The Reproducibility Trap, Or Why Everything Original and Curated Becomes Re-Heated Crap

Somewhere on I-81 in Virginia, there’s a billboard for Cracker Barrel, because of course there is. If you find yourself on the interstate and there isn’t a Cracker Barrel within 30 miles of you, then start taking pictures of the alien plants and the non-Euclidean geometry, because you’ve slipped into an alternate dimension. Anyway, this particular billboard caught my eye because of the slogan: “What’s the secret ingredient? Care.”

Now, I’ve eaten in many a Cracker Barrel, and enjoyed it every time, so I’m not coming from a place of dismissal. But there are 665 Cracker Barrel locations in the United States. How many Uncle Hershel’s Breakfasts do you suppose get served in them on a given day? Who invests care in them? How much?

To ask the question is to answer it. The cooks at Cracker Barrel are trained in making the food the way Cracker Barrel wants it done, so that whether you order an Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast in Tennessee, Arizona, or Maine, you are assured of getting the same meal. The cook doesn’t really care about the food, not in the same way as if he’d be cooking his own recipe. He’s following the Training. He’s working his shift.

Instead of care, the food at Cracker Barrel gets Quality Control, with Food Policies. Everything is 100% Sustainable and/or Raised Domestically, whatever that officially means. Stipulate that this isn’t just advertising, that the people who run Cracker Barrel actually want their food to have a level of quality and wholesomeness you won’t get at Denny’s. This is on-brand for them, and for the other thing they’re selling: nostalgia.

My point is that the ubiquity of Cracker Barrel is contrary to the image it’s selling. This isn’t their fault; it’s just what happens at scale. Perhaps the most relevatory film about American business of the last ten years is The Founder. Watch it and you’ll realize that there was a time when McDonald’s was revolutionary, a masterpiece of motion-study, space-management, and quality-control, when these things were new on the ground. The food was good too, simple and well-prepared. But the film also demonstrates, that at scale, commitment to care and individualization goes out the window. Why spend money refrigerating milk and ice cream when you can just make a milkshake with powder?

But at that moment, you’ve surrendered the thing that got you started. You’re no longer a chef, not even a businessman anymore. You’re a CEO, part of the network, part of the System. You may run your shop better or worse than others, but you’re a million miles removed from the customer experience. Yet however bad that sounds, it really doesn’t matter, because once you’ve created a product that reaches sufficient recognition, you don’t need to curate customer experience anymore. McDonald’s isn’t a burger joint, competing with other burger joints, it’s a brand, competing with other brands. The brand sells the burgers, not the other way around.

This is what’s happening in entertainment as well. People who bemoan the loss of original content might as well be speaking in Linear-A, for all the suits will hear them. A movie can succeed or fail at the box office. An Intellectual Property cannot fail once its hit critical mass. People screamed to the heavens about the Ghostbusters remake, and it bombed, but they made another movie, didn’t they? It doesn’t matter that its dumb, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t manage to create a Cinematic Universe out of it. It’s an Intellectual Property. It cannot fail, it can only require new recycling. There’s still a market for Halloween movies, isn’t there?

I’ve mentioned this before, and it’s been talked about on Shallow & Pedantic: the point at which the product no longer requires editing, because people who like it have become FANS. Fans aren’t always uncritical, but they’re always customers, and a hater’s dollar is just as good. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Therefore, you can screw up Star Wars as much as you want, and people will still buy tickets for it. This creates a perverse incentive for the creators. If I can butcher the story as much as I want, and pissed-off fans still buy tickets, then what difference does it make?

This is why they keep making Terminator movies. Of course they suck. Any film after T2 was destined to suck, because they could only make them by wrecking or rewriting the lore of the first two films. But if angry fans keep showing up, then announcing their criticisms to the world, then the brand still exists. Everyone hated Terminator: Genysis; but Terminator: Dark Fate happened anyway. Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a Terminator movie since 1991. I am utterly at peace with its flailing.

The only thing that kills brands is indifference. Either indifferent leadership and bad management, or worse yet, public indifference. People have been hating McDonald’s as long as I’ve been alive. It’s still there. The day people stop caring about it, forget in their head that it even exists, that’s the day it stops being a brand, and becomes an artifact for historians.

Unnamed Journal, Caligula and Punk Rock: Big ‘Ol July Update

Summer is an odd time. I should be filling the blog with posts, but somehow, other projects take precedence. To be fair, I’ve definitely fallen from my 10-post-a-month threshold I was hitting in the fall and winter. That means something, but I’m not sure what.

The point is, I’m behind on posting stuff. It happens. So lets get on with it.

This has been up for a little bit. It’s one of our more rambling episodes, per the effects of the Rule of 30 in Podcasting. Punk as a style and an aesthetic has become vast over the last 40 years, but it doesn’t ever really escape the superposition in started in. So there’s lots to talk about, and all of it relates.

But that’s the secondary bit of news. This is the big bit of news:

Available for $2.99 on ebook, $3.99 in Paperpack. The ebook looks really good, as I used Scrivener to create it, and previewed it before uploading it to Amazon. This closes the chapter on a project I’ve been playing around with for years. Now I can move on, to polishing up Death Riding and The Sword, before moving on to other works in embryo.

Finally, this is also available on Amazon:

Been on Gumroad for a while, but I’ve got the ebook up on Amazon and am finalizing the paperback edition as well. All in all, it’s been a pretty big month.

Aldous Huxley is Cool

Will not explain.

Just kidding. I first read Brave New World while in college, and it remains both more plausible than 1984 and less terrifying. There are those who say that Brave New World should be more terrifying, precisely because it’s a seductive dystopia. Which, I get. But both of them are prophetic in their way. Orwell was dead on about the politicization of language and the hatefulness of its priests. Huxley was right about the perversion of morality by industrial efficiency.

I only mention these because I picked up a copy of The Doors of Perception (which includes his “Heaven and Hell” essay) and found it edifying. Yes, I know it launched a thousand hippies, and gave the Doors their name. I don’t think it’s fair to blame that on Huxley, though. For one thing, he wasn’t a miscreant like Ken Kesey or Tim Leary, selling a generation on LSD in order to advance their own Oedipal conflicts/guru fantasies. He was a serious scholar and a careful thinker, one who recognized what C.S. Lewis called the Tao of Tradition. He’s serious enough to advance some solid aesthetic principles in the appendices of Heaven and Hell.

Pagentry is a visionary art which has been used, from time immemorial, as a political instrument. the gorgeous fancy dress worn by kings, popes, and their respective retainers, military and ecclesiastical, has a very practical purpose — to impress the lower classes with a lively sense of the masters’ superhuman greatness. By means of fine clothes and solemn ceremonies de facto domination is transformed into a rule not merely de jure, but, positively, de jure divino. The crowns and tiaras, the assorted jewelry, the satins, silks and velvets, the gaudy uniforms and vestments, the crosses and medals, the sword hilts and the crosiers, the plumes in the cocked hats and their clerical equivalents, those huge feather fans which make every papal function look like a tableau from Aïda — all these are vision-inducing properties, designed to make all too human gentlement and ladies look like heroes, demigods, and seraphs, and giving, in the process, a great deal of innocent pleasure to all concerned, actors and spectators alike.

Aldous Huxly, “Heaven and Hell”, pg 160

For another, anyone who knows anything about Jim Morrison knows he was going to be an asshole no matter what he read. And the Doors were still a pretty good band.

In any case, the other thing I discovered was that Huxley was a positively voluminous author, whose career ran from the 20’s through the 60’s (he’s the third guy, along with C.S. Lewis and You-Know-Who, who died on November 22nd, 1963, imagine being a third wheel in death). He’s best known for Brave New World, and to a lesser degree Doors, but he’s got scads of stuff newly in print. It’s fun to discover/rediscover authors and dig through their stuff. I think I’m gonna go for Devils of Loudon next.

Content Blues, The Podcast – Episode 3: Poems, Prose and Princes

As promised, a new episode of friendly rambling. I plan what I talk about with these, some notes I want to make, and then I just let the ramble happen. It gives me ideas and let’s me talk out loud about where my thoughts are. This one covers new readings and old movies.

Available on Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, and Spotify.

Poems, Prose, and Princes Content Blues

The new poetry of R. Cam, the old essays of Montaigne, and why Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt is a better film than it has any need to be. 
  1. Poems, Prose, and Princes
  2. 2. Thus Stuffed Zarathustra Funko Pops into The God-Shaped Hole
  3. 1. Absinthe is Delicious

The Rule of 30 in Podcasting

I’ve got a Content Blues Podcast about halfway recorded, and then there’s a Shallow & Pedantic planned to be recorded this weekend. Of the two, the CBP is easier, because I can add to that whenever I want. The work is getting enough recorded to fill out about 30 minutes or so of material. Any more than that is probably too much to listen to one person talking. Also, I find myself running out of things to say at about that time.

Shallow & Pedantic has the opposite dynamic. The last two I’ve had to edit things out so as to not get past an Hour and a half. Which has been about standard since we added the third man to the podcast. Prior to that, episodes were about an hour. So it seems that each person adds 30 minutes of talking. That doesn’t exactly match all podcasts I’ve listened to, but I have noticed that the more people you add, the longer it goes on. That must be why carrying a conversation at parties feels like such a chore.

Doing a podcast can feel like playing in a jazz quartet: you’ve got to keep some kind of a rythm, you’ve got to trade the flow properly, and you never know when you’re going to begin what it’s going to sound like. Some podcasts are free jazz or avant-garde, everyone just shouts, and the strongest voice will be heard. We’re not going for that vibe. It’s a serious podcast about unimportant things. A lot of them are unserious podcasts about important things. Which is better, I guess than unserious about unimportant. But I can’t imagine doing it that way. Why talk about the maelstrom of pop culture, most of which is derivative and unoriginal, unless you’re trying to form some kind of understanding of the world and why we respond to it in this way.

Art is the relationship between man and nature. If it’s bad, something’s going on to make it bad. You can call this “structural” if you want to, but that’s a word clunky and overused by communists. I prefer to call it “the thing unspoken”. Why are sitcoms the way they are? Something unspoken in their conception, production, and marketing, known to those inside the biz but not to the audience. That’s the kind of things that interests me.

Anyway, podcasts imminent. Watch this space.

Caligula Edit Update: The Aurelian Structure

When I was composing the initial draft of The Meditations of Caius Caligula, I followed a pattern from the obvious namesake The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: in its Chapters. MoMA has Books rather than chapters, and the chapters are numbered for the sake of quotation. There are about 12 Books, and each of them is more or less a reflection of where Marcus was at the time he wrote it: It was composed over a number of years. There’s not much of an effort to organize the material thematically: he bounces around pondering various exercises in Stoic thought.

33. On Pain: What we cannot bear removes us from life, what lasts can be borne. The understanding, too, preserves its own tranquility by abstraction, and the governing self does not grow worse, but it is for the parts which are injured by the pain, if they can, to declare it.

34. On Fame: See what their minds are like, what they avoid, what pursue. And besides, that as the sands are constantly carried over one another, hiding what went before, so in our life what was before is very swiftly hidden by what is carried after.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Book VII

Contrariwise, I wrote MoCC in about 7 themed chapters, each of which feature Caligula expounding on a particular topic: Gods, Men, Women, War, etc. As much as the whole idea of the book owes itself to MoMA and I, Claudius, I didn’t want MoCC to mirror either work structurally. In the first place, Caligula was many things, but a Stoic was not one of them. In the second place, there are altogether too many I, Claudius ripoffs already. Putting an autobiography within a set of philsophical meditations seemed like a way for the book to live as it’s own thing.

The other purpose of the book is to engage in a bit of historical revisionism; differentiating the man from the legend, twitting Suetonius and Cassius Dio as Senatorial Propagandists. In this way, Caligula becomes rather like Richard III: a man who undoubtedly had blood on his hands, but was the product of a family and a time that would have made it hard to avoid villainy.

The difficulty in editing has been to avoid inflating the Chapters too much: I wrote them as rants, with a minimum of biographical detail. This was entertaining, but didn’t give me the emotional heft for the ending that I wanted. So I’ve been adding more detail. This has made the book more like I, Claudius, which I hadn’t originally wanted. This has made the going slow, as I worry I’m betraying the original vision.

The solution, which I experimented with yesterday, has been to break apart the large chapters, each of which were about 2,000 words in the initial draft. In this way, I can make each beat its own section. So the First Chapter, “On Gods,” is now several smaller Chapters, “On Germanicus”, “On Soldiers,” “On Lucretius”, etc. Some of these will be quite short, some longer, which fits with other Roman works such as Ovid’s Love Books and the Satyricon. I can freely expand where needed, allowing Caligula to tell his story and rant at the same time. It felt as if what the book needed finally fell into place. I’m looking very forward to the final result.

Content Blues, The Podcast – Episode 2: Zarathustra’s Funko Pops

This has become a more easily replicable format than Thumbs Down/Thumbs Up, as I don’t have to pretend that I’m doing anything but observing what I’ve encountered. Half an hour is about right for a program such as this, where I’m really just talking directly into the microphone. Shallow & Pedantic has three regulars now, so it clocks in about 90 minutes. This math checks out.

This episodes topics:

  • Why Blade Runner 2049 is the Best Sequel Ever
  • Miles Davis’ Get Up With It and the concept of Fusion Jazz
  • Zero HP Lovecraft’s The God Shaped Hole
  • Why Funko Pops are Of the Devil.

You can listen to it on:

Oh Good, a New Indiana Jones Movie

Time for Low-Rent Clint Eastwood to Ride Again.

Am I actually supposed to care theat John Williams is doing the score? Is this what they’re reaching for now to put butts in seats?

The only question is Why, and there’s only one answer. No one is going to enjoy this. Harrison Ford is too old for this. He was too old for it in the last movie. It’s going to be regurgitated trash, that will almost but not quite pay homage to the movies that were actually good because they were made by artists in their prime. Nerds will fight about it on the internet, but enough dopes will buy tickets that it will cover expenses.

Shia LaBoeuf won’t be in it, you see. It’s all Shia LaBoeuf’s fault that Crystal Skull was bad. It’s all Hayden Christensen’s fault the Prequels were bad. It’s all Emilia Clarke’s fault Terminator: Genysis was bad. There’s always enough stupid people to keep these creaky franchises afloat.

What will the plot be? Who cares? Fighting Neo-Nazis for control of some maguffin. Throw a Boys From Brazil surprise in there, why not? Have some zombie ninjas, some drug dealers, some hippie alien cultists. DO IT. Indiana Jones has never been anything but a glorified B-Movie. Go all the way, so the real entertainment will be watching Harrison Ford looking around utterly bewildered, trying to glare his way through the existential crisis that his career has become.

You thought you were different, didn’t you, Harry? You thought you were special. You thought you were a Thesbian, you absolute chump. Have you seen any of your movies?

You thought that if you played a megalomaniac sweating in the tropics, or a disabled lawyer, you might get an Oscar. You don’t even have a Golden Globe, do you? You couldn’t even play Jack Ryan convincingly. That’s right, you got out-acted by a Baldwin. A Baldwin, you putz. How does it feel?

You should have done cowboy movies. You should have done a pirate movie with Cary Elwes. Or some cop movies that didn’t suck (Witness is good. I will give you Witness). You should have embraced your success, not run away from it, acting like you were above it. Because guess what? Here you are, 40 years later, and you’re still Han Solo and Indiana Jones. No one cares about anything else. Now, some of this isn’t precisely your fault. But you’d have done yourself a favor and played every kind of adventuring rogue there was. Not only would that mean there would be a bunch more franchises for Disney to feed off of, it would mean you’d have built an oeuvre everyone would remember fondly. Get yourself some producer credits and you could be profiting off the inevitable remakes instead of dragging your geriatric ass around the back end of the world trying not to lose your hat.

Yeah, I get it. Hollywood has its own rules. You’re just a player, not a power. Like I said, not fully your fault. But is this really how you wanna spend your Golden Years, squeezing one last drop out of a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since its target audience was in grade-school? There’s a reason you didn’t do one of these for a long time. Stop. They won’t do one without you. They don’t dare. You don’t need the money, do you? Go direct something. Go produce something. Hell, run for governor of California. You’d win in a walk. Do anything else but this. This is a waste of everyone’s time.

Is Kevin Spacey’s Probation Over?

Dude hasn’t been in a movie since 2018. He’s now set to perform in an Italian film directed by Franco Nero, so sayeth Variety:

“I’m very happy Kevin agreed to participate in my film,” Franco Nero said to ABC News. “I consider him a great actor and I can’t wait to start the movie.” Spacey declined ABC News’ and Variety‘s request for comment.

According to the Filmitalia website, the low-budget indie film follows “the rise and fall of a blind artist who has the extraordinary gift of making true-to-life portraits just by listening to human voices.”

Variety, “Kevin Spacey Set for First Film Cameo Following Sexual Assault Allegations.

Now, of course those allegations have gone nowhere, not even in civil court. Despite the sheer number of dudes willing to accuse Spacey of assault, he hasn’t spent a night in jail, and it doesn’t look like he’s gonna. That being the case, this Italian Job is probably a trial balloon for his rehabilitation. Robert Downey, Jr. got rehabilitated, and Mel Gibson’s on his way. If the movie does well, I expect the full-court press to wash him clean in the blood of Hollywood will come to the fore.

Alternate theory: He spends the rest of his life making tiny appearances in low-budget European films, like a lamer version of Roman Polanski.

Paradox Teaches History: EU4 vs CK2

A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry begins a deep-dive into Paradox Interactive grand strategy games, a subject after my own heart. He begins discussing Europa Universalis IV, a game I enjoy very much less than Crusader Kings 2 (I haven’t made the switch to Crusader Kings 3 yet, as I don’t think my graphics card can handle it, and I’ve better things to spend my money on than an updated graphics card just to play one game). My steam stats give the game away on this: I have like 500 hours, maybe, on EU4, over 2,000 on CK2. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I have always been a fan of the lives of Kings. Antonia Fraser and the Duc de Castries will never not have a place on my bookshelf.
  2. EU4 is a much more difficult game. Lots of requirements for actions, lots of things to manage, lots of economic agita. In other words, a lot of time spent staring at numbers and managing bells. It can feel like playing a spreadsheet. CK2 is relatively streamlined: gold, prestige, and troops are the only numbers you really need to worry about, and it’s relatively simple to get any or all of them going in the right direction.
  3. I hate hate hate the way EU4 does War. Fighting a war is agony. You HAVE to take fortresses, You HAVE to fight naval battles, and you can never never never be certain how a battle turns out. I’ve had fights where I outnumbered the enemy 2-to-1 and had my rear end handed to me. Not once or twice, but regularly. Certain countries (France, Prussia) are OP when it comes to “military culture” and can win battles standing on their head. There’s a mechanics of battle that I find deeply obtuse, so I’ve never figured out how to make England, for example, able to win a land battle (I’ve had people try to explain it to me, and it sounds nerdy as hell and a lot of work. I don’t play games to work).

Whereas, winning battles and wars in CK2 can be got down to a science. I have a pretty solid strategy:

  1. Make sure you’ve got at least half-again as many troops as the guy you’re attacking. 2-to-1 would be better, but I can win reliably with 150%.
  2. When you declare, collect all your troops in 1 spot. Make sure your army is balanced, and your commanders are competent.
  3. March on the province/realm you’re trying to conquer.
  4. Watch the attrition. If you need to divide your forces into smaller stacks to avoid attrition, do it. March carefully.
  5. If the enemy army is around, attack with your superior forces. If you avoid major mistakes and cowardly commanders, you will win 90% of the time.
  6. If an enemy army is not around, start sieging provinces down.
  7. After a siege is complete, attack the enemy army again. You’ll find that he likes to attempt to siege your territories while you’re sieging his. Marching back and forth a lot can be a pain, but it keeps your warscore ticking up.
  8. Repeat Steps 5-7 until warscore is 100%

Occasionally this won’t work, because somebody else will jump into your war suddenly, or a revolt breaks out, or your enemy has a crazy good commander who knocks your guys around like tenpins. It happens, but it’s rare. CK2 is really a Sun Tzu type of game: the goal is to arrange victory before a single soldier marches.

But this is all gameplay, and ACOUP is writing about how well this recreates history. Unsurprisingly given EU4’s complexity, he concludes it does a pretty good job at recreating what ruling a state in the early modern period felt like. If history games and the philsophy behind them interests you, I invite you to read it: