Grave Digger Blues

Jesse Sublett is a rock and roll veteran as well as a novelist, i.e. a multimediast, and he’s blowing into full-bore convergent mode by creating an ebook rich with images, a book that can be performed, a book with its own theme song:

(Note the spook that whisks by at the end).

Grave Digger BluesI really love this book, Grave Digger Blues, a detective noir bit of fiction set at the end of the world. It’s very rock and roll, with a side of blues. And it’s easy to get for your kindle or (not as much fun) as plain text. But the whole thing was conceived for the iPad, an innovative composition using the iBooks author app. It’s a true convergent media piece, incorporating music soundtracks, audio chapters with jazz musicians like Johnny Reno, sound effects, and video.

Amazon’s overview:

Welcome to the USA in the near future, the last summer before the end of the world. A right wing Republican coup and terrorist strikes have decimated the social infrastructure. The digital world is 90 percent gone. Only a handful of elites have cell phones, and making a call on someone’s land line can cost plenty. The power grid is shot. Our guides to this blasted world are Hank Zzybnx, a damaged war vet, private eye and hit man, haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, and The Blues Cat, a jazz musician on an endless series of one-nighters, beloved by strange women, shadowed every step the muscle men of his nemesis, Big Clyde. Grizzly bears and alligators have invaded the cities. Weird epidemics ravage the land. Crime is rampant. Nightlife in bars like the Morgue, however, is booming. Envision Mad Max crossed with the Weimar Republic, to the tune of Mack the Knife played by Tom Waits. The Blues Cat, tired of roaming, yearns for the one thing he can never have–a quiet life and a loving wife. Hank searches for clues to his fragmented past. He rarely sleeps, and never dreams.

Check out Jesse’s blog, and don’t miss a chance to see him perform…

State of the World 2013: read the conversation

Bruce Sterling and I (with substantial contributions from others) conversed online for two weeks about the state of the world, as we do every year; that talk ended yesterday, but is archive for your perusal:

State of the World 2013

Here’s my concluding post, in response to a post by Gail Williams on war as metaphor and war as hard reality:

Gail, your post makes me think about the perception of (or,
trendier, optics for) war post WWII, sanitized by the many postwar
films and accounts. Those who knew better kept quiet. Meanwhile those
of us who grew up in the 50s were deluded; we played war games, it was
fun. Vietnam taught us better, or I should say, taught us bitter.
Bitter disillusionment.

Drone war reduces risk but, arguably, increases the probability of
collateral damage. In fact, in war all damage could be characterized as
collateral damage, as powerful elders, safely away from the front,
send the young and innocent, true believers, into battle.

Hopefully by now many more of us, a majority, understand that war is a
nightmare to be avoided. And the war metaphor doesn’t serve us all
that well.

We won’t end rape by declaring war on it. We’ll end rape through
education, cultivation of sensitivity and empathy, rethinking the
meaning of gender difference.

We won’t end poverty by declaring war on it, or by throwing money at
it. We’ll end poverty by caring about it.

We won’t end drug problems by declaring war on drugs. We’ll end drug
problems by understanding why and how drugs become a problem, by
treating addiction as a very human issue, maybe a disease, not a crime.


Robot photo from Rhizome

My favorite-so-far Bruce Sterling post in the State of the World conversation:

“Following on from John Payne’s comments in <76>, are the robots
coming for our jobs? Is a certain amount of unemployment going to end
up as part of the system and, if so, what happens next?”

*It’s so interesting to see this perennial question coming into vogue
once again. When I was a pre-teen first discovering “science fiction,”
that automation dystopia story was all over the place. Even on the
cover of TIME magazine. See this Artzybasheff computer monster, all
busy stealing guy’s jobs? Looks oddly familiar, doesn’t it?

Heckuva commercial artist, Artzybasheff

Of course that issue pre-dates me by a long chalk. It’s also the folk
song of John Henry the Steel-Drivin’ Man, who breaks his heart
defeating the boss’s Steam Hammer.

I can tell you what’s NOT gonna happen with “robots.” Nobody’s gonna
defeat the logic of the assembly line by starting a Pre-Raphaelite Arts
and Crafts commune where people shun the Robot and make hand-made wall
tapestries. That’s been tried eight thousand different times and
places. It never works for anybody who’s not Amish.

Framing the issue as “robots coming for our jobs” is rather a moot
point anyhow, because the blue-collar guys who “own” assembly “jobs”
have zero input on whether robots get deployed or not. What practical
difference does that question make? No modern salaried employee
anywhere has the clout to defend a “job” from “the robots.” The
investors deploying the robots are serenely unworried about Luddite
saboteurs or crippling labor-union strikes. Those possibilities of
working-class resistance were de-fanged ages ago.

So, you know, either they automate some processes at the cost of human
labor, or they don’t. Somebody’s alway gonna try it, and in some
areas it works out rather better than it does in others, but the basic
robot story isn’t robots, it’s “whatever happens to musicians will
eventually happen to everybody.”

Apparently this latest little robot-vs-job flap gets most of its
impetus from two things, a cool new assembly robot created by Rodney
Brooks and a typically Emersonian intervention from Kevin Kelly.

So, here I’ll tell my Rodney Brooks story. I met the guy once, at
some forgettable event in Washington DC, and after the panels were
over, Prof Brooks and I ventured into the bar.

So, I was nursing a whiskey sour, and I was like: “So, Doctor Brooks,
I know a little about your work, and –”

“Call me Rod!”

“So, Rod — level with me about this MIT scheme you have to automate
the movement of insect legs. How’s that supposed to work, exactly?”

So, Rod was nothing loath, and he was pretty well going at it hammer
and tongs, while I was asking the occasional provocative sci-fi style
question — stuff like “so, how does the cube-square law work out when
the robo-insects are walking on the ceiling?” — because we sci-fi
writers dote on MIT.

Then I happened to glance across the bar, and I saw that our bartender
was “frozen in disbelief.” He was so amazed by what Brooks was saying
that his glass and his cleaning cloth were rigid in his unmoving arms.
This bartender had the affect of a sci-fi movie android with a power
failure. It was the only time I’ve ever seen that figure of speech as a
genuine aspect of human behavior.

So, I give Rodney Brooks a lot of credit, he’s a fascinating guy, I’m
glad to see him kept busy on things other than, for instance, an
MIT-style Vannevar Bush Manhattan Project at an undisclosed desert
location. I’m confident that Rod’s new manipulator is pretty snazzy.

But let me ask this: if an assembly-line device is going to “take our
jobs,” wouldn’t a 3dprinter also “take our jobs?” Why do we treat them
so differently? I mean, they’re both basically the same device:
automated mechanical systems precisely moving loads in three dimensions
by following software instructions.

So how come the Brooks robot is framed as a sinister job-stealing
robot, while a 3dprinter is framed as a printer, like, a cool nifty
peripheral? Didn’t digital printers also take a lot of “people’s

Besides, a Brooks robot is just imitating human-scale movement while
3dprinters create objects in micron-accurate ways that no human can
possibly do at all. So clearly the 3dprinter is a more radical threat
to the status quo.

Along this same line: Chris Anderson, late of WIRED, has got a new
book out about “Makers.” I read it. It’s all about how network society
cadres with 3dprinters and open-source schematics and instructables
are going to create a “Third Industrial Revolution.” Great, right?
Okay, maybe Makers take over the world or they don’t, but how come
nobody says “A Third Industrial Revolution means those Makers are going
to take our jobs?” Because they would, wouldn’t they? How could they

Shouldn’t this prospect be of larger concern than Rodney Brooks’
latest gizmo, one among hordes of assembly line robots that have been
around for decades now? An “Industrial Revolution” should *almost be
definition* take everybody’s jobs. But the general reaction to
Anderson’s book is that the guy is *too optimistic,” that he drank his
own tech-hype bathwater and is having way too much fun. Isn’t there an
inconsistency here?

Then there’s the latest Kevin Kelly argument, which is more or less
about how robots are gonna take everybody’s jobs, but fine, that’s
great, especially if they’re sexbots. There’s nothing sparkly-new
about this line of reasoning, it’s very Automation Takes Command. The
pitch is that robots take the dull dirty and dangerous jobs, which
frees us to become, I dunno, humane speculative creatives like Kevin
Kelly, I guess.

However, I don’t believe automation has ever worked like that; there’s
no creeping wave-line with “robotics” on one side and “humanity” on
the other. Playing chess is very “human,” but Deep Blue is a robot
that can kick everybody’s ass at chess. You can claim that “Deep Blue”
is not “a robot,” but come on: just put a tin face on him and give him
a manipulator arm. Instant “robot.” Robotic has never been an issue
of mechanical men versus flesh men, like in a Flash Gordon episode.

The stuff we call “robotics” today is more like Google’s “robot car,”
which is not some Karel Capek man-shaped “robot” of the 1920s; the
Google Car is the Google Stack with wheels attached to it. Similarly,
“Google Glass” isn’t virtual-reality supergoggles, it’s the Google
Stack with a camera, Android mobile software and a head-mounted
display. Will they “take your jobs?” How could they not?

If you lose your job as a bus driver because a Google Bus took your
job, you didn’t lose it to a “robot,” you lost your enterprise to
Google, just like the newspapers did. Don’t bother to put a sexbot
face on the silly thing, it’s Larry and Sergei & Co. Go find a
musician and buy him a drink.

Fighter pilots are “losing their jobs to robots,” to aerial drones.
Are those the “dull dirty and dangerous” jobs? Heck no, because
fighter jocks are romantic folk heroes, like Eddie Rickenbacker and the
Red Baron and George Bush 1.0. When most flight work is carried out
by “robots” (actually by GPS systems and databases, but so what), are
we somehow going to discover a more refined and human way to fly? Will
we be liberated to fly in a more spiritual, humanistic, Beryl Markham
poetic aviatrix kind of way? I very much doubt that. I’m pretty sure
we’ll stop “flying” entirely, even if we anachronistically claim we’re
“flying” when we’re zipping around in sporty ultralights letting drone
systems do all the labor.

Bookstore clerks never had “dull, dirty, dangerous” work, they were
the mainstays of humanistic commerce actually, but Amazon is a Stack.
Amazon’s all about giant robot warehouse distribution logistics. It’s
all databases and forklifts in the Amazon stack, so of course “robots”
took the jobs of bookstore clerks. Bookstore clerks imagined they were
chumming around with the literate community turning people on the Jane
Austen, but the high-touch, humanly clingy aspect of this line of work
changed nothing much about its obsolescence.

So it’s not that “robots” take “our jobs.” It’s more a situation of
general employement precarity where applications built for mobile
devices and databases can hit pretty much anybody’s line of work, more
or less at random, without a prayer of effective counter-action.
Right? Let’s move right along, then!

That being the case, “what ought to be done?” Well, if job security
of all kinds is going to be made precarious indefinitely, then the
sane, humane thing to do is clearly to socialize security and put
everybody on a guaranteed annual income. Brazilian-style socialism:
keep your nose clean, keep the kids in school, and we fee you off and
you can go buy whatever produce the robots have cooked up lately.

One might also invent some kind of Stack Fordism, where Facebook pays
you enough to hang out on Facebook making Facebook more omniscient.
It’s a lot cheaper than putting the unemployed into prison.

Obviously the American right-wing isn’t gonna go for this wacky
liberal scheme; bailing out the “takers” of the 47% is their worst
Randroid nightmare. But what people never understood about the John
Henry story is that we have no steam hammers left. The robots “take
your job” and then the robots *keep changing at a frantic pace,* the
robots have the lifespans of hamsters. We’ve still got plenty of
muscular, human John Henries, but his steam hammers are all extinct.

Look what happened to Nokia. These Nokia guys had the classic Wired
magazine bulletproofed dream jobs. They’re not John Henry. They’re
creative class, computer-literate, inventive, super-efficient, global,
digital, Asperger’s high-IQ types… They got annihilated in 18
months. Not by “robots” but by Google and Apple. However, well, same
difference really.

What kind of “jobs” do Republicans have to offer themselves, when
their nominee was a corporate raider, and their top financier is a
weird Jewish casino owner up to the eyebrows in Macao? That’s not
exactly the Protestant work ethic happening, so, well, I dunno.

It might still work, just needs more political pretzel-bending. Don’t
use the word “guaranteed income,” farm it out to Fox News for semantic
re-framing. Toss in the “values requirement” that your annual income
requires you to wear Mormon undies, go to tent revival meetings and
own and display a handgun. They’d line up for it.

Photo from Rhizome

State of the World 2013

Bruce Sterling and I are holding forth on the State of the World in our annual conversation on the WELL, with several other contributors joining in.


Speaking of art, the past, and its lessons for the future:

In my neighborhood in Turin, there’s a bronze statue to a statesman
called “Massimo d’Azeglio.” Massimo happened to be born a rich
Turinese aristocrat, but he always wanted to be a novelist and painter.
He married the daughter of the most famous novelist in Italy, and his
brother actually managed to become a painter.

Massimo himself never managed that. He wrote a few derivative
knock-off novels and he did a lot of weekend painting, but he happened
to be living in a time of national catastrophe and tremendous political
upheaval. So he enlisted in the cavalry, where he got shot in a
losing battle and never recovered his health. Then he got called into
politics, where the King made him Prime Minister because he was the
only courtier around who didn’t lie and cheat all the time.

Massimo is a great statesman and the father of Italian
Constitutionalism and all that, but I never stroll past his statue, and
in Turin I do that all the time, without a shudder of dread. That guy
was a born artist who was forced to become important because he was
never left alone to do what he personally wanted to do.

He put his bohemianism aside, and he became dutiful and responsible.
He made a big difference: he liberated a suffering people (for the
brief periods before they got stomped again), he forged a new national
consciousness, he signed a lot of budget bills, he sat around a lot of
smoke-filled tables with the rich and the well-born. The wife never
liked it much. There seems to have been a lot of trouble over that.

Massimo’s got a bronze painter’s palette and an open bronze book,
sculpted at the foot of his towering monument — ’cause his persecutors
knew he was an artist — but he’s never gonna be able to bend down
from his bronze heights of statesmanship and pick them up.

Given his noblesse oblige, I’m not sure that Massimo was ever allowed
an open choice about being powerful rather than being an artist, but
power is a form of bondage. No one who needs power and has it, ever
gets enough of it. Artists like to talk about their work, but powerful
people like to talk about their vacations.

To think that you can become powerful, and not become like that
personally, is like thinking you can knock back a gallon of Gentleman
Jack and not get drunk because you can write novels and paint. You can
write and paint, but that’s not what it is, that’s not what it means.

He bought his guns on the Internet

Gun Room at Philadelphia's City Hall

In casual conversations, we often hear someone say “I read blah blah on the Internet,” and if you ask for a specific source, you’ll often get “I don’t remember where.” So it could have been the New York Times, or it could have been an inexpert blog post: a comment qualified in that way has no authority or meaning. Same with “bought it on the Internet.”

I was struck by a comment MSNBC’s Chuck Todd made while talking about access to weapons in the U.S. He mentioned that James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora shooter, bought considerable guns and ammunition “on the Internet.”

My first thought was that Todd is a careless journalist (something I never thought before), in part because he used a phrase so vague. Also because he followed with a comment suggesting that Holmes dyed his hair bright orange “like Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman.” The Joker existed as a character before Heath Ledger played the part, and clearly does not have the bright orange hair we see in the photos of Holmes. Chuck, you’re thinking of Bozo the Clown. The Joker’s hair is green.

But I digress. The relevant question here is the significance of saying that Holmes bought his arsenal online? That anyone can buy guns? Could we argue that, had Holmes bought his guns from a physical gun store, the clerk would have noted his demented stare and refused to make the sale? I doubt it.

It doesn’t matter where he bought the components of his arsenal. He could have bought them anywhere guns (and bullet-proof vests) are sold. Or so I read on the Internet.


Pete Rothman’s published a post at h+ on Donald Melanson’s brilliant neophiliac website Mindjack. I was on Mindjack’s board at one time, and contributed a few pieces to the site, including “Nodal Politics,” a chapter from my unpublished book Virtual Bonfire. In that particular piece, I was considering the potential for the Internet to serve as a platform for political organizing. Many if not most of the Mindjack authors were members of Howard Rheingold’s Electric Minds community, originally formed as a for-profit ad-based social site. (There’s a whole other interesting story about the sale of Electric Minds and the attempt to preserve the community as the platform changed hands.)

I don’t even remember writing a post at Mindjack about SXSW 2002 – post-dotcom-bust – but there it is.

This year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference was lean and mean – attended mainly by the core group of edgy ‘net whackadistas, the conference had an interesting vibe, like “Wow, glad the goddam dotcom splurge is over, let’s get back to what we were doin’…” And what we were doin’ had real depth, it was way more compelling than ecommerce or net.publishing, the kinds of projects MBAs brought to the table when they started calling the Internet an ‘industry’ and creating the concept of the IPO casino. Before all that stuff happened we were thinking about open and free paradigms for software development, technologies for community, new and better ways to tell our stories. We were re-inventing ourselves as cyborgs, humans enhanced by accelerated technologies, looking for ways to nurture each other and share ideas over faster, increasingly accessible networks. And though many were all a little tired, a little disoriented, a little uncertain about where they were going, there was no question that the crowd at this year’s SXSW was still committed to Internet technology and the web. Sadder, wiser, more grounded, but still eager to build.

Thirteen homicidal, macabre ghostly tinglers and William Castle

William Castle

William Castle Fan Club membership cardWe just watched the excellent documentary “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” on TCM, and it inspired a cascade of memories of my preteen fascination with horror and sci-fi films and fiction. I was an avid reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland and member of the National William Castle Fan Club, where I was invited to recite the mantra, “William Castle is the master of movie horror.”

Castle was like Roger Corman, but with a big personality and personal brand. He produced and directed tight low-budget horror films, always with a gimmick. For “Macabre,” a film he mortgaged his house to make, he offered a $1,000 life insurance policy for any audience member who died of fright during the film – he had actual nurses on hand at some screenings. “House on Haunted Hill” had “Emergo,” a plastic skeleton that “emerged” seemingly from nowhere to the right of the screen and flew (actually rode a wire) across the audience. For “The Tingler,” Castle installed vibrators on some seats throughout a threatre so that random audience members felt the creepy tingle as the tingler in the film, a parasite that looked like a prehistoric centipede, was activated. These films were pretty good – Castle had worked with Orson Welles, was involved in shooting the great “Lady from Shanghai,” and knew his craft pretty well. He made most of his films in a matter of days with very low budgets.

But what was great about Castle’s films was that they were weird fun; I think this was an effect of his disposition and charisma. He became a brand, appearing in previews and introductions to his film, often selling the gimmick to his growing audience. He was a great salesman.

There’s a darker story that comes later, involving his involvement as producer of “Rosemary’s Baby.” I won’t get into that here, but follow the link if you’re interested.

Dawkins on fundamentalism

Dr. Richard Dawkins challenges global religious superstition and anti-science fundamentalism. In this video from Slashdot, he makes a point similar to one I was proposing in Google+ recently: “Freedom of speech is something that Islamic theocracies simply do not understand. They don’t get it. They’re so used to living in a theocracy, that they presume that if a film is released in the United States, the United States Government must be behind it! How could it be otherwise? So, they need to be educated that, actually, some countries do have freedom of speech and government is not responsible for what any idiot may do in the way of making a video.”

Little Nemo in GoogleLand

In 1998 I wrote a piece about Winsor McCay’s surreal comic, Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland, for the webzine version of bOING bOING. I’m a huge Little Nemo fan.

The strip first appeared on October 15, 1905… in honor of Nemo’s “birthday,” Google has launched a “Little Nemo in GoogleLand” banner that expands into a pretty wonderful animation.

Wells and Welles

Ran across this interesting conversation, Orson Welles jamming with H.G. Wells in San Antonio, Texas, of all places. Welles attributed his success to Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” his Halloween 1938 radio version having brought him fame/notoriety. He says in the conversation that “Citizen Kane” was possible only because of the radio broadcast, which was supposedly so real as to inspire widespread panic – likely overstated by the press. (My father once told me that the reaction was far more subdued, from what he could see.) Whatever the case, Welles got some ink, and it built his reputation as a dramatic force.

Here’s the complete 1938 radio version of WotW:

15 years later, in 1953, a very good film version was released, produced by George Pal, and featuring Gene Barry as a square-dancing, high flying scientist-hero.

Debate and contention

I watched this bit of theatre yesterday…

David Brinkley would never have had the Carvile-Matalins back for a second appearance, yet they keep popping up on the George Stephanopoulos version of This Week. In the latest episode, Mary Matalin called Paul Krugman a liar for his comments on the Romney/Ryan out on their Vouchercare plan, a subset of the overall plan to make decent healthcare a privilege for the elite, barely available to the rest of us. We’re already practically there, despite “Obamacare.”

You’ve probably already seen this debate:

Wondering if this changed anyone’s mind, or are we having a lot of preaching to the already-converted on either side of the fence. Echo silo solipsistic wrangling.

Okay, I’m frustrated by politics. But who isn’t?

Mondo 2000 in the Late 20th Century Cyberculture

Mondo #8

Former Mondo 2000 editor RU Sirius has been working many moons on a history of the magazine and its predecessors (High Frontiers, Reality Hackers). I was privileged to help a bit with infrastructure for gathering stories as well as contributions on the Texas and WELL perspectives on Mondo.

RU’s published the preface at Acceler8tor…

Called MONDO 2000 — the magazine took the just-then-emerging future of digital culture, dangerous hacking and new medias; tossed them in the blender along with overdoses of hallucinogenic drugs, hypersex and the more outrageous edges of rock and roll; added irreverent attitudes stolen from 20th Century countercultures from the beats to the punks, the literary and art avant gardes, anarchism, surrealism, and the new electronic dance culture— and then, it deceptively spilled that crazy Frappe all out across really slick, vaguely commercial looking multicolored printed pages with content that was Gonzo meets Glam meets Cyberpunk meets something else that has never been seen before or since… but which those of us who were there simply called MONDO — as in, “Yes, the article you submitted is definitely MONDO.” Or, “No. This isn’t MONDO. Why don’t you try Atlantic Monthly?”

We called it “a beribboned letterbomb to the core address of consensus reality.” Briefly, and, in retrospect, unbelievably, it became the flagship of the new culture; the new world that was being created by the onrush of the new technologies.