Quick notes before blog:
One: A bunch of you mutants who use RSS noted that it was having weird formatting issues. I've deformatted today's blog before posting. Please let me know how it works.
Two: Thanks for the lovely emails, cucurbit-fanciers. I'm sorry so many of you have had trouble growing them - consider trying gourds or cucumbers or melons, which seem less subject to pests in my experience. One reader recommends looking into tatume squash.
Three: I've gotten some requests to host these posts somewhere so people can cleanly share them. I'm looking into it. My one rule is I don't want it to be the least bit interactive, other than through emails, so a lot of the ready-made blogging sites won't work. More to come.
Theory of the Peak Experience
I have a deep bias that VR does not have mass market potential. I think it would’ve been shocking to me circa 1989 that for about the equivalent price of a Nintendo NES you could access a variety of fairly immersive virtual experiences, but it just wouldn’t be that popular. However, I suspect if I’d had the option during Winter 1991 to either play Zelda 3 or a VR immersive version of the same game, I would’ve played a lot more of the regular version. I’d have gone for the VR first, but then would’ve played intermittently afterward.
I have a theory about why this is, and I suspect it can be generalized. Note, there are two aspects here: first, the expectation that more high fidelity gaming should be better, and second, the ultimately stronger preference for a more “traditional” video game experience.
I think the first part - the expectation part - is easy to explain. Humans, especially nerdy ones, tend to want the world to operate on a High Score basis. Our brain tells us that if you take all the easily quantified parameters and amp them up you should get a better experience. Indeed, there are many venues where this is simply true - a plane that gets to its destination faster and has wider seats and tastier food is a better airplane experience. Other than the seats getting so wide they punch a hole in the plane, you can always drag those stats higher to make the trip better. I think at least some religions and ideologies work on the basis of taking complex things like “what is the good life” or “how do I behave ethically” and converting it to something like a High Score framework, with defined rules and categories of behavior where doing more is always an improvement. How do I live a good life? Good news, there’s scripture and the scripture has a list.
The problem lies in assuming just about any experience obeys such a similar framework. And that leads to the second part - why is traditional sit-down gaming actually the more enjoyable option? I think the issue is that while you may have thought sitting on a couch with some snacks and a controller was just a point on the path to a Holodeck level experience, it was actually the peak experience of gameplay. Ideal gameplay does not involve maxing out all parameters. A VR headset is more expensive, more interesting to talk about as a technology, more likely to be featured in a beloved sci fi story, and more futuristic generally, but if the goal is something like pleasure, it is lesser. The ape called Human would generally rather have a comfy chair, a third person view, and only partial immersion, so that they can eat some chips or have a friend drop in. VR maxes out one video game parameter: fidelity. And, for most of us, most of the time, that just isn’t desirable. The reason VR isn’t very popular isn’t a need to improve more - it’s that the actual peak experience came at an unexpected place earlier in the history of game design. I think this also helps explain why so many extremely popular games have purposefully simple/unimpressive graphics - another thing that would’ve shocked early 90s video gamers.
The only really strong use case I see for VR is porn, and I think understanding why helps get us deeper into the theory of peak experience. The basic deal, I suspect, is that porn is a subcategory of virtual experience where higher fidelity is genuinely desirable, pretty much always. Compare this to, say, the virtual experience of being a knight. I don’t want the actual experience of a stifling, heavy, multi-layer suit of armor. I don’t want the actual experience of sleeping in the woods unshowered for weeks at a time. I certainly don’t want the actual experience of, say, being stabbed or beheaded.
I have not had the privilege, but my suspicion is people who do use VR porn, who I understand are a majority of all VR users period, are there to enjoy a brief high fidelity fantasy. They aren’t looking to be emotionally moved, and to the extent they’re looking for escapism, they don’t want to do it for hours or days at a time. So, porn is like the airplane described above - there are clear parameters and when their scores go higher the experience improves. You know what you want, and when you get more of it that’s better.
My guess is that the number of experiences that are porn or airplane-like is fairly narrow. Food is a good example of a clearly non-linear relationship. If you cook a lot, you know that there is always this strong temptation to take an amazing ingredient and max it out. Usually this doesn’t work. Cardamom is delicious, but if you use a ton of it in a pie, it becomes bitter. Olives on pizza are great, but if you overload it you get wet greasy pizza goo. The peak experience doesn’t involve blasting all parameters - it involved getting the right balance.
Now, here’s what really interests me. In the case of VR gaming vs. traditional gaming, my suspicion is VR will always be marginal. It’ll be kind of like paintball - there will be ultra-enthusiasts who are super into it, and people who go through phases of doing it a TON, but most of us will see it as a neat experience that we do every once in a while. This is a good thing - humans have recognized what the peak experience was (couch, beer, game) and decided to stick with it. This was not a top-down plan - it’s just that there’s nothing pushing us to switch to a high-tech solution and so we happily have chosen not to.
There are cases where this is not true. Or, anyway, not true as far as I can tell. Consider longform letter writing, like people used to do on paper. To be nerdy about it, this form of writing scores high on a lot of parameters I value: writing is very expressive when you use a pen; it’s very intimate; it’s private and you won’t be judged; it’s a long form, so you can be expansive; you have room to qualify your meaning so that you can say things that might be impossible to say in the shy world of face to face contact or the rapid-feedback world of social media. The physical and temporal separation from the receiver gives the thing a savor that even the equivalent sort of email can’t match. The letter goes in the mailbox and you know you won’t hear for a long time. No hovering over the keyboard or looking at a screen. And because you’re not looking someone in the eye or anticipating their instant response, it’s strangely easier to be honest, even sentimental. Plus the fringe benefits: you leave behind correspondence that’s thoughtful and meaningful and made more personal by the use of actual handwriting. Something that maybe descendants of yours will one day read. You also improve as a writer, and as a thinker, because you have to formulate not just short statements, but full cohesive notions.
We’ve largely given this up. I have lately started writing long form emails to people, and sometimes even getting replies. With a few people, this has resulted in delightful and ongoing conversations that are unlike anything I could get browsing reddit or twitter or what have you. This was something I had to start doing as a conscious decision and it’s been incredibly rewarding.
This leads to an excellent question: what the hell is wrong with me? Why is it that I know what the peak video game experience is, despite not playing many video games, yet I had to get cerebral to identify the peak experience of communication with friends. I think there are three things wrong with me, and likely with you too: first, the speed of email is just pragmatically useful for work. We all appreciate that person who responds to your email in 3 minutes, night and day. Not just because it’s handy - it means projects get done faster, and the world works more efficiently. Conceded - on the parameter of efficiency, email, or email-like messaging systems, win.
Second, and related, email and social media offer the chance of instant feedback. Truth be told, most of us would choose rapid reactions positive or negative over the charming experience of just waiting. Note that this sets up email vs. letters as different from couch-sitting vs VR, because videogaming is a pure act of luxury. There’s no reason to ever diverge from the peak experience because efficiency and feedback from friends are not the goal.
Third, I’m tied in with you people. If YOU don’t write letters, I have no one to write to, nor to hear back from. I’m in this ecosystem and the habitat is gone.
A similar example, I suspect, is singing. People used to sing at home and play instruments for each other. In Darwin’s papers, somewhere he does a cost-benefit analysis of whether to get married, and one of his notes in the plus column is music. To be married was to have music in the mid 19th century. Most exotically to me, men used to gather in pubs to sing together - not as a special thing or a singer’s meetup or an affectation. There were whole books of ballads and such just so you could sing together. There’s an old aviators’ song that goes back to World War I, about a dying pilot, and which would’ve been sung by airmen in bars. I found a version of it online (https://www.musicanet.org/robokopp/usa/pooravia.htm). Here’s my favorite portion:
"Take the magneto out of my stomach,
And the butterfly valve off my neck,
Extract from my liver the crankshaft,
There are lots of good parts in this wreck.
"Take the manifold out of my larynx,
And the cylinders out of my brain,
Take the piston rods out of my kidneys,
And assemble the engine again.
I love this verse. It’s obscure now, but for me it does everything. It’s a little silly, and you can imagine tipsy pilots singing it in a beer-hall. But it hits two serious notes - one about putting self before others and one about continuing to fight at all costs, both of which I find stirring. Again, this seems to me something like the peak experience of song. Nobody in our imaginary pub sings as well as Celine Dion. You’re lucky if there’s music of any kind, and you can be sure it won’t be hooked to a speaker. But in doing the thing that music does - of unifying the group while moving the individuals - it’s hard to imagine better. Somewhere in his essay collection, Once There Was a War, Steinbeck wrote about how in World War I, the song of the war became the almost-nonsensical Australian ballad Waltzing Matilda, but that World War II hadn’t produced anything like that. When I first read that, I felt foreboding for Steinbeck - from his vantage in the 1940s, he didn’t know he’d already entered the era of mass media dominance. The songs of that war would be from people like George Formby or the Andrews Sisters or Marlene Dietrich. Top down, not bottom up, and I think in a way that was not bad, but which was lesser than the peak experience.
Again, it’s clear why you’d move on from the peak experience. Once you can have the Andrews Sisters, how much do you really wanna hear drunk Dave shouting in the pub about crankshafts? Even if you do, it’s so easy to just play a record, rather than having to make your own music. Speaking for myself, as much as I love these old songs, I think it’d feel like it was an affectation. And, again, the habitat for it is gone.
With both email and with singing, and I suspect with many things besides, something like perceived quality on one or two parameters moved people from the peak experience to a lesser experience. It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately - the other day I enjoyed an essay by Ryan North, where he lamented how in the early Internet you could go whole weeks having only positive experiences on the Internet. Anyone who was around back then likely remembers the feeling. I don’t want to argue that the early 2000s were the peak experience on the Internet - I don’t think they were, mostly because nobody really knew what they were doing yet. I also worry I’m at the extremely middle-aged risk of imagining my early 20s were the best time on Earth. But, I don’t in fact feel this way - nobody in my early life wrote letters, and I’ve had to learn it myself. I came around to it due to the discovery that I love epistolary writing collections. TH White and PG Wodehouse are especial favorites, but letter-writing in general was once a great genre of book writing, now mostly gone. I have no nostalgia for it, because I wasn’t around - but I do wish it were still with us.
In terms of my own reaction to genuinely sharing Ryan’s feeling that the modern algorithmic and centralized Internet really is worse in many ways than it was in the past, I think it’s more productive to look at individual parts of modern Internet life and see where, in particular, they have fallen short of the peak experience. Those are places where, at least in your own life, you can make repairs.
That is in part why I’m doing these blogs. I’ve found that for me, a genuine peak life experience is a good essay by an author I like. Unlike on social media, I find when I read an essayist who’s skilled, I don’t obsess over whether they’re right or wrong. Rather, I enjoy the words and let them shape me. I enjoy inhabiting someone else’s brain for a little while before returning to mine. I don’t suspect I’ve given you a peak experience here, but if you did read this, and it gave you a way of imagining the world that hadn’t occurred to you, or simply had a few clever phrases, you probably had a more genuine, more enjoyable experience than most of the communication you do. If so, consider asking yourself why you don’t do it more often.
Thanks to all the RSS-using freaks who wrote in regarding font formatting. My current hypothesis is I'm creating issues by copy-pasting from google docs to this field. My next post about gourds and the nature of existence will be deformatted (is that a word?) before being sent out.
OK, friends. I’ve figured out how we’re going to do this.
I’ve gotten a surprisingly large number of positive responses to the blog. I have no idea if this represents a large group, because you are all the type of weirdos who read the blog on a comic, or else use rss. Because nobody consumes Internet in this form anymore, it’ll be a sort of secret newspaper. Here’s how it’ll work.
I’ll post entries from time to time. You can write in through my email, and if it sounds fun, I’ll post what you wrote and respond to it. If you want to post a notice, such as a birthday greeting or congratulation to someone, you can send that as well and I’ll drop it at the bottom of the blog.
This will continue until such a time as it stops being fun. If it continues to be fun for a long time, I’ll look into starting a newsletter or blog or something. Anyway, here we go.
On Cucurbits as the Ideal Living Organism
These days, I live on an old farm. Very little farming is done on the old farm, other than the one or two times a year when a local actual farmer hays some fields.
But, I do keep a garden. An underappreciated fact about gardens is that they closely reflect the mental state of the gardener. Mine is currently going well overall, but covered in weeds because I haven’t had time to pull them. Plants in need of affection are doing without and stubborn unwanted weeds are doing better than they ought to. Still, I have some corn, beans, eggplant, tomatoes, and a few other things, but my most doted on plants - the ones I pause to examine several times a day instead of pulling stray grass from around the tomatoes - are the cucurbits.
I first encountered the word cucurbit, I believe, in Burton’s translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Burton is a great way to learn new words because he employs them liberally in translation, and he has quite a lot to translate. The other one that sticks with me is the beautifully trochaic “caravanserai.” Anyway, I believe Burton used “cucurbit” to refer to a hollow gourd used as a canteen. However, it has a broader botanical meaning, referring to the types of plants usually called melons, cucumbers, and gourds. The cucurbits. Watermelons, pickling cucumbers, luffas, birdhouse gourds, pumpkins, and points in between.
If you’ve grown them, you know they’re related. They have the same look and the same growth pattern. They put out big leaves forming a sort of half-dome around their base until they’ve captured all the sunlight, at which point they fire off long runners that can be twined up fences and poles. Kelly and I have a joke about how they always seem to put out a bunch of male flowers first before finally agreeing to make female ones when they find no takers. As if they’re saying with their flowers “anyone going to let me get away with this? No?”
Cucurbits have two qualities I’m excessively fond of. First, they put out little feeler vines that whip around in circles until they get ahold of something. This is why they gracefully grow up fences, but it’s also how they situate themselves on the ground. If you have a long runner and you remove the feelers, the whole runner flops over. Before having this garden I always thought the vines were for growing up, but they also serve a more basic function of orienting the leaves so they gather light. The amazing thing is that if you remove the vines, causing the runner to fall on its side, new runners will come out to fix things, just like a fallen animal righting itself. Now and then, the vines fail to get a grip on anything, and then they sort of flail around, reshaping into little infinities and helices and tangled springs. Their behavior is so varied and so searching and almost animal-like that they become endearing in a way other plants, in mechanically following their simple leaf-flower-fruit pattern, never achieve.
The second delightful quality of cucurbits is surprise. Cucurbits are the animals of the garden. They hide things. If you pull aside a pair of cucurbit leaves near the base of the plant, you’ll find a universe in miniature. I sometimes try to imagine an ant under a cucurbit’s canopy. All around you there are these huge green trunks that arc upward toward great shadowy-green leaves where little stomata concentrate carbon dioxide out of the air. Under those leaves, the world is cool and moist, even on hot days. The air is gentle, even on windy days. When storms come, the spade-like leaves funnel water down the trunks, so that I suspect if you were an inch tall you could find a good dry spot even in a torrent. And here and there, like eggs of a bird you never see, you find fruits. Only, you don’t always find them.
I once grew Armenian cucumbers, which are actually a type of melon, but with the flavor of cucumber. They taste good of course, but the fun thing is that they grow enormous. In good conditions, the fruit will get up to three feet long, looking just like a gigantic pale cucumber. The ideal harvest length is at about 2 feet long, because then the flesh is soft and the skin is edible. The year I grew them was the first year of covid, and the garden was as always a reflection of my mental state - a planned large garden had been killed by lack of time and worrying about my family, so that the only surviving plant was one that just refused to stop. It grew almost wild, and I remember at one point having to eat about a pound of cucumber a day just to keep up with its extravagant production.
As the summer was easing into fall, I walked out one morning, and beneath a leaf, in the hidden world of ants, there was an entire perfect cucumber - just about a foot and a half and ready to pick. It had gone through the entire process - a female flower growing up green and patient, fading to yellow petals, opening, fertilized with the aid of an and or a beetle. The bud would’ve fallen off as the fruit grew elongated, filled up with sugars built from air and water drunk from earth. I had missed the whole miracle of this unfolding algorithm until, in that way only plants can do, it announced itself with a change of color and texture.
It takes a lot to make an adult happy, but when something like that happens, you get to feel the kind of happiness normally only reserved for kids. Happiness because your entire sense experience resolves itself within a single adored object that belongs to you.
This is the strange thing about being a little animal experiencing the world. Things that don’t really affect your life can move you in ways that the vortex of history doesn’t. The metaphor I prefer for this is vision. Because you look at the world through eyes, and not through a giant matrix of parameters, small close objects cover as much of your field of view as large distant ones. But there’s a danger in obsession with the large and distant, which one sometimes sees in friends who’ve become obsessed with current events or online chatter. Their reality becomes virtual - the field of vision is filled, but nothing can be touched. Everything is vast and far, and nothing is close enough to smell.
This year I have 7 cucurbits. Luffa, bottle, and bushel gourds; jack-be-little, fairytale, and mammoth pumpkins; and some mystery cucurbits that sprouted in compost, and which I suspect are some kind of cucumber. This fall, if things go well, the pumpkins will be decorated by kids or made into pies and cakes. The gourds will be hung to dry and then made into sponges and pots and toys next summer. The cucumbers will be long gone. And, I will have touched and smelled and been briefly and happily resolved into every last one.
Thanks for reading,
Now then, the mailbag:
Ross Presser responded to the post about peak authorial expansiveness occurring in middle age with some good points:
“One thing you haven't accounted for is that when looking at published authors, you have a remarkably narrow selection of the gamut of humanity. Most people are not published writers. You've noticed that the published writers who continue to publish into old age are less reflective than they were in middle age. This says nothing about writers who stop publishing after middle age -- or those who die during middle age, for that matter. And it says less than nothing about people who never publish at all.
>>> But the recompense is that you expected old age to be miserable, and in fact it isn’t.
Again, this can be true for elderly published authors. But not all elderly people are happier than middle aged ones. Many elderly people are truly in misery for the last decade or decades of their lives. They don't tend to publish much.
Another aspect of the same point is that authors who get more and more gloomy as they age may have a harder time selling their work.
A third aspect of the same point is that a famous, elderly published author gets a much lighter hand from their editors than a struggling or mid-list younger author.
Anyhow ... I love your work, keep it up!
-- Ross Presser”
I especially appreciate the point about about selection bias here. I wonder if a better model would be that there’s a misery sweet spot. No misery, no reflection. Too much misery, no will to communicate? I’ve noticed in my own work that there’s a kind of ideal stress level. Too little ease and somehow the really clever ideas don’t come. Too much stress and you can’t pursue ideas through the forest of internal screaming.
Probably the answer is that it’s complicated and none of these models are very good. Ah, well, it’s fun to think about.
One more interesting email I got was from John Nagy:
>>> "Perhaps the older authors simply feel less need, or perhaps just less inclination to make reality cough up a reason."
Neither, I think. At 69 myself, I found my 30's to drive home my impending failure to be miraculous. This made my 40's and 50's a time to try to make up for it or set worthwhile goals I could actually reach.
Now approaching 70+, there's no less need or inclination to wrestle with reality. Just experience with what I get when my reach exceeds my grasp.
I have much more to say about this but there is a squirrel outside my window.
This is a perfect email, and I have nothing to add, other than that I’m pleased to note how well it fits with my cucurbit story.
That’s all for now. Thanks to everyone for writing in - please know I read every word of every email but I don’t write back because I don’t have time and because I don’t want it to become an obligation.