Klosterman’s Razor-Sharp Intellect

A brief review of Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?”.


There are a handful of albums that I wish I’d written: Meshuggah’s Catch Thirty-Three; The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; Tool’s Aenima; Cattle Decapitation’s The Anthropocene Extinction. I can find faults with each of these, but I just don’t give a shit to do that when the whole package is amazing. There are a handful of books/stories about which I have the same feeling: Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller trilogy (The third of which isn’t even written yet. I’m sure I’ll want to have written it when it releases.); Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question; Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching; and now Chuck Klosterman‘s But What If We’re Wrong?. So confident am I in this last that I’m beginning to write these words when I’m only two chapters into the book.

I am biased here, however. One of my own books begins with the dedication, “There is always the distinct possibility that I am wrong.” The opening lines of the other’s introduction is, “Look, I don’t hate you. I just think you’re wrong. We all are. Without even knowing it, we end up being mistaken a good chunk of the time.” So yeah, I’m drinking the juice in a big, fat growler.

The idea of Klosterman’s book is that humanity has very little ability to accurately predict the future, because we are bound by our own rationality to believe that the future will occur as a rational consequence of the conditions of the present. This ends up being way off the mark most of the time, but nobody seems to ever take that into account. It’s a flexible future, of course, but the idea that the past is also flexible, bent by the eyes of those gazing back from the present is a little, well, scary.

The written word has enabled us to more or less keep our thoughts intact forever. “Forever” being a period of time determined by the intervals between modifications made by people of the present to the words of the past. Even if the words don’t change, the interpretations and meanings definitely do.

And so we muddle through with our patchwork understanding of what the hell happened way back when. When someone as fun to read as Klosterman points this out, it’s damned entertaining. Definitely recommended.

Focus, Motherfucker.

What’s so great about all that demonic noise?

I was listening to Origin today, or as most of you know it, “horrible noise”. After years of this stuff, a person starts to wonder what on earth is enjoyable about the sound, but most people can’t stand it. There’s no accounting for taste, sure, but this is like people are wired to enjoy certain things.

However, I think I’ve figured out that this is what it takes to shut off my internal commentary, just for awhile. I don’t have voices in my head, but there’s plenty of dumb shit bouncing around in there all the time. When people are talking to me, when I’m talking to them, when I’m reading, while driving…it’s not that I’m not listening to you, it’s that I’m developing a 20-page explanation for what you just said that has nothing to do with reality or our roles in it. This is not a gift. Some people (people who are probably more disciplined than I am) use meditation to avoid self-distraction. Or meditation’s similarly spelled alternative, medication.

But tonight, Origin stopped the bouncing of the shit, and for that I’m always grateful.

Happy Perseids to you all.

Captivated by Prison Architect

A review of Introversion’s “Prison Architect” and your very own Stockholm Syndrome.

I am inexplicably loving Prison Architect. So now I’ll try to explicate that love anyway.

Prison Architect is a game about building, administrating, and maintaining a prison. I can’t think of a less engaging or desirable subject matter. It almost pains me to admit that I like it. Introversion Software is the developer, and they’ve done some really good work in the past on Darwinia and DEFCON. They just know how to make a good game, apparently. What’s even more strange is that not only to I enjoy playing it, but I also enjoy watching someone else play it. I’ve been following Yogscast Sips as he builds his filing cabinet for the unwanted people of whatever place PA calls home. A warning to the uninitiated: this is very low-brow, dark, crude humor and you’re either going to enjoy it or turn it off immediately.

What I love about the game is not what it says about our society, or how it makes me feel about putting someone on death row. Odd, because the game stirs emotion about both of those things. Its value is as a logistical simulation. Things need to be constructed and demolished, people need to be moved about, and materials need to come and go. There’s an extensive system for monitoring and supplying(or not) the needs of the prison population.

All of this practical juggling does sometimes make you forget that it’s a prison you’re building. DEFCON did this as well. A wonderful, enjoyable game about worldwide nuclear warfare that makes you forget about all the radioactive fallout until explosions and screams enter into the soundtrack. PA could feature just about any logistical activity, and as long as it did so with the same amount of soul, it would be a great game. It makes me forgive, just a little, the people who work for some morally ambiguous companies simply because they love the day-to-day activities of the job. I’m also considering taking up some work that, morally, I have some issues with, so I’m a big baby about this kind of thing right now.

Prison Architect mixes some very practical matters(How exactly do you feed all your prisoners reliably?) with some of the more pop-fiction elements of incarceration(There’s no fucking way that prisoners are able to make escape tunnels as frequently as they do in this game.) and creates a believable and fun world to play in. The graphics are simple, but detailed. The sound changes with zoom level. I could go on, but then you’d believe I was being paid to say all this crap.

I recommend the game especially to people who don’t think they’ll like it. Hell, buy it on Steam and return it if you don’t like it. I think they will accept pretty much any return request if you’ve played less than two hours or so, and two hours is about all it will take for you to either get hooked or repulsed.

Have fun!

Stick Around

What’s so great about living forever?

I’ve been reading, writing, and talking about sustainability more than usual. I’m sure the greenwashing of the term has contributed to my over-exposure. I want to put an elegant definition to it, but the best I can muster at this point is an acknowledgment that our civilization seems bent on creating everlasting things.

There are two extremes with all shades in between: there’s the belief that things can last forever and the belief that nothing does. When a civilization believes in the former it roots itself into place and hunkers down against all comers. It builds out of brick and concrete, in immobile and heavily armored styles designed to withstand any eventuality. It says, “I am here and I will turn this place into my home, come what may.” When the latter is the ruling philosophy, impermanence is celebrated as the means and the end. Dwellings are portable and possessions light. People understand that sometimes they’ll just need to move somewhere else. When things pass, it is the success of way of the world and not a failure of human defenses against the forces of disorder and decay. There is a sensitivity to the unique properties of place and time, along with a certain delicacy displayed in deference to those things already inhabiting our choice of settlement space. Is my bias showing yet?

I used homes as examples but the symptoms of our civilization’s belief in permanence are everywhere. We moderns love things that last. Sticking to your guns and showing incredible resistance to deviation from your chosen course are typically viewed as virtues. Our aqueducts and castles, pyramids and monuments stand as evidence to the underlying notion that surmounting eternity is an end in the minds of the civilized. Jobs are to be held for lifetimes. Commitments and promises must be kept even when the conditions under which they were made are no longer present and reality indicates that keeping them is foolish. Variance holds no quarter.

But it doesn’t work. There is nothing on this planet that is immune to the forces of variation. Show me something built to last forever and I’ll show you something on the slow slide to decrepitude. The very sturdiest structure always falls down, the best-built roof will leak, and the most prodigiously planned society is a hair’s-breadth from anarchy. It’s the way of this world.

So when people begin to talk “steady-state” or “equilibrium” in sustainability papers and seminars, I see something different from most of the presenters. Any system that’s designed to be self-stable and balanced is also automatically dependent upon some type of input to make and keep it that way. It’s impossible to find any system that doesn’t tend toward chaos at some point. Things that appear to have achieved equilibrium (our Sun, for instance) are simply changing at a rate that is so slow as to be nearly undetectable.

Since we can’t build to last forever and putting down deep roots always precedes the need to move, why not build with transience in mind? The tiny house movement is showing some awareness of this nomadic mentality through its use of trailers and semi-portable structures. It seems painfully obvious that the easier it is to adapt, the easier my life becomes when I’m eventually forced to. Preemptively adapting when change is imminent is just good sense and doesn’t require the clairvoyant abilities predicated by an approach that tries to defend against every possible attack. It’s going with the flow instead of trying to build a levee to control it. It’s moving to higher ground or aboard a houseboat instead of into a bunker.

Many natural building techniques recognize the importance of constructing something that will eventually return gracefully back to the earth. Cob structures dissolve back into soil, dwellings constructed of natural fibers compost quite readily when there are no longer any dwellers to occupy them, and even more durable wooden and stone structures leave a lighter footprint than modern concrete and steel construction. The approach taken by natural builders is often chosen by necessity, but it would be a mistake to ignore the philosophies of people who use it because it is a simple and elegant method to harmonize with their surroundings.

Rather than build where we want and force the structure to endure whatever stresses are there, these principles emphasize the importance of becoming intimately aware of our surroundings. We are encouraged to discover the interconnections among the forces at play in our corner of the world and to recognize that change is an inevitable force at any site. Learning to acknowledge and harness the forces of change to our benefit and to the benefit of the site is always a mark of intelligent planning. Fortitude and determination are not so valuable as flexibility and adaptation. Permanence and endurance are sacrificed for mobility and malleability. Such an approach in our modern civilized world is viewed as a weakness, a liability, or a failing of the individual’s ability to cope. The stigma attached to mobile homes is but one example of this. The scowling, snarled pronunciation of the word “millennial” by a recruiter, upon seeing that my resume has more than one previous job on it is another.

One tremendously heavy reason the civilized don’t go mobile is because the very notion of civilization depends on staying in one place, constructing a labyrinth of infrastructure and logistics chains, and then applying all the technology that can be moved with a steam shovel to the problem of fighting off change. Many of the “problems” our technology “solves” stem directly from the pursuit of technology as it is applied to permanence. It is our desire for permanence that ultimately ends up demanding that we remain permanent. Our insensitivity to place does eventually cost us more effort. Admitting a philosophy of variation at the societal level effectively kneecaps our current notions of progress and advancement by undermining those things which keep it afloat: technology and industry, both of which require fixing ourselves to the Earth in one place.

Such a fixation is a bottomless hole into which most human effort is thrown, endless toil fueled by our human desires and destined to be repeated. Sisyphus need not have so much competition.

The 10-Year Packet. Or Some Other Suitable Length of Time.

The value of something often suggested by people who know stuff about resumes.

If you’re in the market for a job, as many of us are, it helps to have all the information on hand to enter into whatever application needs filling out. I recently stopped procrastinating and made my own little master copy of all the jobs I’ve worked since I started working.

Included in this list are things like the job title, company, address and phone number, supervisor’s name, wage history, and a really good description of what I did there. I was teaching at a school that called this the “10-year packet”, but mine goes back farther than 10 years. As much of a pain in the ass as this sounds like, it’s nothing compared to having to fill out the same information over and over on different company websites. Now, I can just copy and paste from my master file. Dates of employment? No problem, because I took the time to figure all of that out and it’s in the master file. I even printed a hard copy just in case, and it’s backed up on a separate drive.

This seems really intuitive, but especially if you’ve had quite a few jobs over the years, it’s easy to forget something you’ve done. If filling out job applications makes you want to eat your own face, this makes the experience much less painful.

That is all.