Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tunes of 2011*

Greetings and Happy Solstice Day, fellow sentients!

You have my sincere apologies for the silence lately. I've been pouring all of my spare energy toward the completion of a rough draft for a certain project, and starting today I am not allowing myself to bathe or shave until it is complete. Afterwards I will seal it in a cask deep beneath the Earth's crust and revisit it the day of the vernal equinox (March 20). Then I will let you know if all the time and stress I sunk into the fucking thing was worth it. Between now and then I will be working on comics, Mother series pieces, making The Novel available, and other fun stuff. Hoo-hah!

Anyway! It's the end of the year again, and time for another run through my favorite songs of the last 365 (or so) days. As before, two points must be made before we wind up the hit machine:

1.) You will notice that most of these songs were recorded before 2011. I am not a "hep cat." What I am with is not it. This is not a list of my favorite songs released this year; it is a list of the songs I've enjoyed and listened to most this year.

2.) If you were to ask me, I would refer to my musical tastes as "eclectic." If you were to ask anyone else, they would probably describe them as "horrible." Just a warning.

3.) These are arranged roughly in the chronological order of when I first/most listened to them, so we end up with something like one song per month.

Shiloh -- Café del Mariachi, Nick Warren remix (2007)

I believe I've listened to this song only once over my home speakers, which was the first time I heard it. But I've probably listened to it in the car 100 - 200 times in the last year. It is an excellent soundtrack for a commute.

Writing compelling blurbs about electronic music can be damned difficult. Go on, take a glance at Pitchfork Media and Rolling Stone's annual Top 100 lists and see how many of the descriptions of/justifications for their selections are able to explain that song without referring to its lyrical content, vocals, instruments used, the personality and public image of the artist, or its context within the music scene.* A song becomes much easier to write about when you have more to work with than a faceless assortment of blips, beeps, and thumps.

As far as I can tell, "Café del Mariachi" is about gobbling psilocybin, sitting down at a Starbucks in Mexico, and feeling progressively more jittery and paranoid as the place fills up with inexplicably menacing people and the trip approaches its peak.

Okay, fine. You listen to it. You tell me what you get from it.


Solar Fields -- Das Bungalow (2009)

Oh! Weren't these guys part of last year's collection? I shall justify my inclusion of a song from the same record (Movements) by saying that it wasn't until this year that I bought and listened to the whole album.

Most songs on Movements evoke a sensation of drifting weightlessness, and "Das Bungalow" is par for the course. The impression I get is of Newtonian motion -- of moons, planets, and mechanical satellites lazily tracing out their orbital paths through empty space. Maybe what I'm actually doing is imagining scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I saw for the first time this year and HOLY SHIT I WANT TO BE I AM A STAR-CHILD) and replacing Strauss, Khatchaturian, and Ligeti with Solar Fields?

But the title? "Das Bungalow" suggests that the thoughts and images the song's composers bore in mind while writing and recording it were much different than what it suggests to me.

Music is a funny thing. In some ways it is so much more communicative than language, and in others it is so immitigably opaque.


The Sounds -- Under My Skin (2002?)

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of hits on The Sounds' YouTube videos, I am forced to guess that I missed the boat by nine years or so. Par for the course for Pat.

I first heard them (and this song) during one of Radio Ghoul School's erratic periods of functionality, and was struck most by Maja's voice; it strikes this perfect tension between abrasive rawness and vulnerability. I can only imagine how it must feel to produce such sounds from one's own throat.

As it turns out, "Under My Skin" is a B-side from The Sounds' first album. I was disappointed when giving it a quick listen and finding it a lot softer, more polished, and less real than the song that introduced me to the band and HOLY SHIT RADIO GHOUL SCHOOL IS UP AGAIN. Listen to it while you can!

Anyway. The Sounds, ladies and gentlemen!

(Shoot. Radio Ghoul School is down again. That was fast.)


SPK -- Metal Dance (1983)

I can't get over my astonishment that music like this existed at one point. Even if the UK's sensibilities were still informed by punk, how the hell did a group like SPK ever get on television? How the hell did eighties pop ever fuse with old school industrial? By today's standards, could you even conceive of a pop act that uses power tools in its live performances and represents itself with lyrics about mankind's ruin mistaken for civilization's progress? God, I was born in the wrong fucking decade.

I still prefer SPK's earlier, more avant-garde material, but this dancey-noisey stuff ain't half bad. It's still got the same deliciously dark neo-Futurist flavor, but with a pinch of sugar and a splash of cream. "One step, one step forward, two steps back..."


Julianna Barwick -- Prizewinning (2011)

This would be the first of the two songs on this list which I was introduced to by NPR. Good god, am I ever becoming lame in my old age.

How to describe a sound like this without resorting to non-descriptors like "ethereal" and "ambient?" To me, "Prizewinning" sounds like the transition from heavy drowsiness to slumber and into lucidity. Maybe because I first heard it beneath the April full moon I can't but associate it with the changing of the seasons -- of winter thawing into spring on its approach back to summer and then toward winter again.

(When I shut my eyes with this song playing, it is always twilight or moonlit night. Plants do most of their growing at night, and people do most of their changing.)

I suppose none of that was very descriptive of the song, either.


Electric Universe -- Conscious (2009)

I take back what I said last year, psychedelic trance. I'll never quit you, and you won't hear me saying otherwise ever again.

I recall an evening back in October, when I was still getting settled at my abode in Pennsylvania. During a visit to an old college friend living in Philadelphia, I allowed myself to be talked into giving her and her roommates a lift to a concert in a West Philly park. Electric Universe's Sonic Ecstasy album was in the CD player, and man -- did my passengers ever whine about it. How can you listen to this, I feel like I'm having a seizure, etc., etc.

Funny. And here I though Electronic Universe was on the poppier end of the psy/goa spectrum.

When we arrived at the park and listened to a group of synth rock, chiptunes, and ambient noise acts run through their sets, my passengers did not make a peep of complaint -- which struck me as somewhat odd.

Maybe it's the lack of a human element? "Machines don't have feelings," writes an electronic music scholar, "and neither does trance." I would imagine that folks who tend to listen to indie pop bands, know the performers' names, and tell swooning stories about meeting them after their shows mist find it terribly off-putting to be confronted with a type of music consisting only of inorganic textures, tones, and time signatures; that is not only inarticulate but can hardly even be said to denote any of the three basic "happy," "sad," or "angry" feelings.

"Conscious" is impersonal, vaguely sinister, and makes you feel as though your own thoughts are having little choreographed spasms. And I love it.


London Elektricity -- Just One Second, DJ Kan mix (2011)

I wonder if anyone else who listens to a lot of electronic music gripes about this?

A scene half-dominated by faceless artists from Eurasia can be hard to navigate, so many of us turn to mixes and podcasts assembled by conscientious and savvy DJs to keep us in the loop and expose us to new artists. One hitch to this is that any decent DJ will tweak the tracks in his mix -- a pitch shift here, a BPM change there, etc. -- so it is often the case that the incomplete song you hear between 32:10 and 34:45 does not exist anywhere else as you're hearing it. When you check out the original song, what you listen to will be different from the tune that first caught your attention.

And so we come to London Elektricity's "Just One Second" (2008) which was remixed by Apex in (2009); and in 2011, the Apex remix was remixed by DJ Kan for its inclusion in his "Day of Parkour mix," which was aired on a popular Internet radio station earlier in the year.

Most of what's in "Day of Parkour" isn't quite my preferred flavor, but I really enjoy Kan's unique version of "Just One Second" under the right circumstances. There are certain sunny days in May when one feels entitled -- irresistibly compelled -- to roll the windows down on the highway and blast stupid happy electro-pop.

Well...here's a link to DJ Kan's page. You can listen to the first two minutes of the mix (which is also the first two minutes of the song), or download the whole thing.

Echotek vs. Side-Effect -- Another Age (2005)

Good psytrance comes on slow. Its mode of operation is gradually hypnotizing the listener and then setting off a localized explosion in his brain. The effect is severely diminished without a suitable interval between the crescendo's foot and its peak. Ideally, the crest of a psytrace track should, to put it in technical terms, melt the listener's face from his skull.

A lot of psy artists like to employ a build-up period before the climax -- like a receding trough preceding the tidal wave. I appreciate how "Another Era" slams the listener with a crest that comes straight out of nowhere like ZANG, and liquefies the brain just as well as any track with a drawn-out rise telegraphing its peak.


Tom Wopat -- Ode to Billy Joe (2011)

This would be the the second of the two songs introduced to me by NPR. The first song ("Prizewinning") I heard on New Sounds; this one I heard on Jonathan Schwartz's Saturday Show.

It must be said how much I love Jonathan Schwartz. Until I moved to Pennsylvania, I actually looked forward to hearing him on the radio every weekend afternoon. (I suppose I could still stream his shows, but listening to the radio in the car and at your desk just aren't the same.) His shows consist of him playing a stack of Sinatra records (maybe with some Crosby and a few other miscellaneous artists sprinkled here and there) and talking very slowly, very softly, and very aimlessly between songs. It is some seriously excellent radio, and I miss it.

One Saturday afternoon he played this BANGIN' cover of "Ode to Billy Joe," but I totally forgot the name of the artist by the time I stepped out of my car. Since WNYC doesn't archive his playlists, I had to drop Mr. Schwartz an email on the topic, and he responded first thing Sunday morning. I tell you my heart was going pitter-patter.

What? Oh, sorry -- I've allowed myself to become distracted from the matter at hand by my girlish crush on Jonathan Schwartz, and now we are almost out of space.

Tom Wopat's "Ode to Billy Joe" is a most excellent cover and a clever twist of a classic; the perfect soundtrack for waking up at noon on a languid August Sunday, loafing on the back porch, and drinking a beer for breakfast.

Listen! (Buy the album!)

Magman -- Sanctuary, PsyAmb mashup (2011)

For over a year now I've been a regular and avid listener of the monthly podcasts over at PsyAmb. Though I really dig this sort of music, it might do its job a little too well sometimes. After an an hour of psychedelic chillout tunes, you snap out of it and find that it is often hard to distinguish the parts you most enjoyed from the rest -- because the mixes are so aurally unobtrusive and consistently low key, the songs to blur together in your recollection until you've listened to it another couple of times.

Adding credence (as far as I'm concerned) to my "most people only care about music with recognizably human characteristics" theory is the inclusion of Magman's "Sanctuary" on this list as a representative of all the hundreds of psychill tunes I've listened to and loved during the past year. The original version of the song has no vocals, and is a decent enough listen -- but the inspired wizard over at PsyAmb took it, spliced it together with a Bill Laswell track (featuring Anne Clark and Genesis P-Orrige!!) called "The Tale of Caliph Hakem," and turned it into something that immediately snapped me out of my revels and made me dash to the computer to consult the playlist.

You can listen to/download the mix here; "Sanctuary" makes its entrance just after the thirty-five minute mark.

Art vs. Science -- Magic Fountain, Royalston Remix (2010)

I admit it: the inclusion of this song is a capitulation to dubstep. As a whole, the BBBBWWWAAAAAMMMMPPPP movement is still a festering polyp on the vital tissues of electronic music, but it's been around long enough that some artists have taken pains to mitigate its suckiness to the point where it is not only listenable ("drumstep?" I can maybe live with that), but actually kind of fun -- provided you're with your friends and screwed up enough that the silly lyrics make you fall over and laugh until you can't breathe. Such was the case with this version of "Magic Fountain" included on a Hospitality Records mix.

Sam (who introduced me to the tune) tells me that it always makes him think of an ice cream parlor on Long Island. I've never been there myself buMOTHER OF GOD THERE IT IS!!!

I can't look at this without experiencing some residual giggles from the first time I heard IN THE BEGINNING!! THERE WAS A FOUNTAIN!! BUT IT WASN'T!! JUST ANY FOUNTAIN!!!

(I must express my disappointment with the artists' choice of name. There is no good reason why art and science should be fighting.)


Immortal Technique -- Rich Man's World (2011)

Alright, kiddies. You want your song of the year? You've got it. I'm calling it.

Time Magazine is calling 2011 the year of the protestor. From Africa to Europe to the United States, people numbering in the thousands rose up to take a stand against tyranny. The Arab Spring was a backlash against the tyranny of oppressive dictatorships; the Occupy movement is an outcry against the tyranny of vampire squid (and other like bloodsuckers).

Occupy Wall Street was a long time coming, and Immortal Technique -- a panther among the preening and posturing pussycats of mainstream hip hop -- will tell you why. "Rich Man's World' might as well be Occupy's mission statement -- if it didn't suggest the movement wasn't doing or going far enough.

To let you know how serious he is about this business, Tech has put out his Martyr album out for free. Get it. Listen to it. Learn it. Love it. Viva La Revolución.


* What? Sure -- I talk about the package more than the contents, too. But I never claimed to be a music critic.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hicks

12/16/1961 - 2/26/1994

"And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh." -- Friedrich Neitzsche

If comedy is an escape from anything, it is an escape from illusions. The comic, by using the Voice of Reason, reminds us of our True Reality, and in that moment of recognition, we laugh, and the 'reality of the daily grind' is shown for what it really is — unreal…a joke. True comedy turns circles into spirals. What before seemed a tiresome, frightening, or frustrating wall, the comic deftly and fearlessly steps through, proving the absurdity of it all. The audience is relieved to know they’re not alone in thinking, 'This bullshit we see and hear all day makes no sense. Surely I’m not the only one who thinks so. And surely there must be an answer…' Good comedy helps people know they’re not alone. Great comedy provides an answer.” -- Bill Hicks

"Pornography is good. All drugs should be legal. War is wrong. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Thank you, I'll be here all week." -- Bill Hicks

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cubehead Classix

For those of you arriving here from the 8easybits.net URL, welcome! If you're just tuning in, the reason you're here is because I accidentally nuked the .sql engine of the 8EB site during a host/domain transfer and don't know how to fix it.

But I have some good news: a new comics site is underway. From the beginning (before the ill-starred host transfer), the plan was to build a brand new site to host my brand new comics, which would be kept separate from the 8 Easy Bits archives. Although a full 50% of the scheme ended in total disaster, the second half of the project remains in progress. I'm going ahead and transferring most of the comics I've drawn since 2008 (or so) to the new site as originally intended, but this means that a whole lot of "Cube" archives get excluded, and they've got nowhere to go without the old 8 Easy Bits page.

And that's why I'm posting them here!

Well, that's one of the reasons. The other is that I've been so busy elsewhere I haven't had an opportunity (or the remaining psychic reserves) to compose a fully-baked update for this week. (Incidentally, these comics were first conceived to fulfill just such a demand.)

But man...this stuff is ancient. The very first ones date back to when I was twenty, which was eight years ago. Going through these now, I can see why some webcomic artists have deliberately erased or hidden the archives of their earliest work. While it might offer the longtime reader a moment of nostalgic comfort, revisiting really old material can be, for its author/artist, an embarrassing march down Memory Lane (which intersects with I Used To Really Suck At This Avenue and God What A Loser I Was Boulevard). Be warned: if you haven't read these before (or at least not recently), a lot of them are pret-t-t-y bad.

But it does go to show: we've come a long, long way together, haven't we? You have to praise me like you should.

And while we're at it, here are a few more oldies but goodies:

Oh man -- I'd nearly forgotten this one, which dates back to the first semester of my junior year at college (late 2004). For the sake of disclosure, the strip's inclusion is the reason I've tagged this post with a "marijuana" label. Kids, pay attention -- the preceding comic has been a dark portrait of cannabis consumption's effects upon the inexperienced and developing brain. (For your own safety, please just stick to safe, legal binge drinking.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"In His Efforts to Get to the Bottom of Things the Laureate Comes Within Sight of Malden, but So Far from Arriving There, Nearly Falls Into the Stars"

For your reading enjoyment this evening, I have transcribed a passage about humanity's psychological relationship with the universe (a topic we've touched upon from time to time) from John Barth's opus, The Sot-Weed Factor, published in 1960.

The date of publication bears especial mentioning because it sure as hell doesn't read like something written in the second half of the 20th Century: Barth purposefully (and brilliantly) imitates the style and structure of an epic novel from the 18th Century. In this is it is very much like a literary Venture Brothers, blurring the line between parodical pastiche and earnest homage to the extent that it's neither more of one than the other.

The bulk of the story covers the final years of the 17th Century in the life of the British poet Ebenezer Cooke. This qualifies The Sot-Weed Factor for the designation of historical novel (again, in a a parodic sense), since Ebenezer Cooke was a real person, whose claim to fame was a 700-line satirical poem whose title Barth borrows as the name of his own masterwork. Biographical details about the "real" Cooke are scarce; except for the material concerning the "The Sot-Weed Factor's" publication in the early 18th century, everything in Barth's fictitious account is from his own imagination.

Barth's Eben Cooke is cast in the mold of Voltaire's Candide -- he is well-bred and exceptionally educated, but an utter stranger to the workings of the world beyond the academy and his father's Middlesex estate. In a keen stroke of metatextual parody, Eben comes to hold his own innocence (which the reader immediately perceives as his most salient characteristic) as his highest personal virtue. Nobody should be surprised that Eben's introduction to the great wide yonder is just as excruciatingly (and hilariously) jarring as Candide's.

Eben's journey begins when he receives a commission from Lord Baltimore himself to sail to across the Atlantic and pen a poetical epic that sings and immortalizes the great virtues and heroes of Baltimore Colony. Scarcely does he arrive on the shores of present-day Maryland when his fantastic visions of a pastoral New World Ilium are rudely shattered: contrary to his expectations, Baltimore Colony is a swampy shithole populated by criminals, drunkards, slavers, prostitutes, opium-smugglers, hucksters, and worse. (You can read all about it in the original "Sot-Weed Factor" by the original Eben Cooke.)

But the real star of the novel, as far as I'm concerned, is Eben's teacher, guide, and friend, Henry Burlingame -- 25% Dante's Virgil, 25% Candide's Pangloss, and 50% Faustus's Mephistopheles. Comic book fans will surely spot something of Marvel Comics' Mystique in him as well -- Henry is a bona fide shapeshifter, appearing in various guises and a Rolodex of assumed names, acting as a double and triple agent in the machinations of the New World's conflicting power brokers -- a game into which he draws the hapless Eben Cooke.

That's the basic context of the passage you're about to read. Eben has just staggered into Baltimore Colony (after an altercation with some pirates off the coast) and has just convened at an inn with with Henry Burlingame, having just encountered him in one of his various guises. Burlingame has filled him in on the latest developments in the political intrigues concerning the colony's future, and the already disoriented Eben becomes distraught:

Ebenezer shook his head in a matter not clearly affirmative or negative. "That is a part of it, Henry; you go at such a pace, I have no time to think things through as they deserve! I cannot collect my wits e'en to think of all the questions I would ask, much less explore your answers. How can I know what I must do and where I stand?"

Burlingame laid his arm across the poet's shoulders and smiled. "What is't you describe, my friend, if not man's lot? He is by mindless lust engendered and by mindless wrench expelled, from the Eden of the womb to the motley, mindless world. He is Chance's fool, the toy of aimless Nature a mayfly flitting down the winds of Chaos!"

"You mistake my meaning," Ebenezer said, lowering his eyes.

Burlingame was undaunted: his eyes glittered. "Not by much, methinks. Once long ago we sat like this, at an inn near Magdalene College do you remember? And I said, 'Here we sit upon a blind rock hurtling through a vacuum,1 racing to the grave.' 'Tis our fate to search, Eben, and do we seek our soul, what we find is a piece of that same black Cosmos whence we sprang and through which we fall: the infinite wind of space. . ."

In fact a night wind hand sprung up and was buffeting the inn. Ebenezer shivered and clutched the edge of the table. "But there is so much unanswered and unresolved! It dizzies me!"

"Marry!" laughed Henry. "If you saw it clear enough 'twould not dizzy you: 'twould drive you mad! This inn here seems a little isle in a sea of madness, doth it not? Blind Nature howls without, but here 'tis calm how dare we leave? Yet lookee round you at these men that dine and play at cards, as if the sky were their mother's womb! They remind me of the chickens I once saw fed to a giant snake in Africa: when the snake struck one, the others squawked and fluttered, but a moment after they were scratching about for corn, or standing on his very back to preen their feathers! How is't these men don't run a-gibbering down the streets, if not that their minds are lulled to sleep?" He pressed the poet's arm. "You know as well as I that human work can be magnificent; but in the face of what's out yonder" he gestured skywards "'tis the industry of Bedlam! Which sees the state of things more clearly: the cock that preens on the python's back, or the lunatic that trembles in his cell?"2

Ebenezer sighed. "Yet I fail to see the relevance of this; 'tis not germane at all to what I had "

"Not germane?" Burlingame exclaimed. "'Tis the very root and stem of't! Two things alone can save a man from madness." He indicated the others patrons of the inn. "Dull-headedness is one, and far the commoner: the truth that drives men mad must be sought for ere it's found, and it eludes the doltish or myopic hunter. But once 'tis caught and looked on, whether by insight or instruction, the captor's sole expedient is to force his will upon't ere it work his ruin! Why is't you set such store by innocence and rhyming, and I by searching out my father and battling Coode?3 One must needs make and seize his soul, and then cleave fast to't, or go babbling in the corner; one must choose his gods and devils on the run, quill his own name upon the universe, and declare, 'Tis I, and the world stands such-a-way!' One must assert, assert, assert, or go screaming mad. What other course remains?"

"One other," said Ebenezer with a blush. "'Tis the one I flee. . ."

"What? Ah, 'sheart indeed! The state I found you in at college!4 How many have I seen like that at Bedlam wide-eyed, feculent, and blind to the world! Some boil their life into a single gesture and repeat it o'er and o'er; others are so far transfixed, their limbs remain where'er you place 'em; still others take on false identities: Alexander, or the Pope in Rome, or e'en the Poet Laureate of Maryland "

Ebenezer looked up, uncertain whether it was he or the impostors whom Burlingame referred to.

"The upshot of't is," his friend concluded, "if you'd escape that fate you must embrace me or reject me, and the course we are committed to, despite the shifting lights that we appear in, just as you must embrace your Self as Poet and Virgin, regardless, or discard it for something better."5 He stood up. "In either case don't seek whole understanding the search were fruitless, and there is no time for't. Will you come with me now, or stay?"

Ebenezer frowned and squinted. "I'll come," he said finally, and went out with Burlingame to the horses. The night was wild, but not unpleasant: a warm, damp wind roared out of the southwest, churned the river to a froth, bent the pines like whips, and drove a scud across the stars. Both men looked up at the splendid night.

"Forget the word sky," Burlingame said off-handedly, swinging up on his gelding, "'tis a blinder to your eyes. There is no dome of heaven yonder."

Ebenezer blinked twice or thrice: with the aid of these instructions, for the first time in his life he saw the night sky. The stars were no longer points on a black hemisphere that hung like a sheltering roof above his head; the relationship between them he saw now in three dimensions, of which the one most deeply felt was depth. The length and breadth of space between the stars seemed trifling by comparison: what struck him now was that some were nearer, some farther out, and others unimaginably remote. Viewed in this manner, the constellations lost their sense entirely; their spurious character revealed itself, as did the false presupposition of the celestial navigator, and Ebenezer felt bereft of orientation. He could no longer think of up and down: the stars were simply out there, as well below him as above, and the wind appeared to howl not from the Bay6 but from the firmament itself, the endless corridors of space.

"Madness!" Henry whispered.

Ebenezer's stomach churned; he swayed in the saddle and covered his eyes. For a swooning moment before he turned away it seemed that he was heels over head on the bottom of the planet, looking down on the stars instead of up, and that only by dint of clutching his legs about the roan mare's girth and holding fast to the saddlebow with both his hands did he keep from dropping headlong into those vasty7 reaches!

[1] Burlingame must be a greater prodigy than even he knows: it wasn't until the 20th Century that the existence of the interstellar vacuum achieved general acceptance. Even Newton himself accepted aether theory to account for light's propagation through empty space.

[2] This passage reminds me of one of my favorite books, Celia Green's The Human Evasion.

[3] A treasonous machinator who Burlingame seeks to undermine. Barth probably is poking fun at the abstruse webs of intrigue found in 17th and 18th Century novels, but in any case The Sot-Weed Factor's player chart is probably impossible to follow without the aid of a detailed diagram. I finished the book and still have no idea whether its Coode is an out-of-reach schemer, a boogeyman invented by Burlingame, or Henry himself. This in itself may warrant a reread.

[4] Remember that year or two after graduating from college where you moved back in with your parents, worked a part-time job, and sat around playing video games, smoking weed, sleeping until noon, and wondering what the hell to DO with your useless life? Eben was in similar straits during the time to which he refers. He has no desire to go back to it.

[5] One chapter ago, during Eben and Henry's reunion:

"You were so much altered when I saw you last, and now you've altered back to what you were!"

"'Tis easy but to say oft what I've said to you ere now, Eben: your true and constant Burlingame lives only in your fancy, as doth the pointed order of the world. In fact you see a Heraclitean flux: whether 'tis we who shift and alter and dissolve; or you whose lens changes color, field, and focus; or both together. The upshot is the same, and you may take it or reject it."

[6] The Chesapeake, of course.

[7] "Vasty?" Really, Mr. Barth?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Playlists & Self-Diagnoses

Two weeks ago, about 74% of the music I listened to consisted of psytrance and ambient tracks.

Last week, the percentage of psytrance and ambient tracks on my playlists decreased by 56%, comprising 33% of all the music I listened to. Meanwhile, the combined total of Alec Empire, SPK, and Skinny Puppy tracks on my playlist comprised 46% of the tunes on that week's queue.

This week, psytrance and ambient tracks compose 13% of my playlist. The combined total of tracks by Alec Empire, SPK, and Skinny Puppy has decreased by 35%, and now composes 31% of my playlist. The combined total of songs by The Swans, Whitehouse, and Converge now account for almost 50% of all the music I've listened to this week.

The significance of this should be obvious: thanks to New Media software, I can now easily and accurately monitor my own mood swings. What an age!

(Oh, shoot. I'm behind in answering comments, emails, and Formspring questions again. Will catch up tomorrow afternoon.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Space: Outer and Inner (Part 1.5)

Image filched from The Old Farmer's Almanac

For the past two months I've been a resident and employee at a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia. I affectionately refer to the place as "the farm" in conversation, but the place isn't a farm, and it's really not in the middle of nowhere. It's something like a commune with a business model: most of the residents/clients are recent college graduates, retired folks, or people experiencing a period of transition. This place gives them a setting in which they can live with other people in similar circumstances, participate in workshops, and figure out their next move. It is a religious place (and I am, of course, an atheist), but the Quakers are not what you'd expect from a Christian sect in the States. In all the weeks I've been here, nobody has ever once tried to talking to me about Jesus. Early on, a few people asked me if I was a Quaker, and did not pry any further when I answered in the negative. All I'm saying is that this godless blasphemer isn't making a peep of complaint about the company he's kept lately. (They're tolerant to the point where I'm a little tempted to show up at a morning worship meeting and shout out HAIL SATAN. They probably wouldn't be too happy about it, but there is actually a nonzero possibility that they would give me the chance to explain myself afterwards -- and I can make a pretty good case for Satan.)

But I digress!

One of the daily events at this place is a gathering called Epilogue. Like pretty much all of the religious stuff at this place, it's totally optional. But what it usually consists of is a short reading, song, or meditation session in order to close out the day. A couple of weeks ago, one of the folks in charge of scheduling daily and weekly events approached me and said she heard tell I was something of a stargazing buff.

"How would you like to lead an outdoor Epilogue one night?" she asked. "You could say a few words about the stars and point out some constellations for us."

I sure as hell wasn't about to say no.

It's probably going to happen sometime this week, whenever the skies clear up. I've drafted a text of what I'd like to say. It would be sloppy of me to read from a sheet of paper, so what I'm probably going to do is read it over a few (A FEW HUNDRED THOUSAND) times and reduce it to a series of points and subpoints in my memory. But here's hoping whatever comes out of my mouth goes something like....

Tonight it is my privilege to direct to your attention: eternity. Or, at least, the largest piece of it we are capable of observing directly under ordinary circumstances.

Today we have a pretty good idea (or at least some supremely educated guesses) about the nature of these distant points of light – what they're made of, how they work, how they're born, and what happens when they die. But it has only been in the last five hundred years of our species' 200,000-year history that we've made such a stupendous breakthrough. But even before humanity acquired the technological and intellectual tools to understand it, THIS [gesturing upwards] was there, tantalizing the imaginations of our ancestors.

Even without the aid of telescopes, sophisticated mathematics, or even a written language, our predecessors' powers of reason and observation were keen enough to notice a few important characteristics of the stars: namely, that their relative positions to each other in the sky remain fixed, and their movement across the celestial sphere corresponds with the solar cycles. Given the stars' usefulness as agricultural time-markers and navigational tools, our ancestors had a far more intimate relationship with the heavens than we do to today, despite their total lack of knowledge regarding the stars' physical properties.

What we're seeing now is a textbook picture of the autumn sky – a nice, fairly subtle, transitional scene, and the very setting where my own experience as a stargazer began. Looking to the west, you'll see triangle of summer stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair, of the constellations Lyra (the lyre), Cygnus (the swan), and Aquila (the eagle) sinking toward the horizon. Of these, Cygnus is the easiest to spot from here – simply direct your gaze this way, to the four stars that look like the top of a cross. Were there less light pollution, you might be able to see the Milky Way stretching from the northeast and cutting through the Triangle to the southwest – but to borrow a sentiment from a former Secretary of Defense, you go to stargaze with the sky you got.

[Note: if all goes according to plan, I will be pointing these out with a special green laser pen developed for just such an exercise.]

The fact that we still identify the stars by these groupings and these names is an intellectual relic of our ancestors. Presented with a span of objects that they could not approach, touch, or examine, our ancestors' imaginations compelled them to associate the stars with their mythological figures and cultural symbols. Dominating the sky at the moment is a patch of constellations representing the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. The W-shaped asterism right above us is Cassiopeia, the vain queen of Ethiopia who boasted that her beauty excelled that of Poseidon's sea nymphs. In the direction where the shape seems opening up is the constellation Cepheus, named for Cassiopeia’s complicit husband; and at Cassiopeia's turned “back” is her daughter Andromeda, whom she offered up as a sacrifice to quell Poseidon's wrath. Below Cassiopeia is the hero Perseus, the slayer of Medusa and forebear of a long line of Achaean kings; and between him and Andromeda you'll find a leg of Pegasus, the flying horse Perseus rode to rescue Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus – who is represented by his own constellation some ways to the south of Pegasus.

Below Perseus is the Auriga (the Charioteer), marked by the brilliant Capella – the uppermost point of the Winter Hexagon (or Winter Circle), the emblem of the rising winter sky. At the ring's center you'll find Betelgeuse, the second-brightest star of the hibernal hunter Orion.

I would also like to draw your attention to a visitor: the planet Jupiter, skirting the rim of the constellation Aries (the ram). We shall call him a visitor because, unlike the rest of what we’re seeing, he is not a permanent fixture of the sky. (Though of course, “permanence” is a term that speaks to the limitations of our temporal perspective. Had we a sufficiently long memory and broadness of vision, we would appreciate that virtually nothing in this existence is permanent – but I digress.)

Our word “planet” comes from the Greek term planetes aster, meaning “wandering star.” Unlike the “fixed” stars of the firmament, the planets move across the sky at their own paces, with an apparent erraticism that we've come to fully understand and accurately predict out only within the last few centuries, as our understanding of our place in the cosmos has transcended mythological models and guesstimates founded on inaccurate assumptions and scant data. Thanks to [name deleted] and her telescope, we can vouchsafe from Jupiter an example of our progressive knowledge.

What you’re seeing are the four Galilean Satellites, discovered by the great Galileo Galilei and named for four of Jove’s young human lovers: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Their discovery in 1610 did far more than afford another well-off white male the chance to name four little dots in the sky after his fancy; they demonstrated a principle. Here was evidence to support the then-controversial heliocentric model of the sun and planets: the fact that these objects orbited a body other than the Earth proved that our world is not the central fulcrum of all existence, as was previously assumed.

Galileo was a link in the recent chain of scientific enlightenment that began with Copernicus and Kepler, and continued on through Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Stephen Hawking, et cetera. Their work has furnished humanity with an exponentially more accurate conception its cosmic existence than it possessed at any other time in its history.

There is too little time, and my own knowledge is too limited to go into much detail beyond what you learned in science class. You already know we’re looking at a multitude of burning nuclear orbs flying through the void, each individually more massive and farther away than our terrestrial experience has equipped us to appreciate.

Even if we do not have the time or inclination to memorize all their names and educate ourselves about the physical processes that make them what they are, we should at the very least be mindful of them, and of the fact that our existence is by no means whatsoever separate from theirs.

I would imagine that most of us have come here in order to better understand who we are and what we should do with the time we’re afforded as conscious entities on this planet. You would not argue with me if I suggested that we cannot hope to attain a full understanding of a person – or of a people, a civilization, or a species – without taking into account the setting of his (or their) existence. (The world is, after all, much more than just a flat backdrop to human affairs.) I do not think it is a leap of logic to induce the equal importance of examining the cosmos in which the Earth bubbled up (whether by chance or grace of god) in our efforts to arrive at a substantial understanding of our world.

If we do not consider our situation from a cosmic standpoint – and all the implications this presents – any self-knowledge we profess to have will be tremendously incomplete.

Now is a fine time to start looking upwards and thinking it over – there are few better times for stargazing during the winter months, when the air is clear and the skies are dark. If you require an intellectual starting point in your meditations, I might advise Psalm 19: "The Heavens declare the glory of God." But bear in mind that this is only a springboard. Like any useful piece of Scripture, the simplicity of the phrasing belies a world of meaning that demands to be explored.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Overheard: on space travel

(Image pilfered from Occupy the Game.)

Sure, I think interstellar travel is possible. Will it happen? Probably, if it hasn't already been done somewhere else. But if we're talking about the prospects of space travel from Earth, I don't see it happening any time soon, and if it ever does, I doubt the species making the leap will be homo sapiens.

I'd like to be proven wrong. Believe me, I would. But all signs suggest we've already shut that window on ourselves. What I see when I look at the species is -- it's sort of like that bright kid you knew in high school who got held back a grade for being lazy and then got expelled for being a jackass. There's still that chance he might live up to the potential everyone keeps telling him he has and make something of himself, but it would take an optimism bordering on delusion not to know what to expect from him, given the consistent precedent he's set for himself.

Homo sapiens isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and in all likelihood has "evolutionary burnout" written in its future. But hell -- there's always that shrinking sliver a chance we'll surprise everyone, including ourselves.


How much easier is it to abandon someone you love who constantly lets you down than to give up hope for your own future? What about when it's your rotten luck that to do one is to do the other?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of site crashings and book trashings

Two items on tonight's agenda.

If you got redirected here via 8easybits.net, this probably isn't what you were expecting (or wanting) to see. An explanation is in order!

About a month ago I got it in my head to transfer 8easybits.net to a different host. Transferring all the files seemed to go off without a hitch, but we hit a bit of a snag during the domain transfer -- which is why the site was down completely for a few days there. I ironed everything out with the new host, changed the DNS whatchacallems, and naïvely dared to hope that would be it, and everything would be up and running like it was on the old host.


Something evidently went very, very wrong during the transfer. The site's engine is busted and I don't know how to fix it. The content is backed up in at least two different places, so there is no need to worry about any comics being lost. (The commentary might be another story, but I'm trying not to worry myself with more than one thing at a time.) But the borked CUSP setup is so obsolete that you can't even download it anymore, much less find a readme file -- not that I'd be able to make much use of it, anyway. I wasn't the person who set everything up to begin with, and I have absolutely no conception of how SQL or PHP is supposed to work. Unless somebody with a functional knowledge of this stuff feels like doing some pro-bono work for the sake of preserving history, 8easybits.net as we've known it for the past seven years is probably a memory.

So why did you change hosts to begin with, genius? you ask. First of all, the host I was using before kept upping its rates, and my income isn't exactly keeping pace. Secondly, I've been working on putting together a new comics site under a new domain. My plan was to use the new site for all the new comics, but to keep the complete 8EB archives in the same place for anyone to browse whenever they wished.

Again: oops.

Looks like we're stalled out for the time being. I'll probably rig up an archives page with some blog software at some point, but that will have to take a backseat to everything else I have planned. 8easybits.net will link to this (updated bi-weekly, usually!) blog until the new comics page is set up, which should be whenever I have a sufficient backlog to maintain a strict, once-per-seven-days update schedule for a three-month period. Until then, I'm afraid our soirees are restricted to the present format. (And do note that this is no longer the latest entry. Click the "Beyond Easy" banner up top to teleport your browser to the most recent update.)

I'm awfully sorry about this. And I'd also like to say that if you're still coming back to reread 8 Easy Bits from time to time, thank you very much -- I think that's really cool.

Moving on, then, to item two!

And now for the bad news.

The night raid on Occupy Wall Street's Zucotti Park camp put me in a really foul mood, which didn't get much better as more details kept coming in. What outraged and frightened me more than anything else were reports that the NYPD tore down the famous People's Library and threw the entire 5,000 book collection into a garbage truck. I felt as though a weight had been removed from my chest when word came in that the news of the library's destruction was premature.

Unfortunately, it seems that the report of the premature report was, in fact, premature.

When members of the encampment visited the garage on 57th Street to retrieve the books, they found the vast bulk of the collection missing. Much of what remains is damaged or practically destroyed -- almost as though it had been fished out of a garbage truck at the last minute.

So it would seem that that big rant I had prepared for Tuesday's update and then scrapped still applies. Jesus H. Christ. I would feel nothing but absolute, unalloyed horror at the NYPD's actions if the idiocy they've demonstrated weren't so confounding as to almost seem comical.

The kneejerk liberal reaction to events of this kind is to cry (or type, preferably in caps) police state, fascist pigs, etc., etc. Usually, I find this sort of epithet-hurling unhelpful, even when there is a grain (or a heap) of truth to the claims. But when city police go ahead and toss five-thousand-plus library books (and make no mistake -- even if it was not housed in a permanent structure or publicly funded, this was a library) into the back of a garbage truck, it takes more restraint than I possess to refrain from entertaining recollections of the world's Nazis, Maoists, Red Khmers, and every other representative of the elemental belligerence, intolerance, and ignorance that has been pissing on civilization like a territorial mutt in a flower garden since the torches were put to Alexandria.

Okay, so maybe it isn't very funny at all -- not even in a dark kind of way. But Bloomberg's bumbling attempt at a cover-up is freaking hilarious.

The announcement that the books were safe came from the Twitter account of Bloomberg's office. Why was the announcement necessary? Well, despite the NYPD's best efforts at a media blackout, news from the ground spread quickly via Twitter. When demonstrators tweeted about the loss of the library, major news outlets seized upon the story. (After all, government-sanctioned destruction of books is something that tends to strike at the public's nerves.) Bloomberg's office quickly claimed the library was intact in order to prevent the aforementioned Nazi parallels from drawing themselves.

When Bloomberg's office announced that the book were safe, a many of us (including myself) took them at their word. Why not? Given that the news of the library's destruction was aggressively put into circulation by the protestors themselves (and subsequently seized upon and propagated by mainstream news outlets), surely Bloomberg's office wouldn't be stupid enough to serve up a baldfaced lie about the status of the books and not anticipate the same people calling them on it, right? I mean, that's the kind of trick only a really, truly, profoundly, astonishingly, blitheringly dumb person would expect to work.

Almost as dumb, at any rate, as Bloomberg's responding to Thursday's demonstrations by insisting that the real story was that the turnout was lower than anticipated -- which is not only another blatant lie, but practically a challenge directed toward the demonstrators. It's the sort of thing a carnival clown shouts at people in line at the dunking booth in order to get them pissed off and ready to go.

Maybe Olbermann is right. Maybe Bloomberg is Occupy's man on the inside. Ever since Tuesday, he's done the movement nothing but favors, disguising them as antagonism. It has to be intentional. The three-term mayor of New York City cannot actually be this stupid, can he...?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#occupy Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Last night I went to sleep in a really foul mood. When I woke up, the first thing I did was check the news, so I began this morning in an even worse mood.

You've probably already seen the reports. You don't need to be told that Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD brought the truncheon down on the Occupy Wall Street camp at Liberty Square last night.
Some weeks ago, when touring the park and dropping off some supplies for the campers, my friend James ominously stated that the NYPD's budget outweighs that of some smaller nations' sovereign military forces. The scene that began at around 1:00 a.m. was practically a YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK exposition for the pleasure of New York's Republicans and sadists.

Nor should it be news to you that journalists were aggressively prevented from accessing the scene (and in several cases bullied) by the police, so most of what we know about the crackdown comes from Twitter, yfrog, and YouTube. You don't need to be told the stories of unprovoked beatings and gassings, wanton (hell, downright gleeful) destruction of protestors' property (tents and tarps were slashed, cameras and computers were broken, and I can only imagine how much donated food was chucked into the garbage trucks that pulled up to the park along with the police vans and sonic cannons), and the refusal of Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD to comply with a New York City judge's ruling to allow protestors back on the scene.

You don't need to be told. All of this is old news. Every columnist, blogger, and interested social media user has already reported the facts and weighed in, leaving your present armchair correspondent with precious little to contribute. Nevertheless, I don't think I'll be able to move on from the subject and thinking about something else until I've tossed my two cents (well, three) into the distended coin purse of Internet discourse.


Scratch that. Contrary to previous reports, the famous Liberty Square Library has not been destroyed, which makes the diatribe I had prepared (and its exquisite allusions to Alexandria) totally unnecessary. This would make me feel so much better about the whole thing were it not for....


This afternoon -- hours after a New York County Supreme Court Justice issued a restraining order against Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD -- Judge Micheal Stallman ruled that the demonstrators' first amendment rights do not permit them to camp out at the park indefinitely, and that the police crackdown (bulldozers, pepper spray, batons, and all) was all good and legal. And just like that, Liberty Square has reverted back to Zucotti Park -- for now. Protestors are being allowed back on the site, with the proviso that they can't build another campsite.

There's a whole lot about this to make one feel scared and upset, but on the whole, the movement probably stands to make a net gain from this. Just when the American attention span was in danger of flitting elsewhere, and a month before the merciless New York winter threatened to move in and kill the movement slowly and ignominiously, the Liberty Square occupation goes out with a great sound and fury that shocks the whole world into tuning back in.

For the time being, public assembly isn't altogether banned -- and if the Occupy crowd can muster the tenacity we've come to expect from them, they'll back, tents or no tents. Bloomberg and the NYPD just giftwrapped them a reason to press forward, and here's hoping they rise to the occasion.


"We have been in constant contact with Brookfield [the park's owners] and yesterday they requested that the City assist it in enforcing the no sleeping and camping rules in the park," Bloomberg writes. "But make no mistake – the final decision to act was mine."

I can admit -- through a great deal of teeth grinding -- that Bloomberg's case, in its own limited context, is not an unreasonable one. But toward the end, there's a part I cannot read without biting my tongue:

Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.

A major motivating force of Occupy Wall Street was the fact that nobody who mattered -- lawmakers, executives, members of the mainstream media -- was listening when people tried to get a word in about America's growing income divergence and systemic flaws in its economic system over the noise about debt ceilings, job creators, and Kim Kardashian. Since writing blog posts, mailing letters, submitting articles to left-leaning magazines, and holding lectures wasn't convincing our greasy-palmed policymakers that economic injustice is a real and very serious national problem requiring an earnest solution, some people decided to find a more visible platform on which to air their grievances.

And now Bloomberg congratulates them on a good try and tells them their time is up. Two months is all they get before their platform gets yanked out from under their feet. Better luck changing the world next time, kiddies; also, you're welcome for the two months.

Putting aside the arguments about right to assembly, that last sentence is what really boggles my mind. If saying a thing like "now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments" with a straight face in a post-Citizens United America isn't absolutely daffy, it must be smug and malicious.

You already know about the Supreme Court's unfortunate ruling that handed America's oligarchic interests their own personal bullhorns and national P.A. systems for the sake of "free speech," so you don't need to be told. It was already the case that the entrenched minority could control the media, but Citizens United now allows them to pick and choose which politicians they want to see running for office, and spend however much money they want filling the airwaves with slander and misinformation.

Admittedly, that does read like a hyperbole. We're exactly not looking at a Netrunner future just yet -- but the point is that the wealthy have more free speech than the rest of the populace. They get to control the conversation. They pick what's on TV. They pick what's on the radio. They pick the issues our lawmakers are willing to fight for. Occupy Wall Street was a brilliant tactic towards leveling the playing field and circumventing the gatekeepers to introduce economic injustice into the national dialogue. (Before #occupy, you sure as hell didn't hear those words mentioned beyond "fringe" publications.)

Without a sustained public demonstration, we're back to "you've got your free speech and I'VE GOT MY FREE SPEECH." The encampment was precisely what gave the demonstrators the ability to make their case heard. Without that platform, the people who are driving the push for accountability in the financial industry and an America that isn't rigged against most of its citizens' interests are stuck trying to shout over the owners of the world's biggest megaphones.


I'm seriously starting to wonder if Karl Rove isn't cutting checks to people who troll CNN.com's user comments sections with "TAKE THAT HIPPIES OCCUPY A SHOWER WHY DONT YOU HA HA HA HA" bilge.

Earlier tonight I expressed this sentiment on another social media platform and received these responses from a distant acquaintance:

Karl Rove hasn't paid me shit. You'd be surprised how many people, myself included, who feel all this occupy nonsense is a waste of time. And furthermore that it is populated mostly by young academic types who can afford an ipad to tweet about their 'noble' endeavors. Most of those who are really getting fucked by the system are too busy actually going to work in order to feed their families to bitch about it. 

Of course there is a minority of haves and a minority [sic] of have-nots. That is how it has been since the dawn of civilization. Why should that suddenly change? And as for all the socialist idealists present at these protests, they need to wake up and realize that socialist and communist societies are just as guilty as capitalist ones of having extreme inequity between rich and poor. The only difference is that at least in capitalism you have an outside chance of making it into the privileged class with a mix of hard work and luck.

Compared to most of the rancorous gibberish I've been reading all day to furnish myself with excuses to take smoke breaks, this is positively constructive and reasonable.

But the point is that the sheer loathing directed towards the evicted Occupiers is astonishing. They're all stoners. They're all criminals. They're all basement-dwelling America haters. If they're not pampered, soft-handed academics, then they're penniless, filthy hippies. They're nothing but a bunch of whiners who don't understand how the world works. They should just get a $50,000 a year job with health benefits, like I did, because it's really just that easy.

Okay. Let's assume, for argument's sake, that the Occupy demonstrators really are nothing but a bunch of stoners, inexperienced students, unemployable burnouts, and messy hippies. Does this really make their grievances any less valid?

And to introduce some variety into our sources, let's look at a few numbers offered by FOX News' own Juan Williams. Thirty-nine percent of Americans fully approve of Occupy Wall Street. Seventy-six percent agree that the United States' economic structure disproportionately favors the wealthy. Fifty-five percent feel that income inequality is a significant national problem. Sixty-eight percent favor raising taxes on citizens earning more than $250,000 a year.

So why are we hurling epithets at the people -- be they hippies, stoners, slackers, or hell, even frustrated working stiffs -- who are making a serious effort to get America to notice and confront the fact that it has transformed into a de-facto oligarchy?

"Get a job," they're told by people who already have jobs, and choose to ignore the 16% underemployment rate and a minimum wage that has not kept pace with living expenses.

"Go out and vote," they're told by many of the same people who, in their next breath, complain about partisanship, gridlock, and the remarkable inability of Barack Obama to get even a god damn jobs bill passed during a period of widespread chronic unemployment.

Can you blame them for feeling as though the conventional avenues might not be a viable option?

And there's still more to this. A characteristically brilliant piece by Matt Taibbi hits the nail squarely on the head:

Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it....

People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes. I think I understand now that this is what the Occupy movement is all about. It's about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a "beloved community" free of racial segregation. Eventually the Occupy movement will need to be specific about how it wants to change the world. But for right now, it just needs to grow. And if it wants to sleep on the streets for a while and not structure itself into a traditional campaign of grassroots organizing, it should. It doesn't need to tell the world what it wants. It is succeeding, for now, just by being something different.

Let's pull out our cultural barometer and see what's in the air right now.

The acquaintance we heard from above blithely admits that people are getting fucked by the system. We know and accept that our government is broken, our politicians are bought, and nobody in power has the balls to give our most pressing issues anything more than lip service; we understand that the Supreme Court has basically tossed aside judicial impartiality, but we're also aware that nobody will listen if we complain. We know that the bankers who crashed the economy have gotten off scot-free and are still making billions of dollars ripping off the have-nots and helping the haves turn their money into more money, and most of us are apparently perfectly willing to let this slide. We accept that climate change is going to drown our cities and decimate our agricultural capacity, and we're not doing a thing to prevent or prepare for it. We know the food we eat is probably killing us, but that's cool too. We know the folks in the board rooms at our inescapable multinational corporations care singularly about profits, but we've come to expect that from them and learned to live with it. We've embraced the emptiness of our culture to the extent that we now celebrate vacuous bullshit with a lack of irony that would make Andy Warhol's speed-addled brain turn somersaults, and we're tired of trying to resist it. You already know all this; you don't need to be told. Nobody approves of how things are going and nobody's happy with how they are, but we've convinced ourselves that we have no choice but to shake our heads, take our stress-reliever of choice, and get on with our lives as they are, because nothing we do will make an ounce of difference.

And when a motley group of students, hippies, literati, and urbanites devises a model (albeit temporary) alternative and propose that things should be and can be different, we castigate and tear them down for having the nerve not to resign themselves to the insufferable status quo that the rest of us invited on ourselves and continue to hoist upon our backs.

The losers had it coming. God bless America.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Doubloon

(Image yoinked from Roger Lathbury)

For your reading pleasure tonight, we've got another of my favorite chapters of Moby Dick: "The Doubloon." This would be the part of the novel where Herman Melville goes ahead and illustrates the basic ideas of reader response criticism a century before the academics seized credit for it. Basically, several of the novel's characters are presented with a singular "text" -- the doubloon Ahab promised to the man who first espies the White Whale -- and each derives a different meaning from its symbols.

Of course, you needn't necessarily be a literature geek to enjoy what this chapter has to offer: Melville's characteristically mellifluous prose, his Shakespeare-inspired monologues, and his roguish sense of humor (given voice through Stubb). I haven't included the entire chapter -- only the first two-thirds or so. Nobody has that much else to add after Stubb and Flask, and most of it won't make much of an impression on the first-time reader without the context of earlier chapters.

As before, I've added a few helpful footnotes, and also inserted a few line breaks into Stubb's speech to make it a little easier to parse. Bon appetit!


Ere now it has been related how Ahab was wont to pace his quarter-deck, taking regular turns at either limit, the binnacle and mainmast; but in the multiplicity of other things requiring narration it has not been added how that sometimes in these walks, when most plunged in his mood, he was wont to pause in turn at each spot, and stand there strangely eyeing the particular object before him. When he halted before the binnacle, with his glance fastened on the pointed needle in the compass, that glance shot like a javelin with the pointed intensity of his purpose; and when resuming his walk he again paused before the mainmast, then, as the same riveted glance fastened upon the riveted gold coin there, he still wore the same aspect of nailed firmness, only dashed with a certain wild longing, if not hopefulness.

But one morning, turning to pass the doubloon, he seemed to be newly attracted by the strange figures and inscriptions stamped on it, as though now for the first time beginning to interpret for himself in some monomaniac way whatever significance might lurk in them. And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way.1

Now this doubloon was of purest, virgin gold, raked somewhere out of the heart of gorgeous hills, whence, east and west, over golden sands, the head-waters of many a Pactolus2 flows. And though now nailed amidst all the rustiness of iron bolts and the verdigris3 of copper spikes, yet, untouchable and immaculate to any foulness, it still preserved its Quito glow. Nor, though placed amongst a ruthless crew and every hour passed by ruthless hands, and through the livelong nights shrouded with thick darkness which might cover any pilfering approach, nevertheless every sunrise found the doubloon where the sunset last left it. For it was set apart and sanctified to one awe-striking end; and however wanton in their sailor ways, one and all, the mariners revered it as the white whale's talisman. Sometimes they talked it over in the weary watch by night, wondering whose it was to be at last, and whether he would ever live to spend it.

Now those noble golden coins of South America are as medals of the sun and tropic token-pieces. Here palms, alpacas, and volcanoes; sun's disks and stars, ecliptics, horns-of-plenty, and rich banners waving, are in luxuriant profusion stamped; so that the precious gold seems almost to derive an added preciousness and enhancing glories, by passing through those fancy mints, so Spanishly poetic.

It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things. On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes' summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

Before this equatorial coin, Ahab, not unobserved by others, was now pausing.

"There's something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here, — three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician's glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then. Born in throes, 't is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here's stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then."

"No fairy fingers can have pressed the gold, but devil's claws have left their mouldings there since yesterday," murmured Starbuck4 to himself, leaning against the bulwarks. "The old man seems to read Belshazzar's awful writing. I have never marked the coin inspectingly. He goes below; let me read. A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol. So in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope. If we bend down our eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the bright sun meets our glance half way, to cheer. Yet, oh, the great sun is no fixture; and if, at midnight, we would fain snatch some sweet solace from him, we gaze for him in vain! This coin speaks wisely, mildly, truly, but still sadly to me. I will quit it, lest Truth shake me falsely."

"There now's the old Mogul," soliloquized Stubb by the try-works, "he's been twigging it; and there goes Starbuck from the same, and both with faces which I should say might be somewhere within nine fathoms long. And all from looking at a piece of gold, which did I have it now on Negro Hill or in Corlaer's Hook, I'd not look at it very long ere spending it. Humph! in my poor, insignificant opinion, I regard this as queer. I have seen doubloons before now in my voyagings; your doubloons of old Spain, your doubloons of Peru, your doubloons of Chili, your doubloons of Bolivia, your doubloons of Popayan; with plenty of gold moidores and pistoles, and joes, and half joes, and quarter joes. What then should there be in this doubloon of the Equator that is so killing wonderful?

"By Golconda!5 let me read it once. Halloa! here's signs and wonders truly! That, now, is what old Bowditch in his Epitome calls the zodiac, and what my almanack below calls ditto. I'll get the almanack; and as I have heard devils can be raised with Daboll's arithmetic6, I'll try my hand at raising a meaning out of these queer curvicues here with the Massachusetts calendar. Here's the book. Let's see now. Signs and wonders; and the sun, he's always among 'em. Hem, hem, hem; here they are — here they go — all alive: Aries, or the Ram; Taurus, or the Bull and Jimimi! here's Gemini himself, or the Twins. Well; the sun he wheels among 'em. Aye, here on the coin he's just crossing the threshold between two of twelve sitting-rooms all in a ring.

"Book! you lie there; the fact is, you books must know your places. You'll do to give us the bare words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts. That's my small experience, so far as the Massachusetts calendar, and Bowditch's navigator, and Daboll's arithmetic go. Signs and wonders, eh? Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders! There's a clue somewhere; wait a bit; hist — hark! By Jove, I have it! Look you, Doubloon, your zodiac here is the life of man in one round chapter; and now I'll read it off, straight out of the book. Come, Almanack!

"To begin: there's Aries, or the Ram — lecherous dog, he begets us; then, Taurus, or the Bull — he bumps us the first thing; then Gemini, or the Twins — that is, Virtue and Vice; we try to reach Virtue, when lo! comes Cancer the Crab, and drags us back; and here, going from Virtue, Leo, a roaring Lion, lies in the path — he gives a few fierce bites and surly dabs with his paw; we escape, and hail Virgo, the Virgin! that's our first love; we marry and think to be happy for aye, when pop comes Libra, or the Scales — happiness weighed and found wanting; and while we are very sad about that, Lord! how we suddenly jump, as Scorpio, or the Scorpion, stings us in the rear; we are curing the wound, when whang comes the arrows all round; Sagittarius, or the Archer, is amusing himself. As we pluck out the shafts, stand aside! here's the battering-ram, Capricornus, or the Goat; full tilt, he comes rushing, and headlong we are tossed; when Aquarius, or the Waterbearer, pours out his whole deluge and drowns us; and to wind up with Pisces, or the Fishes, we sleep.

"There's a sermon now, writ in high heaven, and the sun goes through it every year, and yet comes out of it all alive and hearty. Jollily he, aloft there, wheels through toil and trouble; and so, alow here, does jolly Stubb. Oh, jolly's the word for aye! Adieu, Doubloon! But stop; here comes little King-Post7; dodge round the try-works, now, and let's hear what he'll have to say. There; he's before it; he'll out with something presently. So, so; he's beginning."

"I see nothing here, but a round thing made of gold, and whoever raises a certain whale, this round thing belongs to him. So, what's all this staring been about? It is worth sixteen dollars, that's true; and at two cents the cigar, that's nine hundred and sixty cigars. I won't smoke dirty pipes like Stubb, but I like cigars, and here's nine hundred and sixty of them; so here goes Flask aloft to spy 'em out."

"Shall I call that Wise or foolish, now; if it be really wise it has a foolish look to it; yet, if it be really foolish, then has it a sort of wiseish look to it......."

1. Not only does Melville predict reader-response criticism, but catches a dim glimpse of Poststructuralism. (Do I give the man too much credit? Maybe.)

2. Pactolus: A river in Turkey. Classically famed for carrying gold dust.

3. Verdigris: Pronounced "ver-degree" (or "ver-degrees"). If you've ever been in an elementary school science class, you already know what it is. Think of how the Statue of Liberty has a green hue despite being made of copper.

4. Yes, yes -- the ubiquitous coffee chain is named after Starbuck, the Pequod's pious first mate. (Originally, the store's founders wanted to name the place after the ship itself. You can guess why they changed their minds.)

5. Golconda: A ruined fortress city in India that served as a crucial pillar of the diamond trade. Wiki says: "its name has taken a generic meaning and has come to be associated with great wealth.

6. Daboll: The arithmetic textbooks of Nathan Daboll were a fixture of American schools during the Nineteenth Century.

7. Flask (nicknamed "King Post") is third mate aboard the Pequod, and the lowest-ranking officer. The lens through which Melville expects us to view his interpretation of the doubloon is found in Chapter 41, which specifies Flask's "pervading mediocrity" as his distinguishing characteristic.