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If stage magic can be described as the purposeful engineering of assumptions and attention patterns, we could describe certain forms of mental health issues (biological and biographical underpinnings, for the moment, aside) in similar terms.

When watching a card trick, the behavior of the magician and the entire environment, beginning with cultural expectations that sometimes predate both the magician and yourself, is designed to make you look at an specific sequence of points in time and space with certain engineered assumptions as to what's going on. Manage assumptions and perceptions well enough, and you can drive your audience's view of the world arbitrarily far away from reality; in the case of a magic show, to a hopefully more entertaining one.

From a cognitive point of view, self-esteem issues can work in a similar way. They shift what you pay attention to and what your prior assumptions are: you "know" you are inadequate in a certain way, just as you "know" that a certain box is empty, or that there's only one silver coin on the stage, so your failures in that area are as obvious and expected as if a spotlight shone of them. You can't convince yourself, and you can't be convinced by others, that it's not true, because you can see it. Indeed, you see something, and your assumptions make you translate it in that way, and the certainty of this automatic inference structures your perception of yourself and the world. You keep seeing rabbits come out of the hat, so it's obviously full of rabbits.

This is how magic tricks work. The difference is that when it comes to some sorts of mental health issues, you first saw the trick in a place and time, or performed by somebody, that made it impossible for you to believe it was anything true. Maybe it was accidental, maybe it was deliberate (maybe you pulled the trick on yourself; maybe it made sense at the time), but it became self-reinforcing: belief shapes attention, attention shapes perception, and perception shapes belief, and if this circle makes you feel pain and fear, this only sharpens your attention and gives urgency to your belief.

Las Vegas turns into Salem.

A pseudotechnical term for this could be malicious meme, but right now I'm partial to the image of an hex, in the sense of a magical trick that sticks to you and follows you everywhere, because you're constantly performing it without knowing you're doing it. All magical tricks work like that — you choose where to look, you choose what to think; the magician simply makes the "obvious" choices the wrong ones. The infinitely more damaging kind of perceptual and cognitive self-sustaining fuckery simply goes on for longer.

This is a metaphor, and as all metaphors it breaks down as soon as you poke at it too forcefully... but the same happens to magic tricks. So perhaps thinking of yourself as hexed, or as continuously performing a magic trick you don't know is a magic trick, can be a useful addition to the toolbox of things we all use to wrestle with our various brain weasels. There are technically better and more empirically motivated ways of understanding and thinking about these issues, but as an springboard, hexes have the advantage of being intuitively understandable at an emotional level. They are something like cultural archetypes. It can be hard to believe that what you see is not what's happening (or rather that what obviously seems to be going on is not what's going on) if you've spent all your life believing people can pull coins out of your ears, but we can also intuitively understand the idea of a magical illusion, specially an evil one, and that can help us when we question the obvious.

The Black Monday Murders #1

It's a very Hickman book: intricate world building, magic-as-machinery-as-magic, historical retconning, and his rather unique aesthetic. The overall premise of this one is that high finance is, literally although secretly, black magic. Cue occult systems, vague Tim Powers-ish pragmatics, and plenty of Ayn-Rand-meets-Aleister-Crowley characters.

A rec if you already know you like Hickman's books, an anti-rec if you know you dislike them, and a maybe, why not? if you don't know. A small asterisk in the above is that he's usually a much tighter world builder than his sprawling Marvel work would suggest. The style and philosophy are the same, but there he had to deal with a metric ton of history, all of which he attempted to make use of as a prelude of throwing his own stuff into it. Hence Secret Wars. The universes he creates from scratch are very rich, but much more consistent.


Just (?) saw for the first time this 2013 Person of Interest vid from [personal profile] astolat, God's Gonna Cut You Down. It's, well, it's perfect. The scene-by-scene matching works excellently (I squeed aloud during the segment that ends with When he said, "John go do My will!"), but it's also of course the philosophical armature of the show, or at least the first part of it.

Now I have Person of Interest feelings again, dammit. Gods battling, and the Hand of God, and payphones, and John just staring down the Machine... It had bad episodes, bad arcs, it wasn't perfect, it wasn't always good, but god, what a well-conceptualized show. A first draft of the present-time Ghost in the Shell series we obviously don't deserve, including Root as one of science-fiction most interesting cyborgs. The Machine whispering on your ear is more powerful than any number of physical enhancements, and the fact that the Machine actually guided Root... that's what a cybernetic organism can look like.

Books! (Money and Violence Edition)

The Roman Triumph (Mary Beard, 2016/#59): A very interesting book about the Roman ritual, its history, and representation. But it's mostly a book about the ambiguities, educated guesses, and outright fantasies involved in our understanding of history. Fascinating, if not very heartening.

Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook. Revised Edition. (Edward N. Luttwak, 2016/#60): An updated version of a book I loved. Still interesting, but I think he puts too much explanatory power on ideology and what he calls "lack of political ophistication," which I don't think means what he thinks it means. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is generally better.

Pragmatism (William James, 2016/#61): There are many things here that I disagree with (there are smatterings of racism, his defense of religion feels less solid than he allows for, etc), but I think that overall, the type of relational, provisional, and falsifiability-driven approach to thinking is a useful one. There are also passages of it that are as clear a description of Actor-Network Theory as anything Latour ever wrote.

The Three Witnesses (Rex Stout, 2016/#62): Three short Nero Wolfe novellas, none of which begins as a case proper, but at this point it's just how Wolfe and Archie's lives roll.

Money in Classical Antiquity (Sitta von Reden, 2016/#63): Fascinating. As I should've expected, money was a much more complex phenomenon for classical Greeks and Romans (as well as Hellenistic Egypt) than I'd thought. More sophisticated in some senses (monetization went much further than physical coinage, and in some senses predated it), and very alien in others.

Maigret and the Spinster (George Simenon, 2016/#64): A sad, sordid case, but aren't all?


Books! (Variations of Death Edition)

Plot it Yourself (Rex Stout, 2016/#53): The premise that stylistic analysis — particularly, the way somebody breaks paragraphs — would be considered rock-solid evidence in a criminal trial must be among the flimsiest devices I've ever seen in a Nero Wolfe novel, and I absolutely love it.

Three Doors to Death (Rex Stout, 2016/#54): Three novellas. The last one shows Nero as I've almost never seen him.

Connoisseur's SF (Ed. Tom Boardman, 2016/#55): A collection of mid-sixties SF short stories from classic writers a la Frederik Pohl and Alfred Bester. Quite enjoyable.

The Black Gondolier and Other Stories (Fritz Leiber, 2016/#56): A bit of Poe, a bit of Lovecraft, a bit of mid-century SF, all of it highly imaginative and very good. I wonder why he hasn't been given the Philip K. Dick treatment by Hollywood (or maybe he has and I haven't noticed).

Antolog&ia; de Ciencia Ficción (Ed. Damon Knight, 2016/#57): I'm not sure, but I might have last read most of the stories here twenty years ago or so, but I still remembered plots, scenes, and the atmosphere; even those that I encountered later, I did so with a deep familiarity. This book is part of a long out-of-print collection of Spanish translations of classic SF books that was perhaps no less influential in my life than anything else.

Campaign in France 1792-Siege of Mainz (J. W. Goethe, 2016/#58): Goethe was a pompous, self-aggrandizing, elitist, ass-kissing, self-centered neurotic, whose every "scientific" theory was utterly wrong, and whose literary and philosophical opinions I find at best questionable. For God's sake, he described with admiration the sumptuous nobles gave while conducting a siege, and how gardeners began working on a formal part close to His Majesty's camp; no wonder the French eventually trashed armies so led. And this was how he fashioned himself through his writings, the edited version of the man. That said, he had a certain form of curiosity he couldn't turn off no matter what, an intellectual energy that was not so much focused action as a form of being, and a joy in learning everything about everything that reminds me in some ways of the journals of Da Vinci. Goethe's Italian Journey is a pleasure to read because of that contagious energy and constant observation, and there's something of that, amid a mountain range of issues, in these journals as well.


Who you gonna DM?

Ghostbusters did comfortably pass my litmus test of a Ghostbusters movie: I came out of the theater singing the theme song and wishing I had a proton pack.


This is why we don't have nice things

[community profile] scans_daily is currently posting bits from the old "Doom's Master" FF story, which included both one of the worst moments of Doom characterization I can conceive, much less know of — lets just begin with Victor Von Doom calling somebody, anybody, anything, "Master" — and one of Doom's crowing moments of awesome, when he was thoroughly trashed (I'm being hilariously understated here) and thrown back into the Pliocene to be eaten by giant sharks. That's not the awesome part, of course (except in that it implies you're the kind of person who rates the sort of enemies who can do that) – the awesome part is what he did then. So I've always been ambiguous about that.

Except that now they are also posting bits of Dark Avengers #176, showing how the Thunderbolts, in the far past for irrelevant reasons, happen to rescue Doom. The Thunderbolts. Rescue. Doom. And he of course betrays them for their time machine, and that's how Doom survived that thing.

No. Nope. Nooooooope. No-no. No chance. Nah. I refuse to acknowledge that Marvel just retconned one of Doom's Peak Doom moments into little more than outrageously good luck. It's worse than the time DC retconned Hal Jordan's completely understandable grief (together with maybe completely understandable plans) and subsequent one-man blitzkrieg against the Crops and grim semi-godhood into "possession by weird cosmic entity," rendering meaningless what had been a psychologically and narratively *interesting* event. Mostly because I'm a gazillon times more interested in Doom than in Hal and, to borrow a 2016 vernacular we'll never use again, the eons-long Big Bang-sized dumpster fire that is everything the Guardian have tried to do, ever.
[First World problems took over my day.][Number of calls to the Customer Service dept of four different companies: 39 (going by my phone's history log).][Annoyance level: Code Pitchfork.]

Marcus Aurelius would ask me to go to any random news site and see if this stuff is worth getting angry about, and he'd be right. Organizational incompetence and mendacity can and do cause a lot of human suffering, but flaky internet and credit card issues hardly qualify.

I do feel somewhat better after thinking this through.

But, boy, I could name four companies that are very lucky I don't have the Roman Army at my disposal.

An off the cuff observation

There's probably an strong reverse causality effect here, as well as latent variables, but still: my favorite Marvel movies tend to be those with strong soundtracks that become part of the movie's identity. Iron Man's, for example, including those fantastic end credits (and the post-credits scene, a hundred-million dollar idea if there ever was one). Deadpool. Guardians of the Galaxy, where the music was more of a McGuffin than the official McGuffin.

Further evidence: DC allegedly shot again parts of Suicide Squad as setting the trailer to Bohemian Rhapsody basically overwrote whatever bleak semantics they had planned for the movie.

I'm quite ignorant about movies and music (among an infinity of other things), but it does seem to me that, as you can't do comics POW, getting the soundtrack right and pump-y is one of the core aspects of shooting a superhero movie.

More correlation than causation (maybe Marvel/Disney just has better institutional knowledge about soundtracks, or at least more attuned to my tastes), but it was something fun to think about, and also an excuse to watch again a couple of old trailers.


Books! (Death and Circuses Edition)

Site Realiability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems (Ed. Betsy Beyer, Chris Jones, Jennifer Petoff, and Niall Murphy, 2016/#47): A very interesting book, if this is the kind of thing that interests you. Not just in terms of technical details; in some ways Google (and Amazon) are facing issues many other industries are going to have to, so seeing how they do it, what works and what doesn't, is instructive. The book is an uneven collection of individually written chapters, though, and if they first ones hadn't been so interesting, I would have probably, and perhaps more appropriately, just read bits of it.

Gothic Immortals (Marie Mulvey-Roberts, 2016/#48): An analysis of Gothic novels involving, at least partially, the pursuit of physical immortality through Rosicrucian(-like) methods. I found it interesting more because of the topic than of the analysis (it also has to be said that most of the source novels, except Frankenstein, aren't particularly good reads, at least to my tastes). As a side effect, it provides further reminders of the extraordinary nexus of talent that was the Byron-Wollstonecraft-Shelley-Godwin-etc-etc menagerie. There's only one degree of separation between Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley, and if you don't find the intellectual and artistic possibilities in a collaboration between them fascinating, I don't know what to tell you. Debauched superstardom, feminism, unhallowed biotechnology, programming, vampires... There was a little nexus of future in there (maybe not unrelated to how much tragedy there was in their lives). As an aside, there're plenty of obvious and petty reasons why Byron's memoirs were burned, but I'll be very disappointed with the zeitgeist if there isn't a "Lord Byron et al were a sort of Planetary and much of what they wrote was based on their experiences" graphic novel sooner or later.

Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Jerry Toner, 2016/#49): A very useful complement to most of the books I've read about Roman history, which focus on elite or military matters. It describes a harsh, hierarchical, extremely competitive, and very believable society. The author makes an explicit attempt to try to avoid either over-projecting modern patterns or rejecting human commonalities, and I think he by and large succeeds.

The Father Hunt (Rex Stout, 2016/#50): A regular Nero Wolfe story.

Homicide Trinity (Rex Stout, 2016/#51): Three shorter Nero Wolfe novellas. Satisfactory.

The Borgias and their Enemies (Christopher Hibbert, 2016/#52): I finished this book not quite sure of why the Borgias ended up with the reputation they have. Sure, they were cruel, lascivious, violent, greedy, corrupt, et cetera, but it doesn't look as if they were qualitatively worse than most of their contemporaries. Maybe it was the coincidence within two generations of a very able Pope (within the ethical non-constraints mentioned above), an extremely charismatic soldier, and an exceedingly able noblewoman (both of the same mother, the also quite extraordinary Vannozza dei Cattanei), all of them working in concert. Alexander VI would've been scandalous on his own, mind you, but the combination was impressive, and the way he doted over his children possibly led him to do things otherwise he wouldn't have (e.g., I can imagine an issueless Alexander dedicating himself to strengthening and reorganizing the Curia and the Papal States, with perhaps as much sexual incontinence, but also more of an institutional focus). And of course there's all the gossip about incest, which I don't really believe. The three of them were as sexual as pretty much everybody in Italy seems to have been at the time, and this was a time when people sometimes stood by the bed of noble newlyweds to audit the process, so to speak, but nothing in their actual biographies suggests anything darker. I believe most of the charges of murder, though. Heck, even Alexander VI believed most of the charges of murder against Cesare, and he loved him.



cass, can you not

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