Jun 30, 2009

Dear Olympia Snowe

You are my favorite of my adopted state's two senators. This makes me bang my head on the desk when you say something like this:

In an Associated Press interview in Portland, Snowe said it would be unfair to include a government-run health insurance option that would take effect immediately.

"If you establish a public option at the forefront that goes head-to-head and competes with the private health insurance market ... the public option will have significant price advantages," she said.

See, an industry which has doubled its premiums over the last 10 years...



... while increasing profits by 428 percent and creating monopoly conditions for 94 percent of consumers maybe needs competition with a "price advantage" to keep it from ripping us off more than it already has.

Sincerely yours,

A constituent

(image from the WSJ online; quote clipped from the Baltimore Sun)

Jun 29, 2009

Dear Alice Hoffman

I...

Well, that is...

Nevermind. Ron Hogan said it better than I could have. So did Beau Dure.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Sincerely,

A fellow writer

Jun 28, 2009

1-800-AUTOPSY: Notes Toward a Michael Jackson Essay I'll Never Write

This line from the morning's main Michael Jackson story on CNN caught my attention: "Vidal Herrera, founder of 1-800-AUTOPSY..."

In addition to being probably the best thing that happened to that CNN stringer all day, this sentence provoked in me a strange reaction, which was: Of course Jackson's family got in touch with a place called 1-800-AUTOPSY. How could it be any other way?

That reaction told me something, I think, about the place that Michael Jackson had come to occupy in a certain part of our cultural collective unconscious. By the time of his death he had become the one celebrity who could virtually be counted on for headline-grabbing weirdness so outrageous that Jackson himself became a byword for headline-grabbing weirdness. Each weirdness--the surgeries, Neverland, the costumes, the children--topped the last in such a way that tempts the observer to suggest that Jackson got stranger and stranger because he was never going to top Thriller and had too many years to live in the shadow of his greatest creation.

He had become not just a parody of himself--plenty of celebrities become that--and not just a parodic exemplar of the child star who could never grow up, but the parodic exemplar of everything that can go wrong with wealth, fame, stardom, and enormous talent that manifests too soon. He was the racial-barrier-destroying performer (who ever would have thought MTV needed to be integrated?) who could never get comfortable in his own skin, and the steelworker's child who died with hundreds of millions of dollars in both debts and assets.

He was Peter Pan, Horatio Alger, Elvis, and Howard Hughes all wrapped in one.

Plus he was black, at least at the beginning. ("I thought black was supposed to be beautiful," scoffed my grandmother in about 1992, when Jackson's hair had become straighter, his face more angular, his skin paler.)

Plus his sexuality was questionable. (Q: What did they find in Boy George's closet? A: Michael Jackson's other glove. This was one of the most common jokes heard in my 9th-grade lunchroom. Then it became a kind of meme, where you could suggest that someone was gay by implying that he knew the location of Michael Jackson's other glove. But we all learned how to moonwalk, too.)

If there was ever a perfect focal point for all of America's stories about itself, and the people it likes, and the people it doesn't like, and its obsession with figuring out why it likes and doesn't like those people, and its obsession with diagnosing and anatomizing its obsession with figuring...that was Michael Jackson. He was a field onto which America's post-Vietnam/Woodstock/MLK/RFK/Malcolm/bra-burning/Apollo 11/Stonewall cultural psyche could project all of its tensions, and because he was such an obliging performer (his father taught him that, if nothing else), he played them out for us. If he had not existed, we would have had to invent him--and in a sense, we did.

It was always going to be too much for one man to handle.

Jun 26, 2009

Lettered Preview of Daredevil Noir #4 at CBR

Morning Media Menu Podcast

Just now on Mediabistro's Morning Media Menu podcast, Galleycat's Jason Boog, FishbowlNY's Amanda Ernst, and I had a fun conversation. Topics included but were not limited to: the possible (now certain) effect of Michael Jackson's death on a certain scene in Bruno; what kind of Michael Jackson Michael Jackson is going to be now that he's dead; Amanda's scoop about (possibly inadvertent) plagiarism in Wired editor Chris Anderson's new book; the changing ecology of book reviewing; and Buyout.

Tunguska Mystery Solved?

Maybe so, according to this article about new work that fingers a small comet as the culprit. Another article from Cornell with a link to the original paper is here.

Jun 25, 2009

Sky Sports Report on US-Spain, with Highlights

In case you missed the game and the highlights everywhere else...

The King is Dead

Analog Reviews Buyout

This is a bit of a surprise (a pleasant one). Analog, that venerable bastion of the genre, reviews Buyout in this month's Reference Library column. There are also interesting thoughts about new books from Rudy Rucker (with whom I apparently share a birthday) and Alan Dean Foster.

And in case you missed it because my blog feed was screwed up earlier this week, here's the Strange Horizons review that appeared on Monday.

Greetings, Watery Brethren of Enceladus

Today's Independent has an article about the intriguing possibilities for organic chemistry beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Jun 20, 2009

The Smartest Thing Anyone Will Have Already Said Tomorrow

David Mitchell, in the Guardian:
But any self-sacrifice feels to us westerners like tyranny. We're not ready for it. Our evolution into apex individualists has superbly attuned us to injustices against us while atrophying our awareness of the vastly greater number that work in our favour.

Read the rest.

A Salute to Our 'First Nerd'

Hodgman to Obama:

Jun 18, 2009

Buyout, Capital Punishment, and 'Prison Porn'

A couple of days ago I had an excellent conversation with the excellent Matt Staggs of Enter the Octopus (and other literary endeavors too numerous to count).

To the Moon!

Time has a piece today on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and future plans for the moon. Test flights of manned lunar spacecraft by 2015? Sweet. I look forward to celebrating my retirement with a vacation on the Sea of Nectars.

Jun 17, 2009

Thoughts About Book Reviews Provoked by GalleyCat

In the video that follows, Flashlight Worthy co-founder Eric Mueller talks to GalleyCat's Jason Boog and has some interesting things to say about the emerging dynamics of book reviews. The old dynamic is certainly moribund, as I have noticed in the weeks since Buyout came out; fewer and fewer of the old standby review outlets are still in the game, and my experience has been that the existing book-publicity infrastructure (which is very good at doing things the way they know how to do them) has not yet adapted to this brave new world. The result? A surprising paucity of reviews. (A couple of notable exceptions being io9 and Bookgasm.) People are reading the book and telling me about it, which is great; I'm still not sure how to get them telling everyone else except to say, "Glad you enjoyed it. Now tell all your friends and everyone you know." This is not always efficient.

Anyway, the aforementioned interesting video follows:

Watch This Movie

Jun 15, 2009

A Couple of Literary Tidbits

Katherine Dunn, author of the most excellent Geek Love, talks to Guernica about boxing and her new book, One Ring Circus.

Over at Omnivoracious, China Mieville unexpectedly declares his admiration for Tolkien.

Farewell, Shaman Drum

Sad news that the Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor is going to close on June 30. I used to skulk around the store when it was upstairs from the (also now-vanished) Continental Diner, which was next to the original location of Borders. Wish I was going to get back to Ann Arbor before it closes. Good luck to Karl Pohrt with the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center.

And now I'm thinking of all the other places gone from the halcyon A2 of my youth: Schoolkids Records, Drake's, Mickey Rat's...the list goes on and on.

Jun 14, 2009

If You're Patient, Someone Will Say It for You

I was trying to figure out what to think about Bruce Sterling's recent "Eighteen Challenges in Contemporary Literature," and then Mark Sarvas came along with this:
Wired's Bruce Sterling offers a list of Eighteen Challenges in Contemporary Literature, some of which are sensible, others of which - like this one - are, well ... Step away from the computer, Bruce.

By "this one," Sarvas means:
Algorithms and social media replacing work of editors and publishing houses ...

Right.

Two Videos of Unexpected Virtuosity

A young Japanese girl displays her talents on the organ, playing "YYZ" and "Carry On, My Wayward Son." This is genuinely amazing.



Jun 3, 2009

Han Solo P.I.

This from EW's PopWatch blog is transcendently awesome.



If your memories of Magnum P.I.'s opening credits are fuzzy, you can go to the PopWatch entry to see a side-by-side video of both the original and the outstanding Daily What mashup.

A Long Sentence About Arson

I'm just waiting for whoever torched the topless coffee shop in Vassalboro, Maine (yes, there was one), putting seven lives at risk and forcing eight people to put their shirts back on so they can stand in the unemployment line, to reveal that he was inspired by the recent revisiting of abortion-clinic vandalism in the news.

Jun 1, 2009

In Which Alain de Botton Informs Me That Nobody Is Doing the Thing That I've Been Doing for the Last 10 Years

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Alain de Botton says that "It's Time for an Ambitions New Literature of the Workplace," and laments that today's writers have stayed away from the office and thereby betrayed the legacy of the 19th-century greats:

It used to be a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life. From Balzac to Zola, Dickens to Kafka, they evoked the dynamism and the beauty, the horror and the tedium of the workplace. Their books covered the same territory as is today featured at copious length in the financial pages of newspapers or in the breathless commentaries of the 24-hour newscasters, but their interest was not primarily financial. The goal was to convey the human side of commerce, where money is only one actor in a complex drama about our ambitions and reversals.

Yet today's writers seem to be losing their nerve. There has been an unfortunate inward turn. Attention, brilliant though it might be, too often falls merely on the domestic and the natural.


He goes on to suggest (I'm paraphrasing broadly) that one reason for this is writers' lack of job experience. Blame the workshops, sez I. And I also say: Mr. de Botton, there are a great many of us writers out here in the world who have had many and varied jobs and devote much of our creative energy to writing about work and how it interacts with other aspects of intellectual and emotional life.

However, I don't think it's entirely off the mark to suggest that the creme de la literary establishment isn't writing about work, but I would suggest that...well, this is where I would embark on a screed about literary backscratching and the pernicious influence of MFA-workshop mafias. Since lots of other people have already done that, I'll stick to a point of de Botton's that seems to me most germane: writers often don't work, and many of them never have. It's not that they couldn't write about work, it's that work isn't part of their experience (or, often, part of the experience of the people who taught them in their MFA workshops), so a kind of Brahmin literary culture has emerged in which the occasional appearance of an honest portrayal of working life draws surprised accolades. de Botton notes this:

When a new writer like Joshua Ferris does finally devote a novel to tracking the antics inside a corporation, the critical reaction is peculiar and telling: he attracts renown and praise for his courage in tackling the fresh and entirely unexpected subject matter of going to the office.


Here's where I want to point out again that there is a rich and varied literature of contemporary work. (The abovementioned Joshua Ferris, in fact, writes interestingly on the topic in this Guardian article.) I'm going to use myself as an example, since this is a blog and therefore my forum for self-aggrandizement. I quit counting a while back, but at one point I totaled up all of the places that had ever cut me a paycheck (for something other than writing) and it was about three dozen. I have:

flipped burgers
stocked shelves
waited tables (once, for a few months, on roller skates)
made pizzas
baked doughnuts
sold shoes, suits, electronics, books, bulk foods
driven a truck
worked as a courier
loaded trucks
acted in touring children's theater
clerked in liquor stores
taught high school
researched markets for a software company
processed mortgage applications
temped in a variety of cubicles

And some other things that I'm forgetting (or suppressing). So I write about work all the time. Often I can't really get a piece started until I've figured out what the characters do for a living. Of the forty-odd short stories I've published, I'm going to guess that at least half are about work in some way; same goes for Buyout, The Narrows, Mystery Hill...

So Alain de Botton, it is still "a central ambition of novelists to capture the experience of working life"--just not the novelists who are winning the Booker or getting on your reading lists. Maybe instead of an ambitious new literary movement, what we really need is an ambitious broadening of horizons on the part of literary taste-makers.

T*rr*rism

So let me get this straight. Environmentalists who set fires (and don't hurt anybody) as part of monkeywrenching campaigns get longer prison sentences than your average murderer,* and are called terrorists. But when an anti-abortion wingnut kills a doctor in his church in an avowed effort to scare other people who provide abortions, he's...

Right. He's a terrorist. As are all of the other "pro-life" wingnuts who have bombed clinics and shot doctors before. So why isn't he being referred to as such? Why isn't all of Operation Rescue on a terrorist watch list, the way nuns who protest nuclear arms are? (The answers to that question, I hope, are obvious. I just couldn't help pointing it out because the whole thing is so disgustingly indicative of the chokehold which evangelical kooks** and their pet issues still have on the mainstream media in this country.)

*Per the Hoover Institute (not a liberal outfit), the average sentence for murder in 2004 was slightly less than 20 years. Marie Mason got 22 for a crime in which nobody was hurt.

**And no, I don't think all evangelicals are kooks. But these particular kooks are evangelicals and there's no use dancing around that fact.

In happier news, go Wings!