I quite enjoyed Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe on a number of levels. While I thrilled at its concise and entertaining summaries of recent, consensus-backed theories about the observable universe — what a relief to finally understand the importance and implications of cosmic background radiation — I didn’t begin to grasp his much more personal ideas about reality’s ultimate nature until some weeks after finishing the book. This has given me a new, meditative model of the world and my place in it, and thinking upon it has provided a source of quiet comfort in turbulent times.
Tegmark doesn’t put it in so many words, but I understand the book’s eponymous conjecture this way: All of reality is a single, graphed-out equation, rendered in matter and energy rather than ink on paper.
A tiny equation like x = y describes, in three characters, a very simple yet boundless mathematical structure, in this case an infinite line: easy to conceive, predict, and work with, even if impossible to literally graph in its entirety. Tegmark, a physicist at MIT, feels certain that all of time and space, in its infinite vastness, maps to a mathematical structure with a similarly finite description — one short enough to fit on a T-shirt. (Clearly quite enamored with the notion of wearing the universal equation while a resident of said universe, Tegmark fantasizes about that T-shirt no fewer than three times within the book.)
In this view of reality having a single mathematical source, concepts like the flow of time, or motion, or randomness — or change of any kind — do not objectively exist. We subjectively perceive all these phenomena as living sub-structures within the whole super-structure, and in that sense, in our little line-segment view of our little slice of the graph paper, they are real and meaningful. But ultimate, objective reality contains every possible state of the universe, just like a graphed-out equation contains every possible point for which the equation holds true. These states exist outside of time, in the sense that time itself is just one axis of this graph.
In one latter part of the book, Tegmark invites the reader to consider the lifetime of an object — say, for example, the reader’s own body — as a collection of particles in three dimensional space, moving through time. Graph this phenomenon, and those punctiform particles stretch out along that fourth axis into noodles, all bound together so long as the object remains coherent. Now play it out further in either direction, and watch those noodles bind and braid together when the object comes into existence, and then fray out and go their separate ways when the object concludes its business, some distance upstream. In between these two ends, peer closely to see particle-noodles come and go as the object goes about its daily activity, taking in, transforming, or ejecting little bits of the universe.
If you feel up to it, you can try imagining the unimaginable fifth axis where each noodle bursts out into a fractal bush, representing every possible path through space that every particle can take, moment by moment, according to the law laid down by the one bit of math at the bottom of everything. Got that? Now zoom out a lot — all the way, keep going — so that the graph encompasses not just the one object’s little lifetime, with all its possibilities, but all the objects, everywhere, and everywhen, and everyhow. And when you arrive, there you have it: the single, unmoving, unchanging graph of everything. Bubble-trails in an infinitely complex but utterly static crystal. You are in it; every possible you is in it. And I am in it too, and every copy ever displayed of this blog post is in it (as well as every version I didn’t write but could have), and so’s Jesus and Buddha and Sappho and Carl Yastrzemski and everything that’s gonna happen to the memories of all of us, all together, forever.
To the best of my recollection, Tegmark avoids overt mention of any religion in Our Mathetmatical Universe, but it happens that I read this book in a period of exploration of religious traditions other than those I grew up with, made palatable through cultural filters nearer to hand. This includes Buddhist and Hindu thought as expressed by Alan Watts (discovered, yes, through the video game Everything), recent translations of ancient Chinese texts as guided by audio-book courses, and the color-saturated mashups up Eastern mysticism and contemporary cosmology found in Grant Morrison comics. None of these texts or teachers radically transformed the way I see reality, but I now feel that they made me pliable enough to consider Tegmark’s cosmic model, and find it surprisingly agreeable.
I may also have become more receptive due to some negative input: several months ago, I felt remarkably sour after listening to a radio piece about free will. The interviewer, using a narrow definition of the term, spoke to several physicists who all shot it down as a laughable or childish concept. They saw the universe as a complicated machine operating by wholly deterministic rules, each moment from the Big Bang until the Big Whatever entirely inevitable given the moment before, a ball rolling down a hill. The piece didn’t sit right with me, in part because I thought the question poorly asked, and I have yet to examine my distaste more deeply.
Why, then, does the superficially similar Tegmark model seem so satisfying to me? Clearly I dislike thinking of myself as riding through life on rails, fogged with the mere illusion of meaningful choice. But the alternate thought of every possible reality-state existing at once, which should also obviate the notion of choice, does not at all offend me in the same way.
I have long admired the hypothesis that the digits of π contain every conceivable number sequence, and thus every possible bit of numerically encodable information. The Tegmark model merely takes this one-dimensional concept and stretches it across a few additional directions, such that every possible universal snapshot might also be found, somewhere, in the graph of that elusive ultimate equation.
In this model, I don’t ride through life strapped into a mine-cart of irresistible physics. I don’t go anywhere. I just am, a static and eternal noodly swirl in a vast and unmoving map that is also its own territory that is the whole of everything that ever could be, according to a concise and immutable statement that one day I might indeed wear on a T-shirt.
And that makes me feel very peaceful.
I spent the first three days after New Year’s sinking ever deeper into the most suffocating despair I can ever recall feeling. A vague malaise that settled over me on January 2nd had, by the afternoon of the 4th, become a crushing depression. I passed a line where I could take no action more strenuous than lie in bed and leaf through comics, which passed the time but gave me no joy. I let my all my other intended fresh-new-year tasks slide, unable to see any point to them.
The whole time, I assumed I felt sad and hopeless from the top news headlines, which had arguably taken a steep turn for the worse soon after the year began. But I have certainly weathered spikes of upsetting news in recent years — as have we all — so I felt unclear why this most recent storm dampened my spirits so profoundly.
It reached a nadir-crescendo on Saturday afternoon, when I finally talked through my misery with a loved one. An obvious action in retrospect, but one delayed while my depression felt so heavy that I assumed sharing the load would mean crushing someone else under the weight. However, that afternoon I had sunk to a point of such singular despondency that my mental state no longer seemed realistic, or anyway not at all in-character. I began to suspect the presence of some other unwelcome factor.
And lo, just a few words into that talk-through, I realized how my emotional slide tracked quite neatly with the commencement of my taking heavy-duty “nighttime” cold medicine all day long.
I had indeed contracted some gnarly bug on the way home from my holiday travels last month, and so, you see, I had turned to the good stuff, whose ingredients begin with 20-proof alcohol and carry on from there. I don’t drive, and don’t even really have a job at the moment, so I saw no harm in hitting our bottle of blue syrup without seeking its orange complement. For nearly three days I kept myself dosed from wake-up to sleepy-time, careful not the exceed to four-pulls-per-day limit on the label.
In effect, I had unwittingly gone on a day-drinking bender. The medicine-cocktail’s already dissociative side-effects encouraged my mind to drift into cobwebby corners I normally avoid, and its alcoholic kicker gave it that extra little shove into the dark. Sitting alone in the house, stewing in this sauce for days — what other outcome could possibly have happened?
This connection, once made, arced across my perception like electricity, lighting everything up again almost instantly. The bottle’s sat still on my nightstand since then, and the news continues its parade of horrors but it no longer presses my face into the cold mud. I can once again act in spite of it.
Two outcomes from this misadventure:
First, I seem to have let myself acquire a tendency to read food and drug labels with cynical flippancy. I really I ought to check myself, there.
Secondly, this chemically induced experience granted me, I believe, a taste of what my friends with chronic depression live with ordinarily. I don’t mean to trivialize this condition through my story of how I buoyed myself out through a a bit of conversation — I accomplished this precisely because I do not live with real, ongoing depression. I accept this piece of received empathy with humility.
Having arrived at the concluding day of a year that ends in “9”, I can’t not take stock.
Carrying over from 2009, and throughout the following decade, I’d spend several hours every week at my day job as a software consultant. I did plenty of good work, but all for other peoples’ projects, so I seldom mention it in detail.
2010: Attended PAX East: an amazing experience, and effectively one of the very first larger-scale interactive fiction conferences. (Zarf’s contemporary account of it jibes with my own.) I started to feel like part of a real movement, and then I wrote The Warbler’s Nest.
2011: Taught a game lab at Northeastern University. I did my best and it went okay, but the experience convinced me that I am not a teacher. Officially closed up shop at Volity, the games startup that I’d co-founded years before.
2012: Published a lot of iOS work. I had a great time, but none of it survives today, because I have turned my back on the platform as a developer. (Today, I keep an old iPad on my bookshelf as evidence that these games ever ran at all.) Visited San Diego — flown out for two weeks on a lucrative consulting gig, a unforgettable experience I’ve yet to repeat.
2013: A black hole of a year. My father succumbed to cancer just days after its diagnosis. I suddenly had to take charge of my mother’s care, as — to everyone’s surprise and dismay — she suffered from profound dementia. I learned a lot about arranging medical care and legal protection for elderly parents. After a very challenging six months, we found a home for mom at a “memory care” facility in Maine. Then I hid in New Orleans for a while. While doing so, accepted an invitation to become IFComp’s next organizer.
2014: An exploding nova of a year. Got married (on my 40th birthday), found my destitute brother a home, created Barbetween, organized the 20th IFComp (after rewriting almost all its custom software), created two Twitter bots, moved to Rhode Island, got paid to make a small IF game, spoke and presented work at Wordplay in Toronto, sold my parents’ house, created Plerd, and began blogging regularly.
Starting here, and for the rest of the decade, I’d spend several hours every week writing articles for this website. I didn’t think I’d manage to keep up a weekly-ish pace with it, but somehow I have.
2016: Created Bumpyskies, which I now recognize as my masterpiece as a toolmaker. Started to rent an office in Newport. Visited Denmark. Launched IFTF. Spoke at my mother’s funeral. Wracked with waves of acute anxiety after the American elections, I began to see a therapist. Said goodbye to Ada.
Starting here, and for the rest of the decade, I would spend at least a little time every week tending to IFTF.
2017: Spoke at !!Con about how I made Bumpyskies. Made deep personal connections whose specifics bear no mention here, but they fueled much of my writing at the time. Decided to turn down an opportunity to double down on my consulting work, and instead work on small, fun projects again. This begat stuff like Alisio and Bayamo — neither of which I continue to use much today, but they propelled me on, and I regret nothing.
2018: Moved to Providence. Discovered the IndieWeb and went a little crazy with it. Wrote Bise and Brickfielder, two small fun projects that I do continue to use. Took the reins of IFTF’s accessibility project, leading a great team. Visited England.
2019: Shipped the accessibility project, helped by dozens of volunteer testers. Watched with joy and pride as IFTF ran the first Narrascope, a purpose-built conference for interactive fiction and other narrative games. Joined a writers club in Providence, and thought about switching careers. Launched Sweat. Visited Paris. Moved to New York.
In all honesty, I did not see until just now the obvious bookends — nay, the arc — formed by the semi-accidental IF conference in 2010 and the extremely intentional one in 2019, with IFTF’s genesis smackdab in the middle. I would not say that my drive to support interactive fiction defined my decade, but it does rather seem to have formed the backbone of it.
I have often wondered, in more recent years, if I’ll ever have an explosively creative year like 2014 again. Maybe I don’t want one; maybe it required what came before. I think I would prefer stability over going through all that again.
What else is there to say? We’ve been through a lot together. I’m glad you’re still here, and I hope you stay. See you tomorrow.
Subnautica is the best console-based video game I played in 2019. Despite the low likelihood that I will ever actually finish it, I would heartily recommend it to anyone comfortable with typical FPS controls and who could afford to spend a few days-to-weeks exploring an engaging and accessible survival/crafting sim, and perhaps the best “low-HUD” immersive adventure I have ever dove into.
Allow me to unpack that latter term, since I just now made it up. (And please do tell me if better label already exists for this!) By “low-HUD”, I mean an open-world adventure game with FPS controls but not an ever-present Skyrim-style on-screen readout, painting compasses and mini-maps and task-lists and floating arrows in the sky and glowing markers in the road telling you precisely where go to next and who to talk to and/or stab. I understand why games — successful games, great games! — have these, and I do not like them.
In real life, you gain much less familiarity with a neighborhood if you navigate solely through a GPS device whispering meter-precise directions to you, versus having a short list of more ambiguous landmarks to look for and recognize. Often you want the easy way, of course — when you just have to pick up a bag of cat food or whatever and then get back to work, you don’t always desire an adventure of urban exploration in the process.
But when I play an adventure game, I always want that! In fact, I feel resentful and even a little sad that the designers crafted this beautiful and enormous world full of things to do and places to see and people to talk to, and then all but insist that I follow a pre-written to-do list while my character somehow knows exactly which person wandering around this town is the man I’m looking for, or precisely which drawer in which desk of which room on which floor of this building I learned about just five minutes ago has the secret code I need, because in all cases the Green Map Pointer of Destiny decrees it. As a result, these games feel less like exploring than just gulping down content by way of exploration-like activity. I still have to make my dude walk around, after all, and he can go in any direction I please — but going in any direction other than directly towards the next Green Map Pointer feels like a bizarre waste of time, like rewinding and rewatching the same scene of a movie repeatedly in a pointless attempt to make that scene longer instead of just letting it play as intended.
But if Skyrim (or Witcher 3 or Outer Worlds and on and on) didn’t have that hyperactive HUD, few people outside of hardcore adventure-game fans would have played it. It would have been too hard! I’m not even sure it would have been possible, in fact; surely the game was designed from the outset under the assumption that players would allow the game to continuously act both as Dungeon Master and as personal assistant, removing as much friction as possible from getting the player to their next joyful Quest Complete! fanfare and the extention of their to-do list by another page.
This personal distaste means that some of my favorite games over the last several years have included immersive 3D exploration games that do not lean heavily on all this on-screen metadata — hence my label of “low-HUD” games. And I have played and enjoyed plenty: Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Soma, to name three very different examples. The first confines itself to a single, large suburban house, and involves mainly self-paced, no-stakes poking around while it tells you a story. The latter two present more substantial open worlds to explore and simple puzzles to solve — and in Soma’s case, creepy monsters to evade. All three games leave it up to the player to map out their respective territories, though; none give you radars and compasses and GPS bing-bongs when you need to turn left. And I glommed onto each experience the moment it began, thinking Ah, at last, this is what I want!
Subnautica, also a member of this low-HUD club, raises itself above any other I have played due to its uncanny success at mixing in a real-time survival-simulator, a genre I’ve wanted to like for years but have always only bounced off, whether the venerable Minecraft, the blunt Don’t Starve, or the swiftly cruel The Long Dark. Subnautica takes elements from those games — hunger/thirst timers, hostile wildlife — in order to set its basic, initial stakes. In due course, Subnautica’s focus shifts from such immediate challenges to learning to live as a castaway, with an eventual — very eventual — goal of escape and ultimate victory. I have unironically called it the best adaptation of The Martian into a video game I could ever hope for.
The magical turn, for me, happens with this sequence of early-game observations and realizations:
The very first time you pop out of the crashed pod to look around, you see the burning wreck of the mile-long starship it had ejected from taking up much of the horizon in a certain direction. “Ah, yes, mise-en-scène, very good,” you think to yourself, and then disregard the wreck as window-dressing.
You want to make note of some interesting underwater features you find while exploring. You always know your depth and how far you are from your pod, but you have no compass, no sense of bearing. But you do have an enormous crashed starship parked on the horizon. This piece of scenery suddenly gets a new role: “north”. You can now make crude triangulations of any feature based on its objective distance to your pod and what direction you travel relative to the line between your pod and the ship.
Nothing in the game tells you to do this, and nothing in the game “knows” that you’ve made this connection, much less scribbling your notes into a paper notebook as I began to do. But you inevitably start thinking of the ship in these terms anyway anyway, and it feels awesome, becauase that’s you thinking like a survivor for real, even just a little bit.
If you swim in the direction of the ship, you get some blather about deadly radiation from its busted-up engines — and anyway, it’s very far away from the safety of your pod. “Ah, of course, diegetic limitation on the game’s explorable area, very good.” But then you learn to swim faster, and then you discover ways to ward off radiation, and then you start receiving nudges that the ship holds material and information you need to order to continue the overall quest.
The wreck thus undergoes a second transformation from scenery to useful scenery to complete explorable area that has rested in front of you this whole time with its own dangers and realities and rewards. This floored me. Some real design magic, here!
Once I thoroughly explored the ship — and completed the plot-critical task it contains — the game blew up for me, in the sense of my character’s ability to widen their explorable hemisphere even further (and deeper), their motivation for doing so, and my own confidence as a worthy player of this difficult game. And the game paced right along with all this, giving me many more sequences of mystery and discovery and mastery much like this initial, long-paced encounter with the shipwreck, and all still in the same, seamless, open world stretching around that smelly old life-pod. It is very good, and I played it for weeks.
This all happened last summer, right after I shipped a knot of projects for both my dayjob and for IFTF that had consumed nearly my attention for several months. I needed a vacation, and Subnautica gave me a seaside holiday really unlike anything I’d ever experienced in its medium. Alas, holidays have to end sometime, and after around 200 hours of play I felt it time to return home — making a cliffhanger out of my poor aquanaut, who we last saw plodding a thermally shielded mech suit through a vast undersea volcanic system, searching for a rumored cave network. Continuing from this point would mean sinking many more hours into building a scanning-base rated for the proper crush depth, and I love that I know that, and I just can’t. I knew that I had eaten my fill of this wonderful game, and had reached the extent of my appetite.
We do sometimes return to vacation spots we treasure. Maybe the time will come when I cannot resist blocking out a couple more weeks to climb back into my lead-lined wetsuit and see how much deeper Subnautica goes. But until then — and even if I never do — my time on Planet 4546B will always be some of the very finest I’ve ever spent holding a game controller.
(For further reading, see also Matt Weise’s review of the game from a narrative perspective.)
This article was also posted to the “games” section of Indieweb.xyz.
According to Mainer, the University of Maine College Republicans has lost its status as an active student group — and thus also lost its eligibility to receive university resources — after professor Amy Fried abruptly ended her role as its faculty advisor, with no clear successor. This came in response to UMCR’s invitation to the authoritarian agitator Michelle Malkin to speak on-campus, as well as to the group’s ongoing use of social media to embrace a white-nationalist, anti-immigrant stance.
As one who wrote a public demand two months ago that UMCR have its platform withdrawn, I applaud Fried’s decision. I had aimed my appeal at the university’s leadership, but I find myself much more satisfied with this outcome than I would have had UMaine declared UMCR unwelcome by fiat. Instead, the group’s mandatory adult supervisor exercised her right to end her voluntary connection with with it, and in so doing cut the university’s official ties with it as well.
I do not imagine that this decision brought Fried any joy; it must have felt like a professional failure, to some degree. I have to assume that her action came at the end of an unsuccessful string of attempts to advise UMCR away from complete contempt for pluralistic democracy. But the group clearly chose to let president Trump — with his coterie of always-online, conspiracy-minded boosters — to act as UMCR’s one true advisor. I imagine that her decision to finally cut them loose must have hurt, a very small-scale echo of the way that impeaching a president hurts. In both cases, a sign that something has gone terribly wrong, and that a political body — be it a small state university or a super-powered nation — must injure itself in an attempt to right things.
I suppose, then, that I don’t applaud Fried’s decision so much as I approve of it, with a grim nod.
Nothing like the look on Nancy Pelosi's face when she tries to prevent Democrats from erupting into applause as Trump is impeached#ImpeachmentDay #ImpeachmentVote #Impeachmas pic.twitter.com/Vesy2VT89C— Lindy Li (@lindyli) December 19, 2019
I have published a now page at https://jmac.org/now. This implements Derek Sivers’s now-page manifesto at nownownow.com, and joins the many people who have published now pages of their own.
A now page, the idea goes, answers the question “So, what have you been up to lately?” It means to bridge the gap between a home page’s “Here is my whole life”, and the “Here is the sandwich I started eating five minutes ago” of a social-media feed.
As Sivers puts it:
Think of what you’d tell a friend you hadn’t seen in a year.
Like, “Still living in Dallas, though considering moving to Austin. Working at ABC. Really getting into cycling. The kids are age 3 and 6. I’m reading a lot of Pema Chödrön, and listening to a lot of jazz piano especially Brad Mehldau. I’ve stopped taking on web design clients, since I’d rather keep improving my back-end database work.”
That’s what a now page is for. You can’t get that big picture from any other outlets I’m aware of.
I first heard of this many months ago via the IndieWeb community, and the notion to knit one together myself bit me while drinking a hot cider last night. I spent a couple hours making it this morning.
It’s not the prettiest thing (especially compared to some of the very creative now pages linked from nownownow.com), but it’ll do for a start. For now, I will constrain its content only to activities and other concerns “on my desk”, versus those on my to-do list.
Aside from inevitable first-draft tweaking, I intend to update the page every, I don’t know, two to four months? If it turns into “never” I’ll shrug and delete it, but for now I do like the idea, and hope that it becomes another tiny source of both fun and utility in the open-web spirit.
This article was also posted to the “indieweb” section of Indieweb.xyz.
After waking up in New York City for the first time as a resident, and before sunrise, I stepped out for a coffee and promptly locked myself out of my apartment. But I had my wallet, my phone, and a warm coat, so took the opportunity to do a little exploring, killing time until my wife (a sound sleeper) woke up enough to answer my texts. I soon found myself strolling through beautiful Riverside Park, running down much of Manhattan’s western edge. Presently, early-bird joggers and dog-walkers made their appearance, but I still had a couple of hours to go, and my phone’s battery was too drained to let me just sit and scroll around the internet.
So, I did something I hadn’t done in a long long time: I greeted a street vendor who had just set up for the morning, and I bought a newspaper, on paper. And because I didn’t want to think about it, I went for the familiar, picking up the Sunday New York Times for six dollars.
Returning to a park bench, I pulled out the Metropolitan section with chilly fingers (I had not brought my gloves, alas) and proceeded to impress myself with my muscle-memory for these things, from my days as a journalism student and regular newspaper reader. You don’t just hold the entire newspaper open in front of your face, like someone in a cartoon, you know. Instead, you locate the page you want, then fold its section twice into a tidy little rectangle, comfortable and light enough to hold in one hand. You flip and unfold and re-fold the thing as needed while you navigate around, which serves to provide a nice sense of progress through the paper.
Beyond my pleasure of the newspaper as a fidget-toy, I read some good stuff, there in the local-news section on my first morning in the city. I read a feature about the entrenched political power held by New York City’s real estate industry, and how it found itself with its first credible threats in a generation by the ascent of the progressive left, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as its emblematic head. I also read about the city’s attempts to make lemonade out of a recent spate of store closures along its famous Fifth Avenue retail district by hiring artists to create whimsical holiday displays in otherwise abandoned shop windows. The article noted how these displays would not advertise any particular store or brand, something quite unusual in Fifth Avenue history.
Happily, my wife returned my texts just as I polished off that section, so — humming with pleasure at experiencing these two unexpected deep dives into New York’s cultural firmament — I lugged the rest of the thick paper home and ended up dipping into it all week. Every morning saw me in our new living room, sitting by the big ninth-floor window. The cats, also adjusting to New York life, lounged on the couch alongside me, watching flocks of pigeons in amazement as I flipped and folded my way through another section.
And I have had such a nice time of it that I became a Times subscriber by mid-week. This despite my past disagreements with the newspaper, canceling a long-held digital subscription after Trump’s election in favor of the Washington Post. This subscription does not represent a change of mind, in fact! Pointedly, I did not re-subscribe to the paper’s digital edition, nor to its daily edition: I subscribed to its weekend issues only, on paper, delivered to my physical address. Each of these two aspects — the non-daily schedule, and the ink-on-print format — carries a specific motivation whose discovery on that Riverside Park bench drove me to forgive the Times to this degree.
In the paper’s feature-focused weekend edition we find longer biographies, well-researched investigations, many-sourced essays, and other articles that examine their subjects in a much more slow-cooked detail than the front pages’ news stories. By choosing to read only these deeper, slower articles, I implement the advice laid out by Jay Springett in “Your Attention is Sovereign”, a zine that I came across earlier this year. It advocates various measures of social-media hygiene similar to those that I myself have long advocated, but to these adds a stance against the consumption of news — or against its unmindful consumption, anyway.
Spurred by Springett’s writing, I ask myself: Does continuously choking down “breaking news”, to the point that taking my eyes away from the screen makes me feel a withdrawal pang — does that really improve my life? Would dialing down to a more relaxed approach leave me so less informed that I would somehow become unprepared for life, or would it instead remove a source of ever-present stress and anxiety, leaving a space that I could re-fill with slower-digested, healthier information?
These questions have stuck in my mind in the months since I first read the zine. My encounter in the park with the Sunday Times — which included the discovery, thanks to an ad insert, that one can indeed subscribe to only the feature-heavy weekend paper — brought Springett’s challenge to mind immediately, and set my course to try this out for myself. While reading the Sunday Times (and its many folded-in goodies, like the glossier New York Times Magazine, the book-review booklet, and so on), I soak in excellent writing about current topics without subjecting myself to “the news” — and by interfacing through a physical, printed artifact, with all the flipping and the folding, I cannot so easy alt-tab away into informational junk-food distractions.
I received my first subscribed issue today on my doorstep (literal paper! literal doorstep!), unpeeled the Saturday-news outer layer protecting the Sunday stuff I craved, and pitched it into the bin. (I did glance at its headlines, saw the same shrieking moans my Twitter timeline had adequately covered over the last twelve hours, and thought upon it no more.) I proceeded to enjoy the Real Estate section, the Travel section, Arts & Leisure, and the Metropolitan pages once again.
I feel hopeful that more than mere novelty drives my pleasure at reading the paper this way. Already, I feel so refreshed at browsing articles in two dimensions rather than the linear format that the Washington Post takes on my phone screen, where on each and every visit I must dig through layers of shameful, soul-deadening news headlines and photos to see what else the paper offers that day. By the time I arrive at the features, even if only seconds later, I often feel so stressed and discouraged that I lack the will to read anything deeper than my Twitter stream.
I will, in fact, continue to read the news on my phone. It has its purpose. But I do hope that by also getting my fingers inky every day, by taking the time to give my eyes and my mind more degrees of freedom to explore and discover than a digital subscription can truly offer, I can stay current and engaged without subjecting myself to the high-tension environment of the front page, the unfiltered murk at the top of every news-stream.
This Thanksgiving weekend contains the day I move away from Providence — the southern tip of the Greater Boston Area, as reckoned by its commuter-rail map — and I head south. This brings to an end 19 contiguous years of residency around Boston, and 28 years in New England if we count my preceding time in Maine. Maybe I’ll return some day; Boston, city of my birth, exerts a strong pull, a call I have already answered once. But starting next week and for the foreseeable future thereafter, I shall begin a new life as a New Yorker.
I entered Boston in 2000 as a neophyte, a kid with a couple years of self-taught programming experience and a youthful thirst to keep learning new technologies, eager to begin my new job at a world-renowned publishing house of quirky technical books. I leave it feeling full, ready to wrap up my two decades as a software engineer for hire, and refocus my professional attention on something else. I still love technology, but in a more mellow and measured way; I know which stable and open technologies sustain my long-term creative needs the best, and I no longer feel driven to seek out and sample every spicy new flavor as it appears.
I didn’t only write code, of course. During this Bostonian span I have served, in at least a semi-pro regard, as a technical-book author, a radio-play actor, a startup founder, a TV producer, a monologist, a game designer, a teacher, a podcaster, an arts-festival organizer, a disability advocate, and a nonprofit leader. As a software-maker, I built all the projects that I link to from my homepage, and for my supper I co-created a ferry company’s reservation system and helped maintain an international publisher’s ebook business. My best work has come only in the last five years, during my life in Rhode Island, away from the city proper. I have attained an undeniable mastery of craft, and one that I plan to continue drawing upon even as I attempt to cast my talent and experience in new directions.
None of this would have happened without the amazing community of friends that I found in Boston from almost the moment of my arrival, the closest of whom are my true chosen family. I came to Boston as a super-fan of Looney Labs’s oddball and (at the time) obscure tabletop games, and I wasted no time to ask on a mailing list, in the autumn of 2000, if any other fans lived nearby. Some folks I met this way remain my closest friends, and nearly all the friends I have made since — including the friend I ended up marrying — came through the network than began with that email. From these friendships, too, came all the social and professional organizations I would subsequently play a role in. If I have accomplished anything interesting, then I credit my Boston friends for making it possible.
This community includes friends from my past life in Maine who humbled me by following my trail to become Bostonians themselves — though often briefly, en route to even greater things elsewhere in the country. I imagine that I borrow some of that residual travel-energy as I bob my way a little further down the coast this weekend. To my great fortune, I already know people waiting for me in New York, including quite a few former neighbors from Boston. Even as I feel sad that my life in New England comes to a close, for now, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the friends and family who in a very real sense I’m not moving any further away from, not one inch.
I enjoyed describing the earliest Nexus stories in my last post, and my month-long move to New York has meanwhile remained in-progress: I’ve accomplished little aside from more packing, filling out more rental forms, and reading more comics in my downtime. So here’s thoughts on three more of the many comics I’ve been into lately. (I read all these via Comixology, and I bet you can find one or more of them at your local public library too.)
Paru Itagaki’s manga Beastars delivers a Japanese high-school melodrama in a world like Zootopia’s, presenting all characters as different anthropomorphic animals, and allowing their often-conflicting beastly attributes to drive the story.
The protagonist, a lanky and moody gray wolf boy named Legoshi — named, according to the book’s end-notes, after Bela Lugosi — deals with foils such as the self-destructive prima donna who runs the school drama club, and the girl with an unseemly level of sexual agency who won’t leave him alone. Both of them happen to belong to edible species, leading in turn to oh such pained internal struggles.
Furthermore, we get to know Legoshi only after an anonymous but distinctly wolf-shaped lurker opens up the very first issue by killing and eating a student. This book takes a little bit of run-up to find its real pacing, but once it gets there it’s pretty great.
I’ve read the first two volumes available in Comixology, with a third one appearing even as I wrote this post. I have just now learned that the Japanese edition of Beastars has reached 15 thick volumes in less than three years and continues to grow, demonstrating how I have no idea how manga is made, compared to western comics. It already has an animated adaptation, too, one slated to arrive on American Netflix in 2020. I can’t predict how far into this particular rabbit-hole I will drop, but I have enjoyed it so far.
Notably, with Beastars Itagaki becomes one of the only female comics creators found on my bookshelf. Not knowing anything about the comic when I picked it up on a friend’s recommendation, I was delighted to learn this, and then humbled to realize the deficit that this has highlighted in my own reading habits.
Case in point: while I also like Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit, I could never generally recommend it. It is a sullen teenager’s notebook doodles turned into a thousand-page epic. On the surface, it follows the adventures of a gore-covered mutant with an unprintable name who rapes and murders his way through a hell dimension populated only by other rapist-murderers all trying to claw their way out. At the level of its (ripped-out, pulsating) guts, I read it as a body-horror comic fueled by a certain kind of confused self-loathing particular to adolescent boys.
More specifically, I see Prison Pit as the lurid imaginings of an angry teen circa 1986 who has been grounded without TV for mouthing off at his mother, and so sits in his room blasting heavy metal and grinding out page after page of crude revenge fantasies. The casually homophobic language and gynophobic attitudes merely flavor the comic’s real mood, an infinite fear and loathing that puberty can bring to the owner of a changing body with its own agendas. In the world of Prison Pit, girls are unintelligible monsters, other boys are swollen and threatening enemies, and their ejaculate is a ubiquitous substance of unknown purpose that powers various terror-weapons.
I date these fantasies to 1986 because I fear how the same boy in 2019 could so easily get online and become radicalized in short order by white supremacist incels. But I like the book anyway because it picks its direction and consummates it so completely. It’s something like a comic-book adaptation of the video game Doom, were such a thing done correctly, giving every speaking character the voice and attitude of the same world-and-self-hating 14-year-old boys that composed the game’s target audience. The eternally acne-scarred adolescent within me very much enjoys this really quite terrible comic book.
Prison Pit, too, has received an animated adaptation.
Finally, I read and loved the four-chapter Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, written by Grant Morrison and pencilled by Frank Quitely. I had actually purchased the first three parts as individual comics during their initial publication in 1996, but missed my chance to buy the last issue in the confusion of my first summer after graduating college. This comic is good, and meshes eerily well with some coincidental reading about contemporary cosmology that I’ve lately dipped into.
Flex Mentallo, starring one member of Morrison’s Doom Patrol crew from a few years prior, hit the stands about two years into his six-year-long masterwork The Invisibles. It shares many of the longer work’s themes of reality as an infinitely self-reflective superstructure, encouraging the reader to adopt a cosmic perspective in order to achieve transformative enlightenment. And it does this in a story about an overt Charles Atlas parody aware of (and embracing) his role as a comic-book character, with the whole thing narrated by a burnout rock star as he rides out an acid trip.
And when I put it that way, it sure sounds rather insufferable, doesn’t it? Certainly some of my enjoyment came from personal nostalgia, but I feel quite sure that this book — drawn exquisitely by Quitely, one of my very favorite comics artists — has more going for it than that. Short and self-contained, it makes for a far tidier read than the sprawling Invisibles, and I found its themes as least as meaningful and relevant today than I did nearly a quarter-century ago. I spoil nothing to say that it ends with a super-heroic apocalypse a million times more satisfying than anything that might have appeared in movie theaters recently. This is a book that asks you to look up. What joy I found, reading this lost ending at last.
This article was also posted to the “comics” section of Indieweb.xyz.
This post represents the latter end of the widest gap between Fogknife posts since I started this blog years ago. I have an interesting excuse, at least, as I noted earlier this month: my family is moving to New York City, letting my wife begin her job as Columbia University’s new systems librarian. I began this blog as a reaction, in part, to my first lonely winter in coastal Rhode Island, and I cannot say how my return to a richly dense urban environment will affect the frequency of my updates here. I do hope that I can resume the once-a-week-ish pace that I’ve managed to maintain all these years.
More generally, once December arrives and our temporary full-time job of moving is complete — the most intense and informationally complex relocation we’ve ever experienced, soaking up all our available attention this month — I’ll need to puzzle out how else to spend my time. Allowing the aura of Amy’s new job to translate into career slate-cleaning for myself, I may very well resume my search for technical writing opportunities, or I might end up in some other role informed by but distinct from my decades as a work-for-hire software engineer.
But until then, I take refuge from this ordeal with comics. It happens that I picked up an eleven-inch iPad Pro a few months ago, just before our trip to Paris, and have been surprised at my complete delight with this little slab. It is the third iPad I’ve owned, but the first whose use has brought me real joy. Among the purposes the flat and feather-light machine serves better than any digital device I’ve owned previously is its use as a comics e-reader. I had purchased a healthy shelf of weird comics via Comixology years ago, and for the first time I have been able to read them a page at a time, without feeling obliged to crawl through it zoomed-in, panel-by-panel.
With half my days lately in trains or planes or hotel rooms, I find the embrace of comics very welcoming. Of course I have continued to read as much print as ever, but the comics’ visually assisted carry-along offers such a calming balm in an increasingly stressful world. And so I re-read All Star Superman and King City over my Paris trip, then caught up with Jim Woodring’s Frank saga, and came into autumn — and the news from Columbia — hungry for more.
This past week, while passing the time in a Upper West Side hotel in between apartment viewings, I made a sour face and accepted Comixology’s insistent invitation to join its “Comixology Unlimited” program. It feels like a deal with the devil, and I enter into the contract aware of — and, to some degree, sharing — all my librarian friends’ great suspicion that the Comixology and Kindle Unlimited programs represent Amazon quietly seeking to supplant public libraries as yet another part of Jeff Bezos’s Great Work, his ultimate plan to convert as much of earth as necessary into a discardable staging platform for the sole purpose of launching his genetic material into interstellar space.
But, look: as soon as I agreed to that so easy one free trial month of Unlimited, an effectively infinite amount of back issues opened up to my immediate access, quite literally at my fingertips. I need only think of a title I’ve long since meant to read, and a smiling genie delivers it, without even the already-gossamer-thin friction of charging a server-stored credit card number. After practicing a modicum due diligence by setting a calendar alarm to (maybe) cancel the service before the first six-dollar monthly fee kicks in, I opened my arms and embraced the flood of so many beautiful old comic books.
And the most notable comic book that has sustained me during the utterly absurd New York rental-application process is Nexus Omnibus Volume 1, collecting the very first commercially published adventures of Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s titular superhero from the early 1980s.
I came to this book with a present but unusual relationship with its characters and stories. A thoroughly independent comic book, Nexus has come in and out of print under various publishing imprints over the decades. One of its many revivals in the early 1990s coincided with my own personal awakening to the internet and the sargasso sea of various commercial computer networks that existed alongside it for a time. In those days I hung around the comics forums on GEnie in particular, and its denizens all became very hyped about the impending Nexus relaunch. I remember, in particular, one of the regulars expressing eagerness to hear my own opinion as a newcomer to the series. I don’t recall how I must have replied to that, but I did enjoy the series enough to continue buying and reading it for most of its 90s run.
Reading these earliest issues, I tried to put myself in the mind of a comics-reader in 1981, about to dig into something so interesting that they’d rave about it on the primordial internet ten years later. Nexus, at its outset, seems focused on the question What if Superman had to straight-up kill every bad guy he fought? It only strikes me now, but to the best of my knowledge Nexus has no arch-enemies in the traditional superhero sense, due to his habit of vaporizing every villain he encounters within minutes of meeting them, no matter how colorful their own costume. (Exceptions exist, such as those who commit suicide as soon as he shows up.) Nexus kills out of self-defense, following compulsions given to him by an insane alien intelligence obsessed with terminally punishing cherrypicked injustices within a Star Wars-style fast-and-loose intergalactic setting. Nexus gets to retain godlike power so long as he obeys this compulsion. If it resists it — and he always resists it — his brain starts to break.
And so Nexus always labors through a haze of self-loathing, relying on the emotional support of the friends and chosen family that fate has thrown into his orbit. He tries to put a positive angle on his gruesome vocation by leading an ever-growing lunar community of all the refugees that he displaces by suddenly murdering the various autocrats and tormentors they had depended upon. But, crucially, he’s kind of terrible at it. He doesn’t even want to do it, but nobody else can do it better — or maybe he’s just shitty at project management, such that every time he tries to delegate responsibility or even take a simple vacation, all his projects start coming apart as would-be subordinates immediately start pulling at their individual and conflicting agendas in his absence.
These social and political obstacles, resistant to his usual solution of just hurling a sizzling fusion-ray at the problem, end up the ones that dog Nexus the most — the only problems that stick with him in between issues. All of which is to say that I have a lot to discover and sympathize with, reading these old comics in middle age, that I did not see as a teenager.
I want to describe two panels from the very first issue of Nexus, back when it was still black-and-white (and which, happily, this Omnibus edition makes no attempt to “improve” with colorization decades later). They do so much to establish the subtlety of Baron’s writing, as rendered with Rude’s art. (And these panels’ clean reproduction here exemplifies another benefit of reading comics on a tablet: I’ve never before enjoyed such an easy process of screen-shotting a page, cropping the relevant panels, and exporting it as an image for sharing with friends or for use as a blog-post illustration.)
The first is the one at the top of this post, the first depiction of Nexus storming out of his sanctum to hop into his two-seater spaceship so he can go fry the next poor asshole whose name got branded onto his brain. The refugee-citizens on his moon base salute him with raised fists, and he barely acknowledges them, because (we’ll come to learn, though nobody says it out loud) he kind of resents their presence. But here they all are anyway.
The other panel is much smaller than the first, occupying just a fraction of its page. Seen several pages later, it depicts Nexus making his exit from his hit-job, having just iced a long-retired dictator at a fancy ball. He feels especially rotten because he dispatched him in front of his terrified wife as she futilely shielded him with her own body, but then couldn’t summon the energy to answer her wailed demands to know why. He just slouches away, mumbling a bitterly meaningless reply.
Despite this being just a few pages into the first issue, we know that Nexus is already famous in this world; the dictator knows exactly what will happen to him, and — as this panel shows — civilians with the questionable fortune of bearing witness to Nexus’s violence salute him in stunned silence, just like his refugee-worshippers do, even when standing in a rubble-strewn aftermath of his just having murdered their boss. So much is said in this tiny panel, entirely visually, with the minuscule detail that two of the three saluting people that Nexus isn’t even looking at are dressed like service staff.
I can’t but think that a filmed adaptation of this scene would really linger on those saluting waiters — and the one saluting party guest in fancy dress, too! — the music swelling as they squared their jaws and dropped their serving platters and raised their fists high, in the foreground. Nexus, striding away, would pause in mid-step, would half-turn his head, considering… and then resume his walk. It’d be a solid scene, really sending the message home. But that’s not what this comic is about. The comic book wants you to know those people are there, and it wants you to see the way their salutes mirror those of the earlier refugees, and to think about everything thus implied. And yet it keeps them tiny and backgrounded, the comic book itself brushing them aside precisely like its title character does. Utterly frustrating. I love it.
This is just one tiny bit of a single facet of the very first story from a still-ongoing comics series, well before the art and the writing started to really hit their stride. I said “oh my god” out loud when I encountered that second panel, how much meaning and narrative payoff it packed into such a small space — and how it did it so casually, not even centered on its page. It shows as well as anything how the best comics are pretty great and I will consider making vile agreements with dark forces if that means I can read more of them.
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