The Tell-Time Heart

16 May 2015

I wrote something about the Apple Watch:

True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous my tweets have proven I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? Apple had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of touch acute. I felt things across the Internet and in the earth. I felt many things beyond. How, then, am I mad? Harken back! and observe how healthily — as indeed my fitness app proves — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I liked @Old_Man_49. He had never blocked me. He had never given me downvotes. For his Apple Watch Edition I had no desire. I think it was his tapping! Yes, it was this! He had the tapping of a woodpecker — a constant updating notification of his heartbeat. Whenever it fell upon me, my wrist vibrated incessantly; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the early adopter, and thus rid myself of the tapping forever.

Go check out the whole thing on Medium.

Errands for Fools

06 May 2015

David Leach:

Is there anything more to video games’ popularity than violent fantasies and mindless escape? Can they ever teach us about who we are as a community and how we can be better? As a father and a teacher struggling to instill values in my kids and my students — who were all born, it seems, clutching video-game controllers — I wanted to find out.

Games – video or otherwise – are not any one thing and it is increasingly nonsensical to refer to them as such. They can be evocative in radically different ways with varied mechanics and modes of input. They can educate us about the world we live in and about the people that we may encounter; or they can provide us fantastical settings and characters that are wholly alien to our lived experiences. They can give us tools and techniques for navigating worldly affairs; or they can create new languages and codes for exploring digital systems. They can be beautiful and awe-some; or they can be disgusting and horrific.

To say that The Shawshank Redemption, Inception, and Black Swan are all movies tells us almost nothing – merely the medium through which their narratives, themes, and characters are expressed. This is likewise the case when trying to compare Call of Duty with Monument Valley or The Oregon Trail with System Shock. The experiences are varied and calling them merely ‘violent fansties’ or ‘mindless escape’ is entirely mistaken (and, of course, unhelpful).1 We are far beyond the point where we should speak about the medium with generalizations like that, particularly when accompanied by moralizing attitudes towards the content or its consumers. God of War and Gears of War can both reasonably be considered expressions of testosterone and violence;2 The Legend of Zelda less so; and Mirror’s Edge likely not at all. This is again the case when trying to suggest that they are all a waste of time.

And if the games that you are encountering seem to be nothing but errands for fools, perhaps you should go find better games. They are certainly out there.

  1. Which is, of course, not to suggest that is Leach is doing that. He is unequivocally not.

  2. Although not necessarily solely that.

The Jewelled Tent

26 Apr 2015

The supposed death of philosophy is always said to be the eternally upon us tomorrow – and if not outright death, then merely its inability to cohere within the contemporary world (which amounts to much the same): “It is near. If not now, then soon!”. We, that is to speak of us who I suppose must be considered not-philosophers, merely dance at the precipice of thought, rather than engage in it as true philosophers would (do? did?). To think about (and through) what we are doing – whether in fine detail or broad strokes – has been lost (or is being left behind or in danger of such) in the contemporary world. Yet even this entirely reasonable articulation seems laughably absurd, like the old scholar frantically wandering about the office proclaiming that they cannot find their glasses and so they must be lost – when all along their spectacles have rested upon their nose. This is made the realm of fools and scholars alike when Michèle Le Dœuff allows Shakespeare, that “distant heir[] of Socrates”, to rear his ugly head. If one takes offense at being said to resemble the noble fool, then perhaps it would be more befitting of our stature to say that we are heirs to the madman. All of us not-philosophers proudly living in the shadow of a reformulated Nietzsche: no longer is it God but philosophy that is dead and we have killed it (and Tonto replies, “what ‘we’, white man?” – or, as Le Dœuff might reply, “what ‘we’, great philosophers?”).

That death of philosophy is nothing more than the bitter taste of wisdom left in our mouths once the realization sets in the sage and fool will be themselves equals in the grave. The answer to the question “why philosophize?” cannot be found outside of mythopoesis.1 That is to say there can be no answer more satisfying than Albert Camus’ suggestion that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. The value of philosophy is not that it can make gods and masters of us – indeed one of the stark lessons of the twentieth century seems to be that the examined life carries with it no superior access whatsoever to the good – so then it must then be found in the doing rather than in philosophical principles themselves. This serves to directly contradict the model of philosophy that is a mirror to the progressive sciences. It is philosophy as a mode of politicking, a form of ‘puzzle-solving’ . Instances in the history of philosophy are juxtaposed against the now for a purpose – not merely the pursuit of truth as truth, but rather towards an end that justifies the inquiry itself. We speak with the dead in order to help us find our own voices.

The intellectual heresy of this kind of philosophy – of which feminist, critical race theorists, and post-modernists are all heirs to – is that it dares advocate the use of philosophical investigation as a means towards their political, social, and otherwise worldly ends: philosophy as political action, as an instrument to be used in opposition to long-entrenched values and ideas. While the old guard are mourning the loss of wisdom, we, again us not-philosophers, should – and there is certainly a prescriptive element here – take the death of philosophy as an opening for a revaluation of philosophy itself.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkein: “There is no firmament / only a void, unless a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth / unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth”.

… and we sing it well.

Memory, endurance, and the way that those concepts connect to political decisions about how we live together. I spent two years engrossed in that topic – although, unsurprisingly, the earliest seeds of my thesis could be found in my undergraduate work – but there is a realness to how we continue to endure after we are gone that is only revealed in the experiences of death and grief.

Thank you, Brian Hendricks, for reminding me of my footing and the sharpness of bliss..

Tom Francis:

I will definitely ask you for changes to your work, regularly. Absolutely nothing to do with talent. If Leonardo da Vinci submitted the Mona Lisa, I’d say “Sorry, but for gameplay reasons the smile needs to be readable on low detail settings at wide zoom levels or players might mistake her for hostile. Can you make it a bit more pronounced?”

Although I doubt that anyone reading my blog has serious designs at doing art or music composition for an indie video game, Tom’s statement is still a good reminder for those of us that do any sort of creative work with or on behalf of anyone else: you are going to be forced to alter it to meet expectations that seem either unreasonable or merely contrary to your original design. As frustrating as it may be in the moment, it is useful to recall that our work is not for us alone. Changes will have to be made to satisfy particular situations or individual opinions. As a writer and as an improvisor, it is advice to keep close at hand.

Starship Troopers

06 Aug 2014

Scott Tobias for the A.V. Club:

The line between the world of Starship Troopers and Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed gets thinner every day.

In 1997, one of my favorite novels was transformed into quite the odd movie. Despite rewatching it with an alarming frequency, I still do not know what to think of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. It is not the novel, but it does not try to be – Scott does a good job of exploring what it may have been attempting. The volumes that have been written on this movie would make for quite the interesting library, but Scott’s article is worth checking out.

But, as always, do not read the comments.

Future Islands

22 Mar 2014

Tim Jonze for the Guardian:

The eye contact. The sincere chest thumping. The limbo dancing right at the end, which comes straight after that stomach-churning, guttural roar. The whole thing is strangely unsettling, incredibly moving and brave enough to risk teetering to the very brink of out-and-out hilarity without quite falling off the edge.


Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic

The vexing, remarkable conclusion is that when companies combine human intelligence and machine intelligence, some things happen that we cannot understand.

Netflix is a remarkable company. Google may deal with more sheer data, but Netflix has come to understand its data better – the impressiveness of the way that it navigates the complexities of categories and genres. The grammar of film and television is still being composed: What is the syntax of the silver screen? The morphology of cinema? The pragmatics of script?

These questions go far beyond the precision with which Netflix recommends content, just as understanding the form of the novel was about more than simply selling copies. Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce, masters of paragraph landscape and sentence construction. Netflix is not engaged in comparable projects to Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses – as good as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards may be, they do not radically break the form.1 It is a first step though, one of analysis and understanding.

I am inclined to reject that the results of our thought and action are unintelligible. Ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, perhaps, but I distrust those that claim inadequacy. It may be true that we are lacking, but drive in the face of the impossible is the very marker of our being. Is it incomprehensible? Attempt at comprehension. Does it appear to be impenetrable? Try to pass through. Meekness in spirit all but ensures failure – which is not to say that boldness is a guarantee for success, it simply allows for the possibility where there was none before.

The rise of algorithmic thinking, the convergence between machine and human intelligence is upon us. Google and Netflix are obvious markers of it, although I wonder if it has not already long been the case. Algorithms are not a uniquely digital phenomenon. Regardless, this intersection is now the norm, not the exception; in addition to whatever else we may be, we are also algorithmic beings. To relegate this relationship to the realm of the unintelligible is to wallow in nihilism rather than teach our eyes to hear, our ears to see. The ballad of constant fools who rest comfortable in what seems to be.2

  1. Give me some more time to muse on House of Cards. It certainly is novel – forgive the deliberate pun – but the work that Beau Willimon has done is not radical. Gradual, precise, and entertaining. Certainly, but not radical.

  2. None of this is a comment on Alexis’ article itself – it is an excellent piece that engages in exactly the kind of exploration that I am advocating for. My quibble is that the ending carries none of the same force as the rest of the thoughtful piece. Endings are difficult to pull off. Case in point.

Philip Seymour Hoffman roles demanded introspection and thoughtfulness. This, of course, is not solely upon him, but also on those that helped build his characters and he recognized the importance of directors and writers in his own craft. Yet excellent writing and careful direction can all be for naught if the actor is unfit for the role – and talented actors can offer some redemption to a poor script or a sloppy vision. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he rarely fell into such films.

He was an actor that took great care with his fictions, because he knew that stories were powerful and neither the audience nor the teller can ever wholly escape. Capote has stuck with me for years and I cannot help but hear Hoffman’s voice when I read In Cold Blood.1 He embraced his weirdness, his strangeness – and then displayed it on the screen for all to see. That particular brand of force and presence that he brought to his work will be missed.

  1. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day, he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”