Survival Mode

It’s freezing. I can’t stop shivering. I’m in the middle of a snow-blighted wasteland, and everything is white, and it would be hard to tell day from night if not for the fact that night is much colder. My only source of heat is some threadbare clothing recently issued to me, that at least includes a hood. I’m exhausted, badly needing sleep, and starving, but carrying precious little food. There’s a school—my school, actually—that’s really not all that far off, but the last time I tried to take shelter there, a mob of criminals tried to kill me. I barely escaped with my life. I know they’re waiting for me back there. There is a world of other places I could go—safe places, warm places—but I am on foot in this blizzard, and I don’t think I would survive the walk.

It doesn’t help matters that we reptilians are especially sensitive to cold.

I’m obviously not describing real life, but a scenario from a video game. I’m playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but with a twist: I’ve activated its official “survival mode,” which adds a slew of extra hinderances to the normal game experience. My character can not only be hurt by the usual melee blows, magic attacks, and dragon bites, but by much more banal forces: hunger, fatigue, and extreme temperatures. Skyrim’s survival mode requires one’, would-be dragonslaying adventurer to eat at regular intervals, keep cold and heat at bay, and sleep—leveling up actually requires shuteye.

Okay, fine, so you carry a lot of food, bundle up, and rest whenever you can. Except that survival mode also significantly reduces your character’s maximum carrying capacity, so inventory management becomes an even bigger headache than it normally is. And one can only sleep in specially designated places that are not owned by somebody else. You can’t just plop down on the ground and sleep, you have to find an inn or a friendly house or eventually learn how to craft camping supplies—supplies which, of course, use up carry weight.

And honestly, one’s Skyrim character is supposed to be the Dragonborn, the prophesied savior of all Tamriel (the major continent and empire of the Elder Scrolls franchise). You’d think they’d be a little more, you know, hardy.

I am not usually a fan of survival type games; keeping myself alive seems difficult enough without having to worry about a fictional self. And I definitely don’t go out of my way to make difficult games even more difficult. But I have been playing so much Skyrim over the last year, I kept finding myself to be too powerful, too easily defeating even the toughest enemies, sometimes to a laughable extent. (My sneaking abilities were apparently so refined that professional murderers couldn’t see me as I stood directly in front of them, turning their faces into pincushions for arrows fired point-blank. Dude, I‘m right here. I’m the guy stuffing you with arrows.)

Watching Twitch streamer LucindaTTV a few weeks ago (I’ve started streaming on Twitch myself, so you should come and follow me there), I heard her talk about playing the game on survival mode without any other character-enhancing modifications (or “mods”), and how she found it a very satisfying challenge. Well, I wasn’t prepared to abandon my favorite game (and favorite alternate reality), so I decided to give it a shot. I fired up a new Skyrim game, set it to its highest difficulty setting (“Legendary”), and clicked on survival mode.

And then, the freezing, the starving, and the getting killed over and over and over.

Here’s the thing, though. As maddening as it’s been, Lucinda was right. Having the game layered with these additional handicaps has been oddly illuminating, and my victories—now much fewer and farther between—are all the sweeter. They are also usually by the skin of my teeth.

Along with the heightened difficulty of the game, survival mode also brings a heavy helping of tedium. I already mentioned the many frustrations of inventory and carrying-capacity management. But there’s also the raw consumption of real-world time taken up by simply going from point A to point B in the game, as, I think I forgot to mention, survival mode also disables “fast travel.” Normally, once the Dragonborn has visited a location, they can essentially teleport back there at any time. You want to start working on a quest based in far-eastern Windhelm, but you’re mucking about in Markarth in the west? No problem. As long as you’re outdoors, you just, as the Muppets put it, “travel by map.”

No more of that in survival mode. If you want to go from one major metropolis (or “hold”) to the other, you have to either walk or get a horse. There are some carriages and boats for hire in some places, but they are rare, and they don’t go everywhere. I started my game, like a genius, in a town called Winterhold, where there are no forms of transportation at all. And it’s always cold there. And I’m a lizard-person (or, in the game lore, an Argonian or a Saxhleel). Smart move, me.

This all means that there’s a good deal of planning that goes into every task you set out to complete. Let’s say the local jarl (sort of a duke or governor) wants me to go to such-and-such dungeon to fetch some artifact or other, which, successfully done, will see me rewarded with gold and maybe even a fancy title of nobility. Normally, you’d just stock up on your healing potions and head out. If you’ve already been to a location sort of near the destination, you zap yourself there and hoof it the rest of the way.

Not so now. In survival mode, you need to consider your current levels of fatigue, and decide whether to sleep first, and then take a guess at whether you might be able to find places to stop on the way to get more sleep and perhaps restock on food and supplies. How cold will it be? Maybe your best fighting gear isn’t sufficient to hold back the elements, but you can only carry so much, so you have to choose. Bring a wide variety of weapons? My heavy armor? A barrel’s worth of potions? If I own them, but can’t take them with me, there’s nowhere for me to store them in the meantime (at least until I’ve advanced enough to purchase property, but even then, it would all be stored in that location, which I’d have to travel back to the hard way in order to make any use of it.)

It’s like planning road trips for every time you play, planning stops for food and overnight stays. Except you’re not driving. And you’re probably going to get killed by something called a Deathlord.

And I’m a lizard.

You want me to go…up there?

But because of the additional drudgery imposed by survival mode, I’ve found that I’ve done much more exploring than I had when I was much more powerful and less apt to get killed. Indeed, forced foot travel in Skyrim necessitates exploration, trudging one’s way across vast expanses of a fantasy world that has been littered with surprises and mysteries, many I had missed when playing under normal circumstances. Very early in my survival mode playthrough, desperately trying to make my way to some kind of safe harbor in the blinding winter of Skyrim’s northeast, I happened upon a lighthouse I had no idea was there. It was pitch dark outside, and my character’s vision was blurred with exhaustion, hunger, and hypothermia. With my last ounce of strength, I made it to the door of the lighthouse and entered, delightedly warming up from the fireplace in the next room.

Seconds later, of course, I found that the living area had a recently-murdered body splayed on the floor with an axe in its chest. Despite the clicking sound of nearby monsters that reminded me of A Quiet Place, my weary reptilian gratefully ate the food that had been strewn about the floor in the preceding struggle, and slept happily in the bed of the recently departed.

The discovery of the lighthouse of course kicked off an entire quest, a quest that I was utterly unable to make headway in because of all the limitations I’d placed on myself with the game’s difficulty level and survival mode. So I had to abandon it halfway through, and once again cast myself out into the freezing cold to find the next oasis, and having no idea where it might be. (I had some idea, as I have played the game a lot, but as anyone who knows me will tell you, “direction” and “understanding my orientation in space” are not my string suits.)

And I knew that at some point, lord help me, I’d have to come back. Ugh!

And I did! Much later, of course, when my character was strong enough to stand a chance against the enemies lurking in the tunnels beneath the lighthouse. But even then, it was crushingly difficult, requiring innumerable do-overs.

But even these seemingly impossible quests have been deeply satisfying, in that they have asked much more of me as a strategist. No more can I trust in my character’s durability to withstand an onslaught of enemies as I hack and slash my way to victory. These guys were killing me in one or two strokes. I couldn’t count on supernatural levels of stealth to save me; not only were enemies far more keen to my whereabouts, but because they could now take much more punishment on Legendary difficulty, I’d find myself constantly running out of arrows, my only projectile weapons. Skyrim became more and more similar to Metal Gear Solid and Bushido Blade…but in good ways, I mean.

In other words, I could no longer simply think, well, I’m at level X, and I have these weapons and spells, so can safely assume that I can fight my way though any quest. No, I’d have to take each chamber, each corridor, each corner as its own quest, every turn was a new battle that required new tactics, and always mitigated by my constantly-dwindling resources.

It sounds cliché to say it, but playing Skyrim on survival mode has helped me appreciate what’s required of all of us when we want to accomplish anything meaningful. We don’t have unlimited resources, we don’t have unlimited energy, and so we need to plan. We need to make difficult choices; choices about what we will keep and what we will leave behind; what we will dare to attempt, and what we must wait to pursue; what ideals we will hold fast to, and which ones we will have to abandon.

(I steal a lot more in this playthrough than I ever have before, and keep singing to myself “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat…”)

I’m not entirely sure I’ll stick with survival mode for my entire playthrough as Luap-Keshu of the Black Marsh. Sometimes the tedium does overpower the fun, and the last thing I ever want is for my precious video game free time to feel like work. But then I find a new location I’d never known about, or overcome some challenge I never thought I could, and I think of how much more meaningful those victories are. And if my lizard-guy ever gets far enough to own a home, adopt a child, marry, earn a lordship or several—and maybe save the world—I’ll know that for each of those triumphs, he’ll have truly earned it.


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Comparisons are odorous

A long time ago, I began to take a serious interest in music; that is, listening to it, singing along with it, and indulging in fantasies about being a musician. I was about 8 years old when Nickelodeon started running old episodes of The Monkees (a sitcom featuring a prefabricated band about the misadventures of a fictional version of said prefabricated band), and I just loved it. I didn’t own any Monkees records, and had no means of going and purchasing any, and it never really occurred to me that one could buy a Monkees record; I think I assumed they simply didn’t exist for some reason. I mean, I was 8.

So to satisfy this need, I took what was already at the time a gravely outdated cassette recorder, and when The Monkees aired on cable, I held the device up to the TV and hit record when a song played on the show. I did this over the course of a few episodes and soon had a decent collection of Monkees songs on my crappy little tape deck with a single mono speaker—not that this mattered, because of course I was recording from the TV’s speaker. I listened to it all the time.

When my dad realized I had been doing this, he said, “You know, we can buy you a Monkees tape.” That was really nice of him, but in my 8-year-old brain, it was kind of silly. I already had all the songs, dad!

I did eventually acquire The Monkees’ Greatest Hits on audio cassette, and I was very glad to have it. The songs were way longer on the album than on the TV show! The theme song even had a second verse! And there were a bunch of songs that weren’t even on the show! And wow, “Listen to the Band,” that one was weird!

While I also noticed that I could hear more of the instrumentation on the album than on my tape of TV audio, it wasn’t all that much different to me. I mean, it was still the same crummy old tape deck with the mono speaker. It didn’t seem crummy at all to me, as I had little to compare it to. So it was fine! When I eventually got other tapes—“Weird Al” Yankovic, the soundtracks to Ghostbusters and Transformers: The Movie, and so on—it was the same. I was just happy to have them.

I wasn’t done recording music straight from the TV, either. Over the next couple of years I would also start recording music from my video games (good lord did I love the music from Mega Man II), other kinds of music I was growing to like from MTV and VH1, and even sketches from Nick at Nite’s reruns of SCTV. These were the crappiest possible ways to get this kind of audio, but I didn’t know, and therefore didn’t care. I could now listen to those SCTV sketches over and over, memorizing them without intending to, and reenacting them on my own recordings. And I could listen to my Phil Collins and Genesis songs all I wanted, pulled right from the tinny sound in my room coming out of my tiny TV set.

At some point, I was given a portable cassette player (what I would call a Walkman, but of course wasn’t). I’d still listen to the same stuff, poorly recorded by me, totally unaware that “audio production” was a thing that mattered a lot to people who made and listened to music.

And yes, my family thought it was very weird. Especially the TV-recorded video game music. My grandfather couldn’t even fathom it. My dad summarily dismissed the music itself as “probably written by a computer.” Whatever, dad! You’ll never understand me!

As my music tastes matured, I started digging through my dad’s collection of tapes, most of which were themselves copies from vinyl LPs. Dad, himself a savant of a musician, had an extensive (and today, one would definitely say quality) record collection, and I began to avail myself of the stuff I thought I might be into. I already knew I liked the Beatles—every car ride with few exceptions was an extended Beatles session—but I had never really listened to them on my own. They were a good place to start.

At some point I had also gotten a better tape deck, one that actually had two speakers for stereo. I had no idea what difference that made because, again, most of what I was listening to was recorded from the TV speaker and into a tape deck’s built-in microphone. Also, I think around this time the “Walkman” had probably stopped working. One evening, I decided to listen to a Beatles tape—a real “dub” from a real record—through a set of cheap earbud headphones plugged into the tape deck. I don’t remember which album, but I would guess it was one that had some collection of songs I already knew; “Eight Days a Week” rings a bell, so it may have been Beatles for Sale, but so does and “Drive My Car” and “Nowhere Man,” so maybe it was Rubber Soul. But it could also just have been a mix.

I was probably 10 years old, and I still remember the sensation of hearing different instruments and different voices seeming to come from different locations around my ears. The boys sounded like they were singing into one ear, and the drums and guitar sounded like they were coming into the other ear! It wasn’t all just a mush of sounds. It was like a tapestry. Or a stage play, where you see every actor, every prop, every set piece. It was utterly transporting.

(Apparently, I was also singing along and doing a poor job of harmonizing, as my little brother would later complain, “You sounded terrible.”)

I was certainly going to raid my dad’s collection for more music. And I wasn’t going back to sounds recorded from a TV speaker.

This is not the origin story of an audiophile. But by my late twenties and early thirties, when I had a real job and enjoyed a living wage, I did begin to care much more about maximizing the quality of the means by which my ears received the air vibrations of music. I had several agonizing crises over what headphones to buy, which only became more fraught when I’d go into a store and sample headphones well outside my price range. Holy shit, I didn’t know music could sound this good!!! Every uptick in audio quality I experienced spoiled whatever I had previously enjoyed. Hell, just knowing that there were better things out there made it difficult to be happy with whatever I had.

This comes up in countless other ways. When Apple introduced “Retina displays” with the iPhone 4, screens with sufficiently high resolution that individual pixels became indistinguishable in normal use, it ruined me for all other displays. Reading text on a non-Retina screen, something I had been doing for some thirty years without complaint or problem, now felt like having my eyeballs scraped by jagged text.

At least that came from actual lived experience, wherein a demonstrably superior execution of a particular kind of product makes previous iterations look worse, because they are, in fact, worse. But I also bought the iPhone 12 when it came out while I already owned an iPhone 11. Why? Did I have direct experience with the new model, and thereby knew that my current phone was now teetering on obsolescence? Of course not. It was just new, it looked a little cooler, and the marketing all said it was better. You will not be surprised to know that a few months into owning the iPhone 12, it has not provided me a meaningfully better smartphone experience than the iPhone 11. Nor whatever phone I owned before that. But just being aware of new things, by comparing what I have to what might be, often convinces me, with great conviction, that I must acquire it. I had been fine before. Cursed with new knowledge, however, robbed me of that contentment. Or, more accurately, I let it myself be robbed. I invited the burglar in and offered him a sandwich.

I recently bought a new laptop. Or, rather, I should say I recently bought three laptops, because the first two, since returned, had flaws on their displays. Since this was intended for gaming, I had made peace with needing to settle for an eye-scratching, non-Retina display, something years of Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Galaxies had ruined me for.

But the first laptop had what seemed to me to be a lot of what is called IPS glow, the light haze around the borders of the screen. This is apparently fairly normal for these kinds of machines, but I had now been conditioned by Retina displays and quad-HD OLEDs, so it seemed unacceptable. The next laptop had a slight blemish of light bleed in the center of the display (I think that one was a reasonable rejection). The last one, the one I’m using now to type this, was just fine. More expensive, of course. It does have a tiny bit of light bleed at the very bottom corner, but I am trying to be okay with it.

This will seem like a divergence, but it’s not. I have spent a lot less time on social media in the last few weeks. Like many folks, this is in part because the world seems less on fire than it did a few weeks ago, and doomscrolling the news feels less necessary. It never was necessary, of course.

Apart from lowering my overall anxiety levels about the state of civilization (which, for the record, remain high), social media distancing has also made me feel less compelled to produce. Longtime readers of mine (all six of you) will know that I am gripped by a feeling of obligation to make myself relevant through my creative work, be it my writing, music, or other endeavors. I often feel that in order to justify my existence, in order to atone for all the things I never accomplished when I was younger, and in order to feel that I have somehow mattered, I must Become Known and cross some threshold of relevance and significance.

In recent weeks, though, I have felt this pang much less sharply than usual. It could merely be the fact that I feel very wrapped up in my gaming, which is a new thing for me. It could also have something to do with the changing political reality.

But I think that it’s mainly because I’m looking at Twitter way less.

Think back to the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly everyone (it seemed) was part of this renaissance-of-the-remote, people writing novels and cooking and painting and performing and streaming and Tik-Tokking, and I’d be damned if I was going to be left in the creative dust. I started a newsletter. I revived my blog. I recorded some music. I made videos. I was going to matter.

I felt like I had to matter. It was a kind of race, one I had already been losing, when suddenly a lot more runners appeared on the track. Hey! Slow down up there! I was trying to matter first!

I was comparing myself and my output to what I saw from social media. But of course, what I see on social media will always tend to be stuff from those who have already broken through. Of course I was seeing things from people who were already in a position to create. Of course I would see things from people who already had the freedom to churn out content.

Yet I compared. I compared and found myself lacking. And as Dogberry says in Much Ado about Nothing, “Comparisons are odorous.”

When I was listening to the Monkees on my old mono tape deck from sounds recorded from a cable TV rerun, I had no idea what I was missing. Comparing my tapes to the stereo sounds of a professionally produced album out of actual headphones, I learned there was a deeper, more meaningful experience of music to be had. It was good that I compared one to the other. But I was also happy before.

Just because something is better (in fact or in perception) doesn’t make it necessary. Nor does it even necessarily make it a good. And it definitely doesn’t make it necessarily good for me. Or you, I bet.


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I’d Like to Speak to the Manager

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so they say. Wicked deeds and ideas can be defeated by offering them up to public scrutiny, exposing them as morally unacceptable and shaming them out of the mainstream and out of power.

There are times when this has been true, when the public has been exposed to some gross injustice, rejected it, and appealed to authorities to make a change.

Cable news and social media are fueled by these kinds of appeals. During the Obama years, I had to stop watching cable news because I could no longer stomach the hours of broadcast dedicated to telling me how racism, religious zealotry, and plutocratic criminality were taking over the country. To save my own sanity during the Trump era, I tried to prune my social media feeds of accounts that shared primarily political content, because nearly everything I saw was dedicated to making me angry about every single morally repugnant whim expressed by malicious actors. And it was all terrible and morally repugnant!

But my attempts to lessen the amount of political outrage in my feed were futile, for in the era of Trump, it feels like it’s all there was to talk about. I began the (also futile) practice of replying to or quoting tweets about the latest horror by appending, “So what do we do?” I wanted more than tattling. I wanted marching orders. They never came.

Because it’s not just regular folks tweeting out their outrage. It’s politicians, prominent media personalities, major cultural figures, renowned academics—people in positions of real, genuine power. If all they could do was point to bad things happening to say, “You see???” then what were we of the unwashed masses supposed to do about it?

Other than vote. I get it. And we did, and it mostly worked out for the better, but it wasn’t nearly enough. And the horrors will, and do, just continue. And we will continue to go “you see???

But who are we talking to when we do that? Every time we stoke our collective ire and give attention to the genuinely destructive torrent of moral and ethical horrors, whether they come from presidents, media figures, local politicians, or everyday despicable people, we are pointing it out for a reason. We are asking for someone to do something about it.

We are aggrieved customers in the marketplace of ideas, and we are demanding to speak to the manager. We are all Karens now.

Here’s the problem I think most of us have yet to acknowledge: There is no manager. Our emails to customer support are bouncing back. We are dialing a complaint hotline to nowhere.

There are elections, of course, in which the customers can, in effect, hire and fire the managers of the store’s government and policy department, but this has little to no impact on the store’s other aisles. The racism section is still being stocked, the science-denial section is getting novel new products in every day, and the theocracy department just opened up an outlet store. Business is booming.

It doesn’t matter how much we complain about what are objectively abysmal things being done and the abysmal people doing them. Those managers don’t hear our complaints because we’re not their customers.

One such abysmal human with abysmal ideas is Jordan Peterson, and you may have heard that employees at Penguin Press are disgusted that they are publishing Peterson’s latest book, as I would be if I worked there. Fredrik deBoer, whose post on this subject helped clarify my thinking for this piece, says this is an example of a poor tactic on the part of progressives: appealing to authorities to protect them from people with harmful ideas:

What if there is no authority to which you can appeal to make Jordan Peterson go away? What if Jordan Peterson is a fact of life? Let’s set aside God for a moment. What is the authority that could shut Peterson up? A Canadian citizen with tenure, a large network of conservative admirers, the ability to broadcast directly to his fans, and a talent for encoding reactionary ideas without the out-and-out hateful trappings of many of his contemporaries, he simply does not strike me as someone you can silence even if you wanted to.

Now, that doesn’t change the fact that Penguin Press could make the moral choice not to be part of the machinery that helps Peterson spread and profit off of his message, even knowing that someone else will gladly do it instead. But the larger point holds: Peterson will get his captive audience regardless of any complaints to the manager.

DeBoer says the only real solution to the problem of Peterson and what he represents is to persuade people he’s wrong and make a convincing case for something better. “I get that this is more complicated, and less emotionally fulfilling, than running to the teacher to get him in trouble,” writes deBoer. “But what’s the alternative? … There is no authority which will simply remove Jordan Peterson from public life for you.”

For public officeholders, usually the best we can do is to know who we’re dealing with and vote accordingly. But at some point we have to acknowledge that all the things that horrify us about politicians like Trump, Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, or any other garbage officeholders and candidates, are the very things that give them their power. For their market, their vileness is their primary selling feature. Pointing it out over and over mostly serves as free advertising.

Instead, we have to be better. We have to build movements, support candidates, make arguments, develop ideas, and produce media that are better than theirs. We have to be more than aggrieved, we must be active. We must do more than point out the bad things, we must, ourselves, be the sources of good things.

No one will do it for us. You see?


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The Other Apple Silicon Laptop

I am tantalized by the glowing reviews of the new MacBooks running on Apple’s own processors, wherein normally jaded tech pundits express their astonishment at the speed, battery life, and fluidity of these M1-based laptops. But as tempted as I am to scrape together the means to purchase one, I simply can’t justify it. You see, I already have a laptop running Apple Silicon, and even after two years it’s still wicked fast, unfailingly fluid, lasts as long on a charge as I need it to, and like the M1 Macs, it also runs iOS apps.

Of course, I’m talking about an iPad.

For the past several months, the 2018 11-inch iPad Pro has been my primary personal computer (as opposed to a work computer, which is a 2017 iMac). I sold my MacBook Air a few months ago in order to cut some pandemic-era costs, and I have been genuinely surprised by how little I’ve missed having a traditional laptop and how I almost never feel the need to use my work machine for “serious computing.” This was supposed to be a kind of sacrifice, and I was prepared to deal with what I assumed would be a heavily compromised experience. But as things stand right now, if I had to choose between my iPad Pro as my main “laptop” and a fancy new M1 MacBook, I think I’d have to stick with my current setup.

I did not expect this.

Writing this piece in iWriter Pro.

To be clear, I wouldn’t replace my work desktop with an iPad. My job as a communications director for a national nonprofit benefits mightily from a large screen running multiple applications at once, an easily manipulated cascade of windows and tabs, browsers outfitted with extensions, and a robust file system augmented with several external drives.

But I tell you, if I had to do my job from the iPad, I totally could. I could not have said that just a couple of years ago.

When the work day is over, I use my iPad Pro to write essays, articles, newsletters, and the novel I’m working on. I use it to record and edit video and audio for my podcast and YouTube channel. I manage my photo collection with it and do basic image editing (“basic” because I have no idea what I’m doing, not because of any shortcomings with the hardware). I also draw my ridiculous sketches with it, play a few games, watch TV shows and movies, read books and articles, and even write and record songs.

And perhaps most importantly, I use it to read comics. I’ll get to that in a bit.

There’s nothing special about my setup. It’s an 11-inch iPad Pro with Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Pencil. That’s it. No dongles, no drives, no mouse. I used Logitech’s less expensive keyboard-with-trackpad solution for a time, and while it was very good, it was a victim of its own success, showing me that an iPad-only solution for my personal computing needs really was possible, and worth the extra cost to make the experience just that much better with Apple’s keyboard.

There are definitely limitations and frustrations with using an iPad as a laptop, but they have been massively reduced with the last couple of years’ worth of iPadOS updates. Apple’s full embrace of the trackpad really has made all the difference in the world; not just that they enabled the functionality, but optimized for it. Simple processes that were once maddening to attempt on an iPad, such as working with a CMS like WordPress, are now almost indistinguishable from the experience on a laptop. The inability to truly arrange windowed apps, and the weird block the iPad has on doing anything else while video conferencing or recording, are definitely pains in the ass. But I can cope.

As reviewers of the M1 MacBooks have raved about the zippiness of the new laptops, I realized that these were qualities that my iPad setup already possessed, and it also reminded me what I would be missing if I were to opt instead for something like a Surface Pro. There simply aren’t any other platforms that offer this kind of instantaneous responsiveness.

And then I remembered that the iPad Pro’s display also boasts the 120Hz “ProMotion” refresh rate, which not even Apple’s own laptops (or phones!) have yet. The front-facing camera on my iPad is still leaps and bounds better than those on the new MacBooks. And though the M1 Macs run iOS apps, by all accounts the experience is about as awkward as running Android apps on ChromeOS: doable, but kind of a mess. But at least Chomebooks have touchscreens for interacting with Android apps! MacBooks still don’t, so using an iOS app on an M1 Mac would still be a cursor-only situation. Not optimal.

As a side note, I used to own an 11-inch MacBook Air, circa 2012, and while I wound up needing something more powerful and with a larger display to get work done, good lord I loved that thing. It was so small and adorable! The iPad isn’t adorable by any means, but its compact size recalls a lot of what I loved about that old 11-inch Air.

As for comic books: If Windows had available tablet-optimized apps for Marvel Unlimited and ComiXology, I might very well have switched to a Surface Pro ages ago, and all my personal computing needs would have been fulfilled; a tablet-laptop hybrid with a complete ecosystem of powerful, desktop-class applications. But on Windows, Marvel and ComiXology are limited to their abysmal web interfaces (and Marvel Unlimited’s iOS app is already janky). And of course with a Surface or other Windows two-in-one, there would also have been the lesser battery life, the display’s lower refresh rate, and the general chug and churn of PC performance.

My day job has particular demands that make a traditional PC, if not necessary, then at least highly preferred. The iPad can fill in when necessary as a secondary work machine, but I wouldn’t want it to be my primary work device. Besides, I go to some lengths to keep my work and personal lives separate, and that very much includes my technology; my iMac sits on a desk in a particular corner of my apartment, and when my work day is done, I leave that desk and make it a point to avoid using that space for anything else. Opening up the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard signals to my brain that work-work is over, and whatever I do next is for me. It might still be work, but, hopefully, it will be largely labors of love.

Or it might just be catching up with Thor and Loki in the Marvel “War of the Realms” crossover event. Who can say?

I’m still drooling over those new M1 MacBooks. If fortune smiles upon me such that I can acquire one, I certainly won’t turn it away. But things being what they are at this point, owning one would mean selling my iPad setup to cover the cost. Not only is that not worth it right now, in some meaningful ways, it would feel like a step back.

Go figure.


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What if We Just Let Them Think They Won?

The United States is politically held hostage by tens of millions of people living in a delusional version of reality. No matter the facts staring them in the face, just a little less than half of the electorate seems to believe in an alternate universe in which Trump won the election, left-wing terrorists are destroying our cities, COVID is a hoax or an exaggerated flu, and white Christians are the most oppressed group in history.

So I had a thought.

Information silos, filter bubbles, and algorithms can obviously make millions of people believe almost anything. So if what the Cult of Trump needs is to live in a fake reality, well, maybe we can just let them. And then the rest of us can carry on with actual reality.

I turned this thought into a bit of speculative fiction.

* * *

After a hard day at work, Rick plops down on the couch and flips through his phone to see what’s new.

He’s a father of three, but two of the kids are grown and out of the house, and the other is out with friends. His wife, Danielle, is making dinner, which she always does unless she’s not feeling well.

Rick scrolls through his social media feeds and gets updated on some of the latest headlines. The border wall had just been completed, and the pictures were stunning. 30-foot high partitions, black as midnight, effectively invisible in the dark, but reflective so that the sun blazed in the eyes of anyone who looked at it from the right angle. Smooth, unscalable, and a true monument to America’s force of will against invaders. President Trump would be there tomorrow afternoon for a ceremony celebrating this achievement.

It’s a good time for this kind of morale boost, as China has made more threats against the United States, promising to choke the American economy while making incursions into our Pacific territory. And who knows when they might release another virus. The president has been undeterred, however, and Rick is reassured when he hears Trump call China’s bluff. You just try it, thinks Rick. See what Donald does.

It is 2023. Joe Biden is embroiled in several lawsuits over his attempt to steal the 2020 election. Hunter Biden is in prison in Moscow. Kamala Harris is still out there, working with AOC, Antifa, and George Soros (now 93 and obviously being kept alive with some kind of secret pharmaceuticals or cybernetic implants) to foment a revolution and take over the country. (No chance, thinks Rick.) Black rioters have nearly destroyed several major Democrat-run cities, so they are now being occupied by federal agents who are arresting criminals, guarding property, and saving the lives of innocent Americans. The president has forced Twitter to shut down for censoring conservatives, which is against the Constitution. Facebook has learned its lesson and now treats conservative voices fairly.

As he scrolls through his feed, Rick almost skips past a headline that said something about someone on Fox News saying something about Joe Biden. He reverses the direction of his thumb swiping to find the item. And there it is. The post reads, “Fox News Guest Says Joe Biden is Currently President!” Rick chuckles out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Danielle asks from the kitchen.

“Something really stupid,” says Rick. “Not important.”

It is stupid. Everyone knows that Fox News went off the rails back in 2020, and really couldn’t be trusted anymore, except for a few hosts like Hannity and Tucker. But what kind of delusional nonsense was this? Why would anyone say that Joe Biden was actually president right now? Some kind of hangover from the 2020 election debacle? The facts are the facts! Trump won the election, even though Democrats tried to steal it with loads of fake votes. But President Trump refused to concede, vowed to keep fighting, and eventually (and inevitably) triumphed in the courts. Thank you, Justice Barrett!

Some say that Trump is thinking about running for a third term. That would be just fine with Rick.

Danielle coughs from the kitchen. And then again, and emits a little bit of a groan.

Rick calls out, “You okay, honey?” Danielle had been under the weather ever since they went to that basketball game Danielle’s nephew was playing in. It was actually a really good game, and the place was packed! She probably picked up some bug going around.

“I’ve been better,” she responds. “I’ll lay down after dinner.”

Rick makes a mental note to check her temperature, and maybe his own. He’s not feeling so great either, but he’s never been one to admit when he’s sick.

Then he remembers what he was looking at. Right, that dumb Fox News person who said Biden’s the president. Rick taps on the item.

The post had been deleted.

That’s weird. Fake news never really goes away, does it? You just have to keep vigilant, and only trust the sources that you know for sure are giving it to you straight.

Rick thinks back to the border wall, and he smiles. Yeah, he thinks, Trump is doing a fantastic job in his second term. A third term would be just fine by him.


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My Old Enemy, Natural Selection

I’m beginning to hate natural selection.

I’m not talking about the theory of evolution as a scientific concept, I mean I am having some strong feelings about what a pain in the ass natural selection is to me, right now.

If you’re new to my writing, let me just give you a quick status report: my sense of self is kind of garbage. I’m not currently experiencing existential anguish, per se (but, you know, catch me on a different day and see what you get), but I am wrestling with a crisis about who I am and why I bother existing.

And a lot of that hinges on a deep, aggravating need for validation. I need other people to justify my existence for me. It’s a big reason why I was a professional actor, why I write, why I make music, and why I do pretty much anything else not directly related to my own survival or the well-being of those I love. I need to be told by The World that I belong.

For the last few years, I’ve been able to pin some of the blame for this on my autism, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 39. As you might imagine, someone with my particular neurological quirks might grow up developing a sense of alienation. That’s what happens when you 1) feel like you’re not the same as everyone else, and 2) are constantly told you are not the same as everyone else, often in very painful terms.

So of course I seek validation now! I’ve been conditioned over several decades to expect to be an outcast, to believe that any sense of belonging I do manage to experience is temporary and tenuous at best, and that I am not capable of judging for myself whether or not I possess sufficient value as a person to continue existing.

Damn you, autism!

The thing is, the need to feel belonging with a tribe is not particular to the neurodivergent. It’s hard-wired into humanity as a whole at the deepest levels. Many humans achieve this belonging rather easily (or so it seems to me). They provide value to their families and communities, they receive the benefits of being a part of those families and communities, and they are validated for playing their part in those social systems. They don’t have to think about it.

But threaten that belonging, cause someone to feel like their place in the tribe could be reduced or taken away, and see what atavistic shit comes up.

For someone like me, that sense of threat is ever-present, and I feel it on every level: I feel like humanity on Earth doesn’t want me, and I also assume I am perpetually on the edge of being rejected by the people Iove. Any minute now, they’re going to decide they’ve had it.

So maybe I feel this kind of alienation and anxiety more often or more severely than most, but all of us have it in us. We’re supposed to! It’s how early humans survived through our time as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

It was Robert Wright, in Why Buddhism is True, who clarified this point for me, that this anxiety over other’s opinions of us is all natural selection’s fault:

Why would natural selection design organisms to feel discomfort that seems so pointless? Maybe because in the environment of our ancestors it wouldn’t have been pointless; in a hunter-gatherer society, you’re pretty much always performing in front of people you’ll see again and whose opinions therefore matter. My mother used to say, “We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what other people think of us if we realized how seldom they do.” She was right; our assumption that people give much thought to us one way or the other is often an illusion, as is our unspoken sense that it matters what pretty much everyone we see thinks of us. But these intuitions were less often illusory in the environment of our evolution, and that’s one reason they’re so persistent today.

That’s right, natural selection wants us to be insecure.

There’s so much else that natural selection “wants” us to do that is ultimately harmful to us now. And it seems to me that so much of what we think of as human civilization and progress is really a big species-wide struggle against natural selection and all the things it pushes us to do against our own interests, from the desire to eat too much sugar to the urge to decimate nearby tribes and take their resources. Self-doubt is just one more thing.

I think natural selection and I need to have a talk. I need to thank it for getting us all this far, what with the conscious brains, the opposable thumbs, and whatnot. And then I need to tell it, honestly, that its time with me is over, because it’s holding me back from, well, evolving.

I need to remember that my ache for belonging, while exacerbated by my autism and other quirks, ultimately stems from an instinct that no longer serves its purpose, and that I am free to let it go. To be at peace with who I am and where I am, I think I to kick natural selection out of the tribe.


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Letting Go of Hope

I am trying to disconnect without isolating. I am trying to find meaning without validation. I am trying to unburden without irresponsibility. I am trying to be aware without being overwhelmed. I am trying to be at peace without being passive. I am trying to matter without having to ask whether I matter. I am trying to fit in without being too ordinary. I am trying to stand out without jutting. I am trying to have hope without being crushed by it.

Maybe it’s that last one that needs to go.

Derrick Jensen wrote a few years ago in praise of giving up on hope. He’s talking about this in the context of his struggle to defend the natural world from decimation by humanity. To me, it applies universally. It’s not even about rejecting hope, but simply not dealing with it one way or the other. Once hope becomes irrelevant, Jensen says:

…you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems … and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.

This is not the same as hopelessness. Hopelessness implies defeat, pessimism, resignation to things getting worse. This is something else.

Here’s the part that’s both the most appealing about this idea and the most frightening:

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. … The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are.

As someone who has wasted so much precious life trying to define himself through others’ perceptions, who could not find any value in himself without the explicit approval of everyone else, this is tantalizing and bewildering.

When I was first wrestling with my identity in the aftermath of my diagnosis as autistic a few years ago, I thought it might be an opportunity to redefine who I was, to shed my masks, discover the person underneath them, and let that person live their life. The frightening part was not knowing who that might be, because the masks seemed to be as much a part of who I was as anything else.

Later, I began to take a more nuanced view. While I must still learn to accept my unmasked, unfiltered self, there is still power to be had with intentional masking, endowing myself with aspects of an identity in order to achieve the things my unmasked self might seek. One can adapt without self-deception. One can modulate one’s behavior without imprisoning oneself. One can augment, and those augmentations are under the control of the “true” self.

But whether one is masking, passing, augmenting, retrofitting, or what have you, I wonder now if it’s hope that is still an ingredient of falseness. Maybe I can’t get free of the fetters I’ve fitted myself with, nor the ones that the culture has clapped onto me, because I maintain a delusion that meaning, peace, and validation will still be given to me by Someone Else, by some force Out There. Maybe by shedding hope, I empower myself to provide it on my own.

“When you quit relying on hope,” writes Jensen, “and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”

In my case, “those in power” are the imaginary blessings from an amorphous other. That’s what I’ve allowed to have power over me, the wish, the hope, that at some point I’d prove myself worthy to be One of You, worthy to belong to this world.

Maybe if I give up on hope, the ache for validation, the yearning to matter, will ease.

But that’s just a hope, too, isn’t it?


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Measured by how we are seen

This is from the eighth edition of the Near-Earth Object newsletter, to which you can and should subscribe, right here.

This project of producing newsletters and media at a somewhat regular clip, is still new to me, and I’m still trying to find the right mix of elements that make it really click. For my first video-cast-pod-thing, I chose to read a piece I’d written a couple of years back about how hard it is to put in the time, effort, and emotion into all this creative work, all the while knowing that it will reach only a handful of people. Of course one can’t know this for certain, but it’s a solid bet!

I think the cold reality of irrelevance has hit me a little harder this week, as the election receded from the top of my mind and I took a little time off work. When a room opened up in my brain, it was quickly furnished with feelings of futility.

I began reading How to Disappear by Akiko Busch this past week, and in the introduction she says, “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” As someone who grew up being utterly ostracized for how he was seen, and then later became a professional actor, and then later got into nonprofit communications, I think I’ve been conditioned to measure my value by how I am seen. I’m not sure I’d know any other way.

We’re all feeling fragile right now. The slow-moving coup in process makes it feel like we’re watching an asteroid that’s going to slam into us in a couple of months, and all we can do is watch it get imperceptibly closer day after day. The foundational things we’ve relied on to tell us who we are as a people look like they’re about to crumble. If they do, we won’t know who we are anymore. If they don’t, we’ll still know that we aren’t quite what we thought we were. We’re all facing an identity crisis.

So maybe none of us can settle our minds enough to find meaning within (or nearby) rather than without.

In my favorite novel, Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, the protagonist Erasmas, a sort of monk-scholar in training, is given an urgent bit of wisdom from his mentor, Orolo.

“That is the kind of beauty I was trying to get you to see,” Orolo told me. “Nothing is more important than that you see and love the beauty that is right in front of you, or else you will have no defense against the ugliness that will hem you in and come at you in so many ways.”

Maybe if our identities weren’t so wrapped up in these performative digital spaces, we’d be handling things better right now. Maybe if I were better able to see myself as enough, if I were able to love the beauty that is right in front of me, perhaps I could more thoroughly cast out the ugliness in my head that tells me I am not and never will be enough.

But if I do that, then what will I be?

If you’re reading this, I’m so glad you’re here. You are part of a small group, and I appreciate each and every one of you.


More of Paul’s irrelevant-yet-immeasurably-valuable stuff

New post on how news sites’ homepages are covering the coup: “Homepage Hopping at the End of Democracy.

New video-cast-pod on Biden the caretaker, with some post-election thoughts as an addendum:

As always, if you find this stuff valuable, you can toss some currency my way. It’s totally okay if you don’t!

And thanks.

The Caretaker

Image for post
Photo: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, I was delighted. I had always been enthusiastic about Biden’s as a political figure, and loved his role in the ’08 primary campaign as a no-bullshit happy warrior. (Remember “a noun and a verb and 9/11?” So great. And even better considering how far the subject of that jibe has fallen.)

While Biden’s persona and personal charms probably figured into the Obama campaign’s choice to bring Biden onboard, it wasn’t the main reason. To reassure an electorate that might be wary of an inexperienced, black presidential candidate, they put an elder statesman by his side, someone whose very presence vouched for the qualities of the man at the top of the ticket. There was no doubt that should tragedy strike, the next Vice President of the United States would be ready and more than qualified to take over. Not unlike George W. Bush’s choice to tap Dick Cheney in 2000, Biden would be the adult supervision.

Certainly, Biden’s trademark folksiness would help sell the Obama candidacy to those who might not be quite as excited about diversity and cosmopolitanism, by speaking to them in terms to which they could relate. But these were bonuses. In my opinion, it was all about the picture of the two of them together, the image of the exciting and untested buttressed by the familiar and trusted. The message was that Joe would look after Barack, and make sure the new guy found his footing.

(Honestly, I have difficulty trying come up with a presidential ticket in which the two candidates complemented each other as well as Obama and Biden did — save perhaps Biden and Harris, which I’ll get to in a bit. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are in the ballpark, as two ridiculously intelligent, relatively young southerners with diametrically opposing personalities that somehow clicked electorally. But still, almost all the pairings I can think of felt forced. Pence as a Christian bandaid for Trump. Tim Kaine as the blatantly inoffensive white male for Hillary Clinton. Paul Ryan as a youthful junior-executive sidekick to Romney. Sarah Palin…yeesh. And John Edwards as John Kerry’s personal TV ambulance chaser. God help us.)

It’s now fairly commonplace to see presidents task their VPs with particular portfolios, as a way of 1) communicating the importance of an issue by putting in the hands of the vice president, and 2) giving the poor guy something to do. But think of some of the things President Obama handed to Vice President Biden: Implementation of the Recovery Act after the financial meltdown, saving the auto industry, upgrading workforce training, addressing violence against women, cultivating and maintaining relations with foreign leaders, and the “moonshot” to cure cancer.

These were all caretaking roles. They conveyed a message: People who have been hurt, people whose lives have been upended, people who have lost jobs, people who have been alienated, people who are scared, people who are sick: Joe Biden is going to take care of you.

Now think back to March of this year. Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primaries had been shaky at best, and was being more or less written off, until his blowout victory in South Carolina. Coinciding with the sudden awareness of the threat posed by this “coronavirus” thing, Biden’s victory there seemed to change something in the very air.

Candidates began dropping out before Super Tuesday and endorsing him. I got the sense that they were relieved to do so. The coming general election campaign was likely to be the ugliest and most brutal in generations. The mysterious virus was looming. No one knew what was going to happen. With a sense of foreboding and anxiety that few could not have articulated at the time, the Democratic Party and its electorate turned to a father figure, a figure of stability, normalcy, and comfort. Someone to watch over them and take care of them. That was Joe.

The choice of Kamala Harris as Biden’s own running mate makes even more sense to me now, seen in this light. There was no shortage of brilliant, utterly qualified candidates, but Sen. Harris represented something I think few others could: As a social progressive with a law enforcement background; as a woman of a mixed ethnic background and the daughter of immigrants; as a stepparent in a modern, multi-faith family; and as a woman who pulls no punches for vice presidents, former or current; she is the future. She is, really, the present, but the electorate is not always ready for the present. By choosing her as his second-in-command, Joe Biden sets the stage for her ascension, and the ascension of a whole new generation. And he is trusted to do that.

I think we got Joe Biden at this moment because we are a nation in pain, wracked with fear and anger, unable to nurse our old wounds while triaging the new ones. To replace the current president, who seeks only to inflame every gash and tear every stitch, we need someone who will tend to us, heal us, take care of us.

I don’t think Joe Biden ever thought of himself this way, but this is the burden he’s been given, in his personal and in his public life. Time and time again, he has been asked to take care of us, and he always has. Election Day is about 55 hours away as I write this. If Joe Biden is elected, it will be because we needed him to take care of us one more time.