We Three Kings, the Re-Orient Are | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

An 18th century German composer who wrote the theme for a king, with a principle melody that ascends yet remains trapped in tonal space. A 19th century Dutch artist who created maddening and hallucinatory artwork, defying intuition about perspective and reality. A 20th century German mathematician who described the limitations of a formal system addressing itself.

According to this book, Godel, Escher, and Bach were three blind men touching the same elephant: the Strange Loop.

“The “Strange Loop” phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchial system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”

You get on an elevator on floor 1, go up nine floors, emerge on floor 10, and then take the stairs back down. This is a loop. But imagine taking the elevator from floor 1 to floor 10, and the door slides open to reveal…floor 1. This is a strange loop.

“But things like that don’t exist.” They might not in architecture, but they do in the things that give rise to architecture: math, language, and human consciousness. Statements like “this sentence is a lie” and “I am nobody” are linguistic paradoxes. They’re like MC Escher’s Drawing Hands: destroying and recreating themselves over and over.  Idioms like “pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” are loopy. “This is not a pipe” is loopy. Barbershop poles are loopy.

One of the eye-opening parts of this book is how you start noticing strange loops all around you. The website you’re reading is powered by PHP, which stands for “PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor”. This isn’t a mistake: the language’s name is an acronym containing its own acronym inside it! Like spiders, strange loops exist closer to your body than you think.

But there’s more to strange loops than weird art and logic puzzles. Hofstadter seems to be poking towards a theory of consciousness itself.

In 1996, David Chalmers explicated the two main problems of consciousness. 1) How does a collection of atoms develop a consciousness (meaning a subjective experience, an internal monologue, or whatever). 2) Why does this happen? Why don’t we experience the world the way a robot might?

Hofstadter’s sense (never forcefully argued) is that strange loops are responsible for the consciousness we experience. Just as the three letters “PHP” contains an infinite number of “PHPs” inside them, our three-pound brains are able to “unfold” into something more than the sum of its parts, via iterations of very complicated loops. This doesn’t address the second of Chalmers’ questions, although in a later book Hofstadter compares the soul to a “swarm of colored butterflies fluttering in an orchard” – something attracted by the fruit, but not a part of the fruit. The loops don’t require conscious experience, the conscious experience emerges as a kind of froth when all of these loops combine.

This implies that an algorithm would be capable of introspecting about its own existence. A string of math on a very large blackboard would perceive the color red, and feel pain. It’s a provocative idea, but don’t expect to find this formulated with a QED at the end. As the constant artistic motifs suggest, GEB isn’t a hard science book. This is probably why people actually read it.

GEB is filled with illustrations, games, puzzles, and – most notoriously – dialogues inspired by Lewis Carroll. Some of these are astonishingly creative. The passage about the crab canon made me stop reading for a moment, because it was incredible, and I wanted to be able to remember it instead of immediately forgetting.  It was mind expanding. Nearly mind-exploding.

Although GEB contains a primer on the basics of computer language, intellectual rigor isn’t the book’s goal. One of Hofstadter’s many interests is Zen Buddhism, which is our culture’s most potent form of anti-logic and as such is of interest to the student of the strange loop.

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail / Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break / Until at last the bottom fell out. / No more water in the pail! / No more moon in the water!

Zen never makes lessons easy for the student: you’re the one who has to do the work and become cosmic. But GEB makes the road far more fun than it has to be. What stands out about Hofstadter’s prose is how readable it is. Hofstadter isn’t a wordsmith, he’s a word alchemist, making dull things sparkle. The prelude to my edition contains a digression in the difficulties he had typesetting the book, which sounds as gripping as Hannibal crossing the Alps. (There’s also a somewhat cringeworthy part self-flagellating about the how the original printing of the book uses the default male voice.)

So is “loopiness” the way a collection of atoms can collectively seem to think, reason, and experience? The book leaves me unsure, as I think it was meant to. It’s the world’s longest Zen koan, fragments of information that never coalesce into a hard idea, but seem to get me closer to enlightenment than I was before.

Interesting aside: Godel, Escher, and Bach are three wise men (initials GEB), also the three wise men of the Nativity tale are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (initials GMB), also M is E rotated 90 degrees, also they brought gift of gold, frankencense, and myrrh (initials GFM), also F is the letter after E in the Roman alphabet, also “Godel” is nearly an anagram of “gold”, also I lied when I said this part was interesting.

Adam and Thieve | Music / Reviews | Coagulopath

Bowie had a stock response to chameleon comparisons: “a chameleon’s trying to make you ignore him…that’s not my ambition!” Nor was it Adam Ant’s, who came from a similar art school background and cycled through an even more outlandish cast of characters: Indian brave, highwayman, cossack: visuals that sold (and were sold by in turn) some of the most exciting songs of the early 80s.

The first Adam and the Ants record is jittery, cold, and fraught, like ice cubes rattling in a glass. The second is a much easier listen, featuring powerful African-influenced drumming and really catchy songs. This is the third, which, as the title would suggest, is extremely charming and easy to like. It thus overcomes big problems, such as nearly every song on side B sucking.

It’s made of similar stuff to Dog Eat Dog, meaning sharp layers of vocals and guitars interspersed with empty space that crackles with energy. There isn’t the omnipresent Burundi drumming of Dog, but the busy tom fills achieve much the same effect. “Scorpios” is a nice, sprawling song with horns and many-tracked vocals that seems to stretch itself out on the airwaves. “Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios” is even better, featuring lacerating funk-inspired guitar. “Stand and Deliver” is an amazing classic that summarises Adam Ant’s career, like a leaf that looks exactly like the tree it came from. Energetic danceable post-punk decked in brilliant visuals that saturate the music beneath it.

Quality control issues become evident as Prince Charming progresses. “Mile High Club”: dogshit. “Mowhok”: dogshit. “Ant Rap”: dogshit inexplicably released as a single. This is another trend of Ant: about half the songs absolutely do not work, despite containing similar ingredients as the ones that do. At least the bad songs mostly run together this time, so skip button jockeying isn’t necessary.

Ant broke through in the gulf between two eras, like a surfer trading one wave for another. The Ants were originally signed (according to Adam) because Decca Records wanted “in” on the then-waning punk rock trend, and grabbed the nearest band to hand. Then they blew up in the MTV music video era, when listeners started using their eyes as well as their ears and it began to pay to not be an absolutely hideous fucking goblin.

You know what they say about Elvis: 90% of what he did was worthless, and the last 10% made him king. Adam Ant was inconsistent, but when he was good, he was very good. You might say he burglarized the king.

The knights who say "fuck" | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

I heard the band Motorhead described as a perfect mix of 1/3 punk rock, 1/3 heavy metal, and 1/3 rock and roll, with no element outweighing the other.

This book is a mix of 1/3 fantasy, 1/3 alternate history, and 1/3 science fiction. It hooked me at age 12 because of its violence: if you want detailed descriptions of billhooks crushing skulls, this has them. Descriptions, I mean. But Ash: A Secret History is ambitious: the plot unfolds like Lemarchand’s box, becoming increasingly complex and intriguing.

It’s a book within a book within a book. The framing device is that a 20th century linguist is attempting to publish a biography of the female medieval mercenary captain, Ash, who lived in the 14th century and who is shrouded by myth and legend. She had a reputation for tactical brilliance. She also heard voices in her head, telling her the future. Or so the tales say.

The book soon starts getting weird. There are big hints that the world of Ash (and the biographer) is not our own. Christ wasn’t crucified on a cross, he was hung from a tree. The Visigoths didn’t disappear from history in the 8th century, they rebuilt the city of Carthage and established an empire on the northern coast of Africa. Certain world events went differently.

By the time quantum physics start getting involved the book, you’re heavily invested in its tale of bloodshed and war. Ash ends up defending 14th century Burgundy against an army of invading Visigoths – a bizarre war that’s found nowhere in history. Is it all a hoax? Are we are hoax? Are the true hoaxes the friends we made along the way?

The way the plot resolves is clever, but at every level the book is interesting: you feel sorry for the historian who wrote down Ash’s adventures and paid a terrible price for it, and for the modern-day linguist who keeps having the rug yanked out from under his feet by inconvenient historical discoveries (one wonders if Gentle isn’t writing about her own experiences in academia).

It’s not flawless – a lot of dialog scenes serve no purpose except to gargle and masticate information the reader already knows, and every conversation seems to run about thirty percent too long. But on the whole, it’s a superior work, unlike any story I can recall reading.

As I’ve alluded, Gentle is a heavily-credentialed midlist author with degrees in Seventeenth Century Studies and War Studies. She seems to be one of those writers who turns converts masters degrees into novels. Ash can a brutal book, revelling in blood, sordidness, and bathroom activities, and the fact that it’s also thoroughly researched and informative offsets this. Like George MacDonald Fraser before her, Gentle realises that the audience will tolerate a lot of depravity if you present it as an educational experience.

The Plague Doctor | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

“I don’t remember giving a moment’s thought to the fact that we had just sketched out a plan to kill millions of people.”

Ken Alibek – born Kanatzhan “Kanat” Alibekov – was a Soviet microbiologist. Prior to his defection to the United States in 1992, Alibek was First Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the USSR’s secret biowarfare project.

In other news, I might be dying right now. Something deadly might be in my body, invisibly small, eluding my T-cells and multiplying like a gathering snowfall underneath my skin. My killer has no face. Like a citizen in Kabul being targeted by a reaper drone, my loved ones won’t be able to curse my murderer or exact revenge on it. My body will go into a plague bag, then into a cremation oven. If I have a legacy, it will be the infection of others.

Disease is everywhere. “You Want It, You Got It,” sang the Detroit Emeralds in the 70s. Disease is “You Don’t Want It, You Got It”. I live in a first world country with plumbing and sewage, yet I’ve had the flu, chicken-pox, and at least forty colds. Viruses are as inescapable as air –  and to an approximation, viruses are air. 800 million viruses drift to earth every day per square meter, a steady rain, as deadly as a storm of steel. These viruses clash and recombine, peeling off strips of recombinant DNA and RNA like Formula One cars swapping paint, making themselves stronger in the process, climbing up evolution’s ladder. A deadly new superplague might now be inside my lungs. It’s unlikely to happen, but that’s chilly comfort. Someone, somewhere is going to be the first.

And these are natural plagues, constrained by evolutionary limitations. Engineered ones are far worse. Nature can create shapes that float on water, such as curved leaves, but only man can build the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. The biohazards Alibek works on are synthetic tularemia, anthrax, glanders, haemorraghic fever, and anthrax. But the true biohazard is Abelikov himself. He was a sorcerer of the spirochete, driving nature beyond its natural constraints and then straight over a cliff.

“We saw ourselves as custodians of a mystery that no one else understood, warriors or high priests of a secret cult whose rituals could not be revealed.”

The thing about viruses is that they can’t be too deadly, or they’ll kill their carrier organisms before they can spread and thus become extinct themselves. A man-made plague distributed from airborne canisters is under no such obligations to play nice. Alibek wasn’t the first to see the potential of disease as a weapon – we’ve been catapulting rotting cattle over city walls since antiquity – but backed by the Soviet military apparatus, he took it to a never-before-seen level. It’s impersonal, creating a layer of obfuscation between the attacker and victim. And it’s easy for a state actor to work on bioweapon projects, telling outside inspectors that they’re merely conducting defensive research.

But weaponized diseases have a big problem: they can’t tell friend from foe. Alibek and his fellow researchers are playing with fire, and he has many close calls at Biopreparat, such as a terrifying incident in 1983 where a faulty safety valve causes a liquified super-strain of tularemia to flow upwards through an air vent.

“I opened the door and took a few steps inside. It was pitch black. I reached back, groping in the darkness for the light switch. When I finally hit the switch and looked down, I found I was standing in a puddle of liquid tularemia. It was milky brown–the highest possible concentration. The puddle at my feet was only a few centimeters deep, but there was enough tularemia on the floor to infect the entire population of the Soviet Union.”

Alibek frantically washes himself with hydrogen peroxide. It isn’t enough. One day later, he begins to sicken.

Toward the end of Klyucherov’s visit, my body started to shake. Chills, and a sudden wave of nausea, overcame me so quickly I wanted to bury my head in my arms. It’s a cold, I thought. I’ve been working too hard. 
But it felt worse than any cold I’d ever had. I could feel my face burning with fever.
“What’s happened to you?” Klyucherov asked in a tone that was now much friendlier. “You look like you’re about to die.”
I smiled weakly. “It’s just a cold,” I said. “I had a long night. I could do with some tea.”

Alibek isn’t just afraid of the disease, he’s afraid of discovery: this kind of fuck-up that will cause him to disappear. Luckily, he’s able to antidote himself with black market tetracycline, and his superiors never suspect it was anything but a cold.

This was one of the most fascinating parts of the book for me: the discussion of Soviet culture and how one interacts with it.

Russia had several Chernobyl-like events. And in every case, they were made worse by scared technicians trying to cover it up. On March 1979, a technician at a Sverdlovsk chemical drying plant removed a clogged filter and forgot to replace it. Aerosolized spores were soon pouring from the plant’s exhaust pipes, and the wind blew them into Sverdlovsk’s factory district. What kind of spores? Bacillus anthracis, which is better known as anthrax.

Workers began dying in their dozens. Several contradictory coverup stories went into effect at once. The KGB informed locals that the deaths were caused by a truckload of contaminated meat. Innocent meat vendors were arrested, and the victims’ families received visits from “doctors” armed with falsified death certificates. Meanwhile, members of the local Communist Party were put to work scrubbing “hazardous material” from roads and rooftiles.

…which caused a second wave of deaths, because the brooms and brushes swept anthrax spores back into the air, spreading them a second time throughout the city. Multiple layers of incompetence, executed with maximal efficiency.

I don’t think any kid dreams of working at a place like Biopreparat. Alibek originally wanted to become a military psychiatrist, but he was drawn sideways into studying epidemiology and biology. He has an obvious flair for such work, but he also possesses a single large weakness: he notices things he’s not supposed to. His professor, a retired colonel called Aksyonenko, assigns him the task of writing about the outbreak of tularemia that crippled a German offensive in 1942. After a few nights studying the case, Alibek came to conclusions that might have landed him in big trouble.

When I walked into my professor’s office with a draft of my paper, I thought I had solved the puzzle. He was concentrating on the latest edition of Krasnaya Zvezda, the official army newspaper.
“So, what have you discovered?” Aksyonenko asked, smiling up at me before returning to his paper.
“I’ve studied the records, Colonel,” I said cautiously. “The pattern of the disease doesn’t suggest a natural outbreak.”
He looked up sharply. “What does it suggest?”
“It suggests that this epidemic was caused intentionally.”
He cut me off before I could continue.
“Please,” he said softly. “I want you to do me a favor and forget you ever said what you just did.”

Whether or not you think Reagan was correct in describing the USSR as an “evil empire” (I think he was), it was certainly an unsafe empire. When disasters like Chernobyl (or Sverdlovsk) occur, they need to occur under bright light. Everyone needs to know what went wrong, and how, so that a correct response can occur. Not beneath the shade of coverups and lies. Most importantly, you need to give your inferiors permission to make mistakes. Otherwise you’ll simply train them to be good liars, and you’ll never know when things go wrong.

Obviously, Biopreparat’s work killed a good number of Russians. Was it ever used on non-Russians?

Not in war, as far as I can tell. But the strength of biowarfare is that it can be used in ways that specifically aren’t sanctioned warfare; such as against civilians and political opponents. Alibek has numerous encounters with KGB operatives, who praise him, threaten him, attempt to recruit him as an informant, etc. He suspects that his work is used to commit assassinations on behalf of a government venture called Project Flute.

In the spring of 1990, Butuzov walked into my office and sank into the big armchair across from my desk. He stared for a while at the
portraits of scientists hanging on the wall.
“I need your advice on something, Kan,” he said casually.
“Sure,” I said. “Professional or personal?”
“Professional.”
I waited until he spoke again.
“I’m looking for something that will work with a gadget I’ve designed. It’s a small battery, the kind you use for watches, connected to a vibrating plate and an electric element.”
“Go on,” I said. He spoke in the same casual tone in which we discussed a soccer match. I was fascinated.
“Well, when you charge this element up, the plate will start vibrating
at a high frequency, right?”
“Right.”
“So, if you had a speck of dried powder on that plate, it will start to form an aerosol when it vibrates.”
He looked at me for encouragement, and I motioned for him to continue.
“Let’s say we put this assembly into a tiny box, maybe an empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and then find a way to put the pack under someone’s desk, or in his trash basket. If we were then to set it in motion, the aerosol would do the job right away, wouldn’t it?”
“It depends on the agent,” I said.”Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. What’s the best agent to use in such a situation if the objective is death?”
I’m not sure why I went along with him, but I did.
“You could use minimal amounts of tularemia,” I said, “but it wouldn’t necessarily kill.”
“I know,” said Butuzov. “We were thinking of something like  Ebola.”
“That would work. But you’d have a high probability of killing not just this person, but everyone around him.”
“That wouldn’t matter.”

Alibek continues probing, and learns that Flute’s target is Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the newly elected president of Georgia. The “flamboyantly mustachio’d” Gamsakhurdia had been an enemy of Moscow ever since leading a campaign against the Soviet army in 1989, and it was politically attractive to the Kremlin that he not remain in power.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia died in 1993, under circumstances that remain unclear. Maybe it was a suicide. Maybe a small, vibrating battery was involved.

How did Alibek morally rationalise his work? Using the standard line: Biopreparat was doing the same thing the Americans were doing. It was the USSR’s version of the missile gap argument: if we don’t develop bioweapons, they will first.

Was this ever true? Maybe at one stage. Research efforts between the US and the USSR dovetail perfectly between 1945 and 1969: the same agents, the same aerosols, and the same processes were used on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This likely wasn’t an accident. Classified US research papers on bacteriological weapons had a curious way of ending up in Moscow.

But by 1969, the US was losing interest in the field. Public discontent with the Vietnam war soon expanded to encompass chemical and biological warfare, and facilities throughout the country were picketed. Nixon was convinced by his advisors that disease-based weapons lacked tactical value, and later that year, he appointed a panel that killed America’s biowarfare program. The United States was publically throwing in the towel.

The Soviets, of course, regarded all of this as theater.

“We didn’t believe a word of Nixon’s announcement. Even though the massive U.S. biological munitions stockpile was ordered to be destroyed, and some twenty-two hundred researchers and technicians lost their jobs, we thought the Americans were only wrapping a thicker cloak around their activities.”

But in 1991, the old regime ended, and Alibek was chosen to be part of a group of Russian scientists to tour biological research facilities in the United States. He was shocked at what he didn’t find: Biopreparat had two thousand specialists in anthrax. The Americans had two. The American research papers he saw were all decades old. Supposedly top-secret installations like Fort Detrick were either defunct or converted to into hum-drum civilian medical research. He turned over every stone he could, but there was nothing incriminating to be seen.

But his superiors weren’t interested in hearing that America had abandoned biowarfare, because that would destroy Biopreparat’s raison d’etre and put all of them out of a job. Parallels to the  US’s 2003 invasion of Iraq war come to mind. From Bush’s perspective, Iraq had to be guilty of something. After all, he’d already gone to the trouble of invading them.

The hollowness of his mission weighs on Alibek during this period, and thoughts of defection enter his head. Spurring him on is the new wave of racial tension that followed the collapse of the USSR – another thing that interested me. Alibek is ethnically a Kazakh, and his face looks just as Asiatic as it does Caucasian. Until this point, he’d been a citizen of the Soviet Union. Now, he was a foreigner with strange features. This was interesting to me: maybe the union of satellite states across Russia effectively erased a number of racial barriers? Either way, Alibek couldn’t rely on Soviet national unity to protect himself any longer. So he runs.

Alibek escaped his former country, but he can’t escape his place in history: one that’s already pockmarked with smallpox scars, lacerated with varicella-zoster rashes. If a few metaphorical butterfly wingflaps had occurred, a massive breakthrough might have occurred at Biopreparat that greatly altered the balance of power between the USSR and the USA. Or perhaps the breakthrough would have insured that the balance of power became irrelevant, welding mankind into one: carriers for a deadly superplague.

Archimedes spoke about how a perfectly positioned lever could move the world. Disease is a perfectly positioned lever that could end the world. Alibek’s work might have value, if it helps us understand and prepare against the next time Pandora’s box is opened. Because that’s the only certainty: that there will be a next time.

Cats in the belfry | Movies / Reviews | Coagulopath

You’ve heard your friends talking about this Netflix documentary, and I suggest you see it right now, before it saturates the water cooler ecoystem and it loses its shock value. It’s sad that nobody can watch The Sixth Sense in 2020 without knowing that Bruce Willis is a ghost. I’d hurry up and watch Tiger King before it gets spoiled for you.

It’s one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. The people in it hardly seem real. I was constantly veering between shock and laughter. “…he’d come and rub them balls in my face” gets spoken at an eulogy. A man shoots himself in the head barely off camera, and it’s not even the fifth craziest thing to happen in that episode. There’s a straightfaced discussion about whether a human body can be put through an industrial mincer.

Basically, it’s about a war between owners of big cats, which culminates in a tangle of attempted (and perhaps successful?) murders. Joe Exotic owns a zoo. Carole Baskin owns an “animal rescue” that is indistinguishable from a zoo. Both of these people have a lot of shady history: we get the sense that they’re both dangerous, as well as incapable of walking away from any situation where they see themselves as the loser.

Owning a big cat is legal in most US states: but not in a same way that owning a head of lettuce is legal. The animals are as dangerous as their owners (one of Joe Exotic’s weirdly devoted employees loses an arm in a tiger cage) and there are laws against breeding  them. Joe is clearly on the wrong side of these laws, but he needs to breed them, because it’s the only way his zoo can remain profitable.

The documentary educates you on the brutal economics of the tiger business: an adult tiger costs several thousand dollars per month to feed, and you can’t do anything with them except exhibit them. The real money is in tiger cubs, which are small enough to be cuddled and petted. Joe Exotic claims he can make a hundred thousand dollars from a newborn cub.

However, profitable cubs age into unprofitable tigers. Joe’s zoo in Wynnewood Oklahoma (aka Backup Florida) had a total 176 tigers, saddling him with staggering food bills and forcing him to breed still more cubs. The Chinese saying “he who rides on the back of a tiger can never get off” describes Joe’s basic dilemma: he’s running a tiger-based Ponzi scheme that will basically never be profitable (except in the short term). Unless he euthanizes grown tigers, which he’s pretty clearly doing.

He might have escaped notice for this, but he also starts targeting human prey. Supposed animal rights activist Carole Baskin may have fired the first shot in their war (she objects on moral grounds to the breeding of tiger cubs), but he escalates their feud to ridiculous, Wile E Coyote levels, piling up incriminating evidence against himself. The series straight away spoils the ending – Joe Exotic makes a call from his Fort Worth prison cell – but there’s no way it could have ended any other way. It’s a testament to the man’s unnatural charisma that he got away with so much for so long.

It’s hard to describe how fun and exhilerating Tiger King is. Even thinking about a few of my favorite moments overwhelms me with options. It’s like digging a hole to find gold, but the dirt you’re casting aside is also gold, and your pickaxe is made of gold too.

It’ll give you a lot to think about, too. Joe Exotic would probably still be a free man if he hadn’t effectively lynched himself via social media. But his self-exhibiting impulses were the only reason he was ever successful: albeit in a quasi-legal fashion. And in this sense, is he any different from the tigers he kept?

About ten years ago, there was a “furry” called Stalking Cat who took his feline obsession to ghastly extremes, undergoing over fourteen body modifications to become a tigress before committing suicide. Joe Exotic succeeded where Stalking Cat failed. Spiritually, he became a tiger.

The main role of tigers, in our culture, is to stand out and attract attention. If they were boring, they’d already be extinct. They survive because people love them. Joe Exotic was the ultimate charismatic megafauna. We adulated him, we feared him, and eventually, we put him in a cage.

The sun, the moon, and the truth | Games / Reviews | Coagulopath

Look up “unique” in the dictionary and you’ll see Cosmology of Kyoto. Only if you use a special dictionary, though. One that has “unique” defined as Cosmology of Kyoto.

Released in 1993, it was sold as a game and is more accurately described as an interactive work of art. It’s moody, confusing, dark, and stylized. You could put it in a class with Dark Seed, Bad Mojo, and Haruhiko Shono’s collective work; games that aren’t remembered with much love, but are still remembered.

How did it achieve such rapid (if fleeting) fame? Via a technique I call “through the Mac-door”. In 1993, The Macintosh was losing favor as a platform for gaming. A dwindling market share and Apple’s apathy towards gaming had turned it into a dumping ground for “edutainment” dribble and ports of obsolete PC titles, and the occasional original Mac game (even if was a “””game””” wrapped in numerous air quotes) would make waves, just because the competition was that bad.

Without fail, some marketing genius would notice the hype and wrongly conclude that the game was amazing and needed to be rushed to DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Amiga, and your kitchen toaster right goddamn now, usually with tragic results. If shitty games were AIDS, the Macintosh was a HIV infected needle in DOS’s perineum. But odd games entered the DOS ecosystem through the Mac, too. Games seemingly made in a fever dream or on drugs. This is one of them.

Cosmology of Kyoto takes you on a morbid journey through the Japanese middle ages. Heian-era Japan is now mostly associated with court writers like Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, but Cosmology has little time for the courts: it’s focus is the streets and gutters, and the plight of the common folk. Supernatural monsters pose an omnipresent threat.

You create a character before you can play, choosing between “Single” or “Married” and between “Male” or “Female” (you can already tell we’re not in modern Japan because there’s no “Trap” or “Catgirl”). You can also change your facial features, although I didn’t have much luck in not making myself look like a dyspeptic Vladimir Putin. You’re also naked, but fear not: there’s a dead corpse whose clothes you can rob. Always nice when that happens.

You wander around the land, interacting with stuff using a classic “hotspot” based point-and-click interface. You talk to Buddhist monks, samurai, common folk, children, and demons. I died pretty fast: a pissed-off samurai cut off my head, and my soul went to hell.

Another historical aside: adventure games were split at the time in how they handled death. There was the Sierra style (failure = instant death = game over, encouraging the player to plan their actions carefully) and the LucasArts style (you couldn’t die, encouraging the player to experiment and do as many things as possible).

Cosmology charts a third path: you can die, but if you play your cards right you can escape hell and be reincarnated back into the main game. Which you’ll want to, because hell’s pretty bad. The game’s art style has a strong ero-guro influence, with lots of graphic and grotesque imagery depicting torture and things even more perverted than torture. Many Mac titles are for kids. This one isn’t.

By now, Cosmology’s true purpose becomes clear: explaining Buddhism to the gaijin.

I’ve seen people claim that the game has no point, or cannot be finished. Neither is true. You win Cosmology of Kyoto by discovering the source of the demon infestation (I think at the Imperial Palace), and gaining enough karma to break the cycle of death and rebirth. Kind acts like donating money to beggars increase your karma. Swordfighting and stealing decreases it. If you have too much negative karma, you’re reincarnated as a dog when you escape hell.

This emulation of Buddhist spirituality makes it comparable with western RPGs such as Ultima IV, although there’s a dark, sinister “Tachikawa-ryu” aura of sex and death that’s classically Japanese, and completely missing from Richard Garriott’s famed series.

If esoteric spirituality isn’t your thing, there’s a wealth of historical depth to Cosmology. The game comes with a full encyclopedia of Japanese history and folklore, and the map is a grid-perfect recreation of Heian-kyo. I guess Cosmology is a kind of backdoor “edutainment” title, fulfilling the Macware stereotype. Maybe this is another reason for its surprising (if short lived) popularity: it’s a cultural experience. A tech support experience, too. As with many classic adventure games, the hardest puzzle in 2020 was getting it to install and run.

Is it worth playing? I don’t know. I think these sorts of weird-ass games are more fun to be aware of than to actually dive into. You dig? I don’t need to go to hell: knowing it exists is enough.

Imagine there’s a wall, right in front of you. It... | Music / Reviews | Coagulopath

Imagine there’s a wall, right in front of you. It has always been there. You can’t walk or see through it. Other people pass through easily. The wall only exists for you.

My wall is hip hop. The condition amusia stops people from enjoying music. I may have selective amusia for hip hop. It’s not that I dislike it or find it annoying; my brain doesn’t recognise it as music. Listening to Lil Uzi Vert’s much-hyped Eternal Atake felt like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics and seeing birds and snakes and ears of grain: I have understanding, but it’s of the wrong sort and won’t let me decode the language. I have ample exposure to hip-hop: I’ve been listening to it unwillingly through car windows and gym PAs and TV shows for nearly thirty years. I should get it by now, and the fact that I still don’t makes me feel disabled.

I don’t have opinions on this album, I have questions, many of them stupid.

1) What’s the appeal of listening to someone else brag about owning things? Rap aficionados always defend this as rags-to-riches storytelling, but most rap isn’t about striving to be rich, it’s about simply being rich. The first song (and the second, and the third) reduces to”I drive a cool car”. So what? Where’s the struggle? Uzi could have gotten that Mercedes-Benz from his dad, for all I know.

2) Why do all rappers now have “Lil” in their name? My understanding is that the ubiquitous rap cognomen was once “Big” (Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious BIG, Big Boi) and now it’s “Little” (Lil Yachty, Lil Peep, Lil Peep). When did this shift occur? Is Biggie Smalls the transitional fossil?

3) Why are so many of these “Lil” rappers actually…not Lil? Lil Yachty is 1.8m tall. Lil Peep was 1.85 m tall. Lil Uzi Vert is just 1.63m, but he’s built like an NPC bodybuilder. Are they “Lil” in the sense of being young and hungry? What will they do when they turn 40 or 50? Don’t they think they’ll live that long?

4) Should these albums come with a glossary for idiot white people? At one point Uzi says “Man, she asked for some racks” and I thought his girlfriend was asking for breast implants in the weirdest way possible. Actually, a rack is a thousand dollars.

5) Why are the most memorable parts of rap always borrowed from things that aren’t rap? The “hit” of Eternal Atake is “That Way”, which samples the vocal hook of “I Want it That Way”. I won’t say Uzi just steals the chorus of a Backstreet Boys song – he interpolates it in a fairly creative way – but it’s still not exactly is. Samples can enhance a song, but when the only interesting thing about a song is its samples, shouldn’t you just listen to the original track?

6) Is this what growing old feels like? The years becoming a slow-acting acid that melts away my eyes and ears and nose, gradually destroying any connection to current culture? Locking me inside my head, until all I can do is look inwards? The older I become, the more I remember the past. And the more time I spend in the present, the less time it spends in me.

No love | Music / Reviews | Coagulopath

Like many classic metal albums, Bonded by Blood‘s legend is bigger than the album itself. The shadow of Exodus’s debut looms massively down the years, and the modern listener might be surprised – even disappointed – by the smallness of the album that cast it.

Exodus (along with Overkill) is often cited as “true” thrash metal, back from the days when men were men and FUCKIN’ POSERS MAAAAN hadn’t invaded the scene with their mainstream influences and melodies and coherent songwriting et cetera. Thrash metal can be awesome, but it can also be snobbish and insular, and strangely proud of its own smallness. In 1990 Exodus released a cassette entitled “Four Albums And Still No Ballad”. Is that a thing worth bragging about? Particularly when you couldn’t write an interesting ballad if your life depended on it?

Released in 1985, Bonded by Blood was actually recorded in August 1984 under the title A Lesson in Violence. The album was famously delayed for nearly a year through circumstances such as label shenanigans and a totally inappropriate cover designed by a hippie friend of guitarist Gary Holt (although that same guy also designed the Exodus logo, so maybe hippies are more brutal than is commonly believed). While the album languished, the Bay Area was flooded by bootleg recordings of the album. One wonders if Holt ever bragged to Lars Ulrich that he was fighting music piracy before it was cool.

Bonded by Blood is about riffs. It has no time for anything that’s not a riff. It demonstrated Gary Holt’s prowess as a rhythm guitarist, almost to the expense of the rest of the music. It’s the canonical example of thrash metal songwriting, where you get your best guitarist to improvise riffs for an hour, takes the five best ones, and presto, that’s a song. There’s just not a lot of thought given to anything that doesn’t have six strings.

The title track features a bruising yet intricate main riff, reminiscent of THAT part in “Fight Fire with Fire”, where even when you think you understand what’s happening on the fretboard you probably don’t. But chorus is boring and shapeless, with the guitars and drums and vocals all doing three different things. The band themselves seem to think “Bonded by Blood”‘s chorus is underwhelming: when they re-recorded the song with Rob Dukes in 2012 they added a bunch of extra drum fills to try and make it more interesting. The exact same problem occurs over and over.

The band doesn’t really “get” songwriting.  They repeat vocal patterns from song to song (“Bonded by Blood” has the same verse as “Exodus”), Tom Hunting ride the same punk rock d-beat for half the album, and when they hit paydirt with a certified classic like “Strike of the Beast” and “A Lesson in Violence”, it seems almost accidental. The riffs are amazing, but they need to be. They’ll all the album has.

Paul Baloff sings on this album. It was the only studio LP he recorded in his life, and it made him a legend. I wish he lived up to the hype.

He sings like a drunk man pisses, squealing and yelping and cackling and generally flinging his voice all around the place. Maybe he’s not Darkwing Duck, but his voice has a definite cartoon character quality. You know when the villain sings his “I am evil” song? That’s Baloff. He’s hilarious and sounds like he’s having the time of his life, but the album would be much better with an actual performance on it.

So the vocals aren’t so hot, and the recorded-in-the-toilet quality vocals do Baloff no favors. Even the album’s best cuts rely on speed and power to overwhelm their shortcomings, and the bad songs could literally be modern pizza thrash shit if they were 10-15% stupider.

Forget 1985, what was happening in 1984?

Slayer’s transcendental heaviness on “Chemical Warfare”. Metal Church and Metallica’s sophistication. Bathory and Celtic Frost stepping outside the confines of thrash entirely and forging a new, blackened path. Next to those bands and albums and moments, Bonded by Blood is well-executed but a little stunted: a 40 minute exposition of Gary Holt’s right hand. The Bay Area sound was already burning itself out, and incorporating new sonic influences out of sheer necessity. Baloff was wrong, and the posers were right: thrash metal ultimately had to evolve or die.

I enjoy many parts of Bonded by Blood, but the popular perception of it as a paragon of metalness that we’ve all strayed from seems a little wrong. This is a powerful but limited album in a powerful but limited style. Where do you go from here, now that you’ve stretched Bay Area thrash to its limits? What does Bonded by Blood 2, 3, 4 etc sound like? How many times can you bang your head against the stage?

 

Musical monosodium glutamate | Music / Reviews | Coagulopath

One sign you that you had overbearing egotist parents is that you have “Junior” after your name. Maybe a similar rule applies to rock bands that are titled “[Frontman’s Name] Group”.

Michael Schenker is known for his guitar skills, as well as his turbulent personality. He’s fortunate that he had most of his crack-ups in the days before social media: otherwise he’d be the heavy metal Kanye West: 30% musician, 70% source of amusement.

We’re talking stints in rehab, near homelessness, hunger strikes, feuds with with singers and producers and journalists and his own brother, cancelled tours, and a long list of other bizarre behavior.

Wikipedia advises me that forty-one musicians have played in Michael Schenker Group and have since quit or been fired. Schenker would probably fire himself from his own solo project, were such a thing were possible.

But he’s definitely brilliant. I listened to power metal for years, and one thing I’d always heard was that the style’s guitar playing owes a lot to Schenker. This is correct. There’s a straight line between most of what Schenker plays on this album and Helloween, and in the case of “On and On” – with its harmonized bends and cod-Bach synthesizer lines – it’s not even a line, it’s a dot.

This is one of the best-produced 80s albums I’ve heard, particularly the deep, thudding character of the drums. MSG has a real sense of precision and space in its mix, with everything built on top of each other like layers on a cake. It’s like you can throw a fishing line into the album and find where the vox are, where the guitars are, where the drums are, etc. Listening to MSG is a seriously good time before you even appreciate the notes.

“Ready to Rock” is an okay-ish cock rock anthem. “Attack of the Mad Axeman” seems like more of the same…but then Schenker pulls a drag-chute on the song and turns it into something adventurous and fascinating. His shredding over the final 32 or so bars…you are listening to power metal, at least five years before. Seriously revolutionary stuff.

“On and On” continues down this path, trading ethereal keys for smoldering wah pedal soloing. I’m struggling to think of more hard rock/heavy metal from 1981 that sounds like this. The Michael Schenker Group was an odd band: they didn’t sound out of place on MTV, but on a compositional level they had a quality that nobody else really possessed. Some quality of uncaring naffness and unfocused coolness.

“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “I Want More” are forgettable. “Never Trust a Stranger” is the power ballad, and sounds like Elton John covered by Aerosmith. “Looking for Love” is a burning and agitated uptempo track with some great hooks and guitar moments. The final track is pretty good too, except for when the music drops away and they let Gary Bardem sing unaccompanied. He’s one of those guys who sounds great, but only if he’s located somewhere in a pile of 200 watt Marshall stacks.

Terra null | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

Quick question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?

That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.

Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. Australia has ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown.  Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, but we will never run out of deserts.

Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…remote areas that are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into urban centers engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.

Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney. Citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.

En-route, he stops for the night at the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. After nightfall the schoolteacher gambles foolishly, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive, and the masks start to slip.

Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. After this, the similarities end. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging forces you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is delicately ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a sick cat’s asshole.

It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike American Psycho it accomplishes this without becoming a cartoon. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train. Eating breakfast at a hotel. Innocent acts are seen through an authorial lens that focuses the dust-cauled Australian sunlight on scum, dirt, and unpleasantness.

There’s precisely one scene where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera, obscuring the action on the page. He may have been afraid of censorship. Nevertheless, there are enough clues that you understand precisely what’s happening to the schoolteacher.

Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him – there’s the sense that the town is trying to poison him – and the nice bloke offering the beer turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. If you aren’t, you’re an outside.

This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. Australia is a nation of social drinkers – sometimes without the social. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about alcohol, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” 

Karl Marx described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.

The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It’d be considered racist if the characters were black or brown instead of white (as happened with Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my exposure to outback towns. Maybe the needle lies somewhere in between. Maybe my privilege as a citydweller is that I’ll never find out where.