Year in Review: Blog’s Eye View

The first sentence blogged each month of 2011.


January: I’m not big on resolutions.

February: Geoff Klock’s current project seeks to document all the allusions, proposed and real, in Kill Bill.

March: Harry Dresden, wizard, sees no end to his troubles.

April: Aside from Humor sites, I also regularly check a number of amusing commentary websites, often focused on science and skepticism, that provide consistent amusement and information.

May: To the park!

June: The music I listened to this month was fine, but it’s not very memorable at all.

July: A quick list of things we did while we were in San Francisco (written from the SFO airport while waiting for the plane).

August: I was both a little happy and a little bummed when my book club decided to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

September: The Unquiet Bones follows the travails of Hugh de Singleton, third son of a minor landed knight.

October: The other day, we were driving along and I spotted a jeep with a wheel cover that said Goonies Never Say Die.

November: This is my fourth time teaching my detective fiction class, and my third time using a story anthology.

December: Scala’s young-adult cat-burglary adventure novel is an amusing, cute little romp about an orphan who discovers her destiny as part of a criminal syndicate for thieves.

See also: Blog’s Eye View of 2010, 2009, apparently I skipped this process in 2008, 2007

The Manual of Detection (3rd time)

The Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection

by Jedediah Berry

Having just read The Manual of Detection for the third time in eighteen months, I don’t have a lot new to say about it.  I re-read it again because my Literary Genres: Detective Fiction students are currently hard at work on their final projects, in which they explore the novel in the context of the shifting nature of the digital age.  It’s a question I’m working through in my own book also, so it’s been fun talking about it with students.  I’ll let you peruse my two older reviews of the book if you want more details, but I’ll add a few thoughts here.

In our class discussions of the novel, we waded through the two sets of dichotomies that stand at the heart of the novel: order vs. chaos and dream vs. reality.  The forces of order and chaos line up in a skewed way in the novel, as the ‘good guys’ of the agency use bureaucratic and surveillance methods that undermine their pure and just claims to good-heartedness, while the chaotic forces of the Carnival seem split between malevolence and malarkery.  When mischief can stand in for villainy, can we still call it villainy?  The end of the novel seems to suggest that a return of the chaos inherent in Carnivalesque society is a necessary development to offset the calcified corruption at the heart of the Agency.  But will Greenwood’s new Carnival be a jaunty show or a terrifying rolling riot?

The novel also gives lots of room to thinking about dreams as places we occupy, spaces we can use for thinking and understanding, and their potential to confuse us in reality.  I know I’ve had moments where I thought something that had happened in a dream had really happened in life, and I suspect others have as well.  But if we consider the potential for the dream state to undermine our ability to recognize “truth,” we can see how more pervasive dreaming can stand in for the everyone’s-opinion-counts Internet, perhaps.

I’m also interested in the fetishization of bureaucracy and style in the novel.  The ornaments of 1950s office work and the clothing to accompany it practically jump out of the page and occupy your brain as you read The Manual of Detection.  What are we to make of using this particular moment as the backdrop for the allegory at the heart of Unwin’s quest?  Perhaps it goes to the advent of mass communication technologies.  It should be no surprise that the radio, the only ‘hot’ technology in the story, is used to subjugate people into a dream state, where the master manipulator can make them do whatever he wants, from changing the date on their calendar to throwing away their alarm clocks or cleaning up the carnival.  From that perspective, one might quickly assume that Berry’s story foregrounds the ‘truth’ value of cool media (like newspapers or printed reports), but Unwin discovers that many of his reports are errors as well.  When those in control of the cool media want to lie, they can do so with impunity, perhaps.

* Note, I’m marking this reading, finished 6 December, as happening in 2012.  It’s kind of ridiculous to worry about explaining myself to you, dear reader, since my list of books read is entirely for my own edification, but here I am doing exactly that.  Thus, to insure that I give myself full credit for reading this book a third time, I’m marking it read in 2012.  I haven’t yet decided if I will back-credit the first book I read in 2012 to be in 2011 so the numbers even out.


Marketing flameout

My Computer! by dr. regor
My Computer! by dr. regor, used under cc-license

Have you been following the Ocean Marketing thing?  Here’s the very quick re-cap:

  • Someone ordered some videogame controllers from a company in early November.  When they hadn’t arrived by Mid-December, they emailed the company asking about them.
  • The customer service rep was a total jerk.
  • The customer got irritated and brought Penny Arcade into the loop.
  • The customer service rep was a total jerk to them too. (Oops!)
  • The Internet took notice.

There’s a good pair of summaries at PopeHat about the whole imbroglio.  Ken opens his second post with this comment:

For some time, I’ve been thinking and writing about this question: is it “fair,” and “right,” that if I act like a sufficiently notable choad on the internet, I may become instantly famous for it, and the consequences of that fame may follow me and have profound social implications?

I keep coming back to two answers: (1) yes, and (2) to quote Clint, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

For the last hundred years, people who care about such things have been complaining about the anonymity of modern life. People who used to live in small towns live in big cities, and people are turned towards television and globalized, homogenized culture rather than towards their neighborhood. One consequence is the ability to treat people badly — even in serial fashion — with relative impunity. It used to be that you’d get the reputation as the town drunk or the town letch, or the village idiot, and that reputation would follow you until you move on to another town. But now many people don’t even know their neighbors, let alone their whole “town.”

With respect to certain bad behavior, the internet can change that — it can transform you into the resident of an insular town of 300 million people. This week notable jackass Paul Christoforo is finding that out. Try Googling his name to see what I mean.

Some people worry that the result is unduly harsh or unfair — that anyone can become a pariah because of “one mistake.” I’m all for the concept of mercy, but I think that concern is misguided for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, the internet is manic and has a short attention span. You have to do something truly epic to go viral. One angry email won’t do it unless it is so extreme that it reflects a disturbed mind. If you “just have a bad day,” you’ll slip into obscurity quickly. It takes talent, or sustained effort, to become internet famous.

Of course, I see this whole business in the context of electracy and our previous ages of orality and literacy.  The move from rural village to urban space certainly did create a kind of anonymity that hadn’t existed before, one that resulted in all kinds of crime, but also the kind of variety and diversity that pushed the enlightenment forward.  Ken notices that the onmipresent panopticon of the Internet seems to have the same effect as the omnipresent village gossip network, sometimes tarring people with an undeserved red A, sometimes giving them a deserved one.

For netizens growing up under this omnipresent eye, perhaps the feeling or experience of surveillance is different than those of us who remember the era before the Internet.  (Indeed, I’m about as young as you can get and not have the Internet as part of your youth.)  While we value privacy and are appalled to learn how much of our personal information is available to skilled data-hackers, the young are nonchalant about it — welcome to the age of the Internet.

But for either person, being the subject of a large-scale Webstorm seems much like coming under the gaze of Sauron–something no sane person would want to experience.  Clay Shirky writes about the positive aspects of this experience in Here Comes Everybody, but we also must keep in mind the terrible effect the 4Chan crowd has, bringing the same kind of scrutiny for no reason other than cruel whim.

Year in Review: Blog Traffic

It’s always interesting to look at what brings people to my site.  As with last year, my home page came in as the third-most visited page, which was nice because my home page doesn’t get visitors from image search engines.  That said, my overall traffic average was up this year, but my stats in the last couple months have been shit.

Traffic by month, 2011
Traffic by month, 2011

Part of me wants to attribute these poor numbers to search engine black-listing after the hacking incident, but you can see that my numbers dropped off in October, and I wasn’t hacked until November, so this seems unlikely.  Perhaps I’m just not as popular as I used to be, or the image search algorithms aren’t favoring my site any more, which would be fine, since 90% of my traffic comes from image searches and doesn’t stay to read.

Top Posts and Searches, 2011
Top Posts and Searches, 2011

Case in point, all five of the top search terms that bring people to my site are image searches, and only one of the top five posts is popular for reasons OTHER than images (the Home Page).  That said, I’m gratified to see the Home Page this high in the list, since it’s the place I’d want regular visitors to go if they showed up here.

Referrers, 2011
Referrers, 2011

If you look the 17 referrers who sent more than 25 queries my way this year, most of them are image search engines, but there are a few that are not.  This survey definitely reinforces the value of linking my facebook and twitter accounts into my blog, as I got nearly 1000 hits from those venues this year.  I saw a healthy influx from the Zombie Research Society site as well.  It also highlights the value of interacting with other bloggers, as I got quite a few hits from other blogs, including a whole bunch from my guest post at Pharyngula (which has tens of thousands of readers).

Alas, I’m not seeing much in terms of long-term readership increase, though.  Oh well, here’s hoping next year is more productive.

See also: 2010, 2009

And then, when you’ve grown up big and strong, you can wear a hat with a lopsided brim, like me

His Native Sea, page 2

From The Santa Claus Annual

What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants
What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

This week marked the end of my Writing for New Media course’s exploration of What Technology Wants, so I can post my own thoughts on the book here.

Kevin Kelly’s nonfiction treatise explores the question of what we should make of the seemingly-independent course the technological apparatus around us charts daily.  This apparatus, which Kelly calls the technium, both depends on and guides us, and our ability, or inability, to ignore its treasures goes only so far as we’re willing to become Amish in some way (even the Amish adopt new technologies, it turns out).  A few thoughts:

  • Like Manuel De Landa in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Kelly describes the “arc of the technium” in evolutionary terms, suggesting that technology is life‘s way of expanding in complexity, ubiquity, and a bunch of other -itys.    DeLanda writes his book as a robot in the machine future, describing how humans led us to it.  Kelly might not disagree.
  • At the same time, Kelly is still skeptical of technology en masse.  He suggests that each piece of technology should be understood and grappled with on its own terms, and doesn’t seem to be Kurtzweilian in his love of technological progress.  That said, chapter 14 is pretty darn optimistic about the possibilities inherent in a technologically-advanced future.
  • Part of me spent the whole book grumbling that Kelly doesn’t invoke McLuhan more, because the essential argument at the heart of this book turns on the way technology serves as an extension of man, something that drives and is driven by us.  McLuhan’s seminal Understanding Media made the same argument in less accessible terms decades ago.
  • I found the chapter on the Unabomber most compelling, since Kelly outlines his debate about whether or not to include Kaczynski’s writing in his discussion of the dangers technology poses for us.  Kelly points out how Kaczynski and nearly all the anti-technology crazies like him take full advantage of systemic technology in order to produce and disseminate the screeds they write against technological society.  The unabomber could have, Kelly suggests, cut himself off from the grid and actually developed a subsistence lifestyle.  Instead, he bicycled into town and bought groceries and other supplies at Wal-Mart.
  • If you only have time for a little of the book, I recommend chapter 13, in which Kelly lays out the nine trajectories evolving life forms (and technology) tend toward: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, evolvability.  These forces help Kelly make his final argument that technology ultimately helps us more than it hurts us, and that we’ve got a bright future ahead of us.

A few quotes I found worthy of note follow after the break.   Continue reading What Technology Wants

Year in Review: Blog Posts

Blogging Merit Badge, by edrabbit
Blogging Merit Badge, by edrabbit

Each year I post a list of my 12 favorite posts from the year, in chronological order.  I generally exclude review posts, but one might make the cut, I suppose.

See also: 2010, 2009, 2008

2011-12-25 Tweets

  • Note to self, best vocab for put-down of doofus on the Internet: bumptious. #
  • This just in: mozilla's Firefox Sync function kicks ass. #
  • 'Round our house, the grown ups find "A Charlie Brown Christmas" a bit treacly for our taste. Strangely, the younger set adores it. #
  • Santa gave Avery a copy of the recent Smurfs movie. Avery pronounces it in two syllabus, like s'mores. "S'murfs." #
  • Avery hesitantly gives me a message to pass on, stopping in the middle to clarify that I should do include the "ums." #

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Enjoy your holidays… if you can

Creepy Santa knows where you live
Creepy Santa knows where you live

There’s a little girl that wants a house like yours, and her mom is dating Santa’s roommate.  This Christmas season, Edmund Gwynn stars in Home for the Holidays: A Tale of Christmas Terror.

What are you talking about, Brendan? (See the last bullet point — ed.)

Year in Review: Comics

For the first time in a long time, I read a lot of comics this year.  Looking at my goodreads reading list for 2011, I read 44 graphic novels or trade paperbacks this year.  Admittedly, 13 of those were The Walking Dead, which I read for an article I was writing, but the huge volume demands some sort of accounting.  Here are some of the notables:

Comic A few thoughts

The Walking Dead, Vol 8: Made to Suffer
 A crucial turning point in the series, this volume of the graphic novel captures, for me, the pure chaos and pathos the whole series has developed.  Read in isolation it would lack resonance or solidity, obviously, but like the best story-arcs or episodes of well-crafted television shows, this volume stands out in the overall excellent journey that is The Walking Dead.

Planetary, Vol 4: Spacetime Archaeology
 I’m an incurable Warren Ellis fan, and Planetary stands as one of his crowning achievements.  It’s sprawling in a way that the more narrow stories aren’t, and it goes further than any of his previous work in digging through the superhero mythos to uncover the themes at the core of comic book supermen.  Volume four ties the whole story together in a way that Vol 3 did not.  Think about the narrative arc, not the relative quality, in Empire and Jedi — Vol 4 ties up the story like Jedi, but without Ewoks.

The Acme Novelty Library #18
 My admiration of Chris Ware’s work is accelerating like a sweat bead rolling down the potato-shaped forehead of one of his sad-sack protagonists.  Volume 18 captures still more of the awkwardness that everyone experiences, and the disappointment life holds for us, even on the best of days.  Ware reminds us that “this too shall pass.”
Daytripper by Ba and Moon
 The strangest graphic novel I’ve read in a while, Daytripper chronicles the life of a writer and sometime philosopher in Brazil by telling the tale of his death, over and over, as it might have happened at one age or the next.  His role as an author of obituaries only complicates the matter, and makes it more interesting.

I’ve noticed that I have a bunch of graphic novels on my shelf that I’ve never read, so part of my goal for this coming year is to read the comics already in my collection, rather than borrowing so many.  That said, I’m sure I’ll keep perusing the graphic novel section at the library as well.

Memes, Evolution, etc

A few random thoughts on the idea of memes as I’ve encountered them.

Late in The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggests that perhaps the locus of human evolution at present is not in our DNA, but in the extra survival information we’ve developed and learned to transmit societally.  It’s not unreasonable to see the architecture of culture around us as part of our evolutionary heritage, as it certainly affects our effectiveness as beings, our ability to procreate as a species, and so on.  He uses the term meme to describe an idea-based gene, something that transmits through communication rather than through genetics–religion, for instance.  On one hand, we can certainly argue that changes in our population absolutely spring from shared knowledge; on the other hand, the ten or fifteen thousand years of human society is such a small blip on the evolutionary time scale that it’s pretty hard for us to understand the relationship of our current society to the larger evolutionary sweep of our family, genus, or species.

The Singularity
In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly carries Dawkins’ ideas forward even more, blending them with the nerd-rapture idea of the singularity, that moment when we will be able to upload ourselves to machines.  If we were to digitize ourselves, embedding the knowledge and life we’ve developed thus far in metal machines instead of biological ones, the meme could become a significant factor in the continuing evolution of the self, as the genetic traits that governed our past selves become far less important (or ultimately unimportant) when compared to our pure digital selves.  Eventually we might find ourselves in the place of the imaginary author of Manuel DeLanda’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, who imagines the past through the eyes of our distant children, the robots who survive us.

Internet Memes
The common use of the term meme has come to mean an idea that has gained enough traction on the Internet to migrate between communities.  Most of the memes documented on sites like Know Your Meme seem unimportant or unlikely to last more than a little while, but mass-media culture has already shown us that these little bits of silliness need not stay contained as in-jokes.  Advertising catch-phrases that have exceeded the bounds of their original contexts are the most obvious example of this  potential.  When Reagan asks, “Where’s the beef?” he taps into a shared culture that demands accountability in the same way that the 4chan Guy Fawkes masksters do.

But to return to Dawkins’ original contention, could these new silly memes really embody a kind of evolutionary soup from which the next generation of humanity can emerge?  I say perhaps.  Note the structural similarity between these new memes and the older means of sharing and discussing cultural mores, religious and bureaucratic mechanisms.  Using the orality, literacy, electracy matrix, consider this shift:

Orality Literacy Electracy
Institution Religion Government/Bureaucracy Entertainment (c.f. Ulmer)
Means Ritual Rule, enforced with taboo or community pressure Law, enforced as with Orality, PLUS criminal code, law and order Meme, enforced as with Orality AND Literacy, and public scrutiny; circulated en masse and negotiated collectively
Example: Dating Customs Formal set of rules, enforced by families also legal protections for individuals, enforced by the state also public conversation about key issues, held in entertainment venues and texts, enforced by peer pressure and community

This junky table helps highlight the way the qualitative and quantitative shift in the way memes circulate means something essentially different for the developing social world than in jokes from a century ago did.  Because communities have global reach and are much more interconnected than ever before, the collaborative digestion and reshaping of the moral, ethical, and societal networks seem inevitable, and the motives and decision making process driving those doing the digesting have emerged from the chaotic memescape of the emerging electrate age.

Year in Review: Music

"Music Notes Bokeh" by all that improbable blue
"Music Notes Bokeh" by all that improbable blue

Another in my slew of review posts.  This one surveys the last year’s music posts and picks out a few songs that have stuck with me.  Keep in mind that “of the year” refers to its role in MY musical collection, not the year in which it was released. Check them out:

  • Overplayed song of the year: Mumford and Sons, “Little Lion Man” – this is one of those songs that got really over-played, but for good reason.  It’s awesome, and if you don’t know it, you need to go look it up now.  Runner up: Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” which is way better in its original form than in the clean versions, IMO.
  • Cover of the year: Mattafix, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” – this cover does everything a good cover should: it helps you see the original song in a new light, emphasizing different facets of the original
  • Novelty song of the year: Jonathan Coulton, “Good Morning Tucson.”  Coulton’s new Artificial Heart album walks the line between quirky pop and novelty music in the same way that They Might Be Giants have been doing for the last 20 years.  This track comes from that space created by clever lyrics and heartfelt emotion that Coulton has been occupying for a while now.  Runner up: Heywood Banks, “Toast.”  I’m the first to admit that this isn’t a new song, by any means.  But it’s really damn enjoyable.
  • Kids song of the year: Dog on Fleas, “Worms” – The message of this song is just too lovely to pass up.  Runners up: Baron Von Rumblebus, “Did you see where the cat threw up?” and Caspar Babypants, “My Flea has Dogs”
  • Creepy song of the year: Tom Waits, “What’s he building in there?”  It’s really creepy.  Not quite “When the Man Comes Around,” but in the same ball park.
  • Album of the year: Streetlight Manifesto, Somewhere in the Between.  An excellent punk/ska album of the late 90s tradition.  We thoroughly enjoyed the concert we attended, and I’ve come to really like this album.
  • Album of the year 2: Rodeo Ruby Love, This is Why We Don’t Have Nice Things.  An excellent alt-rock album, these folks are great songwriters.  With each listen, they grow in my estimation.
  • Rediscovered group of the year: Squirrel Nut Zippers are ascendant in my awareness after the delight I got from their live album, Lost at Sea.  Scheduled for March of this upcoming year? Selections from their best-of album.

See also: 2010

Have a Gibbering, Manic Holiday

"Santa Cthulhu Comes to Town" by Dr.Chrissy
"Santa Cthulhu Comes to Town" by Dr.Chrissy

Last year’s Lovecraftian take on “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  Perhaps you can read this version to your family and friends this holiday season.

Twas the Night Before Christmas by Norm Sherman

Distributed under a CC-Attribution-Sharealike-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license from the good and clever folks at The Drabblecast.

I’m not sure who Danpappa Dear is, but he creeps me out.

Danpappa dear

From The Santa Claus Annual

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

By Connie Willis

“Miracle and Other Christmas Stories” collects a variety of yuletide tales from SF and Fantasy author Connie Willis.  There are a variety of delightful tales in the book, and it’s well worth reading.  Nothing stands out as amazing to me, but several are very good.  Thoughts about a couple of them:

  • My favorite story is “Newsletter,” which follows an amusing tale of suspicious Christmas cheer and the stress that the season brings on people.  The fomenting horror of a conspiracy during the holidays is really quite charming.
  • The most touching is “Epiphany,” a story with a slight magical-realism bent that proposes a modern day journey of the magi, perhaps.  It’s the perhaps that makes the story really work well, and like many short stories, it leaves you wanting more.
  • The title story answers that cathartic need in me and all other Miracle on 34th Street fans to argue that It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really a very good movie, especially not in comparison to the best Christmas Movie of all time.  Plus, she captures her own bit of the holiday spirit as well.
  • I think “Adaptation” is another favorite, blending both fantastic elements that suppose Dickens’ Spirits of Christmas really exist and are still trying to eke out an existence in the cynical modern world and realistic elements of a man trying to cope with the destruction of his marriage and his ex-wife’s continuing efforts to pull him further and further from his daughter.  It’s sad, but lovely.
  • Finally, if you’re in the mood for a good SF mystery story, “Cat’s Paw” turns on a murder in a manor house staffed by talking apes.  Yes, I said talking apes.

It’s a fine collection, worth reading and enjoyable.