The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Jan 20 15 2020

Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3

I’ve been working on some ideas about computation and character recently, and that’s led me to consider the role of stock characters in literary machines.

Why do we see the same characters all the time? Part, of course, is laziness. Part, I suspect, is that people who are willing to study games and other literary machines, or who choose to work in its dysfunctional industry, simply love those old familiar characters. Part, too, is that two of the most risk-averse people out there are

  1. a pre-teen boy risking his savings on a game, and
  2. a marketing executive whose future depends on convincing that boy to spend money now now now.

The upshot is that we see lots of warriors with a tragic backstory, lots of noble elves, lots of funny dwarfs, lots of tanks. We instantly recognize the characters wherever we meet them:

She was a Tree Elf named Riyah. He was a Water Elf, Tildor. They came from different realms, but for the past three nights they’d qwested, traded and killed together. They had hunted basilisks, slain dragons, and retrieved two diamonds, which Riyah carried in the bag hanging at her waist. She was an amazing marksman, and beautiful, even for an Elf, her eyes huge, her body supple. Her breasts swayed as she ran, her quiver bouncing behind her. — Allegra Goodman, The Chalk Artist

You know this is a game, and you know what sort of game it is, and you know its designers played too much Final Fantasy IV and Tomb Raider and have spent way too much time with obscure Japanese media.

But there’s more, too. Back when I started going to the American Repertory, its founding artistic director Robert Brustein was making an extended and important argument in support of theater as spectacle, in contrast to the Arthur Miller school of theater as a window into the neighbors’ living room. Part of that argument was the virtue of commedia dell'arte and its stock cast: because they are exaggerated and familiar, we have time to get to the point before everyone has to go home. And, because people miss stuff and sometimes misunderstand, characters need to be able to stand up to some degree of abuse.

This is even truer where the character is a joint creation of the author and the player.

Still, what is going on in Borderlands? It’s a AAA shooter franchise. I’ve always enjoyed it. There’s a new installment out now.

But what’s it about? Borderlands inhabits a reimagined American South — not the dreamland that has Gone With The Wind but the post-industrial wreckage left behind. (There’s no border in Borderlands: it has no Mexico and no Indian Territory.) Its people speak broad Kentucky with occasional mixtures of Arkansas; its major villains emulate “coastal” fashions like soul patches while its cannon-fodder look and speak just like the good guys. Everyone has a gun, just like in Texas. The women are either spectacularly sexy or spectacularly otherwise. There’s a good deal of talk about incest.

Is this an angry world? I’m not sure. It’s a lot of fun, but I do not understand what’s driving this.

Jan 20 14 2020

Soviet Daughter

by Julia Alekseyeva

A fascinating graphic novel about the young artist, growing up in the US, and her great-grandmother Lola, born in 1910 in Kiev. Intriguing and (to my limited knowledge) innovative use of watercolor in a graphic novel, with superb storytelling.

by Allegra Goodman

Because I’m toying with writing a set of lectures, and perhaps a small book, about the intersection of computation and character, I thought it might be time to revisit this wonderful study of a group of young people obsessed with art. One teaches poetry, one draws, one plays video games. One markets videogames. The twin sister of the videogame player is not interested in art and becomes increasingly embodied through a year when everyone else plunges into the depths of artistic creation.

Jan 20 11 2020

Normal People

by Sally Rooney

The strange, haunting, and very sad story of a young couple. Strongly reminiscent of On Chesil Beach, though the problem here isn’t sex. Or, maybe, it is.

Jan 20 10 2020

Parachute

Parachute

A brilliant small restaurant that explores the intersections of the Korean-American kitchen. Exquisite tempura rolls, superb stuffed mussels, Spanish mackerel that was at once smoky and charred and yet moist and succulent, and then a dish wonderfully rich beef. We lingered and loved it.

Parachute
Jan 20 9 2020

Magic For Liars

by Sarah Gailey

Ivy Gamble is a middle-aged private investigator, specializing in stakeouts. She views herself as a fuckup, a failure: her big sister was a talented mage, but Ivy has no magic. She’s the sister who never got to go to Hogwarts. Then, a mysterious death takes place at the prestigious magic academy where her big sister now teaches Magic Theory, and the administration calls in Ivy to investigate.

Gailey’s emphasis here is that the kids who attend a magic school would be much like kids at other prep schools. They experience intense rivalries and epic disasters over trivial stakes. The kids have known each other for years — for most of their lives — and so the staff has power but knows nothing of what’s at stake. Ivy has plenty of unresolved teen angst and so has plenty of sympathy with the kids. Indeed, Ivy has so much teen angst that this might have worked better if Ivy had been a teenager.

Carlos Gaytan’s new venture, after closing the still-lamented (and Michlin-starred) Mexique, again brings the control and technique of French tradition to the flavors of the Mexican kitchen. Tzuco’s ceviche tatamado is probably the best composed salad I’ve ever had, a brilliant dish that is fresh, and crunchy, and rich, and tart at once. The trucha in a smoked corn husk might have benefited from seasoning in a higher key, but that might have obscured the delicate trout. I sat at the counter and learned a lot from the energetic and dedicated crew; even in a place that’s offering a steak option for people who’ve been dragged here unwillingly, they take exceptional care of those steaks (and they look really, really great).

Tzuco

Also: a really superb plate of braised short ribs, marinated in piquant chili and simply lovely.

Avli revisits the Midwest Greektown Resturant, mixing actual Greek cooking and thoughtful recreation of conventional favorites like saganaki and taramasalata. Superb braises and ideal comfort food.

by Rachel Aaron

Opal Yong-ae is scraping by as a cleaner — a one-woman cleanout and salvage crew, bidding on rights to the contents of abandoned rentals and foreclosures. It’s a precarious living, not least because she works in Detroit, a very magic city in a world where, in the 21st century, the magic returned with a vengeance. Opal is doing this work to repay her college loans; her misfortune is that her loans are owed not to a bank but to her father, and her father is the Dragon Of Korea. In short, she’s got some family issues.

Good world-building, remarkable minor characters and entertaining (if sometimes predictable) plotting make this electronic-only debut of a new series a virtual page-turner.

Jan 20 2 2020

Constitution

by Nick Webb

An aging, insubordinate commander takes charge of an aged battlewagon that shortly is to be turned into a museum. Suddenly, interstellar war breaks out, and the evil aliens have an answer for everything except our old ship’s outmoded technology. A brave crew, a drunken but loyal executive officer, a deadly illness and a talented political commissar round out the central cast.

There’s something to like here, but the plot is standard American military SF and the cast, if not plagiarized, takes fan fiction to an extreme. The alcoholic executive officer is particularly jarring because our hero-commander cannot afford to have a bad XO and has had a decade to find his old friend a comfortable retirement.

Why, moreover, are we rehashing the arguments of 1942 about the survivability of battleships vs. the reach of aircraft carriers? That’s been settled for nearly three generations, now. Rickover, Spruance, Nimitz, Halsey: they’re all sleeping on the hill.

by Erin Morgenstern

A quick rereading in the wake of Morgenstern’s new (and widely misunderstood) The Starless Sea. This is a wonderful book, a book almost entirely concerned with the sense of wonder. Terrific writing that seldom calls attention to itself, yet with supple and dexterous shifts of time and point of view. Critics wanted the next book to be just like this one, but Night Circus stands alone and it’s sufficient to its task.

Nov 19 11 2019

Aftermath

This was, for the city of Malden where I live, a disastrous local election: not because the outcome was bad — it wasn’t— but because it may well have poisoned Malden politics for years to come.

As the election approached, the dishonesty and unscrupulousness of the mayoral challenger’s campaign increased. Bigotry came into the open, with Facebook allegations that a city council candidate wasn’t a citizen and suggestions that he be reported to the FBI. That gem came from the President of Malden Youth Soccer, and as a result he is the former President of Malden Youth Soccer. Yet nothing at all happened to those who started the smear, or those who cheered him on. They ran exactly the same play two years ago against another Muslim candidate, and again there were no consequences.

There were no consequences when a candidate used Facebook to assert without evidence that a private citizen was mentally ill, just as in an earlier election there were no consequences when a sitting Councillor denounced a Democratic convention delegate for her Wiccan beliefs. There were no consequences for the candidate who praised the white supremacists of Charlottesville, and now he’s ensconced on the School Committee.

We say, Malden is a welcoming city, but we condone bigotry. Bigotry works.

Infamously, after his complaints about a proposed addiction recovery center were roundly denounced by City Councillors, the challenger withdrew his opposition only to revive it just before the election. Even more infamously, illegal campaign literature trying to tie the incumbent Mayor to abortion was cravenly distributed in church parking lots during Mass. Campaign operative shrugged, saying “it might have been anybody!”

A central mystery of this campaign was, how did the challenger expect to govern if he were elected? Facing a City Council that had already repudiated a central argument of his campaign, facing the natural outrage of those whose religion had been smeared, what possibly could be accomplished?

Now we will hear calls for civility and insistence that we all just get along. The left will meekly comply while the right polishes its daggers and perfects its methods. We will be told to “let it go” and we will, while they continue to use local Facebook pages to spread anti-Semitism, to smear their Muslim neighbors, and to slyly warn that new housing will bring more Asians to Malden. It is, of course, proverbial in these circles that adding more Asians to Malden would be a very bad thing.

Great damage has been done — quiet damage, damage that we can pretend to ignore for a few years, but damage nonetheless. If we cannot stand up to lies and to bigotry, we cannot be trusted. Without that trust, we are not a community.

by Leigh Bardugo

A superb urban fantasy. Alex Stern — her name is “Galaxy” but she goes by Alex — is a troubled teen who has been mixed up with drug dealing and was found overdosed at the scene of a ghastly drug murder. Her core problem: she sees ghosts, and sometimes they see her. Word gets out, and she gets a scholarship to Yale on the strength of it.

Why? Because magic is real. The Yale secret societies perform magic to ensure the wealth and success of alumni. There’s an additional, even more-secret society that regulates all the others, and they want Alex and her unique talent.

Alex has a chip on her shoulder. She’s a poor kid, and the ghosts have driven her nearly ’round the bend. She doesn’t like the sort of kids who wind up in secret societies. She’s way over her head at Yale, and her patrol duties leave her almost no time to study properly. She’s not the sort of girl who will accept this state of affairs. A terrific book.

Nov 19 2 2019

Municipal

The Paranoid Style Of Malden Politics

The sour grapes of Maldens city elections are a bitter harvest, and the voters’ teeth are set on edge.

One Malden homeowner has found her campaign signs torn down, not once but day after day. Last night, someone broke up a campaign meeting for Mayor Gary Christenson by discharging a fire extinguisher and pulling a fire alarm before fleeing the scene. It’s not just Malden — someone set up a network of fake sites for a Somerville newspaper in order to spread fake campaign rumors — but Malden is especially bad. It’s not just this year — Malden’s 2014 State Representative primary was similarly bitter — but this year is even worse.

The constantly-iterated cry of right-wing Malden is: all our problems stem from outsiders. A former city councillor complains on Facebook about “stack and pack” apartment buildings, because those apartments might attract people who are Not From Here. Many election-season controversies have been variations on this this call to keep outsiders away, to block new housing in which they might live, to tear down the bike lanes they might use, to get Lime Bikes off our lawn. Systematic efforts to avoid renting to immigrants just cost one Malden apartment complex a fine of more than half a million dollars; that fine is scarcely mentioned by the campaigns, but social media attacks on outsiders appear daily. Muslim and Wiccan progressives are routinely ridiculed for their faith by local wingnuts.

Richard Hofstader’s famous essay on “The Paranoid Style In American Politics” begins: “Althoug American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds.” That anger always seems to come from the right, and today those winds still blow from those sorry, sordid regions.

And, goodness, these guys are angry.

Throughout the campaign, challenger John Matheson has promoted a series of screeds, alleging that Mayor Gary Christensen hired campaign consultants who live in neighboring suburbs, or that he blocked prosecution of a former city employee, that the development of the former Masonic building was in some way corrupt, or that the Mayor promoted an addiction treatment center that might attract some patients who don’t own property in Malden. All these claims were easily refuted. Almost all associate the Mayor with people who are Not From Here. Throughout, Mr. Matheson has claimed that Our Revolution is allied with the Mayor and that Our Revolution is Not From Here.

It’s not just Matheson. Joe Gray, a candidate for School Committee from Ward 6, campaigned for City Council two years ago in support of the Charlottesville “Unite The Right” rioters, the tiki-torch-bearing nazis who murdered Heather Heyer. Danyal Najmi, running for City Council in Ward 5, has been repeatedly required to assert his citizenship, presumably because his name isn’t sufficiently Irish. Much bitter debate has focused on the question of whether to turn Roosevelt Park near the Salemwood School into an astroturf field for organized athletics — perhaps serving neighboring private and charter schools; the earlier development of Howard Park led to a city park being (literally) locked away from use by its neighbors — mostly renters — and reserved for more affluent sports teams [3].

Right now, the Right owns the White House, the Senate, and the Governorship. They’ve largely stymied progressive causes in the State House. They often have a working majority in the City Council. Our city claims to be “welcoming” but it abjectly cooperates with ICE. The Malden right is doing just fine.

Nevertheless, the right is mad as hell. This campaign is nearly over, and with luck and hard work we may get through it. Are we doomed for Malden’s politics forever to be dominated by this strange parochial rage?

The cure is not forebearance or civility or waiting for things to calm down. They never do. The cure is certainly not appeasement. Our problem is vision: without a clear vision for the future of Malden, we drift from blue bags to parking to snow removal, mired in minutia and meaningless testimonials to every candidate’s wonderful character and superb children.

We cannot return to an imaginary past of Malden Minstrel Shows or a time when everybody knew your face and everyone knew their place. That fact is the ultimate source of Malden’s right-wing anger, and we need to counter that anger with intelligent vision backed up with ambitious plans.

I threw together a quick shrimp tempura last night. The store had a sale on some nice Florida shrimp, and I’ve doing scampi on the rare occasions I cook shrimp. It was time for a change.

Besides: I have a wok again, after a long hiatus. Tempura batter from Ratio, which might understate the necessary thickness. You want the consistency of Swedish pancake batter, not cream.

It was fairly easy and fairly good, and both will improve next time. Left the kitchen in a bit of a mess, but that wasn’t too hard to fix.

Served it in big bowls, on top of jasmine rice (left half) and garlic kale (right half), which looked nice and more bountiful than shrimp on a plate.