Omnibus (week of Sept. 17, 2017)

Well hi. Here’s the link to the latest segment on CBC Radio, in which I discuss the slippery notion of “creative beginnings.” Also, if you listen really closely you can hear my quarter-life crisis humming in the background. Fun! I’m at 1:21:19.

23 reviews. The classic number of reviews. (I think there’s been 23 more than any other number of reviews.)

Games

Everything — Not long after I posted my last, very satisfied review of this, I finished the section of the game that apparently constitutes the tutorial. Well then. It’s a clever structural tactic, actually: once all of the game’s mechanics are introduced, Everything beckons you back to the place where you started: an oddly shaped golden gate that you can now actually enter into. It leads to an inescapable prison, where every object is miserable and solipsistic. But if you’ve been paying attention to Alan Watts’ proto-hippie voiceover lectures, you’ll know that they’ve all got the wrong idea. They don’t realize that everything is everything else. This is the one part of the game so far that presents a clear objective: escape. And of course, you can do so by using the mechanics you’ve learned already, in a neat bit of symmetry with the more abstract set of realizations the game takes for granted that you’ve internalized. Once you escape, you’re treated to a very late-90s cinematic that has the feel of an ending, but which culminates in the words “Welcome to Everything.” Because a game like Everything can’t have something so banal as an ending. The object of the game is to explore, and that’s not an objective that can be deemed complete by anybody save for the player. Another note: this game has a highly customizable autoplay mode that takes over when you stop playing, basically rendering it a deeply contemplative screensaver. This is far more satisfying than you might think. I let Everything play on its own while I made lunch today, and I saw more of it than I probably would had I been in control that whole time. So if you’re playing this, don’t discount that mode. Put it on while you’re reading, or something. If I had a television in addition to this damned laptop, Everything might make nice ambience for the apartment. I’ve never seen anything like Everything before. In a sense it’s staggeringly ambitious — a game that illustrates the whole of creation. But in another, it’s a pleasantly modest and quirky little confection that can take the edge off if you’re stressed out. I’ve come to like it a whole lot.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Razor, Razor Flashbacks & Season 4.0 — BSG is not so much a show as a hole you fall down. This week I fell down the hole. For clarity: I watched the TV movie Razor, the series of short webisodes Razor Flashbacks and the first half of the fourth season, officially known as Season 4.0 (as opposed to 4.5, which is next week’s project). I understand I’m a season and a half into the part of the show that people think isn’t good. I only halfway understand that. Seasons two and three are in my view equally patchy, with the high points of season three being among the most staggering episodes in the series. So far, this is holding up that pattern. Razor and its largely redundant flashbacks are not among the show’s finest hours, but it’s fun to see the events of a fascinating moment in the show’s timeline through an unfamiliar perspective. I can imagine that it might have been frustrating on original transmission, seeing how it has very little to do with the enormous cliffhanger of the season three finale. But from a binge-watching perspective, it’s exactly what the show needs at this moment: a reprieve from the acceleration of the show towards its much-prophesied endpoint, and a trip back to the simpler times of mid-season two. As for the season itself, it feels creaky at times, but only to the same extent as the last two seasons. Occasionally there’ll be a joke that falls flat or a line that doesn’t make sense. “It’s time to take a stand. And that time is now,” Baltar says at one point. Half of that line shouldn’t have made it to the shooting script. But then, Baltar is getting to be the show’s biggest problem. He was fun at first, and I enormously enjoyed the arc that led him from the presidency to the trial of the century. But as a prophet, and an increasingly sincere one at that, he’s less fun. The spiritual element of Battlestar Galactica has always been my favourite thing about it. The collision of political power, military might and religious devotion that fuels this show’s large-scale conflicts are starting to feel increasingly like a far more interesting (and earlier) version of what Game of Thrones is at its best. But having Baltar at the centre of it strikes me as a bit arbitrary — just something new for him to do. (Also, where has Head Six been these last few episodes? She vanished like Lear’s fool as soon as Baltar took the lead of his cult. Will she be back? I sure hope so.) I don’t really have much more to say about this in general. Only specific gripes like the fact that I’m not especially happy to see Lampkin back. He was overbearing at best during the trial arc, and he’s even more tediously gothic in “Sine Qua Non,” a nonsense episode of television. I’ll resist the impulse to generalize until next week, by which time I’ll surely be done this.

Literature, etc.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — The genius of this, both in terms of the book itself and this audiobook adaptation, doesn’t become entirely clear until very near the end. Spoilers ahoy. In my view, the thing that makes the main body of The Handmaid’s Tale great is its worldbuilding and the beauty of its prose, more so than its story. The story is perfectly fine, and it’s cleverly parsed out in a smattering of recollections of times past among the present-day narrative. But in my head I can’t stop comparing it to later Atwood novels like Oryx and Crake and especially The Blind Assassin which just rocket along with one twist and turn after another, and this is a much less dense book than either of those. But the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place at a conference years later, at which the text of the narrative you’ve just read is examined as a factual, in-universe document from a bygone time, kicks what was a good book up to near-masterpiece territory. Hearing a professor jocularly question the veracity of the whole narrative thus far — thereby failing to learn from the lessons of history in the way he explicitly deems necessary — is perverse in the extreme. As much of a narrative rug pull as this surely is in print (I’ve never read the book in its original form), it’s even cleverer in this audio adaptation, where the final chapter makes good on the ad copy’s promise of a “full cast.” These historians unearthed Offred’s narrative in the form of audio, which is precisely what we audiobook listeners have just experienced. The very limited sound design elements at the start of each part of the book are suddenly explained as the sound of Offred taping over what was once a mixtape. The producers of this audiobook managed to turn it into a (very minimalistic) radio play, without really needing to change anything. If you’ve been meaning to finally read this, or re-read it in light of recent events (Atwood’s afterword for this audiobook edition, written this year, details some of her thoughts on the book’s new relevance in the Trump era), you should consider the audiobook. Claire Danes’s reading of Offred’s story will ring in your head long after the credits roll. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: October — This was more of a slog than I’d expected. Miéville is one of the most virtuosic writers alive, but his mandate to tell the story of the Russian Revolution as straightforwardly as he can leaves him hog-tied, with none of his usual structural ingenuity to rely on. His clinical prose never quite gives the impression that we’re talking about a turning point in history, and his fascination with the minutia of party in-fighting causes whole chapters to pass by without much of interest. I understand why Miéville made some of the choices he did. If he’d written in more ornamented prose, he’d run the risk of producing something close to Soviet kitsch. And if he’d chosen to focus on the narratives of individuals, as many nonfiction writers do to lend a human dimension to cataclysmic events, he’d be implicitly denying the grassroots reality of the revolution. The only characters in this who really come alive on the page are Lenin and Kerensky, and I’d still like to have gotten into their heads a little more. It seems to me that Miéville set himself an impossible challenge with this book. I respect him for trying, but I don’t believe he produced the history that he intended to.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards 2017” & “Fall Movie Preview” — I missed this year’s Emmys. Doesn’t sound like much happened. The coverage of this makes me realize how much I need to watch Atlanta, which is seemingly the consensus pick for “thing that deserved better.” As for the fall movie preview, I can’t honestly say that any of this sounds especially interesting to me. The nearest movie that I’m super excited for is Isle of Dogs and that’s not out until March.

The Daily: Sept. 18 & 20, 2017 — The September 20th episode, breaking down Trump’s address to the U.N. is actually still worth a listen even this long after the fact. I actually feel regret that I can’t find time for this every day. It is an astonishing undertaking.

Fresh Air: “Hillary Rodham Clinton” — This is worth hearing even (especially?) if you are not fond of her. Terry Gross takes the opportunity to address her previous interview with Clinton, which was taken advantage of by right wing interests to undermine Clinton in the eyes of her base. This event, which predates the heat of the 2016 campaign, now seems like a prophecy.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix” Björk, Neil Young, Burial, Kelela, More” — I am so out of the loop about the year’s new music, and that is mostly because I haven’t been listening to this. Still, new music by Björk is reason to tune in. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? Since I can hear that music in many other places that are also free. But I still like to hear new tracks on this show first, because I know it’ll also introduce me to stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. Neil Young’s Hitchhiker was always something I was going to hear. (I am still technically planning to hear all of his albums in chronological order, but that project has been on a long hiatus because I’m not in the mood.) But having heard this gorgeous acoustic version of “Powderfinger,” which in defiance of Robin Hilton I will happily say is at least in my top three Neil Young songs, I clearly need to hear the album very soon.

The Gist: “The Frat Doesn’t Have Your Back” — As an alumnus of two Canadian universities, I have no idea why American students are so taken in by frats and sororities. This episode about racism in frats only surprised me during the bits where it outlined some of the reasons frats are not terrible.

The Heart: “Bodies: Goddess” — The “Bodies” mini-season concludes with an episode about the poet Maria R. Palacios, whose work deals with her body: she uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. This mini-season has been a solid continuation of The Heart’s best year yet.

99% Invisible: “The Finnish Experiment” — Universal basic income from a design perspective. This is essential listening for anybody curious about how this whole thing might work. The short answer is that nobody knows. But this will tell you about the people who are trying to figure it out who you should be keeping tabs on.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Watergate” — It’s been ages since I listened to this show, but the idea of them doing a sound-focussed political story interested me. This is the story of how recording technology in the Nixon White House became so much a part of the scenery that it led to the president’s downfall. Fun stuff.

Longform: Reply All two-parter — These two interviews with the hosts of Reply All are among the most fascinating documents of the world of podcasting that I’ve heard. I’d argue that Reply All, more so than StartUp, is the show that made Gimlet Media an institution. It is an ongoing classic, and a thing that couldn’t really exist if not for podcasting. It is a seamless integration of This American Life-style reported storytelling with the sort of loose chatter that’s native to podcasting. These interviews highlight how both sides of that coin came together. They go into detail on the story development process of the show’s six-person team (I can hardly believe this show is made by only six people) and they also shed light on how Vogt and Goldman’s rapport developed. This is fascinating stuff. Reply All is eminently deserving of a two-hour peek behind the curtain.

Constellations: “adriene lilly – migraines & tsunamis” & “michelle macklem – ode to my last 10 years of dating” — Here is a new podcast dedicated to boundary pushing, sound art-adjacent radio. In other words, it may be the medium’s saviour. Time will tell. Of these first two I’ve heard, “migraines & tsunamis” is the standout. It is a marvellous collage that deals with two very distinct, but oddly analogous kinds of pain. I want more like this from the podcast space. I will be listening to this one closely.

Code Switch: “A Weed Boom, But For Whom?” — A fascinating look into how the oncoming post-legalization weed boom will likely mostly help white people. Also, a fascinating look at the pre-history of the drug war, which predates Nixon by decades.

Reply All: “At World’s End” — A two-story episode focussed on Newgrounds. Remember Newgrounds? What a cesspool. I recall it with fondness.

Theory of Everything: “Concrete and Respect (Wisconsin part I of II)” — This is so great. It’s co-produced by Mathilde, who is the episode announcer on the show, and Benjamen Walker’s wife. (I cannot find a reliable spelling of her last name on the internet, otherwise I’d give it.) The two of them and their young son Arthaud head off to Wisconsin for a family vacation to see some weird art and talk to people who aren’t politically aligned with them. They’re a family with an unorthodox idea of fun. But Mathilde brings a well-read thoughtfulness to this show that’s different from Walker’s trademark informed paranoia. She’s been reading Tocqueville lately, and it deeply influences her take on what she sees. I love this. It’s a great example of what makes this show totally different from anything else out there. Pick of the week.

Imaginary Worlds: “Worldbuilding With Music” — Weird episode. A guy from a band got in touch with Eric Molinsky to suggest an episode on concept albums, which is a great idea. But this focusses mostly on that band, which is yet to release their first EP. And by all indications here, it doesn’t sound that great. I would have loved to hear from Del the Funky Homosapien, Neil Peart, and maybe Tony Visconti, or somebody else who worked with Bowie on Ziggy Stardust. I guess they’re hard to get in touch with. But something like that would have been great.

StartUp: “An Announcement from StartUp and Introducing The Nod” — The announcement that StartUp will be devoted specifically to serialized seasons from here on out is EXTREMELY welcome. Guess I won’t drop this show after all. And the episode of The Nod that they play here is great: it’s a fashion-focussed episode and I still liked it, which means it must be very compelling storytelling. I should listen to this show more often.

Nocturne: “Shortboard” — I feel like I need some new podcasts in my life. This one has been coming up in the New York Times podcast club Facebook group, so I figured I’d give it a go. I’m a fan — though this particular episode could almost be Love and Radio. The premise of the show is just, stories that happen at night. That’s a promising premise, although I generally don’t listen to podcasts at night, so I might have trouble being in the mood for it. Still, always nice to find a new show that’s good.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing #6 – NOISE” — This final episode of Ways of Hearing is one of the strongest. It details how digital instruments are noiseless, and how layering them thus loses the noisy richness of analogue recording. It finishes with a slightly forced attempt to link the concepts of signal and noise to every other episode of the show, but prior to that, it’s good stuff. I had high hopes for this series, and it didn’t really even come close. But when it was at its most insightful, it was really good.

Radiolab: “Oliver Sipple” — This is an overall pretty good story about a guy who saved the president’s life and then had all of his privacy and his family taken away from him by the press, who seized on the fact that he was gay. The story has two weak points: one, nobody involved really tries that hard to litigate the central conflict in the story which is whether or not the public actually had a right to know about Sipple’s sexuality. This is the sort of conflict that Radiolab used to thrive on, and it comes and goes in about 30 seconds here. The other problem is that the story starts with original interview tape of the attempted assassin that Sipple stopped. She never reappears. I have no idea why this was necessary for the story, aside from to shock and titillate us with the notion that we’re hearing from that person. There’s some great archival tape in this, though.

On the Media: “Trust Issues” — A really good one. The highlights are a particularly persuasive argument that government deregulation of tech giants has led to us being “governed” by private companies, and another conversation on how a code of ethics might come into effect in Silicon Valley. It also contains a not too confrontational (but confrontational enough) conversation with the guy who runs Gab, the free speech absolutist, conservative dominated social platform. In their now infamous post-election day episode, the hosts of OTM talked about how they’d need to find a new paradigm for the show, the same way they had to when Obama was elected. I think the close examination of social media might be a viable new paradigm for this show. Certainly it’s the only one that seems to understand it at all.

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