Meet the Inmates

Chris Naron
Vidad MaGoodn
Vidad's Flaming Drones of Death
Rigel Kent
Henry the V
Al, The New Guy
Michael Maier
Flicka Spumoni
Passin Through
Sean, the Were-seal
Water Buffalo
Frau im Mond
Ian McLeod
Captain Slack
J. Max Wilson
Carl V.
Damaged Justice

Recent Posts


Powered by Blogger

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by

Saturday, May 31, 2008

"...mais il faut cultiver notre jardin."

This was a dirt-intensive day. Expanded the herb garden, planted some veg, thought for a while I'd blown the transfer case on the Jeep, but it was only a matter of a rusty shift linkage — after a quarter-million miles of mud and snow, the poor old thing is entitled to its eccentricities — and with a bit of gentle persuasion (while, of course, lying on my back in the dirt), I was able to coax it back into two-wheel-drive mode and get it moving again.

About a half-ton into the garden project, though, a thought suddenly struck me:

photo: bag of top soil

Ready to use dirt? What other kind of dirt is there? I mean, do they sell dirt that you have to mix with egg yolks or thaw in the microwave or something?

And right about that time is when the tornado warning sirens went off — again — and the lightning and high winds started up, and I had to dash inside to shut down all the computer stuff, so the mystery remains unsolved. But I'm still left wondering:

Ready to use dirt?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cyberpunk Goes To The Movies

Oof. Long day yesterday, and today promises to be even longer. So while I still owe you a critique of the last batch of Friday Challenge entries and I've got a couple more blogs items backed up in the queue, this morning I'm just going to toss out a quick question. Voula Kalogeras writes:
Hi Bruce,

I accidentally stumbled across your work by searching for the word cyberpunk.

The reason why I was searching for the word is because I wrote a scifi screenplay and it was reviewed on a website called triggerstreet. (Kevin Spacey along with a partner developed it for new screenwriters.) The reviewer said it was cyberpunk and he loved it. I didn't know what this meant and looked it up to discover the meaning -- and you of course.

My question is this: have there ever been any cyberpunk movies made? Is there a strong interest in this genre as a movie? High tech and low-life are the characteristics of a cyberpunk movie?

Many thanks!
Well? How about it?

Right off the top of my head I can think of The Matrix and its sequels, of course, and Johnny Mnemonic. I can also remember being in the room when William Gibson described Blade Runner as being the first cyberpunk movie and an inspiration to us all. And then there are all those Japanese anime epics: Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel, Cowboy Bebop, etc., etc.

But what about, say, RoboCop and its sequels, or Terminator 2? What about Total Recall? Which movies belong in the Cyberpunk Cinema Hall of Fame, and just what is it that makes a movie "cyberpunk," anyway?

Your thoughts and comments, s'il vous plait?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Indiana Jones Rides Again For The Last Time, Maybe. Or Maybe Not.

On the spur of the moment, Karen and I took The Kid to see Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last night. While I had some mild worries about whether we'd be able to get in, they were misplaced. We walked into the cineplex at 7:50, found no line at the ticket booth, got tickets for the 8:00 PM show, and had time to hit the concession stand and load up on popcorn and bevvies before finding perfect seats in the nearly empty theater. The lights went down at 8:00 PM sharp.

Wall-E looks pretty good. Kung-Fu Panda looks like it will turn children's brains to feta cheese. The newest remake of The Incredible Hulk looks like a complete waste of time, energy, and money. The Kid got excited by the Get Smart! trailer, but I both fondly remember the original TV series and can't help but remember that Don Adams flopped repeatedly trying to sustain the concept at feature-movie length. Hell Boy II should be fun. I've already got The Dark Knight scheduled on my calendar. They very wisely did not run the trailer for The Mummy Returns Yet Again, or whatever they're calling it. You Don't Mess With the Zohan looks great, but it's an Adam Sandler movie, and I've yet to see one of those that didn't make me want to gouge out my own eyes with a plastic fork after half an hour. But the trailer looks great! But it's an Adam Sandler movie... I'm torn.

Oh yeah, the Indiana Jones movie. That finally started at around 8:30, and it was both pretty much everything I was hoping it would be and a few things I was hoping it wouldn't. To be honest, I mostly laughed through the entire thing. It was a two-hour thrill ride, seguing from one wildly improbable stunt to the next even more wildly improbable chase scene and stunt, with the occasional break here and there to let you catch your breath, but there was never for a moment any sense of real jeopardy, tension, or mystery, or even the sort of ick! factor you got in the first three movies in the scenes with the snakes, bugs, or rats. The tombs were all strangely dry and well-lit; the rotting corpses were all remarkably unfrightening; the menacing primitive natives weren't; the hordes of killer ants were obvious CGI (no insects were harmed in the making of this film!); and vast volumes of automatic gunfire were unloaded without anyone except a few redshirts here and there getting hit, and they died instantly and bloodlessly. (As The Kid pointed out in one scene that was supposed to be tense, "That M1 carbine and that Thompson would be a lot more threatening if they had magazines in them." That's my boy!)

All the same, it was wonderful to see Karen Allen back in the series again; Marion Ravenwood was always my favorite Indy babe. It was definitely worthwhile watching it on the big screen and not waiting for the DVD, because there are lots of little bits of business and sight-gags scattered throughout that you'd otherwise miss. (Watch for the Ark of the Covenant to make a momentary appearance in one chase scene and be completely ignored!) It's a shame they couldn't get Sean Connery back for one last cameo; it's good that they chose to set this movie 20 years after Raiders and acknowledge Indy's age, although still wildly improbable that any man, much less one his age, could survive any of the action in this movie without subsequent months of hospitalization. I'll confess there were moments when I thought I'd accidentally wandered into a revival showing of The Mummy Returns, and in those moments, this movie seemed the weaker of the two by comparison.

But in the end, sticks got slapped, prats fell, and Harrison Ford delivered the goods one more time. In this respect, IJ4 (which is what it said on my ticket stub) is most like a late-period John Wayne western; say, Big Jake. Spielberg and Lucas missed the opportunity to deliver any real meaning or poignancy, as Wayne did in The Cowboys, True Grit, or The Shootist, but the old guy proves he can still get up on the horse and put on a good show one more time, and they definitely left the threat of yet more sequels to come hanging over our heads.

Overall grade: 4 out of 5 stars. Definitely worth seeing in the theater. Buy lots of popcorn.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 5/23/08

Okay, here are the entries in the 5/16/08 Friday Challenge. As always, you're encouraged to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites, and the winner will be announced on Sunday, 5/25/08.

First up, Ben-El has accomplished something truly remarkable, in writing an entire 4,250 word short-story in the form of a sequence of HaloScan comments. Given our recent misadventures with HaloScan, though, and even while the @*&#$ed thing seems to be behaving itself today, I've taken the liberty of extracting Ben-El's posts, concatenating them, and creating a pdf file of the story. Download and enjoy.

Similary, WaterBoy submitted his entry as an emailed file, which I've converted to a pdf file and posted. Download and enjoy.

Henry's entry is posted on his blog, and therefore immune to my HaloScan problems. We hope.

Snowdog's entry is also posted on his blog, and the same applies.

Sean both emailed me his entry as a PDF file, which is posted on my website, and posted a link on his blog. One of these links is bound to work.

At just about the last minute, Vidad submitted another entry in the form of YouTube media file. I haven't had time to test this link yet. Let me know if it works.

And finally, at "Hey, my clock said 11:57," KTown submitted this short but sweet entry. I'm going to tempt fate and hope that this HaloScan link continues to work correctly.

And with all of that said: read, enjoy, and we'll announce the winner on Sunday!

Next up, here's the 5/23/08 Friday Challenge. Because of the holiday and the short week, we're tossing out a fairly lightweight one this time, and announcing the first ever—

Friday Challenge Parody Song Contest

That's who we're looking for this week: the next Weird Al Yankovic! Take a song, any song — it can be one you love, or one you've always wanted to do horrible things to — and write a new set of lyrics for it. They can be innocently funny, deeply political, topical or contemporary; they can be just about anything, so long as they rhyme and fit the music. And no, you don't have to perform your song; we're looking for pure lyric talent.

As always, we're playing by the remarkably relaxed rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever's behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, 5/29/08

Preview of Coming Attractions: In return for an easy one this week, we're going to go a little over the top next week, so it only seems fair to give you advance warning. The 5/30/08 Friday Challenge will be to write an article about that hot new televised talent competition that everyone's talking about—

American Idolator!

You know, the show where representatives of 16 oddball sects and cults face off before a live audience and a panel of celebrity judges, to compete for the honor of being named this year's One True Faith?!

There, that ought to get some ideas perking...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Secret Agent #6 Speaks

From time to time Secret Agent #6 (aka The Legendary Masked Literary Agent) decides to drop by and share his thoughts, and he did so this weekend. The following is pieced together from a string of frantically scribbled notes. (When he's in Vision Mode, #6 talks very fast and non-linearly.) I will present this as a long quote, but it's actually a patchwork of quotes and paraphrases, and any errors in transcription are mine alone.
"Keep in mind, right now, every publisher, in every genre, is over-supplied with publishable quality manuscripts. Editors must choose what is most likely to sell well over that which is the best manuscript. In this case, the enemy of the potentially great is the apparently good enough.

"For editors, not making a mistake and breaking even is better than taking a big risk for a big reward [and possibly losing money]. Like Nigerian letters that promise 30% of fifty million, publishers will take a risk on a HUGE reward, but to do so they must see something stunning first.

"Publishers no longer want to work with authors who need to be developed. They want finished or almost-finished novels by authors who know how to reach the large audience they are appealing to.

[Where writers are supposed to get that experience from remains a mystery. ~brb]

"If they get ten publishable manuscripts from excited, confident authors, they will pick the two or three they think work for them and let the others go. Some of those eight will never get published, or will be delayed a year or two, but the publishers don't care. There are plenty more authors where those came from.

"The ABA [American Boooksellers Association. ~brb] is dead and gone. The independent bookstores and distributors are extinct. The publishers eventually figured out that all book-buying in America is really done by seven people: the buyers for Borders, Walden, Crown, and so on. With A.G. Bertlesman apparently intent on buying up every publisher in the country, editors were going to ABA conventions not to promote books but to network and pass around resumés. The publishers got tired of paying for that.

"Del Rey is doing okay. HarperCollins is doing well with their EON line. I haven't submitted a book to Baen in years. The Baen contracts were good and they were always quick with the advance, but I never got a royalty statement from Baen that made sense or passed audit. Now that Jim's dead, though, Toni seems to be straightening all that out, so they might be worth another look.

"With all the consolidation in the industry and everyone worried about their careers, all the interesting action is taking place with the B- and C-list publishers. They can afford to take risks; in fact they have to, to survive. Most of them seem to be located in either Chicago or Texas. The advance money isn't as good, but they're more willing to take a chance. You'd think with the dollar as weak as it is against the euro that the European publishers would be over here bargain-shopping for books to import and translate, but that isn't happening.

"The hot category is still chick-lit with vampires, chicks who kick butt. The market is more open than it was, say, four or five years ago, and everybody says they want more hard sci-fi like Charles Stross or John Scalzi, but they're all really looking for the next Laurell Hamilton. Or maybe the next Buffy. Everybody wants the book that's going to become the next Moonlight. That's the TV series everyone is talking about this year. No, not Reaper; that's got a good Gen-Y thing going, but I'm amazed it's still on the air.

"You can still sell to the geezer market, but they're getting fewer every year and they have their favorites and don't like to try anything new. Everybody now is trying to find the thing that'll click with the Gen-Y market. It isn't hard SF. Gen-Yers don't care how things work. They care about where they can buy it and whether having it will make their friends think they're cool. They don't want to take an old backpack and go explore Europe and sleep in hostels. They want to buy a designer backpack and packaged hostel tour that will get them into the seven best nightclubs in Berlin and introduce them to a token Morrocan who speaks perfect English.

"Heinlein could never sell in today's market. Citizen of the Galaxy; Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; Heinlein wrote too many young kids who were loners and outcasts who had to learn things and too many old geezers who explained things, and the Gen-Yers don't care. They don't want to be identified with losers and they're not interested in listening to their own grandparents, so they see someone like Baslim or Jubal Harshaw as just another old windbag.

"I take that back. Heinlein could sell lots more stuff like Starship Troopers. I mean the movie, not the book. There's a market that calls itself military SF, but the galaxy-spanning empires and space fleets are over. Star Trek and Star Wars ruined that. What the readers want now is grunts with cool weapons and great gadgets slugging it out in the mud with nasty aliens. Warhammer 40K stuff. There's a small but steady market for that, if you like to splatter blood and guts."
There was more, but that's more than enough for one dose. Submitted for your consideration. Use at your own risk. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 5/9/08

Update Sunday 5/18/08: And the winner is Sean. WaterBoy, you impressed me by coming up with an actual well-developed serious plot from what I thought was just a silly little idea, and Snowdog, your entry both made me laugh and fit the format best, so it was not an easy decision, but in the end I had to go with Sean's entry, because that level of demented creativity is not to be denied. Ergo, Sean, come on down and claim your prize.

With that out of the way, don't forget this week's Friday Challenge, in which Ben-El already has a strong head start, and remember that the Friday Challenge rules discussion is still ongoing. For example, awhile back I added an unwritten qualification I guess I call the Vidad Rule. I don't judge this thing the same way I would judge submissions if I was editing a magazine. I try to spread the encouragement around; nothing is more frustrating for everyone else than a competition the same three people win every time. In particular, I try to avoid picking the same winner two weeks in a row, and I save my harshest judgment for those already doing professional-grade work.

Is this fair? Should I be doing this; running the contest more like a teacher than an editor? Or should the Friday Challenge be a true unweighted meritocracy? If so, then remember the old saying: "Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."

Update Friday 5/16/08: No entries by mail this week, so here's what we've got. Personally I think Sean's got it locked, but what do you think?


Kind thoughts going out in the meantime to Henry, who got whacked by the middle-week of the middle-month of the 2nd quarter phenomenon this week. Personally I'm a tad nervous myself, as the week isn't over yet, but send your good thoughts to Henry.

I'm also going to take this opportunity here to plug the Friday Challenge rules discussion; if you have any more thoughts to add on that topic, I'd like to hear 'em.

And with that thought, I have to get dashing out the door. The Kid missed his schoolbus this morning and needs a ride. Funny how that always happens when I've a Triumph rolled out and sitting in the driveway.

Must dash,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009: It was a day that dawned like any other. But then, with the dawn, came the dawning horror. At first by ones and twos, and then by the hundreds and thousands, people began pouring into the streets. Screaming, terrified, desperate and hopeless people — frightened beyond their ability to comprehend — burning with a nameless, mindless, insatiable hunger and begging for someone to save them from —

The Day The Televisions Died

That's the challenge this week. At least three paragraphs; beginning, middle, end. Let's see your best high-concept pitch for an action/adventure/disaster movie based on (dun dun daaaaaa!) the day U.S. analog TV broadcasting stops.

Hey, I figure if Y2K was good for an epic TV miniseries, this is worth at least a made-for-cable movie. But if we can get Will Smith on board...

As always, we're playing by the ever-evolving rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for what's behind Door #2. The deadline for entries this time is midnight, Thursday, May 15. You can enter either by posting your entry in the Comments thread here, posting on your own web or blog site and putting a link in the Comments thread here, or sending me a .txt or .rtf file, which I will convert to .pdf and repost. Links to all entries will be published on Friday, May 16, with the winner to be announced on Sunday, May 18. As always, you are encouraged to comment on the entries and vote for your favorites, and even if you don't enter, you're still encouraged to comment and vote. And with all that said:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009: The Clock to Armageddon is TICKING!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Oh, Canada!

Once upon a time there was a land called "Canada." It was a beautiful land, as broad and fine and fair as the Lord God ever put upon the face of the Earth, and in it dwelt a people called the "Canadians." While few in number, being no more than the population dwelling in that foul realm then known as California, the Canadians were a people as fine and beautiful as their land, for all the men were bright and brave, and all the women strong and beautiful, and all the children above average.

And then, something terrible happened. A shadow fell upon the land; perhaps all those hippies and draft-dodgers who left the United States to settle in Canada in the 1960s put something in the water. For the Canadians turned away from all the things that had made them a strong and goodly people, and instead flocked to join the new Suicide Cult of Multiculturalism, and they drank deeply of the poisonous potion of Diversity. And in place of their fine land of Canada they attempted to raise a new nation, devoted to their false god and his vision of perfection, and they called this land, "Trudeaupia." And the refugees from the Canadian health care system began to come streaming south.

There are many tales that could be told of life in Trudeaupia. For example, there is one that is told of the time a young software engineer from Minnesota was sent by his employer to a customer site in Trudeaupia, only to be arrested by the Trudeaupian border patrol and held for a day in a cold and damp concrete cell, while his employer labored to prove to the satisfaction of the Trudeaupians that this young engineer had specialized knowledge required by the customer site and was not taking a paying job away from a native Trudeaupian. In time the employer succeeded in doing so, and the young engineer was released, only to return immediately to the United States, from whence he proceeded to mail the Trudeaupian customer a box full of diskettes with instructions to shove the diskettes up their rectums for all he cared.

But that is another story, and of no great moment now, for even Trudeaupia itself was but a dream; merely a brief resting place along the primrose path to perdition. For in the fullness of time the land completed its descent into darkness and became "Khanadistan"; a strange place where all sense and reason was banished and it was possible for a highly placed official in the so-called "Justice" Department to declare, in a court brief:
"Mr. Lemire complains that the prohibition against disseminating hatred via the Internet is not accompanied by the defences of truth and fair comment that are available to traditional news media in torts ranging from defamation to seditious libel. This argument is misleading. The defences of truth and fair comment remain available to torts such as defamation and seditious libel, regardless of the medium in which they occur. However, none of the traditional media can avail themselves of these defences in cases of alleged hate propaganda, whether the communication appears in print, on television or on a website.

"As the Federal Court has explained, defences that may be available in tort actions are not available in cases of hate propaganda because the prohibition is concerned with adverse effects, not with intent."
While the Canadians had never been great fans of free trade or free speech — the reason their nation produced so many writers, artists, and musicians was because of their protectionist Canadian Content Laws, and they had been known at times to seize printed publications and jam radio and television originating from their southern neighbor, the United States — in the above quote we find proof of their final descent into madness. For in the new nation of Khanadistan, it is now the official position of the government that truth is no defense against the accusation of hate speech.

Weep for the lost Canadians, my friends. But weep, and then learn. For the Suicide Cult continues to spread its foul tentacles, and this madness surely is coming soon to a land near you.

Most likely it will begin in Khalif'ornia...

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 5/16/08

This week's Friday Challenge is, as they say, ripped from the headlines! Specifically, this headline:
Billions of electronic-eating 'crazy rasberry ants' invade Texas
Which, you have to admit, is a whole lot more exciting than this headline:
Ants swarm over Houston area, fouling electronics
Or this one:
Crazy Rasberry Ants Menace Electronics In Houston
At least InformationWeek had the grace to start the story with a different lead:
Computer users in Houston may encounter more bugs than anywhere else in the country.
Everybody else settled for running a slight rewrite of the wire service story:
It sounds like the plot of a farfetched science fiction movie. Unfortunately for the residents of Texas, it is very much a reality: billions of tiny reddish-brown ants have arrived onshore from a cargo ship and are hell-bent on eating anything electronic.

Computers, burglar alarm systems, gas and electricity meters, iPods, telephone exchanges – all are considered food by the flea-sized ants, for reasons that have left scientists baffled.

Having ruined pumps at a sewage facility, the ants are now marching towards Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre and William P. Hobby airport, Houston, putting state officials in a panic. “They’re itty-bitty things, and they’re just running everywhere,” said Patsy Morphew, a resident of Pearland, on the Gulf Coast.
Actually, the above load of bombast, exaggeration, and hyperbole came from the UK Times. A somewhat calmer and more factual version can be found in, of all places, The Chicago Tribune:
In what sounds like a really low-budget horror film, voracious swarming ants that apparently arrived in Texas aboard a cargo ship are invading homes and yards across the Houston area, shorting out electrical boxes and messing up computers.

The hairy, reddish-brown creatures are known as "crazy rasberry ants" -- crazy, because they wander erratically instead of marching in regimented lines, and "rasberry" after Tom Rasberry, an exterminator who did battle against them early on.


Worse, they, like some other species of ants, are attracted to electrical equipment, for reasons that are not well understood by scientists.

They have ruined pumps at sewage pumping stations, fouled computers and at least one homeowner's gas meter, and caused fire alarms to malfunction. They have been spotted at NASA's Johnson Space Center and close to Hobby Airport, though they haven't caused any major problems there yet.
There is some good news. The little buggers eat fire ants. But they also seem to be clever little devils. Not only are they resistant to common pesticides — and it's not enough to kill the queen; like San Francisco, their colonies have multiple queens — they also ignore the bait in conventional ant traps, and when you do manage to poison them, the survivors pile up the bodies of their dead and use them to build bridges over areas treated with pesticides.

The official story is that this is a previously unknown invasive species, accidentally imported from the Caribbean about five years ago. Yeah, right. The official story. Like we believe that.

And there's your challenge for this week. What are they — really? Where did they come from? What's their mission? Who do they work for? Why are they slowly but inexorably heading for the Johnson Space Center? And who, excluding Hillary Clinton in spandex, can stop them?

You have until Thursday, May 22 to solve this mystery, and save the world...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An interesting observation from an unexpected source

Muslim scholar Khalid Duran, quoted in Steven Emerson's deeply disturbing book, American Jihad:
"The odd thing about Islamic fundamentalism is that it's always had its strongest appeal among engineers," he says. "There's even a joke about it in Arabic. The words 'al-ikhwan al-muslimun' mean 'Muslim Brothers' and 'al-ikhwan al-muhandisun' means 'Engineer Brothers.' In Egypt they always say the Muslim Brotherhood is really the Engineering Brotherhood."

Duran attributes this to shortcomings in education. "Engineers don't exercise their fantasy and imagination. Everything is precise and mathematical. They don't study what we call 'the humanities.' Consequently when it comes to issues that involve religion and personal emotion, they tend to see things in very stark terms. The Muslim Brotherhood has become very conscious of this. They've set up special programs in the universities to try to recruit students in the humanities, but they never have any luck. Having an education in literature or politics or sociology seems to inoculate you against the appeals of fundamentalism."
Duran's point aside, this observation would also seem to explain the quality of much of the discourse on the internet.

Anyway, if you're looking for a good book to scare the willies out of you, check out American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us. And if you're having trouble understanding that this whole "terrorism" thing is not just some clever ploy cooked up by neocons to empower the Bush administration, check out Steven Emerson's web site, or at least his blog.


Monday morning I was mildly tepid with righteous indignation. By Monday evening Real Life had intervened, in the form of #3 Daughter getting the opportunity to move into her new apartment two weeks earlier than originally planned, and on Tuesday morning Real Life again intervened, but in a different way. Ergo, by today: eh.

In Monday's post I meant no offense to Mr. Holm personally. I'm sure he's a swell guy, just as I'm equally sure it was the reporter's choice to quote a paragraph of sophomoric twaddle and declare it profound. Sadly, the argument that he's been around for a long time and they had to give him an award before it became posthumous gets little traction with me, as I've seen the same argument used to justify decades of Nebula Grand Master awards voting. Some years it actually goes to someone whose body of work is significant. Most years — well, we have to give the award to someone, and [insert name here] has paid his or her dues...

People over on the capital-A Art side of the world really don't seem to realize that it is largely their own behavior that convinces everyone else Modern Art in all its myriad forms is a scam. In school, Art is perceived as a dodge, for bourgeois children who don't want to study real subjects or get jobs after they graduate. (Think of the flakiest people you knew in college: yes, they were all Psych majors, but the second flakiest people were usually to be found in one of the Art departments.)

Post-school, Art seems more like a classic political spoils system, by which state arts funding, corporate donations, and foundation grant money is redistributed to those with the right connections. Minnesota in particular has a wonderfully effective arts funding system, by which large amounts of public sector cash are pumped into producing music no one listens to, plays no one performs, books no one reads, and paintings and sculptures no one enjoys. And another day, I might have more to say about this. But today—

Eh. Let them have their fund. Er, fun.

Meanwhile, over in the U.K., the finalists for this year's £25,000 Turner Prize have been announced. This, as you might remember, is the prize that last year went to an artist who dressed in a bear suit and created a replica of someone else's 2001 anti-war protest in Parliament Square, and previously went to an embalmed half of a cow. Personally, my money this year (at 11/4 odds) is on Glaswegian Cathy Wilkes, who uses commonplace objects to create sculptures that "touch on issues of femininity and sexuality."

Wilkes sculpture

But hey; what do I know about Art?

Monday, May 12, 2008

"The future of America does not lie with the well-adjusted."

And with these words Bill Holm cops this year's McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist grant, a $50,000 cash award given to individuals "who had opportunities to pursue their work elsewhere but chose to stay in Minnesota and contribute to the state's cultural life." Holm is, "a protean American radical in the tradition of Thoreau and Whitman," according to Emilie Buchwald, a fellow McKnight Distinguished Artist winner, and not coincidentally, Holm's publisher.

In Holm's most recent book, The Windows of Brimnes, we catch a glimpse of the world through the prism of his genius:
"We are a crazy country. The scariest idea we have is of success, prosperity, and victory. Nobody wins wars. We have to finally get over that idea. Who gives a s--- who wins a high school football game? I am not a competitive person, maybe because I was an only child, so I never had to fight for the second pork chop. I think it's bad manners to compete. Hillary Clinton's greatest vulgarity is her competitive spirit.

"We are so anxious to be prosperous, we can't see the effect on nature and on us..."
There's more, and we'll continue the discussion this evening, but right now some of us have to go work for a living. You'll find the entire article at this link: From 'Failure' to '08 Distinguished Artist"


Saturday, May 10, 2008

A brief glimpse behind the curtain

David writes:
I also picked up a used hard copy of Headcrash a few months back. I stopped reading when I got to the proctopod...
At the risk of sounding smug; good. That's the effect I was going for. (Well, maybe not quite so strong. You really should pick it up again and finish reading the book.)

You see, one of the things I tried to do in Headcrash was restore a little "squirm value" to the idea of interfacing with the cybernetic world by shoving hardware inside of your body. Since everybody seems to have become pretty blasé at the prospect of interfaces that require sticking wires and chips inside your brain (despite the well-documented dangers of poking holes in the old dura mater), I thought, maybe if I approached it from the, so to speak, opposite angle...

That's a simple and often remarkably effective writer's trick. Sometimes, when you find yourself drifting into the Sea of Clichés, you can restore the emotional power of a idea merely by reversing the polarity. So in the case of Headcrash, instead of putting jacks in Jack's brain, I gave him the Sacroiliac Neural Induction Device, and David has kindly demonstrated the resulting effect.

Ergo, topic for discussion: can you think of other examples of stories where writers have taken a standard cliché, and by simply flipping the polarity, restored its emotive power and/or visceral effect?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Friday Challenge Discussion Thread

This is another stub post for the purpose of auto-generating the various feeds and the Haloscan comment thread, which will eventually become part of the permanent exhibit in the right sidebar. The topic is the Friday Challenge: what works, what doesn't, what do you think would improve it, and just how formal do I need to get with the structure and rules?

I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Old Synth Guy Speaks

Sean asks:
A little off topic as this relates to the 80's, but as a synthesizer guy, what are your thoughts on Gary Numan. I was listening to him this morning and was thinking how much I dug his synthesizer sound. Nothing sounds quite like that anymore.
Okay, the first thing you have to bear in mind is that I'm old enough to have seen the Doors play live, and the second is that I came out of that weird nexus where rock and serious music briefly intersected in the 1970s. So on the one hand there are photos somewhere in the archives of me hanging out backstage with the likes of Devo, and on the other, I met and got to know people like Terry Riley, John Cage, Morton Subotnick, Harry Partch (who just died recently), and Dave Brubeck, and studied composition under a guy who'd studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Bet you didn't know *that* about Conrad, did you, Miss Bliss?)

So as far as electronic music goes, while back in the day I did listen to and enjoy Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes (not so much), and Pink Floyd, I also listened to Tomita, Tonto's Expanding Head Band, Edgard Varese, and early Frank Zappa. (Say, Uncle Meat and earlier. Zappa was an insanely brilliant experimental musician, before he discovered that he could become rich and famous by telling dirty jokes over music.)

Goodness, this is dredging up dusty old memories. I mean, Stardrive, with Robert Mason. There's a good subject for an Obscure Google challenge. What the heck ever happened to him? Oh, I suppose I could pop over to and find out in a minute, but where's the fun in that?

(Heh. So I did take a minute to look at that site, and in the list of companies and synths they're looking for information on I found the Passport Soundchaser. Since I worked on three of the four Soundchaser models, was the software project lead on the last one, and still have the prototype MX5 up in my attic, I suppose I should write them an article one of these days, hmm?)

Right. Back to the question at hand. While I enjoyed EL&P, I was never that impressed; Keith Emerson may have had a huge heap of Moog modules on stage, but every instrument he played, he played as if it was a Hammond organ. A lot of the things he did that people thought were synth sounds were in fact Hammond. You could get some amazing sounds out of those old electromechanical beasts, if you were willing to torture them. Similarly, while people still talk about Pink Floyd's use of electronics, mostly they used tape effects and processed guitar, right up through Dark Side of the Moon. (Which was the best Alan Parsons Project album ever.) Wish You Were Here was their first album to make extensive use of keyboard synths, and while I still like the music, technically, the electronic aspects of it were kind of ho-hum.

Shuffling slowly down Memory Lane, ignoring for now Larry Fast, Sigmund Snopek, Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, Tangerine Dream, Michael Hoenig, Vangelis, and the hideous abomination that was Switched on Bach... Jan Hammer deserves a special note. He tried hard and repeatedly to do rock with a keyboard in place of a lead guitar, but ironically, his best work was always as backup to utterly brilliant guitarists, like John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck. Gary Wright was the first one I can remember who actually cracked the charts doing three-minute pop tunes that were all synth, no guitars. And by the mid- to late-70s there were a *ton* of bands doing the "Top 40 song with a synth noise as the hook" thing; Wings, Steve Miller, Captain and Tenille, Foreigner, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, etc., etc. I guess The Cars finally perfected that trope, polishing it to such a high gloss that you could listen to it for three minutes, enjoy every second of it, and at the end feel like you'd listened to nothing at all. "I like the night life, baybeeeeee...."

In retrospect, there were three musicians whose use of synths really impressed me. The first was Pete Townshend, who, starting with Who's Next and going through Quadrophenia and the Tommy movie soundtrack, really proved the case for using synths to create ambience and do orchestrations. (As opposed to pretty much everyone else on the pop music scene, who treated the synth as just one more funny-sounding keyboard, to be used after you'd gotten bored with running the Rhodes through a phase shifter and the Clavinet through a wah-wah pedal a la Stevie Wonder.)

The second — chronologically, the third — was Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who was way sharper and more tech-savvy than anyone ever gives him credit for being.

And the third, but probably the most significant, was Brian Eno. I'd been sort-of following Eno's career for a few years, from Roxy Music, through the solo albums (e.g., Another Green World, Before and After Science, Discreet Music), much as I'd sort of half-heartedly been paying attention to Robert Fripp. Then, in 1977, I had this audible bombshell dropped on me, in the form of the Bowie, Eno, and Visconti collaboration, Low. That was the first album in years that made me sit up and go, "Wow! I like that! How the hell did he do that?" And then they followed up with Heroes, which was ever better, and Scary Monsters, which was a little too weird even for me, and by that point I was really paying attention to Eno, and mostly noticing how much of the music I really liked had his name somewhere in the credits. For example, Talking Heads '77 was the first album in years that made me say to a friend, "Will you please turn that damned noise off?" But I just about wore out the grooves on More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, and both of those were produced by Eno. Likewise, while Mothersbaugh is very sharp, Eno had a huge hand in shaping the early sound of Devo, and the boys from Akron never quite managed to sound as good again as they did when he was producing them.

Oh, but wait: this was supposed to be my answer to the question, "What do you think of Gary Numan?" To be honest, by the time Numan showed up — in what? Late 1979, early 1980? — I gave him a listen, consigned him to The Vague Gray Limbo of Second-Rate Peter Gabriel and David Bowie Imitators, and never gave him another thought. According to his wikipedia entry he later did some very experimental and influential work after Telekon, but by that time I'd lost all interest in him. So with all of that said, I'll turn the question back to you: what Gary Numan tracks would you recommend listening to?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

ThoughtCrime Update

illo: America Alone, by Mark SteynI'm adding a new link to the template: SteynOnline, the home page of Mark Steyn. Not only is Steyn an entertaining writer, he's also managed to become the target of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, for the unspeakable thoughtcrime of writing this book. For you see, while Steyn now lives in the U.S., and this book was written in the U.S., and it was even published in the U.S., an excerpt from it was reprinted in Maclean's, Canada's leading newsweekly, and it seems that in Canada it is now a hate crime to actually quote in print the actual words spoken by certain of the more unpleasant and homicidal representatives of the Religion of Peace™.

Yeah, I know, there is a strong temptation here to write this off with, "Oh, those wacky Canadians. What'll they think of next?" After all, Canada does have roughly the same population as California, albeit spread out over a much larger and colder area, and it is easy to think of the inhabitants of the Great White North as being Californians, once removed.

But American writers should be following this case with great interest for two reasons. The first is that , despite the efforts of certain parties to make defendants and plaintiffs of enemy combatants, the Bill of Rights does not extend outside the U.S. borders. In particular I know of one American writer who went to a conference in Toronto, sat on a panel and expressed himself with the same degree of pugnacity and pungency he was comfortable using in the U.S., and was most unpleasantly surprised to find himself hauled before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and charged with committing hate speech. Canada is a different country. They do things differently there.

The second is that, while much of the Bill of Rights is still operative within American borders, ideas travel, and others are learning from observation. In parts of this country it has already become a near-ThoughtCrime to criticize, say, the National Council of La Raza or MEChA, and while we still cling to the larger tatters of the First Amendment, there are plenty of people in the political sphere who are eager to bend over, grab their ankles, embrace diversity right up to the sigmoid, and call for "reasonable limits" on free speech in the name of multiculturalism and the [insert subculture name here] vote.

I'm watching the progress of Steyn's case with great interest. I recommend that you do, too.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Hypocrisy on Wheels

illo:reddy kilowattI miss Reddy Kilowatt. When I was a kid, he was the very personification of Wisconsin Electric Power Co. Helpful, friendly, sometimes cautionary but never scolding; all he did was build clean and safe coal and nuclear power plants and deliver cheap and abundant electricity right to every room of your home, where you could put it to a myriad of wonderful, modern, time-saving and convenient uses.

Reddy was a good spokesthing. (Much better than the other personification of WepCo, anyway, which was a tubby slob in a truck with a hardhat on his head and a Milwaukee goiter hanging over his toolbelt, who had to turn sideways to get through doors.) And the best part of all about Reddy was, except for the occasional stern warning about the dangers of using octopus connectors, Reddy never delivered sermons.

These days the Reddy Kilowatt character is owned by my local gas and electric provider, Northern States Power, which in turn is owned by Xcel Energy. (How did they miss calling the company Xcel NRG?) And Xcel Energy, sadly, never misses the opportunity to deliver sermons. Every month, along with my bill, I get a little trifold tract sharing the good green news about some wonderful new environmental initiative they're pursuing, be it energy audits, hydro power, biomass fuel, strong-arming me into buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, or building lines of giant bird-mincers, stretching across the prairie as far as the eye can see. Xcel just loves to tell me, over and over again, just how wonderfully green they are.

Which makes it just brilliantly ironically hilarious that at 9:30 this morning, as I was driving to work after a doctor's appointment, I found myself behind two slobs in a white Xcel Energy minivan, driving west on Valley Creek Road from Radio Drive to 494. (That would be a white Plymouth Voyager, Minnesota license plate AA4086, fleet number 422108, in case anyone's curious.) And while I couldn't tell what it was they were eating, I watched them fling a constant stream of litter out the windows, all the way across Woodbury.

Ah, but there is one important difference: in this glorious 21st century, the slob power company workers are now not-unattractive young women.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Cyberpunk Reader Reviews Wanted

I'm starting to collect reader reviews of my Cyberpunk novel. If you've read it and want to comment on it or ask some questions about it, please feel free to do so on this thread. If you haven't read it but think you might want to, you can download a pdf of the manuscript at this link.

If you haven't read it but want to comment on it anyway, bugger off. I know that lambasting a book you haven't read is the hallmark of a true blue book reviewer, but such behavior will not be welcomed here. Go review The Irrational Atheist instead.

For reference, this post is a stub, and the first of several to come in the next few days. This bit is being posted only to autogenerate the feedblitz and rss feeds and Haloscan comment thread and will be removed in a few days. However, assuming this little experiment is not a total botch, the Haloscan comment thread will become part of the permanent exhibit in the right sidebar.

And with that said: thanks for your time, and I look forward to reading your comments and questions.



Ten days ago it was snowing. Five days ago another snowstorm was predicted, and I understand that's how it fell further west, but it landed here as a cold, hard, day-long rain. Saturday it finally started to warm up, at least enough to make it possible to shut off the furnace and sleep with the bedside window open a crack, which in turn made it possible for me to be awakened at 5 AM Sunday morning by the astonishing amount of racket that a bunch of lovesick chickadees can make when they put their tiny minds to it.

In the space of 48 hours, Spring returns to the north country. The yard is erupting in tulip, hosta, iris, and daffodil shoots. The lilacs are budding but still weeks away from blooming. I think the squirrels got all the crocus bulbs again — dang it — and the first lonely daffodil has already burst into full blossom. (Sorry, hon; wasted effort. None of the other daffodils are in the mood yet. Even the bees are still hibernating.) We've entered that rare and brief period of grace during which the world reboots, and it's possible to sit out on the deck and enjoy a fresh cup of coffee without drawing either swarms of mosquitoes to yourself or a few suicidal gnats into your cup. The cows have moved down to the south end of the pasture, to munch on the fresh green grass and kick up their heels after a long winter in the barn and the feedyard. If you've never seen it, it's quite a sight; a bunch of 800-pound dairy animals feeling frisky and playful. No wonder the dogs are afraid of them.

Speaking of remarkable sights: I saw a young eagle yesterday, flapping hard as it flew south from Sunfish Lake with a rather sizable fish in its talons. A moment later the reason for its strenuous efforts became evident, as a second, larger and fully mature bald eagle came rocketing up behind it, accelerating, climbing, and closing fast. Just when it looked like they were going to collide the young eagle let go of the fish, thus providing me with an opportunity to witness the truth of the old adage: even a dead fish can bounce high, if you drop it from far enough up.

And that's what I'll be doing this week: either rebooting The Ranting Room or seeing if I can't at least make the dead fish bounce. I've been swamped with things in the real world for the last few weeks — in some cases, quite literally, but nothing I couldn't get through with my shiny new green wellies. ($14.99 at Fleet Farm!) I've let a goodly amount of blog material pile up; come up with a few new ideas, some of which may be worth pursuing; and just generally, am in the mood to reassess and reboot my life and what I'm doing with it. The Friday Challenge will return, not surprisingly, on Friday, May 9.

In the meantime: what's your favorite sign that Spring has finally arrived?