Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Fuddy-Duddite: Batman and Bill Hicks

There's a Batman fancomic making the rounds lately. I'm sure you've seen it. But in case you haven't, take a look.

Why does it leave such a bad taste in my mouth, I wonder? I like Batman. I like Bill Hicks. I like dark "what-if" narratives and from time to time I still enjoy "meta" stuff. And the writing is good! And the art is great! So why wasn't I knocked out of my chair by this?

I just remembered something from Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. The subject of the section from which this is excerpted dealt mostly with music, but it does expand to other media as well:

Even the most seemingly radical online enthusiasts seem to always flock to retro references. The sort of "fresh, radical culture" you expect to see celebrated in the online world these days is a petty mashup of preweb culture.

Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.

So. You take one thing that people on the Internet already recognize and like (Batman). You mash it up with another thing that people on the Internet already recognize and like (Bill Hicks). And voilĂ ! Batman + Bill Hicks = Internet sensation.

That's probably an oversimplification, and it discounts the power of the artwork and the drama of the story, surely. (It's much more than just a straightforward mashup on these accounts.) But I can't think of any other reason for why I'm not as impressed as I'd like to be. It's just two things I'm already familiar with and I already like, and they're put together--and to me it feels somehow calculated and unimaginative.

Preciado (the writer) comments that what he and Bayliss (the illustrator) have in the works now stuff involving original characters -- which I do plan on checking out. They clearly know what they're doing.

And that makes the Batman comic a brilliant move on their part. You bring everyone to the table with something a whole lot of people are guaranteed to be impressed by (Batman + Bill Hicks; people already like what they already know), and some of them are guaranteed to stick around afterwards when you ask them to swallow something unfamiliar.

They're good.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Sane Person Talks of Existence

Via Cassini.

After composing the list of books in the last post, I felt compelled to revisit Celia Green's The Human Evasion. Apropos nothing, a short excerpt:

It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call it the Outside.

The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if only because it exists) but not many people notice this.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

#book (Top Ten Most Books)

Not long ago an old friend asked me: "if you had to name the ten books that have had the most influence on you, what would they be?" (Really! He really did ask that.) Here's what I came up with after thinking about it for an evening. I find it interesting that so many of them (six!) were books I read after the end of my formal education.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Carl Sagan)

It is as valuable to understand the methods of science as the revelations of science, and to understand how and why they work.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (Hunter S. Thompson)

Showed me how prose could crack, pop, and whistle, and ensured I'd say yes to dropping acid the first chance I got.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

The first Great American Novel that I read in high school, and evidence that conservative accusations of socialist indoctrination in public education might have a kernel of truth to them. It's hard (even for a sluggish goth kid in a gamer haze) to read Grapes of Wrath without experiencing sudden and serious misgivings about American capitalism.
History of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)

To quote a cartoon: "history is much like an endless waltz. The three beats of war, peace, and revolution continue on forever."  From the recording of this particular strain that played out in Greece in the fifth century BCE, one can gain a fairly comprehensive understanding of the whole dance.

The Human Evasion (Celia Green)

"Astonishment is the only realistic emotion." If that's the case, human beings appear to be rather unrealistic. Why?

A Long Way from Euclid (Constance Reid)

My senior year precalculus teacher only passed me because she felt sorry for me. Since then I've managed to teach myself the basics of single-variable calculus and am currently working through a trig textbook. A Long Way from Euclid is the book that impelled me to revisit and explore mathematics for pleasure.

Miscellaneous Writings (HP Lovecraft)

Lessons learned: it's good to have hobbies, it's good to dabble in numerous fields of study and interest, it's good to stay in touch with friends, it's good to cultivate a consistent (and evolving) worldview, and it's good to write and keep writing.

Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)

I've said it before: this is the Third Testament. Beyond the Tanakh and the Gospels, there is the Whale. 

The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry (Jay Parini, ed.)*

I used to dislike poetry. (I had a real grudge towards Ginsberg, apparently.) This collection helped me to understand why that just wouldn't do.

War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

People, history, the world, life, everything, etc.

There you have it. HEY! Why don't you tell me the books that have influenced you the most?

* Yes, yes -- choosing an anthology is a copout. But I'm looking at Howl and Other Poems, Leaves of Grass, and The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, and none of them are nearly as bent and wrinkled from repeated reads as my copy of the Wadsworth Anthology.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Meet "the Professor," the Unabomber's literary inspiration

On a lark I just began reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, which I acquired (free!) with a bundle of other used paperbacks. I hadn't heard much about the book until now, but as it turns out it's got quite a legacy. It ranks higher than Heart of Darkness on Modern Library's list of the best novels on the twentieth century, and it's also the favorite novel of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. In particular, there was one character who left an impression on him during his formative years: "the Professor."

I just finished the chapter in which the Professor is introduced, and I'd like to share it with y'all. It's some rattling stuff: "The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket."

The only context you need to know, really, is that it takes place in 1886 London. I copy/pasted the text from Eldritch Press, but only up until Comrade Ossipon and the Professor stop talking philosophy and move along to the business of advancing the plot. Enjoy!

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall. Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

"Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair," said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair. His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity. The din it raised was deafening. When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the bespectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

"In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can't be a matter for inquiry to the others."

"Certainly not," Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. "In principle."

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table. His flat, large ears departed widely from the sides of his skull, which looked frail enough for Ossipon to crush between thumb and forefinger; the dome of the forehead seemed to rest on the rim of the spectacles; the flat cheeks, of a greasy, unhealthy complexion, were merely smudged by the miserable poverty of a thin dark whisker. The lamentable inferiority of the whole physique was made ludicrous by the supremely self-confident bearing of the individual. His speech was curt, and he had a particularly impressive manner of keeping silent.

Ossipon spoke again from between his hands in a mutter. "Have you been out much today?"

"No. I stayed in bed all the morning," answered the other. "Why?"

"Oh! Nothing," said Ossipon, gazing earnestly and quivering inwardly with the desire to find out something, but obviously intimidated by the little man's overwhelming air of unconcern. When talking with this comrade
which happened but rarelythe big Ossipon suffered from a sense of moral and even physical insignificance. However, he ventured another question. "Did you walk down here?"

"No; omnibus," the little man answered, readily enough. He lived far away in Islington, in a small house down a shabby street, littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill, joyless, rowdy clamour. His single back room, remarkable for having an extremely large cupboard, he rented furnished from two elderly spinsters, dressmakers in a humble way with a clientele of servant girls mostly. He had a heavy padlock put on the cupboard, but otherwise he was a model lodger, giving no trouble, and requiring practically no attendance. His oddities were that he insisted on being present when his room was being swept, and that when he went out he locked his door, and took the key away with him.

Ossipon had a vision of these round black-rimmed spectacles progressing along the streets on the top of an omnibus, their self-confident glitter falling here and there on the walls of houses or lowered upon the heads of the unconscious stream of people on the pavements. The ghost of a sickly smile altered the set of Ossipon's thick lips at the thought of the walls nodding, of people running for life at the sight of those spectacles. If they had only known! What a panic! He murmured interrogatively: "Been sitting long here?"

"An hour or more," answered the other, negligently, and took a pull at the dark beer. All his movements
the way he grasped the mug, the act of drinking, the way he set the heavy glass down and folded his armshad a firmness, an assured precision which made the big and muscular Ossipon, leaning forward with staring eyes and protruding lips, look the picture of eager indecision.

"An hour," he said. "Then it may be you haven't heard yet the news I've heard just now
in the street. Have you?"

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sympathy for the postscript

"London," from William Blake's Songs of Experience (1794)
Might be topical.

Regarding the last post, my mad scientist cousin commented:

I take issue with only one thing you wrote, that "in any of these impassioned public debates ... what you ultimately want is for the other side to change their minds ... and join you." I think most of the people behaving badly in public debates on the internet are either so full of anger and indignation that they don't really know what they want to accomplish, or else they are more worried about enhancing or cementing their position within their own side than with anyone outside of it. (Or they're trolls, of course.) Seeking a sense of being secure in one's own tribe by villifying outsiders is as old as humanity; reasoned debates are not.

I wish I my blog entries could be peer edited before they're posted. (I also wish I proofread and tuned them more.) But he's absolutely right.

Maybe what I should have said would have a few qualifiers: "what you SHOULD want," for starters. "What you should most sensibly hope for." "What's probably in everyone's long-term interest."

One might more easily incline towards the sectarian logic of warring tribes, but that's counterproductive when what we really require is a unified front. A stable human supercolony.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sympathy for the

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy F, plate 21 (1794)

When I parse the latest output from the variegated noise channels of cyberspace, I'm often impressed at the intensity of passion shown by people for progressive causes (even if the expression of that passion is too usually limited to commenting, retweeting, and like-buttoning). But sometimes I worry that the zeal of vocal progressives, paired with their contempt toward the opposition, mightn't be unhelpful in the long term.

Let's take an issue like gay marriage (for instance). Say that somebody, maybe pastor, mayor, or congressman out in Wyoming writes an op-ed column for his local newspaper expressing his view that marriage in the United States should strictly be between a male and a female. A handful of outraged readers post a link to the article on Twitter and Facebook, and soon, through the abstruse physics by which a parcel of information is made to "go viral," the column's audience spreads far beyond its usual reader base in rural Nebraska. (Did I say Wyoming first? Shit. I meant Nebraska.)

The comments section of the Daily Tumbleweed becomes a battleground for partisans on both sides of the debate. The article is linked to by all kinds of people on all kinds of digital platforms in all kinds of places. Since most of my friends (and myself) are in the gay rights camp, my various social media feeds will pile up with that particular cut of partisan red meat.

Even though I agree with the general progressivist stance 90% of the time on 90% of the issues, I often hear these twanging notes of righteous smugness in my peers' comments, tweets, and status updates: I know what's right, my friends know what's right, and people who disagree with us are wrong, and they're wrong because they're stupid.

However fun it is to take shots at someone you disdain, and however much a group is energized and fastened together by a communal witch-stoning, the attitude is not productive.

We hold the convictions we do because of the social environments we live in. (In the Internet age, we must also consider the overlapping micro-environments of social correspondence, but the ones in which a person chooses to participate will depend on his offline experiences.) If gay rights (again, just our example) seems like a no-brainer to you, it might not necessarily be because you're a better-hearted or cleverer person than the people in the opposing camp, but because you were conditioned differently.

Suppose you lived exclusively in environment where (1.) there are no openly gay people with whom you ever personally interact (2.) the only openly gay people you observe are the distorted, noisy stereotypes gyrating across the mass media (3.) you, your family, and your peers are deeply involved in a religious community in which homosexuality is demonized (4.) you were inculcated with a value system that identifies the "man-woman-children" family as the very nucleus of a healthy society.

Supposing these things, do you think your worldview would be the same as it is now? Do you think you'd be unreservedly comfortable with the idea of gay marriage? If not, would it constitute some kind of personal failing on your part?

Ideas and beliefs don't spontaneously bloom in people's minds. They are cultivated by time and circumstances (or time within circumstances). We can't blame someone raised in a megachurch-attending family in Kansas (did I say Nebraska?) for not viewing the world through the same window as someone raised in a secular family from New York or Boston.

But if this hypothetical parallel-universe me had any of my brains, you might say, he would have surely have questioned the values of his community and come to the natural conclusion that they are indefensibly wrong.

Would he?

I'm not a psychologist, but I'll venture that the questioning of one's own values occurs as a matter of exigency. If you never had cause to question the beliefs of your parents, your church, your teachers, etc. -- if you never experienced any conflicts or tensions of a sufficient magnitude to trigger a transformative crisis -- would you ever end up questioning them?

(How often do you have cause to sit down and honestly reevaluate your own convictions? I don't have to reevaluate them, I know they're right. Is there any chance you thought that to yourself?)

Obviously I'll take a stance on one side of an issue out of an earnest belief that it's the most logical and just course, even if the basis of that belief might be more arbitrary than I'd like to admit. And I've absolutely said unflattering things about the other camp and felt sentiments towards its members that were much more acidic and gristly than respectful disagreement. But what can I say? I'm as opinionated as anyone.

But we're veering off course.

In any case, in any of these impassioned public debates between any pairs of ideological opposites, what you ultimately want is for those on the other side to change their minds, see the sense of your position, and join you. When you and your allies loudly and routinely pillory your opponents, are they more likely to respond by (1.) renouncing their old creeds through tears of contrition and joy, and thanking you for showing them the light (2.) digging in their heels and pushing back harder?

Since we can't shouldn't can't kill people whose beliefs we find harmful, and since they're not going to go away, what we want to do is change their minds. We're not going to do that by flinging ridicule and scorn at them.

If one were really serious, one might begin by befriending them.

More later.