April 29, IN HISTORY – labor relations

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken. For some reason, lots of photos from Aprils 29th were available, we have Presidents, Writers, Opera Singers, plus bombs and wreckage.  Enjoy!


Teddy Roosevelt speaking in Illinois about currency 4/29/03
Teddy Roosevelt speaking in Illinois about currency 4/29/03

Opera Singers

Mary Garden, 4/29/13
Mary Garden, 4/29/13
Geraldine Farrar 4/29/13
Geraldine Farrar 4/29/13


Upton Sinclair, 4/29/14
Upton Sinclair, 4/29/14

Upton Sinclair was arrested for protesting the conditions of Colorado Miners, 1,200 of whom were attacked in their camp that very morning by the Colorado National Guard in what was called the Ludlow Massacre.

The Ludlow Massacre 4/29/14
The Ludlow Massacre 4/29/14
Lieut. Scott's Aero Bomb 4/29/12
Lieut. Scott’s Aero Bomb 4/29/12

On Baltimore

Thinking about Baltimore this morning, I recall this Martin Luther King Jr quote I read a few years ago:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. (link)

To be clear, Dr. King isn’t advocating violence.  In fact, his commitment to nonviolent protest got stronger in the face of the 1960s riots.  But to condemn violent protest or violent action as a simple matter is, I think, a kind of intellectual dishonesty.

My thoughts are with Baltimore today.

Koko Takes a Holiday

Koko Takes a Holiday
Koko Takes a Holiday

Koko Takes a Holiday
by Kieran Shea

Shea’s novel is a light romp through a dark future where most of the Earth has been ravaged by economic and environmental collapse.  Many people live in floating cities high above the Earth, and a few others vie for the limited slots among the global elite.  Just making her way in the world is our titular vicious mercenary, who has been working as the owner of a brothel for the last few years.  Alas, her past comes back to haunt her and she must make a run for it.

  • Koko is an enjoyable adventure, if a bit light on the plot arc.  The main character is empathetic in as much as someone who used to be a mercenary can be, but the future Shea describes is so bleak that we need not worry too much about particular bleakness facing individuals in the world.  Yikes.
  • One of the plagues of the floating cities is a kind of suicidal depression that’s diagnosed as an incurable disease.  There’s an implication in the book that this sort of depression is just in one’s mind, which could imply some deeper readings of Shea’s view of modern mental health issues, or it could just be the view that the overlords of the future might employ a cynical terminal diagnosis to control population growth. (And thus, I just realize, I build a link between this novel and the under-rated Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan film Joe vs. the Volcano.)
  • Shea seems to have an equally dark view of corporations of the future — global capital has not been all that good for people in the world.  That said, there’s an implication that the world collapses under some other malady and it’s only global capitalism that gets us going again, so maybe these vicious corporations are good?   I would love to read another book written with a Margaret Atwood-ian seriousness in this particular world.  (Actually, without too much tweaking, you could see this as a version of the Oryx and Crake world.)

This book comes as close as I’ve found to the edge of the nickel.  It doesn’t offer enough, to me, to push it onto the recommended pile, but it has a few enjoyable facets that make it hard to recommend against.  It’s a fine beach read, but that’s about it.

Tweets from 2015-04-19 to 2015-04-25

Dispatch from the Age of Electracy: C2E2 edition

One of my prized possessions (thank you, Joe Hancock and Joy Sperling) is a Dawn of the Dead poster signed by George Romero, Ken Foree, David Emgee, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross.  Among the various bits of stuff that the seller provided were photos of the signings — attesting to their provenance.  With C2E2 today, I now find myself in the position of preparing to seek photos and autographs from luminaries and scribblers, so this seemed an apt time to offer a few comments on signatures.

Paintings or It Didn't Happen
Paintings or It Didn’t Happen

The signature attests to presence and agreement.  It used to be ubiquitous on contracts and love letters.  It had to be witnessed (the more important the contract, the more crucial the witness).  We have special people whose job it is to watch other people apply their signatures.  In encounters with celebrities, we ask them to sign things as a souvenir, as an agreement (I was here with this thing).  It’s a tangible thing we can take away from our encounter with them.  I can imagine two teens in high school in the fifties:

Teen 1: You’ll never guess who I met when I was in Los Angeles last weekend.  Maryiln Monroe!
Teen 2: Autograph or it didn’t happen.

Of course, the signature only stays reliable as long as we want it to.  In the age of the digital manipulation, it’s but a matter of moments to scan, copy, paste, and render a document that looks as though it was signed by someone who didn’t sign it.  One of the more bizarre ways we maintain a belief in the integrity of the signature is in the use of Faxed, but not emailed, documents.  Two different financial organizations I work with accept faxes as legally binding documents, but NOT email.  Of course, the easiest way for me to fax things is to scan them and use a PDF to Fax service to send them.  We’re approaching angels on pinhead territory here.

With the rise of ubiquitous cameras, the autograph has given way to another form of “I met a celebrity” — the selfie or posed picture.  When we were at Comic-Con last year, we were far more interested in getting photos with recognizable celebrities than autographs.  First, they’re much more compelling as something to share.  Second, they document the human interaction — I met this person — rather than the human/object interaction — this person touched this thing.  Third, for the celebrity, the photo attests to true fanhood because it’s not a commodity.  No one will want to buy a copy of my photo of me and John Hodgman, though there might be people who’d pay slightly more for my autographed copies of his books.

It will be interesting to see if the photograph of the signing makes its way back into legal spaces.  I can imagine photos embedded as part of legal documents showing all the signers and witnesses together, holding up the signed document.  There would be joyous photos (the shared signing of incorporation papers, for instance) and grim ones (I can imagine a thread somewhere highlighting the most depressing divorce-papers-signing photos).

Someday, we’ll have to upload a photo to attach to our e-filing of our taxes, face next to the screen.  It will be automatically updated as our driver’s license picture, and the circle will be complete.


On Game Design: You Gotta Spend Money to Make Money

Don Cruez
Don Cruez – spends blood to do stuff

One of my favorite things a game can do is to make spending money (or currency) draw from your victory pool.  Some examples:

  • Smallworld requires you to spend victory points to bypass races you don’t want to play.
  • The Sheriff of Nottingham doubles the effect by encouraging you to bribe opponents with coins, which increases their score directly while lowering yours.
  • The TV Show Cutthroat Kitchen requires players to spend their prize money to screw over their opponents

My all-time favorite version of this comes from the Vampire: The Masquerade CCG.  In this incredibly complex card game, you play as an elder vampire, controlling a stable of younger vampires by giving them your life force, blood, from your pool.  Each thing you buy costs you blood from your pool, reducing your life force and hastening your death (and the other player’s victory).  In my memory, it wasn’t uncommon to end the game on a knife-edge, gambling many of your last pool on a play that *should* put the other player out of the game.

I think the tension created by making players spend their own victory is an excellent way to augment a complex game.  What other ways can we make players weigh victory and defeat against one another?


Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend
Silver Screen Fiend

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film
by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt is a really good memoirist.  He has the deft touch of a seasoned comedian, a keen eye for metaphor and the important detail, and a strong sense of storytelling.  Silver Screen Fiend imbues his early standup years with a strong narrative arc, one of artistic stagnation and malaise, a lesson he learned and a cautionary tale for us.  It’s also damn funny.  A few thoughts:

  • I couldn’t help but recall Steve Martin’s amazing Born Standing Up in light of this book. Martin spends much more time on his thoughts about technique, whereas Oswalt does so mostly in service of the larger questions about artistic endeavor generally.
  • I love Oswalt’s metaphor of the Night Cafe.  He relates the story of Picasso’s first venture into work from memory rather than from sight, and how painting that vibrant red room made him into a different artist.  Oswalt calls these moments (or rooms or experiences) “night cafes,” and explores how his own such experiences shaped his life as an artist.  It recalls Gregory Ulmer’s assertion of the guiding image, an idea that shapes who we are and how we work as a creative or intellectual person (see Internet Invention).
  • I love the inside-baseball stuff about the comedy scene in LA in the late 90s.  One of the overwhelming impressions I have of L.A. is that people circulate in their own bubble there, and we have no sense of how it works.  The tales about how the one particular comedy club insulated and ruined comics were a great sense of how Oswalt maintained his sense of perspective.
  • The one negative thing I have to say is that Oswalt occasionally gets a little too elaborate with his comedic metaphors.  They overflow the first half of the book like a clogged toilet in a punk bar.

The audiobook is especially good because, as a performer, Oswalt knows the nuance and flow of the work, and knows how to make the beats land well.

See also: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Tweets from 2015-04-12 to 2015-04-18

March music roundup: Raconteurs, Bhi Bhiman, Tally Hall

I review my music playlist for each month, compiled from albums that drift across my transom and tunes I download from eMusic.

Emusic albums:

  • Bhi Bhiman, Bhiman – Bhi Bhiman continues to impress.  This is the second full-length album of his that I’ve gotten and it’s great.  It opens with “Guttersnipe,”a swelling paean to a difficult childhood and the potential he’s moving toward, moves into the bouncy “Time Heals” and “Crime of Passion,” the latter seeming entirely too happy for the dark nature of the song.  I really like “The Kimchee Line” despite the fact that I don’t really know what the song is about.  “Life’s Been Better” wraps up the album with a great little story song.  All around, great.
  • Tally Hall, Good & Evil – This album was slippery on my attention — I almost never noticed it playing during the month.  It doesn’t have quite the same quirkiness that Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum did.  A couple of the songs are pretty memorable, though, including “Cannibal,” a song about masochistically staying in bad relationships, and “Turn The Lights Off,” which channels TMBG pretty well.
  • ATO Records Spring Sampler 2013 – As a sampler, I’ll just mention the songs that I really liked. “Youth Wasted” (from Joby Ford, Jorma Vik, Ken Horne, Brad Magers) for its early 00s rock-pop sound and “Jah is Listening Now” by Jacob Hemphill has a great folksy sound

Emusic parts of albums

  • Pete Seeger, a few songs – “Summertime,” sapping all the hope out of the Gershwin tune, “Talking Blues” a great story song that fills in some of the history I needed to understand Bob Dylan’s music (put “Talking Blues” next to Dylan’s  ).  I haven’t got much to say about “Lolly Too Dum” or “St. James Infirmary.”
  • Garfunkel and Oates, selected songs from Slippery When Moist.  “Save the Rich” is a blistering song, a bit outside their usual goofy fare; “Hey Girl in the Moonlight” is the kind of autobiographical song we’ve come to expect from this pair.  The joke about how well he plays guitar is spot on.
  • Spike Jones, selected songs. These are the last of the Spike Jones songs.  More jokes about the military and how dumb women are.  Sigh.

Other albums

  • The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers – Anything with Jack White in it is pretty dang reliable.  “Steady, As She Goes” is a great bluesy rock invocation of the Kinks, “Together” has an altogether softer sound, with the keyboard giving it a hint of 1970s, and “Yellow Sun”  comes from a similar vein.

Other songs

  • I downloaded the Professor Elemental song “Get High,” which was made/released in conjunction with the card game.  I love Elemental, and this is no slouch of a song.
  • Another kickstarter prize, “Villainy Affiliated, LLC Corporate Anthem” is Jonathan Coulton’s paean to evil villains and their cubicle drones.

Also, it makes me really happy that he has a little girl (I presume his daughter?) dancing next to him, like “Bosstone” Ben Carr, the dancing dude who tours with Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

I always thought IKEA was kinda creepy, OR: Horrorstör – creepy by design


by Grady Hendrix

This remarkable, entertaining horror novel has a simple premise: a haunted IKEA.  It’s not actually the Swedish flat-pack behemoth, of course, but an also-ran called ORSK, a fictional store designed, the narrator asserts, to copy IKEA as closely as possible.  The tale follows Amy, her supervisor Basil, and a couple other employees as they stay late at the store one night to catch the vandals who have been sneaking in at night, breaking merchandise and messing up the place.  Of course, it turns out to be something more horrible.

A few thoughts:

  • The novel builds on the way familiar places can seem frightening when they’re shifted out of their usual place in our minds.  When Amy and friends stay late, the massive store becomes otherworldly, and the gleaming expanse of the showroom shifts into a frightening wasteland of modest furniture.
  • The novel’s design is its most compelling feature — the cover looks like an IKEA catalog, and each chapter starts with a blueprint drawing of an ORSK product with a name like Brooka or Kjërring, and a description consistent with IKEA’s rhetoric.  As the story grows darker, the chapter drawings do too.
  • The supernatural element that arises is pretty well-crafted and thoroughly creepy, and will certainly show up in my subconscious next time we wander out to IKEA.  It’s not the scariest book I’ve ever read, but it’s got a good eerie factor, and solid characters.

Overall, Horrorstör is a solid creepy novel with an innovative design that fits the novel perfectly.  Worth a read.

April 15, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

Man skiing in the Cascade Mountains
Man skiing in the Cascade Mountains (University of Washingon, cc-licensed)

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Unbreakable

I’m not sure how much of an essay is worth writing here.  Slate excellent pieces about the race issues in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in particular the disturbing trope of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope that has become so common.  Aisha Harris writes:

The tongue-in-cheek song will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news or viral trends in the past few years. You may not remember their names, but the faces of the notorious bystanders who have provided unintentional laughs via YouTube sound bites have clearly inspired the character of Bankston, and are impossible to forget. So are their inadvertent catchphrases—“Ain’t nobody got time for that!”; “Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!” “I was eatin’ my McDonald’s …”—which have been quoted, remixed, auto-tuned, and meme-ified to excess. These are, of course, the “hilarious black neighbors.” …

Indeed, the hilarious black neighbor has long been an accepted part of contemporary culture, though fraught with race and class connotations. There is a very subtle creative choice here that distinguishes Bankston from the way Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, and Antoine Dodson have been received by the public, however: In Kimmy Schmidt, the song is both cleverly subversive and empowering. “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes,” he says, making the cult leader the butt of the joke; and then, “But females are strong as hell!” It’s not quite as hard-hitting as Ramsey’s oft-ignored, brutally honest statement that “he knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” but the sentiment of pointing out the long-held racial division in the U.S. remains. (link)

Like many things about Kimmy Schmidt, the opening sequence doesn’t easily fit into a particular spot as we talk about race.  It’s a complicated commentary on popular culture while also engaging in many of the tropes that shape that same culture.

But what I’m interested in writing about today is the remediation of the auto-tuned news opening.  Consider this path:

  • Six years ago, the Gregory Brothers began posting auto-tuned clips of the news, and quickly became kings of a new style of news interpretation and remix. Sparking many imitators.
  • Over the last several years, some of the most viral moments of news coverage have been auto-tuned by the Gregory Brothers (and others), and the people involved in those stories have, themselves, become famous.  (See the essay quoted above for a discussion of the troubling implications of this trend.)
  • Then, when the creators of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt–a show purchased by a network that only “airs” its shows through online streaming–were inspired by the Ariel Castro case, they decided to use as the introduction a song written in the style of the auto-tuned news songs of Charles Ramsey that circulated after the original kidnapping.
  • So they wrote a satire/close copy of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope, filmed it as a news package (or a bunch of news packages), added in some B-roll, and gave it to…
  • The Gregory Brothers, who then auto-tuned the fake news to be a simulacrum of the real auto-tuned news pieces they create regularly.

I’m not sure what it is that fascinates me about this arc.  Perhaps it’s the meta-and-not-meta aspect of the auto-tuned news package prepared by the same people who auto-tune real news packages.  Perhaps it’s the way tropes of the digital age are finding their way into popular culture in ever-faster cycles. (Evan Gregory says, in an interview about the song, “You know something is an accepted part of culture when it begins to be placed as a plot point in sitcoms.”)

Many people have lamented the notion of “infotainment” or “news as entertainment,” and the way that ratings and the 24 hour news cycle create unwanted (perhaps) market motivations for sensational storytelling.  One aspect of the digital age’s single channel of information might be the blending of that content in our mind.  When we watch news clips on Youtube and we watch fake news clips on Youtube, does our sense of the truth value at the heart of those news clips diminish?

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Two (un)related notes that I wanted to share:

  • As I was writing and reading about the Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey viral auto-tunes, I must admit feeling divided about what to say and how to talk about these individuals.  On the one hand, the narrative of the “hilarious black neighbor” is troubling, and the way the Internet chews up these people is pretty disturbing.  And for their part in it, one could be critical of the Gregory Brothers.  In addition, there’s potential friction to be read in the racial implications of white people using a black person’s work to make money.  On the other hand, the fact that the Gregory Brothers have been making this kind of music for a while reduces many of those concerns for me–they’ve established their bona fides to songify the news. Criticisms of the songs are further dampened, to my mind, by the ethical approach the Brothers take to the song publishing — they credit the author of the original video as a co-writer, and split the proceeds 50/50.
  • During the course of researching for this piece, I encountered the strange story of Jay Jackson, the amazing actor who played straightforward news anchor Perd Hapley on Parks and Recreation and has played a newscaster in several other venues. (I know I always giggle at him in Scandal, as his Parks and Rec role has destabilized him as a serious news anchor for me.)  As NPR reports, Jackson is so good at playing an anchor because that was his career before he went into acting. So again, we have a real professional who goes into acting to play a pretend professional doing the same thing.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson CoverIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson

Months and months ago, I started In the Garden of Beasts and while it was good, the slow ramp up to the intense story didn’t quite grip me.  I stopped about sixty pages in, just, as it turns out, before it gets really good.  Writing about Hitler and Germany in the run-up to World War 2 isn’t easy, I suppose.  It’s a subject that’s been covered widely, and with skill.  But Larson’s angle–the travails of the inexperienced US Ambassador to Germany during the early 1930s–works well.  The story of Ambassador Dodd and his family navigating the icy waters of pre-war Berlin is gripping and frightening, and helps explain old stories in a new light.  A few thoughts:

  • The excellent second story that Larson finds here is the tale of Dodd’s adult daughter, Martha, a divorcee who was briefly the toast of the town and enjoyed liaisons with many men, both foreigners in Berlin and Germans herself.  Reading about her shift from admiring to fearing the Nazi regime is strong.
  • Dodd, we now know, was one of the few people in the American administration who really knew what was what.  While his competitors in the Diplomatic corps were focused on lavish parties and status, Dodd saw the evil and senselessness in the Nazi regime from the beginning.
  • Hitler himself only makes a couple appearances, but they’re stunning.  As a haunting figure hulking over the entire story, he shows up once in Martha’s story at a cafe, and in two meetings with Ambassador Dodd.  Otherwise, we only learn about him in the larger moments of action described outside of the Dodds’ direct experience.
  • I haven’t studied the pre-war Nazis very closely, so I was unaware of how fractious their early reign was.  Part of the reason so many people dismissed the Nazis early on is that there was so much inner suspicion and in-fighting that outsiders had trouble believing Hitler would stay in power.  The sketches of diplomats in Berlin depict people waiting for Hitler to fall so they can deal with a more rational successor.
  • I was also unaware of the nature of the “Night of Long Knives,” in which Hitler and Goebbels used a supposed coup conspiracy to solidify power by killing, well, most of their adversaries.  Larson explains that the official tally of those killed without trial (or even arrest, really) was probably in the hundreds, but the government officially acknowledged 77.

As always, Larson’s book is a winner.  The impending doom of the historical fact hangs over the book from the beginning, but the run up is still a bit slow for all that.  Worth a read, certainly.

See also: Lethal Passage, Katrina

Tweets from 2015-04-05 to 2015-04-11

Back next week

Hi All,

With the PCA/ACA 2015 conference last week, I’ve been swamped and thus pretty non-bloggy.  I will be so this week as well, but should be able to resume some semblance of a regular schedule next week.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of me with Martin Sheen.