation occurs, and instead of looking at a dark sky, the shadow covering the moon becomes semi-transparent, and one instead sees a tinted moon.  In the most recent eclipse, the moon was tinged with a coppery hue for about half an hour.  Then slowly, a bright light proceeds across the moon’s face, until she is restored to her original fullness.

Just as we might each have a personal soundtrack, the moon also deserves her own.  This is the music I compiled for the 2007 party, and brought out again for the 2008 affair (should you have any suggestions for enhancing this playlist, I would enjoy hearing from you):

  • Debussey’s Clair de lune — performed by Yakov Flier
  • Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata — performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy
  • Rusalka: O Silver Moon — performed by Renee Fleming
  • That’s Amore — Dean Martin
  • Shine On Harvest Moon — Leon Redbone
  • Mountains of the Moon — Grateful Dead
  • Catch the Moon — Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell
  • Bad Moon Rising — Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Shoot the Moon — Nora Jones
  • By the Light of the Silvery Moon — Ray Noble
  • Moon Over Bourbon Street — Sting
  • Harvest Moon — Neil Young
  • Fly Me to the Moon — Astrud Gilberto
  • Old Devil Moon — Frank Sinatra
  • Blue Moon — Cowboy Junkies
  • Pink Moon — Nick Drake
  • Moondance — Van Morrison
  • Reaching for the Moon — Ella Fitzgerald
  • Oh You Crazy Moon — Chet Baker
  • Moonage Daydream — David Bowie
  • It’s Only a Paper Moon — Benny Goodman and his Orchestra

The pictures above, by the way, were taken of the February 20th lunar eclipse from our backyard, somewhere in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.  The third picture was taken by pressing the lens of a digital camera against the view lens of our telescope.  It was then photoshopped to correct for the inversion that the reflector telescope inevitably causes.

My Dark Lord Can Beat Up Your Dark Lord

 


Voldemort vs Sauron, who would win? 


hobbitsI’ve just recently picked up my copy of the seventh Harry Potter book and secreted it beneath a stack of Playboys.  I take it out occasionally and read it in the bathroom so Mrs. Ziffer won’t know what I’m up to.  For me, reading the adventures of the boy wizard is a secret vice — as all vices should be.


In the 60’s the U.S. had the Arthurian cycle — or at least the musical version of it — to serve as the prism through which its citizens interpreted the political world.  During the American Civil War, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights served much the same purpose.  During the American Revolutionary War, political leaders were guided by the Roman historians and able to quote Thucydides.  More recently, neoconservatives have attempted to revive interest in Thucydides as a template for forming political narratives, but facts on the ground have tended to discredit this project.  And in its place, we instead have … what?


The Dark Lord Sauron commands an army of tens of thousands, including the Nazgul and their witch-king.  He manifests himself as a far-seeing eye, and the mere mention of his name by the unwary draws his attention.  He can corrupt the souls of men.  In battle he drives his enemies before him with a wave of his hand. 


The Dark Lord Voldemort commands followers who disrupt sports matches, ripping up tents and setting off fireworks.  He uses three forbidden spells, the most powerful of which is a death spell that works when he is near his victim.  It works something like a self-reloading pistol.  It is not clear whether it can penetrate decent armor like kevlar or mithril.  Chances are that it cannot, since even common furniture has been known to deflect it.  It is also not a spell peculiar to him — he just seems more willing than most to use it.


In a no-holds-barred battle between the two, I’m not sure how Voldemort stands any chance.


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Examining their respective nemeses only seems to muddy the waters further.  Frodo is armed with a magic dagger that detects the proximity of goblins and orcs.  With his short reach, however, it is only effective in close-quarters fighting, and Harry prefers to cast spells at a distance.  Frodo is also protected by a mithril coat of mail, an elven cloak, and the vial of Galadrial, which may grant him enough protection to close the distance between himself and Harry and put his dagger to use.  He prefers to use these defenses to flee from enemies, however, and appears to lack the martial skills to use his powerful defensive weapons effectively to overcome young Harry.  Again, the odds seem overwhelmingly to favor one combatant over the other.  A Patronum, Expelliarmus and Rictusempra spell should quickly bring Frodo to his knees.


Despite the fact that Frodo can be easily defeated by Harry, who is presented as a close match for Voldemort, who in turn is clearly out of the Dark Lord Sauron’s league, Sauron is ultimately defeated by the halfling, who by the transitive principle should be the weakest of them all.  How is this possible?


According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, this is an instance of a differend:



As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments.  One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy.  However applying a single rule of judgment to both in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule).


While on their surface, both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings belong to the same narrative genre, the paradox above reveals that they in fact belong to different genres.  The regimens which determine the outcome of conflicts in these two series are incompatible, even though they co-exist and confirm a similar theme — good must overcome evil.  To apply the narrative rules of one to the other would confound this theme, and cause evil to overcome good.  In Harry’s world, Frodo would quickly be destroyed by the Avada Kadavra (he has neither magic nor the charm of a mother’s love, as far as we know), while in Frodo’s world, Harry would succumb to the power of the ring or simply be overcome by hordes of uruk-hai.


yoda The rules by which Harry is able to overcome Voldemort (I don’t mean to give away the ending — let us assume that this is where the story is clearly headed), and Frodo to defeat Sauron, are derived from two very ancient narratives about the nature of the conflict between Good and Evil.


According to one, good and evil are cosmic forces in conflict.  They are equal in power.  Ultimately good is intended to triumph, though this also entails many victories for the forces of evil along the way.  How goodness can triumph, when it is a power equal to the power of evil, is an open question.


According to the other, as enunciated by Plato, evil is a privation.  There is only The Good, while evil is simply a way of talking about distance from this Ideal.  Evil is nothing in itself; evil is the absence of goodness.


Christianity, while having officially adopted the latter cosmology, has in fact always vacillated between these two notions.  During times of little struggle, the Platonic viewpoint has tended to hold sway.  In times of trouble, however, the tendency to reify evil predominates, and in its wake Manichean cosmology holds sway.


The peculiarity of The Lord of the Rings lies in the placement of a Platonic regime within a Manichean narrative, and that the confirmation of this does not reveal itself until the end.  The struggle between  good and evil in Middle-Earth is stark.  The good are so very good, while the bad are so clearly evil.  The corruption of men, when it occurs with Lord Denethor and Saruman, is rarely subtle.  The redemption of King Theoden and Baromir, and the near-redemption of Gollum, are central moments in the story, and in each case is caused by the forces of light — by Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, and Frodo, respectively — as if redemption were a force which these characters emanated from their very being. 


The progress of the novel involves the Fellowship of the Ring moving through Middle-Earth and recruiting allies to a cause that is sure to fail.  The overwhelming power of the Dark Lord Sauron is always clear, so in what lies their hope?  How does a hobbit resist and defeat such an evil will?  This is only possible if the rules of conflict are Platonic rather than Manichean.  Sauron is everything that Frodo is not.  More accurately, Frodo is everything that Sauron is not, and he proves this by resisting the lure of the ring.  In the Lord of the Rings, all it takes to defeat evil is to deny evil any power. 


matrix In the Harry Potter novels, the reverse is the case.  What is required to defeat evil, in this narrative regime, is to recognize that Evil exists and to apply a more powerful force against it.  Harry recruits allies not to deny those allies to the Dark Lord.  Rather, he recruits allies in order to gather power — good power of course — that will be sufficient to overcome Voldemort’s reserves of evil force.  Moreover, unlike in Tolkien’s work, the powers involved are not based on disproportion, but rather on the similarlity in power between Voldemort and Harry, who carries part of Voldemort’s power in his famous scar.  The series builds, surely and inevitably, toward a final showdown (again, I don’t mean to give away the ending — let us merely agree that we understand the narrative rules upon which Harry Potter is built, the same rules upon which Star Wars is built, in fact, and go on from there) in which Harry must use this stolen power to defeat the powers of darkness — so unlike the burden of Frodo, who must carry Sauron’s power and refuse to use it.


We might go so far as to say that Harry Potter is a Manichean struggle in a Platonic world.  We are given glimpses of the family background that makes Voldemort the Dark Lord he is, as if to demonstrate that there are no evil people in the world, just misunderstood people.  We are given glimpses into the life of Snape, and the not always exemplary school career of Harry’s wizard father, demonstrating that the line between good and evil is not so clear as we would like to think.  Good people have their faults, while bad people (all the former dark-wizards who have changed their ways) have their virtues. 


At the same time, there is a thread running throughout the novel — more Manichean in nature — of a struggle between a wizarding aristocracy and a proletarian wizarding class, the muggle-lovers, which belies this therapeutic message.  Both Snape and Sirius Black are class-traitors not fully trusted by either side.  These issues of class resolve themselves into the more fundamental issue of whose side you will stand on when it is time to fight.  Are you with the forces of Evil?  Or are you with Us?


Harry Potter is a secret pleasure because, though I don’t like to admit it, I find Manichean struggles much more engaging than Platonic philosophizing.  Asking ‘What is the Good?’ is all good and well, but at the end of the day, I like a Hegelian Master-Servant struggle in which victory confirms the rightness of my cause and my self-worth.  In a Platonic world, the rightness of my cause is a separate matter from my success, and the only proper course of action, at the moment of true struggle, is to fulfill an obligation to Asclepius. 


It would be salutary to believe that world-affairs are guided by more high-brow narrative regimes than I am, but I am not so sure.  In the West we struggle against Islamo-fascists in our attempts to make the world a better place.  In Russia, Chechnyan separatists and their ilk in the Caucuses are the enemies of choice.  In China, they crush dissidents.  In the Middle East and other Islamic regions, they resist the modernizers and … well … us.  I sometimes wonder if the jihadis watch Star Wars and see their own aspirations and hopes acted out by Luke Skywalker.


In a similar vein, do young jihadis read Harry Potter as I do, in secret, in order to avoid public humiliation and, in their case, possible bodily violence?  If so, then perhaps we can overcome our differences through the recognition that we all have this one thing in common, an innate desire for Manichean struggles of self-affirmation.  And isn’t this how the first-steps toward peace are always made: by understanding what unites us, rather than what makes us different?

The Decemberists In Atlanta

Decemberists


I once heard the Yiddish storyteller and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer describe his first experience with a cafeteria in New York City.  He was initially frustrated by the lack of help he received from the servers at the strange restaurant.  As he waited politely for a table, he saw scores upon scores of waiters and waitresses carrying trays of food around but they all ignored him when he requested their assistance.  ‘What a devilish restaurant,’ he thought, ‘with more staff than customers, and yet the service is still horrible.’


Something similar may have gone through Colin Meloy’s mind when he and his band, The Decemberists, performed at Chastain Park this past Friday.  Whereas at many venues the audience is there to listen to the performers, at Chastain the band is very much there to entertain the audience.  People typically arrive half-an-hour after the show has started.  They bring in their own food and spirits; they dine and converse throughout the show.  The fifty or so tables set up in the area immediately before the stage reinforce this casual atmosphere, since some of the audience can even turn their backs to the band in order to better carry out their convivial discussions.


My hope is that The Decemberists were not offended by this or took it for a lack of appreciation.  At a certain point Meloy even walked through the diners in the pit and sampled some brie from one of the tables.  He seemed to be in a good mood, and the only reason to think otherwise is the brevity of the main set, which lasted only a little over 70 minutes.  This may have been due, however, to the fact that there was no opening act and the show had to be coordinated with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which performed backup on many of the songs.


The Decemberists are an Indie band (a term often used to describe something non-mainstream — I’m not sure what else it is meant to encapsulate since they are currently on a major label.  They are also said to be a folk band, though I am not sure in what way, other than that in some songs an acoustic guitar predominates (for instance in Red Right Ankle, which I’m listening to, now) and that most songs involve esoteric narratives sung from the point of view of street urchins, nineteenth century soldiers and dissolute aristocrats.



My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist
In pre-war Paris
Smuggling bombs for the underground.
And she met my father
At a fete in Aix-en-Provence.
He was disguised as a Russian cadet
in the employ of the Axis.



My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist



I don’t follow rock reviews well enough to describe the music, itself, which is beautifully melodic and filled with complex and occasionally obscure instrumentation.  I think coming up with terms to describe rock sub-genres must be a bit like inventing terms to describe wines.  To my palate, The Decemberists taste like summer fruit, with overtones of oak casks and tobacco, as well as a hint of wet dog.  What strikes me most about the songs is the beauty of the lyrics, which typically are imbued with a nineteenth century romanticism and filled with a similarly stylized diction, as well as surprising inversions and exotic, near-hysterical rhyming schemes.



Medicating in the sun
pinched doses of laudanum
longing for the old fecundity of my homeland
Curses to this mirage!
A bottle of ancient Shiraz
a smattering of distant applause
is ringing in my poor ears



On the old left bank
my baby in a charabanc
riding up the width and length
of the Champs Elysees



If only summer rain would fall
on the houses and the boulevard
and the side walk bagatelles it’s like a dream
with the roar of cars
and the lulling of the cafe bars
the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine
Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again


The Legionnaire’s Lament


The lyrics are also overflowing with words one needs to look up.  What is a charabanc, or a bagatelle, or an infanta, palanquin, gingham, corncrake or taffeta?  The esoteric character of the lyrics, far from making the songs remote, make them more accessible since all one has to do to enjoy them is to agree to play along.  The experience is a bit like a graduate seminar in which one at first feels unqualified to participate — after a while, one realizes that no one is really qualified to participate and that all that is necessary to play is to learn a few technical terms and be willing to follow the conversation wherever it goes.  As an added bonus, a conversation with The Decemberists takes you across a field of Dickensian fancies, spy novels, turn of the century adventure tales, and on occasion, in such songs as Los Angeles, I’m Yours and Sixteen Military Wives, even the contemporary world.


Finally, unlike many popular bands where memorable refrains are the most salient aspect of the songs, for me the most memorable aspect of The Decemberists are the wonderful images their songs evoke.  For instance, from Los Angeles:



There is a city by the sea
A gentle company
I don’t suppose you want to
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail
Its hollowness will haunt you
Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs it hears
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore,
Los Angeles, I’m yours.


… from California One:



And the road a-winding goes
From golden gate to roaring cliff-side
And the light is softly low as our hearts Become sweetly untied
Beneath the sun of California one.

Take a long drown with me of California Wine…



… and from Summersong:


My girl, Lenin in curls
Lips parting like a flag unfurled
She’s grand, the bend of her hand
Digging deep into the sweep of the sand


Despite a forecast of summer rains, the weather was fair throughout the evening at Chastain, and as the sun set we watched bats flitting overhead.  The band opened with The Crane Wife 1 & 2 and followed this with Los Angeles, I’m Yours.  At the same time, my wife and I opened with some Barefoot California Chardonnay (perhaps the same wine The Decemberists sing about in California One?), accompanied by salami, butter and asiago sandwiches on homemade bread.  Next we had a not-so-ancient shiraz paired with a greek salad made with rotini, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken cubes, feta and a balsamic vinaigrette.  I think The Decemberists were playing Perfect Crime #2 and The Bagman’s Gambit while we were eating our salad, but I can’t be sure.  The band continued with The Infanta and We Both Go Down Together, while Mrs. Z and I continued with a double bock from Munich (we had both recently read Tim Powers’s The Drawing of the Dark in which this brew plays a central role in the survival of Western Civilization)The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had made the earlier pieces interesting, but with the two following arrangements for Odalisque and The Tain, the audience had the opportunity to hear something transcendent.  Following I Was Meant For The Stage, the ASO left the stage, as did The Decemberists.



The audience was a bit surprised at this.  The sun had only just gone down.  Perhaps we had done or said something wrong?  Or perhaps the orchestra simply had to get home early.  The crowd, previously demure and appearing uninterested, finally woke up and cheered the band to the degree it deserved for such a fine, if somewhat brief, show.  The Decemberists generously came out again and performed what I think is one of their best songs, Sixteen Military Wives.



Fifteen celebrity mimes
Leaving their fifteen sordid wretched checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?



Eighteen academy chairs
Out of which only seven really even care
Doling out a garment to five
Celebrity mimes, they’re humbly taken by surprise
Cheer them on to their rivals



Cause America can; and America can’t say no
And America does, if America says it’s so,
It’s so …


A clearer expression of American exceptionalism I have never heard.  The night ended with a furious and participatory rendition of The Mariner’s Revenge Song in which we had an opportunity to hear the sweetness of Jenny Conlee’s singing as she stepped out from behind the organ to strap on an accordion.  


The Decemberists departed the stage for the second time that evening and as the audience began chanting, once again, for more, the stage hands were abruptly sent out to send a clear message that the evening was over.  It reminded me of something my grandfather used to say when guests had overstayed their welcome.  “Come on, honey.  We ought to go to bed.  These people obviously want to go home.”


You can hear some of The Decemberists at their myspace site here. In addition, they did a recording for Austin City Limits a few days ago, which should air fairly soon.

The Horned Man




I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.  I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.  With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.  Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. 

— Jack Kerouac, On The Road



 


The opposite of the dream we savor but never fulfill, a frailty of both the great and the small (how long did Richard Feynman plan his trip to Tuva?), is the fate we dread but never find the courage to face.  Instead we tell ourselves that it is not really so bad.  We curse our own weakness and blame ourselves for not taking it better.  We try to find the bright side, and in the end justify our circumstances in terms of what we gain through our sacrifice.


This is how I think of my daily commute, about which the current New Yorker has an article.  Normally I read The New Yorker when I arrive home from work.  It is my quiet time, during which I shrug off the cares of the day, and escape into a fantasy world of cosmopolitan effetism and intellectual escapism — John Colapinto’s article The Interpreter, also in this issue, about a tribe in the Amazon and how their idiosyncratic language, which lacks a feature of most tongues known as recursion, has turned the world of linguistics upside-down and pitted neo-Whorfians against Chomskyites, is a case in point.


When I got home today and openned up my newly arrived magazine, however, I found an article about my own life.




Atlanta is perhaps the purest specimen of a vexed commuter town, a big-fridge paradise.  Los Angeles, the country’s most sprawling megalopolis, may boast a more dizzying array of horrible commutes, but many of them are the result of a difficult landscape — ocean restricting growth on one side, mountains on another.  Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area are worthy candidates, but they, too, owe a degree of complication to bodies of water.  But Atlanta, like Houston, sprawls without impediment in all directions, and an inordinate number of the commutes range from one edge of the sprawl to the opposite side.  People live and work on the outskirts.  For them, the city itself is little more than an obstacle and an idea.


Atlanta is a beltway town — it is defined by the interstate, known as the Perimeter, that encircles it.  It has a notoriously paltry system of public transportation.



Road-building doesn’t much help.  Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called “induced traffic”: the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get.  People find it agreeable to move further away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still.  The lanes fill up.



— Nick Paumgarten, There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter





The lure of Atlanta is the plenitude of jobs and cheap housing.  Our house, as my West Coast relatives frequently remind me, would cost a million dollars in the Los Angeles suburbs.  I paid a fraction of that for our four bedroom house on an acre and a half lot, sheltered from our neighbors by a thick copse of pine trees.  What they never tell you is that the jobs and the houses are frequent but far between.  The good areas are quickly overdeveloped and become congested.  To get away from them, you have to move further out.  To afford them, you have to get a higher paying job which more often than not is further away.   I drive from the east side of town to the west side of town, while others drive from the west to the east.  Why this should be I do not know, but it is a central feature of living in Atlanta.  Still others drive from the north to the south, or from south to north.  Atlanta is a city shaped like a doughnut, and driving from one edge to another is still better than driving from the edge to the center.  Very few people live near where they work.


The article makes more frightening observations about the phenomenon of commuting.  For instance, Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard, points out that “[e]very ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections.  Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”  According to economists Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey at the University of Zurich, “if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as satisfied with life as a noncommuter is.”  They call this The Commuting Paradox.




“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation.  Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living.  It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring.  They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute — money, house, prestige — and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.


To this list of things given up should be added simpler things such as spending time with one’s children, time with one’s spouse, time in church and other communal activities.  The average American male is overweight, has few to no close friends, and leans right-wing.  Sociologists and pundits often attempt to tie these features to such things as the American gun-culture, video games, a laxity in contemporary cultural values, an increased commoditization and objectification of sex — but couldn’t these be merely the superstructure imposed by the infrastructure of the daily commute?  Take for instance the rise of Conservatism in America.  Nominally it was inspired by Reaganism, but isn’t Reaganism just the ideology fomented in the frustration of the Carter era, dominated by and remembered for cars lined up waiting for gas? 


The gas line has grown into the commuter jam.  As we sit in our cars, we listen to shock jocks on the car radio who reflect back to us the frustration and resentment we feel as we make our way through unpredictable and ultimately irrational choices on the road — Don Imus in D.C. (until recently), Neal Boortz in Atlanta, and Howard Stern just about anywhere since he is on satellite radio.  The lonely driver feels a false sense of control and liberty as only being locked in a small space can inspire.  The lone commuter hates his fellow man and is determined to cut him off before he can be cut off.  Who needs a political franchise when he has a horn, strategically positioned before him like a lab rat’s food bar, with which he can instantly articulate his feelings about the state of the nation?  Has a study ever been done correlating a person’s daily commute with his political leanings? 


Yet this isn’t exactly my life, since my life isn’t nearly so bad as all this.  About six months ago, I switched from a job for which I drove an hour, each way, to the job I currently have for which I drive only about 40 minutes each way.  My company also has a progressive policy about occassionally working from home, which is nothing less than a reprieve and release from the obligation of meeting my fellow man on the road.  An extra 40 minutes each day probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is enough time for me to get home after work and open my New Yorker and read for a while.  It is enough so that, after reading, I am relaxed and can play with my children rather than turn on the news.  I can put my children to bed and talk with my wife rather than watch Grey’s Anatomy plus whatever comes after that until I fall asleep.  I am no longer the sort of man who beats his horn in anger against the world, and perhaps even my politics have mellowed a bit.


Of course were I still at my old job, my commute would be longer and I would not have had time to read this article, and would never have had the leisure to reflect on homo comutus.  A different sort of commuting paradox.