Mindbending Escheresque Puzzle World Works of Art
Yes, it’s me, Russell, back with another exciting issue of “what have you done in the past two weeks”, which (it will surprise nobody) mostly consists of online board games. If you don’t remember who I am or why you’re here (which, to be honest, I don’t know either most of the time), please do feel free to click the big unsubscribe button at the bottom. Or, stay here, and we’ll see what merry adventures we end up on!
By the way, I’d love to have a recurring mailbag segment, but that would require I actually get mail. So, if you have any thoughts, feelings, or questions about this issue, fire away and (with your permission, of course), maybe I’ll include it in a future issue.
”Temptation of Buddha by the Evil Forces of Mara”, Northern India, Kashmir, 8th century
I hope quarantine is treating you all well. Or, at least, not badly. It’s been another two weeks (has it really?) and the world keeps spinning, more or less.
Also, in Robin Sloan’s last newsletter, he mentioned how he’s been using open access museum collections to find pictures for his newsletter. Which is a great idea! Museums have some great-looking stuff! So, from now on, there will be a mix of my own pictures (which you’re hopefully used to by now) and works from museum archives.
What I’m Working On
Oh, you know, the usual. Website revamp is coming along, piano is occasionally played, Buttonup now has tabs:
Tabs that don’t do anything, but…
What I’m Reading
Every week I’ve been looking forward to new posts from A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry, which is, as the subtitle says, “a look at the history of battle in popular culture”. If you’re the kind to browse r/AskHistorians, you will probably love Bret Devereaux’s work as well. Recently, he talked about why we don’t use chemical weapons anymore. Spoiler alert: it’s not because the world is suddenly goody-two-shoes. Rather, he delves into the difference between what he refers to as “modern” militaries (the armies of the US, Europe, China, and so on, descended from World War I and II) and “static” militaries, and the role of chemical weapons in each. It calls to mind the recent War on the Rocks podcast episode “Who Needs Landmines?”, in which the guests argue about whether landmines are necessary and why they are still used. I do think (applying The Secret of Our Success and Giving Up the Gun) that he undersells the influence of culture; after all, most weapons are horrible, but chemical weapons do seem to have an especially reviled place in our culture, associated very strongly with the horrors of the Great War, and while major powers might consider chemical (and biological!) weapons if they were effective, I suspect they would seriously think twice about it. Still, this is an extremely good article, and I also highly recommend all his other article series, like “Practical Polytheism” (on how polytheism in the Ancient Greek and Roman world was actually practiced) and “The Lonely City” (which is, roughly, about the urban design of premodern cities).
Rolling Stone had a feature on “The Unsolved Case of the Most Mysterious Song on the Internet”. It’s a rather interesting story (similar to Reply All’s “The Case of the Missing Hit”) although, spoiler alert, it is unsolved. Two thoughts: hey, this song is pretty good! As you may know, I’m a connoisseur of music released between 1978 and 1984, so this is, in fact, right up my alley. Secondly, it’s fascinating to think about just how much stuff is just… lost. Like, what if somebody discovers this newsletter in thirty years—will I still be around? Will I be able to answer questions about it? Will I even remember it? It’s honestly surprising more isn’t lost.
Also, Sherry started a newsletter, Flash Fiction from Frostyshadows. I highly recommend subscribing 😉
“Knight, Death, and the Devil”, Albrecht Dürer, 1513 (this is relevant to the next section.)
What I’m Watching
I watched The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s classic knight-playing-chess-with-death treatise on our mortality. It is, in fact, a classic! I mean, it was obviously made in the late ‘50s, and some parts (the editing, occasionally) do feel somewhat of another time… but it’s really something special, despite that. The impression I got (spoilers follow; just watch it) was that death was in fact merely a metaphor, not a literal character, and that the whole chess distraction was not to be taken literally either; as death says, “Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me.” That is, Block’s “distraction” was more a comfort to him, and not literally saving the lives of the happy young couple. Anyway, it’s great and you should definitely watch it.
As a side note, I watched it on Kanopy, a streaming site I apparently have access to through the San Francisco Public Library. It is surprisingly nice! I mean, it doesn’t have the benefit of hundreds of highly-paid senior software engineers like Netflix, clearly; but it does what it does well enough to work. But more importantly, it has a really interesting and eclectic selection! There’s a few selections from the Criterion Collection (hence The Seventh Seal), a lot of documentaries, a lot of films I’ve never heard of, and also a few recent big-budget films like Midsommar. Worth checking if you also have access!
Two documentaries this week. Obit., on Kanopy, and Helvetica, which was streaming free on the director’s site (Objectified is now streaming, and Urbanized, the third of the trilogy, follows next week). Obit. was somewhat disappointing for me; I had heard high praise of it (though I can’t remember exactly where, come to think of it…), but I found it slightly tedious. Unfortunately (especially for a documentary about, well, obituaries) it never really finds its narrative throughline, and while it’s interesting to hear about the process of writing obituaries from the obit writers themselves (though it doesn’t help that I found most of the obit writers mildly annoying, in that snooty-New-York-writer way 🤷♀️), it’s all-too-often derailed by asides that didn’t really speak to me, like when one of the writers starts waxing lyrical about David Foster Wallace. But also… it was fine. I mean, like I said, it is interesting to hear how obits are written—it’s not something you think about most days!—but I can’t help but feel it just doesn’t hit the lofty “oh, mortality” notes it aims for.
Helvetica, on the other hand, I thought was a nice little exercise in documentary storytelling. It carefully shepherds the viewer through the life and legacy of the ubiquitous font, and along the way explores the history of modern and postmodern typography, all without getting (too) lost in the weeds. What did I take away from it? Well, that Helvetica is… fine. It’s fine! Erik Spiekermann is just mean. In any case, definitely recommended for any typography or design nerds in the audience.
Ah, yes, a Voxplainer about Koreans in Japan. Except these are North Koreans. That have never resided in, nor are even citizens of, North Korea. Needless to say, this is a great watch about those “imagined communities” Benedict Anderson kept going on about.
Ugly Delicious season 2 is out, which is sadly only 4 episodes. I feel like the Indian food/curry episode (the only I’ve watched so far) doesn’t quite hit the highs of the first season, but I also don’t exactly mind spending 45 minutes watching David Chang try lots and lots of delicious-looking food.
Finally, two hilarious videos:
What I’m Listening To
Nine Inch Nails released two new free albums, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts. They are… very appropriate to the world right now! But, more to the point, Ghosts I-IV is one of my favorite albums ever; its eerie, terror-drenched ambience really speaks to me, which you could probably guess from how much I’ve raved about The Caretaker’s An empty bliss beyond this world (go! listen! now!). And Ghosts V and VI is… more of the same! Perfect listening to walk around the (sometimes but not always) deserted streets of San Francisco.
On a recommendation from Flow State, I listened to a few albums from Idris Muhammad, an American jazz drummer who released a bunch of albums in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Just from that description you can probably guess if he’ll be for you. But! I’ve become obsessed with the drum solo intro from the (otherwise silly) “Disco Man”, off his 1978 You Ain’t No Friend of Mine. Seriously! Just listen to the first 15 seconds! Have you ever heard something calling out so loud to be sampled? Yet according to Who Sampled, it’s never been sampled before 🤷♀️
Also, George Harrison’s “Art of Dying” is a bop. That is all.
Finally, here’s a really good mashup of The Temptations’ “Get Ready” and Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave”. One of the comments says “I unironically want Soul Metal to become a thing,” which… yes please.
What I’m Playing
Obviously, a lot of online board games.
My coworkers and I tried horsepaste, which is an online client for Codenames. Codenames is a beautiful little game by Vlaada Chvatil (who’s quite famous in the tabletop games space) and horsepaste is… a not-entirely-beautiful client for it! It does work, mostly, though curiously there’s no UUIDs for games, just a user-supplied game name, which means if you pick a not-very-unique game name, like “mobile,” you will almost definitely have randos in your game. Which, of course, horsepaste (being very barebones) will not let you know. Needless to say, this caused some confusion. A better option, to be quite honest, is skribbl.io, which is basically Pictionary-but-online.
My coworkers and I also tried Dominion Online, which is a very faithful recreation of Dominion… online. If you know me well, you probably know that I think deck building, as invented/popularized by Dominion, is the best tabletop game mechanic in history (and, possibly, the best mechanic in gaming history?). The idea of “investing” your hand of cards to improve your deck in future rounds and, conversely, ending up saddled with junk cards when things go wrong is just genius and works fabulously as a base for more complicated mechanics (it’s almost as basic as “roll a die to see what happens”). But Dominion… well, a lot of later games take that deck building heritage and guide it in a more exciting direction; Legendary Encounters: Alien, my single favorite tabletop game of all time, brilliantly captures the tense horror-and-action atmosphere of the Alien film franchise using little more than deck building and a line of hidden xenomorph cards coming to get you. Dominion, in its vanilla, base set form, is rather less exciting; it feels very mechanical and Eurogame-y. That’s not necessarily a problem—there’s plenty of games, like Splendor, that feel very mechanical and don’t have too much direct player interaction, yet still remain gripping—but when divorced from its physical context—from the constant shuffling and reshuffling, from picking up and putting down cards—it ends up feeling a little bit boring. And, unfortunately, I have to say Dominion Online did end up feeling a little boring; I think my coworkers were unimpressed after the hype I had given it. My point, I think, is that board games are partly fun just through sheer tactility, and that taking that away really shines a light on the deficiencies of the design.
Monument Valley 2 is (was?) free due to the worldwide shutdown. It was charming—I’ve never played the (critically acclaimed) original, but I can see why it’s so famous, its mindbending Escheresque puzzle world works of art in themselves. But, I also have to say… Monument Valley 2 is very short! I finished it in something like an hour, which was slightly disappointing (although, as it was free, I’m not complaining). It did feel on the cusp of opening up into something more—on the cusp of saying something louder—and then quietly ends (not quite on an anticlimax, but more of an unexpected climax). The feeling is somewhat akin to Owlboy, which similarly seemed to finally be opening up, only to… end. Keeping with the theme of tactility, though, I wonder if it feels so nice just because you’re physically swiping and spinning the world around; it feels like a game that couldn’t really exist outside the context of that small, vibrating touchscreen we call a “phone” these days.
I spent an hour or two in Civilization VI. My relationship with the Civ series is… perhaps not complicated, per se, but definitely not as warm as some feel. It just never quite clicks with me; I feel like the feeling Civ wants to impart on me is not correctly imparted. It wants to express the broad sweep of history (problematic though its interpretation might be), but the fact that it’s essentially a board game, with very literal board game mechanics, means it doesn’t land with quite the punch of Rise of Nations or Paradox’s titles like Crusader Kings II. And, of course, I don’t feel like I have time to devote 5-10 hours to a game that feels mostly like waiting! But every so often I boot it up and give it another chance, devoting an hour or two of my life before getting bored and giving up on yet another civilization.
Friends and I also tried Tabletopia’s online version of Secret Hitler, which is an impressive recreation of the tabletop experience In The Browser™️, though it’s also more than a bit difficult to actually… er… play the game. On the other hand, Push the Button in Jackbox Party Pack 6 takes largely the same concept but makes it much better for remote play—highly recommended if you really need your remote social deduction game.
On the topic of all these online versions of games, is there an online version of Love Letter (my other favorite tabletop game)? It should be extremely easy to clone, but it seems like nobody’s done it yet. Anybody want to work on that? 😃
“Album of Landscape Paintings Illustrating Old Poems: An Old Man with a Staff walks a Wooded Path”, Hua Yan, 1700s
Whew, this was quite a long edition. Sorry about that, folks! Thanks for sticking with it to the end; hopefully you’ve enjoyed my ramblings. Hope you all have two good weeks until the next one 🙂