Article

The Day After

“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

Article

Auld is the Lang Syne

Telephone Robot, commission by Joe Alterio

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.  Read more

Article

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 sometime 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.

Article

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.

Article

The City and The City

The making of Ephemicropolis from Peter Root on Vimeo.

O. Henry, “The Duel” (1910):

Your opponent is the City. You must do battle with it from the time the ferry-boat lands you on the island until either it is yours or it has conquered you. The battle is to decide whether you shall become a New Yorker or turn the rankest outlander and Philistine. You must be one or the other. You cannot remain neutral.

John Berger, “Keeping a Rendezvous” (1987):

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.

To which some droll New Yorker replied: “Albany is an old man in a deli, trying to send back soup.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad Axe” (1856):

The great city is that which has the greatest men and women. If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.

All yoinked from the most recent Lapham’s Quarterly.

London, Ontario is of course a student with Ugg boots and big sunglasses. (I kid because I love.)