Bob Schwartz

Month: December, 2013

The Magi

Journey of the Magi
The magi are for everyone, whatever your beliefs.

These three figures in the Christmas tradition appear in only one of the four Christian gospels, and even that role in Matthew is sketchy. They are foreigners bringing gifts for the infant Jesus and they return home by a different route to evade Herod. That’s it.

Translations and interpretations of what they brought vary, and even less clear is exactly who these foreigners were supposed to be in the story. They may be kings, wise men, astrologers or, as some have it, Zoroastrian priests from Persia.

This is why the particulars don’t matter much at all: the story is so basic and illuminating that it has captured the imagination of millions in its various retellings. Christian faithful have one view of it, and the more literal vision is that of concrete history. But for those who lean away from that, there is much to be gotten out of this compelling story:

  • Some people of discernment—in terms of wisdom, astrology or otherwise—had a sense that something special was going on outside of their ordinary sphere. Maybe they saw a light.
  • They travelled a long way to discover what was going on, and having found out, expressed their gratitude humbly and generously.

Again, that’s it. Some may want to think about theology. Others may want to think about other sorts of lights they’ve glimpsed, journeys they’ve made or haven’t made, and about possibilities. Christmas or just winter solstice and New Year, there is no better time to think about possibilities and all the rest.

T.S. Eliot wrote a brief but cinematic poem about the magi. It is written from a believer’s perspective, as the magi suffer twice, once on the journey, once again when they return home and find themselves so spiritually transformed by the experience that they feel like strangers in their own land. This is certainly a Christian view of the holiday, but non-Christians may just as well consider the more general phenomenon of all sorts of enlightenment, sitting between the way you have been and the way you discover you could be or already are. The magi say they would be glad of another death like that.

The Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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Finite and Infinite Games: Thoughts to End and Begin a Year

Finite and Infinite Games
James P. Carse, now Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at NYU, published Finite and Infinite Games in 1986. The book’s spare 160 pages belie its significance. It is a masterpiece of clear, poetic and transformative thought, as Carse takes on the big question that faces us now and always: What are we doing and saying when we act and talk about things religious—or for that matter about life?

His answer—and this is impossibly oversimplified—is that we are playing games. To say even that little is misleading. The only way to appreciate the book and its power is to follow its 101 very brief sections end to end.

This was written at a time when the idea of religion as myth was enjoying renewed currency. It was not a new idea, but by the 1980s a generation of thinkers was trying to make intellectually honest sense of a conundrum: If religious narrative is merely myth, how can religious history have any value or substantial meaning, and how then can we be religious? It turned out in their view that it was not “merely” myth, but a matter that necessarily coexisted with, complemented  and completed religion.

This continues to be something both hard for many to accept or wrap their heads around and equally hard to articulate. Carse articulates this better than anybody else has, and elevates the entire area to a platform for considering the whole of existence and life. If that sounds like hyperbole, please read the book and decide.

In the meantime, a wholly inadequate sample, given that many definitions and premises are missing:

1

THERE ARE at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

. . .

99

If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth. It is not just that the availability of bells in churches and town halls of Europe makes it possible to forge new cannon; it is that the cannon are forged in order to silence the bells. This is the contradiction of finite play in its highest form: to play in such a way that all need for play is erased.

The loudspeaker, successfully muting all other voices and therefore all possibility of conversation, is not listened to at all, and for that reason loses its own voice and becomes mere noise. Whenever we succeed in being the only speaker, there is no speaker at all. Julius Caesar originally sought power in Rome because he loved to play the very dangerous style of politics common to the Republic; but he played the game so well that he destroyed all his opponents, making it impossible for him to find genuinely dangerous combat. He was unable to do the very thing for which he sought power. His word was now irresistible, and for that reason he could speak with no one, and his isolation was complete. “We might almost say this man was looking for an assassination” (Syme).

If we are to say that all explanation is meant to silence myth itself, then it will follow that whenever we find people deeply committed to explanation and ideology, whenever play takes on the seriousness of warfare, we will find persons troubled by myths they cannot forget they have forgotten. The myths that cannot be forgotten are those so resonant with the paradox of silence they become the source of our thinking, even our culture, and our civilization.

These are the myths we can easily discover and name, but whose meanings continually elude us, myths whose conversion to truth never quite fills the bells of their resonance with the sand of metaphysical interpretation. These are often exceedingly simple stories. Abraham is an example. Although only two children were born to Abraham in his long life, and one of those was illegitimate, he was promised that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars of the heavens. All three of the West’s major religions consider themselves children of Abraham, though each has often understood to be itself the only and final family of the patriarch, an understanding always threatened by the resounding phrase: numbered as the stars of the heavens. This is the myth of a future that always has a future; there is no closure in it. It is a myth of horizon.

The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment has the same paradox in it, the same provocation to explanation but with as little possibility of settling the matter. It is the story of a mere mortal, completely without divine aid, undertaking successfully a spiritual quest for release from all forms of bondage, including the need to report this release to others. The perfect unspeakability of this event has given rise to an immense flow of literature in scores of languages that shows no signs of abating.

Perhaps the Christian myth has been the narrative most disturbing to the ideological mind. It is, like those of Abraham and the Buddha, a very simple tale: that of a god who listens by becoming one of us. It is a god “emptied” of divinity, who gave up all privilege of commanding speech and “dwelt among us,” coming “not to be served, but to serve,” “being all things to all persons.” But the worlds to which he came received him not. They no doubt preferred a god of magisterial utterance, a commanding idol, a theatrical likeness of their own finite designs. They did not expect an infinite listener who joyously took their unlikeness on himself, giving them their own voice through the silence of wonder, a healing and holy metaphor that leaves everything still to be said.

Those Christians who deafened themselves to the resonance of their own myth have driven their killing machines through the garden of history, but they did not kill the myth. The emptied divinity whom they have made into an Instrument of Vengeance continues to return as the Man of Sorrows bringing with him his unfinished story, and restoring the voices of the silenced.

100

The myth of Jesus is exemplary, but not necessary. No myth is necessary. There is no story that must be told. Stories do not have a truth that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear. It is part of the myth of Jesus that it makes itself unnecessary; it is a narrative of the word becoming flesh, of language entering history; a narrative of the word becoming flesh and dying, of history entering language. Who listens to his myth cannot rise above history to utter timeless truths about it.

It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians; indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians—seriously. Neither is it possible for them to be Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, or New Yorkers—seriously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions, mere performances for the sake of laughter.

Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.

101

There is but one infinite game.

Philip K. Dick’s Birthday

Philip K. Dick color
Yesterday was the birthday of writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982).

If we measure creative success by the dollars generated through adaptation and exploitation, PKD was a monumental success, though he didn’t live to see most of it. His work was the source material for Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and other films.

If the measure of creativity is being creative, PKD is more than just the most adventurous science fiction/speculative fiction writer of his generation. Maybe no other writer of his century, or even now, has so masterfully taken readers to the edge, and then taken them a little further. In their view of the world, many of those readers never quite come back.

PKD lived, at least in his mind, beyond that edge. His mental instability is a matter of record, though there is still and will be questions about exactly what the clinical profile was.

In 1974 PKD had what can be called a religious experience. The comic artist R. Crumb illustrated some of that experience, as related by PKD. You can view the entire comic here.

PKD Crumb 1

“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.” ― Philip K. Dick

Is Pope Francis the Leader of the World?

Pope Francis
The Dalai Lama is the most famous Buddhist in the world. His message is powerful, positive and universal. Even with the huge platform he has, his brand of Tibetan Buddhism is a bit exotic for many people, so still somewhat limited. He is also one of the coolest people on the planet. So as much as a basic Buddhist message would be great for the world at large to take to heart, it isn’t about to happen.

Pope Francis is also an outsized moral leader. He is the head of a church with more than a billion followers. And while there are hundreds of millions of Protestant Christians who question whether that church and its Pope can claim Christian legitimacy—and who find the Catholic Church plenty exotic too—you can’t deny the size and scope of the Pope’s Christian community. And if the Dalai Lama is cool, so is Pope Francis; he was once a bar bouncer, which is something the Dalai Lama can never claim.

The biggest argument for the supreme leadership role of Pope Francis is that he is exactly the right person for the right time, acting and speaking on a very big stage. Two of the major characteristics of the moment are that materialism seems to be failing or failing us and that our changing social universe requires some tricky balance between the old and the new, the absolute and the relative.

Pope Francis gets this and sells this from the very foundations of his faith. He has just had to deny that his is a not a Marxist, but proceeded in the same breath to appreciate the work of those who sincerely act in the name of Marxist ideals. It is not just that he seems to have a vision that synthesizes the original Christian communities with the complicated world two millennia later. He sees in the very institution he is charged with running the embodiment of the problems. If the institutional church, the church membership and the world have lost their way, it is not his job to order them around. Instead he just points to a playbook that is to be taken seriously, not selectively and strategically, and advises to live by and as its example. It’s a choice, one he has made, one he hopes others, from the church hierarchy on out, will make.

Whether the Catholic Church straightens out its affairs, whether disaffected Catholics return, whether new Catholics arrive, whether we are Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Buddhist is beside the point and beside the Pope’s point. It is about being better and getting better. Pope Francis is not the first to say that, not even the first Pope to say it. But his walking the walk in the world of 2013 is different. These are the times that try people’s souls. We seem to have a world leader willing to make that reality both an ancient and modern quest, a quest that may, in the real and not theological sense, save us all.

The Strange Case of App Ops and Android Privacy

Android
Last week Google removed a privacy capability from the latest version of its Android operating system. Odd because Android is all about onward and upward. Always more and not less.

Not so odd in its being under-reported and relatively unnoticed. The capability was something that’s been called App Ops—application options—that allows users to pick and choose which permissions an application can have. It would, for example, allow you to tell that flashlight app that it could use your smartphone lights but it could not read your list of contacts (which, infamously, one flashlight app has done). App Ops was included last fall in Android 4.3, but was never officially documented and was unreachable and unusable by the non-tech oriented.

But Android fans never sleep, and so dozens of apps were developed just so that a user could access the capability and tell even the most popular apps to quit snooping around places they didn’t need to be to be functional. Then, with the release of Android 4.2.2, App Ops was gone.

You may be one of the many millions who don’t care, because all you want is for your Android device to run trouble-free, and even because you have decided that privacy is something you give to get—in this case to get some pretty awesome apps for free.

In case you do care, here’s a brief on how we got here.

Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world, with iOS substantial for Planet Apple, and Windows insurgent. Development of Android apps has been like nothing in digital history. Anyone can do it and has, to varying degrees of technical and user success. Just as importantly, with Android apps, free is the norm. To make free work commercially, developers to varying degrees scrape your device for personal data that can be synthesized and used for marketing purposes. Permission to gather the information is requested, but on an all or nothing basis: either you agree to all the requests or you use some other app.

That is, of course, why App Ops is so radical and dangerous. Many of the permissions don’t in any way affect the functionality of any given app. They are there for collateral purposes. If users could just cut off the flow of personal information, certain commercial support would be hindered, if not collapse entirely. To put it another way, users might have to start paying for apps that they take for granted are free. Or they might look for similar apps that are actually free.

Google now says that App Ops was never intended for users. It was built for developers working on Android 4.3 as a testing and experimental capability. It was supposed to be removed before the new version was released. It was, in short, an accident.

Privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are understandably upset. They have been pushing for just such a capability, and now that it appeared and just as quickly disappeared, it is defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Even if the victory was accidental.

All is not lost, not entirely, not for everybody, not for the moment. Because of the tortuous path to Android upgrade, some of the most popular smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 just got their update to 4.3, which is App Ops capable. If you are in that cohort, please check out one of the many simple enablers on Google Play, such as Permission Manager – App Ops.

For those who like Android and privacy esoterica, here’s one last point. App Ops doesn’t just allow you to turn permissions on and off. It also allows you to see how often and how recently the app has used that permission. In that respect, it is actually kind of heartening. The assumption has been that with these permissions in hand, developers have been using our devices as open books. It turns out that a number of well-known apps have never used most of the permissions they’ve requested and been granted. This is no reason for a party, and if anything proves the contention that they didn’t need those permissions in the first place. But it does provide the tiniest bit of comfort knowing that your personal life is a little less compromised than it might have been.

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day

Buddha Comic Cover
Known as Bodhi Day, the Buddha’s day of enlightenment is called Rohatsu in Japan and is celebrated there on December 8th.

Here is a page from a Buddha comic book illustrating the event. It is published by the Indian company Amar Chitra Katha, which publishes a number of fascinating religious comic books—not only about Hinduism and Buddhism, but about Sikhimism, Zorostrianism and others.

Buddha Comic Enlightenment

In stillness, mind and object merge in realization and go beyond enlightenment. Thus, in the state of receptive samadhi, without disturbing its quality or moving a single particle, you engage the vast buddha activity, the extremely profound and subtle buddha transformation.

Grasses, trees, and lands that are embraced by this way of transformation together radiate a great light and endlessly expound the inconceivable, profound dharma. Grass, trees, and walls bring forth the teaching to all beings, including common people and sages; all beings in response extend this dharma to grass, trees, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-awakening and awakening others invariably holds the mark of realization with nothing lacking, and realization itself is manifested without ceasing for a moment.

This being so, the zazen of even one person at one moment imperceptibly accords with all things and fully resonates through all time. Thus, in the past, future, and present of the limitless universe, this zazen carries on the buddha’s transformation endlessly and timelessly. Each moment of zazen is equally the wholeness of practice, equally the wholeness of realization.

This is so not only while sitting; like a hammer striking emptiness, before and after its exquisite sound permeates everywhere. How can it be limited to this time and space? Myriad beings all manifest original practice, original face; it is impossible to measure. Even if all buddhas of the ten directions, as innumerable as the sands of the Ganges, exert their strength and with the buddha wisdom try to measure the merit of one person’s zazen, they will not be able to fully comprehend it.

Dogen Zenji, On the Endeavor of the Way
Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

Grammy Nominations Time Again

Neon Philharmonic
It’s Grammy nominations time again, in advance of January’s awards for the best in recorded music.

In some circles, the relevance of the Grammys is beyond question—as in there’s no question that they are irrelevant. In part that’s because of their being behind the times and missing the mark at various points. Of course awards are matters of disagreement and controversy, so it does come with the territory.

Still, there have been some infamously wild choices. Most celebrated, and the emblematic botched call, was Jethro Tull’s winning the 1988 Grammy for Hard Rock/Heavy Metal, over Metallica among others. (When asked about this today, as he always is, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson simply notes that he presumes the band got the award for being “nice guys’ who had never won.)

It takes literally an hour to read the entire list of nominations and probably days to listen to all the nominated music. It might be fair and nice to acknowledge what Grammy got right, but that’s no fun. They don’t need anybody’s encouragement and way to gos/att boys. Instead it is more hopefully corrective to list some offbeat nominations or lack thereof.

Lorde is nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year (songwriting) and Best Popo Solo Performance for Royals. But she is somehow not in the running for Best New Artist. That single and the album (Pure Heroine) have been monstrously popular across a variety of audiences. By way of bonus, this is genuinely original and interesting music, and she wrote and recorded it when she was only sixteen. So if she shouldn’t win Best New Artist—there are some worthy competitors—she kind of deserved a shot at it.

On the other chronological end we have the oldsters. For that weirdness, you have to check out the Grammy history for Led Zeppelin. They were nominated as Best New Artist in 1970, but lost to Crosby, Stills and Nash (the other nominees were Chicago, Neon Philharmonic and Oliver. Oliver.). Then nothing, no nominations, nada. Even though all the major Zep albums sit somewhere in the all-time 100, not to mention some of the even-more iconic tracks. (To keep from singing Stairway, I listened to Neon Philharmonic’s big hit Morning Girl and Oliver’s Jean. That’ll keep you from getting too crazy heavy.)

The reunited Led Zeppelin performed at a benefit concert in 2007, and the soundtrack of the film of that concert was released, and has resulted in two Grammy nominations: Best Rock Performance for Kashmir and Best Rock Album for Celebration Day, the concert soundtrack.

That’s right. A band that broke up in 1980 (33 years ago), a band that reunited for one performance in 2007 (six years ago) to record a song it first released in 1975 (38 years ago) is up for two Grammys.

Take that you naysayers. Who says Grammy isn’t still “with it”? If that is what the kids are saying these days.

Rethinking Wireless: Why AT&T CEO is Right and May Be Wrong

AT&T
AT&T is again rethinking wireless service. At an investor conference on Tuesday, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson spoke about changes in how the company provides devices and services to its customers.

“When you’re growing the business initially, you have to do aggressive device subsidies to get people on the network. But as you approach 90 percent penetration, you move into maintenance mode. That means more device upgrades. And the model has to change. You can’t afford to subsidize devices like that.”

To unpack and analyze this, a little history, wireless and otherwise, is in order.

AT&T has been at or near the forefront of changing directions in the industry. It successfully moved large numbers of its customers away from unlimited data plans, with more than 70% now paying for a fixed amount that they can use. Without the simplicity of unlimited bundling of voice, data and text, AT&T has still tried to simplify by grouping those formats in shared plans.

But then there were the devices to deal with.

The mobile device industry is out of control, which is what you would expect in a free market for an exploding technology. Manufacturers can do more and more, more quickly, asking more or less for it, depending on the configuration and profitability demands. The upshot is that smartphones are on an annual improvement cycle (the typically-used 18-month cycle is just bandied about to make it seem a little less crazy). And those smartphones are genuinely expensive, befitting miraculous pocket-sized computers, which they are.

This is where wireless providers like AT&T came in and how it became such a mess.

As the gatekeepers of wireless service, providers find themselves playing two supposedly synergistic roles. When you get to the gate, they sell you service and devices to use the service. One of those roles is relatively simple and straightforward. The other—as a reseller of hardware—has become the problem.

Back in the day, before changes in telecomm capped by the breakup of “Ma Bell” in 1982, it was this easy for AT&T and its customers. You leased a phone from AT&T and you paid whatever regulatory bodies allowed for your service. The attempt to inject the free market into this process more or less worked to radically reform that. You could get your service elsewhere and you could get your phone elsewhere and ultimately anywhere. Pricing for service and devices dropped accordingly and precipitously. AT&T and its emancipated children did not have to be in the business of selling phones, though particularly in the business sector, they still did.

Then came wireless and all bets were off.

Networks and devices came in pairs: if you want AT&T service, these are the cell phones that work on its network. AT&T did not want to be in the device-selling business, but as Stephenson pointed out, that was how you get customers on the network, where you sell your actual moneymaker.

The evolution to smartphones and data seemed on its face an opportunity. Those devices would be hungry for exactly the sort of meal that AT&T cooked up. AT&T would make the devices relatively easy to own. It was Business 101: Give away the razors, sell the blades. Manufacturers devised really nifty devices, applications for those devices proliferated like rabbits, and all should have been right with the world for AT&T, even if it had to subsidize those devices.

But few could foresee the frenetic hyperspeed at which devices would develop. A smartphone barely two years old could become a technological and experiential antique—or so it was made to seem to consumers. AT&T and others always had appropriate upgrade paths, still predicated on the seductively-priced device model.

When the tenability of that model came into question, the industry looked over its shoulder to another industry that has long had to deal with expensive devices: automakers. While the idea of owning a telephone would have seemed strange to consumers in the 1960s, so would the idea of leasing a car. But when money became tight for car buyers, that is exactly what the auto industry turned to. And when wireless providers decided to no longer deeply subsidize $600 smartphones, they came up with the same solution. For the moment AT&T is still offering smartphones at a somewhat reduced price with a two-year contract, but not as reduced as it once was. AT&T would love to leave that model behind and it may well disappear entirely. Instead, you can pay full price for the device or bring your own (with a small monthly service discount if you do), or you can pay on installments. After 20 months, the device is yours, but as with a car lease, you will owe the entire residual amount if you end paying installments early.

Here are items that Stephenson did not account for or disclose, at least publicly at the conference.

By pulling away from its role in the device distribution chain, AT&T will not curb the device development madness or the consumer desire for the latest and greatest, which is always a few months around the corner. Stephenson’s taking a stand is completely bottom-line rational, but is likely to prompt a new dynamic, in which synergy diminishes, replaced by some still-to-be-determined forces.

In essence he has said: This is nuts and we are not playing this game anymore. But if he thinks that the other players—consumers and manufacturers—are about to adapt to AT&T’s direction, it may not be that easy.

Manufacturers have been granted extraordinary freedom by the subsidy-model, freedom which certainly contributed to the accelerated upgrade cycle. They have developed expensive devices that they knew would be discounted and therefore more accessible to consumers. But they are in the business of innovation, and they can’t and won’t just stop. Either they slow down innovation, or they make devices more affordable, or they expect people to shell out big bucks every couple of years. This may or not be what Stephenson had in mind to do: shift the onus, get out from the tight space, and put the manufacturers between the rock and the hard place.

Consumers also don’t want to be left behind. The only thing moving faster than smartphone development are expectations of user experience. A good part of that is software-based, not necessarily requiring a newer or better device. But some of the most appealing and desired features and functions are device-bound. In keeping with Stephenson’s comments, the free market conclusion is that if customers want something, they should be willing to pay for it, if they are able. People might want to drive a Lexus or BMW, but some are just going to have to settle for a reliable Chevy. But that doesn’t mean customers are going to be happy, no matter how rational it is, when they’ve been driving the best for less up to now.

That isn’t the biggest question or unspoken prospect.

Consumers may not want or need as much service as AT&T has prepared to provide and plans to sell. It is evident, from research and from the rise of non-phone tablets, that this is now a Wi-Fi device world. The expense of data drove consumers there, and once they discovered that most of the capability of their smartphones could be accessed via free or cheap, and nearly ubiquitous, Wi-Fi, data and even phone service became the sometimes necessary sidekick turned to if and only if there was no Wi-Fi available. Which other than travelling, is increasingly rare.

All of us—manufacturers, providers and consumers—are rethinking the possibilities.

Comic Book Plus: Digital Superheroes

Comic Book Plus
If it isn’t apparent from previous posts, the premier pop cultural medium of these times (meaning the last century) may not be movies or music or television or any of the usual suspects. It is comic books, and while explaining that in detail will have to wait for another post, just ask the entertainment enterprises that have built billion-dollar franchises on that foundation. Hint: Don’t just look at the movies; look at video games, which are sometimes expressly, sometimes implicitly interactive comic books at heart.

Digital has provided new ways to enjoy the old and the new. Comixology, for example, offers an excellent cross-device platform for digital comics. But if you love comic books as essential cultural artifacts, the digital pickings have been slim and erratic. Of course comic book connoisseurs and scholars have been scanning and distributing them for as long as there has been an internet, but organization, information and, above all, copyright integrity has been missing.

The developers of the Comic Book Plus are digital and cultural superheroes. “Free and Legal” they trumpet, and nowhere in the universe can you both read and download such a collection representing decades of this historical basis of American—of world—culture. Free and legal. (Note: The downloads are in special comic book file formats that require some sort of reader. One way to deal with this is with Calibre, the world’s most popular free ebook manager and converter. Calibre will convert the comics to any format you choose, e.g., epub or pdf, to be read on your existing readers.)

If you love comic books and graphic novels, no more needs to be said. If you love pop culture and its origins, immerse yourself in the sequential art of these digital waters. Just make sure you have some time to spare because you won’t want to come out. And for those in the know, just tell them Will Eisner sent you.

TV: Love Note to Tessanne Chin

Tessanne Chin
Last night were the semifinal performances on The Voice. There are three worthy contenders left, including Cole Vosbury and James Wolpert. Then there is Tessanne Chin from Jamaica.

Tessanne sang Bridge Over Troubled Water and owned the night. Talent competitions are not meritocracies, so she may not win, and it won’t matter.

1. She is beautiful, inside and out, delightfully open-hearted, loving and modest. You can tell this by watching and listening to her and by the testimony of her coach, Adam Levine. Adam obviously has a crush on her and he isn’t alone.

2. Even with the normal lyricism of a Jamaican accent, hers is especially enrapturing. Randy Jackson, former judge on the soon-to-be-former American Idol, constantly complimented contestants by saying they could sing the phone book. Tessanne could read the phone book and people would pay for it.

3. Her performance last night was one of the great performances on a singing competition ever. There are dozens of recorded covers of the original, most famously by Aretha Franklin. Listening to some of them, there may be a few that are technically more pristine, but not a one that seems to have skipped the singer’s vocal cords and lungs and sprung directly from a beating heart. This may explain in part why her coach was tearing up, as were undoubtedly many others.

All that is why it doesn’t matter whether Tessanne wins or not. If you don’t watch The Voice, see her first performance of Pink’s Try. And consider that performances are gifts, no matter what the circumstances, and Tessanne is a very talented and generous giver.