Sep 182017
 

I.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was, from the very beginning, almost a parody of the traditional High Fantasy Epic. Most of the main characters were the distilled essence of very well-worn tropes. Arya was the feisty tomboy. Sansa was the dainty princess. Ned Stark was the Honorable Paladin.

Hell, Ned was such a pure archetype of the Honorable Paladin that I laughed out loud several times while reading Game of Thrones. If this was any other book I would have put it down, because I’m not 14 anymore and I’ve read more than enough Honorable Paladin High Fantasy stories. But Martin was also tired of those stories, so he wasn’t just writing another Honorable Paladin Saves The Kingdom story. He was lampooning them, by taking the old heroic archetype and throwing him into a more realistic world. Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him? When there isn’t all the conveniences and providences of a righteous author and romantic audience that creates a plot designed to showcase how great Honor is? If there was no High Fantasy narrative protecting him, how would he fare?”

And the answer was, he’d get his head lopped off before the book was 2/3rds over.

What would happen if the White Savior narrative was dropped into the real world? They’d find that destabilizing a region to save the downtrodden requires a lot of atrocities both along the way, and to hold on to power afterwards. The trope doesn’t survive contact with the complexities of actual power structures.

Somewhere along the way, it grew into more than just parody of old tropes. When a character made a mistake, they paid a steep price. The worst offenders died, and the survivors adapted. They became more nuanced and grey. Villains were shown to have deeper lives, sometimes making the best of a shitty world. The characters were complex because the world was merciless.

II.

The TV show has lost all sight of that. They’ve degenerated into the story that Martin was lampooning when he started out.

The first time this really became clear was when Jamie charged Daenerys. This was a great scene, probably the most memorable of this season. Two characters we both care for are drawn into combat, and only one of them will survive.

Except both of them survive. Without any consequence. A fade-to-black followed by a week’s delay somehow excused Jamie resurfacing miles away, unharmed, and Daenerys losing interest in him. We, as the audience, got our surge of emotion in the charge, without anyone in the story paying any price for it. The characters are unchanged. The storyline is unchanged. The event might as well simply never have happened, for all the difference it made. It was nothing more than a cheap thrill for us. We were fed narrative candy.

Did you not feel empty, afterward? If I wanted narrative candy I’d go back to reading the High Fantasy Epics of my adolescence, full of Honorable Paladins and White Saviors, where the villain is Evil and the protagonist is Good, and in the end Good will win precisely because it IS Good. The narrative demands it.

Further examples of this:

Daenerys, our parody of the White Savior that manages to fuck up everything and become a committer of atrocities, is now just a plain old White Savior again. She left behind her smashed society so we don’t have to see it anymore, and instead she just rides in to save the people of Westeros. Without destroying their society. Without committing atrocities. Without any moral compromise at all, just good ol’ Saving The World. Narrative candy.

Jon Snow has replaced Ned Stark as the Honorable Paladin. Unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t suffer any repercussions for this. He sticks to his code of honor, is murdered, and is resurrected. He sticks to his code of honor, and continues to draw more and more followers, of ever greater loyalty. He sticks to his code of honor, loses a major battle, but is saved in the end. He runs around north of the wall like an idiot, NOT getting on the damn dragon when they’re trying to evacuate, and is saved in the end. He sticks to his code of honor, doesn’t lie to gain political advantage, and in the end gets EVEN MORE political advantage for doing so! He is rewarded for being the biggest stereotype of Honorable Paladin ever. Narrative candy.

One of my favorite scenes this season was Sansa and Arya uniting. It’s a crowning Moment of Triumph, and it feels fantastic. I almost shouted “You tried to break them up, but you can’t split the Wolf Pack, motherfucker! Aaaaaooooooooooooooo!!!!” And then an hour later I felt empty again. It was more narrative candy. I got my emotion sugar-high. But this is the standard “Family Loyalty Overcomes All Obstacles!” trope. We’ve seen it a million times.

Yes it does feel good, in the moment. That’s why we’ve seen it a million times. It’s the same reason people eat candy. Cheap sugar-highs sell. They’re also boring. Sugar isn’t complex. It’s simple, and tasty, and unmemorable. I still have candy from time to time too! But that’s not why I watch GoT. It’s not why GoT won all those awards. Awards are given for things that are complex, and hard, and different. Not more sugar.

III.

I imagine Martin started writing this series as a reaction against all the High Fantasy narrative candy he was presumably tired of. He’s not Fantasy Jesus or anything, there were problems with his work, and the HBO team did a lot to smooth those out and make a great product. But in the last few seasons, GoT has degenerated into the type of story that Martin had been lampooning.

It’s even happened the same way it had previously been built up. Characters that were too nuanced or complex couldn’t survive in the new, Hollywood-simple world. The ones that could be killed off, were. Bye High Sparrow, bye Queen of Thorns.

The survivors adapted by becoming simpler and reverting to stock tropes. They face no consequences for being stupid fantasy stereotypes, and are often reward for it. A fantasy narrative of honor and loyalty protects them.

The villains are just dumb evil, for the sake of evil. Cersei’s only remaining emotion is spite (and I feel bad for Lena Headey, that must get boring). The Night King has no motivation at all.

We are fed emotional highs without substance or consequence.

The central conflict is no longer jostling among complex characters for advantage and survival. The two sides are now plain old Good vs Evil. That Cersei is on the side of Evil doesn’t change that.

And that’s why Season Seven sucked. It is the culmination of taking something complex and made for adults, and returning it back to the High Fantasy that doesn’t challenge anyone. It just feeds us candy.

That’s why Season Eight will probably suck too. It took a lot of narrative work to create the world and characters we had. Now all that has been destroyed, and there isn’t enough time to rebuild it (nor do I think anyone calling the shots has the desire to). Even if Good doesn’t win at the end of the series, we still will have sat through a standard Good Knights vs Evil Demons story, and a twist like “But the good guys lose!” doesn’t change why it’s boring. It doesn’t return to us what could have been. That destiny has been amputated.

All the characters we cared about are dead already, replaced with Hollywood narrative candy pod-people. Now we just get to watch the shells fight it out. At least the CGI will be pretty.

 

Sep 152017
 

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Synopsis: A comedic fable-style story wherein a smart-ass Holmes-type character and his burly sidekick (our narrator) have crazy adventures while incidentally freeing a fairytale China from a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Book Review: I’m like the 1000th person to review this novel, so y’all have probably heard this before. But I’ll add my opinions to the mix, in case that tips the scales for anyone. After all, I don’t recall who finally tipped me into the “well, guess I gotta read this” camp, but it certainly wasn’t anyone well known, it was just an acquaintance whose opinion I respect.

This is an utterly delightful tale. It’s a black comedy, full of random murder and awfulness, but played with a slapstick sensibility that honestly makes you laugh. Everything in it is drawn with the super-saturated colors and jovial emotions of a fairy tale. Fun characters, over-the-top plot and coincidences, and really beautiful writing combine to make this a really fun read.

A lot of the fun comes from the somewhat absurd gambits that our Sherlock character engineers. If you like the clever little traps that Sherlock sets up, or deductions he waltz through, you’ll really enjoy the schemes Master Li cooks up. Tons of supporting characters keep reappearing in the most hilarious ways, and by the end of the book a number of things click together in this neat puzzle-resolution that’s really beautiful to read.

As it is written in fable-style, though, it’s not for everyone. It is over the top. It has the cyclical structure that fairytales love, repeating certain actions a number of times (well, three times, because fairytales love threes) with minor variations. But you know going into the same scene the 2nd or 3rd time basically how it’ll work out. This relieves the tension and lets you jaunt through the scene, but it also means there isn’t really much tension in much of the novel. This sort of story is read for the sparkle, rather than the immersion.

Two things kinda bothered me too. The first is that basically every problem humanity faces (aside from the evil tyrant himself) boils down to “Women Are The Root Of All Our Woes.” Either mean women who exploit men’s weakness for the opposite gender to dominate them, or pretty-but-vapid women who unknowingly drive men to do crazy things due to their inability to make rational decisions in the face of boobs. Most of the world’s problems would be gone if there just weren’t all these darn women around! I realize the whole story is a silly comedy, but “Men are dumb cuz of penis, and women all manipulate this whether knowingly or not” is a plot/joke that irks me personally.

The second thing is that it’s very deathist in the end. The tyrant is evil because he wants immortality. Many of the supporting characters have tragic deaths in their backstory, and at the end of the book quite a few of them are finally “reunited” with their dead loved ones. By dying. And we’re shown that it’s so great and wonderful that these nice people are dead now! They’re so much better off dead! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was dead? And yeah, ok, it’s a fantasy novel that has a real afterlife, so death really is just going on to a cooler, better life. But A – why the hell were our protagonists going to such lengths to STOP people from dying if death is so great, (the primary quest is finding a cure to a plague that’s killing their village’s children); and B – I just personally really hate deathist themes, even in fantasy works with real afterlives, because fuck death, Death Is Bad.

Still, the novel really IS fantastic. It’s whimsical and fun and well-written, and it’s worth reading it anyway, despite the low-level misogyny/misandry (misanthropy?) and deathism. I know I made it sound bad in those last two paragraphs, but this is delightful throughout much of the story, and it is both a quick and easy read. You’ll laugh, and now and then you’ll be touched. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: In addition to all the fun that can be had in reading this book, and in sharing things that people really loved, there can be a lot of good conversation about this books flaws too. The misanthropy/deathism can spark  conversation. Two people in our book club did not care for the fairytale stylings at all, and that sparked discussion on the difference between fairytale stories and modern story telling, and the pros and cons of each, and so forth. There’s no wrong opinion here, just varying tastes, and the exploration of them. The conversation was interesting.

Aaaaaaand of course there was the cultural appropriation conversation as well. Bridge of Birds draws from a lot of traditional Chinese tales and cultural background. Enough so that I’ve heard someone say that as much as one likes the story, that enjoyment is significantly leveled up by having deep Chinese cultural knowledge. It’d be like reading a dark comedy based on western fairytales without having ever heard of Cinderella or Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood or King Arthur. It can still be a lot of fun if done well, but you’ll get so much more out of it if you are familiar with the background material.

But Barry Hughart is a white American, and for a couple readers in our group this brought up questions of authenticity immediately. Is this well-researched storytelling by someone who’s really dedicated themselves to getting this right? Or is it just someone grabbing stuff from Chinese culture they think is cool and throwing it in the book? And sadly, all any of us have to go on is what it vaguely “feels like” to us.

I remember hearing that Chinese readers/critics thought it was well done, but spending 15 minutes googling after the book club meeting didn’t return any results. I don’t  remember where I heard the “it’s well done” claim from, so I don’t have any source to give. :/ This is doubly confounded by the fact that it’s a dark comedy which treats most things irreverently, and could be said to be lampooning certain common tropes. So…. how do we know if it’s “authentic” and “respectful” enough? And if it wasn’t very authentic, does that ruin it, despite it being a well-written comedy and a good story?

I obviously have my own opinion, which I figure is pretty clear by the way I slanted that last paragraph. But to clarify, I think most claims of cultural appropriation are self-important bullshit. Yet this is something I can respectfully discuss with my fellow book-clubbers, and that was also an interesting discussion to have.

So, in addition to being a fun and easy read, lots of good conversation. Recommended!

Sep 112017
 

I don’t know what I was expecting from Burning Man, but what I got really surprised me. At about hour 12 of driving home–physically and emotionally exhausted, and feeling a bit light-headed from constant heat, minor sleep deprivation, and overwhelming gratitude–I realized why they say that the drive in/out is part of the Burning Man experience.

Burning Man isn’t just an event. It can be a pilgrimage. It was for me. And an important part of a pilgrimage is the road back home, where you mentally distance yourself from the strange dream-land where everything is different, and return to the solidity of the real world. A tried-and-true way of doing that involves actually putting physical distance between yourself and the dream-land. It allows you time to ruminate, and differentiates the two places.

As it stands, Burning Man isn’t remotely sustainable. The society is optimized for human social flourishing, rather than creating wealth. Trying to do work in such an environment would be extremely inefficient, if not impossible. One burns through previously-stored up wealth to enjoy Burning Man. The only way this could possibly persist is in a literal post-scarcity society, where all wealth is created by autonomous non-sapient robots and distributed to humans to enjoy.

Burning Man is also uncomfortable. This is a feature, not a bug. You no longer take anything for granted when you have nothing and the desert is trying to kill you. Even getting cold water or a brief shower feels immensely satisfying. Everything is more intense.

But pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be comfortable, or sustainable. They are supposed to be different worlds, set aside from the rest of reality. Burning Man achieves this in spades.

It feels weird to see so much effort and labor, so many resources, being put into creating a city in the desert… knowing that it’s designed to be destroyed. After a few weeks a fair bit of wealth will be intentionally destroyed in rituals of fire-sacrifice, and everything else will be disassembled and taken away again. But this extreme impermanence, the embrace of temporariness, is much of the driving force of the Burning Man ethos. It is worth the cost, to create this dreamtime for a week each year. To be in a different place, and to get a taste of what a post-scarcity future society could look like.

I strongly recommend that everyone go at least once in their lifetime. Obviously for some people it’s just not their thing, and I imagine those people already know who they are. But for everyone else, consider this some evidence strengthening your “I should try this” intuition. If you somehow get a ticket but don’t know anyone else going and are at a loss for what to do next, contact me and I’ll do what I can to provide guidance. :)

Sep 102017
 

A few things that didn’t fit elsewhere:

I.

The first night there, I watched the Opening Ceremonies, which included a cool performative dance around The Man involving a long, red silk banner. Like, a couple yards across and at least thirty yards long. The dancers swirled and swished it through the air. As the dance wound down, the lead dancer performed a solo piece at each of the four entrances to The Man’s pagoda (this year there was a structure built around Him). The entrance I was watching from (viewing space was VERY limited, I was outside the pagoda with a number of others, peering in through this entrance) was the last of the four, and the dancer slowly sashayed out into the watch crowd. We made way for her and once she broke free of us she yelled “Follow me!” and kept going, holding one end of the silk banner overhead.

I decided I wanted in on this, and this sound like an invitation, and dammit, the end of the banner was dragging on the ground, and that is not appropriate for a ceremonial artifact! So I grabbed one corner and followed. About 8-10 other people followed suit, and soon we were marching out into the Playa, banner stretched out to it’s full length and lifted overhead. None of us knew were we were going, but it was a ways. I began talking to one of my neighbors after a while, and made an exploration-friend for the night. Eventually we reached The Temple, were we concluded the Opening Ceremony by delivering the banner to it’s entrance (only the dancer and two helpers were allowed in the perimeter, it was still under construction).

And that’s how I became one of a handful of people that was a part of the Opening Ceremonies. All it took was luck, and openness to jumping into something new. It set the tone for my week, and it’s a great encapsulation of the ethos that makes Burning Man what it is.

II.

When anyone asks me what’s the most powerful thing at Burning Man, I always answer “The Temple.” I went to visit it on my third day. I did not know what it was. I thought it was just another art installation (albeit a gigantic one). I did not except to find what I did, right in the middle of this gigantic celebration of art and joy and partying. The fact that I didn’t know what I was walking into amplified the impact of the place, so I won’t say much about it, or post pictures. It was intense. I had to eventually just walk away, because I realized I would not come to grips with anything for as long as I stayed there. I will go back every year, but I will only go once per year. I encourage everyone to visit it at least once if/when they attend, preferably after it’s been open for a couple days.

III.

Our camp gathered to watch the climactic burning of The Man as a group. Afterwards, we trekked to just outside The Temple for a camp tradition, which I guess one could call a mini-ritual. Basically it consisted of gathering around a campfire and briefly speaking about what we’re grateful for. It was joyous and felt very intimate, and was the second-best event of the week for me (behind my initial visit to The Temple detailed above).

IV.

cw: this next part addresses a death at Burning Man

This isn’t a highlight, but I guess it has to be addressed somewhere. I did see the guy who ran into the fire. At first I thought he was just a streaker that broke through the perimeter. But he ran almost directly toward the flames, ducking and weaving past the emergency personnel that attempted to stop him. I think I realized when he was a few paces away what was going to happen, and I saw him flop right into the fire. They say he “dived in”, and I guess that’s true, but it was really more of an arms-outstretched full-frontal flop. As soon as he went down I figured he was gone. The fire is INSANELY hot. It was (mildly) painful even from the perimeter a hundred yards away. I can’t imagine anyone surviving for even a few seconds in that blaze.

I guess a lot of people took this hard, but I dunno. It was at a distance of a hundred yards, and it was all in silhouette. And to run into that hot of a fire takes serious determination. I want everyone to live as long as they’d like, even if that’s infinitely long (I hope to be around for thousands of years, at least). And with that comes the acceptance that some people will want to stop going on at some point, and they have the right to end their lives when they want. It’s a basic human right. I can understand wanting to go out in such a glorious way. So I didn’t have any negative emotional repercussions from this myself.

I’m close to someone who’s served in a warzone, and has seen friends involuntarily blown into multiple pieces. I’ve watched bloody depictions of death in Hollywood full-color close-ups. This just didn’t compare. I fervently hope that that man actually made an informed, rational decision, rather than losing control of his emotions while under the influence of too many unfamiliar drugs. But in terms of emotional hurt, this didn’t remotely compare to the ocean of grief that drowned me when I visited The Temple.

I feel sorry for that man’s family, especially if he didn’t warn them what he planned. And I’m upset that emergency personnel were injured pulling him from the fire. But I think only extraordinarily delicate people would have been traumatized by witnessing this. Or I dunno, maybe I’m just callous.

V.

It was interesting watching how humans act in an environment where there is almost nothing to fear, no resources to fight over, and no material wants. I realize this is just one small aspect of how people will choose to act once free of fear and want. But it gives me a lot of hope for how well we’ll handle a post-scarcity future. I no longer fear that we’ll degenerate into ennui and nihilism. As Cory Doctorow said, Burning Man is a trial-run for a post-scarcity society. And it is glorious, and fun, and I think humanity will love it. I am, for the first time, earnestly looking forward to it. :)

Sep 092017
 

I.

Before I left to Burning Man, I expected most of the people there to be hippies and stoners, with some party girls/boys mixed in. And to be fair, there’s certainly a fair share of those people. But I was surprised just how many very accomplished and respectable people attend!

In hindsight, I’m a bit ashamed of this prejudice. First, there’s no reason accomplished, successful people wouldn’t enjoy Burning Man. The perpetual group-flow-state of the entire festival is enjoyable regardless of one’s background. The excitement of temporary deprivation is probably more appealing to people who usually have plenty. And there are a great many highly intelligent people who consider psychedelics to be a useful tool for self-knowledge and various mental tasks (Sam Harris comes to mind immediately as a strong proponent).

Furthermore, I probably should have expected this, because Burning Man isn’t exactly cheap. The total cost of going for someone going extremely low-end (like I did) is about $1000. It just goes up from there. Even low-income tickets only help a bit, because the ticket was a bit less than half of my cost. Plus most people in lower-income jobs can’t just take eight days off of work. So yeah, someone really dedicated could save up and go, and I met several starving-artist types who did exactly that. But most of the people were professionals of some sort. And getting to meet them was an absolute treat. Here’s a sampling:

I met a rocket scientist who’d worked for NORAD. He related the tale of how his participation in a system-wide WWIII-simulation scenario caused him to reevaluate his life.

I met a scientist that’s recently made waves with his hypothesis of land-based origins of life on Earth. He’s a member of the groups advising/pitching NASA on where to land the next Mars rover. He let me hold a rock he brought that is 3.5 billion years old, and contains fossilized traces of the proto-life on earth!

I stood within arm’s reach of a professional opera singer as she performed a brief, beautiful piece for me and eight other people in our camp. You don’t really get any more intimate of a venue than that. :)

It wasn’t all great – I met a shamanistic healing guru who traveled the world spreading woo. At one point he expressed delight at what had happened in Houston, because that city had “toxic energy” and this would help everyone who lived there to get in touch with their spiritual lives. I was playing host at the tea house, so I couldn’t be too confrontational, but I let him know that glee at human misery is wrong. Also the culture of togetherness and understanding made it very hard to be contradictory. I should have pushed back sooner. I wish I had been more forceful. A thing to remember for next time.

Overall, though, lots of positive experiences with meeting people. Between the Art and the People, this is an awesome experience for those of us going straight-edge. :)

II.

The Playa is the term for the Burning Man grounds (spanish for “beach”). At night it transforms into a completely different place. First, ALL the lights come out. There is no public lighting, so it’s your civic duty to keep yourself lit up so people on bikes or art-cars don’t crash into you. And this is a place of art and beauty, so everyone is encouraged to light up in pretty colors and patterns. The effect is DAZZLING. I took a few pictures, but I really cannot do the effect justice, so I won’t post them. Maybe an actual photographer can capture it. Imagine a sea of neon-glowing life criss-crossing the dessert and congregating in clumps.

The sea analogy actually isn’t bad. Some of the sound cars start near the city at sundown and then slowly drive out to Deep Playa where they can blast music a great volume. The weave back and forth slowly, like an angler fish luring prey. Great numbers of humans in lit-up bikes swarm along side them, pulsing in and out like a school of minnows keeping pace. It’s mesmerizing to watch.

The inner-most road of the city is Burning Man’s main strip. It is the boardwalk. The camps that get these high-profile spots always put great effort into creating amazing frontage, full of lights and music, often several stories tall. Not only do they glow and gleam, but every one of them has true heart and emotion in their creation.

All these lights and sights and sounds make one feel like you are living in a post-human cyber-paradise. The Playa at night makes Las Vegas look like a pile of shit. And I realize that’s not hard to do, what with Vegas being kinda shitty anyway. But man, I don’t know how to put into words the neon-electric awesome.

The city has a heartbeat at night. There is music pulsing from all over, and across a distance the bass all melds into a low-level thruming rush. The land itself feels alive.

Much of the music is basic-as-fuck House, unfortunately. I understand why, it’s easy as hell for anyone to dance to. I said earlier that Burning Man is what you make of it, and I’m sure if I went looking I could have found music more to my taste. There was at least one Jazz camp, and one Goth/Industrial camp. But that wasn’t really what I was there for this year, so I didn’t seek it out and I was mostly inundated with boring House. Could be worse. I could be stuck in a dust-bowl desert. :)

Sep 082017
 

In my post on luck, I stressed the importance of openness. But openness invites vulnerability, so people are generally unwilling to be very open unless they first feel safe. This is part of what makes Burning Man one of the luckiest places on earth – the entire event is one of the safest places I’ve been. This is achieved entirely through the culture.

Firstly, with a few extremely narrow exceptions, nothing can be bought or sold at Burning Man. Everything is given away as a gift without obligation. This decommodification of everything removes the status of having things. Almost all the value at Burning Man is found in interaction with other people, and you can’t really steal that. Also, everyone is living in faux-poverty anyway, there isn’t anything valuable around to take! And even if you did take it, what would you do with it? Pile it up next to your tent?

Secondly, because it is such a harsh environment, people are always looking out for one another. No one has to worry overly much about going hungry or thirsty, because there will always be someone giving away food or water, or happy to share what they have. Passing around snacks is a common activity in lines. When someone’s bike jammed near my tent, I gave them all the lube they needed to get going again. I saw one lady having a bad skin reaction in a dust storm, her hands were getting very chapped. A fellow Burner gave her moderately-fancy gloves with lights in the fingers, to protect her skin. The lady protested, but the Burner said “Take them, you need them more than I do.” This sort of thing happens regularly. In the desert everyone helps each other constantly.

This leads to a feeling of safety. You know that no matter what should happen, there are people around you that have your well-being as a priority. The sense of safety allows you to talk to new people easily, and explore things without worry. It, paradoxically, leads to the rallying cry of “Safety Third!”, which is a bit of an exhortation to try things that may scare you for not being perfectly safe – such as jumping between the slabs in the Temple of Gravity. There is an understanding that even if you get hurt, the people around you will immediately come to your aid. It’s what makes people comfortable stripping off all their clothes and having a naked dance/shower party.

I regularly saw women walking alone in the dark of night without any worry. That’s the kind of place this is.

When my bike popped a tire, it was repaired for free in a jiffy. When I was hungry, I was given food.

This openness extends to the interpersonal. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have a very hard time speaking with people I don’t yet know. All my life I’ve felt basically unwanted. Yet at Burning Man, when I showed up at a random fire-spinning event alone, the people next to me struck up a conversation. They made me feel welcome, we had a good talk, and later that evening we met up to dance. As a single dorky male, I’ve never in my life felt like people wanted me to approach them. Dancing in the desert, the pretty young thing from the fire-spinning was delighted to see me, and afterwards thanked me. I still can’t entirely believe it. I was valued just for being me. It was bizarre, and wonderful.

This care-for-others thing is super-charged at your home camp. I camped with a group of 30-40 people, two of whom I’d met for less than five hours previous to this, and the rest strangers. Yet everyone treated me incredibly warmly. The standard greeting to Burning Man virgins (possibly everyone?) is “Welcome Home.” It sounds weird at first, but quickly you understand it. Your camp WILL take care of you. They will show you around and take you places. They’ll sit and chat with you when you need to rest, and they’ll give you food or water if you need it.

Of course nothing is completely without obligation. I learned my first night out that one doesn’t simply show up at a bar and ask for food or alcohol. Well, one can ask for food or water if in need, of course. But in the normal course of events, one is expected to make the provider’s day a little better in thanks, and that is done by socializing with them. When you first reach the counter, you do not just slap down a cup or a plate. You chat first. Recount what new or exciting thing you saw today, or what you’re looking forward to, or what interests you in life. Did you recently take a trip to Russia? Lets talk about that! Are you working on a new song or story? Tell me! You’re a Burning Man virgin? How does it compare to what you were expecting? etc.

At Burning Man, no one is a part of an economic transfer process, simply there to facilitate the exchange of currency. Everyone is a person, a full human being, and the only way to acknowledge that and be present in the community is to treat them as a person rather than an economic unit. And that means creating a relationship, however fleeting. It means socializing with them.

A note – while this is beautiful and very fulfilling, it’s also inefficient. Imagine going to Starbucks and having to chat with your barista for four or five minutes each time you go. If there’s a line of four people in front of you, you’ll be there for twenty minutes before you even get to order. So… not workable if you have other things to do. While you’re in Burning Man, chat and art is why you are here, so it’s fine. Delightful, even. But for modern-day efficiency, dehumanization of human labor inputs seems necessary.

This also means there’s lines for most things at Burning Man. They aren’t too long, because there’s people giving away alcohol or other stuff EVERYWHERE. But they exist. Fortunately, the people standing next to you in line are just as interesting as the servers! Everywhere you go you’ll be striking up conversations with the people beside you in line. You’ll talk about gender, or their camp theme, or dozens of other things. You may share snacks or gifts. It will be a good time. This is not like the lines in the grocery store, or Disneyland, where people are silent and can’t wait to leave, and the waiting is awful and hateful. This is just another place to discover the coolness and intricacy of the human beings around you. Take advantage of it!

Sep 072017
 

For the most part I’m going to talk about my Burning Man experience in terms of themes, rather than enumerating the days. However I will start with the Arrival.

They tell you that Burning Man begins when you leave home, that the drive in is part of the experience. At the time that seemed a bit bullshitty to me, but there’s some truth to it, as I came to realize on my drive back home. I will say that the border area between Utah and Nevada doesn’t seem real. There is a long section that simply doesn’t change for miles and miles. It is a great salt-waste stretching to the horizon on all sides, bisected by the highway you’re on.

You drive and drive, and nothing outside your window changes. After five minutes you make some jokes with your carmates that you feel like you’re in a cheap cartoon that reuses stock background on a loop. Five minutes after that you comment how long this is. At 15 minutes you joke about a conveyor belt on the road under your wheels keeping you stationary. At 20 minutes with nothing changing you begin to silently worry that you’ve wandered into a section of the world that’s like those old video game areas that would simply repeat over and over if you kept walking in one direction, and the puzzle was to discover what series of movements would allow you to pass to the next area (I’m looking at you, NES Legend of Zelda forest maze!). At 25 minutes you begin to seriously worry that this is some sort of joke. This is absurd. This can’t be real, right? Nothing goes on forever.

Fortunately reality eventually reasserts itself and you can enter into Nevada.

 

Burning Man is what you make of it. I was told by someone a few days before leaving that it’s basically a giant sex and drugs party that lasts a full week. And if you want that, sure, that’s available. But there are so many things to see and do at Burning Man that you can have an amazing time no matter what you’re into. I spent much of my time visiting the many art installation.

To start with, there is a LOT of art at Burning Man. I suppose if you spent all your time just going to see all of it, you could probably see everything over the full week. But there are many things to do, so even if you spent most of your time visiting art, you are still almost assuredly NOT going to see all of it, so it’s a fool’s errand to try.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the art changes. An art piece seen the first day, while the area is relatively empty of people, looks very different from the same art piece seen a few days later when you bring a friend or date back there, because the presence of more people changes the art itself. This piece was waaaaaaaay out at the edge of Deep Playa. When I came to it the first day, it was basically abandoned. It felt like finding a random encounter in the middle of a Fallout game. The isolation was part of the experience. When I returned several days later and a dozen+ people were also there, it changed the feel of the piece.

The weather also shapes the art. A fresh piece looks different from a piece blasted after a dust storm. Many of the works are interactive, and will change based on what people are doing, or have done. The Temple of Gravity (left) looks one way as you’re walking up to these 7-ton slabs of granite, and seeing them swaying slightly in the breeze. As Edward said, there is something awe-inspiring about seeing so much potential energy suspended before you. It’s still powerful while it supports all the little humans crawling over it. yet it changes subtly when people are leaping from stone to stone, or lying directly beneath them, looking up.

Almost every piece changes at night. Fire or light is a major component of many of them. The Tree of Tenere is a vibrant, green point of life in the day, but at night it comes alive. The leaves shine, cycling through colors. Even more variation comes from the fact that the leaves’ colors change in glorious sweeps that matches nearby music. If you come when a performer is playing The Rite of Spring it looks very different from when a nearby Sound Car is blasting The Wubs.

All of this is very much part of the temporal, fleeting philosophy of Burning Man. Don’t try to do everything and experience everything, because many of the experiences depend on serendipity. On being at the right place at the right time, and they won’t repeat. You’ll miss great things, and hear about them from others. But you’ll also get lucky sometimes, and come by at just the right time. I came across The Messenger (no pic), an iron-cast statue of a burning angel. There’s a gash through it’s chest, and when I came to it someone was working a pyrotechnics shift. The gash was filled with flame, and I was told this was an interactive piece. Slips of paper and pencils are provided, as well as tongs. One can write a message and lift it into the flame, to be consumed by The Messenger.

It was my alone night, and I had been thinking a lot about my exwife that night. The whole trip, to be honest. I realized during my trip that I wasn’t over my ex, or my divorce, at all. I’d been burying a lot, but it was still there. I realized this because at every turn I kept thinking “Melissa should be here.” She would love this. This is exactly her scene.

And she could have been there. If only she’d valued our continued friendship more then a few tens of thousands of dollars. Maybe she didn’t want my friendship anymore. Maybe that was an easy choice for her. I hope she’s OK with her choice. I still have a hard time with it.

I wrote her a message and consigned it to the flames.

Sep 062017
 

A friend discovered I had scored tickets to Burning Man the day before I left, and commented appreciatively on my good fortune by saying “Lucky!” They then quickly modified that to “not lucky, he actually probably worked hard for that shit.”

Which, ya know, is appreciated. It’s a pretty common sentiment nowadays, and I like it. But it downplays the importance of creating luck in your life, which I think is pretty important. As Lefty Gomez said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” And creating luck can take a lot of work.

My getting the ticket was very lucky. “Edward” had recently started listening to the HPMoR podcast, and happened to be binging on it while driving cross country. He was going through Denver, so he emailed me to ask if I’d like to grab dinner while he was there. I said sure, and we hit it off quite well. A couple months later he found himself with an extra ticket, and all the mutual friends him and his SO had asked to attended either couldn’t make it or weren’t interested. They said “Hey, that Eneasz guy seemed pretty cool, lets invite him.” Being between jobs, I was in a perfect position to accept, and I jumped on that.

So basically – tons of luck. Yet a lot of work went into creating those conditions. The podcast was over 1000 hours of labor across 4.5 years. I have my real name, city I live in, and email address all publicly available, and I agreed to meet a stranger. Socializing is energy-consuming for me, and the process of getting enough social skills to actually be likable has been a 10-year-long project itself.

And of the work listed, none of it was goal-oriented tasks. I didn’t decide I wanted to go to Burning Man, and then pursued a rational strategy to accomplish that. So stumbling into a ticket was luck. But each decision along the way helped to build a structure that is conducive to luck. I put out a podcast into the world because I wanted it to exist, which created many opportunities for people to find out about me. I said Yes to things that could be unpleasant, on the chance that they might be interesting. I got better at interfacing with others, which allowed me to form more productive connections.

Notice also that I couldn’t have done this alone – much of the work was on Edward’s side. He remembered where I lived as he drove across the country. He looked up my email address while on the road. He reached out, risking an unpleasant evening with a stranger, on the chance I might be interesting. He has also put effort into social skills. He took a chance that someone he barely knew wouldn’t be awful to camp with for eight days in the desert.

There is much luck that is just plain random. I’m lucky to have been born a white male in a time and location where white men are held in high esteem. I’m lucky to be reasonably tall and healthy. But lots of other luck is a direct result of effort by people to keep their lives as lucky as possible.

To maximize luck, I would strongly recommend the following:

A. Do things for others. ESPECIALLY things that interest you, or that you already like. I love HPMoR. Making the podcast wasn’t a chore. I enjoy cleaning. When a friend is recovering from surgery, I sometimes go help them clean their house. It’s ridiculous the amount of goodwill you receive for a few hours of socialization and doing a small chore that you already kinda enjoy. I actually feel guilty about it. Do you play an instrument? Do that for people for free, sometimes. Any skill you have can be shared.

B. Say Yes often. Be open to new experiences. Embrace the unusual or uncomfortable. Yes, we all have our limits, so don’t exceed them. Remember to say no sometimes, to rest, or when you don’t feel safe. But make it a habit to say Yes unless you have a compelling reason not to, as opposed to the other way around.

C. Stay sociable. You don’t have to be a charming socialite! Just be a Hufflepuff. (Hufflepuffs are great finders because they’re so damn lucky. :) ) You don’t even have to go to parties, often one-on-one dinners/events are better. But you do have to reach out to humans. The root of luck is other people. To cut away vast swaths of people is akin to cutting away all your chances for luck.

These things together create a lot of opportunities for coincidence, and every now and then one of them will snag something. And you think “Holy shit, that was really lucky!” And it was. But you created the edifice that made that luck possible. Stay open. Stay excited. Keep doing neat stuff without expectations, and you’ll be surprised what you can stumble into.

 

I had planned to write this post before I left for Burning Man, but I ran out of time, which is why it’s being posted now. However I do have an addendum, now that I’m back. Burning Man is an INCREDIBLY lucky place. It is possible that it is The Luckiest Place on Earth, and I say that without exaggeration.

This is not an accident. The entire event is designed to maximize every factor that leads to luck. The openness there is off the scale. Everything is given freely, and people are constantly doing things for others without expectation of reciprocation or reward. Everyone is incredibly open to everything, all the time. Part of the ethos is to go and try and do anything that strikes your fancy. People will not shut you down, or judge you. Generally they encourage you. Everyone is constantly happy to meet everyone else and speak with them in very friendly terms. All of this leads to a non-stop constant explosion of luck everywhere you turn. It’s fascinating.

Since this blog is kinda a personal diary anyway, over the next several days I plan to write about my Burning Man experience in a greater level of detail. Spoiler alert – I think everyone should go to at least one Burning Man event in their lifetime, it’s a very strange and unique experience. You don’t even have to have crazy sex or do any drugs! I didn’t!

Sep 052017
 

Hunger Makes the Wolf, by Alex Wells

Synopsis: A space western wherein impoverished miners are horribly exploited until a group of magic-using outlaws on bikes finally stand up for the small community and fight back against the robber-barons.

Disclaimer: I know Alex Wells personally, and really like them. While I try to remain objective in my reviews, I’m not a robot and I may fail to some extent.

Book Review: I should add a second disclaimer here, which is that I dislike Space Westerns. I didn’t bother watching Firefly at first because, even though it was Joss Whedon and I love his work, I couldn’t image even he would make me like a Space Western. Of course I was proven wrong, and soon I was swept up in the adoration of that fantastic show as well. But any Space Western has a tough barrier to entry for me.

This might be a good story, if one likes Space Westerns. There are some very powerful scenes that show what it means to be completely at the mercy of an uncaring corporate entity, and the vile types of humans that take advantage of such power. The villain is extremely creepy, and is probably the best physical/dynamic depiction of a vampire I’ve ever seen. All vampire writers should take note! Also the speech and overall feel was VERY western. I really enjoyed reading what felt like a Sci-Fi book written for/by Applejack. (and yes, I absolutely mean that as a complement.)

But to me, this felt much like Dune Lite. The same desert world, exploitative powers, and magic abilities, but with more motorcycle gangs and less religion. And somewhere along the way, Wells lost my emotional attention. I’m not sure exactly when it happened. This is by no means a bad book. There is no place I can point to and say “This is where it went wrong.” But slowly, over the course of many chapters, I came to lose interest in what I was reading, to the point that it start to feel like a chore.

Perhaps it was the feeling of disconnect due to never being let into the protag’s life in a biker gang, despite it being both her primary social group and her family. Or my own personal quibbles with what felt like an inexpertly handled critique of old school industrialism that doesn’t apply to the modern day. Whatever the case, once I started to wish I didn’t have to keep reading, I stopped reading. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Again, I wish to stress that this isn’t a bad book. It just isn’t a great one. While many of our readers finished the book, most of them agreed that at some point it went off the rails, and no one was quite sure what happened. Someone suggested that there was too much old-west flavor, and that started to drown out things. Someone else thought the protag’s dark secret was overplayed and a bit of a let down. A few people were annoyed that the story didn’t really answer the questions it brought up, which is good for drawing interest into a series, but is irritating for those of us who prefer novel-length stories and aren’t looking to read series.

One reader commented that the story has a very traditional old-west or golden-age-SF feel, wherein the masculine hero acts like a white knight and rides in to right wrongs and save the damsel in distress. And simply making the masculine hero a woman doesn’t really change anything about that type of narrative of the masculine-hero. Maybe this was what threw me too? I’m not really a golden age reader.

At any rate, there was some discussion, and so the novel does OK by the book club metric… but it’s not quite enough to make me really want to go out and recommend this enthusiastically to book clubs. So, also, Not Recommended.

Aug 232017
 

I’ve had another short story published in an anthology! It is “Through The Never” in Humans Wanted.

I liked the theme for this one. Basically that humans have a super-power. It’s something we just consider a normal part of being human, but it’s actually really rare and incredibly useful. Pick a trait, write a story about it!

I’d already been thinking about Lovecraft’s views on existential horror for a bit when I ran across this prompt. As much as I love Lovecraft, I find his opinions on what drives mankind insane kinda silly. Subsequent works and role-playing games have sometimes tried to hand-wave this by invoking a supernatural insanity-causing magic, but it’s pretty clear from his writings that Lovecraft just thought people are psychologically fragile things waiting for anything that challenges their understanding of reality to shatter their minds.

The thing is, he SHOULD be right. To realize that nothing we do matters, that time will erase everything we are and everything we care for, and the universe is so vast and uncaring that all our striving and flailing amounts to little more than a wobble in the quantum foam should be shattering. The vast apathy of the unstoppable forces that rule our lives and could snuff out our lives, or all life, in an instant, are so irredeemably unjust and overwhelming that it’s impossible to think why we should go on. Even screaming in defiance is lol-worthy, the only reasonable response is to simply give up. Or, possibly, to go absolutely insane.

That was Lovecraft’s view. That the only sane reaction to such a universe is insanity. That anyone who could put this all together in their minds would lose it. He said

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I think I agree with him. But he’s empirically wrong. Basically all of human society, at least in the developed world, realizes the truth of our existential horror universe. And we just keep going. We ignore it, or we drink too much, or we take lots of antidepressants and go to therapy, or we create epic animated series dedicated to exploring our angst at living in this world with a lot of fart jokes thrown in. But we go on anyway. We are *far* more mentally robust than Lovecraft gave us credit for.

Looking at this from the outside, though, makes us seem insane. In an insane world, the sane die out, and only the insane can survive. How better to explain our ability to shrug at all this and just keep on popping out kids and plowing forward? We’re all nuts.

So–take as our superpower our pre-existing insanity that lets us shrug at daily existential horror. Throw in some Tegmark Level infinite universes and contagious memetic hazard, and you have “Through The Never”. :)