A preview of my book, Games: Agency as Art

My book, Games: Agency as Art, is now forthcoming from Oxford University Press! Oxford has given me permission to offer the first chapter as a preview. Now available for pre-order!

The book is a sustained defense of the value of games and game-playing, from several perspectives. The book says that:

  • Games are the art form of agency. Game designers don’t just create environments and obstacles. They set our goals in the game and our abilities; they create the agency which we will inhabit in the game.
  • Games can work in the medium of agency to create aesthetic experiences of acting and doing. They can offer us crystallized, designed, and refined versions of our everyday experiences of practicality.
  • One way that games are satisfying: they let us inhabit a world that’s easier to make sense of, one in which the values are clearer, simpler, and easier to apply. Such games offer us are rare experience of clarity of purpose. They are an existential balm against the rest of our lives, which are full of a plurality of subtle and competing values.
  • This also leads to a danger: games can seduce us into expecting that simplicity elsewhere. They can serve as a morally problematic fantasy of clarity. 
  • The fact that we can play games teaches us something remarkable about ourselves. We have the capacity submerge ourselves in alternate agencies, to slip in and out of temporary agencies. We can take up ends that we don’t usually care about and dedicate ourselves to them, for a time. We can adopt different modes of thinking, acting, and deciding. And then we can put them all away when then game is over. Games teach us that our agency is notably fluid. 
  • A big bonus: it turns out that stupid drinking games and party games are incredibly important to understanding the nature of our own practical rationality and agency.
  • Just as narratives are a technique for writing down stories, games are a technique for inscribing and preserving modes of agency. With them, we can create an archive of agencies – we can experience different ways of being an agent. Games are a technology for us to help develop each others’ autonomy.
  • The book offers a unified account of the art form of striving games. It discusses, under a single conceptual umbrella, computer games, board games, card games, party games tabletop role playing games, live action role playing games, and sports. (There are many other sorts of games besides striving games, however, and the book doesn’t purport to cover them all.)
  • Also: discussions of the aesthetic ontology of games, the nature of interactivity in games, a taxonomy of game types, and a comparison of games to contemporary practices of relational aesthetics and social practice art.

What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews

My post at Aesthetics for Birds on What’s Missing From Cookbook Reviews:

“Read enough cookbook reviews, and you’ll start to notice a curious gap. Cookbook reviews mostly focus on how the recipes turn out — how tasty the dishes are, or how authentic they are. Sometimes they’ll also talk about the quality of writing, or how much you learn about some region’s culinary history  or food science or the author’s childhood or whatever. But usually they leave out what it feels like to actually cook the goddamn things…”

Later, it talks about how we ignore how food makes us move:

“Why do we legitimize aesthetic commentary, in conversation and reviews, on the taste, smell, and look of food, but refuse to legitimatize aesthetic commentary on the quality of the physical movements that food urges on us? The movements you make on the plate with your fork and knife are a tiny little dance, and dances can be graceful and awkward, and choices that a chef makes about how to plate will push on you more awkward or more graceful forms of dance.”

Keep reading it at AFB.

Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers

My new paper, Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers is out in Synthese. (For those without institutional access, here’s the pre-print for free.)

What it’s about, in a nutshell: In some areas of intellectual life, you need to already be an expert to find the other experts. This opens a door to a horrible possibility: if you misunderstand things and use that misunderstanding to pick out who you trust, then that trust will simply compound your misunderstanding. Morally flawed people will pick morally flawed advisors and gurus, and bootstrap themselves into being worse people. But we have to trust. So we might just be screwed.

The long version: For some kinds of experts, there’s an easy test: you can tell a good mechanic because they can fix your car. You don’t really need to know anything about cars to sort the real mechanics from the posers. Call these the obvious cognitive domains. A total novice has some hope of figuring out who the right advisors and teachers are. But in some kinds of cognitive domains, you already have to be an expert to recognize the experts. And no other kind of expertise will do — you need to share expertise to recognize a real expert. Call these cognitive islands. On a cognitive island, you need to already be some kind of expert to figure out who the experts are. The novice in that domain has no idea who to trust. Plausible candidates for cognitive islands include the moral and the aesthetic domains, and maybe even philosophy and economics and more.

Some people think being on a cognitive island makes it impossible to use experts. Only novices need the help of experts, and they can’t find any. I think this kind of pessimism is wrong, and I think if we look at how we actually trust each other, how we use other experts, we’ll see why. All the time, we use our own expertise to help find other experts who can help fill in our own gaps — our blind spots, our biases. We need others to help us triangulate on when we’re reasoning well and when we’ve made mistakes.

The real problem for cognitive islands isn’t that we can’t use other experts at all. It’s that there’s no safety net. If your own understanding is flawed, there’s no test for that. If other experts are flawed, there’s no independent check. You can only figure out who to trust by applying your own abilities. But we have to trust each other – we have to use each other to corroborate and check on our own thinking. And this means that if you’re deeply flawed, those flaws will simply compound themselves through expert selection. KKK members will pick racist advisors, who will corroborate their racism.

This leads to a kind of epistemic trap, which I call runaway personal echo chambers. On a cognitive island, the only way to figure out who to trust is to use your own abilities. So if you start out with deep problems in your understanding, you’ll just bootstrap yourself into something worse. And it doesn’t seem like there’s any way out.

Salt Lake City: My food favorites

I arrived in SLC five years ago in a tumble of culinary sorrow. I’d been writing food for the LA Times during graduate school, and I had to give up that half of my life in order to stay on the academic track. (I’ve only regretted that particular decision for, say, forty percent of the rest of my life.) But it was intense – the culinary shock of going from the ethnic food wonderland of Los Angeles, to this godforsaken land-bound smog-infested, culinary wasteland…

Except, as it turns out, Salt Lake isn’t so bad. Salt Lake is kind of actually really great for its size. There’s more weird little ethnic neighborhoods and hidden communities entangled into the Utah Suburban Monolith than you might think. And every year I live here, the streets get a teeny bit more diverse, and the food scene gets a little bit better.

So, here’s my best of, as of right now:

 

Indian and Pakistani

Maybe my favorite restaurant in this whole town is Zaika Grill ‘N Kebab. Warning: it’s slow as hell, especially if you order anything besides the standard combo. But you should definitely order things that are not the standard combo. That’s because the whole show is run by a husband and wife team who actually cook things carefully and lovingly and painstakingly. This includes fresh naan, fresh roti, gorgeously weird Pakistani dishes that I’ve never had before (curried horseradish?). The seekh kebab is perfectly crumbly and dense and shot through with little crispy bits of green onion. It burns with life. Nihari is one of my very favorite dishes — kind of a densified intensified liquified meat essence that hangs right on the edge of soup and stew, full of the deep low tang of bone-extracted broth. If you’re feeling super adventurous, order the haleem, which is insanely great and almost impossible to find in these parts.  It’s a weird mysterious concoction of beef and pounded wheat or barley or something, and maybe some lentils. It’s hard to tell. It’s deeply and profoundly sticky, like Pakistani meat mochi. Definitely freaks out some people, though. Also, the kitchen can be vegan friendly if you need. A lot of the best stuff isn’t on the little printed menu. Sometimes it’s on the chalkboard. Sometimes it’s not, and you just have to have a long and rambling conversation with the owners about what you like and what ingredients they happen to have today, and then it occurs to them to offer you this or that special thing. These days I just go, wave my hand, and say, “I trust you,” and the kitchen brings forth wonders, eventually.

 

Imagine my total mind-melted surprise when I found out that the greater SLC area actually has a genuinely great chaat shop. It’s Pastries ‘n Chaat. Chaat, if you don’t know, is Indian street food – gorgeous little lovelinesses like pani puri, which are little shells of fried bread that you fill with chickpeas and potatoes and cold spicy mint water and throw in your mouth and let it explode. There are great many variations on a theme of little crispy things covered with yogurt and tamarind and bits of other, differently crispy things. All the chaat here is absurdly good – fresh and vivid, like little spikes of clean brilliant freshnesses shooting through your skull. Also: great biryani.

 

Chinese

Alas, Hot Dynasty, I loved you well. You had godlike Sichuan. I was perceptually shocked that you managed to exist in Utah. Turns out, you were too good for this world. Now you’re dead, and we’ll have to content ourselves with merely quite good Sichuan: Sweet Ginger. It’s legit, though, numb-tingly flavors and all. Order your heart out – it’s all good, and way better than you’d think Utah capable of in the Sichuan department. All the fish boiled in hot chili oil and the masses of chicken in pickled pepper and dried chiles and fresh chiles and more piles of chiles. Definitely hit the cold tray for all the weirdo Sichuan cold snacks, like husband-and-wife slices and seaweed. (WARNING: Comment from Stuart, below, indicates that the good chef might have left. I will check soon. Please hold.)

There’s a lot of good Taiwanese in this town. Best choice: Mom’s Kitchen. It’s even better since they made, like, a real picture menu for all us non-Chinese speakers. It’s stuffed with all the Taiwanese comfort food favorites. The beef roll is, like, jellied sweet beef rolled in an onion scallion pancake with plenty of raw cilantro and crispy green onion. Dumplings are fantastic, boiled or fried. Freshly made noodles in all the soups – I particularly like the subtle, rich sourness of the sour mustard and ground pork soup. The leek pancake turnover thing is a wonder – the soft leeks and the wiggly vermicelli and that lovely near-crumbly texture of finely chopped filling inside a crispy, crispy, chewy, crispy shell. Eat this and think of what a pathetic thing the Hot Pocket is, that tried to be this leek turnover and failed.

Also: super-special Taiwanese bonus: Sasa Kitchen! A tiny menu, but they’re specialists! Most important thing: the “shaved noodles”, which are fresh made, sliced thick and full of chaw, and have just that right mouth-filling heft. Noodles this good would be like $30 if you were in an Italian place, but since it’s Chinese, it’s like $8. My personal favorite: the clean, subtle, fragrant, warming lamb and shaved noodle soup. Also, get the hot and sour dumpling soup if they have it.

Also: best dim sum is probably Red Maple House. Definitely go when it’s busy for freshness – Saturday and Sunday brunch time. They nail those gossamer-bouncy textures.

 

Peruvian

The whole Wasatch area has freakishly great Peruvian all over the place. I’m not going to list them all – just go and try any you can find. They’re everywhere, and they’re mostly all great. The fanciest and finest is Del Mar al Lago, which is another “WTF is this doing in UTAH?” kind of place. High end, pretty, immaculate Peruvian. Beautiful and zippy ceviche, excellent piles of fried seafood, and all that stuff. Definitely the more future-facing, more inventive, and more respectable place. It’s fantastic.

But if I had to be honest, in my heart of hearts, my absolute favorite Peruvian out here is the Bountiful branch of El Rocoto. It’s just more heart-felt. I never know exactly what that means, and why certain food feels merely clinically perfect, but other food feels full of love and life. But El Rocoto has that mysterious perfect hunk o’ soul. The stuff all feels just the right amount of chunky, hearty, and chewy; all the flavors are full-throated. Things to try: the platter of fried seafood. The ceviche. Lomo saltado, that glorious Peruvian stir-fry of french fries and beef in red wine, soy sauce, garlic, and tomato. Pretty much anything.

 

Ethopian

There were once two utterly fantastic Ethiopian places in SLC. They both closed. Sad face. I have some new possibilities though. Watch this space.

 

Coffee

Probably the most important Hipster Culinary Experience in SLC is Cafe D’Bolla, which is one of the very few genuinely world-class culinary experiences in Utah. It’s a coffee bar. I mean, let me say this again, it is a Motherfucking Coffee Bar where you are going to go and pay a lot of money for a Coffee Motherfucking Experience. It has extremely good espresso at a decent price. But the thing you’re really here for is to have the hands of the master make you an earth-shatteringly superb cup of vacuum press siphon coffee, for which you will pay a modestly princely sum. I mean, like, $8-$12 or something. (Though it perpetually irritates me that people will slap down that much for a glass of wine without even thinking about it, but then proceed to loose their collective gourds over the idea of paying that much for a cup of coffee.)

It’s worth it. He knows what the fuck he is doing. He will do you a full process and ritual with explanation. Perhaps too much explanation. He roasts all his own coffee to spec (and he thinks that it’s crucial, if you’re brewing at SLC elevations, to roast with that in mind.) He gets weird coffee rarities. He brews them superbly. He will also, unless you ask firmly, loom over you and shout at you all the tasting notes that you’re supposed to be tasting. He also won’t let you sip the hot cup of coffee because he’s going to tell you that it’s much better after 5 minutes of cooling – and it turns out he’s COMPLETELY RIGHT. He also serves his coffee in these very specific antique Japanese tea cups that he decided give the best aromatic experience and, once again, he is COMPLETELY RIGHT.

So: it’s weird. Also only for the kind of fanatics who like light roast, high acid, very sculpted coffee profile. But if you are, this is totally a pilgrimage worth making. Taste at the feet of a true master.

 

Other White People Stuff

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because my favorites are well-known and well-covered elsewhere. Tulie has impeccable croissants and other Euro pastries. If there’s a criticism of them though, it’s that they’re a little cold in their version of impeccable, professionally crafted, and perfectly French-correct bakery arts. My deepest affections have lately shifted to the new Amour Cafe, from those people that brought you that shockingly good jam you bought in the farmer’s market. Homey, deeply felt, subtle and soul-punchingly good baked goods. Among the best scones I’ve had in the States. Also, sometimes, they have the most magical thing: a beet walnut cake, which is basically like a red velvet cake, but profound.

Most expensive and also best place for super-boutique groceries is Liberty Heights Fresh. Most importantly, they are home of the best cheese counter in town. (Caputo’s is also very good, but they’ve lately gotten really into their ultra-funkifying cheese cave thing. I suspect they’re beginning to proceed down the More Funky Than Thou path which reminds me, worryingly, of the Late Stage Craft Beer Quadruple IPA Bitter Fuck You Manly Arms Race of Doom.)

Salt Lake is also, importantly, home to like the second best butcher and charcuterie in all of America, as far as I know: Beltex Meats. Ungodly good classic cuts and oddball cuts and all kinds of glorious in-house pates and charcuteries and headcheeses and blood sausages, all with that deep profound modulated wild funk that I crave. This place is a treasure, and when I have friends coming back to visit me from the culinary hotspots of the world, what they demand, perpetually, is to gorge themselves on Beltex shit. (My very favorite charcuterie maker in America is Fatted Calf in SF, and it turns out some of the Beltex gang trained there.)

Best tea selection in town: Tea Zaanti. Nice places to spend medium to large amounts of money on conventionally nice food in a setting with real “service”: Manoli’s, Provision, Veneto’s.

There are two excellent cocktail bars in SLC: Water Witch and The Rest. Water Witch is the kind of place where they’ll chat you up and make you a cocktail to your weirdo requests, and they’ll nail it. The Rest is a speakeasy hidden oh-so-adorably underneath The Bodega, where you have to, like, call ahead and speak the secret words and be lead to a secret passageway in the back. The Rest is fancy and very I-dream-of-New-York and has quite good food. The Water Witch has a much more half-drunk bartenders ranting about their lives and shout at the audience vibe. The Rest offends some people with it’s excessively twee preciousness (it does feel a little bit like somebody ordered an interior decorator to “Make me feel like I’m drinking in a Wes Anderson film!”). Water Witch offends some people for its hipster-bro man-ergy. I go to both, because I’m a terrible person, and I just like drinking. (For the true cocktail fiend, though, I give a definite edge in pure cocktail craftsmanship to Water Witch.)

 

Korean

There’s not a huge amount of Korean in this town, but what there is, is surprisingly great. Far and away my favorite is Jang Soo Jang. Superb homey-style Korean food that would hang with some of my favorites in LA’s Koreatown. Favorites: spicy squid, sundae gook (blood sausage soup with bits of offal, shockingly clean and deep), spicy goat soup, spicy rice cakes, Korean dumplings, kim chee pancake. Super spread of lovely homemade Korean pickles, brimming with fresh ferment-y life. But: if you go here and only order Korean BBQ because you think that’s the beginning and end of Korean food, I will personally hunt you down and shoot you in the head with a pickle.

Other good choices: Myung Ga is pretty good and more conventionally “nice” location, with a bigger menu with pretty good versions of all the standards. For some reason, the name It’s Tofu! subtly creeps me out on like five levels that I don’t fully understand, but they have a pretty nice dol soat bi bim bop – that’s bi bim bop in a hot stone bowl that you mix up and let crisp.

 

Mexican

For my first two or three years, I just mostly ate at the taco trucks – the two clustered around the Ocean City Market at State and 9th are probably still my favorites. I eventually found Victor’s Restaurant, the well-known tamale specialist inside Victor’s Tires. They’re awesome for many standards – their menudo and their chilaquiles are particular favorites).

But the real magical winner for Mexican in SLC is Mi Lindo Nayarit. It is a Nayarit specialist, and once again, HOW THE HELL DOES THIS EXIST IN UTAH? Nayarit is a region in the Central Pacific coast of Mexico. Nayarit food (and the food of neighbor Sinaloa) is completely distinctive, especially if you’re used to the kind of northern Mexican food that suffuses the American imagination. Nayarit food is seafood, in a thousand subtle variation, balanced right on the edge between crispness and hyper-complexity. Even in Los Angeles, Nayarit and Sinaloan places were rare finds. I have no idea why there’s one way out here in Utah. Things to try: the empanadas, which are stuffed with ground shrimp, deep-fried, and topped with an avocado. The dozen variations of shrimp, all delightful. The fish ceviche, which is unlike any other ceviche I know. It’s a mixture of citrus-soaked fish and finely shredded carrots and lots of other raw bits of veg, and it’s like a raw fish carrot slaw, and it’s totally awesome. (Beware: as with other raw fish, much depends on your relationship to market-day. I wouldn’t get this on a Sunday.) And the fish chicharron, which is small pieces of fish fried so deeply and intensely that they take on the heft, crunch, and chaw of fried pork rinds. Special bonus: they make the best michelada in town, which is kind of like a beer bloody mary served in an enormous stein rimmed with chile powder.

 

Vietnamese

There’s a huge Vietnamese population in SLC, and tons of great Vietnamese. A few favorites: Pho Thin for pho, with that radiant, subtly sour clean-quiet tang of a really well-executed beef broth. Pho Tay Ho, set in just the kind of chilled out remodeled house that reminds me of Vietnamese joints from my San Jose childhood, for heart-warming pho with really nice noodles. Little Saigon for excellent Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli noodles, and bun bo hue, the heartier, beefier, spicier soup of central Vietnam.

And, from left-field, there’s an excellent Viet-Cajun crawfish boil place! It’s called Bucket o’ Crawfish. You can get all manner of seafood – including crawfish, clams, and crab legs – boiled in anything from the Vietnamese take on Cajun spice mix to Chinese black bean sauce. Don’t go and tell me it’s not genuinely Cajun. Because it isn’t, and it never claimed to be. It’s goddamn Viet-Cajun, and you’ll enjoy it for being the heartfelt representative of this new gorgeous melting pot world, you motherfuckers!

 

Japanese

Japanese in this town is currently suffering, ever since Naked Fish died. The best we have is probably a pair of tonkatsu ramen joints: Tosh’s and Jinya. If you haven’t had tonkatsu before, it’s nothing like the standard thin Tokyo-style ramen. It’s this mega-long cooked, ultra-rich bone-and-meat-fat, like, velvet or something. Both places are quite good, but I’m going to give a slight edge to Jinya, for getting just the right profound velvety-ness in that rich, rich, bone-mineral broth. I particularly like the ones that mix their pork broth with their chicken broth.

 

Salvadorean

I used to live in the Salvadorean part of East Hollywood, where I acquired an undying hunger for pupasas that can never be adequately quenched. I think I have tried every Salvadoran place in Salt Lake City. For me, there is only one choice: Fernando’s Cafe Guanaco. Everything else there has been great too, especially the beef soup.

 

Middle Eastern

Mazza. Groceries at Black Cherry. O Falafel is great at a lot of things, but, perversely, sucks at falafels. Look to the cooked entrees, like moussakka, chicken banana squash ,mughrabiya, and my very favorite, makshi – gorgeously soft eggplant in a yogurt tomato beef gravy sauce thing.

 

Best rotating stand to watch out for

Spice Kitchen Incubator is this great non-profit thing that helps immigrants start up restaurants. They have a stand at the farmer’s market that rotates through new start-up food gigs. Often, they’re fantastic. Best West African food I had was from one of their gigs. I’ve also had super nice Indonesian, and good Filipino. Always try whatever’s on offer.

 

 

The aesthetics of rock climbing

The pleasures of rock climbing and the pleasures of philosophy turn out to be strangely similar. Most non-climbers have the wrong idea about climbing – it is, in the popular imagination, a particularly thuggish way of courting death. Before I’d actually tried it, my mental image of climbing was some kind of vague blend of pull-ups, screaming and gargling Red Bull. But it turns out that rock climbing is a subtle, refined and often hyper-intellectual sport. It’s solving puzzles, with your body and mind. It’s about getting past cryptic sequences of rock, through a combination of grace, attunement, cleverness, and power.

Climbers dream of the perfect “project” – a climb that you work on, over days and weeks. At first, such a project might seem utterly impossible. The holds are too small, or in the wrong place, or impossibly far apart; the wall is too overhung, or too blank. But slowly, bit by bit, you figure out a sequence of moves that just might get you through. Place your left foot there, and balance over just so. Flip your left hand so you’re pushing down against that ridge of rock, leaning down on it like you’re in a yoga triangle pose. Then you can reach high with your right hand and take hold of a tiny pocket. Step high and then flip your hand in the pocket, so you can lean the other way. Through care and attention, the impossible slowly becomes possible. You learn the holds, you learn the moves, you learn where to throw in all-out effort and where to relax for a moment, you train your body, until one day it all comes together and you dance your way up that wall.

 

rock climbing aesthetics 2

Dana Le/Flickr

 

And dancing, I think, is exactly the right place to start to understand the aesthetic dimension of rock climbing. So let’s start there: climbing is something like dance – not just in skill, but in aesthetic reward. You can hear the similarity when you listen to some climbers talk about their climbs. They talk about climbs with nice movement, with good flow, with interesting moves. They’ll talk about ugly climbs, beautiful climbs, elegant climbs, gross climbs. At first you might think they are just talking about the rock itself and how it looks. And sometimes they are; every climber loves a clean crack up a blank face, or bold jutting fin to climb. But if you interrogate a climber, and watch as they explain where the beauty in the climb is – with arms out, legs in the air, imitating the odd precise movements of the climb – you’ll figure out that what so many of them care most about is the quality of the movement – about how it feels to go through the rock, about the glorious sensations in the body, and the subtle attention of the mind.

So let’s start with dance. Barbara Montero, a philosopher of dance, has made a convincing case that the central aesthetic experience of dance involves a dancer’s proprioceptive sense of moving through space and feeling that movement as beautiful. We don’t just appreciate dance visually; we can feel it in our muscles and neurons. As a consequence, she adds, the best people to understand the aesthetics of dance are the dancers themselves, and people in the audience who have danced – who can imagine their way more precisely into how it must feel to move that way. The beauty of dance is a beauty of embodied movement.

When I think back to my favourite climbing experiences, what I can remember most precisely is the feel of the movement, the sense of gracefulness, of being able to move with precision and economy and elegance. That movement quality is something I savour, that I daydream about, that calls me back. And sometimes that movement quality is embedded in something dramatic. It has a relationship with difficulty. Some of the most perfect climbing moments are those when I was exhausted, maybe bleeding a little, when my fingers were raw, but I forced my mind quiet and calmed my head and then pulled through, forced my trembling limbs to calm, and reached somewhere inside myself to find that elegance, that precision, that lovely movement.

So climbing is like dance, but not exactly like dance. Climbing is graceful movement that always serves a well-defined task-oriented purpose. You’re trying to get to the top, and often the harder that journey is, they better. And climbs don’t just allow graceful movement; they sometimes require it; they’ll punish you and throw you off the rock if you’re careless. The economical movement in climbing arises in response to a set of very specific demands. The rock (real or artificial) may force a sequence of movement out of me, but it doesn’t tell me what that sequence of movements is, unlike in dance, where a director often teaches a piece of set choreography. I invent it, in response to the problem. Sometimes I may watch somebody else and imitate their movements, but even then, I need to adapt those movements to my body. I ape their movements in general, and then adapt them, precisify their inner feeling, all guided by the difficulties set by the rock. By and large, climbing is a puzzle-and-solution oriented practice. My movements in climbing are always in response to the challenges set to me by the rock; the elegance that I sometimes grasp within myself is one forced on me by the necessities of economy, of preserving what little stamina I have.

Rock climbing is a game. And this is where philosophical work can help us again. Let’s turn to one of the most delightful, insightful, and under-appreciated books in recent philosophy – Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. You will recall the parable of the grasshopper and the ant – the grasshopper is idle all summer long, and the ant works hard. At the end, the grasshopper starves to death. Moral of the story: work hard or die, suckers. But Suits inverts the moral of the story. In his book, the grasshopper is the hero, a paragon of playfulness. The book opens in adorably pseudo-Socratic fashion. The Grasshopper – the great philosophical defender of play – is on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. He is starving because he has refused, on principle, to work. His disciples are begging him: Please, let us feed you, let us work and bring you food. But the Grasshopper replies: No, for then you would be ants, and doubly so! I would rather die for my commitment to idleness!

So the Grasshopper gives his disciples a series of puzzles about play, and games, and then promptly dies. And the rest of the book is one in which the students work out those puzzles, and, along the way, provides a definition of the term “game”. This is explicitly intended as a reply to Wittgenstein’s challenge – that most terms in general, but “game” in particular, did not admit of rigorous definition. Suits offers his definition in versions of varying digestibility. Here’s the least technical one, which he calls the “portable” version:

“Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

This gives us a very broad notion of games, which includes board games, sports, rock climbing, and perhaps even certain academic disciplines. Suits’ definition has become rather famous, or infamous, around those corners of the academic world that study games.

In the full version of his definition, we learn, among other things, that playing games involve taking up artificial goals and imposing inefficient means on ourselves, because we want to create a new kind of activity. The point of basketball is not getting the ball through the hoop – that has no independent value in itself. If it did, we’d show up after hours to an empty court with a step-ladder, and pass that ball through to our heart’s content. Rather, we take up the artificial goal – passing the ball through the hoop – and barriers to that goal – opponents, the dribbling rule – in order to create the activity of playing basketball. Notice that what constitutes game-playing is not the physical movement, but the intentional state of the player towards that action. In short: in ordinary practical activity, we take the means for the sake of an independently valuable end. But in gaming activity, we can take up an artificial end for the sake of going through a particular means.

So let’s return to rock climbing. My chosen discipline is bouldering – conducted without a rope, on short boulders of usually no more than twenty feet, with fold-out gymnastics pads to fall on. Bouldering began as a way to train in safety for more adventurous climbs but quickly evolved into its own thing, pursued for its own sake. Boulderers actually refer to specific climbs as “boulder problems”; they are a clear kin to, say, chess problems. Boulder problems are often very short, exceedingly difficult, and the kind of thing you might fail at and fall on your ass a hundred times on the way to success. If those multi-day roped climbs up cliff-sides are the adventure marathons of rock climbing, than bouldering is the sprint trial.

Suits himself uses mountain climbing as an example of a game. The point is not simply to get to the top – after all, you could get to it by helicopter, in the case of Everest, or via the highway up the back, in the case of El Capitan. The point is to do it via a specific set of limited means. This is surely true of bouldering, as well. A regular occurrence for boulderers: we will be trying to climb up the hard overhung face, and a young child will run up the path on the backside of the rock and look down on us from above and gleefully and smugly inform us that we must have missed the easy way up. (Sometimes I have a desire to sit them down and explain the Suitsian theory to them, but usually, since it’s my one day off from grading and the academic slog, I’d just lie down and have a beer.)

So: climbing is a game, in the Suitsian sense. But it is a very interesting sort of game, for many people indulge in it for openly aesthetic reasons. If one looks at the recent history of the philosophy of sport, one will find the Suitsian analysis all over the place, but theorists have considered a fairly narrowed range of reasons for engaging in that Suitsian activity. Usually, it’s something like: we take up these unnecessary obstacles to become more excellent, or develop physical skills, or to win. But the Suitsian analysis allows any sort of reason for wanting to bring an activity into being, and if one listens to the talk of climbers, one will discover that those reasons are often aesthetic ones – and they are often proprioceptively aesthetic.

Let’s take one classic climb in Joe’s Valley, Utah: The Angler, one of the most beloved boulder problems in one of the most beloved bouldering regions in the world. As it turns out, it’s not that interesting to watch somebody climb it. First of all, non-climbers tend to like to watch really explosive and spectacular movement. During competitions on artificial rock, lay audiences will cheer for big jumps from one huge hold to another. The Angler has none of that; it’s slow, plodding, and careful. Experienced climbers tend to like watching subtle, intricate movement, but even then, it’s best when the movement is visible – when you can see the re-balancing, the yoga-like stretches, the interesting body postures. But none of the interesting stuff is visible in The Angler. It’s very gradual, delicate climb, with a slopey, slippery ridge for your hands, and tiny invisi-feet. The difference between success and failure depends on minuscule shifts of balance – it depends on maintaining your core tension, on controlling your centre of gravity and inching it around with painstaking care. And, when you do it right, it feels unbelievably good – it feels like you’re a thing made of pure precision, a scalpel of delicate movement, easing your way up the rock. But, to somebody watching from outside, it looks… like nothing. Even for an experienced climber, it’s pretty boring to watch somebody else climb this thing. I love The Anglerto death, but I’ll admit: I’ve sat with a beer by the river next to it and tried to watch people climbing it and gotten bored almost instantly. In this particular climb, all those fascinating internal movements are invisible to the external eye. The aesthetics of movement, here, are for the climber alone.

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Simon Li/Flickr

The Angler is an exemplar of a perfect boulder problem, to many a climber’s taste. It has everything. The rock itself is strikingly beautiful. More importantly, what climbers call the line is visually beautiful. That is, the feature on the rock that the climber follows is visually distinctive, and the path of the climb itself is clear and itself striking and lovely. The movement is wonderfully interesting. And best of all, these things match and fit in a pleasing way. In The Angler, the movement quality changes over the course of the problem. It’s intricate and subtle down below, but the movements become bigger and scarier as the line moves up and right. And, when the season’s right, you have to make the last few moves – which are bold but easy – over the river itself. The feel of the movement rises, as the line rises, from delicate to thrilling. Rock, line, and movement all have a wonderful consonance. And when you pull over the top, after all this pain and carefulness, with your nose crammed inches from the rock, staring down searching for the slightly better nubbins of friction – you stand up right into the mouth of a river canyon, running river all around you, wind in your hair and water burbling, and the sensation of victory bleeds into the sensation of wild, free, open nature.

I manage to be pretty focused in doing philosophy, but some of the most focused and attentive I’ve ever been in my life is on a hard climb – mind zeroed in on tiny ripples in the rock for my feet, exactly the angle of my ankle, whether I’m holding the most grippy part of the rock with my hand, the exact level of force I need to push with on my foot as I slide over to the next hold. One might be tempted to say here, if one were caught in a traditional aesthetic paradigm, that the climbing is just a technique, a trick to focus the mind on the really beautiful things – the rock itself, and nature. But I think this ignores what climbers are actually doing, feeling, and appreciating. They’re paying attention to themselves, to their own movements and appreciating how those movements solve the problem of the rock. The aesthetics of climbing is an aesthetics of the climber’s own motion, and an aesthetics of how that motion functions as a solution to a problem. There is, for the climber, a very special experience of harmony available – a harmony between one’s abilities and the challenges they meet.

I remember one afternoon I spent in the Buttermilks, a glorious collection of boulders in Bishop, California. I was trying my damnedest to solve a weird, tricky problem that involved a series of heel-hooks and toe-hooks and spending half-my time with my feet above my head, my ankle stuffed into a crack in the rock. Next to me, a far better climber was working a far harder problem on another part of the same boulder. We spent the whole afternoon at our respective tasks. He was totally, savagely into it – screaming his way up, cursing, stabbing at the rock. The critical move involved easing his way up to a bad, slopey hold for his right hand, high-stepping his left foot up almost to his crotch, and then squeezing himself up between his right hand and his left foot, popping himself between them like a wet watermelon seed, and stabbing with his left hand for a tiny set of pocket dimples. The move is typical of high-end bouldering – the hold you’re going for is so far out of reach that you need to fling yourself at it dynamically; you’ve got to jump. But that hold is also so faint that you can’t have any extra momentum when you hit it, or you’ll rip yourself right off the rock.

He’d been trying the same move for, like, three hours, with long rests between tries. He was cursing, frustrated, melting down. Then finally, in one great screaming effort, he did it – he had a little bit too much momentum, but he grabbed that next hold with extra force, muscles straining, yanking himself back into place, screaming. And he finished the problem.

He came down, staring at his fingers. One of them was bleeding.

“Nice job”, I said. I went to high five him, but he shook his head.

“That was ugly as hell”, he said, glumly. “Terrible style”. He wrapped up his finger in some climbing tape, rested himself for about twenty minutes, and then stepped up and did again. This time, it looked perfect – just a delicate little bump and step and he floated over and just dropped into place, like it was nothing.

He climbed down the back and jogged over to me, grinning hugely. “God, what a gorgeous problem!” he told me. “You’ve got to do it. That move is so beautiful. It’s just…” he mimed the move, and mimed it again. “Just fantastic! You’ve got to do it!”

Sadly, I told him, that problem was way too hard for me.

He jittered from foot to foot, grinning and trying to feel sorry for me. Then he went over and did it again.

(Originally published in The Philosopher’s Magazine, 78, 2017: 37-43)

Philosophy of games: the state of play

I’ve written an overview of field of philosophy of games, just published in Philosophy Compass. (Here’s the official version, and here’s the pre-print draft I’m allowed to post for free.) It’s supposed to be: an introduction to the field, a helpful way to set up a class, and a commentary of the current state of play in the field.

The whole idea was that all these sub-fields are talking about games from different perspectives. The aesthetics folks are mostly focusing on video games and whether or not they’re art. The philosophy of sport folks are thinking about fairness and the value of competition. The philosophy of play folks are thinking about the mental attitudes of players. And then there’s that ginormous interdisciplinary field of Game Studies, which draws on literary theory, critical theory, and also brings in a lot of game designers and psychologists and more.

What’s particularly weird is that these fields barely read each others’ stuff, and often don’t realize they’ve been approaching the same questions from wildly different frameworks. I’ve tried to pull together the basics into one article, which should point interested folks in the right starting direction, and also point out some of the places where these fields should be talking to each other, but haven’t been.

The most interesting thing I figured out: a lot of these fields have a very particular framework. The philosophy of art and aesthetics tends to think about things in terms of works, texts, and meaning. The game is this created artistic artifact, which we’re supposed to artistically interpret. The value is an artistic value, and adheres to the game itself – its meaning, its beauty, its depth. The philosophy of sport tends to think about games as a kind of activity. The value is usually set out in terms of what players are doing – their achievements, their display of excellences, their skill development. (Interestingly, a lot of the philosophers of sport come out of a background in philosophy of law, and often think of games very much like little toy governments. They’re social contracts that we put up and accept for a while, to coordinate and get something valuable done.) And the philosophers of play tend to think of terms of the player’s attitude, the degree to which they keep the meanings of actions in the game psychologically distanced from the meanings of actions in the rest of their life.

All of this is a wild oversimplification. If you want less of an oversimplification, read the article. Then read the real stuff that I’m only breathlessly summarizing.

Sadly, all I had room (and the ability) to cover was what’s been going on in analytic philosophy, and it’s already twice as long as it was supposed to be. If anybody out there wants to write a similar thing covering Game Studies, or continental philosophy’s approach to games, I beg you: please do it.

A philosopher enters politics

Matt Johnson is the only philosopher I know who responded to the political shit-storm of 2016 by actually throwing down and running for public office. He’s doing it right now – somehow juggling finishing his PhD, teaching seven (!!) courses, serving as a human relations commissioner, and running for Lancaster city council all at the same damn time. And he wrote a goddamn musical.

His whole approach is so impossibly cool that  I had to interview him about what it was like. The whole interview is over here.

Things I learned:

  1. Matt actually starting teaching free rhetoric and argument courses to activists in a local pub.
  2. Matt thinks the joys of philosophy and the joys of public service are deeply similar – throwing yourself at profound and intractable problems – except sometimes, in public service, you actually, like, save somebody’s home.
  3. Best of all: Matt thinks that the skills he developed over in philosophy are incredibly useful for consensus building in political life. Which blows my goddamn mind, because in academic philosophy itself, everybody’s using their analytic skills to stab each other in the face. But it occurs to me: maybe that’s nothing about the skills of philosophy itself, but just the incentive structure of academia. As in: to publish, you have to prove you’re different. But in political life, the incentives switch: things happen when you build consensus.

Matt’s take is so thrilling and so invigorating that he almost convinced me to run for city council.

 

New paper: “The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony”

My new paper, The Uses of Aesthetic Testimony, is out in the British Journal of Aesthetics. (For those without institutional access, here’s an older draft for free.)

What it’s about, technical version: There’s this debate about the seeming “asymmetry” between aesthetic and empirical testimony. We’re allowed to acquire beliefs based solely on testimony for empirical stuff (doctor’s advice, mechanic’s advice), but we’re not allowed to uptake judgments about how, say, the beauty and brilliance of Van Gogh’s Irises based solely on testimony. I say: yeah, yeah, but look over here: there’s an even more interesting second asymmetry within the aesthetic itself. There are all sorts of things I’m entirely permitted to do from aesthetic testimony: I can take restaurant recommendations, I can choose a travel destination, I can choose an art school, all from testimony. The uses of aesthetic testimony are rich and varied. There’s only this one very particular thing I can’t do from testimony, which is acquire a belief wholesale. The real mystery is how to explain the way our intuitions change between different uses of aesthetic testimony.

You might think, then, that this all just turns on speech acts vs. practical action. But consider the following case: when I’m picking out a painting to hang in my own bedroom, it would be totally weird to defer to the word of an expert and not engage my own taste. But if I were a museum director, I could totally defer to the word of an expert in choosing my acquisitions. No speech, all action, same asymmetry.

I then try to show that, if you take seriously all these intuitions about the uses of aesthetic testimony, it points us towards a moderately cognitive theory of aesthetic judgment.

What it’s really about: We act like aesthetics is all about autonomous judgment. But the really interesting thing that people don’t study is how much we profoundly trust others everywhere in our aesthetic lives.

New Paper: “Competition as Cooperation”

Here’s my new paper, Competition as Cooperation, coming out soon in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. It contains:

1. My view that games are a sort of moral technology for converting competition into cooperation.

2. Exhaustive technical detail on the motivational structures that human beings must have in order to use this technology properly.

3. The fun part: me having a go at the dominant position in the philosophy of sport – that the purpose of sports is developing or displaying human excellence. I think the social conversion stuff just as important. The coolest part of the paper is about whether the paradigmatic case of sports are Olympics/professional sports, or, like, flag football with your family.

It’s probably my… most ambitious paper? And, if you follow my wife’s “Thi Scale of Papers”, in which the more completely goofy and inane examples a paper has, the more Thi it is, then this is the most Thi paper I’ve ever written. There’s even a bit where a shitty asshole houseguest shows up at my house and I save the evening by deploying a board game that converts their dickheadery into something useful for everybody else.

This paper is deeply connected to the Good Violence, Bad Violence paper I wrote with Jose Zagal. “Competition as Cooperation” has got way more technical detail on Suits and the nature of game consent and the purpose of game-playing; “Good Violence, Bad Violence” has way more discussion of juicy online stuff like spawn-camping and trash-talking/harassment, the formation of online communities, and all the cool stuff that comes from the fact that Jose is an actual, you know, game designer.

Time-Slices of Tea: How to brew gong-fu style

Chinese tea, done right – gong-fu style – is most intense life-long culinary obsession.

Gong-fu style is basically the hard-core Chinese tea addict’s delivery system of choice. Basically, you’re using a very large amount of tea in a relatively small brewing vessel, and doing lots of really fast steeps. I mean, a LOT of tea:

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What you’re doing is cutting time-slices out of the tea. Different flavors extract at different rates and times. In normal, Western, throw-it-all-in-a-big-pot-and-brew-it-for-a-while, you’re taking all these different flavors and muddling them all together. When you do it gong-fu style, you’re separating it out and slicing it up – peering into this weird, fluid, ever-changing evolution and transformation of the tea. The tea above, for example, started out sweet and dairy and thick. Then around steep four, this weird glorious intense quinine-bitter took over. Three steeps later, the dairy was back and balancing out nicely against the bitter. Then around steep fourteen, this crazy apricot-hay flavor came out of nowhere. And then they all melded into this weird fuzzy happy meaty warmth.

In the piece of food writing I’m proudest of, I got my tea mentor totally shitfaced on good rum and got this quote out of her: “‘The evolving of it, it’s like old films,’ Shan says, ‘Like when it was slow enough you could almost see it frame by frame, moving’.”

I’ve gong-fu brewed other stuff – Indian teas like first flush darjeelings – and sometimes gotten good results, and sometimes unbalanced weirdness. That stuff wasn’t really bred for this style. But gong-fu brewing is what high-quality Chinese oolongs and puerhs were made for. When you’ve got some good tea and decent technique, it becomes this… drama. This journey through like a thousand weird transformations of flavor and texture, and all these strange intense little flavor nuggets will build on your tongue, and you’ll get this ever-shifting flowing glowing aftertaste.

Or it can be just be some shots of pretty decent tea that you slug down before you walk out the door. But even then: it still changes enough to be fun.

(PS: “gong-fu” means “mastery”. It’s the same Chinese word as “kung fu”. I suspect Western tea-nerds use the newer anglicization mostly because it would sound unbelievably dorky to say you were making kung fu tea.)

A whirlwind tour of tea types. 

There’s like two billion and a half kinds of tea, and I don’t want to choke your brain. So here’s a quick run-down of some favorite styles. For the basic categories, green teas aren’t oxidized, oolongs are partially oxidized, and black (a.k.a. “red”) teas are fully oxidized. (Don’t confuse oxidization with roasting, which is an independent variable.) And then there’s puerh, which is a green tea that’s pressed into cakes and then stuck in basements and actually fermented. Sometimes for decades.

Green tea is surely fantastic, and most of it responds very well both to gong-fu brewing and longer, western-style steeps. But I’m going to concentrate on oolongs today, because they and puerh are what call to my soul the hardest. Green teas are capable of incredible delicacy and beauty, and long jian green was my first true tea love, but, over the years, I’ve come to feel that they tend to have less variability and drama. The best of the oolongs and puerh have this balance of delicacy and bottom-of-the-soul-pounding warmth, this indescribable life, this flux, that often enlivens, occasionally frustrates, frequently delights, sometimes overwhelms, and never bores.

Balled oolongs: the first kind of oolong I fell in love with. There’s a ton of styles here, split between the mainland and Taiwan. Tieguanyin is a lot of Westerners’ introduction to this sort of tea. The green unroasted kind is sort of this nuclear fresh vegetal jaw-punch. I tend to prefer roasted tieguanyin, which is an easygoing, warm, well-balanced, chilled out sort of tea. A close relative is Taiwan’s dongding. But if this kind of stuff floats your boat, a lot of people end up paying the big bucks for Taiwanese high mountain oolong. At its best – right off the springtime harvest, lightly oxidized, unroasted and virginally fresh – it’s basically throwing yourself headfirst into the oozing spirit of spring. Unbearably sweet spinachy flavors, like the umami part of fresh-cut grass, like dew and rain and moss and jungle and everything green, damp, glowing, and alive.

Wuyi oolong (a.k.a. yancha): The cliff tea, the mountain tea, the old man tea. This is some of my favorite stuff in the world. The platonic wuyi is sharp and narrow, like a mineral scalpel delicately slicing into your tongue, which then will give way to all sorts of toasty, chocolatey, earthy, dried fruit flavors. Wuyi is a good place to take sort of the big leap into true Chinese tea appreciation, because it’s often so alive on the tongue, but fascinatingly thin, flavor-wise. A lot of people with a basically European culinary background hyper-focus on just the flavors of tea. They look for richness, complexity, tons of flavor-notes. But the deeper I get into tea culture, the more I think that flavor is only a part of a larger gestalt. There’s flavor, but then there’s the aroma, the texture, and the refined drug-effects. Wuyi is the place to appreciate texture. There’s this lovely dryness, this sharp, subtle razor-blades-dancing-on-your tongue, and then this slippery, oily sliding down your throat thing. Where the standard Western aesthetic in darker teas is, I think, to go big – big, bombastic flavors, tons of complex flavor notes – some of the best wuyi is gloriously lean and delicate. Wuyi: like a razorblade of dry toast, pushed through your tongue into your soul.

Puerh: is the weirdest and most fucked-up kind of tea – some fermented insane bullshit. I just had one that tasted like a cross between a tide pool, a honeycomb, and scotch. I love it so much that it deserves a separate post all its own.

The Basic Technique

First, you need a gaiwan – a traditional Chinese covered cup.

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Everybody starts by buying them too way too big. When buying your gaiwan, look at the size and think to yourself, “Every time I put tea in this thing, I’m going to drink seven to twenty times that amount of liquid.”

You use the lid to strain the tea. And you can do that, because you’re buying good tea, right? Real, whole leaf tea, that looks like this once its been brewed:

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Because you know that most of the tea that gets sold to American and Britain is total crap, right? It’s all tea dust and fannings and it’s basically the junk that falls onto the factory floor which they sweep up and foist off on the hapless west. Most of what the west drinks is, essentially, the particleboard of tea. All those broken edges will just extract overloads of horrible tannic crap. And even when you go into some fancy American tea shops with intricately labelled tea with flavor notes and romantic vaguely orientalized tales of wandering misty mountaintops, be wary and check the leaf. Sometimes it’ll be great. But a lot of times you’re still just getting a slightly higher grade of crap in lacy packaging. Like this stuff, which I got from a well-known “luxury” boutique American tea vendor:

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Fuck this stuff.

Anyway: put some damn tea in your gaiwan. The dry leaf will tinkle a little, like crystal raindrops. The standard advice is to fill the bottom 1/4 to 1/3 of your gaiwan with tea. It’s going to expand. Balled oolongs are denser and will expand a ton, so use relatively less. Wuyi is long and uncompressed, so use relatively more.

Water temperatures. Typical advice: green teas at 176 F, oolongs at 180-195 F, puerh anywhere from 190 F to boiling. As a very loose rule of thumb, the greener something is, the lower the temperature you should brew it with, and the darker it is, the higher the temps. I have a fancy electric kettle that hits temperatures exactly, but you can also count down from boiling. Boiling and then waiting for two minutes gives you approximately oolong temperatures. For the ultimate in vintage-y tea-hipster cred, you can do what young me did: the traditional Chinese thing of estimating temperature by the exact appearance of the bubbles in the water.

First, give your leaves a rinse. Just dump some water on it and then immediately pour it out into your cups and then throw that liquid away. This starts re-hydrating the tea and warms everything up. But don’t drink the rinse. When I asked one of my tea mentors why she was dumping the rinse-water and maybe wasting some flavor, she said: “Dude. I’ve toured the tea plantations in China. I’ve seen the shit they do over there. I mean, literally: shit. Rinse your damn leaves.”

The pour is basically this: cock the lid back a little to reveal a tiny bit of space between the lid and the side of the cup. Hold the lid down with one finger and the rim of the gaiwan with the others. Pour with commitment. (Check out this video instruction, too.)

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For brewing: pour the hot water into the gaiwan. Try to avoid pouring hot water directly on the leaf, especially if the tea’s on the greener side. Put the lid on. A usual brewing schedule looks something like this: first brew, 5 seconds. Then 7 seconds, then 9s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 30s, 45s, 1 min, 1:30 min, etc. It’ll vary widely by tea-type, but you usually start going up by 2 seconds each brew, then by 5, then 15, then 30. You can also slowly start creeping up the temperature, too, if you want to be really fancy. But play around with it. Fuck up some tea and find out where its limits are.

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If the last steep tasted right, then bump up the time one step according to the standard schedule. If it was too weak, bump it by up two steps. If it was too strong, just repeat what you did last time. Don’t worry about being too precise. Especially in the later brews, I tend to get pretty sloppy. And don’t be afraid to experiment. Good tea will respond very differently to different combinations of variables, and you’ll find weird little corners – one tea will respond to lower temperatures by emitting a marvelous weird malty sweet; another will respond to a double-length steep by giving you a bitter backhand slap, but which will give way to ultra-long resounding aftertaste. Sometimes I get distracted and way overbrew the tea. Sometimes it’s awful, but sometimes it reveals something new and delightful. The dynamism and unpredictability is part of the joy.

Keep going until the tea gives out. It’ll turn either boring or horribly astringent. Some OK-ish teas will only go five steeps or so, but a lot of good oolongs will go ten, fifteen steeps. They’ll often keep getting better for a while, peak, then start a long decline. In my early days I used to give up too early. If the tea tastes weak and you’re about to give up, try blasting it with hotter water and a much longer steep. The really best stuff will just seem to give endlessly: I’ve had really nice aged puerhs go 35 or 40 steeps, just kept on emitting flavor through longer and longer steeps. The last steep was overnight, and might have given me one of the best cups of all.

Oh, and smell everything. Smell the dry leaf. Smell the leaf after the rinse. Smell the leaves between steepings. The tea was bred for this. Just smell that sexy leaf.

Wuyi has a particular love for being brewed very, very intensely. A lot of us will get a little teeny gaiwan (check out my 50 ml baby) and pack it completely full of dry leaf and brew it on a 1s/2s/4s/6s/8s/10s/12s/15s/18s/20s/25s etc. schedule. You’re basically making yourself lots and lots of teeny little espresso shots of tea. Especially good for getting that dry-mineral scalpel effect, with that ultra-long glowing aftertaste.

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More fussiness: in the classical style, you pour from the gaiwan into a cute little pitcher, and then pour it out again into the cups. A lot of us just pour directly into the cups. But the first bit of water that comes out of the gaiwan is the weakest tea, and the end of the pour is the strongest, so if you’re pouring into multiple cups, you want to move the gaiwan back and forth to even it all out. Also: have a bowl or something to dump the dregs into. With the gaiwan, any loose bits of broken tea will go right into your cup. Don’t inflict that crap on yourself. Dump it. Preferably onto an adorable clay “tea pet” that you bought from some shady Chinese vendor on eBay.

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Pay attention to: the aromas of the leaf in your gaiwan. The aromas in your cup. The physical sensations on your tongue, like various lovely pricklings or soft creaminesses or thick oilinesses. The texture in your mouth, in your throat. The aftertaste, which is where so much of the experience lives. Try breathing out to flare the aftertaste, like with scotch. A tea vendor once told me that there was a Chinese term for that flared aftertaste, which he translated as, “The Returning”. But from the twinkle in his eye, he just might have been bullshitting me.

Gong-fu style may seem like a lot of work and fuss. But you can internalize it quickly. And you don’t always have to be that careful. With really amazing tea, I’ll be really focused: counting the seconds out, watching the water temperature, coaxing the best I can out of the tea. But most of the time I’ve just got a tray and a gaiwan at my desk next to my laptop, and I’m brewing absentmindedly while I work. It’s really quite pleasant. There’s something about the very tiny packets of fiddliness that just helps me work and think. My lovely wife thinks it’s because sometimes your brain wants a break, but if you let yourself Internet then you’re doomed, because that shit goes on forever. But with gong-fu brewing, you’ve got charmingly packaged, closed-ended bits of fuss. You fiddle with the tea for like twenty seconds and then you have a nice little cup of hot tea in front of you and it’s over and now it’s time to get back to work.

Grandpa style

Or, if this is all too much work, you can also do it grandpa style. Dump the tea leaves in a normal glass and pour hot water on it. Wait for the leaves to settle. Drink. When you’re down somewhere between the halfway or one-third point, re-fill it with hot water. Keep on going like that for as long as you want. Works great with green teas and oolongs.

For my on-the-go life, I have a tea tumbler: an insulated glass with a filter at the spout. Dump in your leaf, pour in some hot water, pop in your filter, and go.

Buying it

You need a gaiwan. My two most used gaiwans are 100ml and 50 ml.

On tea pricing: don’t cheap out. Most people in the western world have basically only drunk Fifty Shades of Two Buck Chuck, tea-wise. So many people are so used to really cheap tea, and are absolutely unwilling to pay for anything past the particleboard, that they will spend their whole lives in a crap tea dungeon of their own making.

When buying tea, remember this: most times, you’re putting 3-5 grams of tea in a gaiwan, and getting, like, one or two liters of beverage out of it. Tea is extremely, extremely light. When you buy it, don’t think in terms of the actual weight, which might make you choke – think in terms of the price-per-drink. If you buy 50 grams of tea for $10, that’s 80 cents per session of tea. And really, really nice tea – the extraordinary stuff that’ll light your soul on fire – might be $30 for 50 grams. But that’s still only, like, $2.50 a session. Compare that to how much we’re willing to throw away on beer and wine and cocktails or even godforsaken Red Bull.

The best tea I’ve ever had in my life totally rocked my world and cost me a dollar a gram – so for $5, I kept myself and my closest compadres in a fascinated rapture for two hours. That’s not by any means the grade of stuff I chug in the morning on the way to work. But, as unbearable culinary glories come, it might actually be one of the cheapest.

Some favorite shops:

These days, my very favorite shop is my favorite shop for so much of my tea is the superb Floating Leaves. Floating Leaves specializes in Taiwanese rolled teas. They’ve got plenty of the delicate fresh high mountain stuff, but what’s really been doing it for me these days is all their roasted stuff, from the light to the heavy roasted. (When I was young, I associated roasted rolled teas with crap, because that’s mostly what made it to the US – cheap tea roasted to death to cover its flaws. Turns out, there is an art to careful, slow, delicate roasting that brings out some truly profound flavors.)

If you really want to throw down the dollars for some serious high mountain vegetal glory, I’ve had truly incredible stuff from Tea Masters. Stunning tea, especially worth it for the high end stuff for a few servings that you will devote total attention too.

For wuyi tea, my new go-to vendor is Wu Yi Origin, which lets you order direct from a Wuyi farmer in China. Awesome Wuyi, full of vivid textures and rich dense flavors, and relatively affordable for the quality it sells. Also quite good is Tea Hong, which tends towards a more delicate, clean, precise sort of Wuyi. Norbu Tea has a small selection of fantastic, relatively affordable Wuyi. The proprietor has a taste for the rich, the densely flavored, the really warm. I particularly like the variety of moderately roasted rolled oolongs he sells and some truly great rolled oolongs, too.

There’s even better out there, but you’ll pay for it. High-end wuyi is extraordinary, but extremely pricey. If it tells you something, expect to be paying at least $1 per gram for stuff to this quality. (But remember: one serving of is 5-7g, which puts even the ultra-high end teas at a lower price point than middling wine. And one serving of high end stuff will probably do you 15 – 20 brews, so that’s like an afternoon of focused aesthetic glory.) Tea Urchin, one of my favorite pu-erh shops, often gets batches of extraordinary wuyi (and rolled oolongs, too).  Treasure Green offers insanely good wuyi at insanely high prices. (They’ve also got really shockingly affordable high quality rolled tieguanyin oolong).

If you’re into erratic obsessed weirdos with barely functional websites but exquisite curation, check out Life in a Teacup. And if you’re feeling particularly rich, Tea Habitat – the place I wrote about in that article – still sells some of the best tea I’ve ever had in my life. It’s dancong oolong – a delicate, subtle, aroma-oriented style – and you can literally buy batches from specific, single trees and compare.

More: Den’s Tea is a good American vendor for Japanese greens. Thunderbolt Tea has awesome first-flush darjeeling. Oh man, there’s so much more. So much, so much more.

I strongly encourage you to go with specialists – these days, the tea I’m getting from them is so much better (and relatively cheaper) than most of the generalist vendors. For generalist vendors, Tea Trekker recently beat out Seven Cups as my favorite US-based generalist. Tea Trekker has great green tea, great wuyi, and is generally trustworthy across the board. And they’ve got some really nice white teas, too, for when you want that experience of drinking the purified sensation of light.

Uh, teaware. There’s lots of simple, rustic, affordable stuff at Teaware House. JK Teashop has a good spread of affordable cups and gaiwans. Either of those would be a good one-stop shop for the beginner. Tea Masters have wonderful stuff on the nicer end. My favorite gaiwan ever came from Floating Leaves. For the absolute nicest ultra-delicate, gorgeous, hand-painted Jingdezhen porcelain I’ve been able to find, Mud and Leaves. (Those crazy prices are appropriate for handmade tea ware of this quality.) And Music City Tea sells good tea trays, to catch all your drips and drops. And when you really feel like you have more money than you know what to do with, you can check out the world of yixing unglazed clay pots which subtly modify your teas and sometimes improve them. But beware: that world is full of asshole collectors and fakes and dead-ends, and some of us have dabbled heavily in that world and eventually gotten fed up and ended up mostly just brewing tea with the neutral, true rendering of the gaiwan. Yixing pots can be great, but some people fall down the collector hole and turn into the tea-nerd equivalent of those audiophile assholes who spend more time obsessing over the impedance specs of their transistors than actually listening to music.

Which is not to say that I don’t also have an unfortunately excessive number of yixing pots:

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What else? Greens fade quickly. They’re at their absolute best just after the harvest. Lightly oxidized oolongs, like Taiwanese high mountain, are also best fresh. More oxidized and roasted stuff, like wuyi, actually ages beautifully, getting softer and rounder and subtler and deeper over the years, if you’re lucky. And then there’s puerh, which some people think reaches its peaks after thirty years of aging in a damp Hong Kong basement, and is probably best appreciated after some poor collector dies and his hoard goes on the auction block. Puerh is basically my favorite thing, and its weird, druggy, euphoric dense bizarreness deserves a consideration all of its own, which will be Part II.