In his Man Booker prize acceptance speech, novelist Richard Flanagan says “As a species it is story that distinguishes us”. Really? I understand how everyone likes to feel important and that what they do “matters” and all of that, but it’s this “what distinguishes us” “as a species” that gets to me. If you think about it for a second, when people make these kinds of comments, who the hell do they think they’re talking to? Are they trying to convince a cockatoo? How about this? NOTHING distinguishes us as a species. We are – dare I say it – animal creatures of the planet Earth JUST LIKE all of the other animal creatures of the planet Earth. There is no such thing as a self-evident truth if this is not one. I understand that a lot of people have the notion that we are somehow “distinguished”, and their fairy tales consist of creation myths and other special moments in the history of the universe when some unknown and unknowable creature decided it needed some special playthings to kick around and torture and reward as it pleases and ergo thereby us, but come on, take a half a breath to consider all of the things we have in common with all of the other animal creatures of the planet Earth – if you only pay attention for a fraction of a second you can see it so easily. Do you sleep? Do you breathe? Do you eat? Do you drink? Do you make noises? Do you fuck? Do you associate with your own kind? Do you have senses? Are you born? Do you die? All of the animal creatures on this planet are remarkable and capable of amazing things. As a species, it’s about time we woke the fuck up and started recognizing what we are. It is not “story that distinguishes us”, it is a story that anything does.

Recommended: The Choices, by Michael Graeme

The myth of the eternal return is one of those bottomless founts for speculative fiction. What if you could do it all over again? What would you do this time? If only this instead of that had happened. If only you could get a second chance. It’s fertile ground, often trod, but like clay can be shaped anew in the hands of every one who picks it up and plays with it. Michael Graeme has a nice take on it here in this story. There is no reincarnation, no continuous replay of the same day a la Groundhog Day, but one’s entire life, as it is, rewound and replayed over and over again seemingly for eternity, each time allowing for all the paths not taken to be taken, for each one to lead out into its own ending, and yet to have to start all over again no matter what the outcome. The narrator has done this so many times that he has narrowed down the critical juncture of his life to one night in one hotel bar and the set of possible alternatives presented to him there. He has come to believe that the cycle can only be broken when the one “correct” choice has been made, when the real and true destiny is selected and followed through to the end. We cannot know if he is right about that, and the ending leaves us suspecting that there is no end, there is no right choice, there are only “the choices”. If, as the expression goes these days, “it is what it is”, then these choices “are what they are”, and each of us are limited to a certain set. It may be a large set – the imagination boggles at all the possible twistings and turnings of fate that can occur at any instant – but a finite set nonetheless. We are here and now, in this time and place, and nowhere else, and as no one else. In the final analysis, wherever you go, there you are. Michael Graeme tells this story as clearly, as calmly and as compellingly as he always does, taking you down another road well worth traveling.

Of Future Past

I’ll call this entry “Of Future Past” and not only because I just finished watching the X-Men movie of nearly the same title, but also because of something I read this evening, and the source of it.

Many years ago I worked in a bookstore in the neighborhood where I now work for an IOT company (IOT: internet of things). Back then there was no internet, though there were plenty of “things”. Back then I was working for minimum wage as a stock-clerk/cashier, and this particular bookstore contained a small coffee shop within it. In that coffee shop, a young man with famous dreadlocks was often surrounded by a coterie of followers or fellow-travelers, and he was a prophet of sorts, a technology prophet holding court about “the future”. So you see, this memory is about a fellow who in the past boldly proclaimed great things about the future, things he is now sort of taking back, on second and third thought.

Jaron Lanier, author of “Who Owns the Future?” was this young man, and the quote that struck me in a recent interview had a lot to do with some of my favorite topics : open-source software, free and global information, instant access, self-publishing, and free online art of all kinds (music, video, art, literature, etc …). Here’s the quote:

There’s this idea that there must be tens of thousands of people who are making a great living as freelance musicians because you can market yourself on social media. And whenever I look for these people – I mean when I wrote “Gadget” I looked around and found a handful – and at this point three years later, I went around to everybody I could to get actual lists of people who are doing this and to verify them, and there are more now. But like in the hip-hop world I counted them all and I could find about 50.

That’s right. Fifty that could be considered “successful”, and that was defined by making some six figures in income, which is something quite pedestrian for software engineers in my part of the world. Not that special. But that is all there are. You hear all the time about how so many people are making a living self-publishing, how liberating all this stuff is, how bold the future and so on, but the larger point Lanier is making in his book is that with all of this “sharing economy”, what we’re actually seeing is a smaller number of people making all the money, and most people finding fewer normal jobs out there. He may or not be correct with his current predictions, which are pretty much the opposite of his old predictions, but at least he’s not going broke being completely wrong all the time.

Or is he? The book sounded interesting so I went on Amazon to get it, and found many copies available for around ONE DOLLAR (plus the usual Amazon $3.99 shipping and handling). It’s a real book, hefty and smelly and all that, not an e-book, but what’s the diff? I would have to pay three times as much for the e-book version. As they said duing Occupy Wall Street, “shit is all fucked up”.

Yes, we’re all providing labor for Facebook and Google and Alibaba et al to give them our information so they can turn around and sell it to advertisers, and yes we’re sharing our photos on Instagram for free instead of stopping off at the FotoMat so some sucker in a booth can have a crappy job, but I don’t think technology is the real killer of the middle class, though frequently a prime suspect. The middle class was a creation of quasi-socialism, and the reactionaries wiped it out by slashing the tax base and “cutting the fat” of government, of which said faat was mainly used to generate jobs in the areas of construction, maintenance, teaching, policing and other social niceties. They still have middle classes where they still have socialism. It’s pretty basic. If you don’t allow unbridled global corporate profiteering, far more people get to have their cake and eat it too. But since corporations (as people) own the politicians  (who stock the courts) and rig the game, theyre the ones with cake while the rest of us zombies drool and forget – for generations at a time – that all power does in fact reside in the people when the fucking people wake the fuck up and do something about it. But those generations are few and far between. We’ll see how it goes in the 22nd century.

In the meantime, don’t tell me there are tons of people MAKING a KILLING and YOU CAN TOO. There aren’t, and you can’t. There are probably more than fifty, but probably not a whole lot more.

Extant, et cetera

I finished watching the science fiction TV series Extant this morning. I could only watch it through Amazon Prime which meant a 4 day delay between airings and availability – each week in the meantime I had to avoid looking at the online reviews for spoilers, and especially for the comments, which were in some ways the best thing about this series.

It had really good intentions. Many people complained about the pacing (it was kind of slow and boring at times; often when it should have been crackling it felt lethargic), but I went along with that. It seems they introduced too many leads to tidy up, but I’ve never been one to demand total cleanup. One could well ask, what happened to the immortality-seeking billionaire? He just vanished from the story line. Or, sheesh, someone call the police on the terrorist maybe? Or, did the space center blow up with the android kid or not? Nobody seemed terribly concerned about anything, “five days later”. The husband was sort of a pussy with a weird accent. I never liked him. And Halle Berry often seemed completely frozen, as if she went on periodic acting-strikes. How about when they ran away, they went to her dad’s house? Who would ever think of looking there?

And yet, there were plenty of nice litte touches. I enjoyed the mysterious and sometimes creepy little android kid. And I liked “the offstring”, a sort of mini-me Michael Jackson Thriller clonelet with occasionally bright yellow eyes who could make people inhabit physically coherent virtual realities pulled straight out of their memories a la Solaris, and thereby mind-fuck them into doing whatever it was he wanted them to do. Sometimes he seemed to have to “feed” on people’s brains. Other times, not so much. He matured from fetus to twelve year old in a few short weeks, but then stopped aging entirely, as if twelve were a perfectly capable age to stick to. He was pretty cool, messing with people’s deepest darkest desires (to have their dead daughter back again, for example) and then just offing them for no apparent reason (perhaps a double meaning on the term “offspring”). The space station was pretty cool, the artificial limb technology was sweet, the artifical intelligence experiment with the kid had tons of promise, which unfortunately got bogged down in lessons about “humanity”. Seriously,  intelligent machines will have their own realities to experience. I still hold (as I expressed in my story Renegade Robot), that a real AI won’t give a shit about people and will likely inhabit their own spheres, much as we humans have little to do with the world of hummingbirds.

You knew there was going to be a showdown between the half-alien kid and the android kid, and boy did they waste that opportunity. But I guess you can’t get everything you want. The show developed slowly, and at that pace it needed more time, maybe twice as many episodes, but there’s no luxury like that in TV land it seems.

In other notes, my nephew’s wife is a staff writer for the funny and engaging FX sitcom You’re The Worst. I can recommend that for all of the side characters as well as the main ones. There’s some great potential in there, and after its ten episode first season we’re hoping it gets more time too.

I haven’t blogged in a while. I am #stillnotwriting. I’ve been spending most of my little free time and creative energy producing short music pieces (I have a one-minute rule, an idea I got from Caveh Zahedi and his interesting movie In the Bathtub of the World, where he shot a minute of his life every day for a year and cut it down to a 90 minute film). Anyone interested in that can check it out on SoundCloud at Emergency Test Lab 29, and if not I would still highly recommend my playlist there, which currently consists mainly of the great Nu-Cumbia producers El Buho and Chancha via Circuito. I listen to these guys all day long while attempting to program in Scala, my tenth and so-far least favorite programming language. (tenth? really? basic, c, c++, java, ruby, python, perl, php, javascript, scala, yup, tenth).

I haven’t even been reading much lately. Sometimes literature and writing seems so far away. I also have little interest in the worlds of publishing or promotion these days. I did recently re-read my own sci-fi sort-of Unwritten Rules of Impossible Things and enjoyed it. I’m glad I wrote that stuff, glad I put it all online, glad I gave it all away. It’s all in its own context now, experiencing its own realities, I suppose. It doesn’t have much to do with me at this point.  It’s all in the nature of ebb and flow, input and output, it comes and goes. I say, let it come and let it go, and don’t worry about a thing, pretty mama. Chevere?


Does Werner Herzog subscribe to the belief that his films are art?

Originally posted on Biblioklept:

So you certainly don’t subscribe to the belief that your films are in any way ‘art films’?

Absolutely not, they are no such thing. I dislike intensely even the concept of artists in this day and age. The last King of Egypt, King Farouk, completely obese in exile, wolfing one lamb leg after another, said something very beautiful: ‘There are no kings left in the world any more, only the King of Hearts, the King of Diamonds, the King of Spades, and the King of Clubs.’ The whole concept of being an artist is also somehow outdated today. There is only one place left where you find artists: the circus. There you can find the trapeze artists, the jugglers, even the hunger artist. Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art and academicism. I truly feel that in the world of the painter or novelist or…

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Recommended: The Sixty Five Years of Washington, by Juan Jose Saer

What I love most about literature is the rare experience of encountering a worthy mind. It’s not just about the story or the plot or the arc or the characters or the formula or the climax or the talent or the craft, it’s about how this other sees the world and expresses what they see. I want to know how their mind works, the connections it makes, the impressions it conveys. I don’t want to merely read to find out what’s going to happen, or how it’s all going to end, or what it’s going to make me feel. I don’t want to be nothing more than a passive subject operated upon as if mechanically by some technician who knows precisely how to manipulate my emotions. I can always watch a movie for that! When I read I want to come in contact with a mind through which I can discover new perspectives. This book – The Sixty Five Years of Washington, by Juan Jose Saer,  gave me such an experience.

I felt like I could live in this book, and it’s not something easily done. The structure of the story is simply two men walking together down a city street for less than an hour one morning, and the plot, if you can call it that, centers around their conversation about a birthday party that neither one attended. But I felt I was on that street with them, walking along beside them, listening not only to their words but to their internal digressions, their meandering thoughts, and feeling my way along with them through the pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The two men are not friends, just mutual acquaintances, who meet by accident and happen to be going the same way, but their worlds intersect and criss-cross on many levels. What matters in the book is, to put it in a word (or as the author says, “in two words, to be more precise”), “every things”.

There’s a lot I liked in the author’s style, the translation, the language, his “bag of tricks” so to speak, but ultimately I kept reading with excitement to see what he was going to say next, what he was going to make me see next, what new world I was going to be able to glimpse.

Confessions of an Ex Dog Owner

Last week we had to put our last dog down. She was fourteen and her condition was deteriorating rapidly. She could have gone on a few weeks or months more, sniffing and pooping and wanting to be scratched, but on the whole she was no longer happy.  It was an easy procedure, both for her and for me. I was a bit envious, wishing that when my own time comes it could be so simple. Unfortunately, I do not live in such a civilized place.

I’ve had one or more dogs continually for the past twenty years, but I’m done with it. I am now an ex-dog owner, much as I am an ex-smoker (I quit smoking 18 years ago after 22 years of tobacco addiction), and just as an ex-smoker perceives smokers differently than before, I am beginning to witness dog ownership (or call it companionship if you prefer) in a very different way. I see the people literally tied to their canines, their gait and rhythms constricted and restricted by the instincts and impulses of those creatures. They don’t go out for a walk so much as go out for a series of involuntary pauses. And as Demetri Martin put it, dog owners are people whose need for companionship outweighs their repulsion at picking up shit.

Every dog owner loves their dog (and there are so many different kinds of dog, so you can pick out precisely the particular variety they prefer to have this affection for) just as cat owners love their cats, and people in general love their family and/or friends. But there is no translation from the specific to the general, from the micro to the macro. We humans have these individual feelings for our own small set of other animals, but on the whole (you would have to admit, from the evidence) we as a species do not give a shit about life on this planet in general. Nor do we as humans act as if we give a crap about humanity in general. We love our family and/or friends, as I was saying, but then again, war and racism and violence and so on.

The individual is not the species – they operate on completely separate levels – just as a tree is not a forest or vice versa. As an ex-dog owner, I am somewhat stupefied by the persistence of those who insist on continuing to be dog owners. What are they thinking? I wonder. What do they see in these sniffing, pausing, wagging, marking, pooping, sniveling, warm and fuzzy and innocent beings? Over time we have manufactured these animals into the kind of things we want to have around us, but I’m done with that. I can go for a walk and keep walking. I can come home without having a set of duties to perform for an immediately demanding and insistent hairy mongrel. I suppose I will miss having a dog around, from time to time, just as I occasionally crave a cigarette, but I expect those moments to attentuate over time, until there comes a day when I can hardly believe I once spent all that time and money and attention on an admittedly adorable thing like that.

Book Review – Captains of Consciousness

Captains of Consciousness, originally published in the mid-70’s but just as relevant today, is an interesting book on the role of advertising in the development of the new world. It’s only been a hundred years since the invention of mass production, which eventually required a culture of mass consumption to go along with it. What good is it to produce a billion widgets a day if there is no one to buy them? The result was the creation of the middle class, at least in America and Europe. Globalization is another matter – the growth of a middle class throughout the world is inevitable but lagging.

The cultural implications are also interesting. Previously, people in our culture were raised to value craftsmanship, quality, and thrift. These values became unsuitable, and had to be replaced with acceptance of disposability and debt. Tradition was replaced by trends. Also, people had to be made perpetually dissatisfied with themselves and everything around them, so they could be made to buy things which promised fleeting satisfactions.

The transformation has been so complete we are almost unaware of it. We take consumer culture so much for granted. Consider: Cultures used to have one book or central legend that lasted them for hundreds of years. Now every single day brings a new “Most Viewed” item on YouTube. Movies that lead the box office two weeks in a row are uncommon. A number one bestselling book or album spends only days at the top of the charts. This is clearly no sustainable economy!

The acceleration of this process seems almost asymptotic. The most significant event in the future history of the world may not even be perceived by anyone, because it will only last for a fraction of a second.