Archive for September, 2009

Arms and the blog

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Yesterday a friend told me, after I had read one of my blog posts out loud for her, that she thought I should periodically do a video blog, in which I would perform choice selections from these blog posts. I was flattered that she had such faith in my performative abilities, but that’s about as far as it went.

But it seems she had planted a seed in my head. In the midst of teaching a class early this evening, I suddenly realized that over a year ago I had written a blog post on the very topic under discussion. I pulled out my notebook computer and read that blog entry aloud to the class. The students in the class seemed to accept this act as a natural part of the class. And a bit to my surprise, it all felt perfectly natural to me as well.

Until today I had been keeping this blog separate from other things in my life, such as teaching. But this evening I realized that this is an unnecessary separation. After all, the words I write are part of me, just as my right arm is a part of me. There is no reason not to refer back to these words, weaving their power into the narrative of my life as it is lived. They are, after all, my words. Having these blog posts to draw upon is like having hundreds of extra right arms in reserve, at my command. I may not need them most of the time, but they sure are good to have around.

Well then, perhaps I should do that video blog after all…

Romance and truffles

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Romance and truffles, truffles and romance
Nobody knew because nobody had the chance
Things just seemed to happen, simple circumstance
Romance and truffles, truffles and romance

If ever there were reasons, once upon a time
Someone would have told you, it would have been a crime
That something so small turns to something so sublime
Romance and truffles, they will do it ev’ry time

How do we know this? Who is there to say?
Someone will whisper in a very quiet way
Oh do not ask for reasons, do not even pray
Romance and truffles, you will understand one day

For reasons are forgotten, when reasons pass you by
You did not see this coming, oh do not even try
It’s romance and truffles, accept it with a sigh
Deep within your heart of hearts you know the reason why

Reverse colonialism

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Today for the first time I heard the phrase ‘reverse colonialism’. This refers to the observation that after centuries of Eurocentric cultures exploiting the rest of the world for their own economic gain, the rest of the world is – de facto – colonizing these first world countries back. England is filling up with people from India, France is becoming populated by Muslims who bring their own culture with them, and so on and so on, in Germany, Holland, and various other nations that have become wealthy over the centuries with the assistance of a somewhat exploitive world economic order.

I’m not sure how fair is this description of the current state of affairs, but even the concept itself contains a wicked irony. The exploited taking over the identity of the exploiter, the tables turned.

I realize that this is nothing new. Rome is now populated by its formerly subjugated peoples, and the ancient Greeks were long ago displaced by the progeny of Alexander’s one-time conquests.

Perhaps this is siimply an inevitable narrative throughout human history, destined to repeat itself forever: In the end, colonialism always flows both ways.

Out of steam

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I have a theory that Steam Punk is soon going to become much bigger.

For those of you who don’t know the term, Steam Punk is the general name (coined in 1987 by the Sci Fi author K.W. Jeter, as I learned from my friend Cynthia) for a movement in fashion and fantasy that has been going on for the last forty-odd years, which mixes 19th century (ie: steam-era) sensibilities with raging technophilia. Think Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo in his Nautilus, add some steam powered laser cannons, and you’ve got the right mindset.

The word “punk” is not being used here in its sense of disaffected youth play-acting at working class rage, but rather in the sense of hacking a culture through the reappropriation of resonant imagery – in this case Victorian era imagery.

There are many examples of Steam Punk in popular culture, far more than I could list in this post (HERE is a fairly comprehensive list), from “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” in 1965 to the haunted old inventions in “Warehouse 13” and the spy-tech of the forthcoming “Sherlock Holmes” film, with many touchstones along the way. For example, Miyazaki films are just loaded with Steam Punk ideas.

Yet it seems that translating Steam Punk to the big screen is fraught with peril. The Alan Moore graphic novel “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and the iconic 1966 TV show “The Wild Wild West” were both great examples of Steam Punk. Yet each was made into a horrifyingly atrocious film.

The reason is obvious. In both cases, the originals integrated their fantasy versions of Victorian era technology into a story that genuinely respected its characters. Whereas the film versions both became so caught up in their cool visuals and gadgets that they ignored such niceties as character, depth, motivation, relationships. The results were pretty much unwatchable.

But the reason I think Steam Punk is going to be big is due to a combination of two things: (1) our nation has just suffered its biggest financial collapse in sixty years, and (2) this collapse has done nothing to abate our culture’s insatiable lust for ever cooler and shinier technology.

In times of hardship, as jobs become scarce, and as people find it progressively more difficult to get by, a culture turns to symbols of elegance, of glamour, to reduce its anxiety and stave off a sense of failure and even panic. This does not happen in times of wealth. For example, in the 1960’s, when the U.S. was experiencing a period of heady economic growth, an entire generation expressed its sense of freedom and empowerment by dressing in rags. Jeans and tee-shirts became symbols of power, symbols which had true potency only because they were “post-economic” – the young people who wore these things generally came from well-off families, and were in rebellion against “conformist” parents possessed of high paying jobs and middle class homes.

But in the Great Depression, people did not glamorize the lost men, the hoboes. That glamorization came later, during a time of post-War abundance. Rather, young people were enraptured by the glamor of Fred and Ginger. Astaire and Rogers were the epitome of elegance. A well turned out top hat, cane and tails, the sweep of a sleeveless evening gown, these were the true symbols of longed-for empowerment in a time of great hardship.

My theory is that Steam Punk is coming around because it will allow an expression of glamour, safely removed from any association with our recent failed cult of modern capitalist excess. Technology and its possibilities can be shown in a context of elegance, in a way that is safe because it is quaint. This is all catnip to a nation that craves its technology fix but is still reeling from economic failure.

I don’t come from this abtractly. I have specific images in mind that I think will resonate with people now. One of these is the sight of Malcolm MacDowell as the time travelling H. G. Wells in Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 film “Time after Time”, dressed elegantly in three piece tweed, glancing at his pocket watch just before putting his time machine into gear. I just have an intuition that in such uncertain times as these, people looking to escape their woes through fantasy will be drawn to the elegance of such visions.

Our nation’s economy may be out of steam, but the sheer exhuberant elegant playfulness of Steam Punk might still provide a way for our wounded nation to tap into its innate spirit of optimism.

Libertarian communists on Mars

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

We all have our personal books – the ones that we read at just the right time when we were young, that we know changed the way we think about things, and that have probably helped sway the course our lives have taken. For me one such book was Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” – first read when I was thirteen. The other day I spotted a paperback copy in a used book store, picked it upon on a whim, and I’m rereading it now. Somewhat to my surprise, this is only the second time I am reading it. I am an inveterate rereader, yet I had never gone back to this, one of my favorites, in all the intervening years.

I suppose I was afraid I’d be disappointed, as I was upon rereading “The Once and Future King” or “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – two books of my youth that didn’t quite hold up when reread with my older and perhaps more jaded eyes. But this is different. I am not at all disappointed by my newly rediscovered old friend. I am finding, to my delight, that I remember every character, every scene, every exchange of dialog. Even though I had only read it once, quite a few years ago, each successive page feels like a reunion with an old friend, both familiar and exactly right, like rehearing a song on the White Album.

I think one of the reasons for this is that “Stranger” is meant to be both serious and fun – a point my adolescent self had completely grokked the first time around. It has profound points to make about life, but you know you’re in for a jolly time right from that killer opening sentence: “Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith”.

Heinlein manages to convey what conventional wisdom would describe as both a radical right and a radical left ideology, and somehow succeeds in merging them seamlessly. On the one hand there is a strong message that life is only meaningful if we all look after each other, if we see all of humanity as an extended family, and care for our fellow humans with unbounded compassion. This is radical left thinking at its most pure.

At the same time, there is a powerful libertarian message affirming that each of us, every individual, is unique and unlike any other, and that as you go through life you need to ignore the damned fools and the ignorant bastards who make the mistake of thinking you are supposed to think and act like anyone else. The main character is in the rare position of starting out as a perfect innocent – able to observe his fellow humans with no prejudice, and therefore able to see each of them as they really are.

The book offers a powerful and heady combination of philosophies – extreme individuality in the service of extreme compassion: Figure out who you are, and don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Then use that inimitable discovered self to help make the world a better place for others. Looking back now, it’s clear to me that my views on self and society were more influenced by reading that book at the tender age of thirteen than by anything I was taught in school.

I was discussing the book this evening with my friend Cynthia. We got to talking about who we would cast in the movie version (although I sincerely hope there is never a movie version; I suspect any attempt would merely diminish a perfect book). Those of you who have read the book might be interested in our debate about who would be the perfect casting choice for the larger-than-life character of Jubal Harshaw. Cynthia suggested Anthony Hopkins. As for me, I’m stumped. The character is so vivid in my mind that I’m having a hard time seeing him impersonated by any mere, um, actor.

Frankly I had the same problem when I saw the film “Sophie’s Choice” after finishing Styron’s book. Meryl Streep was amazing of course, but the character in the book had grown so vivid in my mind that I simply couldn’t see Streep as Sophie, merely as somebody doing a great job of impersonating Sophie. So you can see that I’m a pretty hard case.

But I’m willing to try to keep an open mind. When I think of Harshaw, somehow I picture a cross between Ian McShane and Ed Asner, which I know sounds ridiculous. I’m guessing that a number of people reading this blog have read “Stranger in a Strange Land”. Can anybody think of who would make for the perfect cinematic “Jubal Harshaw”?

Tea ceremony 53

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Under that artist’s expert hands, the image fills out rapidly. At first merely two vague forms, but then the details begin to emerge. After a fw minutes is clear that the image is of two women, standing side by side. They are standing with their arms around each others shoulder. One woman has a look and bearing of confidence. The other seems shy, withdrawn. Yet from even a cursory examimation of their faces it is clear that the two women are sisters.

As the image becomes clearer, the details more defined, the artist’s hand, at first o swift and confident, begins to slow. The artist stares down at the picture he has made, and slowly inhales. He places his pencil gently down upon the stair step beside him, taking care that it does not roll.

A single tear drifts slowly down the artist’s face, and falls upon the paper. The tear lands upon the corner of the paper. The artist’s gaze moves from the depiction of the two women to where the tear has fallen, as the tear spreads He traces his finger over the slowly spreading tear stain. Then he puts down the drawing pad, and silently buries his head in his hands.

Necessary terrain

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

There are days when I wake up and feel that all is right with the world. On such days of grace, I notice the sun shining, I catch the smile on the face of a stranger, or the spring in somebody’s step as they walk to work, and I just glory in the sheer astonishing fact of being here, alive on this planet, for yet one more day.

And then there are days when I simply cannot locate that feeling. Everything around me is the same, but something inside me is different – some veil of darkness that comes from within. On those days it is hard to see the smiles, but easy to see the sadness, the conflict, the tension in the faces around me.

We all go through these down times. Sometimes we know the reasons for our sadness, and sometimes we don’t. Perhaps a part of our mind is worrying upon the illness of someone we love. Or our attention has been caught by a stray scent, or a fleeting texture, that has reminded us of the loss of a friendship many years ago.

Often as not we have no idea what triggers these things. The feeling drifts into our mind like a heavy mist, darkening all thoughts in its wake. And then – just like that – it is gone again.

I used to think that I could will these feelings away – that I could exercise some trick, some mental jiu jitsu, to keep my mind from dwelling in the dark places. And then at some point I realized that these dips and valleys are integral to the process of being alive, are part of the necessary terrain.

Without the valleys, we would never recognize the peaks, would not be aware of our days of grace. What a shame that would be – to not know when you are standing on the mountain, and thereby miss your chance to shout for joy at being alive.

Thought for the day…

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

E. M. Forster wrote, in his novel “Howard’s End”, that we should “Only connect”.

It is a beautiful statement, perhaps one of the simplest and most elegant formulations of the essential mutual connectedness between people as any that has ever been written, before or since.

Of course he meant it as a prescription for successful human relationships in a decidedly pre-cyber world.

I wonder what Mr. Forster would have made of what we have done, ninety nine years later, with his simple idea….


Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities was to listen – rapturously – to my Beatles albums. And every time I played “Abbey Road”, I would count out the seventeen second silence dividing the last two tracks, “The End” and “Her Majesty” (actually, I still do). It delighted me no end that the most popular of commercially successful music groups would defy convention by throwing such a luxurious amount of complete silence – a calm natural preserve of zen space – into what was, in essence, some of the most expensive sonic real estate on Earth.

The effect is greatly enhanced by the fact that “Her Majesty” starts with a resounding D/A major chord. A lovely historical accident of editing – it was originally meant to be the final chord of “Mean Mister Mustard” – this chord turns out to be a perfect intro to McCartney’s slyly folksy little 23 second masterpiece – which was, by the way, the very last song on the Beatles’ very last recorded album.

Only recently did I consciously realize something I had understood for years on a subliminal level – that the start-up chord we hear in Apple computers (and occasionally in Pixar films) – a full-bodied F# chord designed by Jim Reekes in 1991, originally for the Quadra 700 – is eerily similar in its sound and effect to the chord that begins “Her Majesty”.

Not only do the two chords sound remarkably alike, but they serve roughly the same purpose – as a way to announce: “Here is something quirky, friendly and slightly unexpected – something meant to appeal to your inner child, but in a sophisticated and grown-up way.”

At the time this chord was being deployed, Apple Computer was living under the shadow of a lawsuit by Apple Records – a lawsuit intended by the Beatles to stop Steve Jobs’ outfit from diluting Apple Records’ brand as a company known for distributing music.

The Beatles initially won that battle, but now of course Apple Computer has won the war – distributing music has become one of its most high profile and lucrative activities. I find myself wondering whether Jobs, when he made the decision in 1997 to make Reekes’ feisty little chord the universal start-up sound for all Apple computers, was actually firing a winking salvo at the Beatles – a sonic thumbing of his nose at their lawsuit. Not that Apple Records could do anything about it. After all, one can’t very well go after a rival company for using an F# major chord, when one’s original chord was a D/A major.

Considering how highly the Beatles were valued in England for their contributions to their nation’s ailing post-war economy (in 1965 they were appointed “Members of the Order of the British Empire” by Queen Elizabeth II herself), it is somewhat surprising that the British Government would allow an upstart computer company from across the pond to yank the chord of the Fab Four.

Or maybe not so surprising. From what I hear, Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.


Finally cool

Monday, September 21st, 2009

There is a specific reason that computer programming was not considered cool for most of its existence: Programming computers was not perceived as part of the means of cultural production. Writing a play, shooting a film, singing a song or playing the guitar, showing your paintings in a gallery, these are all seen as ways of expressing the human condition – comedy and tragedy, romance, conflict, passion. Having your finger on the pulse of the human condition has always been the height of coolness.

Not that artists are not technically adept. Yes, of course the Beatles were consummate technicians, as were Shakespeare and daVinci. But their subject was love and pain and joy and beauty and longing and alienation – the things people care about deeply, the matters of the soul that bind us all together.

Programmers were seen, at best, as part of the plumbing of cultural production – the roadie, not the rock star. And so the somewhat unfair stereotype emerged of the “pencil necked geek”, the guy or gal you keep in the back room because they don’t play well with others, the ones who don’t how to dress cool for a party, or even know where the cool parties are.

That cultural perception has changed very recently, for one reason: There are currently around 75000 iPhone apps.

Think about that for a moment – not the reality itself, but the perception that goes along with that reality. The iPhone is cool, and iPhone Apps are hot. And this is because those Apps are cultural statements – interventions into the general social zeitgeist – which makes them socially relevant, like Yo Yo Ma, The Simpsons, early U2 songs and Schindler’s List.

From a cultural perspective, iPhone Apps are about something. They make a statement, tell a joke, strike an attitude. They aren’t the guy setting up the amp before the concert – they are that other guy, the one up there onstage nailing the killer guitar riff in front of thousands of screaming fans.

And here’s the kicker: 75000 iPhone Apps means, more or less, 75000 programmers. For the first time the larger culture is being presented with unmistakable evidence that programmers can be the cool kids – the ones that can pick up that guitar and sing a song that reaches into the core of your being.

Yes, there were cool programmers before this. Will Wright – creator of SimCity, The SIMS and Spore – is an obvious example. But people could tell themselves that he, and the few like him, were the exception that proved the rule. There are maybe a handful of rock star game designers – certainly not enough to constitute a general cultural type.

But there’s no arguing away the existence of 75000 cool programmers. They don’t even all need to be good. They just need to be as culturally relevant as uploaders of YouTube videos. Suddenly, for the first time, there is general awareness that computer programs are being written – by a lot of people – that directly contribute to the culture on an emotional/cultural/political level.

And so, one hundred and sixty seven years after Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program, programming is finally cool.