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.

Frontier Libraries

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This past week at work I was reviewing some Colorado territorial laws that we just recently digitized and I found this great one from the 1872 about the establishment of the first public libraries. Apparently what happened was each little mining town would set up a fund where they would put all of the money collected from violators of the place’s the vice laws (it says any penal ordinance, but that was pretty much all there was in the way of municipal law back then), and they would use that fund to purchase books for the town library. So, as you might imagine, a lot of these towns ended up having really nice libraries.

The old jail in Telluride.  Built in 1885, it began as the town's library.

The old jail in Telluride. Built in 1885, it began as the town’s library.

It’s kind of ingenious when you think about it: you use people’s predilection for bad behavior to nourish institutions that promote the public good; because you if you can’t keep people from gambling and whoring around, you might as well harness that energy and put it towards something that could end up being corrective. It’s like they were trying to systematize moral rectitude. Pretty crafty for a bunch of semi-literate hack lawyers.

Reading these old session laws, one gets a sense of how these frontier people were essentially building a civilization from scratch. The Native American tribes in the area certainly had a social order, and I think during the early half of the 19th century when white people, trappers mostly, first began entering Colorado that’s what was used. Trade, war, friendship, and kinship were conducted in the Indian way, because it was a tried and proven system. But when people began doing other things in the region besides hunting and subsistence farming, an entirely new complex of rules and norms had to be devised. As evidenced by the strength of their laws and the prosperous communities they built, those early Coloradans did not fail at what they set out to do.

The Stellar Evolution of JoJo

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The other night I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole studying about this also-ran pop star branded as “JoJo.” I was reading the article about the Hannah Montana tv show and was intrigued to learn that the staring role of Hannah Montana had initially been offered to her. In what would go down as a monumentally bad career decision of historic proportions, she actually turned it down(!)–or rather her agents and managers thought that because she couldn’t have been more than 14 years old at the time. The only reason I can think of is that they must have thought that staring in a Disney sitcom would diminish JoJo’s reputation as a recording artist. This would have been in 2006, before the days when platinum singles could get their start from being showcased in car ads. So, as we all know, the role went to Miley Cyrus who goes on to become a teen sensation and international megastar, while JoJo quietly drifts to the margins of teeny bopper R&B. The last real gig she had was opening for the Joe Jonas & Jay Sean Tour back in 2011.

Last thing I did before going to sleep that night was rake through JoJo’s twitter feed to see if I could detect any notes of bitterness over the way her career turned out. For the most part it just seems like she was soldiering on, trying to make it work, trying to find a place for herself in the middle echelons of pop stardom. Doing yeoman’s work selling the same act as 5 years to an aging audience that’s rapidly growing out of it.

Cab Economics

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Listened to this podcast story about Uber and the economics of variable rate car services. The story is premised on the question of whether it’s fair for a cab driver to charge extra for a ride when demand is higher. I was surprised to hear so many people on the customer end complain in interviews about how they felt they were being cheated. The typical taxi passenger is cheated to a much greater degree by the outmoded municipal rules that govern the ride service business. In many places cab fares are standardized for all companies and the law restricts the number of companies and cabs that can operate within city limits. These systems are set up specifically to thwart competition between drivers and to make sure that everyone get some business. Rules are different in every city. Some places have next to no restriction on taxi carriers; but most do. I don’t know where the laws come from or why they were passed in the first place. I can say with some certainty that standardization has an unmistakably negative effect on quality of service. It isn’t favorable to the consumer. It does mean that the cab companies pull in regular and reliable profits. One cab company in the town I grew up in had been in business since 20s. It was a small but assured revenue stream for this old ,wealthy family that had always owned it.

When I graduated college, I worked for that company for a little while, or more accurately I contracted with them since none of the drivers were actual employees. What we were, in fact, were customers of the cab company. We would pay them rent to use their cars and their dispatch service. It was then up to us to make enough money on our fares, on top of the money needed to pay for the car, to support ourselves. As you might imagine, this sort of arrangement attracted a lot of dodgy people: deadbeat dads trying to hide their incomes so that they didn’t have to pay child support, ex-convicts who couldn’t get traditional employment, people on disability who wanted a sit-down job that the government didn’t know about. The whole operation was sketchy as hell, and I blame the city for setting it up so that it could be that way

I can say with confidence that municipal control over fares and licensing has a ruinous effect on cab service in a city. If you’ve ever called for a cab to take you to the airport and they never showed up, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. If you’ve ever been taken to your destination via an indirect route, it’s because of the way taxi service is regulated. So much of what’s wrong with getting a cab could be remedied if we let drivers and companies compete with each other directly for our business and let them control their own pricing models.

Some anecdotal evidence…

When I was a cab driver, I used to work the bar time crowd. This was in Madison, Wisconsin, a college town full of bars. When the bars let out at 2am, hordes of inebriated people would flood into the street, and everyone all at once wanted to go someplace else. It was like a salmon run to the cab drivers, wall-to-wall business. A driver could make a third of his money for the night during that 2 o’clock hour if he worked it right. What you wanted is to do as many rides for as many people as possible the shortest amount of time that you were capable of doing them. You wanted short rides so that you could turn over and get a new ride in the cab right away. And you wanted to drive a lot of people at once, since each body added a dollar to the fare. So we’d look for big groups of students because most of the students in Madison lived downtown, and if you worked for them you could be pretty sure that you’d be done with their ride in five or six minutes and you’d be ready to work again. What we would avoid is older, affluent-looking people whom we could tell probably lived in the suburbs and were downtown to blow off some steam and have fun like they did when they were kids. If these people got in your cab, they’d take you all the way out to the edges of town and you’d miss out on the bartime frenzy. Now this is exactly counter to how the market should work. The wealthier customers would all get served last, and business of the poorer, more numerous underclasses was coveted. There isn’t much in a capitalist economy that functions this way, and I can tell you that the rich and entitled do not appreciate being neglected by service workers. They’d bang on my windows and kick at the car because I’d lock the doors on them. One time, on New Year’s eve, I had a man offer me sixty dollars to take him home to Middleton, about eight miles away. I did a calculation in my head and determined that I could make it worth my while for $90. He agreed. I took him home and we were both happy. Uber has made a wildly successful business out of doing exactly this.

I will say, it is interesting how the rules of our bartime game completely inverted the normal market. Instead of going after the whales we all hustled after the big schools of little fish. When the prices are all fixed, the only way you can prosper is by scaling up and being efficient, spending less of your time serving more people. It’s a good case for setting up a market that is more egalitarian and that works for more people. It would be effective in the majority of cases, but completely dysfunctional for anything irregular or outside of a foreseeable norm.

To Encourage the Destruction of Mountain Lions

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As I mentioned a month or two ago, I’m building a digital collection containing legislative session laws passed by the Colorado General Assembly starting with territorial laws and going forward. This past week I was doing some review of 1881 and found some pretty fascinating Acts…

Apparently selling counterfeit butter was a thing people were doing back in the late 19th century. Or at least the problem was bad enough that they had to pass a law making it a misdemeanor to do so. According to “An Act to Prevent the Fraudulent Sale of Oleomargine as butter” anyone caught selling adulterated butter was subject to a hundred dollar fine.

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When I came across this law providing for a reward to persons contributing to the eradication of loco weed, I wondered what loco weed was. After rooting around in some old horticulture books from the period I discovered that it is a scrub bush which, taken in large quantities, is poisonous to grazing animals. Typically they won’t eat it, but if no other food is to be found, horses and cattle have been known to try it. I assume that’s why the reward is only made available during the summer months, when conditions are dry in Colorado and proper grasses may be scarce. The reward for digging up loco weed was a penny and a half per pound. As far as I can tell, nothing in the law prevents someone from cultivating the loco weed intentionally and selling it in great quantities to the county for immediate disposal. I wonder if anyone tried that. You could see how a law like this might actually incentivize people to disseminate the plant on purpose.

But the best by far was this one: “to Encourage the Destruction of Mountain Lions.” The act specifies that a resident of the state could collect $10 from the county treasurer in exchange for a scalp, “with the ears entire” of a mountain lion. Actually it says, “any mountain lion or lions within the state,” so in the event that you came across an African lion in the mountains of Colorado, you could kill this too to claim the bounty. One assumes this law served a similar function as the one mentioned above regarding loco weed. Mountain lions likely posed a major threat to live stock and horses and were probably hated and persecuted by ranchers. Then again, it is perhaps meaningful that the law instructs the scalping of the mountain lion, since this is very often what mountain lions do to people when they attack. Most big cats, when they attack humans, will for some reason scalp the victim. Perhaps there is, in this law, some sense of retribution, as well as practical concern for chattel property. Whatever the case, the mountain lion problem must have been urgent in Colorado in 1881 because the law indicates that the Assembly is responding to an emergency with the bill’s passing and that the law shall go immediately into effect after adoption.

How Love and Dependency Work

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I miss my cat so much. I was just thinking about him now and imagining about him lying on my chest and purring. I’m remembering how he used to have this very strong trust in me that ran counter to the natural caution and apprehension he felt toward everything else. I used to pluck him off of the ground and rest his front paws over my shoulder while cradling the rest of his body in a single arm. He liked being held like that. Sometimes he would even crawl up onto my shoulders and perch himself on the back of my neck. That’s how much he trusted me. He thought me so steady and stable, literally, that he would consent to basing his balance on my balance. I think this is a very basic and primitive form of love.
I know that he has nothing in his life right now that is reliable like that and that he has to suffer a lot of seeming chaos and inconstancy. I also know that this isn not a crisis for him. Chaos is how the world appears to work to us animals and we’re all uniquely built to adapt to it. But it’s hard to know that he knows it could be different, that the world allows for happier conditions but that such conditions are being withheld from him.

The Life and Times of Shaye Saint John

Can’t stop watching Shaye Saint John videos on YouTube. I wanted to post a few that I thought were the best, but they all do what they do in more or less the same way and to an equal degree. You may as well just visit the Shaye Saint John YouTube channel, Elastic Spastic Plastic Fantastic. If you watch a lot of it, you’ll find some common themes including grotesquerie, trash, repetition, vanity, confusing allusions to nonsense concepts, and inhuman behavior. Each video features the character Shaye Saint John, a horribly disfigured woman who at one time may have been a performer of some kind or a movie star. She wears a manikin mask on her face and her arms and legs are made of wood. In many of the videos, Shaye speaks to doll with a burnt face whom she calls Kiki. The imagery of the videos drills into your brain and messes with your subconsciousness. Repeated phrases, non-linear progression, confusing signals, and the familiar yet unfamiliar parody of shallow female behavior all work together to create this very unnerving and uncanny presentation. Shaye videos are all, without exception, terrifying.

In the video above, Shaye Saint John is doing her thing in a haunted house for Halloween. It seems like it would be a good fit, because Shaye is monstrous and scary, but she’s almost too scary. What Shaye is seems to transcend the campy illusion of scariness that you get at most haunted houses. Yes, it’s just a person wearing a frightening mask, but it’s kind of apparent that the real person underneath the mask is also pretty frightening. I like how the little kids who encounter her are truly weirded out. She calls them trash and delicious brats and asks if they got scoliosis for Halloween. The one kid can’t even stick around long enough to collect his candy.

While researching into the origin of these videos, I was sad to learn that the creator, Fornier, passed away in 2010. I’m glad that the very perplexing and difficult work he left behind is still well-loved and widely distributed. There remains a beautiful html website, circa 2001, left over from when there used to be a Shaye store that sold t shirts and dvds. I don’t suppose it’s still active, but I’m glad someone cared enough to pay the hosting fees to leave the site up.

Battle of B-R5RB

I’ve been fascinated over the last day or two with stories of the incredible MMORPG battle that occurred on EVE online. I won’t get into the meta-game politics that allowed such an event to happen; I’m not really the best one to do that. I don’t play the game (or any video games, for that matter), and kind of forgot the game existed since I first heard about it in college. But the numbers are staggering and a thing to marvel at: The fight took place over a total of 21 hours and involved 7,548 players. The Eve Online servers were barely able to support all of the activity, but miraculously they held on, hosting the wanton destruction an estimated $300,000 worth of in-game capital. Reports suggest that 75 Titan-class battle stations were lost, a unit which takes almost 8 weeks to build and which costs a ridiculous amount of resources. Before the B-R5RB bloodbath, the record for most Titans lost in a single battle was 12. In all, something like 600 capital-class ships were destroyed.

Coordinated battles like this are what cooperative gaming is all about, but B-R5RB is something different. Never have so many players acted in such a systemized fashion for so long a period. It is being hailed as the biggest battle ever in gaming. Having observed a few total war-style MMORPGs like PlantetSide and Urban Dead, I am astonished at depth of organization and administrative attention that goes into building the game’s enormous player federations, and the sheer obedience demonstrated by the rank and file of these armies is nothing short of miraculous. Trying to organize any kind of coordinated strike in an MMORPG universe is like trying to herd cats. People live in different time zones and have different real world obligations which keep them from putting in the hours needed to be able to pull off anything interesting or meaningful. Most of the time, you log into a game like Eve Online, and you are plunged into an emergent chaos of tens of thousands of independent actors all playing their own games, with different goals and purposes. To see any kind of collective will expressed on the order of what was seen January 27, 2014 in the B-R5RB system of New Eden is a thing to behold and wonder at. Let it be noted that for many individuals involved in the battle, their losses were real and substantive. The destruction of each ship represented hour and hours of effort and preparation and resource management. Many are still stocked over what happened. Some have quit the game, unable to muster the motivation to rebuild and start all over again. One has to ask what could have inspired so many to throw away what was so precious to them in such a reckless manner. Reading through the forums and the statements given by some of the alliance leaders, it seems that in many cases the reason was glory and excitement about being part of something truly unique and rare. As the capital ships began to enter the fray, it became clear to everyone involved that they were participating in something that they would probably never see again in their gaming lives. They knew that they were taking part in something that would be remembered in gaming lore. They were, all of them together, making one heck of a story.

Two weeks after the battle, CCP Games, the developer behind Eve Online, created a beautiful and eerie starship graveyard on the spot where the battle occurred as a commemoration of the event and a tribute to the gamers who participated and allowed it to happen. Other MMORPG devs should take note. Usually these virtual worlds within which a online games take place remain static. They are usually treated as decorative arenas where the players’ behaviors and actions can be freely expressed but never preserved. I am pleased to see developers put time into to building vestigial signifiers into the environment to document major events in the community’s shared memory. I’m not going to say things like this make virtual spaces come alive, but it does make them mean something. It gives them identities and emotional correlatvies.