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We Can Be Happy Underground

Alfred Ely Beach's Pneumatic Subway

From the “Further Readings” section at the back of Paul Collin’s wonderful Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change The World:

There is one very simple way to see what Beach’s railway [19th century New York's secret, unfinished pneumatic subway] looked like, and blown up far larger than any plate in this book could manage. Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture. Graze pensively on your Baked Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips. Ponder the vagaries of ambition.

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The Day After

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“See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

That’s the last line of the last page of the last issue of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison’s pop magic comic book master work. That final issue came out right around Y2K, but it’s set on the December solstice of what was then the freaky-sounding future year 2012. All this year, every time I heard somebody cracking wise about the Mayan Apocalypse, I thought, “Unless you’re an ancient Mayan, you’re stealing Grant Morrison’s bit.”

I bought and read every issue of The Invisibles as it came out from 1994 to 2000. It’s the only comic I’ve ever followed so religiously. It’s brilliant and fun and a bit of a mess and it meant the world to me. It worked its way into my life and rewired the way I saw things, which is pretty much what it was intended to do. Yes, it’s dated now, but so am I. I can’t be any more objective about it than I could be objective about my twenties.  Read more

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Auld is the Lang Syne

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I started blogging ten years ago tomorrow–January 1st, 2001–with a quote from Parappa the Rapper, a welcome to my newborn niece, and the default Blogger theme. I wasn’t a very good blogger, but in 2001, who was? I’d make all these little placeholder posts, with the idea of going back and finishing them later. Heh. The big wheel of life keeps turning, and unfinished blog posts, I have since learned, do not typically finish themselves.

My god, this thing we (unfortunately?) call blogging has changed so much in ten years. It’s enjoyed its edgy youth, its boom town gold rush days, and its decadent high baroque. Now, with the rise of blogging’s vapid, staccato children, the blog as medium seems to be settling into old, weird decrepitude. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself. We always do, don’t we, when we talk about the internet?

It is time, I think, for Old is the New New, at least in its current incarnation, to come to an end.

Not necessarily today, and not necessarily with this post. No, this blog will ramp down and fold up, I expect, in the same half-assed, dilatory way it has always lived. But it is time for some kind of change.

Ten years is a long run for a blogger, even one as erratic as I. If you are reading this, oh Teeming Dozens, thank you for your time. If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, thank you. If you’ve ever commented, if you’ve ever linked, if you’ve ever gotten anything out of this at all, thank you. I am so grateful for, and flattered by, every success this little blog has had.

What exactly “come to an end” means is a little fuzzy. I am still going to be blogging about history and play at the shiny new group blog, Play The Past. I am, if a little unenthusiastically, on Facebook and Twitter. This site will absolutely stay up, maybe with a facelift of sorts. The archives aren’t going anywhere. (I’ve even been toying with the idea of vanity-publishing my best old stuff as a POD book. Would anyone buy one? Mom?) And whenever I write something new, as I expect I will from time to time, I will probably post it here. So in what sense will the blog be “done”? Why not just call this yet another hiatus? I’ve obviously had no problem letting these furrows lay fallow for months at a time before.

The reasons are mostly in my head. My life too often feels like a chain of endless open loops. (I am sure nobody reading this can relate.) As I scramble to hammer out the final revisions on my telephone book, assemble my tenure file, teach my classes, and try not to screw up my two kiddies too badly, I’d prefer to think of Old is the New New as some kind of accomplishment, rather than one more hovering obligation. And the way to do that, I think, is to draw a line and call it done.

I also want to free myself for new things. I remember talking once about “blogging voice” with Timothy Burke. For me, Tim sets the gold standard for academic generalist blogging. He’s got a brilliant, playful, wide-ranging mind and can find something interesting and original to say on any topic under the sun. But Tim has written more than once about how the “voice” he’s crafted on his blog is both “a treasured accomplishment and a frustrating confinement.” “The more you write,” he says, “the more your writing is both burden and expectation, a second self whose permission is required before you do something new.”

I know what he means. Even with my own erratic output, there are a few hundred posts below this one, trailing back ten years to the start of this century. I doubt many of you have read them all, but I have, and I do feel them dragging in my wake whenever I sit down to write something new. How many posts have I started by linking to what I said on the same subject two years ago, or three, or five, or eight? I want to be able to start fresh, to sharpen and revise my voice. I don’t know if a new format or URL or blog theme will be enough for me to do that, but it’s a start.

Finally, I’m just a little down on the whole internet deal just now. I know that every generalization about the web is wrong, including this one. Emily Gould called the internet “a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to.” My internet isn’t yours, and again, whenever we make hand-wavey generalizations about the web, we’re mostly just describing our own neurochemistries. So read this how you will, but when I look at the web today, I get tired. There’s great stuff out there, I know. But I can’t shake the sense that rhetorical closure is setting in, and it’s not all we thought it was going to be. Four years ago, Time‘s Person of the Year was “You,” which is to say, us, which is to say, that whole user-generated people power 2.0 schtick. Yes, it was hokey and about three years late in coming, but a worthwhile sentiment just the same. This year, of course, Time‘s Noble Personage is Mark Zuckerberg. Don’t tell me there’s not some kind of declension there.

There was a time when the web, and the blogosphere in particular, surprised and delighted me every damn day. It doesn’t do that lately. Am I just old? Maybe. But the thing to do, I’m thinking, is not to get all wistful about it. It is to step back, to try to rethink and hopefully rediscover my relationship to this space, and see if, somewhere down the road, I can’t surprise and delight myself (and maybe you) once more.

Until then, thanks for reading.

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Where Bat Ideas Come From

At the Bat-Computer

I’m enjoying Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and already thinking about which chunks I will cannibalize for my history of science and technology class next semester. Good Ideas brings together themes that Johnson has been developing for years: the networked nature of innovation, the ingenuity of cities, the power of thinking across disciplines and scales. It’s a great read, as ingenious and beautifully written as all his stuff, although its wider scope makes it, to my mind, a little breezier and more lightweight than, say, The Ghost Map, which remains my favorite of Johnson’s books. I want to say this gently, because I think Johnson is terrific, but there is a whiff of the airport bookstore, if you know what I mean, around this business of “good ideas” and how to have more of them. Good Ideas shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in a way Ghost Map or Emergence or Invention of Air do not: you too can harness Charles Darwin’s seven secrets of info-lution! That’s probably a plus for some readers, but it’s not really what I came for. Still. I’m only part way into the book, and I trust Johnson to take me someplace smart and unexpected and cool.

I like to read related things in tandem (that’s one of the seven secrets, sort of), so as a bit of a counterweight I’m also reading John Durham Peters’ 2004 essay “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’: A History of the Concept,” published in a collection called Toward a Political Economy of Culture. Johnson’s metaphors are more biological than economic–not a “marketplace” of ideas but a “coral reef”–but otherwise, Peters could have been talking about Johnson here:

Words are conceptual mausoleums, haunts at which the spirits of the dead continue their debates and threaten to possess the bodies of the unwary. Intellectual history can provide a selective exorcism … Taking the ‘marketplace’ as the central metaphor for public communication, as we will see, has divergent effects. It packs hefty semantic freight, suggesting that communication and economics are not only analogous but flourish when unregulated, that diversity is essential, and that exchange occurs in a “place” where people congregate and circulate, enter and exit at will. The term often wears the halo of what one might call the libertarian theodicy–the faith that ideas, if they are left to shift for themselves, will be diverse and truth will conquer error in the long run. It implies a rather disembodied vision of public communication, as if the politics of culture were governed by entities so Platonic as “ideas.”

Are all ideas good ones? Do The Origin of Species, a sexy new way to market music, and predicting the 9-11 attacks beforehand all come from the same place? Did Social Darwinism, CD packaging, and the 9-11 attacks themselves come from some different process?

All that aside, the real catalyst for this post was a throwaway reference in Good Ideas. Talking about Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine, Johnson writes:

For all its complexity, however, the Difference Engine was well within the adjacent possible of Victorian technology. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady stream of improvements to mechanical calculation, many of them building on Babbage’s architecture. … In 1884, an American inventor named William S. Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company to sell mass-produced calculators to businesses around the country. (The fortune generated by those machines would help fund his namesake grandson’s writing career, not to mention his drug habit, almost a century later.)

Did everybody else know about this? Digging into my old Suppressed Transmissions, I see Ken Hite mentioned Burroughs the elder back in 2002, damn his eyes. But there’s still crazy untapped hashpunk potential in the idea of “William S. Burroughs’ Difference Engine.” And get this: Wikipedia tells me that a Burroughs Corporation computer console appeared in the old Batman series as the Bat-Computer. Holy Dreamachine. I don’t know what’s weirder there: the Burroughs-Batman connection or that the Bat-Computer was a real computer. So. Conflate or combine the two William Burroughses and mix them up with William Gibson too. Posit a drug-fuelled information revolution in the late 19th century. Giant beetly arithmometers talking out of unpleasant looking orifices. Phallic zeppelins of Interzone. Predatory mugwumps stalking the back streets of Tangiers. And some time in the surreal century that follows, the scion of the Burroughs family (along with youthful ward Allen Ginsberg) dons a cape and mask to rid his city of crime. To the Beatmobile!

See? Darwin’s seven secrets of evo-vation are working already.

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The People’s Vampire

There’s a nice long article in this month’s Harpers about vampire belief and lore in the present day Balkans.

Unlike his Western relation–that handsome, aristocratic, mirror-wary antihero–the Balkan vampire is typically confined to living and hunting among the laboring classes … Also a Western conceit is the vampire’s pallor; whereas female vampires are beautiful and white-robed, most firsthand accounts indicated that male vampires are ruddy, corpulent peasants, whose affect–once unearthed–is that of a freshly gorged mosquito.

Lots of good stuff about rural vampire-hunting, a legendary Serbian horror movie about an evil butterfly, the post-Tito return of the Devil, and why there are no goats in the nativity. On sparkly Western vampires, the author has this:

The Americanized vampire is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline: the person who has been able to take it all with him when he dies, who has outlived the vagaries of civilization itself. Having abandoned the culture that forged him, moreover, he deceives us into thinking that he has moved beyond being what he always has been–a disease. Now the plague he spreads is a therapeutic fantasy in which an embarrassment of wealth and youth and hedonism is acceptable as long as its beneficiary is equipped with the right intentions. We have forgotten to be afraid because … we are willing to believe that a weapon of evil, in the right hands, can be transformed into an instrument of good.

–Téa Obreht, “Twilight of the Vampires,” Harper’s, November 2010.