Nesmania

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For almost two years I’ve been watch this guy on twitch.tv who calls himself “The Mexican Runner” try to beat every Nintendo game ever released. These are games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System with releases spanning from 1985 to 1994. In all, there are 710 games TMR is trying to beat. So far he has completed 395. He’s past half-way.

MR calls the project “Nesmania.” When he first started, it was a unique idea. No one had ever tried to master every game for a particular console, let alone one with as punishing a game library as the NES. I started following it back in August 2014 when he was at 60 or 70 games. In that time TMR has logged over 2000 hours of game play. That’s the equivalent of about one year of full-time work.

One of the things I really admire about Nesmania, besides just the insanely ambitious premise of the thing, is all of the meticulous documentation TMR and his followers create around the project. Every minute of every game is live streamed over Twitch, usually to online audiences of between 600 to 800 viewers. The gameplay video is then archived, both in the highlight section of TMR’s Twitch channel and on his Youtube channel. TMR even rates and reviews each game after he’s competed it.

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the NES. It was the only video game console I spent considerable time playing when I was a kid. And what I’ve discovered watching Nesmania is that I never even scratched the surface of what the NES was about. I think I’ve played maybe 10% of the entire game library. I try to watch a little bit of every video, just to get an idea of what each game is like. Truth be told, though, I’m really not capable of sitting down and watching an entire playthrough. For one thing, I’m an adult man with a job, and I don’t have time. But also, most of the games are just really boring. Dull to watch but I’m sure also dull to play. Just this last month, TMR had to beat all three of the Bases Loaded games within a couple weeks of each other. For every title he had to win 80 nine inning baseball games. They each took him between 30 to 40 hours each to beat. It was painful to watch. He’d basically score a run in the first inning and then bunt out on every subsequent at-bat just to move the games along faster. But those are easy games. To watch him systematically destroy some of the hardest video games every made has at times been truly thing of beauty. He beat all of the Dragon Warrior games blind, without any maps, hints, or cheats. For Q-bert he basically had to memorized the game’s entire button sequence to get through. And his epic 37 hour slog through Ikari Warriors is one of the only documented instances of someone beating that game without resorting to the ABBA code.

Now, of course it goes without saying that Nesmania is an absurd and quixotic venture that helps no one, serves no real purpose, and is probably a complete waste of time. Yes, it is clearly nothing more than a bizarre fantasy quest of an eccentric shut-in. But there’s an undeniably poetry to what The Mexican Runner is trying to do. No one has ever passed all the NES games before, so in that sense TMR something like a gaming explorer, planting his flag atop a heretofore unassailable peak. Also, I think will ultimately be looked at as an activity in deep archiving. There is a lot of cultural content in the NES library that’s locked away in an obsolete digital format, which even when emulated can only be accessed by playing out the program. Nesmania unfolds each game and creates a record of its contents. It’s surprising that game developers aren’t already doing this to capture and preserve their work. Perhaps years from now, the Nesmania videos will be used for historical research. Even for people like me who still remember playing these games as kids, Nesmania is still a fantastic feast for nostalgia.

Trust in Civil Service

Last week President Obama nominated Merck Garland, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court of the Unites States. After the President announced the nomination in the White House Rose Garden, Judge Garland was given a few minutes to speak. It was a simple speech. Garland introduced himself, spoke of his family, his personal background, his philosophy of service, his approach to adjudication. It was a very abridged auto-biography delivered by a modest man, a mere whisper in the public discourse against the backdrop of a provocative and spectacular campaign season. And yet many found the speech quite moving. Garland shows marvelous candor. Here we witness a man of great ability reaching his highest professional accomplishment, and there is not a single note of pride or ambition in his reaction. I think achievement must be sweeter to those who have devoted their lives to service. It justifies all of the sacrifice, invalidates all of the doubts with which you wrestled getting to where you are. It is vindication. I think Judge Garland must be an unusual embodiment of the best parts of Plato’s tripartite soul: the merging of logistikon and thymoedes, the logical and spirited soul, which when aligned strengthens one to virtue, making you a creature of duty and higher purpose.

Putting aside praise for a moment, I would like to examine more closely how Judge Garland characterizes his career in public service. Describing his work on the bar and bench, he repeatedly cites this value of trust-building. He talks about winning the trust of his witnesses as a prosecutor, not in him necessarily but in the rule of law. Of his prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing, he speaks of the sense of responsibility he felt to restore the trust in the victims that the system will protect them and will respond justly. I think Garland’s statements can be summarized as follows: it is necessary in a just and orderly society that people trust their government, and that those individuals who make up the government do everything in their power to cultivate and sustain the trust of the people. To me, this has to be the driving principle of public service. More than investment in the common good or protection of markets or advancement of national interests, a government must first and foremost produce a stable platform of inextricable law and social order that can support all of the varied and diffusive activities of the nation. And that platform must be firm and consistent and utterly unassailable, and the people must trust that it is so. I think anyone working in civil service or in any other public interest capacity should constantly be asking her or himself, is what I am doing promoting trust among the people in their government and in the social system more broadly? Because this should be the primary concern of any government. Some would argue that this is all government should ever aspire to do. I’ll not go so far as to say that the government cannot be a positive force for change in society, but before it can even begin to be that, it must first create a degree of tranquility which would foster profit, progress, and improvement derived from the people. Not only would I call this the highest purpose of government, I would also suggest that it is what government is best at doing. No other entity in society is better positioned than government to preserve the public trust. In government you have a powerful and ubiquitous force whose only motive is to promote the public good. Now that isn’t to say those who control and carry out the business of government cannot abuse its systems for their own personal profit. But government itself, as a body, does not seek profit. It sets out only to enrich the people whom it serves. This makes it a unique manifestation of human community: an executive organization that is not ruled by profit motive but by the sacred requirement to maintain order and protect civil rights. Now, the fact that the defining principle of democratic government is one of reservation rather than action probably does place limits on what a state can plausibly be expected to accomplish. As we’ve seen time and again, the state falters when it is made to lead the people to social change or when it is compelled to carry out some utopian vision of its leaders. Government is not flexible or nimble. It cannot pivot to adapt to changing circumstances. It will never be an agent of change or disruption. But it shouldn’t have to be. Government is a regular, reliable, policy-driven, rules-based collection of unprofitable but incredibly necessary and useful services. We can look to business, labor, or the academy for the novel or the revolutionary. We turn to government when we need something to be permanent and lasting. And yes, this makes government boring and predicable, but that is why we rest our trust upon it, as the bedrock that underlies everything we do, the ballast the keeps everything upright. Such a government succeeds when it is guided by steady hands and a quite kind of leadership. Judge Garland is a crowning example of what a model civil servant should look like. We should be thankful that there were so many like him who came before, and do everything we can to ensure that there will be more like him in the future.

Boundary Control

I found a curious passage in the newest edition of Brown’s Boundary Control and Legal Principles, which is a book about drawing and legally supporting boundaries lines to define real property:

“In the primeval forest, particularly in the plant kingdom, there are no known boundaries between living things. Although some horticulturalists dispute this, we accept the fact that plants do not create boundaries to separate themselves. Animals—especially humans—do create boundaries. We like to think that only humans create and appreciate boundaries, but it has been observed in nature that most mammals, some reptiles, and a few fish create, identify, mark, and defend boundaries… Field examinations and studies by naturalists have revealed that most animals really don’t create boundaries per se. However, it is recognized that they usually create terminal points (corners) and they identify the boundaries between these points.” (pg. 2)

It is true that we don’t think about the boundaries animals make, mostly because there is nothing forcing us to respect them. We often equate the wild with license, and we view wilderness as a place without rule or imposed order. Of course what we mean by this is that wilderness is a place free of human rule and human-imposed order. Wild places are actually thronging with rule systems put into place by the animals and plants. Any bit of landscape you might point to is really a palimpsest of ancient struggles and territorial claims asserted by the multitude of living things that reside there. These dictates of the animals are difficult to see because the animals are not issuing them to us. Except for antagonism resulting from predation, I think it is actually quite rare for animals to exchange their various warnings and threats across species. Animals law is promulgated within the species, mostly to enforce sexual hierarchies and to manage competition for resources. To my knowledge, the ants don’t make it their business to order around the birds, frogs remain indifferent to their neighbors the fish, and mice and marmots have little or nothing to say to one another. I have seen and heard of instances where animals of different species will fight if one threatens the other’s home with inadvertent destruction, as when my cat was stung by a hornet last summer after disturbing belligerent little thing’s nest. I once saw a large bird of pray snatch a newly killed chipmunk from the mouth of a fox. I suppose I cannot deny that conflict proliferates across the animal kingdom, but I don’t believe it can be said that animals of one species establish broad and complex strategies for dealing with animals of another. Were animals capable of such behavior they would have gone to war with human beings many generations ago. The fact that the animals have not committed themselves to our absolute destruction is proof that they know nothing about us and haven’t they faintest clue about how to interpret the meaning of our activities.

I think one important way we human beings are distinct from other lifeforms is our insistence that other animals listen to, fear, and obey us. We do this to some degree, ignorantly, with wild animals, but I speak mainly of our relationship with domesticated animals. We call these animals domesticated because they are trained to dwell within the domicile and acknowledge the home space’s boundaries. I sometimes wonder how much we confound our pets by imposing upon them what they must view as mysterious and incomprehensible restrictions. Our demand that a dog relieve itself only on grass must seem as baffling and perverse to the dog as God’s commandment that the descendants of Abraham be circumcised and that this somehow forms a convenient between man and God. I remember my grandmother used to rebuke her dog for licking its genitals, a perfectly common ritual for a dog, but entirely impermissible from my grandmother’s point of view. I am sure eventually she trained the dog also to see genital licking as shameful.

Of the myriad cruelties we inflict upon animals to make them more amenable to home life (removing a cat’s claws, clipping a bird’s wings, putting fish in bowls) one of the most unconscionable I think is using a shock collar to contain a dog within the parameter of a small suburban yard. I feel it to be worse than simply chaining the dog because at least the chain can act as a concrete signifier of the dogs captivity. The mechanics of it are simple enough for the dog to understand: the animal knows it cannot escape because it ascertains that it is caught with a cord. With the shock collar, the dog is controlled by the fear of pain, triggered by what it must understand only as a vague notion of proximity to something absent and unseen. What hope does the dog have of ever comprehending this human concept of a contiguous boundary, much less locate the thing and position itself appropriately in relation to it. I’ve been watching invisible fencing ads on Youtube to try to figure out how the boundary is supposed to be communicated to the dog. Apparently there are flags you erect to provide a visual indicator, something to avoid. At best, you might succeed in teaching your dog to fear small, white, triangular flags. You will never accomplish what you really set out to do, which is to get your dog to acknowledge and respect your boundary.

I think it is appropriate that so many of these invisible fencing commercials have such a sterile, upbeat tone to them. In addition to conveying the product’s usefulness to the customer, the ad also has to ameliorate whatever misgivings the customer might have about holding his or her pet captive with psychological trauma. I can’t help seeing a resemblance between these invisible fencing ads and North Korean propaganda art.

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Romances

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Of all Shakespeare’s plays I like the romances the best.  These are his last plays, written after 1607.  Typically included in this group are Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, The Winters Tale, and The Tempest.  Edward Dowden called these plays romances because they span great periods of time and distance, similar to the courtly romances of the chivalric age.  He also recognized other common themes between Shakespeare’s late plays such as redemption, reunion, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  I think these are the more salient points of late plays.  Coming as they do after the tragedies, in the twilight of his career, I think they represent a kind of thawing in Shakespeare’s conception of the world, an acceptance, perhaps an acquiescence, that comes with age and wisdom won from pain.

I’m sure I would find no one else who would agree with me that the late romance plays are Shakespeare’s best.  It is generally held that they lack dramatic tension, that the jokes are broad and lazy, and that the turns of plot leading to conclusion are obvious and unsurprising.  Ingram called these his “weak ending” plays, observing an absence of the clever resolution which we see displayed in the early comedies or of the panic and horror that unfold in which the tragedies terminate.  Endings in the romances come about either as foregone conclusions or as happy accidents.  At no point in The Tempest is one led to doubt Prospero’s command of events.  He seems to be the author of the play’s conclusion just as much as Shakespeare.  Pericles just happens to stumble across his lost daughter Marina when his wanderings bring him to Mytilene and then a literal deus ex machine device leads him to his lost wife.  In Cymbeline, just as it seems Posthumus might suffer the tragic fate of being executed by his own liege alongside the Romans, Jupiter himself appears to dispel the audience’s consternation and guarantees that destiny will grant happiness to Postumus and to Britain.  The plays aren’t much better leading up to the endings.  There’s a lot of pointless grab-assry, like the hammy shepherd jokes in A Winter’s Tale or Marina’s tangential plot line in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.  I don’t deny that a lot of the more traditional narrative structures fail in the romances.  That’s actually why I like them.  I think the romances represent a kind of intellectual transcendence for Shakespeare, both over the art form of theatrical storytelling and over simple mortal tribulations like time, misfortune, petty antipathy.  They signal a resignation from struggle and a triumph over it.  I think many have interpreted this as exhaustion.  I see it as a rejuvenation.

If Shakespeare had experienced exhaustion at any point in his career, it would have been during the writing and staging of Timon of Athens.  Timon is the culmination of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, both chronologically and philosophically.  It delves deeper into the tragic abyss than any other Shakespearian play and finds, in the furthest logical extent of tragic catastrophe, an intellectual dead-end.  The play follows Timon’s descent into misanthropy and cynicism.  Suffering betrayal from his friends and the loss of all of his wealth, Timon renounces society and flees to the wilderness where he dies alone.  Unlike previous tragedies where protagonists die in a heroic or dramatic fashion, Timon passes from the world feeble and ignored.  There is nothing redeeming in Timon’s existence.  His life is as pointless as his death.  I’ve never seen Timon of Athens performed but I imagine it would be dull.  I don’t see how it could convey any amount of emotional charge or dramatic urgency.  Even its ideas are superficial and small.  It has nothing to offer but nihilism, a bewildering night of meaninglessness.

The romances are Shakespeare’s triumphant return from the purgatory of tragedy.  Coming as they do directly following Timon, they are a reaffirmation of life and of meaning.  They are a vindication, an acknowledgement that life can and should be redeemed.  Even after the accretion of many years or a separation of many miles, things can be set right: grievances redressed, delusions dispelled, disunions rewed.  These plays proclaim a restitution of life’s value.  I think they are a spiritual reawakening for Shakespeare, his final, grand insight into the nature of being: that life, though poisonous, is also a sweet elixir.

I went to see a production of A Winter’s Tale just a few weeks ago.  It was being put on by some theater students at the University of Colorado.  I was impressed.  The staging was interesting.  The timing was good.  They seemed to have a very rich and deep understanding of the text and what was special about it.  And some of the kids could really act too.

I read all of Shakespeare’s plays in college.  I remember liking A Winter’s Tale almost as much as Hamlet.  The re-animation of Hermione from statute to human read to me like a miraculous dream, meant, I thought, to astonish both the characters and the audience.  What I discovered after finally seeing the play staged is that from the beginning of the scene it is perfectly clear to the audience that the statute is a living person and that Hermione has reappeared.  Paulina’s bid to Leontes not to touch her demonstrates that the audience was intended to be in on the ruse.  We do not share Leonte’s astonishment when it comes alive.  And yet we feel the same outpouring of emotion.  The miraculous reversal here is not that a statue has been made animate.  It is that one human being, after withholding for sixteen years, has forgiven another.  I could not keep myself from weeping.

Friends, with this post I hereby revive the Golden Assay.  I have been away for a long time, wandering.  I have not learned much, I am sorry to say.  But I have learned that the writing I do here is important to me, that it helps me understand things, and that I am a poorer person if I let myself neglect it.  I have resolved to make a regular effort of adding to this blog and to my writings.  My thanks to anyone who has found this website and has spent time reading any of what I have written here.  I look forward to sharing more ideas with you.