A Pretty Brief Contribution to the Genre of People Blogging about The Power Broker

I finished The Power Broker a couple of days ago, which seemed at the time like something of an achievement. I am a little sorry to be finished with it, because it had become a sort of friendly presence, and it kept having exciting revelations about the political power flows of the recent past.

Caro is really good at building a story and a case in nicely layered pieces, and handles pacing extremely well, on several levels. You know from the beginning that Moses starts unsuccessful, will come to power under Al Smith, and then win and win for 44 years until Rockefeller finally brings him down, but the details are pretty exciting. And the portrait of Moses is ultimately very sympathetic, although it does not refrain from pointing out the various quirks, which, along with his genius, more or less ensured that he would turn into a terrible raging ogre once he had accumulated enough power to surf on.


  • Not very far into the book, after Moses had got a couple of things done and you get to see him responding to criticism, it occurred to me that he almost certainly would have had several things to say about the way he was portrayed, so I checked, and it turned out that he had produced a fascinating but I’d say pretty self-defeating note after the publication of the book.
  • The Caro tone is very distinct, and, to me, pretty endearing, but also lends itself a bit to parody.
  • As a general rule, anyone trying to revive Moses’s reputation without acknowledging that he should probably have been tried for crimes against humanity for some of his Title I shenanigans is either a bad person or an ignorant person.

Some Intrepidity

There was also a Super Cobra, which you can sort of see in the background.

There was also a Super Cobra, which you can sort of see in the background.

The Intrepid's MiG-21, against the backdrop of a cruise ship that happened to be hanging around.

The Intrepid’s MiG-21, against the backdrop of a cruise ship that happened to be hanging around.

The noble MiG-17, in VPAF colors.  Behind are an old model Harrier and an Etendard.

The noble MiG-17, in VPAF colors. Behind are an old model Harrier and an Etendard.

Looking down through the bulkheads.  A narrow view.

Inside the USS Growler. Looking down through the bulkheads. A narrow view.

I feel like the Norwegian Jewel makes an especially funny contrast here, and I regret that I couldn't capture how utterly zany the Greyback class profile is, with the missile hangar jutting up in the front the way it does.

I feel like the Norwegian Jewel makes an especially funny contrast here, and I regret that I couldn’t capture how utterly zany the Greyback class profile is, with the missile hangar jutting up in the front the way it does.

Continuing in the toothy motif, the F-8 Crusader.

Continuing in the toothy motif, the F-8 Crusader.

An enumeration of various dangers on the Kfir's fuselage.

An enumeration of various dangers on the Kfir’s fuselage.

Probably the most stood-under Concorde in North America.

Probably the most stood-under Concorde in North America.

Narrative Pretension in Games

Moving Image has a big exhibit up now of the famous video games of history, which is partly pretty good (you can play the actual old Spacewar, on a really well done PDP-1 replica, with a round cathode ray tube and crazy controllers) but mostly fairly dubious (maybe it is a byproduct of having all the games be playable, but the space feels dumb, and the game selection is not really a coherent survey of games that mattered in history, by any standard that I can think of).  In the course of going to see this exhibit, I kind of blundered into Indiecade East, which turned out also to be happening at Moving Image this weekend. I thought that I had arrived just in time to see  a talk about 30 Flights of Loving, so after giving the space a brief initial perusal I sprinted down to catch the talk.  But I had misread the schedule, and the talk turned out to be about a sort of self-consciously dull art-ish game called Cart Life.

The guy giving the talk explained at the beginning of it that he did not really “enjoy” Cart Life, but nevertheless feels that it is, at the current moment, a critical step in moving video games (you know you are in a very particular milieu when people start using the term “video games” as opposed pretty specifically to “computer games” or even “games.” It is the milieu that tends to love big retro pixels but also feels strongly about a particular self-conscious kind of “art” or whatever) to where they need to be. The definition of where video games need to be is where I find myself disagreeing pretty strongly with the dude who gave the talk.

Cart Life (you will get a much better sense of it much faster, probably, if you follow the link) is a “retail simulation,” which differs from the extant and extremely prolific existing field of retail simulation by having you control very specific characters, and control them when they are off duty as well as when they are selling things, so that instead of JUST a spreadsheet-driven exercise in building a business, you are playing a spreadsheet-driven exercise in building a business with some bizarre extra-hours minigames (you have to brush your teeth every morning, and they make it into a thing where you are prompted to punch arrow keys until you’re done) and multiple-choice exercises that add bathos. From what the presenter showed of Cart Life, I think this might be moderately amusing, or at least tedious in an interesting way.

BUT! the lesson that the dude giving the talk drew from this is that we should start to think of games in a genre fiction/literary fiction split, and that game people should start trying more self-consciously to do lit-fic sorts of narratives, OF WHICH he holds up Huckleberry Finn (yes, ok, and there are many good “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“-style takedowns of things that happen in games, but that is probably not the dude’s point) The Master (I did like There Will Be Blood, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to P.T. Anderson’s level of craft, but this still seems somewhat dubious) and Wit (and this is where I think we have to draw the line) as good examples. Wit, in particular, having been pointed to as a reference/inspiration by Cart Life’s creator.

Let’s grant that in many if not most modern cinematic games in the shooty or RPG mode, one ends up having to save the world, and this gets a bit tiresome. But there are a lot of things in which you don’t have to do this, or in which you do it in a jokey way. And of course there are even cinematic games, like the GTAs and their offshoots, in which you are doing some crimes and not saving the world, although the general tone is still pretty genre. But is the way forward really supposed to be super-intentional aspirational middlebrow dullness? I think the really good games tend to bypass these goofy narrative questions, and that the medium probably shouldn’t be framed in those terms, and that it is especially stupid to dredge up ye olde literary vs. genre thing.

Anyhow, I had some issues with that talk, which ended in a Q&A with the game’s creator, who was I guess pleasant enough but really did seem like someone who might hold Wit as some kind of pinnacle of artistic achievement. Then there was a thing about that fairly well-liked but somewhat too didactic drone game, and then I wandered around the little exhibition hall for a while and was too nervous to speak to Brendon Chung.


Last night we went to a gallery in DUMBO to see a Times art critic get pilloried for having written some intemperate things about women and black people. We were there mainly because our friend was scouting it to see what it might be like when they have a second pillorying next month at PAFA.

In what is a funny twist of continuity for our lives recently, one of the the shows he had reviewed was up at PS1 when we were there, and so we had just been through it and had a sort of vague opinion (it was OK, with some pretty super highlights).

We had been getting an early dinner in midtown, so we arrived somewhat late and had to sit in the downstairs part of the gallery (the pillorying was happening in an upstairs room, which was packed with I guess cool kids, and anyone who wanted to show up was sitting in the downstairs, which had a bar and a bunch of tables on a kind of scaffold over a pond. I would really like to go back there if there is ever a worthwhile show, because it is a pretty sweet space and you can imagine drunk people falling entertainingly into the pond, although it has a railing. The events transpiring upstairs were being shown in real time on a big projector in the downstairs space, which added an interesting layer of distance).

The actual pillorying was a pretty mixed bag. The critic’s intemperate remarks were definitely intemperate, in a sort of Bulworth-style “older white dude believes he is expressing basic truths by finally letting himself say racist/sexist things, and feels that his credentials as a big liberal and the fact that he is expressing what he feels to be basic truths should be enough for everyone to be cool with it” mode. The panel was not very good at coherently taking this apart, and in particular there was one young artist on it who talked at length in what might as well have been self-parodic jargon. There were also some very excellent coherent people, and at a couple of points you kind of felt there was a pretty decent debate happening. But then the critic’s friends in the audience decided they had had enough of the pillorying (which, despite protestations from some of the panel, was really a straightforward case of everyone on the stage being there to at the very least give the poor old critic a pretty aggressive interrogation about what he had written) and began to heckle a bit. Here is my advice for cases where you are an older white dude friend of an old white dude critic who is doing pretty decently at engaging a semi-hostile but ultimately somewhat ineffective gang of interlocutors: you may feel some outrage, but your cause and the cause of your pal will be best served by you keeping it to yourself (you might also want to meditate on how talking unselfconsciously about marked and unmarked categories could be an indication that there is still a lot of privilege floating around).

My Notes from Seeing Stross and Doctorow at MakerBot

We are in Brooklyn now, and Stross had mentioned on his Twitter feed that they would be doing this event. It seemed like a bit of a thing, and I was interested in what the walk up to MakerBot from our apartment would be like (it was relatively long and a bit hot, as this was still the infamous “hot” part of September).  I didn’t get any pictures, but I have these notes.


The MakerBot space: cavernous. Some iMacs. The Ikea overhead paper globes. Plastic folding chairs. The table in the middle with two 3D printers and a big array of 3D printed Stross and Doctorow heads. I noticed an old empty vending machine, and then, closer to the door, a vending machine with brightly-colored weird toys in it.

By the time Stross and Doctorow arrived (they were a little bit late, according to Bre Pettis, because Doctorow had a flat (which seemed to suggest some kind of joke about his blogging balloon/dirgible, but the joke didn’t quite materialize) the place was pretty crowded, with people standing in the back and another big clot of people by the door. It was not a good space to arrive late to, as an audience member, because you had to kind of move across the middle of everyone’s attention (and once the thing started, pretty much in front of Stross and Doctorow) to get to the decent standing room.

The actual arrival of the authors themselves was pretty casual (and the whole thing was really interestingly casual). They just tumbled in and said hey, apologized for their (really slight) lateness and were guided to their places at the table of 3D printed heads. Stross asked for a glass of water, and remarked that his 3D printed heads looked a bit Lenin-esque (and they did in fact have a strong superficial resemblance to the white chocolate bust of Lenin that we used to have).

Doctorow opened with the plan, which was that they would each explain a bit about the project, then each read a bit from the book, and then fill the rest of the time with questions from the audience. He followed this by explaining their general process, starting with the collaborative story “Jury Duty,” which had sort of started the roll of ideas that turned into the book (which ended up taking seven years, and is in three big sections, all of which –I think– ran as freestanding novellas or short stories or whatever, which makes Accelerando the obvious point of comparison, both content-wise and shambolic-form-wise). This bit was a little inside-baseball ish. Although who is to say.

Stross’s talk was about the history of the singularity as a concept, and what they mean by Rapture of the Nerds (which is Ken MacLeod’s term), and how this fits in with broader eschatology. This is a topic that is covered really well on his blog, and it was extremely interesting to hear him talk about it, because he is such a lucid and thorough thinker, but I think is hampered a bit by the inherent goofiness of lecturing as a person in front of a bunch of people. Which is to say I felt the blog posts are in general a better way to convey the concepts, and a better medium for Stross (who is really a perfect medium-long form blogger, as far as being able to kick around ideas in a kind of agile but still very well-considered way). Anyway: key concepts: Kurzweil, Vinge, Federov, the extropian dudes of the 90s, Moore’s Law, Lapsarianism, the Scottish Enlightenment, cognitive clankiness that emerges when humans try to build predictive frameworks that head toward unbounded states, the basic idea from Vinge that once you put a mind in a computer and speed it up a bit it will design a better mind and a better computer more or less right then and soon humans generally will be uploaded or irrelevant, a kind of diversion to Federov and early Marxist/Leninist cosmic utopianism as a vision of the proto-singularity, and the Rapture as a flipped Singularity (or vice versa). This comes through somewhat jumbled in my memory, and was interspersed with sort of tone-based jokes in the delivery (speaking of delivery, I had somehow expected him to sound Scottish, but he only lives in Edinburgh and is actually from Leeds, so he had a very soft slightly northy urbane BBC accent, as far as I am capable of interpreting that stuff).

The readings were: our tech-phobic protagonist, having previously undergone an involuntary sex change, is yanked out of her house by her mother’s posthuman golem and forcibly uploaded (Stross). And later, taken to participate in a judgement of (post)humanity’s general worth by the Galactic Authority, said judgement to be administered in a virtual space running on computronium that has been manufactured from the moons of Jupiter (I think Io and Calypso specifically), our protagonist realizes that her overriding objection to uploading was the kind of horrible banality it engenders, and then, in a simulated gross hotel, watches TV that has been rendered impossibly interesting by honing it against simulated copies of herself (the simulated copy thing is a pretty funny chestnut of upload fiction) while worrying that she herself might be one of those copies, and that she’ll be terminated if she changes the channel. She then goes on to watch TV for a hundred subjective years.

These were both fairly amusing passages, and I think they went over well. Stross is a somewhat livelier reader than Doctorow, and he had the protagonist say “shitbiscuits,” which I guess is something one might say if one is about to be killed and put into a computer by one’s hideous superhuman robot mother.

The questions were for the most part surprisingly good. Someone wanted to know how Rapture of the Nerds fits with Accelerando (you should read them back to back, with RotN in the unicorn chaser role, according to Stross). What were the logistical issues of collaborating? (Doctorow has a really funny git-based snapshotting script that you can get on github, and Stross was in charge of general version control.) How disruptive do they think 3D printing is going to be? (Very, and they both have books about it.) Did they have big disagreements about ideas? (No.) Do they think the view of the singularity and of technological progress in general is informed by gnosticism? (Doctorow tags Charlie, Charlie says “yes.” Then adds a bit of elaboration about lenses. I would personally say that a lot of people’s approach to tech is super gnostic.) Well if they didn’t have disagreements about big ideas, did they have fights about passages? (Yes, and those were resolved by shelving disputed passages to give everyone time to cool off, or by phone, which as we all know, is a really drastic move in these times.) I forget what else. There is probably video. (There is.)

Toward a More Socialist Network

I have said in various settings that I think we should nationalize Facebook, but I don’t know that I have done much to set out the argument, or explained that I mean it more or less sincerely (although I was also kind of making a jokey catchphrase out of it).

The issue is that something like Facebook probably needs to exist, but the stupid hand of the market will inevitably kind of wreck instantiations of it that are run for profit, because if you charge users for the service (which in general seems like the right way to provide a lot of services) you almost certainly won’t get a critical mass of users, whereas if you don’t charge users for the service, you will have to either go out of business or make users the product and advertisers the secret real customers, which leads to unpleasantness.

But if we recognize some kind of social network as a public good, it should follow that the obvious right move is to establish a taxpayer-funded independent Social Network Administration along the lines of the NTSB or NOAA.

Two More Fragments

1. This appalling story of further PayPal misbehavior, combined with the pretty wild New Yorker profile in which a founder of the company is shown to be a mad libertarian and something of a supervillain, made me think it would be interesting to construct a story around the conceit that the company (in the story: a thinly-disguised analog) exists mainly to do disruptive social engineering experiments, or, alternately, to track down and destroy magical artifacts. Or both! Although you would then need more of a story to work that detail into.

2. This was, I think, covered pretty well in the pulps between about 1900 and 1950, but maybe we can get somewhere new with it: what if all the little optical mind tricks, like the square that seems larger than the other square and the spiraling shape that superimposes itself, are basically like Hero’s aeolipile: demonstrations of an underlying process that just needs a bit more engineering to be turned into something fundamentally world-changing. This could I guess fairly easily get kind of stupid.

Confusion about Terms

The other morning as I was cantering over to the car a woman asked me where the Union Memorial was. I wasn’t sure, but since she used a definite article I thought she must be looking for the statue of a Union soldier that stands at the southeast corner of Wyman Park Dell. So I said she should keep going down 31st street and she couldn’t miss it.

This morning I was looking at a very pixellated map of the neighborhood in the Charles Villager (it was a map explaining how they will probably ruin the farmer’s market by spending a lot of money to add pavilions and things to the parking lot where it’s held) and I saw that Union Memorial is actually a hospital just to the north of us. I hope the woman enjoyed her walk, and that she met someone on St. Paul Street who was able to point her in the right direction. And if she didn’t meet someone on St. Paul Street who was able to point her in the right direction, I hope she found the statue of the Union soldier to be edifying.