Sunday, December 26, 2010

Justice League of America (1977) d. Sam Peckinpah

I was reading an old issue (146) from Steve Englehart's 1976-1977 run
on Justice League of America. In the letters column, the fans were
submitting JLA casting suggestions, anticipating the soon to be
released Superman: The Movie. Kind of an interesting snapshot into the
hive geek mind of that year. Without further ado, with my choices in

Wonder Woman--Lynda Carter (natch) or Kate Jackson

Gotta go with the real WW here.

Black Canary--Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Lindsay Wagner, Jessica Lange, Barbara Eden, Bernadette Peters, Lynda Day George, Jaclyn Smith, JoAnn Harris, Lynn Harris, Elizabeth Montgomery, or Sally Struthers.

Sally Struthers boggles the mind. For me, Elizabeth Montgomery is the right answer to most questions, but Farrah would have been a perfect Black Canary circa 1976-77. And can I throw in an actress not mentioned in the lettercol (because the JLA audience shouldn't have been watching her grindhouse movies--Gator Bait and the Great Texas Dynamite Chase--to name two)? Claudia Jennings.

The Flash--Lee Majors, Charles Bronson, David Soul, Robert Redford, Ron Ely, Jan-Michael Vincent, Earl Holliman, Eddie Albert (wha?), Peter Nero, and Bruce Jenner.

If he'd have taken the part, you'd have to cast the Mechanic, wouldn't you? If not him, then Lee Majors, although the idea of Police Woman's Earl Holliman taking a shot at Barry Allen is intriguing. Basically, from what I remember of Holliman on PW, Barry would be walking around wearing way too-tight slacks and a shirt open to his navel.

Green Arrow--Lee Majors again, Frank Converse, Jack Klugman (double wha?), Michael Landon, George Peppard, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston, Dan Rowan (yes, of Martin and Rowan's Laugh In) and Cesar Romero (!)

If you got Bronson for the Flash, then I'd go Clint here. If not, I'd have taken The Fall Guy.

Green Lantern--Don Galloway (he was on Ironside. . . yeah, that doesn't help me either), Roger Moore, Robert Conrad, James Caan, Robert Wagner, John Saxon, and Don Meredith.

Oh, lord--this could be turning into the most glorious imaginary movie ever. James Caan as GL? (With a melancholy tip of the cap to Dandy Don).

Aquaman--Mark Spitz, Doug McClure, David Soul, Lloyd Bridges, Beau Bridges (yes Beau, not Jeff), Ron Howard, William Shatner, and Ben Murphy (known for Alias Smith and Jones, but go to his IMDB page and take a look at the premise of Gemini Man, the show he was on in 1976).

I take the cigar out of my mouth long enough to cast Spitz, for some old fashioned stunt casting. The kids love him. On the other hand, they also love Detective Hutchinson. Hmm.

Hawkman--Paul-Michael Glaser, Henry Winkler, and James Caan.

Starsky? I don't see it. But I see the Fonz even less.

The Atom--Jan-Michael Vincent and Henry Winkler.

It's kind of interesting how the names the letter column print show two ways this imaginary film could have gone. The goofy TV route looking back towards William Dozier's Batman series or the as yet nonexistent "realistic" way of portraying superheroes. The idea of a 70s-era take on this makes me giddy.

The Elongated Man--Ken Howard.

Okay, Ken Howard.

Batman--Adam West, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Brolin, Chad Everett, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Burt Ward.

Gasp! I might have to recast GL.

The column didn't have director suggestions, But for the JLA movie it has has put into my head, I'd be happy with Peckinpah or Don Siegel. And produced by Robert Evans. The only problem is the film would have been a hard R and my memory from 1977 would have been of being babysat while my parents went to see it.

Friday, December 24, 2010


It's become something of a tradition of mine to offer up a bit of fiction for the holiday season. This year might be considered something of a cheat, as it is an installment of MEMORY, the ongoing, online serial project of mine. I choose to think otherwise, however, mainly because I've been so wrapped up with other things it's been an unforgivably long time since I chronicled the adventures of Flavius and Parric. I'm still far too busy with different projects not to mention far too slow a writer, but for today, at least, Flavius and Parric live on. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours!


Flavius leapt, the new sphere emitting a deep peal as he landed upon it. Upward they soared, knocking and jostling for position. Through the chaos of the spheres, Flavius glimpsed the service way, far to his left.

Gritting his teeth, he leapt again, and again. Each jump brought him closer. On his next jump, the sphere rolled, dumping him over. He hit the next sphere awkwardly, and tumbled sideways as it rolled as well. Again and again he fell, unable to regain his balance, until finally he landed and stuck, flat on his back.

Approaching quickly from above came the service way.

"Ach, this is gonna sting..." Flavius grabbed at the support struts underneath the walk an instant before the sphere hit. The impact knocked the air out of him, and for a moment Flavius knew he'd be crushed. The sphere rolled to the side then, and Flavius hooked an arm around the strut before he fell. Heaving a few deep lungfulls of air, he shoved Memory onto the walk, then hoisted himself over the railing onto the service way. His legs quivered warningly. Wiping his face with a sleeve, he scanned the service way for Anacaona, the Empress and the rest. There, far down the service way, amid the cascade of spheres, the orange bulk of Djserka lurched along, followed by the smaller figures of the women.

"Right then. Always the running after and catching up." Flavius stooped to pick up Memory, and suddenly the world twisted, stretched, then snapped back into place.

Flavius found himself lying prone on the walk, Memory beneath him. "What," he managed, climbing back to his feet, "in God's good name was that?"

He tested his limbs cautiously, wary they might break off at the joints or turn to limp strands of rope, but all seemed in order, save for the deep burn of over-exertion. Flavius charged after the others.

The service way grew steeper as he approached the others. It was impossible to see far through all the rising spheres, but Flavius was certain the walk hadn't torn loose from its supports. The Palace of Un-pic Ja'ab was listing.

Anacaona caught sight of him, waving and shouting. Then reality buckled once again. The palace turned inside out, boiling away in a thunderous gale.

As quickly as before, reality snapped back to normal. Flavius stared up into the sobbing face of Anacaona, her tears raining down upon him.

"Oh, Flavius, what's happening? What was that?"

"I donnae ken, Lass, but it cannae be good." Flavius shot a look to the others. "Empress?"

Empress Malinche, scowling imperiously, offered only a terse shake of her head. Even Papantzin's guise of cool confidence had cracked, as she scanned randomly about for a host of perceived threats.

The service way shuddered. A series of rolling booms echoed around them as the Ketza'qua strained against its bonds.

"If I may, there is an egress but a short distance ahead," Djserka said. "At this point, it is my belief the Ketza'qua will cast off its bonds long before we are able to make our way back to the Nexial gaps. The palace will not last much longer, I fear. Our best course would be to vacate."

"Then forward, ya beastie! Move!"

With Djserka in the lead and Flavius in the rear, they fought their way toward the door even as the way grew steeper. The tilt was unmistakable now, nearly ten degrees by Flavius' reckoning. The lifting spheres no longer rose directly past, but rather increasingly angled the same direction they moved. And the flow had slowed as well.

"The way forward is blocked," Djserka announced abruptly. "I cannot force a way through."

Flavius leaned over the rail, but couldn't see beyond Djserka's bulk. The way back, even if they wanted to retreat, was already blocked by coagulating spheres. "I could climb past ya, but I nae want to be skewered by yer spines there."

"It is possible for me to retract my defensive spicules temporarily."

"Then get retracting." Flavius swung himself over the railing, muscling for space against the spheres. "The rest of ya, follow along." Anacaona clutched his arm.

"Flavius... uh, please be careful."

Flavius patted her cheek. "Ah, lass, had ya only offered me that sage advice a week ago."

Flavius gingerly worked his way along the railing, wary of the warty black puckers of retracted spines. This close to the Naga-ed-der, he could smell the creature's astringent odor. Flavius blinked as his eyes watered. Anacaona followed close behind, with the Empress and Papantzin after. As Flavius reached the front, Djserka plucked him over the rail with a long, spindly arm, then helped Flavius pull the rest over.

"Stay close. When I start cutting," he said, "I donnae ken how long the path will stay open--"

"So keep pace or be left behind," finished Empress Malinche impatiently. "Yes. You've said that already."

"Right. But it, ah, bears repeating." Flavius swung Memory in a wide arc, shattering two spheres. Feather-light crystal shards rained down on him. He pushed forward, before the crush of spheres could fill the gap, and slashed again, breaking another. The women followed close behind, but the spheres pressed in quickly, making a tight fit for Djserka.

"I see it!" Flavius shouted, steadily smashing his way forward. "It's only about 20 more feet."

The doorway loomed ahead, a dark slash against the wall.

"Is it opening wider?" asked Anacaona.

"Opening?" Flavius peered forward. The opening was growing wider. And extending up and down the wall as well. "Sweet mer--"

A cascade of debris fell through the opening, smashing through the straining, buckled struts anchoring the end of the service way. "That's nae doorway, that's a break in the palace wall!"

The struts snapped. The service way twisted and bucked against the spheres, dropping from a ten degree rise to a twenty degree drop in rough, jerking fashion. Then it rumbled forward, smashing spheres left and right, through the growing fissure in the wall.

Through the cloud of dust and rubble they rode, through the breached wall, into the shrill night air. The length of service way snagged back inside somewhere, jerking to a stop. The railing collapsed, dumping Flavius, Anacaona, Empress Malinche and Papantzin into open air.

Flavius landed on something hard and metallic. Anacaona landed atop him, as did the Empress and Papantzin. "Get... off!"

Flavius pushed them off, and rose to a kneeling position. "Djserka?" he called.

"Here," Djserka said, lowering himself via thread. "You only fell seven mlara. Any farther and you may have sustained significant injuries."

A burning wej spun out of control in the distance, trailing smoke. Streaks of cuyab flame streaked here and there. Larger plasma beams lanced out from palace gun placements, burning moironteau into shriveled char. Moironteau... moironteau swarmed everywhere. Thousands of them, on the ground, in the air, illuminated by furious eruptions of crimson and emerald throughout the battlefield.

The steel-hard surface beneath them undulated then, and a fierce, rapid clattering in the distance rushed over them and past. It was a familiar clatter, one Flavius had heard before. "Oh, damn me sideways to hell. We're atop the wee beastie."

"Speak sense, Flavius," snapped Empress Malinche.

"I believe, Your Imperial Highness, that he means we currently stand upon a scale of the bound Ketza'qua," Djserka said.

"The Ketza'qua?" the Empress repeated with distaste. "For a servitor creature to debase the Imperial Personage with physical contact..." She shuddered. "No, no this is unacceptable. It will have to be disposed of."

"Oh, Yer Imperial Majesty's got much bigger problems than that just now," Flavius said, standing ready with Memory gripped tightly in both hands.

"The Ketza'qua is breaking free!" cried Anacaona. "It will kill us all!"

"Nae, Lass," Flavius answered, gesturing Memory toward the raging battle. "Yer wee beastie willnae get the chance."

Through the carnage of battle streaked a crimson blur, a serpentine body of scarlet propelled by wings blurred with motion. It raced toward them, its three pair of eyes locked on Flavius, antennae twitching in fury, casting off sparks of pure hatred.

Rapteer had come.

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best Lists

SF Signal has a two-part Mind Meld with a good many responders to the topic of "The Best Genre-Related Books, Movies And/Or Shows Consumed In 2010."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Back in 2006, Jayme wrote about the Antikythera Mechanism, a complex mechanical device built by the ancient Greeks to make astronomical calculations (I had actually blog scooped him the month before, but that was back before I discovered capital letters).

It's taken four years, but they've finally made a lego version of the mechanism.

The way the video takes the time to show you how the gears interact reminds me of the works of Arthur Ganson, the former artist in residence at MIT.

There's a certain perfection in the synchronization of gears that isn't often explored. A friend of mine and I took a half hour of pausing the video for the Arthur Ganson sculpture "Child Watching Ball" until all the gears made sense.

Of course Arthur Ganson had to make every gear by hand, by twisting wires and spot-welding them gear-tooth by gear-tooth. Cheap plastic lego parts open up the ridiculous mechanical sculpture field to just about anyone.

Painted by pygmies!

The Phantom is one of those wonderful anachronisms, a daily newspaper comic strip. A narrative that has been unfolding without end, and often without direction, since 1936 (and telling the latest iteration of a story supposed to have begun in 1536). Like all comic strips, The Phantom exists suspended in time, with the narrative playing out in a three-panel haiku that proceeds in accordance with the intrinsic temporal logic (or illogic) of the strip.

One of the inevitabilities among the stalwart adventure and soap opera strips that still exist (such as Mark Trail, Judge Parker, Rex Morgan, Mary Worth, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Mandrake) is that they are no longer written and drawn by the people who created them. It most cases, those creators are long dead, progenitors of narratives so much longer than anything else out there that they have almost a full century with their basic proto-pulp qualities intact. When they were created, the dailies and Sundays were such a big deal (in an age where every town of any size had several daily newspapers) that the best creators were glamorous figures who made small fortunes — people like Alex Raymond, Milt Caniff, Roy Crane, and Phantom and Mandrake creator Lee Falk. In part because many of the original strips were works for hire controlled by the syndicate, longstanding traditions exist in which the original creators train apprentices who do much of the work, and ultimately take over the strip. At the peak, many of them had full production teams — Roy Crane had a stylebook to enable his minions to properly render the Zip-a-Tone clouds of Buz Sawyer. The current Mandrake artist, Fred Fredericks, took over those duties from his boss in 1966. Imagine being a twentysomething illustrator who finds a gig in some forgotten suburb working as an assistant for one of these sclerotic cartoonists, subtly infiltrating the alternate universe of the strip with a bit of the contemporary Zeitgeist.

As they struggle to survive, the two major remaining syndicates have begun doing the dailies in color and relying on the Web as an alternative distribution medium. This has enabled the dailies to all be in color. The problem is, the colorists do not usually appear to be the same people as those writing and drawing the strip. It is a frequent occurrence for characters to have the wrong hair color, and other amusing continuity busts for the AM radio No-Prize contingent.

In The Phantom, the current auteurs have a practice of occasionally having the original creator, Lee Falk, appear in the strip as a metafictional narrator to provide the synopsis of the latest grapevine plot thread (Falk was always reported to be a bona fide dandy, with signature bowler and cane). Today was such a day, as Falk appeared on the docks of one of his fictional African countries, explaining how The Phantom has just rescued his wife Diana from prison, peaking an epic plot in which the terrorist Chatu (who the Phantom had saved from death by Ebola some years back) blows up an urban center, fakes Diana's death (abducting her just before the explosion), and has her imprisoned in evil Rhodia where her head is shaved by a vicious female warden, while the Phantom, believing her dead, roams the world fighting terrorists with nihilistic fervor in the company of a gorgeous Sikh privateer. It is no surprise that a "for those who came in late" update is needed, when the plot has been unfolding since sometime last year.

The Phantom is more anachronistic than his fellow survivors, because his whole reality his trapped in Lee Falk's 1930s idea of a white man in Africa story—one who lives with a group of magical pygmies, and enforces the law of the jungle. So it is really wonderful when, through the tortured evolution of the strip, Falk ends up today depicted as a black man (one who looks a lot like Kid Creole). Which makes me wonder if one of the young apprentices has engineered a genius paradigm shift to maintain the strip's relevance in the 21st century -- one in which the racial coloring of all the characters are shifted, with a T'Challa-ready Phantom and his minions of pudgy white pygmies.

((See our earlier commentary on the same strip: "The Color Purple (as rendered in black newspaper ink)."))

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I found my thrill

My Twitter feed this morning delivered this insane bit of earnest surreality that only French television could produce: Vladimir Putin playing the piano and singing Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill to a crowd of global celebrities, including plasticized Goldie Hawn, still raunchy Sharon Stone, stoned looking Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Kal Penn, and a muy gordo Gerard Depardieu. Pooty Poot's voice is weirdly roboticized, like some cyborg variation on Tuvan throat singing, which makes sense. About the only thing this clip is missing is a Siberian white tiger on a leash, or in Putin's lap.

I am quite convinced that Leggy Starlitz is behind this, developing material for a new cabaret show for RT5's Saturday night lineup, in which the great Hegelian figures of the 21st century perform pop standards of the postwar era.

((Understand that one of the lodestones of French television is Le Plus Grand Cabaret du Monde with Patrick Sebastien, kind of French answer to Don Francisco's Sabado Gigante, in which a crowd of French celebrities sit around tables drinking and smoking in evening attire watching weird magic, talking dogs, crooners, and, of course, mimes. The missing ingredient, clearly, is a dark geopolitical edge. Charles Taylor saws Tyra Banks in half!))

In other video news, I am will be reading tonight at the latest installment of Teleportal Readings from Monofonus Press, which livens up the tired format of the literary reading by integrating it with brilliant video art by Scott Gelber and bringing out the performance implicit in the words themselves. The selections of material by the curator, Jess Sauer, are wonderful, as you can see in this piece by poet Dean Young (who, sadly, needs a heart transplant).

Dean Young from Monofonus Press on Vimeo.

I am delighted to be included, especially as a denizen of the ghetto of sf. I will be reading "Nomadology," which appeared last year at Strange Horizons.

Teleportal 2.2

Featuring Chris Nakashima-Brown, Andy Devine,
Eileen Myles, and Ed Hirsch

Videos by Scott Gelber

8pm, Saturday, December 11, 2010

The ND at 501 Studios
5th and Brushy
Austin, TX

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NASA discovers new life

Arsenic-based life. Yes, that's an over-simplification, but still. I've heard theories on chlorine breathers and silicon-based life (made famous by the Horta in Star Trek) and even hydrogen- and methane-breathers, but dang, this is bizarre:
At their conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon will announce that they have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. While she and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don’t have to be like planet Earth.

Two possibilities come immediately to mind: 1) this evolved elsewhere and came to Earth via panspermia, or 2) life evolved on Earth twice, separately. Either way, this implies that at least simple life may be common in the universe. Simply stunning.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the archives with the pistoleer

I don't get to spend nearly as much time in archives as some contributors to this blog, so it was a bit of a treat when I stopped by the Austin History Center to page through their biographical file on Ben Thompson. A month ago on this blog I wrote about Ben Thompson, so I was hoping to glean a little more insight into the character of this notorious Austinite.

Most of the material in the file fell into three categories, relatively recent tabloid articles from England on Thompson (aren't all newspapers in England technically tabloids?), Austin newspaper articles from a number of time periods, and what appeared to be grade school essays about the gunman.

There wasn't a lot of new information, and some of it was contradictory, or interpreted differently than other material I'd seen. For instance, an incident which one biographer took as evidence that Thompson ran a protection racket in Austin's vice district was passed off as just lighthearted drunkenness by another account.

One source said that after Ben Thompson's notorious shoot-out in San Antonio, his coffin was followed by hundreds of orphaned children. Not the children of his victims as you might first expect, but the benefactors of his charitable largess.

(I read in G.R. Williamson's biography that Thompson had travelled with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west show for a time, wowing the crowds with his trick target shooting. He also arrested a woman who was traveling with the Lampasas Sheriff for wearing pants, something which was illegal at the time in Austin. Luckily, you can now go topless in this town should you so wish.)

The most enlightening part of Thompson's biographical file was how the press from Austin and the press in England tackled different narrative themes.

The British articles (and there were about a dozen of them) all told the story of how a boy from Yorkshire went overseas into the distant and wild West and had fantastic adventures. So the stories they stressed had a tinge of exoticism and racial intolerance. They talked about Thompson pursuing Indians while a young man, something I don't remember reading in American accounts. They also stressed that as a boy Thompson wounded a black kid, shooting him in the buttocks with mustard seed (no American accounts mentioned that the victim was black, or that the victim was fleeing at the time of the shooting). The English papers also mention that Thompson probably left England because a slave stabbed his maternal aunt and Thompson had to care for the orphans.

And when Ben's brother Billy shot the sheriff of Dodge City, not only was that on purpose, but it was done with an English shotgun.

In 2000, the Daily Star devoted most of a page to Ben Thompson. A tiny photo of Thompson's grave (in the cemetery whose guidebook sparked my interest in him) came with the following caption: "Thompson - at one time a city marshal - came from Knottingley, but he was buried (right) in America's Wild West."

They don't mention that Thompson's Wild West grave is lit at night by lights shining from the University of Texas baseball field.

The Austin press wrestled with the dilemma of portraying Thompson as either criminal or hero, and had trouble fitting him into either category. On the occasion of the restoration of Thompson's gravestone in the 1980s, a paper called The Austin Citizen wrote an article explicitly addressing whether it was appropriate to celebrate Thompson. They quote Gaines Kincaid as summarizing Thompson's life with liberal parenthetical asides, "But even his worst enemies admitted that he was a kind-hearted man (when sober), a good husband and father (when sober) and, during his years as city marshal, he just about wiped out crime in Austin"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hacking the Winklevoss Algorithm

The other night I screened David Fincher's The Social Network at my local theater, the first time I have bought a movie ticket based on hearing the soundtrack on the radio. (Yes, I drive around in my truck listening to a satellite radio station that plays nothing but soundtrack music from movies I have never seen.)

The soundtrack is dark ambient electronica by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: soundtrack for a postmodern deposition. As penetrating emotional study, the movie does not quite achieve the potential of the soundtrack, but it has a pretty solid bead on the state of our alienation in the age of Web. 2.0+. Subtextually, a psycho-space odyssey of the birth of the Shopping Mall Singularity; on the surface, a pretty accurate portrayal of the culture of the venture-backed technology business. Cram-down!

I hadn't previously known that Zuckerberg had attended the same high school as me (revealed in the movie only by a T-shirt he wears), a New England prep school that, contrary to popular perception, has a lot more Zuckerbergs than Winklevosses. When I was a student there more than a few years before Zuckerberg (pre-Web), one of the favorite pasttimes was to take the student photo directory issued to each student at the beginning of each year — "the Facebook" — a customize it with a pen-and-ink overlay of annotations, cosmetic enhancements, and rankings, which would then be shared among friends as a source of entertainment. So watching the Facebook moment of conception, as Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg uses a chess algorithm to perform computer comparisons of the women of Harvard's dormitories, makes perfect sense when you have witnessed small packs of 15-year-old Zuckerbergs sitting in their dorm ranking each girl in the Facebook on a scale of 1 to 10 and otherwise annotating the images of their schoolmates in a way only high schoolers can manage. The genesis of Facebook lies in the adolescent objectification and classification of the members of one's peer group: alienation as adult identity formation.

When I got home after the movie, I found the new issue of The New York Review of Books in my mailbox, the featured cover story a review of the movie by Zadie Smith. Smith uses the movie, and her own recollections of similar late adolescent identity formation, to launch an insightful consideration of the evolution of the self in the age of the social web:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Smith is onto a powerful truth here: that cyber-emancipation and the ascendance of technological meritocracy achieve liberation from the confining primate identity tags of class and geography by replacing them with systems of symbolic language that accelerate the reduction of life into its purest transactional essence.

Code mediates social interaction in a revolutionary way we don't yet really appreciate. Code tolerates long-winded spans of natural language, like this blog post, but what it really wants are numbers and more efficient encryptions of human feeling in to text (LOL)—to facilitate our enslavement to Moore's Law.

Consider how the choice of application interface confines self-expression and promotes sameness—how everyone's iPhoto album or Flickr page looks basically the same. The Singularity-in-progress looks about as diverse as a suburban neighborhood, lot after lot packed with homes from the same builder, varying only surface details in the basic design—look at those window treatments!—to create the illusion of self-expression. No wonder that web pioneers like the Boing Boing crew lead the DIY Maker path, sensing the need to balance it out with equal devotion to hand made things.

Code's leveling effects also help to obliterate class, by transforming each brain plugged into the network into an input that is instantly proletarianized and pressed to operate at the speed of the photons that carry the information. A new meritocracy in which we are judged by the processing power of our wetware, the standouts the ones who can make the most inventive and insightful new connections between disparate chunks of information in the network, and the ones who can do it while retaining a sense of signature style when the bits are recomposed into human-readable form. The new Winkelvoss übermenschen are the most adept inhabitants of the Matrix—the ones who are so at home there, that the machine master lets them run off leash.

The most revolutionary and insidious quality of Facebook, considered in this context, is how it transforms self-expression into the obliteration of self. The application interface is all about breaking down privacy to let us know what each other are thinking, what we are doing, what our backstories are (see, e.g., the proclivity of people to post faded childhood photos, everyone and ennui-drunk Deckard trolling their artificial sepia memories in some anonymous flat). The Zuckerberg project is the elimination of adolescent alienation —the solitary male introvert reengineering the world to enable him to connect with those around him through his preferred binary medium. The result, a realm which reveals, replicates, propagates, our basic sameness, drumming out unique traits of bona fide individuality with the persistent reduction of our qualities and preferences into overlapping sets. Yes, I Partied at the Deadwood in the 80s. Zadie Smith on the way Zuckerberg approached the ethical question once his social network exploded:

Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.

He is, to say the least, dispassionate about the philosophical questions concerning privacy—and sociality itself—raised by his ingenious program. Watching him interviewed I found myself waiting for the verbal wit, the controlled and articulate sarcasm of that famous Zuckerberg kid—then remembered that was only Sorkin. The real Zuckerberg is much more like his website, on each page of which, once upon a time (2004), he emblazoned the legend: A Mark Zuckerberg Production. Controlled but dull, bright and clean but uniformly plain, nonideological, affectless.

In Zuckerberg’s New Yorker profile it is revealed that his own Facebook page lists, among his interests, Minimalism, revolutions, and “eliminating desire.” We also learn of his affection for the culture and writings of ancient Greece. Perhaps this is the disjunct between real Zuckerberg and fake Zuckerberg: the movie places him in the Roman world of betrayal and excess, but the real Zuckerberg may belong in the Greek, perhaps with the Stoics (“eliminating desire”?). There’s a clue in the two Zuckerbergs’ relative physiognomies: real Zuckerberg (especially in profile) is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus (only facially, mind—his torso is definitely not seven times his head). Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in. Zuckerberg, with his steady relationship and his rented house and his refusal to get angry on television even when people are being very rude to him (he sweats instead), has something of the teenage Stoic about him. And of course if you’ve eliminated desire you’ve got nothing to hide, right?

It’s that kind of kid we’re dealing with, the kind who would never screw a groupie in a bar toilet—as happens in the movie—or leave his doctor girlfriend for a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s this type of kid who would think that giving people less privacy was a good idea. What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that. Or else got bored of waiting for us to change in the ways it’s betting we will. On the question of privacy, Zuckerberg informed the world: “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

The morning after watching The Social Network, I read that Google had just increased its investment in 23andMe, a personal genomics and bioinformatics company devoted to helping consumers understand their own genetic information. Turns out Sergey Brin is married to founder Anne Wojcicki. If Facebook is an exemplar of how networked computing drives the evolution of the self, what will happen when the information transcends my favorite bands and my hometown to reveal my deeper genetic encoding? What will that do to the idea of difference, and the idea of the language and aesthetics-expressed self? And if biological systems are just another form of network (see Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse's recent remarks about DNA-based wetware as logical computational machines), what happens when they really get integrated with silicon-based IT? It will be something more than the Google Books of the human genome: imagine all of biological nature reduced to its informatic bits, manipulable with human toolsets. And then wonder what Capital will do with *that*.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Secret Origins

In today's Daily Ink at King Features Syndicate, Bill Griffith and friends of Zippy the Pinhead have some pretty awesome Obama origin myths.

Superhero creation stories were always my favorite comics as a kid, maybe because they filled in backstory in a way that gave the character new meaning. Maybe because they were "Secret Origins." Backstories for those with aspirations of Illumination.

Presidential narratives always have an origin story. JFK and PT-109, Clinton as policy wonk Elvis, Bush as post-temperance frat boy turned postmodern geopolitical Solomon Kane. They even apply to unsuccessful candidates, like the Vietnam stories of John McCain (who alternated between Chuck Norris MIA Christ and Manchurian Candidate) and John Kerry (born on the fourth of july, only he can walk and speak French like a Harvard boy).

But it's rare that the presidential creation myths take on such strangely dark tones as those regarding Obama, clearly revealing the extent to which race enables a different level of alienation into a malevolent Other. Just look at this monster of a Wikipedia entry on the Obama birth certificate controversy. The subtext, that Obama is a sleeper agent of malevolent foreigners who want to destroy our way of life. Or worse, the mythical silver-tongued antichrist of contemporary evangelical Revelations parables. A charismatic (well, okay, used to be) cross between Anna Chapman, Damien from The Omen, Marjoe Gortner and the Manchurian Candidate. A quintessential Middle American fear: He uses language! To persuade us to do things! Mind control!!

(Personally, I was more disturbed, and fascinated, by the revelation that Obama, Cheney, and the Bushes are all related.)

The Dingburgian take from Bill Griffith brilliantly shows how, in a society saturated with so many fictional narratives embedded in the collective cathode ray subconscious, other speculative plays on the Obama secret origins hack both the ridiculousness of the conspiracy theories and the earnest OBEY seriousness of the official Presidential Narrative.

During the election, I wondered whether Obama was the Kwisatz Haderach, only to later find a more compelling take in Salon: Obama is Spock. Which, I guess, is a simpler variation on Griffith's panel above.

All of which is a long-winded way of wondering whether science fiction, comics creators, and other manipulators of the pulp master narrative (the infinitely connected meta-narrative constructed from all the overlapping storylines and never-ending backstories -- Wold Newton on steroids) couldn't do the society a great service by proactively infiltrating the culture with alternative Obama secret origins. This kind of urban legend psyop has a long history in the deniable rumor-mongering that professional campaign managers do: consider, e.g., Lee Atwater's 1996 Iowa caucus rumors that Bob Dole's war wounds were self-inflicted, or the Kerry campaign's 2004 rumors that Howard Dean was a heavily medicated psychotic who got bounced from the practice of medicine. They expose the extent to which political reality already is constructed from pre-existing cultural narratives. So not reinvent them to make them, you know, less boring, more Reptilian?

In otherwords, I want a Jess Nevins-worthy deep pulp Obama backstory, slipped into the culture as anarchist prank. And if it can end up virally replicated on the straight television news, all the better.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How to make an ice planet

Vanity Fair, of all places, has a pretty cool slideshow of photos from a new book about the Making of the Empire Strikes Back. What's not to love about dudes in sheepskin making fantastica from repurposed plastic model parts?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Transylvania, the geographic equivalent of slow glass

(Slow Glass definition here).

Funny old place, Transylvania. Time seems to move a lot more slowly there than it does here.

Sure, the obvious candidates are things like the Romanians who dug up a corpse and ate its heart because they thought it was a vampire’s body, or the Romanian priest who killed a nun during an exorcism. While I’m sure I could find equal barbarities in rural Texas, I doubt any of them have been practiced for centuries the way the Romanian examples did.

More broadly, it seems that Transylvania has a way of keeping creatures around for a lot longer than anywhere else.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the exact citation (perhaps Tudge’s Time Before History?), but I recall reading about the discovery of a cave bear skeleton in the Romanian mountains. It was estimated that the cave bear died there around 2000 years ago. Considering that most cave bears died out ~26,000 years ago, that’s an unusually long survival.

If we go farther back, though, things begin to get really interesting.

Around 100 million years ago, the continents were differently shaped. Where southern Europe is now was the Tethys Sea. And where part or all of Transylvania is now was an island. Well, many islands, but there was one in particular, centered around modern-day Hateg (45° 36' 27" N, 22° 57' 0" E), which is of special interest to us.

The island was part of an archipelago of islands, with at least 200 km (124 miles) of shallow sea separating the islands from each other. The size of this island isn’t known for sure—anywhere from 7500 square kilometers (4600 sq. miles, roughly 68 miles by 68 miles) to 100,000 square kilometers (62137 square miles, or around 250 miles by 250 miles)—and is, like so much else in palaeogeography, a matter of controversy.

100 million years ago was right in the middle of the Cretaceous period, so, yes, the island had dinosaurs. And in fact a substantial fossil record has been found in and around Hateg. It’s the fossil record that is of interest.

(Well, that, and the fact that the first discoverers of the fossils were Ilona Nopcsa and then her brother Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933). Franz was one of the great pulp-era characters, because there weren’t a lot of other velvet-cape-wearing, flamboyantly gay paleontologists/spies/guerrillas and would-be Kings of Albania who could compete with him. I’ll be doing a post just on Franz sooner or later).

Hateg Island was essentially untouched for roughly 35 million years, which means that the creatures who lived there evolved in isolation. As is often the case with creatures on small-ish islands, the trend was toward dwarfism–with the limited resources that an island has to offer, it makes sense to be small rather than large.

Hateg Island had dwarf dinosaurs, most roughly 10% the size of their mainland kin: a 15 ft long hadrosaur, a 6 ft long “dwarf iguana,” an 8 ft long ankylosaur, a 9 ft long megalosaurus, an 8 ft long dino-alligator, 4 ft long dino-turtles, pterosaurs, and 6 ft long Velociraptor-like carnivores, the latter being the island’s apex predator.

What is of most interest here is not just the dwarfism, but the fact that many of these creatures were not just unique to Hateg Island, but they existed there for tens of millions of years after their mainland counterparts had gone extinct. Yes, Hateg Island was the real-life Dinosaur Island.

Dinosaurs lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else. Cave bears lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else. Belief in vampires lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else.

Neanderthals lasting in Romania longer than anywhere else? Vampirism as a pseudo-genetic memory of carnivorous Neanderthals? The skull found in Romania supports the Neanderthal-human interbreeding theory. Perhaps the children that resulted from the interbreeding were seen by ordinary humans as Wrong, and that’s what we now remember as vampires?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Untapped Potential of Hindploitation.

a.k.a., "Jai Hind! Jai-yah!"

It's a scenario familiar from many a blaxploitation and 1970s martial arts film: the African-American dojo in New York or Los Angeles, turning out black martial artists who fight for their neighborhoods against brutal and corrupt white cops and an uncaring white society. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s or have seen a lot of the films of that era know the premise well. In its way, it's almost iconic.

And the thing to do with icons, once they've grown over-familiar, is to re-invigorate them by placing them in a new context, or change the trappings while keeping the essentials.

You may or may not know this, but the victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was seen by many colonial subjects as a signal blow against the white colonial countries. It was the first decisive defeat of a European country by an Asian power and helped bring about the "moment of departure" in the thinking of colonial nationalists, as well as reversed the Orientalist stereotypes in the minds of those same men and women.

In India, the Japanese victories were widely discussed, with Nehru crediting them for filling his mind with nationalist ideas, Gandhi urging South African Indians to "emulate...the example of Japan," and Tagore crediting Japan with having "infused hope" in the East. But many Indians saw the triumph of Japan as a further indication of how low India had fallen. The Daily Hitavadi of Calcutta wrote, "Is a chained dog to imitate a lion at large? The difference between Japan and India is the difference between heaven and earth."

Some Indians decided that what India needed was to imitate Japanese ways. In 1906, in Calcutta, Sarala Devi Ghoshal opened a martial arts academy in Calcutta for the purpose of teaching Bengali youth "how to use the staff, the fist, the sword, and the gun." Her focus was on jujitsu and fencing. She taught jujitsu, and for fencing she imported Professor Murtaza, a Turkish fencing master.

Ms. Ghoshal, as it happens, was a Person Of Interest to British Intelligence in India at this time. The granddaughter of religious leader Debendranath Tagore, Ghoshal was a disciple of Shiv Narayan Swami, a fugitive from the 1857 Rebellion and an instructor of a lathi-based fighting form. One of Ghoshal's fellow disciples was M.N. Roy, a revolutionary nationalist and "political dacoit" (gods, I love that phrase) who during WW1 tried to link up with the Germans and was a Communist agent in the 1920s until he broke with Moscow in 1929 and denounced Communism in 1930. Ghoshal herself founded a school for physical culture in Calcutta in 1902--you'll recall my speech on physical culture at this time and its association with superhumans--and her martial arts academy spawned a number of imitators in Calcutta and its suburbs.

You all see the potential here, right? Think what a splendid film it would make! (Or rpg or novel, etc).

Of course, Indian cinema has never been particularly good at making martial arts films. Even things like Sultan the Warrior (see Matthew Bey's piece here) are not up to the level of American or Thai actioners, to say nothing of Chinese or Japanese films. So perhaps an Indian take on Ms. Ghoshal's martial arts academy would not be for the best.

But there is one Indian subject that an Indian or Pakistani needs to film and would do an excellent job at: Ghulam Muhammad, a.k.a. The Great Gama, a.k.a. the greatest wrestler there ever was.

Gama's Wikipedia page adequately covers the basics: Punjabi, c. 1882-1953, took on all comers internationally, never lost. He was a Pehlwani wrestler, which partially explains his ability--their training regimen in Gama's lifetime was on par with Muay Thai practitioners' in its brutality. (A little more on Gama's punishing daily workout routine here.)

But the Wiki page doesn't really cover is how terrifyingly strong Gama was, how seemingly insensible to pain, and especially how excruciating his submission holds were. Contemporary accounts make him sound like a cross between Gilgamesh and a tidal wave: something to be avoided or submitted to, but certainly not resisted. Numerous big-name wrestlers--and, remember, this was a time when wrestling was a legitimate sport, not Wrasslin', a.k.a. soap opera for men--simply refused to fight him for fear of being humiliated. This was especially so of British & European wrestlers. (Interestingly, while there was some racism in their responses to Gama, for the most part their fear of him didn't spring from

Sure, an American (ugh) might be able to make an entertaining Gama film, but it'd be the usual exploitive and semi-racist garbage Hollywood usually turns out when it addresses a non-white culture in the past. For something like this, I'd rather see an Indian or Pakistani make the film. You'd get historical accuracy and a sensitivity to the subject matter. A serious treatment would be best--I'm thinking Lagaan, but with wrestling--but something that used Ms. Ghoshal's martial arts academy and had Gama, Ghoshal, and her students fighting the soldiers of the Raj in something like Once Upon A Time in China IV would be as entertaining and even more fun.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The old style of movies

There's something particularly satisfying about a modern film shot in an anachronistic style. Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has made a career of it. One of his recent films, a travelogue "documentary" about Winnipeg, is no different. It's a surreal black and white exploration of the sort of impressionist filmmaking that went out of style with the talkies.

"My Winnipeg" particularly resonated with me, because it's about feeling trapped in a provincial town that is almost by definition dull, yet trying to find the hidden wonder in something that is small and everyday and very, very familiar. Guy Maddin talks about the ghost Winnipeg, the city that lies beneath the real city and has been there since the time of the Indians and the fur trappers. I had a similar notion about Madison when I lived there, that there was a counter-Madison that intersected the real Madison in out of the way corners of certain parks late at night.

But even in the dullest of towns, amazing things happen from time to time.

My Winnipeg has extensive digressions into the nuances of Canadian hockey, but it's a watchable film nonetheless. I'm just waiting for Guy Maddin to make a sci-fi epic like the 1936 Things to Come or this movie, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne:

This was another tip from the inestimable Lawrence Person , who mentioned it on the steampunk panel we did together. It's a Czech movie, because nobody makes weird animation quite like the Czech. The titles claim it was filmed in "Mysti-Vision". Which means that despite being filmed in the 1950s, it looks like a nineteenth century print plate come to life.

It's based on the Jules Verne novel Facing the Flag that most people haven't heard of, because it seems like a rip-off of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and it's apparently quite jingoistic.

I found a youtube channel that has the whole film posted, which doesn't give the images the sort of resolution they deserve, but it gives a hint of how amazing they are.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ruins by infrared

D'Hanis is a small town about an hour's drive west of San Antonio. Technically, it's "new" D'Hanis because the entire town was moved several miles west in 1914. There's not a lot to see in "new" D'Hanis, and even less of "old" D'Hanis... with one exception. St. Dominic Church was built in 1853 and later abandoned in 1914 after the town relocated. It has since fallen into ruin. And what elegant, lovely ruins they are.


There's a certain romance to ruins. Maybe they give a place a sense of history--the U.S. is a relatively young country, so we don't have anything comparable to the Roman Coliseum or Greek amphitheaters or Mayan temples. Filling that role for us are old Spanish missions and crumbling churches, which, once you get down to it, have a unique feral beauty all their own.


St. Dominic is certainly a fine example of a beautiful ruin. I occasionally assist The Wife with photography, and a little side obsession of mine is infrared photography--shooting in a way that blocks visible light to reveal the unseen world illuminated by the near-infrared part of the spectrum. It's been a while since I photographed anything in infrared, but I knew I wanted to try here, since infrared light can bring out details hidden otherwise. Since my camera isn't converted, I had to set up the tripod, compose and focus the image then thread the visible light-blocking filter onto the end on the lens. This takes up a lot more time than you'd imagine. Once all of that is complete, I remotely trigger the camera for a pre-set exposure lasting anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds. Because of the blocking filter, exposures must be very long to ensure an image is formed. Compounding the challenge was the wind--it was gusty like you wouldn't believe. That shakes the camera, which blurs the long-exposure image. At the end of the day, I had far too many wasted shots. But I had a few keepers, too.


Unlike shooting with infrared film (which is challenging in its own right) most of the work on the image takes place after the fact with digital. Unprocessed infrared images are muddy, reddish things that are pretty ugly. I spent about an hour in Photoshop for each of the above, trying different things to bring out the most in each shot--experimenting is part of the fun! The top and bottom shots are different variations on a duotone process, while the middle image is a tritone process--which is a fancy way of saying multiple colors are used to create a warmer, richer black-and-white image than could be achieved using only black and white.

I'd forgotten how much I love infrared. I'm going to make it a point to make a few more photo excursions while the autumn light is still good.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Can One Man Change the World?

The latest entry in my ever-expanding "How could I have never heard of this before?" sweepstakes is found in Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History.

For two centuries, Britain raised poppies in India, which it then converted to opium and sold/traded to China for tea. When China threatened to lift the ban and grow its own opium, Britain decided to grow its own tea (it had an excellent place to do so in the mountains of Tibet). There was just one tiny problem. Britain had no tea plants, nor any knowledge of how to grow, tend, and harvest tea. If they were going to wrest control of tea from the Chinese, they would need some help.

They would need a plant hunter, a botanist, a gardener, a thief, a spy. They would need someone capable of disguising himself as Chinese, as Westerners were not welcome in China. They would need someone capable of dealing with everyone from corrupt Mandarins to common folk to pirates. They found Robert Fortune, whose efforts reshaped the world's economy.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Subcontinent Singularity

Let's get this out of the way first, Enthiran: The Robot is not Bollywood. This is a Tamil-language movie with Tamil stars. So I'll be using the term Bollywood to refer to the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, and Indian cinema for the shared culture of Bollywood and Tamil film.

Also, if you're planning on seeing Enthiran: The Robot on the big screen (which is really the only way to see it), it's still playing in American theaters. A matinee here in Austin will cost you $18, but I assure you it is worth every last penny (last week there was a dubbed Hindi version which only cost $12, but you want to hear it in the original Tamil, don't you?). Considering that Robot is three hours long, think of it as getting two thrilling sci-fi movies for the price of one.

Historically, Indian cinema has not had good luck with sci-fi. There have been a number of notable flops, big-budget productions that hoped to jumpstart the genre, but either went over the heads of the audience, or failed to make a connection. I'm thinking in particular of Taarzan the Wonder Car

and the movie which was the best excuse for a floating robotic dance platform in history, the highly underrated Love Story 2050

But Koi... Mil Gaya and it's sequel, Krrish, did well, which proved that it wasn't impossible to make commercially successful Indian sci-fi.

Perhaps the lesson that Enthiran: The Robot took from those movies is you have to include a super hero power fantasy. The first half of Robot is nothing but the robot displaying ridiculous go-go gadget style powers. He beats up bullies, saves people from burning buildings, talks to mosquitoes (really), and in general acts like a robotic E.T.

That is until the second half of this three-hour movie, when the robot undergoes a character inversion that won't surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity with Indian classical literature. The previously cute robot shows how its super powers are actually the basis for the most terrifying vision of the singularity in recent memory.

The musical sequences of Robot take full advantage of the science fiction premise. We get electro-bhangra beats with vocoder Tamil rap. The dance sequences feature the flashiest of futuristic metallic headgear. Except notably the Kilimanjaro song, which is inexplicably filmed on location in Machu Picchu, with backup dancers wearing the sorts of traditional costumes the Incas would have worn if their entire empire was contained within the Vegas Strip.

Super Star Rajni (AKA Rajinikanth) carries this film with his cool, playing both the robot and its creator (your classic Indian cinema dual role). Super Star Rajni's success is based on a particular grinning strut, a Rick Perry coif (a wig apparently), and some of the best karate in Indian cinema. He is one of those Asian actors who has the reputation of being the biggest star you never heard of. We've seen the pattern with Hong Kong actors, where a star like Jackie Chan or Chow Yun-Fat builds a career over decades, but never successfully ports to the English-language market.

If you miss this Tamil version of the future, you still have the chance to catch Super Star Rajni's CGI animated vehicle, Sultan the Warrior. Coming soon to an international cinema near you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The long, slow A.I.

Considering that I edit three different short fiction venues, it might seem a little odd how rarely I read short fiction outside the slushpile. But I spent this afternoon reading the recent novella by Ted Chiang, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," which is out in the current Subterranean Press. Like most of Ted Chiang's work it is dense, pedantic, and meticulously analytical. It is also about 30k words long, which means about two hours of delicately scrolling the browser page. But a well-spent two hours it was.

At issue with "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" is the banality of artificial intelligence and the tedium of child-rearing. We're used to the following structure for AI stories: mumbo-jumbo plus processing power leads to digital super-intellects, culminating in world-altering drama. This story, for all its insights into the development of intellect, follows a far more personal scope. And somehow feels all the more epic for having done so.

I've been thinking a lot about the value of short fiction, both as an editor and as a writer. It seems that even the good fiction comes in only two flavors: light and heavy. Ted Chiang is the poster-boy for heavy spec fic. It reminds me of what Cait Coker said about John Campbell and the golden-age crew coming into the spotlight after Hiroshima. Their short fiction had been processing the elements of the future for a long time, so they were the only ones not surprised by the man-made sun over Japan. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" is that sort of story. It's our first glimpse of wonders that will be built in increments through the labor of everyday life.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Technical Difficulties

“Jaron Lanier, 49, is many things — composer, performer, computer scientist, philosopher — but one thing he is not is a machine. His book You Are Not a Gadget, published this year, compels readers to take a fresh look at the power — and limitations — of human interaction in a socially networked world. ” – Dan Reed in Time Magazine’s 2010 list of 100 people who most effect our world.

This is an amazing book.

Lanier, of Virtual Reality fame, slams a) the rampant digitization of everything; b) the quasi-religious impulse on the part of some digerati to anticipate a Rapture-like upload of human minds into digital existence; c) the open, information-wants-to-be-free approach to creativity, along with the popularity of mashing up existing creative artifacts – books, movies, photos – into new, derivative works; d) Google’s goal of digitizing every book it can grab, e) Net anonymity that breeds trollishness, and f) numerous other errors and sins of computer culture. Along the way he debunks the idea that creators can make a living with digital distribution. He did a survey of musicians and found precious few who made any kind of money with digital distribution! This does not bode well for authors.

At the same time, Lanier has insightful, occasionally wistful, hopeful, and profound observations about technology and life. The book transcends screed. It’s one to read and heed.

I scanned some of You Are Not A Gadget into Word to put a few of Lanier’s choicest pages into my files for further study and easily quote a paragraph elsewhere, like here. The scanner I used is a wonderful piece of tech: it readily scans books and magazines and converts them into PDF, Word, jpeg, or tiff, and you can e-mail the results to yourself by touching your e-mail address into an alphabet touch screen or save to flash drive. The scanner is a good instance of digital technology being highly and almost magically useful.

Interestingly, the scanner had trouble converting Lanier’s book to Word. The book has atypical chapter and page header fonts and an offbeat approach to sidebars – so the Word version of the pages had some really odd glitches:

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’species on the,”primordial Earth for the same reason that-the Linux community didn’t come up with- the iPhone: encapsulation serves ^ a purpose.- ,

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Shantung Monster, and a Declaration of War

Over on my Livejournal, I've been running some excerpts from Stella Dong's splendid Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of the Decadent City. (To indifferent response, I should add. Too long, I guess). The following are two of the shorter excerpts, which I'm posting here because the Shantung Monster is the classic historical-person-who-reads-like-he's-from-a-pulp-story, and because the declaration of war is about the best phrased declaration in the history of history.

A warlord of an entirely different sort, and one with whom the Green Gang leaders would find an instant affinity, was the Shantung's gargantuan, shaven-headed, illiterate Chang Tsung-chang, whose sixty-thousand-man army of Shantung soldiers augmented by a contingent of White Russian army recruits next swept into Shanghai. The six-foot-seven "Shantung monster" had fought his way up from poverty by working in gambling dens in his native Shantung. The son of a witch and a trumpet player, Chang was the most feared and rapacious of the warlords. Critics were instantly executed, and he encouraged his men to hang the severed heads of their victims--"open melons," they called them--from telegraph poles throughout the province as an advertisement of their abilities. Chang Tsung-chang smoked only the biggest and most expensive Manila cigars and traveled everywhere with his enormous lacquered teak coffin. Notoriously fond of food and pleasures of the flesh, the Shantung behemoth consumed huge amounts of food, which he washed down with brandy and champagne, and maintained a harem of some three dozen Chinese and international beauties to which he was always adding new recruits--each of the foreign members of the seraglio was provided a washbowl with the flag of her country painted on its side.
"Chang Tsung-chang" is the Wade-Giles romanization of Zhang Zongchang, who will forever be known as the "Dogmeat General." You can find out much more about him in the splendid Osprey Chinese Warlord Armies, 1911-30.

Meanwhile, back in Shanghai, the imprisonment of Huang coincided with

the most intense fighting yet around Shanghai, as rivalry among Kiangsu and Chekiang warlords for control of Shanghai's opium revenues reached such a pitch that the struggle was dubbed the "opium war." The Kiangsu warlord Chi Shi-yuan, a classicist with a small face and wispy mustache who spent hours perfecting his calligraphic style, started the conflict in September 1924 by declaring war against Lu Yung-hsiang with the following public statement: "I have a beautiful Sung vase, a precious thing which it would be sacrilegious to break. Inside the vase, a rat keeps climbing to the top and sticking out its head. Now I would dearly like to catch that rat and kill it, but I might break the vase. That would be a calamity. Yet, if I turn the vase upside down, the rat will run out and I can kill it. That is what I am going to do."

Chi fought Lu to a standstill, but the Dogmeat General arrived, beat his army, and sent him fleeing to Japan.

The Shallows

Silent Spring for the literary mind.” –Michael Agger, in Slate

Subtitled What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, this is an emphatic book – not quite strident, but assertively thought-provoking. It insists that computers and the Internet undermine the human mind’s ability – hard won ever since the advent of the printing press and wide-spread literacy – to pay deep and reflective attention. Nicholas Carr's thesis may be overstated, especially in attributing deep, sustained, and reflective attention primarily to reading. After all, native peoples with oral traditions, craftsmen, and ascetics have always practiced intense attention.

But I think Carr is right when he says that computers and especially Web surfing have a destructive effect on attention. He laments the “permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.” He’s right about that! He accuses the Net of being a nexus of ‘interruption technologies’.” I can’t quibble with that assessment. I’ve watched myself flit around the Net and respond to e-mails that interrupt excursions on the Net that have interrupted something I should be concentrating on…. Carr’s provocative book has me re-examining my Net habits. Fortunately, I’ve never fallen into the habit of Net-surfing while writing, and I’m not going to let that camel get its nose in the tent of my vocation.

Carr isn’t sanguine about e-books either. I hope he’s wrong, but this what he asserts:

“When Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, introduced the Kindle, he sounded a self-congratulatory note: ‘It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.’ There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. The way people read – and write – has already been changed by the Net, and the changes will continue as, slowly but surely, the words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded in the computer’s ‘ecology of interruption technologies’.”

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sci-Fi excursion to College Station

On Monday, a small crew of Austin writers made the two-hour drive out to College Station to visit the science fiction archives at Texas A&M Cushing Library. In attendance, Nicky Drayden (a Space Squid contributor who supplied some of these photos), some random awesome guy (a Space Squid co-editor), Elle Van Hensbergen (Space Squid Assistant editor), and myself.

Last month my zine, Space Squid, spawned a modestly viral meme when we published an issue on a clay tablet. Since then I've been trying to find an archive that would take it, because in theory it can survive forever, and I'm just self-centered enough to stash it somewhere where it might. Two podunk archives in Austin turned me down flat. A third archivist said she could slip it into the back stacks, but she couldn't catalog it or tell any of her co-workers about it.

On a tip from the inestimable Lawrence Person, I asked Catherine Coker, the new curator of the Cushing Library's Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection. Not only was she interested in the clay tablet and the Space Squid back issues, but she also offered a behind the scenes tour of the archive.

Does it make me a nerd that I really enjoyed looking behind the scenes of an archive?

The archive itself is behind a locked door that has cold, dust-free air whistling through the cracks. The archive's environment system is similar to the ones used in nuclear submarines, Ms. Coker tells us.

To maximize space, the shelves slide on motorized tracks. It's the sort of library that Katsuhiro Ôtomo would have designed.

First we see the periodicals, a category that contains virtually complete runs of all the major pulps running back to the 1920s. It's here that Coker shows us a sight even more chilling than the Navy-grade AC vents. The floor is covered with tiny scraps of paper. It's the rotting detritus of low-grade paper, dissolving in its own chemical stew. Irreplaceable magazines from the classic age of Science Fiction flake off to the ground to be vacuumed up every couple of months.

Coker takes us deeper into the motorized stacks to see the rare books, early copies of Dracula, a signed first-edition of Fahrenheit 451 (the European edition is called Celsius 233).

The personal manuscripts and papers of notable authors fill several aisles. George R.R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, and Joe Lansdale making up the bulk of the space. At random we pulled down a box of Michael Moorcock's old things. It was a fascinating selection of effects that will no doubt be relevant to coming centuries of historians. There were multiple drafts of his fiction work and an anti-Klan pamphlet.

I didn't touch Joe Lansdale's stuff because I figured he would kick my ass if he found out.

Upstairs there's a temporary exhibit dedicated to Science Fiction titled "One Hundred Years Hence."

It's only open until next January, so you will want to hurry out there to catch it. There's an early edition of Frankenstein with an illustration of the monster (he looks brooding, muscular, and slightly American Indian). Hand-written letters by J.R.R. Tolkien are standouts. I liked the timeline posters, which were as thorough and concise a record of the genre as anything I've seen. The fan art figurines were also particularly inciteful.

Catherine Coker anticipated my desire to see the library's clay tablets (not part of the science fiction collection, technically speaking). They were much smaller than I had imagined. One of them was apparently a receipt for a sheep carcass, and it was just about the right size for a receipt. I can imagine some Mesopotamian putting the lozenge-sized clay receipt in his pocket and accidentally leaving it in his tunic as he beat his laundry on some creek stones.

And if that weren't enough, we got to see a working replica of an early printing press.

At the end of the extensive and informative tour, we experienced the height of College Station graciousness when Catherine Coker posed for the official handover of the Space Squid clay tablet. During the tour I found out that once a state agency accepts a gift, it is illegal to dispose of it.

Oh. Whoops.

There's more photos at Nicky Drayden's blog and at my other blog, Zombie Lapdance.