Sunday, December 29, 2013

Travel is a. . .

There's an image circulating on the Facebook lately:

Why should this rub me the wrong way? Huh. Is it schmaltzy? Oh, yes, drippingly. But I would very much prefer that "TRAVEL" were scribbled out and replaced with "TOURISM," which is most likely what these palefaces in paradise are actually doing. Let's be honest with ourselves, hm?

Anyway, I've just synthesized an antidote by mixing Ralph Waldo Emerson with Petey from Cul de Sac.

(Says the American writing from Poland. Eeyup.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Wikia Fatigue, Tidal Forces, & The Process

The third or fourth greatest threat to my productivity.

Procrastination bedevils my life, and the Internet is ever the willing Mephistopheles. My absolute worst habit -- even less productive than compulsively checking Twitter, watching badly dubbed 1980s cartoons on YouTube, or slumming through reader comments sections -- is Wikia trawling. "Hey! What was the deal with Juri in Street Fighter IV?" I'll think (suddenly, and for some inscrutable reason), and so it's off to the Street Fighter Wiki to read about Juri, which means I'll be perusing Street Fighter trivia for ten to twenty minutes (if I'm lucky). Or maybe I'll find myself wondering if Blight's arc was ever properly resolved in Batman Beyond, so it's off to the DCAU Wiki. Am I momentarily (and morbidly) curious about what I'm missing in Final Fantasy XIII-2? To the Final Fantasy Wiki!

Et cetera, et cetera.

But as I'm browsing all these pop culture repositories -- all with nearly identical layouts, editorial styles, principles of organization, and World of Warcraft ads -- I can't help remembering a time when these fan-generated pop culture databases weren't so homogeneous in terms of design.

It was around 1996 that I started using the Internet. It was a much sparser place back then; the "frontier" metaphors you sometimes hear are very apropos. This was before Wikipedia, and certainly before the scattering of its wiki spores throughout cyberspace. If you ran a search for, say, The Mysterious Cities of Gold on Webcrawler or Altavista (this was before Google, remember) and didn't find any useful results, you could either wait for someone else to make a website or roll up your sleeves and make one yourself.

And from that impulse emerged the old fansites: hundreds of independent, noncommercial information sources and "shrines" to various TV series, films, video games, bands, and so on. A few of the ones I visited most back when I was a middle school student were Thomas Cardwell's Ranma 1/2 Universe (now defunct), Kurt Kalata's Castlevania Dungeon (operational, but under new management) and Kabir Akhtar's Tool Page (still up and running).

Hmm. Take a quick look at the Tool Page and then at Tool Wiki. At a glance, which looks more interesting? Which has more personality? Which design seems more apt to and informed by the site's subject?

(Side note: I wish I could find a screenshot of what the Tool Page used to look like back in 1997, 1998. The sad thing about the Internet Wayback Machine is that when you use it to view anything from the 1990s, it reproduces pages with archaic coding your browser can't read correctly.)

On the face of it, a wiki has almost every advantage over a fansite. A private website dedicated to a band, a video game series, a film director, etc. generally offers an overview of its subject, while a well-maintained wiki is, practically by definition, encyclopaediacally comprehensive. A fansite is curated by one person; a wiki is designed to be overseen and edited by pretty much anyone with an interest in its subject. This democratization means (in theory, and usually in practice) more updates, more information, and more self-corrective oversight. Back when the Internet was rife with GeoCities fan pages, the majority weren't terribly well designed, contained more or less the same information, and really could have used some proofreading. Today, in the age of Wikia, everyone with an interest in a particular area of pop culture can collaborate in maintaining and expanding the definitive "unofficial" website on that topic. (Fun fact: Wikia's original name was Wikicities, but was changed after five months -- perhaps changed because it sounded a bit too much like "GeoCities [, WE WILL BURY YOU].")

But wikis are boring. They have no fucking personality.

Nah. That's not fair. Certainly they have a personality -- but when something becomes standardized, you stop noticing it.

I hesitate to admit this, but I used to have a little Marilyn Manson fan page. (In my defense, I was in the eighth or ninth grade.) It was on a webring and everything! And it was fun to browse the ring and check out other fans' Manson pages. Even if they tended to repeat themselves, these fansites bore always bore the unique stamp of their curators' personalities and creativity. They contained personal stuff, too: art, concert journals, photographs, reviews, jokes, bootleg concert recordings in RealAudio, goofy fanfiction, and so on. In spite of their informational redundancy, they were charming. Fansites exude personality, and that's rather what I miss about them. They were distinct. They had idiosyncrasies and quirks. They were very clearly created by individual people rather than aggregated by the hive mind.

But in the epoch of the wiki, these kinds of efforts become rather superfluous. Why would anyone today sink their effort into, say, making their own Lord of the Rings fansite when not one person running a Google search on "Nazgul" or whatever won't immediately end up on the Lord of the Rings Wiki? Obviously their time would be much better spent contributing to the existing wiki, which is why the thing is approaching 5,000 pages.

Analogous lines might be drawn between the evolution of the Internet and the formation of the solar system. Come on, indulge me. It's been a while since we've said anything about astronomy.

Something like 4.6 billion years ago, all the stuff from which our fleck of the cosmos is formulated existed as a rotating cloud of gas and detritus held together by its own gravity. You probably already know how it goes. Contractive forces at the gravitational center (and rotational axis) of the nebula cause material to condense into a protosun. Clumps of gas and dust (thousands, millions of them) zip through space, tugging at, colliding with, and absorbing each other to form planetesimals and protoplanets in a commotion of n-body chaos.

After 100,000,000 years or so, the neighborhood has transformed from something that looks something like like this:


To something more like this:

Out of confusion and diffuse clutter formed a rather orderly system with a much clearer and more definite structure, in which a relatively small number of large bodies have dominated their orbital zones by either absorbing, flinging aside, or trapping any smaller objects in their vicinity.

Similarly, the Internet has come to be dominated by a relatively small number of massive websites (most of them commercial). And the reasons for this outcome should be fairly obvious. On that note: if you've noticed the irony in a person posting on Blogger to complain about standardization and accession in cyberspace, you get a gold star.

There has been no diminishment of activity on the the Internet -- obviously, there are much more people online than there were fifteen, years ago. But I'd guess that the proportions of traffic have changed dramatically; that a much larger percentage of traffic passes through a much smaller number of web spaces (or types of web spaces).

One might notice a parallel process in the globalization phenomenon.

While visiting Warsaw a few days ago, I emerged from the subway and the first building I saw on the plaza contained a row of three stores: Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks. My old man and I visited a shopping mall to get some last-minute Christmas gifts, and the place looked, sounded, and smelled like any mall I've ever been to on the North American continent. Half the stores were the same; all of the Christmas music was the same. The clustered mallrats smoking cigarettes outside the entrance were the same, right down to their black hoodies with the anarchy symbol printed on the back. Everyone carried iPhones, everyone smoked Marlboros, everyone sipped Coca-Cola from McDonald's cups. From the terrace on the thirtieth floor of the Palace of Culture and Science, you can look out across the city and see the new towers of glass and steel rising over the boxy old twentieth-century buildings, and guess how long it will be until Warsaw looks exactly like every other "global" city on the planet.

The peculiar physics of the market and of culture dictate the courses of these transformations as logically as the laws of motion and gravitation converted a massive cloud of gas and debris into a solar system dominated by eight planets.

Would one call this gravity of capital, I wonder?

Large bodies absorb the smaller, throw them aside, or draw them into their own orbits. When a massive edifice takes form in a cultural space, all the activity in that space occurs in the shadow of that edifice, if not inside the edifice. (Consider how Starbucks has changed the very institution of the coffee shop, for example. Or how Wikipedia, Facebook, Reddit, etc. have reterraformed the web around themselves.)

Thought: if cultural spaces become increasingly standardized under the tidal influence of such edifices, does the human activity fostered and permitted by these spaces become homogenized as well? Does the overall range and variety of cultural activity increase or decrease?

(But why worry about it? These patterns of transformation must be as old as culture itself. It's all another inexorable part of The Process.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Brussels Airport, 3:21 AM EST

Being in overseas airports always makes me uncomfortable. The only language I speak is English, and I feel like a presumptuous dolt whenever I attempt to communicate with anyone.

So I guess in that mode it feels exactly like home. And I am uncomfortable at home.

But I'm unaccustomed to not picking up any English in the ambient babble, and so in order to "normalize" the environment while I'm getting acclimated to it, I talk to myself. Unceasingly. Airport security staffers spot me zigzagging through the concourse and carrying on vehement arguments with my shoes about duty-free cigarettes, and then they come up and ask wo gehen sie and I'm like :D ..... and they're like hey guy where are you going and I'm like :D .....

No, I didn't sleep at all on the flight. Thanks for asking. The sun is coming up and my circadian rhythm has brought its ballgown to the squaredance.

What is it about airports that make you so HORNY, he muttered to himself. I just want to turn to the next French-speaking lady I see and ask her if she's interested in any of the virulent New World germs that have been incubating all night in my virile New World body.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Winter Ink

Early winter on the East Coast. Unless my memory is fraying, we're lucky to see much more than a dusting or two before January. Now we're getting two to four inches every two to four days. I am not complaining.

Forgive me for returning to previously trodden ground, but even when December seems to crawl on like a dysthymic slough, I always find myself with a renewed appreciation for the austerity of the season. There is an elemental honesty in the cold beyond the mere rawness of authenticity and impartiality. Cold is the natural state of things, inasmuch as time is an arrow toward thermal equilibrium, and the average temperature of the universe is -270.42º C. Cold is a taste of the future. It's a keyhole into the end of things.

These wintertime walks are brisk and sobering. It does require an effort of will not to immediately turn and scuttle back to an artificially heated enclosure. (These reminders that human activity is circumscribed by environmental contingencies can be nothing but helpful.) The four senses that aren't shot through with cold have little to titillate them; there is not much activity to apprehend the mid-Atlantic woods after the first December snow. Hardly anything moves. Nothing makes much noise except for the occasional chicakdee or passing airplane. The summer forest of four months before is a bouquet of viridescence, earth tones, and bright-hued flowers; the winter forest is just white and disconsolate shades of grayish brown.

At certain times, in certain attitudes, it seems positively achromatic. Black and white, unvarying in shade. And there are moments of visual fancy when it seems as though the protruding features of the landscape are superimposed over the snow, like inkstrokes on a white canvas.

If I were a better artist, there is a good chance my entire creative output between December and March would consist of minimalist ink renderings of winter landscapes. But since I'm not, I am resigned (not unhappily) to looking at other people's minimalist ink renderings of winter landscapes:

Sesshu Toyo, Winter Landscape

Utagawa Hiroshige, Snow Falling on a Town

Utagawa Hiroshige, Evening Snow on the Asuka Mountain

Carolyn A. Pappas, Deerfield Orchard in Winter

To this day, however, the art that best communicates winter as my heart recognizes it is found in Calvin and Hobbes:

I'm tempted to say I prefer the winter landscapes (or the parcels of them) from the weekday strips. The restrictions of the format impose a black/white binary which inspired some very stark, simple, and striking efforts from Mr. Watterson.

That last panel. Gorgeous. It's a safe bet that Watterson used a relatively dull two-panel joke as an excuse to give himself the space of a free panel to paint a parsimonious winter landscape in miniature.

Interestingly -- as far as I know -- all of the winter landscapes in the colored Sunday strips are rendered in grays and browns. All but one: the black ink/white canvas snowscape of the final strip:

Poland tomorrow. If I don't update between now and Saturday (which is possible), have a frostbitten but cautiously optimistic solstice, everyone!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Words found written on the back of a Barnes & Noble receipt for Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems

Stephen Anderson, Bird of Paradise

I've heard it said——it might be true——that the old poets and storytellers have reached their final generations. What they do today will be forgotten, if it is known. Most of it will not be known, and will shortly never have existed.

If it must be so, it will be so. We'll do what we do and then we will die. No one can hope to accomplish much else. Ask the millennia, the dead empires and dark ages. Nobody does anything more.

However temporary, however doomed, there is still a joy in doing what you do, in being what you are. And there is still something wonderful in the lives of the remaining birds-of-paradise dancing their absurd dances for their last loves in the vanishing nowhere.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Let's Read: Lalka (The Doll) by Bolesław Prus

Bernardo Bellotto, View of Warsaw from Praga

It's December already. Hrm.

I'd like to do another book club in the same artery as the Pierre experiment and the two-man assault on Romance of the Three Kingdoms that Jon B. and I mounted over the summer. I mentioned the idea months ago (in the Three Kingdoms post, in fact), but now we're finally getting around to it: Mr. B. and I will be tearing through The Doll by Bolesław Prus. It's called Lalka in the original Polish, which sounds much less dull than "The Doll" does in English. Because it's not a dull book! It's one of the best novels I've ever read! It blew my socks off when I read it three years ago! (Again, how time flies.) I even posted excerpts here and here.

Here's the thing about Lalka. If I want to talk to somebody about Moby Dick, there are people in my circles who have read Moby Dick. Ditto for War and Peace. I even have an acquaintance who has read History of the Peloponnesian Wars. But none of my friends have read Lalka, and this needs to change.

Since I'm writing this on the fly, here's a blurb from the Wikipedia entry:

The Doll (Polish title: Lalka) is the second of four major novels by the Polish writer Bolesław Prus (real name Aleksander Głowacki). It was composed for periodical serialization in 1887-89 and appeared in book form in 1890.

The Doll has been regarded by some, including Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, as the greatest Polish novel. According to Prus biographer Zygmunt Szweykowski, it may be unique in 19th-century world literature as a comprehensive, compelling picture of an entire society.

While The Doll takes its fortuitous title from a minor episode involving a stolen toy, readers commonly assume that it refers to the principal female character, the young aristocrat Izabela Łęcka. Prus had originally intended to name the book Three Generations.

The Doll has been translated into nineteen languages, and has been produced in several film versions and as a television miniseries.

The Doll, covering one and a half years of present time, comprises two parallel narratives. One opens with events of 1878 and recounts the career of the protagonist, Stanisław Wokulski, a man in early middle age. The other narrative, in the guise of a diary kept by Wokulski's older friend Ignacy Rzecki, takes the reader back to the 1848-49 "Spring of Nations."

Bolesław Prus wrote The Doll with such close attention to the physical detail of Warsaw that it was possible, in the Interbellum, to precisely locate the very buildings where, fictively, Wokulski had lived and his store had been located on Krakowskie Przedmieście. Prus thus did for Warsaw's sense of place in The Doll in 1889 what James Joyce was famously to do for his own capital city, Dublin, in the novel Ulysses a third of a century later, in 1922.

And here's what I apparently had to say about it on my (pretty much defunct) Goodreads page:

You've probably never heard of this book, but it comes damn close to meeting War and Peace on its own terms.

History rolls forward. The aristocratic scumbags are replaced by capitalist scumbags. The solutions to yesterday's problems become new problems and we don't get anywhere. A great man becomes a great man in pursuit of a vain and hopeless goal that eventually destroys him. A world of fops, fools, scoundrels, and nihilists loses something it desperately needs.

We can be 99% certain that society is irredeemably fucked. But unless we try to be better, we deprive ourselves of that last 1%.

When you hold out hope for human potential, you'll almost definitely be disappointed. But damn it, we've got to hope. And we've got to try.

Huh. I wonder where that came from.

Anyway: the plan right now is to begin reading on December 21 -- the winter solstice. There are some details that remain to be worked out; pages per week, for instance. (It will definitely not be 200 a week like we did with Three Kingdoms, however.) The sooner you email me if you're interested, the sooner these things can be determined!


Step two: Email me.
Step three: Read a classic world novel! Discuss it! Feel your horizons expanding!