This may be the nerdiest thing we’ve ever done, which is why it’s the longest.
The topic is Tabletop RPG’s, and we hit it hard. One of the more interesting things we discuss is why RPG’s keep getting updated, when other kinds of tabletop games don’t. That’s the YouTube Channel above,
Andrew J Patrick is able to recreate the infamous emperor and offer variations on themes of how Caligula related to Rome and Rome to him. It makes for a fascinating and entertaining – and thought provoking – book. Highly recommended for history lovers.
That’s a pretty round collection of impressed readers, all of whom – sight unseen – grasped the main points of what I was trying to do. This is a tonic to the creative soul. If I can turn it into an effective ad, I’ll be getting somewhere.
If you haven’t read it, the link’s in the sidebar. Support me as I out-do Gore Vidal. Or click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We're back from Summer Vacation with a bunch of notes we took months ago and will turn deftly into a full episode:
Why I Care. A Lot. is as bad as you've heard.
Why Aldous Huxley was as good as you've heard.
Why Ronnie James Dio is better than you've probably heard.
Huzzah for Content!
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.
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.
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