Monday, March 30, 2015

SXSW Interactive: I wouldn't pay for it

As with many topics where I thought I had a lot to say, it turns out I can sum up my feelings about SXSW pretty easily:

I wouldn't pay for it.

A badge gets you in to all the panels and the parties. (Not the films or the music events.)

Except a badge doesn't really guarantee entry to any panel because there are so many people. I got shut out of at least one panel every day because the room was at capacity; I could have arrived earlier--for some of those panels, people start lining up a half-hour to hour-plus beforehand--but that would mean missing out on the previous panel I wanted to see. In other words: You can't see all the things you want to see.

But that's not so bad because (a) you can always go to your second choice panel--assuming that isn't full up too and (b) there are plenty of interesting people to meet outside of the panels. Some of the best conversations I had were with random people I happened to be standing next to on line. That's how I met a guy working on IBM's Chef Watson project and a guy working in interactive film and a guy working for Google Play out of New York.

Then again, I also met a lot of recruiters and PR people and marketing people. And don't get me wrong, I had some really nice chats with them. But it made SXSW feel less like a playground and more like a networking/work event. I wanted to hear about exciting new things coming out of DARPA (I was shut out of that panel), but instead I heard about why I should move my company to Scotland. (There were a lot of booths and parties for national and city governments.)

Ultimately, I had a fine time, met a lot of nice people, but almost all my favorite things happened outside of--as a byproduct of--SXSW events. Maybe it's different when you've got an exciting new company or some capital in search of an exciting new company, but overall, I didn't get a good feeling from the event, which was so overpopulated (and too spread out over the city).

I'm not sure there's anything to do at this point; SXSW is so big that people will keep coming to it and spending money on it (and giving panels that are thinly veiled promos for their companies), all of which will keep even more people coming. But that also means there's room here for really cool anti-SXSW festival, a smaller convention really dedicated to the future of technology.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 270: Sallie Brock, The Fall of Richmond (#270)

Sallie Brock, "The Fall of Richmond" (1867) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Another Civil War memorial, this time from a Southern women who witnessed the fall of Richmond. Which is one of those funny "falls" where the main damage was done by the departing Confederate army and panicked Southerners before the Union army attempted to stop the fires.

And yet Sallie Brock still describes the “Stars and Stripes” as "the ensign of our subjugation." I can't say I'm very sympathetic to Brock after that and some disparaging remarks on blacks and the Union army as "representing almost every nation on the continent of Europe."

The best part of this week's story then is LoA headnote with the unfortunately worded sentence about Brock and her husband's later life:
The couple lived and died in Brooklyn for over two decades, but both were buried in Richmond.
They died for over two decades? Like, over and over? Or is that a philosophical statement about how life is really death? Whoa, man, that's like deep.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Like butter scraped over too much bread": Some rambly thoughts on feeling over-extended

I'm not the busiest person in the world and I don't take my privileges for granted, so maybe I should list all the ways I could be more over-extended: no kids, only one job, relatively healthy, etc.

While it's useful to remember--and have gratitude--for all these benefits, it's also fair to admit that I still feel over-extended.

Which isn't a complaint by itself, since many of the reasons I feel over-extended are voluntary and fun. When I'm rushing from work on Tuesday to make it to improv at the Hideout, I'm not thinking, "oh man, here's another thing I gotta do." Instead, I think, "oh boy, I get to improvise tonight and see my improv friends!" It's all good.

Not so fast there, buddy: did you notice that, even when I'm going to something I want to do, I'm still "rushing"?

And, of course, you can get that feeling of rushing even when you're sitting still, but feeling torn between moving towards one goal/activity and another.

That rushing, it's a bit like having lots of tabs open on your browser at once for me. Or it's a bit like trying to listen to two conversations at a party at once. It's a bit like--well, here I am again, rushing around to find more metaphors or analogies, instead of just sitting still with one.

Which has always been my problem, a mix of FOMO and curiosity: in school, I was interested in everything--which manifested itself in distraction and lack of discipline. (Writing papers, my favorite part was the footnotes where I could go off on tangents and make interesting observations, which were allowed to be tangential to the main thesis of the paper.)

In later life, well, it's still distraction and lack of discipline, only the tangents that used to be full of joy have begun to feel like burdens: I'd like to sit still and finish this story--but I've gotta go finish taking that course on Machine Learning. I'd like to finish that Machine Learning course, but I've got improv. I"ve got game night. I've got a study group to learn the language Go. I have a bunch of books from the library to read. I've got exercise. I've got food shopping. I've got SXSW. (And more on that soon.)

See what I mean about everything I'm doing being fun and voluntary. Only it doesn't always feel voluntary. And it sometimes feels like I'm getting less done by being so busy.

That, to me, is the too little butter/too much bread paradigm: things that should be fun turn out to feel attenuated, pale, thinned down in positive feeling. It's that sick feeling you get when you binge-watch a show beyond the point of fun, which is like the same feeling but from the opposite side.

I hate to state the obvious (note: untrue--I love to state the obvious), but fun things should be fun. Sometimes you gotta sit with them for a while and not be distracted; or sometimes you gotta standup and walk over to the next thing to do. But walk--don't rush.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 269: Stephen Crane, His New Mittens (#269)

Stephen Crane, "His New Mittens" (1898) from Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry:

Not much happens here, plot-wise: a boy with new mittens is tempted to join in a snowball fight--and then he does, against the admonition of his mother; his mother punishes him, which results in him running away into a snowstorm--until he goes to the butcher, who brings him back home. Not really all that much. Perhaps if you've seen the movie Boyhood (I haven't), you could make the connection: a young boy and nothing really happening.

But rather than place us in the boy's head, and giving us the grand melodrama as the boy feels it, Crane gives us a close third with more omniscience and coolness than we might think appropriate. Crane's not exactly holding up Horace as a figure of humor. In fact, according to the LoA headnote, there's some reason to think that Crane--loner, exile, sufferer--saw himself in Horace, the picked-on kid. Yet we never really entirely inhabit Horace's POV and there is some grim humor at Horace's expense. When the little kid decides to run away and then reconsiders--why not start in the morning, after the storm?--there's a glimpse of the tiny self-important hypocrites that children can be.

So a blank plot allows Crane the chance to play some interesting game with tone and POV here, positioning the hero of the ordinary as ... actually very ordinary. Horace--loner, exile, sufferer--isn't so much a vision of Crane as he is a vision of all of us at some point.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 268: Moss Hart, Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow (#268)

Moss Hart, "Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow": A sketch from As Thousands Cheer (1933) from American Musicals: The Complete Books and Lyrics of 16 Broadway Classics 1927–1969:

Usually I post LoA analyses on Sunday, but for very good reasons (SXSW), I didn't get to read this until today. I will soon post more about SXSW, but for now, I leave you in the capable hands of Moss Hart, playwright and guy with funny name.

And when I say I'm leaving you in his hands, I mean it. This week's selection is five quick pages of silliness, so you might as well go read it: on the eve of the Roosevelt inauguration, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover fight and make jokes about themselves. It's early Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And like the Daily Show at times, some of the jokes are so broad that it feels like Hart could've written "pause for laughter" pretty confidently. I mean, this exchange was sure to get a laugh after Mrs. Hoover is caught trying to steal a portrait of President Washington:
Mrs. hoover: All right, I’ll put it back. We’ll just go back to Palo Alto with nothing at all to show for your having been President of the United States.
Mr. hoover: Nobody else in the country has got anything to show for it either.
Maybe that exchange would only get a cold rueful laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.

Also, how funny to imagine the primary blockbusters on Broadway as sketch revues, with singing and dancing. Maybe it's time to bring that back? A revue of YouTube stars might not be the worst way to lose money on Broadway.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Robocop, How I Would Write It

The Brilliant Very Good Original

Robocop is not my favorite Verhoeven film, but it's a film I like a lot: you can watch it naively as a simple tale of man vs. machine, of the corrupting influence of capitalism, of--Wait, did I say that was the naive way to watch it? Let's start over.

Here's a classic, simple tale: a man falls into some pit, but then crawls his way back up. We cheer. That pit takes many forms, whether it's an internal character flaw (like greed or anger) or an external situation (like... a pit).

At its most basic, Verhoeven's Robocop is a pit story: a man falls into a pit--cop Murphy gets shot up and then re-made as a cyborg without a name, a cog in a corporate machine who can't even do his job (arrest criminals) because of corporate corruption; but by the end, that cyborg cop (OK, fine: robocop) crawls his way out of the pit, reclaiming his name and his humanity.

(Also, getting his vengeance, the classic American story of regeneration through revenge.)

(Also also: his revenge is entirely mediated by the corporate structure since he only takes revenge on the corporate criminal when that guy gets fired by someone even higher up on the corporate food-chain. But for a moment, pretend this paragraph doesn't exist.)

So, it's a fine story at the man-vs-pit level.

On top of that, screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner build a story about unrestrained capitalism, which reaches its apotheosis in the owning of people, either in the form of addiction (the drug trade is the highest form of consumerism here) or in the literal owning of people's bodies (as with Murphy being property).

And then, on top of that, Verhoeven adds (or embraces) a certain tone of louche skepticism. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "louche skepticism," but I like it as a phrase. No, I do know what I mean: as friend Jason points out in his blog post, Verhoeven makes everything so gloriously over-the-top that it's hard to miss the satire here.

(Then again, when Starship Troopers came out, I said the same thing--and lots of people missed it.)

But really, when a drug-dealer comments on how drug-dealing is the highest form of capitalism, there's not a lot of subtext going on there. At that point, it's just text.

The Rather Hollow Remake

I just finished the remake and... I'm not really sure I could tell you what it's about. There's Alex Murphy, who, again, is a good cop turned into a product. There's the big corporation that makes robots/drones for war overseas and wants to start using them here. There's the blow-hard TV personality with a definite bias. There's the doctor with the heart of gold. There's the widow/wife and the partner of Alex-cum-RoboCop. There's some of the same goddamn lines, like "Dead or alive, you're coming with me."

And about that particular line: goddamn it, people, in the original that line was a way to show that RoboCop retained some of Murphy's personality, which was a little cowboyish (That line and the gun-twirling are both used as proof that RoboCop was Murphy; and as proof that Murphy is an old-style American, a no-nonsense frontier-tamer. That description comes with a big old wink by Verhoeven.) In the 2014 version, that line is repurposed--Murphy is now describing himself as "Dead or alive" as opposed to describing the criminal--which is cute, but has no real purpose other than to remind the audience that this is a reboot. It doesn't add up to anything.

That's the big problem with the remake: it's flashier than the original, but there's a certain sense of hollowness here.

Fix It, Felix Ben!

RoboCop in 1987 was science fiction satire, with deadly robots and private cops and corporate crime. In 2014, we call that reality.

So why remake RoboCop? How can the general frame of this story--man vs. corporate machine that he's become--help tell a good story, illuminate our moment, and, oh yeah, make a killing at the box office?

(RoboCop 2014 was made for 100-130$ and made 240$, which is respectable, around 200% return. RoboCop 1987 was made for 13$ and made 54$--a 400% return. Which would you rather have?)

First, screw all that ridiculousness about the political opponents of the robots having power. It generates some motivation for the corporation to use RoboCop as a mascot, but it waters down the real conflict. Ditto the media issue with Samuel L. Jackson's TV blowhard: it's not that interesting because it doesn't tell us anything we don't know about the world or take the story anywhere new.

Second, corrupt cops are boring; a broken policing system is interesting. (Did we learn nothing from The Wire?)

Third, what's interesting about this story to you (screenwriter, director, producer)? Verhoeven's RobcCop is clearly Verhoeven's work: the story may be pretty ordinary man-and-his-pit core, but there's all of Verhoeven's usual issues on top of it.

RoboCop 2014 could almost be the work of anyone because there's nothing that really distinguishes it; it's a little bloodless. If you're going to remake a movie, make it something you're interested in.

(Hollow, bloodless--thanks, filmmakers, for making a movie where the central metaphor maps perfectly onto the critique of the film.)

My RoboCop

I'm not going to write a reboot of RoboCop 1987 (and this post is already way too long), but here's some things I would want to think about going in to write or pitch on this project:

  1. corporations and patent-trolling; 
  2. intellectual property; 
  3. race-class inequality in policing; 
  4. drones and the psychological cost of distant war; 
  5. augmented reality and tech popularity; 
  6. corporate-political cooperation; 
  7. neverending war.

There's a couple different ways to go with this constellation of issues. (And you might disagree that these are, in fact, the useful issues to be discussing; in which case, please tell me about your version of RoboCop.) But at its heart, RoboCop is a man-vs-pit story, where that pit tends to be marked as corporate capitalist organizations, like drug cartels and corporations. It's about a man regaining a sense of self through fighting a conspiracy. It's an underdog story (with a massively armed and armored underdog).

So here's one version: I call it, A Boy and his RoboCop.

The military-industrial complex keeps pumping out drones for war overseas; and then needing to dump the older models so they can keep pumping out newer versions. As in our world, this ex-military gear finds its way into the hands of the police forces--and maybe the criminals. (Though as we've seen, arming the police is pretty terrifying all by itself.) A damaged police drone starts acting erratically, going AWOL to discover its original home, now occupied by a small homeless child who might or might not be the child of the drone's original brain. Ah, because (dun dun dun) these drones are built around dead veterans. Something something apathetic cop, good cop, damaged cop.

(Note: this wouldn't work as a RoboCop pitch since, going into RoboCop, the audience knows that he's man and machine. So we couldn't have that "human brain in a jar" as a revelation. Still, I'd rather watch this movie than the one I did watch.)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 267: Herman Melville, The Lightning-Rod Man (#267)

Herman Melville, "The Lightning-Rod Man" (1819–1891) from Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose:

I haven't read Moby Dick in years, so take that into account when I say that The Confidence-Man is my favorite novel of Melville's--largely because it's such a mess as a novel. Take all the things you usually find in a novel: a plot that runs for hundreds of pages; characters that continue or at least reappear; maybe a theme or two. Confidence-Man pretty much ditches the first two and leans hard on the third, but not in any way where you can say, as if writing a paper, "Melville shows us that..." Because what does he show us? There's something about faith and trust and confidence and how people relate to each other (along with a whole host of characters that are stand-ins for 19th-century contemporaries of Melville).

"The Lightning-Rod Man" is a lot like that; and as the LoA headnote says, there's a lot of different readings of this sort of ambiguous sketch. The plot, as such, involves a lightning-rod salesman coming to the narrator's house and making what we would consider a hard pitch for a sale, before the two get into a fight. The characters, as such, are both a little odd, as if they might be stand-ins themselves: the narrator is humorous, but a little cracked; the lightning-rod salesman is either pious or devilish. The theme or themes circle around piety, science, punishment, obedience.

And I don't have anything really cute or clever to say to wrap it up. Which is maybe why I like these stories and novels of Melville's that seem a little off. In a letter to Hawthorne, he noted that he couldn't really write what the market demanded, but he tried, and so "all my books are botches." He's talking about a different mechanism there, but I still tend to think of some of these stories as botches, both because they're a weird hash of stuff; and because they tend to revolve around people involved in botches of their own.

For more on this, I would recommend his stories "The Happy Failure" (crazy uncle has new invention to dry up swampland, which doesn't work, leaving him--remarkably happy) and "I and My Chimney" (no one respects character's relationship with his chimney, but he persists--all alone except for his chimney).

Monday, March 2, 2015

Expansion, Contraction, Expansion; Or, Keep Breathing; Or, Learn to Say No

Last Saturday, after doing some mind work (Machine Learning is hard, yo), I decided to go through all my physical books and make note of which ones survived the big move from San Angelo to Austin. 

My book collection had already been significantly reduced before this move to Austin. The 2011 move from Chicago to San Angelo included me selling books to used book stores, giving books to friends, and then finally donating a dozen or more shopping bags full of books to a literacy non-profit. More recently, while I was taking the course at MakerSquare, I brought several shopping bags full of books to Austin to sell at Half-Price Books, where I received something closer to one-twentieth their price.

(Also, do you notice that my preferred unit of book measuring is the shopping bag? I'd like to say it's a metaphor for books-as-food, necessary and nutritious, but it's just a lot easier to get shopping bags than boxes.)

And most recently, I cleared out all my books from San Angelo; true to form, this move included dropping off at least six shopping bags full of books to the library. This latest batch of giveaways included a lot of my critical theory--adieu, Adorno! Hasta luego, Lukacs!--and a lot of books I've collected that I wasn't sure I was going to read any time soon.

(This stack of books going back to the library for their book sale included--naturally--several books I picked up at the library book sale years ago.)

While I was in San Angelo, I started using LibraryThing to help catalogue my books, mostly to prevent me from accidentally buying something I already owned. Unfortunately, LibraryThing has doubled and tripled some of my entries, making my count less than precise; but I can now say, roughly speaking, that out of 460 physical books that I had in San Angelo, half survived this most recent contraction.

Naturally, I have thoughts about this. My first thought, while cataloguing my current books:

I probably could have gotten rid of more.

Which is probably shocking to hear for many people who know what I bibliophile--or bibliomaniac--I am. I've always had walls of shelves of books, from my childhood room to my dorm room to my apartments. I used to have Erasmus's quote up, the one about buying books when he had money, and then buying food if he had any left over. All my childhood allowance went towards books of one sort of another.

Yet, I don't feel terrible about getting rid of these books. I wish I could've had the time to read some of them and to find them interesting homes--or at least found them hands to reside in temporarily. (Maybe books, like money, are only really useful when they circulate.)

Saying that I don't feel terrible about getting rid of those books is a long way from saying it was easy to let go of them. A lot of it was hard in the way that self-reflection can be hard--in the way that self-acceptance can be hard. 

Giving away all of my critical theory books was perhaps the most concrete way I could admit to myself that I'm not going back to grad school to finish my degree. Letting go of all 19th-century literature books, with all my careful notes, was a way of letting go part of that old dream of teaching. (Did I ever show you the page at the back of Henry James's The Bostonians where I catalogued every use of the word "press" and words that included it? Since it's a book about impression, repression, oppression, and expression, it's a pretty long catalog.)

But like going to the gym, getting rid of half my library was both hard in the moment and still felt like the right thing to do after.

Or put another way: Letting go of those books that I might have read at some point gives me the mental space to focus on the books in front of me. The "books" in that sentence might be a metaphor. 

Because I've always been interested in a lot of things; I've always had trouble saying "no" to new things; and I've never been all that good about cutting ties and saying goodbye to things that I'm not really interested/involved in any more. So it's not surprising that I would end up with so many books that I needed a system to avoid re-buying the same books. And it's not surprising that I would end up with an Osprey book on British uniforms in World War I, alongside a book on Norwegian folk tales, next to my copy of Barthes S/Z, near...

Wait a minute, am I confessing or bragging? A little bit of both. I mean, it's nice to have lots of interests and be well-rounded, blah blah blah. But it's also good--at least, it feels good for me right now--to be able to let go of some things and be able to focus on the other things.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying y'all should throw out your books and not buy any new ones. (I am saying support your local library, though.) And I'm not saying that I'm not buying any new books now. Maybe some day I will have built-in shelves and I will dedicate myself to rebuilding all my library. After all, this contraction may be just a phase...

But I can't help seeing it like a form of breath exercise. Maybe books and money, are both like air: useful when circulating, useful when taken in, useful when pushed out. Which reminds me of a text conversation I had with a friend once:

Right: in, out, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 266: Elizabeth Hardwick, Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness (#266)

Elizabeth Hardwick, "Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness" (1965) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973:

As the LoA headnote puts it, "Kentucky native and New York Review of Books cofounder Elizabeth Hardwick" participated in the third march on Selma, which I love--not the march, but the description--because you can see them trying hard to capture some essence of her, her very literate style, her politics, and her POV.

And there is something interesting to all three of those areas: her writing style has a sort of baroque thousand-yard stare--
How do they see themselves, we wonder, these posse-men, Sheriff Clark’s volunteers, with their guns and sticks and helmets, nearly always squat, fair-faced, middle-aged delinquents and psychopaths?
--while her politics are exhausted--
The intellectual life in New York and the radical life of the Thirties are the worst possible preparation for Alabama at this stage of the Civil Rights movement.
--and her POV gets to mix disgust with annoyance at the downright cliche nature of it all--
Just as they use the Confederate flag, so they use themselves in the old pageantry. The tableau (it might have been thought up decades ago by one of the Hollywood Ten): the early morning fog is lifting and a little band of demonstrators stand at their post at the end of the dusty street.
All of which gives this piece an odd feeling for me: less out-and-out anger and more rage-fatigue. (Hey, I guess rage-fatigue predates the internet. Thanks for the discovery, LoA!)

Yet, though there's something kind of annoying about this writer parachuting in--for all that she is form Kentucky, whatever that means to the LoA headnote writer--there's also something sincerely angry and hopeful and pointed and beautiful here. For once, Hardwick says, the cliches seem to be working towards freedom. It's not radical people who are leading this change, but clean-cut, everyday folks--this is what revolution looks like: just good people, in glasses, and reasonable shoes. You'd need reasonable shoes for a march.