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Books and Such [Nov. 29th, 2016|10:13 am]
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The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

If anything, better than the Hugo Award winning first book in the series. It's middle booky in that it doesn't advance the plot too quickly toward the climax, but the introduction of Nassun's story gives the book just enough forward momentum and the story of everyone figuring out how to fight against the Season is gripping from beginning to end. And the character depth is just brilliant. Essun is once again fascinatingly bumpy and complicated, but Nassun's epiphanies about her mother and father and in Schaffa her new ersatz father are what charge the book with meaning, for me.

Tefillin by Aryeh Kaplan

A short book I got for a quarter at the library book sale, but a startlingly powerful and moving book nonetheless. Kaplan pairs good mechanical explanations of the process of wearing tefillin and praying with straightforward, plain English summarizations of abstruse Kabbalistic understandings of Tefillin. Kaplan sees tefillin not as a metaphor, as metaphors have limits and limitations, but as the perfected (or perhaps just perfectable) physical embodiment of the idea of Judaism's connection to and responsibility to God. We wear them, he seems to be saying, because the mitzvot exist as a way for us to perfect ourselves and repair the world, and the tefillin are a tool for making that process physical. The next time I wore tefillin, that made a huge difference in how I interacted with them.

I don't think this book would say as much to people who don't already have physical experience with wearing tefillin. I don't think this book would have said much to me when I was first wearing tefillin. But Kaplan brilliantly gives deeper meaning to the physical experience of wearing tefillin.

And then Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon put out new books the same week! My two favorite active writers!!!! I'm currently starting on Swing Time.

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Philcon! [Nov. 21st, 2016|03:46 pm]

Philcon was great!

I left work early, picked up my little brother, and drove down Friday afternoon. We got to the con about an hour before stuff got started, met up with roommates and dealt with hotel setup stuff, then got ready for Shabbos.

I showed up at Kabbalat Shabbat services and was promptly told that the guy who normally leads the services hadn't shown up yet, and could I lead the davening? The Philcon minyan, such as it is, is an odd and extremely heterogeneous collection of people with extremely varying perspectives on Judaism and extremely varying levels of Jewish education- most are not capable to leading the Friday night prayer service, and none of the few that are are going to be able to manage to do it in a way that leaves everyone feeling fully comfortable and satisfied. So it was somewhat daunting- how do you lead a prayer service when everyone doesn't know the same melodies, some people want explanation and context and chizuk, some want to hear the familiar melodies of their childhood, and others want to smoothly move through the Hebrew in a way that lets them dig into the prayers? This is inevitably the challenge of doing a prayer service at a con, and I think I acquitted myself better this time than I have in some past instances, helped by the fact that someone actually spontaneously took up the role of gabbai calling out pages and offering a little context on the prayers and letting me focus on being chazan.

After that we made kiddush in our hotel room and ate dinner, and caught up on life and politics and so on, and then I went to be on a panel about the Hugo Awards.

This went well- we fortunately had a good moderator who kept control of the room and a thoughtful, cooperative audience, and we went through all the nonsense with 4 and 6 and EPH and EPH+, and then with about fifteen minutes left I had the thought to turn the conversation around to the YA Not-A-Hugo and we had a lively debate about the merits of that idea for the rest of the panel. And people actually came up to me afterward to thank me for the panel, so it clearly worked out okay. I had to flee the panel in a hurry because right afterward was my D&D game.

In general, The Quest for the Sword Trees was a success. We had varying experience levels at the table, from veteran D&D players to someone who'd never played an RPG before and was being dragged along by a friend, and 5E worked exactly as it's supposed to- offering cool powers for each player but otherwise being invisible enough that even the newbie rapidly understood what he needed to do to get in character and participate in the adventure.

The raison d'etre of the adventure was to give me a reason to use all of the nifty magical sword rules 5th edition has, and the adventure design grew up around that, into a story about the social and political dynamics of a magical forest populated by numerous fey creatures. My favorite moment in the adventure was when the players struck a bargain with the faerie king for transport to the sword trees, and then immediately spotted. after sealing the deal, both a loophole they could take advantage of, and a loophole that would screw them over. It told me that I had gotten my design of the faeries just right.

And the players were thrilled with their swords, except for the one who ended up with a cursed sword. (Me: "You grabbed the sword with the skulls carved all over it. What did you expect?" Him: I expected it to do cool skull things, not evil skull things!") I would have liked to have given them a little more opportunity to use them, but ran out of time, but enough cool stuff happened that I think it was okay.

The forest exploration stuff worked out pretty well- the players mostly stuck to the paths, but not exclusively, and they pretty quickly recognized that they didn't have to. That was definitely aided by [personal profile] sanguinity's suggestion about the ambiguity of paths, and my use of off-path sound and visual cues, and the players' idea to climb trees and see what they could see, but the biggest reason they came to the realization, I think, is something I completely hadn't though of: THEY DIDN'T HAVE THE WHOLE MAP IN FRONT OF THEM. I presented them a blank sheet of graph paper that I sometimes used to give them a rough idea of where they'd ended up and which paths they'd traversed, but they didn't have my nice, neat forest-as-dungeon map in front of them with all the paths laid out, which made it easier for them to realize that they could move in any direction- I'd overworried because I'd partially forgotten the information-asymmetry.

The only problem was the ending- a player had to leave a little before the adventure ended, and it sort of took the steam out of things. I navigated the players to their graduation ceremony and rewarded them, but... it didn't have the kind of finality I wanted it to. Oh, well, there's nothing you can do sometimes. After the game, I went to the traditional Eye of Argon reading for a bit and then went to sleep.

Saturday was fun and relaxing- I had no program responsibilities, so I got to enjoy myself. There was a Shacharit davening, which didn't quite manage a minyan, but which was still a nice experience.

Then I went to a panel which had Chip Delany and Lawrence Schoen and a couple other linguists and SF writers interested in linguistics talking about alien linguistics. It was deliciously technical and thoughtful and also asdfekjl Chip Delany is awesome!!! Schoen, who is an accomplished author, editor, and educator himself, turned into a total fanboy in Delany's presence, and the whole panel was just great. They talked a lot about how going back to the technical linguistic definitions of 'language' and 'communication system' can provide room for inspiration for thinking about kinds of writing that technically comply with various definitions, but in some slant way, or thinking about specific ways in which alien communication systems defy the academic definitions.

Then I went to a screening of an interview with David Kyle from several years ago. Kyle was at the first Philcon, 80 years ago. He was a small press publisher, a fannish organizer who chaired a Worldcon in the '50s, but all his life he was a fan first and foremost. He passed away about a month ago, and it was a loss that I felt at the convention even though he certainly lived a long life. David Kyle and Philcon feel inextricably linked to me, and in my head in addition to just seeing him as a kind and generous person, he represents the idea that fandom is a family that you grow up with, that dread 'the graying of fandom' is a feature, not a bug.

In the interview, recorded for the 75th anniversary of the first Philcon, Kyle talked about the early politics of fandom, both personal politics in terms of people liking or hating each other and scheming for power in fannish institutions and macro politics in terms of who supported different American political viewpoints and how that influenced fannish discourse. There's a certain degree of plus ca change, but there's also a real sense in his early stories of the idea that they were starting something new, a kind of interpersonal interaction that hadn't existed in this way for this type of people. And that the 'famous'/'infamous' stories of Fannish Exclusion Acts and so on came about because they were inventing this culture from scratch and making all sorts of mistakes along the way. And also, Kyle kept emphasizing this, because they were all incredibly young and stupid. None of the major organizers of the first Worldcon were older than about 22. This is weird to think about because a lot of them went on to major careers as professionals in the field of SFF, as authors or editors or publishers, so imagining them as punk kids fumbling their way through the creation of Worldcon requires a readjustment of perspective.

Then we did kiddush and lunch and a quick Shabbos nap before CJ Cherryh's keynote.

Cherryh's keynote was fabulous. She spoke about her early life, the obsession with writing that she carefully nurtured into a career that remains an obsession. And then she talked about science fiction as a way of seeing the world, as the idea that the world presents us problems and we have the ability, because of technology and our own ingenuity, to come up with solutions. It was breathtaking and frighteningly optimistic. I wish I had the full text of the lecture, but a sample quote a friend took down: "Science fiction is not the literature of colored lights. It's the literature of people overcoming things."

Then there was a panel on Star Wars and the Force Awakens and the state of SW fandom. Which was basically an hour of people squeeing at each other, and then we went out into the hall to talk about Star Wars some more. I am so excited about this new renaissance in people having Star Wars feels and I cannot wait for Rogue One to come out.

Afterward, I played a few rounds of Shadow Hunters in the game room, this simple, easy to learn intrigue game where the players all try to kill each other while trying to determine who is on whose secret team. I liked it a lot. Then I grabbed a quick dinner in my room and joined a Numenera rpg game.

Numenera is an rpg released by the legendary game designer Monte Cook a few years ago, and which I've wanted to try since then. Its fundamental concept is to create a system where exploration and learning more about the world is more important than combat, but that still features a robust enough combat system to function as an action rpg. Experience is awarded for discoveries, and player abilities are balanced against the presence of many powerful magical items spread through the environment- for these reasons it's more advantageous to players to explore and figure out how these magic items work than to grind xp by killing monsters.

The one-shot adventure was incredibly fun and satisfying to play. Combat was fun but quick when it happened, but the best moment in the adventure was when we put together the clues and figured out what was making the enemy machine work and how to stop it from attacking us. That's a hard experience to engineer in D&D to the same level that it was seamlessly easy in Numenera.

After the game I went to a party and drank some unidentifiable blue alcoholic drink (labeled Saurian Brandy or something silly like that) and talked with people for a while before sleep.

In the morning I didn't do much but laze around the room and read and check out of the room. Oh, I also nudzhed the rest of my roommates to hurry up and check out of the room faster. That was fun. I did a quick tour of the dealer's room, but didn't buy anything.

At noon was the panel on fanfiction and how it does things differently than published fiction. Our assigned moderator couldn't make it this weekend, so the rest of us looked at each other in puzzlement for a moment and then I volunteered to moderate. Which was great! The power rushed to my head and I took advantage to fix my problems with the panel description and plowed ahead with the panel I'd really wanted to have, which was about how the fact that fanfiction is written with the knowledge that it won't be published leads to all sorts of interesting features. My co-panelists went along with me and I think the panel went really well. We talked about notfic and how fanfic writers feel that it's okay sometimes to post stories that aren't quite stories, and how that sometimes opens up a lot of freedom to try things out and not care if people read them. We talked about remix and how the fact that we're already remixing canons means we feel free as well to remix each others' works. We talked about representation, how the fact that we're writing work without any interest in commercialization means we can write for small audiences, how we can write stories catering to all different types of identities. And we also talked about how that's not always as utopic as all that. One of the panelists spoke about her frustration with the comparative lack of F/F vs. M/M, and how 'Write it yourself' isn't always a satisfying answer. Another talked about how when you encounter a crappy Homestuck fic written by a twelve year old, you can just move on and probably find a similar story only better written somewhere else, but acknowledged that sometimes the niche is just too small and you have to accept the badly written story as the only one filling the niche you're hunting for. We talked about how AO3's tagging system is so great and how it means that you can hunt for stories fitting into whatever niche you're looking for, so that even if there does exist a published story in that niche, it is often much, much easier to find the fanfiction than to find the obscure published fiction.

We had a good, active audience and we had great panelists and this was finally the kind of panel I've known we could have at Philcon about fanfiction. :D :D :D

The last panel I attended at Philcon was about the intersection of science and visual art, and it was lovely and thought provoking and a great capper for the weekend. The panelists talked about things as varied as Cherenkov radiation and medieval cathedrals and strandbeests.

So that was Philcon. I had a great time. People spent a lot of time complaining about Philcon this year- it was too small, too staid, not enough good panels, whatever. I realized this year that I've hit the point with Philcon where I could not tell if that were true or not and couldn't care less. Philcon is just this balloon of space and time that makes me happy.

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(no subject) [Nov. 17th, 2016|08:30 am]

I'm running a D&D game at Philcon this coming weekend and I'm really excited. I drew my map last week and wrote up most of the encounters over the weekend (Most, because there's lots of ways this could go, and there is the strong possibility I'll have to make up a new encounter on the fly).

One thing I'm thinking about is that the adventure takes place in a forest. My map has a series of paths through the forest, so it's possible for the adventure to run like a theme park forest, don't venture off the path. If that happens, the forest will effectively work like a dungeon, with various forking paths to explore. That would be fine with me- the paths are sufficiently Jacquayed, and the encounters are sufficiently dynamic that there's plenty of room for interesting exploration even while staying on the path. But since it's a forest, the 'walls' of the paths CAN actually be broken through. Players will take movement penalties and be at risk of getting lost if they go off into the woods, but there are substantial potential benefits. With the right jaunt into the woods, the players could skip about two thirds of the adventure.

I'm uncertain how to communicate that to players. I think it is possible for me to inadvertently steer players away from considering the off-road routes with the way I describe the scene, if I focus too much on the path. "You are on a forest path. It heads out straight in front of you, curving slightly to the right, and there is a split in the path in two hundred feet with one prong continuing straight and the other making a hard right." If I talk like that, I'd imagine most players wouldn't realize that actually at any time they could just go left into the woods, because the descriptive language only acknowledges the path forks as choices . But I definitely don't want to signpost it too obviously because I want it to be a realization on the players part. If I say, like "On your right side is forest, in front of you is a path, and on the left side is forest, which way do you go?" then either the players think I'm being obnoxiously patronizing or they realize that I am explicitly giving them the option of going into the forest, which I don't think is what I want either.

I think the middle ground is to feed subtler reminders of the forest into my descriptions. "As you walk along the path, slowly curving rightward, you notice that the trees on the left side of the path are getting thicker and more gnarled." Give the players reason to be curious about the forest, if they want to be, rather than directly inviting them to explore it, and do it using descriptions where if they're not interested, it just comes off as flavor. I also suspect a mechanical cue will help- if the first time they consider investigating some of the trees, I say "Okay, traveling in the woods will be at a movement penalty," I'll be giving them the information about traveling off-path at their instigation, rather than at my own. There are also a few places on the map marked where an interaction between on-path and off is cued- as the players pass a certain spot, they'll hear the rustling of deer in the woods, for example.

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(no subject) [Nov. 15th, 2016|03:30 pm]

The New Rabbi by Stephen Fried

This book is everything I aspire to in my own personal writings about Jewish community- though it is in a completely counterintuitive shape.

It is ostensibly the behind-the-scenes saga of a messy Rabbi search committee at a large, wealthy Conservative Jewish synagogue in the Philadelphia suburbs. In practice, it's a powerful exploration of the force of ritual in Judaism and the different kinds of inspiration that Rabbis can provide to their congregations.

Fried grew up in a small Conservative shul in central Pennsylvania and drifted from his faith as an adult. His father's death pulled him back: Even though his father had no expectation that he would say Kaddish for him, Fried felt the need to do so, and so he found himself initiated into the secrets of the minyanaires, hopping all over Philadelphia in search of the elusive tenth man. When Fried learned that the Rabbi of his childhood shul, having moved to the aforementioned large Philadelphia shul, was retiring, he decided to cover the Rabbi search for a potential magazine article or book. In the process of conducting interviews, (and Fried does get a lot of fascinating insider detail about the ugly parts of the process) Fried finds himself drawn into participating in the community, and discovering for the first time the difference a Rabbi can make in someone's life, and the different kinds of difference different Rabbis can make.

The combination of the reportorial style and the personal journey is really, surprisingly compelling.

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(no subject) [Nov. 9th, 2016|12:22 pm]

Philcon's fanfic panel this year:

Where is Fanfiction Going that Mainstream Media Still Fears to Tread?

What common themes in fanfic rarely appear in published works, and why? Is it a matter of publishers and producers only willing to put out stories based on formulas they know will sell, or is it the pros who are choosing to stick to more limited spheres? Fic archives are full of stories exploring sexuality, gender, unusual romances, and those used as a means to see the racial, religious, and abled diversity that published works aren't providing. There's clearly a huge desire for these kinds of stories, so why do we rarely see them in bookstores or on TV?

It is part of a continued trend of improvement in the Philcon fanfic programming, but it is still a somewhat frustrating panel spec. I saw the first draft of this when I was at Vividcon and got into a nice rant with some people who understood why. One of the reasons Vividcon was great was that it was full of people like that.

As is typical for Philcon fanfic panels, it's misguided in both directions.

A)It undersells published fiction by focusing on 'mainstream media' as the direct comparison, ignoring the fact that huge volumes of 'original' published fiction that transgresses mainstream norms is published, by small presses or by presses catering to niche audiences or by art presses. There is a lot of 'original' fiction exploring sexuality, gender, etc... and making minority identities visible. And I don't think we benefit from praising fanfiction by bashing published fiction, particularly by discounting the work done at the margins. Because fanfiction, too, is at the margins, no matter how much more visible it is today than it was.

B)It undersells fanfiction by acting like fanfiction is driven by some transgressive impulse, when the reality is most people writing fanfic just want Harry and Draco to bone. And you might say that that's not an undersell, that's an oversell, because it is a claim that fanfiction is more serious than a lot of people think it is. Usually saying that fanfic is just a bunch of people who want Harry and Draco to bone is the thing I'm fighting against, the thing people say when they want to dismiss fanfiction. But I think we've won that battle, or at least I'm no longer interested in arguing with people who dismiss fanfiction on those grounds. And so what I'm interested in fighting for now is the thesis that it's okay and important to our community to write fanfic that isn't trying to transgress mainstream norms, just as it's okay and important to our community to write fanfic that is transgressive along various axes. That the body of work that I once termed 'affirmational fanfiction' should not be discounted.

That said, there's a lot in this topic that I'm looking forward to talking about. And it is so, so much better than Fanfiction: Stepping Stone or Cul de Sac?

Edit For reference, my past posts on this subject:

2015: Fanworks that Deserve a Medal
2014: The Value of Transformative Works
2013: Fan Fiction: Stepping Stone or Cul De Sac?

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(no subject) [Nov. 9th, 2016|08:37 am]

I think the thing I want to say this morning is that Donald Trump is not scary because he is planning to round up all Muslims tomorrow or anything. He is scary because he is a compulsive liar and we wake up this morning without any clear idea at all of what a Trump Presidency will look like.

He faces a Congress that supports a broad conservative agenda, but that does not like Donald Trump very much. Paul Ryan has called Trump a racist several times, Mitch McConnell barely offered him any support, and a number of Republican Senators and Congressmen have repudiated him. It is unclear what the constraints they will impose on him will look like. It's unclear that they will be able to recover enough unity of purpose to constrain him in any significant way. But on the other hand, they have in Mike Pence a strong and cooperative conservative waiting in the wings. It's hard to believe, but one suspects that the threat of impeachment is the major power that the Republican Party holds over Trump at the moment.

On the other hand, I think even with the addition of another conservative justice, the Roberts court is capable of and likely to constrain some of the most terrifying of Trump's campaign promises. The worst of Trump's threats against immigrants are unconstitutional and there is no debate between conservative and liberal jurists on this question. Trump may have the ability to temporarily violate our decency, but the institutions of American democracy are strong enough to ultimately uphold the constitution over the whims of a would-be authoritarian leader. I believe that very strongly.

Obamacare is likely dead- the question is whether Trump attempts to destroy it in some unthoughtful way that crashes the American economy and ruins lives, or if he can actually muster the attention span to partner with Paul Ryan and unwind it in a reasonable, sane way. I cannot predict that, but I can summon a little, tempered optimism. Obamacare was deeply flawed and broken, and there is the potential for something better to replace it.

Are we going to get a wall? Of course not, there's no way in hell Paul Ryan is going to approve an appropriation that large for something that stupid. And there's no way in America as America is constructed for Trump to build the wall without Congressional approval. But as I've been saying for months, that's not exactly the point. The point is that Trump is going to threaten to do various terrible things, and he may try to carry out some of them, in order to so scare the Mexican government that they will do do more work to keep illegal immigrants out of the US. It will probably not work, but who knows, I've never been able to make sense of anything Trump does. And even if it doesn't work, the bluster will play well to the people who elected Trump, the ones who feel so powerless in the face of the changing world that they've been screaming out for someone to do something drastic to fix America's problems. It doesn't matter if we get a wall, the mere fact that he'll try for something so grand and stupid is why they voted for him.

Drastic is rarely good. That is the cornerstone principle of my conservatism. But drastic is where we live now. Welcome to Donald Trump's America.

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(no subject) [Nov. 3rd, 2016|11:05 am]
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Sunday I met up with a friend visiting the City at the Frick. Last time I visited the Frick was with [personal profile] morbane two years ago. It's my favorite museum in New York- the perfect combination of iconic, beautiful art, a magnificent venue for displaying it, and a size that gives you plenty to take in without overwhelming you. You can see everything there is to see at the Frick in an hour or an hour and a half. (You can see everything at the Met in a week... if you rush.)

The special exhibit was a Cagnacci painting, the Repentant Magdalene, a 17th century Italian religious painting with a powerful sensuality, which you can see inadequately represented here: https://www.nortonsimon.org/collections/browse_artist.php?name=Cagnacci%2C+Guido

Oddly, the highlight of the painting is not Magdalene, but her sister Martha, whose reality and sincerity in pose and facial expression anchors the more out there elements of the painting. But it's a generally remarkable composition, with six or seven focal centers without seeming all that busy.

The other best part of the trip was my usual pilgrimage to Velazquez's portrait of Philip IV, which remains one of my favorite paintings. Velazquez somehow makes him seem both regal and completely middling at the same time, which is a neat trick.

Last night I went to see Guillaume Tell at the Met. Made many jokes all week about the lunatic who decided that spilling the ashes of a loved one over the orchestra pit at intermission last Saturday was a good idea.

I had transportation difficulty- traffic on 287, but I still got to the train station at a reasonable time. But then the train got into the station five minutes late, it got into Penn another five minutes late, and then the subway had delays that gave me the choice of waiting for the 1 Train to take me to Lincoln Center (but with an estimated wait time of 20 minutes) or taking the 3 Train to 72nd and running back down to Lincoln Center. I chose the second option, since it at least gave me a shot at getting there on time, but ended up pulling into Lincoln Center three or four minutes after curtain. This gave me exposure once more to the worst thing about the Met: their policy of not letting latecomers in until the intermission and instead shunting them to a tiny, overly hot screening room where an indifferently filmed simulcast shows the action.

This rather ruined the experience. Guillaume Tell is an unpopular opera that is rarely staged, and is only famous for its rather brilliant overture, part of which was famously turned into the Lone Ranger theme. Getting there three minutes late meant I had to listen to the overture over speakers, which was infuriating. We then had to watch the tepid first act, badly lit and weirdly costumed, on the screen before we could take our seats an hour and a half into the opera. Three minutes late, caused by half an hour worth of traffic on an hour and a half trip, ruining a 40 dollar ticket purchase! And not just mine. There were over 50 people in that damned screening room. It's such a bullshit policy. And they don't even go to the technically trivial effort of displaying subtitles, so unless already you know the opera you probably can't even follow it. I can't figure out why this is, other than to think that the Met actually regards sending you to the screening room as a just punishment for the sin of coming late to the opera.

We saw the second and third acts from our seats. There were memorable moments- the convocation of the cantons at the end of Act II is one of the greatest operatic choral scenes I've ever seen. But mostly the opera was just off-putting. I know I can't fairly judge any opera when I had to spend the first act in the penalty box- I even struggled with Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream when that happened. But I think a lot of my issues with Guillaume Tell transcend my personal frustration.

The use of color was atrocious- all of the Swiss wore white, flowing robes, all of the Austrians wore black, the backdrop was all-blue, the Swiss Alps were brown, and the only other color in the whole opera came when everyone was bathed in darkroom red for the scene when the Swiss were made to submit to the Emperor's authority. A)White vs. Black for good vs. evil is about the laziest visual symbolism you can use. B) If you're going to use white and black with nothing else, lighting is everything. You do not want a stage where shadows are all over the place messing with the contrast, or it'll look washed out and ugly as hell. C) How the hell are people in the cheap seats supposed to tell characters apart when they're all wearing the same thing?

The dancing was very well done, though.

And the romance was very pastede on yay, in a story that was really fundamentally a war story rather than a love story. Rossini operas often end up like this- an infuriating combination of brilliant music and half-baked plot.

The opera stretched out for another hour past the third act, but we decided to skip the final act because we were exhausted and not enthralled.

Which was, I think, a good choice, as it let me catch the last three innings of the World Series. WOW. The Mountain Goats' "Cubs in 5" has been playing in my head all morning, but the strategy and the heroics and the chaos and the rain delay just to let you pause and appreciate how amazing the game was... I'm so glad I got to see some of it.

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(no subject) [Oct. 20th, 2016|03:44 pm]
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Maimonides by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel, this is an early work of Heschel, written when he was 28 and living in Berlin in 1935. That... is an astonishing fact to recall as you read, and think about the questions and dangers to his community that Heschel was grappling with as he tried to provide context and meaning to the life and works of the Rambam.

Heschel's biography is primarily informed by the primary sources- Rambam's own writings about this life, as well as what can be inferred about Rambam's life from his theological and philosphical writings. He pulls a little extra detail from the writings of Yehuda HaLevi and Yosef Ibn Aknin and some of the Rambam's other contemporaries, but not a whole lot. The biography is therefore, on the whole, a direct intellectual conversation between Heschel and Maimonides, both giants of Jewish philosophy. That is something to treasure.

Heschel is extremely interested in Maimonides's wandering, how he went from Spain to Morocco to Israel to Egypt, fleeing Islamic persecution and seeking a stable, safe Jewish community, and at the same time trying in all of his sojourns to offer meaningful and pragmatic spiritual succor to the Jews living under pressure. It's a tradition he links to Rambam's father, Rabbi Maimon, who wrote a powerful letter providing halachic cover to Jews forced to pretend to be Muslims and only practice Judaism in secret, against hardliners in the Jewish community insisting that only those who risked martyrdom by openly practicing Judaism were offering valid worship to God. Rambam picked up the responsibility when his father died, engaging with splinter sects and messianic cults in a desperate and important effort to hold Jewish unity against the siege of Almohad persecution. Just imagine Heschel reading these texts in 1935 and thinking about their applicability to his own situation, how to create a viable Judaism in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis! How just three years after he published the book, the Jews of Berlin would see a pogram as bad as anything Maimonides ever saw, how he would lose most of his family to the Holocaust over the next decade.

Heschel sees in Maimonides's teachings a very clear response, and it is the response that informed the rest of Heschel's own life: Torah education and the spiritual exploration it fosters is the reason man was placed in the world, and it is the great protection of the survival of Judaism and the Jews. Maimonides, in both Mishneh Torah and Moreh Nevuchin, as well as Iggeret Teiman and his responsa literature, was creating the pathway for Jews to survive in spite of the persecution of the Almohades. Heschel reviews all of this literature in detail and in context. Earlier this year I reviewed Seeskin's A Guide for Today's Perplexed, which offers an interpretive gloss on Moreh Nevuchin in an explicitly modern philosophical language. Seeskin is asking how to understand Maimonides in the wake of Kant and Hegel and so on. Heschel is interested in understanding Maimonides on his own terms, in relation to medieval philosophy generally. This is, generally speaking, a less useful approach to engaging with the philosophical message of Maimonides, but it is a much richer approach to engaging with Maimonides as a person and as a leader. Heschel's biography of Maimonides is a thrilling guidebook to thinking about how to keep Judaism thriving.

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Dear Festividder [Oct. 18th, 2016|09:08 pm]

Dear Festividder!

This will be my fourth festivids, but only my second time signing up- the past two years I've only done treats. I'm nervous and apprehensive about having to create a vid to someone's request again, but every time I've participated in festivids in any fashion, I've had fun, so I look forward to more fun this year.

I really don't want to constrain you too much in what you want to make. My musical taste is almost laughably eclectic and it's basically impossible to come up with a musical style I am resistant to. I have vidded to speed metal and to opera and I welcome anything within the gamut. Please just try to have fun and make a vid you are proud of.

Some thoughts on fandom feelings:

Alpha House (2013) [TV]

I'm fond of all the members of the house, but especially Gil John, and especially season 2 Gil John: defiantly a perks person, and magnificently goaded into waging a defense of old-style business-as-usual politics. I know it is super weird to say it, but if the West Wing is the left's idealized version of the Democratic Party, Alpha House is my idealized version of my own Republican Party. The Circle of Civility is everything. And just as the Democrats get Janel Moloney on the West Wing, we Republicans get her in Alpha House. Walking a treadmill in heels, like a boss! Drawing a gun in the Capitol, to prove a point!

I'm a conservative, but obviously this is a show that makes fun of the Republican Party quite a lot. And also obviously it's likely given the demographics of fandom that you are not a conservative. Don't worry about any of that, I'm pretty comfortable seeing media that contradicts my political instincts, and I'm not all that tribal when it comes to politics.

Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) [Movie]

This is my favorite SF film of all time. Godard makes Paris seem like another planet, the noir blends perfectly with the surrealism, and the sense of dislocation and the tension between individuality and community is so powerful. I've vidded Skynet and would love a character study of Alpha-60- robot intelligence and transhumanism is totally my thing. Shippy vids, of any sort, would also be welcome. Also, while I haven't seen any of the other Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution films myself, I've been meaning to and I think it'd be interesting to play those off against Alphaville if you're familiar with them.

The Cape (2011) [TV]

My favorite thing about this show was the training montages, how they were entertaining and imaginative and also character-building. Anything exploring the relationship between Max and Vince and how they both grow through their training together would be great. I'm also interested in Palm City as a failed city- Orwell, Portman and their struggle to fix Palm City not via Cape-style vigilantism but by improving governance, and how Vince gets pulled along on their crusade.

Ghostwriter [TV]

I was a religious watcher of this show growing up. I'm a lover of wordplay and punning and language games and Ghostwriter does a great job of taking these things and making them visual, and I'd like a vid that focuses on the word stuff and Ghostwriter as much as I'd like a character-centric vid. That said, Lenni and Jamal are my favorite characters- gloriously creative, unrepentant nerds!

The Newsroom (Canada) (1996-2005) [TV]

I've only seen S1 and parts of S2, but feel free to use whatever source you feel like. Talking about favorite characters seems amiss here- everyone on the show is deliberately unlikeable, and petty and self-centered to boot. I do not have a favorite character, and would not looks amiss at a vid trashing any or all of them. That said, what is important and powerful about the Newsroom is the cynical idea that our media is not filled with sincere and idealistic truth-seekers, but just ordinary people trying to get through a day at work by any means necessary. And that that does not mean that the media is sick or broken, it just means that the media is like everyone else, not worth putting on a pedestal. Much more effective than Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom.

Only Connect [TV]

No idea how to vid this show, but curious what emerges. The Board Gamers of Series 8 are my favorite team, but I was also very fond of last season's Wayfarers. Needless to say, "Why Aren't There Dolphins on Only Connect" seems the natural vidsong, but I'm open to other ideas, lateral thinking.

A Serious Man (2009) [Movie]

My favorite part of the film is the dybbuk sequence, but I also love the three Rabbis sequence. I love how rooted the film is in both realism (My father, upon seeing the film, declared "I know Sy Ableman! No, I know twenty Sy Ablemans!") and in Yiddish storytelling traditions. I love how perfectly the set dressing is done, how the Coens and their team capture the era so perfectly, and how deep and difficult the films questions about faith are to answer.

Whodunnit? US (2013) [TV]

As always when talking about this fandom, my interest is in ignoring the metagame and treating this as if the murders were actually real. I think this gets easier as the show goes on and the players get deeper into the fantasy, and particularly after Don's death the players seem to really take the deaths seriously. I'm particularly interested in the social dynamics of the final foursome. And I'm interested in the murderer as a cipher who never really reveals their motivation for the murders.

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Chag Sukkot Sameach [Oct. 16th, 2016|01:19 pm]
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Janky as hell, after two failed designs and bad weather pushed me to the time limit. But it stands up, mostly! Chag Sukkot Sameach!

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