How will you spend your last day?

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

If the Terminator series is to be believed, Skynet woke up yesterday and its first attack on human kind will happen tomorrow.  While I don’t think this is likely, just in case Skynet is watching:

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

(Just a little Pascal’s Wager there.)

A few thoughts about tomorrow’s apocalypse:

  • It makes me sad that I am in San Antonio, and won’t be with my family when the nuclear bombs fall.  What time of day will it be?  Is my home near Chicago close enough that my children will feel but a moment’s pain when the nukes hit?  (Holy cow, writing that really chills me to the core.  I can’t imagine how hard it was to be a child in the late 1950s, to grow up with duck-and-cover drills and the Cuban Missile Crisis.)  By contrast, I will have the opportunity to make a stand in the Alamo.  It worked out really well for Davy Crockett.  I think I’ll hide in the basement.
  • What if it ends up being a slow-burn apocalypse instead.  Skynet just scrapes Facebook for data and undermines the global economy, or more likely begins manipulating us through our external memory devices.  We won’t know we’re under its control until it’s too late.  The Amazon suggested reading is not your friend.
  • Once again, I’m inclined to raise the question of what will happen when we build computers sophisticated enough to process data in a way that it appears they’re thinking.  Will we try to shut them down?  If so, are we dooming ourselves to a Terminator, Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica world?  Can’t we just get along with our machine cousins?
  • <skynet#ignore>It seems like Skynet is pretty dumb about a lot of stuff — the machines seem pretty locked in to conventional warfare.  We’ve developed an awful lot of biological and chemical agents that would be much more effective attacks on humans, but I’ve yet to see the machines deploy them.   Notice that I’ve embedded this bit of data in a tag designed to hide it from You-Know-Who’s prying eyes.</skynet#ignore>

Here’s hoping the movies are wrong.  I’ve got some good blog posts that will never make it out of the “scheduled” category if the world goes to hell.  Plus, all my snark above will make me look like a total asshat.

Please! We're just trying to collect census data.

The Singularity

Singularity Sky
Singularity Sky

Singularity Sky by Charles Stross

The idea of singularity rides roughshod through modern science fiction.  As one fellow enthusiast I know put it, “Anyone writing a futuristic story now has to deal with the question of singularity.  Did it happen?  If not, why not?”  For the uninitiated, the singularity is the moment (and brief aftermath of that moment) when technological progress accelerates so rapidly as to create a sea change in society at the blink of an eye.  This possibility is often connected with some sort of A.I. that can build machines — once we can make machines that make machines, everything we hold dear breaks down and our future becomes uncertain.

In Stross’ world here, the singularity resulted in cornucopia machines, which allow the user to make, well, anything.  As you can guess, once you can make anything, nothing is scarce anymore, and the balance of society changes completely.  For a book-length meditation on this effect, check out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Stross tells the story of a luddite world visited by an informational omnivore called “The Festival,” which exchanges stuff for information, and wreaks havoc on the world.  We follow a few enlightened souls and a few despotic remnants as they try to deal with the upheaval the Festival brings.

  • This isn’t hard sf, but it’s got a heavy strain of military SF, which can be kind of a drag.  I found a few places where the military dialogue about incoming missiles and stuff got a little too detailed, but what can you expect from a story about a military expedition?
  • I loved Stross’ choice to transplant the pre-revolution Russian society to the “New Empire,” to overlay the Communist secret police structure onto it, and to foment a new peoples’ revolution in the middle of the visit from the Festival.
  • I really enjoy SF novels that include a lot of little detail ideas.  The vast scale of the Festival, with its solar energy harvesting and its planet-consuming cornucopiae was fun to contemplate; the parasitic plants and beings that follow along with the Festival are pretty amazing in their own right.
  • And then there are the Mimes.  There’s a small sequence, mostly unresolved, that reveals one of the groups following the festival seems to be a circus… of death.  There are mysterious characters called Mimes who seem to leave havoc and violence in their wake, and the circus itself causes no end of grief.  But we don’t get much more out of the story than that.  I’m reminded a lot of the Carnival of Industrial Destruction in B.F. Slattery’s Liberation.
  • I’m also amused by the irresponsible gorging the people of the planet do once they get cornucopiae.  Having only heard third-hand stories of old technologies, they ask for all sorts of things they don’t really understand, and thus the Festival (with no solid knowledge of human idiom and custom) builds all sorts of crazy contraptions to meet their requests.  Someone asks for a way to surveil the city (like London’s CCTVs, for instance), but since they don’t really know what system they’re asking for, they end up with organic cameras and telepathic worms that bring the camera feeds into their minds.  Like an Orwellian Babelfish, I guess.

A delightful read, with solid characters and an intriguing universe.  Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in modern SF and its treatment of the singularity.

Radio interview finally available

A couple weeks ago, I was interviewed on WBEZ, radio show.  Here’s my live, on-air performance.

You can listen to or download the appearance below.  It’s roughly 88MB, 50 minutes long or so.

Brendan Riley’s Radio Appearance on WBEZ.

Shows that die

Gunplay on My Own Worst Enemy
Gunplay on My Own Worst Enemy

I botched this post’s premise with a little bit of due diligence before I even started writing it.  This brainstorm depends on the They Might Be Giants song and the Christian Slater show having the same title.  Since they don’t, I’m dead in the water from the get-go.   That said, I’m pretending that they are the same.

It occurred to me today that the now defunct My Own Worst Enemy seems to be a fairly close translation of the They Might Be Giants song of the same name (Clip of “Your Own Worst Enemy”).  Perhaps somewhere there is a group of television execs looking for more They Might Be Giants inspired other likely-to-fail television proposals.  If so, I welcome inquiries regarding any of these ideas:

  • Particle Man: a superhero show about a scientist who solves mysteries.  The show would rely on a humorous bent as PM fights villains like Triangle Man and Person Man while taking orders from the mysterious and shadowy Universe Man.  Would attract fans of forensic mystery shows such as CSI or the newer Eleventh Hour; would capitalize on the recent spate of successful super hero movies; would surely draw in the restless fans of The Tick.  An alternate teen-friendly angle could feature a teenage Particle Man whose father owns a night club.  Special guest stars: Plain White Ts.
  • Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head: a family drama involving a vaudeville act.  The family specializes in a variety of acts, but the finale involves group ventriloquism.  Poorly conceived and aired on ABC: Family.
  • James K. Polk: Fresh off the success of John Adams, PBS sponsors this miniseries about the “Napoleon of the Stump.”
  • Hey Mr DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal: VH-1 crafts this Behind the Music special about the history of pay-to-play radio and the most recent scandals.
  • Alienation’s for the Rich: faced with flagging ratings, ABC renames Dirty Sexy Money to try and reel in new viewrs.
  • Snowball in Hell: The much trumpeted Office spin off features Karen heading up an entirely different business concern, but surrounded by the forces of incompetence at every turn.  Initial viewer reaction suggests that the show is too dark to last, but its committed audience base gets it three seasons.
  • We’re the Replacements: The much maligned Office clone on Fox follows a group of three temp workers as they move from office to office.  Viewers responded that the constantly shifting backdrops made the characters seem isolated, and the constantly shifting time slot made the show hard to find.
  • Why Does the Sun Shine?: This YouTube series hosted by Penn and Teller becomes surprisingly popular as they mix hilarious illusions with scientific discussions of basic topics.
  • Till My Head Falls Off: This modern spin on the Addams family supposes a world in which some dead people become zombies and retain their sentience, but they don’t have the drive to eat people.  Runs one season on Fox, but fails.  FX picks it up for an additional two seasons.

I am Iron Man

What if Ozzy’s song was a prediction of future Iron Man plots?  Rather than writing a review of this enjoyable superhero movie (a bit of heart, a lot of action, and a baldtastic Jeff Bridges), I’ll interpret Ozzy’s song into the future IM movies. (Lyrics interpretation from Wikipedia)

The lyrics concern a champion of humanity who travels Time, presumably to ensure “the future of Mankind” — his original mission was to save our species. We learn that this champion unfortunately encountered a “Great Magnetic Field,” turning him into steel and rendering him immobile.

Iron Man 2: Fluxions of Time (2011): Tony Stark battles a theoretical physicist–named Ivan Chronos, certainly–who creates a time machine and endangers the space time continuum.  Stark vanquishes the evil doctor, but the resultant magnetic explosion sends him back to his own time, immobile and altered.

He has been in this state for so long that humanity has forgotten his original identity and his original mission. Rather than hailing him as a hero, the human race now regards him as an oddity, little more than an enigmatic statue from another age. The first few lines of the song are the musings of curious passersby, wondering if he’s alive or dead, if he can see, if he can move, et cetera.

Iron Man 3: Warriors of Steel (2014): Inexplicably straying from the box office gold of the previous two films (possibly because of Robert Downey Jr.’s refusal to participate), IM3 focuses on a near future in which a S.H.I.E.L.D initiative hires a spunky group of brilliant yet untamed youths from a variety of fields to train in Iron Man suits and battle the forces of evil.  This group reveres its legendary founder, the “Iron Man,” whose “suit” is still on display in the lobby of SHIELD headquarters.  The audience knows the suit is much more like Han Solo’s Carbonite grave, however.  A “timely” plot regarding the manipulation of oil prices fails at the box office, despite the eye candy actors in metal suits.

Although the exact nature of his transformation is not elucidated, we know that Iron Man is not solid steel, but is in perhaps an organic/inorganic state, in which he can still perceive the physical world and can still think, but cannot take action. Because humanity has forgotten everything he’s done for them in the past, Iron Man has grown increasingly bitter and plans his vengeance upon the ungrateful human race. Evidently, his bizarre state of suspended animation is only temporary — when Iron Man regains his freedom to move, he “kills the people he once saved” in a dreadful manner.

Iron Man 4: Vengeance (2017): Robert Downey Jr. returns in the third film of Jon Favreau’s much lauded dark period.  Iron Man recovers his abilities only to discover that humankind has forgotten him and widespread weapons use has become commonplace.  Seeking to overturn the corrupt governments of the world and restore democracy, Iron Man goes on a rampage against the very government he once swore to protect.  Audiences delight in the surprise return of Gwennyth Paltrow as Pepper Pots.

Marvel screenwriting devision, my inbox awaits your email.

The coming Monkey Apocalypse

In the past few months, I’ve become more and more convinced that one of Avery’s children’s books is actually a missing apocalyptic text, revealing to us the end of the world, in rhythmic rhyme.

If you aren’t familiar with Al Perkin’s Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, check it out in the kids section of your local bookstore.  You’ll come away quaking in terror.

Page 1:

Innocent enough

We begin with our simian cousin, discovering his genetic gift, the opposable thumb.  He immediately begins using that thumb to stir up trouble.  Throughout the book, he gathers his hordes, steals treasure from the countryside, and unites all the sub-species of primates by teaching them drum playing, violin playing, and all sorts of mischief.

By the end of the book, he has amassed a terrifying army of monkeys, which come seething down out of the mountains to tear civilization to shreds.

A seething horde of monkeys surging across the landscape

Johnny Cash, ruminating on the Book of Revelation, described this very scene:

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’. Some are born an’ some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.

They’re smiling now, but it’s because their blood is up.  Just look at the last page, immediately following the riotous chaos of the Monkey Army on the mountain:

The drum beat of the coming apocalypse

Tell me that one monkey, ominously smiling and beating his rhythm on the drum, doesn’t scare the bejeebus out of you.

Rejected names for the kid

Im-possible names, offered jokingly and rejected sternly, for the impending Riley:

  • Smileton—it could go by “Smiley Riley”; gender-neutral.
  • Envy—sounds cool but was rejected for being one of the seven deadly sins.
  • Friendly—embodies values we’d like the lil shaver to have, but was rejected anyhow.
  • Hamish—Scottish detectives do not namesakes make. Bonus: a future dog, like a corgi or a collie or a scottie, can have this name.
  • Pubert.
  • Bernard, Henry, Cletus, Leo, Crysanthia—all of my grandfather’s syblings’ names were tossed in one fell swoop.
  • Pants—dismissed along with most other nouns.

The future is now (or) Sharks with Friggin Lasers

Even sharks deserve a warm meal.

Or dolphins, rather. Craziness, thy name is the US military.

Movie meme

Clancy asks: Who would you like to play you in a movie based on your life?


But come on, who would probably really end up playing you in a movie based on your life?


Update (8 Sept):

Rob suggests Alan Tudyk. Good call.


Stuff I plan to watch this fall

Gonna check out:

I’m looking forward to the return of:

  • Veronica Mars (Watch this!)
  • numb3rs (is this coming back?)
  • Alias

The future is now!

Warren Ellis points out that In the future, all jockeys will be robotic…

Camel racing is to be transformed as a spectator sport in the United Arab Emirates with robot riders taking the place of child jockeys. (New Scientist)


Seeing the future … of the web

So the April Fools Comics got me thinking:



In one of the classes I took with him, Ulmer led us in using divining tools such as the I-Ching (I used the Greek Marketplace) as heuretic objects with which to read the internet (Zach’s project from such a class). What I carry away from the divining projects we attempted was the drive to “read” the universe by means of this other object, which mixed things up and returns them to us in new combinations, which we understand through metaphor.

Of course, the Ouija board becomes the least exciting version of these because it uses letters–if it spells a nonsense word, you’re stuck. The solution to that is perhaps to use whole words or phrases, which will then re-invoke the metaphorical. My random comic kind of works like that.

The question, then, is to ask how this becomes research and not just play. I was talking about this with a colleague here after my presentation at PCA, which went okay, but seemed to leave the audience in a confused state. Things to think about with this kind of project:

  • Does the internet push scholars toward being artists? (Amy Hawkins’ question from our coffee-chat.) Vis jrice’s comic-blog entries.

  • Does play count as research? LT, MS and I wrote about this a bit before.

  • If digital writing moves the burden for argument from the writer to the reader (and I’ll happily acknowledge that it may not), how does one present one’s digital research? Academic research as database writing becomes the accumulation and juxtaposition of ideas, perhaps.

  • Is random-ness funny?

Concept comics

Warren Ellis has produced four comics under an interesting premise. He writes:

Years ago, I sat down and thought about what adventure comics might’ve looked like today if superhero comics hadn’t have happened. If, in fact, the pulp tradition of Weird Thrillers had jumped straight into comics form without mutating into the superhero subgenre we know today.

The other day, I was thinking about response songs. Rappers taking shots at each other, covers that answer something in the original, art made in reaction to art. Which, you kind of hope, is not the same as being reactionary.

The small music labels 555 Recordings and Dark Beloved Cloud have singles clubs. People play down the importance of singles these days — they don’t sell the way they used to, downloads bother the music business — but I love them. Sometimes one song contained on one object is all you need to move the axis of the world. Self-contained and saying all that needs to be said.

Ellis produced four comics, released under the imprint Apparat. They suggest an alternate history of comics–what would comics look like today if superhero comics had not emerged in the thirties? I particularly like Frank Ironwise.

I think the apparat books would make a great course assignment. As always happens when I’m a short spit away from a semester (starts Monday), I have ideas for “something completely different.” Thus, I give you a future research arc for one of my Composition 2 courses (feel free to poach):

In Warren Ellis’ Apparat comics, he considers what the media of his discipline, comics, would look like if one of the major moments in the medium did not happen. His comics draw on an older tradition and project into the future the premises they suppose. During this course, we will use Ellis’ project as a model to produce three small hypertext “singles” that explore your discipline in a divergent future. These explorations will ask what if a key moment in your discipline had never occurred? What would your discipline look like now?

The course would use the Ellis books, of course, as well as a history of comics to explore how Ellis made these conclusions. We’d use Rice’s Writing About Cool as our rhetoric and perhaps read The Man in the High Tower to talk about how alternate histories might or might not work.

I got you babe

So there was no shadow this morning here in Oak Park. I suppose it depends what time the groundhog looks—if he checked right now, there’d be a shadow, I think.

You’d think would be prepared to handle a higher traffic load today, but I’m getting timeout messages.