Friday, January 30, 2009



“Well,” said Flavius after an uncomfortably long pause. “Bit of water under the bridge since I’ve last been seeing you, eh? How’s life been treating you, then?”

“It is as you feared, Your Imperial Majesty,” Papantzin said, ignoring Flavius. “The Sajal has debased herself with the lesser-sentient.”

“If Your Imperial Majesty would--” Anacaona began, but the Empress Malinche raised a hand, cutting her off as she entered the room, closing the door behind her.

“I’ve never entirely grasped how it is that the imperial cousins are always so eager to bring scandal down upon themselves with this impure fixation on... beastiality,” Empress Malinche said easily as she walked over to Flavius.

“Disgraceful,” muttered Papantzin.

“Hold on, now,” protested Flavius. “Nae need to talk that way about me! I have seen ya starkers, after all. And a whole lot more that I cannae remember...”

“His Imperial Majesty said you had no memory of the affair,” gasped Anacaona in surprise.

“People don’t always tell the whole truth, now, do they?”

Empress Malinche stepped in front of Flavius, so close he had to stop himself from flinching back. Her manner was light, but he could almost feel the heat of her rage lurking beneath the surface. The Empress examined his erection with pursed lips, then ran her hand across his chest. It came away glittering with a dusty sheen. “Oh my. This is most distressing. You’ve shed your passion all over him, Sajal...”

“Anacaona,” Anacaona said. “Your Imperial Majesty knows very well who I am, third cousin--”

“Debased Sajal should know to hold their tongues in the presence of Her Imperial Majesty,” Papantzin said.

“Gently, dear Papantzin. Sajal Anacaona is obviously beholden to her more primitive urges. We mustn’t judge her too harshly. This defect sometimes manifests itself among the distant cousins where noble blood runs thin,” Empress Malinche said, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together thoughtfully. “The only decent thing to do is to protect her from herself. Tell me, Papantzin, do we know of any likely candidates for a union?”

“Nu’n Huyng comes to mind,” Papantzin answered.

“Ah! Perfect! Nu’n and Sajal always do make exceptional marriage pairings. Their unions are always so vigorous.”

“No,” Anacaona said, eyes wide. “You can’t do this. You can’t condemn me!”

“Anacaona, think of this as an act of Imperial generosity,” Empress Malinche said gently. “Think of the scandal. You’ve irredeemably tainted yourself. What citizen in the Eternal Dominion would consent to union with you after you’ve spread your sheen all over this lesser sentient?”

”His corpse fucking glowed when they dragged it out of your bedchamber!”

Silence descended like a vacuum, sucking all the air out of the room.

“You... you...” stammered Papantzin finally, “dare to slander Her Imperial Majesty so? In front of the lesser sentient? The penalty for those words is--”

“Death?” Anacaona offered. The Sajal was trembling, but uncowed. “Her Imperial Majesty has already given me a death sentence should she follow through on her threat to force my union with Nu’n Huyng. I wonder what the unfortunate Nu’n has done to earn her disfavor?”

Papantzin struck quickly. Flavius jumped in surprise. Anacaona lay on the floor, bleeding from a nasty gash running from her cheekbone up to her scalp. Flavius eyed Papantzin warily. The handmaiden had moved so fast he hadn’t seen the blow land. The notion crept into his mind that she might be somewhat more than a mere handmaiden.

“Hoo! Nae need to be getting rough on my account,” Flavius said, easing on his kilt. Not an easy task, unwilling as he was to unbuckle his swordbelt to do so. “Why dinnae we sit down and discuss this over a pint?”

“An interesting suggestion, friend Flavius, although I don’t believe the Sajal will be joining us,” Empress Malinche said, rubbing Flavius’ bare shoulder with her over-jointed fingers. He pulled on his shirt then, using it as an excuse to slip from her grasp. “She has overstepped herself by a wide margin, and needs time alone to contemplate her transgression.”

“She means I get a knife in the back and a toss over the side of the palace walls,” Anacaona said, wiping her bloody cheek. “She can’t stand it that I bedded you out from under her.”

Papantzin hit her again, a lightning strike to the opposite side of Anacaona’s face. Anacaona cried out.

“Hey!” Flavius shouted, and lunged to interpose himself between the two. In an instant, he found Papantzin’s hand at his throat, holding him with more force than he’d thought possible.

“Flavius, take me with you,” Anacaona pleaded as she used the bed to push herself to her feet. Blood streamed down both cheeks now. “She won’t kill me in front of you, because she still wants you in her bed. But I’m dead the moment we separate. Please, let me travel otherwhere with you.”

“Friend Flavius, do you really take us to be so barbaric?” Empress Malinche said.

Flavius managed a strangled wheeze in response.

“Oh, yes. Papantzin, let him go.”

Papantzin released her grip, and Flavius took a staggered step back, rubbing his throat.

“Her venomous attacks on my person must not go unanswered, but all justice is even-handed and well-considered. Papantzin will escort the Sajal back to her suite while you come with me to the Imperial wing. I’ll show you we really are a genteel and loving people.”

“She’s jealous and selfish and loathsome,” Anacaona said. “It’s not enough that she had you to herself for four days last time, she has to possess you again this time as well.”

Papantzin moved to strike Anacaona again, but this time Flavius was ready. In an instant, Memory came unsheathed, its gleaming edge interposed itself between the women.

“There now,” Flavius said. “Nae need to punctuate everything with fisticuffs, eh? As I was saying before-- Wait, did ya say four days?”

“Do not--” began Empress Malinche.

“Four days. Give or take,” Anacaona said, matter of factly. “Then they tossed your body over the wall.”

“That’s nae how I heard it,” Flavius muttered.

“I’ve tried to be tolerant, but your insolence...” fumed Empress Malinche. “You should not have bedded Flavius.”

“It’s not like you left me many alternatives, Your Imperial Majesty,” Anacaona shot back. “You’re the one who had all the peq castrated, after all.”

“Whoa there! I dinnae need to hear that.”

Empress Malinche closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “Just so,” she said softly. “Papantzin, kill the Sajal.”


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Austin infects Austen with zombieism?

Be warned, people! The streets of Austin are not the only places you must be on guard lest shambling undead corpses attempt to devour your brains. Now comes word that not even proper British comedy-of-manners novels are safe havens:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen’s classic novel to new legions of fans.

Is there any doubt that Austin, a proudly bookish city with such landmark literary institutions as Book People is the city that infected Austen (merely one letter apart--clearly a case of the zombie virus mutating and "making the jump" if ever there were one)? Now that this virulent plague has leapt from the living world to the literary one, where will the horror end? Certainly, some writings will fare better than others. On the genre front, Starship Troopers and Zombies I can't imagine being much different at all, but Flowers for Algernon and Zombies promises to be very painful, indeed. Thank goodness William Hjortsberg's 1971 tour-de-force Gray Matters remains safely out of print. Can you imagine the unending carnage were zombies to gain access to four billion brains in jars?

Zombie invasion update

A quick update on our Monday report about the zombie invasion of Austin: over at the Austin American-Statesman, reporter Katie Petroski is investigating the Nazi zombie invasion story (complete with photos from this blog):

Sign hacker broadcasts zombie warnings

By Katie Petroski | Wednesday, January 28, 2009, 04:10 PM

Someone reprogrammed two city construction road signs near the University of Texas early Monday morning in an attempt to warn Austin of an imminent zombie attack.

Messages that typically alert Lamar Boulevard drivers to a detour for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard splashed several warnings like “Caution! Zombies Ahead!” and “Nazi Zombies! Run!!!”

As he drove south on Lamar, traffic controller Bruce Jones saw the first sign flash the Nazi zombies message at 6 a.m. and wheeled his truck around for another look. Then he said he noticed that the second sign, directed at northbound drivers, had also been tampered with.

Jones, who has one of only two keys to the locked access panels on the portable signs, said that the hacker broke into the panels on each sign and bypassed the passwords before leaving five different zombie messages and even changing one of the passwords. Jones said he had to wait until 8 a.m. to call the manufacturing company to figure out how to override the hacker’s work. He speculated that the hacker could be a computer genius from UT.

The biggest safety hazard came from drivers slowing down or stopping their car to take pictures, Jones said.

The hacking occurred within weeks of various articles appearing online with descriptions of how to hack into these road signs — which point out that such an act is illegal.

Dennis Crabill, project manager with the Public Works Department, said the access panels are always locked and are not programmed with the default passwords these sites suggest. Short of having a watchman on duty around the clock, he said there is little more the city can do to prevent such vandalism.

“It’s a pretty childish prank,” he said.

Crabill said he is optimistic that MLK Boulevard will be open to two-way traffic again by this weekend, and the detour will no longer be necessary.

No zombies have been seen in the area, and with any luck, Tuesday night’s cold front killed off any undead with ghoulish plans to invade the city.

This story appears to have inspired (re)publication of a bunch of how-to stories, like this one, in case you know of another strategically located sign that needs to be put to proper use...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Consumer culture, the annotated edition

From Christopher Barzak, via Maureen McHugh, the Amazon review feature transformed into a vehicle for social satire courtesy of the Playmobil airport security checkpoint playset:

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3,028 of 3,078 people found the following review helpful:

Great lesson for the kids!, September 9, 2005
By loosenut (Seattle, WA) - See all my reviews

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger's shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger's scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said "that's the worst security ever!". But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.

I wonder what other nuggets are lurking in these post-Talmudic virtual annotations of the endless variations on cultural self-expression embodied in our consumer culture?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This Time. . .

Like everybody else, the recent campaign had me thinking about political language. There were slogans, phrases, images from the election that are going to be buried in people's heads for the rest of their lives. I come by this knowledge honestly. Years ago my dad used to drive me to school. Torture because every morning, I was treated to his Tourette's-like invocations of old Republican political slogans. So: "I Like Ike" and Barry Goldwater's "In Your Heart You Know He's Right" repeated over and over again. And then he would start riffing, dropping in long pauses: "In your heart (30 second beat as I claw at the dashboard) you knowww he's right."

But his favorite old slogan, bar none was for Richard Nixon. It was three simple words, just "This time. . . Nixon."

Besides the repetition, what drove me crazy was that I could find no evidence that this actually was a Nixon slogan. Eventually, I had a shelf full of books on the 37th President and as far as I could tell, my Dad had just made it up. Then, I found the Living Room Candidate site, found a trove of Nixon's 1968 commercials, and it became clear to me why they'd stuck in his mind all those years. I think they're brilliant.

In the use of still images with narration, they are clearly building on the famous "Daisy Girl" commercial and others from Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign. And in context, the meaning of "this time" becomes clearer. Remembering that Nixon had run and lost in 1960, these spots are basically asking the Silent American voter, "How have you enjoyed the Sixties? Want a do over?"

I also think it's interesting how these commercials reinforce the two themes for presidential elections, Stay The Course and Change. A candidate has to pick one. In 1968 (hard as it is for some to believe 40 years later) Richard Nixon was the change guy. If you get caught in between the two, like Hubert Humphrey did in 1968 or McCain did in 2008, you are going to lose. Watching these as the 2008 campaign played out, I was struck how the tone wouldn't have been out of place in Obama's ads. Nixon even struck the hope note in this classic "deal closer" spot probably run in the last week or so of the campaign.

And there's the "Nixon's the One" slogan. Getting back to my Dad, I think the reason he had a special affection for the Republican campaigns was that, being in politics his whole life, he appreciated the work of fellow craftsmen. And if you play with the Living Room Candidate site, it's amazing how rare it is for the Democratic candidate to have a clear advantage in the quality of advertising. LBJ and Obama and I would say that's about it. I've read the suggestion that since they tend to come from business backgrounds, Republican operatives are comfortable with advertising and more tuned into its importance. These ads represent Madison Avenue near its height (the apotheosis probably being Reagan's Morning in America and Bear spots from 1984). And of course, the suggestion has been made that the Obama campaign with its emphasis on online and alternate forms of getting its message out represents a shift to a method of advertising more natural and friendly to Democrats. We'll see. 


Amen and Amen

Calamity looms. At this point in our national history, anybody who can't see calamity looming has their head in the sand. Of a beach. While a tsunami is building on the horizon. Today's headline news in the Houston Chronicle reads JOB LOSSES MOUNT ACROSS U.S. The rest of the day's and week's paper is full of war, climate change and economic upheaval. We know darn well that the United States caused some of this trouble and failed to mitigate some of the rest of it. We're now afraid about what the next wave of calamity is going to wash away. I, for one, am glad that last week's Inauguration pointed out where the moral bedrock is.

Last Tuesday like never before there were amen corners all over the USA. Americans were amenning to joy, hope, justice, righteousness, inclusion, and choosing good over evil. In other words, the entire inauguration had religious overtones, in a wholesome way, as distinct from the notion that religion holds the copyright on goodness. As we know, religiosity doesn't map onto who's actually a good person or not. Religion too often validates evil; witness how the Bible was used to justify slavery in the United States. Religious people are in constant danger of doing evil in the name of God and good.

Most time-tested religions seem to understand that. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there's a long prophetic tradition of saying truth to power, afflicting the comfortable, and telling ordinary folk to shape up in the name of God. On Inauguration day, I don't know that any of the speakers literally said the word repentance, but the idea ran like a red cord through the day, in the lyrical words of the pastors and the poet and in President Obama's inaugural speech. According to newspaper accounts, Bush administration insiders were offended that Obama didn't laud George W. Bush. The sour grapes were predictable but misplaced. Obama was talking to Bush and his people, all right, but also to everybody else in the United States and including himself every time he said we went wrong. We tolerated world-wide wrong done in the name of the people of the United States for far too long. While the greed and irresponsibility of some weakened our economy, we failed to make hard choices, failed to use energy wisely, and let our politics be strangled by behaviors unworthy of us. We now have hard work to do.

If the election had gone to the Republican Party, Inauguration Day would have been a very different story. I suspect that there would have been much praise for Bush and little about national repentance, because John McCain and Barack Obama understand evil very differently. A New York Times article by Peter Steinfels on January 17 reviewed a campaign debate sponsored by Rick Warren back in August. This is the same evangelical minister who did the main-event Inaugural invocation. I think he's very wrong in his opposition to same-sex marriage, but he did the country a service with that debate. Steinfels identifies "one of the most revelatory moments in the presidential campaign" when Warren asked the two candidates, "Does evil exist?"

McCain answered in the affirmative and talked at length about victory over Islamic extremism.

Obama answered in the affirmative and located evil abroad—but also in American cities and in abusive homes. We have to have some humility in how we confront evil, he said, because evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil. "Just because we think our intentions are good doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good."

The presidential election went as it did. At the Inauguration's end, it was not whomever McCain-Palin might have chosen to sanctify their enterprise. It was the Reverend Joseph Lowry who closed the Inauguration with a prayer that began with words from "Lift Every Voice and Sing." That great hymn is associated with the Civil Rights movement, but it goes back further than that; it was created in the early 1900's and sung against Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan.

We were a nation that had slavery and vicious segregation, and yet through long, heroic and costly struggle, we repented of those evils, to the astonishment of the world and astonishing us too. This year on the eve of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and two days before the inauguration of Obama, lots of American churches sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," even if they sang it at different tempos. White churches tend to make it peppy. When a black church sings "the days when hope unborn had died" they linger on those agonizing words. Anyway, churches black, white and variegated sang that hymn on Sunday the 18th.

That same day saw the Inauguration's opening event at the Lincoln Memorial with a prayer by Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop. What a symbolic choice he was—someone who can speak from the crossfire of change and oppression while he speaks for all of us. He offered an Anglican-style bidding prayer. One of the biddings was this: "Bless us with discomfort—at the easy, simplistic 'answers' we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future." He closed with a heartfelt bidding to keep Barack Obama and his family safe. Bishop Robinson understands the danger they are in. At his ordination as Bishop, he wore a bulletproof vest because he'd received so many virulent death threats.

An eventful week later, on Sunday the 25th, the lectionaries of many mainstream Christian denominations had the spectacularly relevant Old Testament lesson about Nineveh. It's part of the Jonah story, but not the part of about the whale. The whale episode happened because God told Jonah to go to Nineveh to preach to that city that the judgment of God was about to fall on it. Jonah wanted Nineveh to be righteously destroyed by God. Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah scuttled onto a ship. He meant to sail far, far away. The weather turned supernaturally awful and the sailors in desperation tossed him overboard into the sea, where was ingested by the whale, i.e., enormous fish. Three days later the fish regurgitated him. The story continues:

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 'Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.' So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, 'Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!' And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

On Inauguration day, without putting it quite so bluntly, the President, the poet, and the pastors said that being a lazy, violent, self-indulgent nation at the expense of the world is paving the way to hell and has got to stop. In honor of who we came from and how we got here, we have got to do better. At the end of his benediction, the Rev. Lowry had a fair fraction of people in the United States, and visitors, and people around the world, saying amen, amen, and amen. It wasn't yes-yes-yes to we're wonderful, good, great, and kings of the world. It was YES to we have got ourselves into deep and shameful trouble and dragged much of the world in with us, but we can turn around, and we should, and we will.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Year of the Ox

January 26 is the first day of the New Year for people from East Asia and everybody else who celebrates the occasion too. When I lived in the Berkeley a number of years ago, the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade was huge and wonderful and included everything from lion dancers to bagpipers!

As I understand it, the animals in the Chinese Zodiac are all noble in their way, but it occurs to me to use it as a springboard to label some of the ignoble developments in recent years. We've had Years of the Dragon's Teeth (Greek myth: from the teeth of a dragon sown in the ground, armed men spring up.) And we've had Years of the Sheep. (Timid beasts, strong herd instinct, not very smart. We weren't thinking because we were all out shopping.) There's been more than one Year of the Cock-a-whoop (being in a state of boastful elation or askew.)

This is the Year of the Ox. Per Page One of today's Houston Chronicle, the Ox is dependable, calm, modest, and the best kind of good friend. Wikipedia offers, "the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work.... patient, tireless in their work, and capable of enduring any amount of hardship without complaint....not extravagant...." Says the San Francisco Chronicle, "They do not back down in the face of obstacles."

President Obama is an Ox person. That sounds propitious. For that matter, this year we should all do our best to be oxen too!

Keep Austin Zombie-free

Driving my son to school this foggy Monday morning in Austin, I encountered important new construction-related information for rush hour drivers:


This sign is on a major north-south street, Lamar Boulevard (named after Mirabeau Lamar, the second President of the Republic of Texas and the first Governor of the State of Texas, famous for his failed attempt to annex New Mexico — we haven't given up yet!), near the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, where construction has been ongoing for what seems years.

I pointed this out to my son, just as the sign changed:


And then it changed again, another 3-5 seconds later:

"THE END IS NEAR!!!!!!!!"

We continued northward (toward colder climates) and speculated, figuring some inventive hackers had developed a new variation on billboard liberation and completed the hack overnight.

Then, after drop-off, returning southbound, I saw another sign:


Which caused me to wonder if this is some clever viral product placement by the gang responsible for this new Norwegian Nazi Zombie movie, Dead Snow. I'm happy without knowing, and glad people are doing their dutiful part in the "collaborative fission of coordinated individualism" to Keep Austin Weird.

Though if the construction sign liberators had read their history, they would know that during the Civil War General Custer camped right on the spot where the signs are located, and that if there are zombies in our midst they are more likely wearing Union Blue than Waffen SS Black:

Custer liked the stretch of Shoal Creek that is now Pease Park so much that he established his "bullpens" here, where unreconstructed rebels and other criminals and ne'er-do-wells passed the day and night. When 35 of his men died from a fever, he buried them here. After a flood in the 1880s washed up some of the bodies, they were exhumed and moved to a national cemetery in Washington.

If you don't believe me, drive by and check it out for yourself (before the road crew fixes it):

View Larger Map

See also Austinist: Zombie Defense League Co-opts Construction Sign (includes video).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paul Miles

Hi, thought I’d introduce myself. First off, thanks to Jayme for inviting me to take part in No Fear of the Future. I’m 41 years old, African-American, born in Austin and have lived here my entire life. To comply with the required interesting fact about myself: I have one more tooth than a normal person. I’m ashamed to say my published writing is way, way more sporadic than everybody else here. A few of my short stories are online over at Revolution SF.

What I write tends to riff off of what I have finally figured out is my main interest or obsession—20th century worlds that no longer exist. The vibrant community of American socialists and communists in the 1920s and 1930s, Weimar, the chitlin circuits, the Soviet Union and the legacies of the Cold War buildup in the United States, just to name a few. And now they exist only in artifacts, both online and off. To me, often these worlds or scenes have been so totally erased from our conciousness that they feel futuristic or completely out of time altogether. So I think that sort of thing is what I will be playing with here. Or maybe something else. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Post-apocalyptic Friday funnies

At AMC's Sci-Fi Dept, a very funny short video on post-apocalyptic cinema, including interviews with members of the Brooklyn-based Freebird Books post-apocalyptic book club, who have found the perfect industrial wasteland in which to convene their meetings. If you've read The Road, you have to watch this all the way through to the end.

Also, note the prominent inclusion in the video of the New York Review of Books Classics' beautiful new printing of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, with an excellent introduction by Christopher Priest. No on my shelf, half-read and highly recommended. See also their recent reprint of Priest's mind-blowing The Inverted World, with afterword by John Clute. How nice to see our best literate intellectual press putting out quality sf side by side with the rest of the 21st century canon! Go encourage them by buying one!

Previously at this space:

If this is the post-apocalyptic wasteland, where is Mel Gibson?

The politics of apocalypse.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Millenium Glider

That US Airways jet made quite a splash in the Hudson River, both literally and figuratively. On the editorial pages of the January 17 New York Times, one letter-writer celebrated the outcome but wondered what it says that the feel-good story of the week was a plane crash.

Oh, but consider the week. It was a full of bad news about the economy, homes and jobs lost, retirement plans fizzling. And that was just the news that didn't involve literal death and destruction. It was a bloody week in the Gaza strip,in a world in which the seeds of war can spread as easily as exotic viruses. It was also the last week of the presidency of George W. Bush. A letter to the editors of the Houston Chronicle on January 19 summarized the faults and crimes of eight years of the Bush administration. Succinct as the letter was, mostly consisting of barbed sentence fragments, it ran to eleven column inches in the newspaper's Letters section.

Last week, we citizens and residents in the United States were trapped aboard a disaster in progress, like the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549.

Flight 1549 crashed but all 155 people aboard survived. Kudos to Captain Sullenberger, who did a remarkable job, in part owing to his proficiency in gliders. He was an Air Force Academy Cadet glider pilot; he is a Certified Flight Instructor in gliders; and a pilot like him knows from training, intelligence and sheer instinct just what do to if an airplane becomes a glider on short notice. But the happy ending owes much to a larger cast of characters. The pilots and flight attendants all did their jobs superbly well. The people who instructed and trained them did their unsung jobs equally well. Likewise the air traffic controllers. Ditto for the ferry captains and crew, who had trained for water rescue all the way down to practicing how to make a ferry keep pace with objects adrift in strong currents. Captain Sullenberger bore in mind that it's a good idea to ditch an airplane in the vicinity of boats who can help. The ferry personnel expedited to the crash site and did what they had trained to do. Enough of the passengers managed to keep their wits about them to get the doors open and the rafts and babies out, ride herd on the panicky or uncooperative people, and fish out the individuals who fell into the icy water. Everybody together made a miracle.

Now comes this week and President Obama. On Inauguration morning, one of the people being interviewed on NPR had a most interesting remark. He said that now feels more like the start of the new millennium than 2000 did. So it does. And how. The millennium began in 2000, but that was the year Bush got elected, more or less. If you peg the new millennium at 2001, well, that was the year his father's Supreme Court and his brother's Florida officials resolved the election issues to hand him the Oval Office. 2003? The misbegotten invasion of Iraq. And on and on. But January of 2009 sees a new President who didn't ride dynastic coattails into the job. His inauguration speech explicitly steered clear of the Bush administration's doings.

President Obama painted the current situation of the USA in grim colors. He may be right. Maybe our crash landing lies immediately ahead. One financial planner I know thinks the worst by far is yet to come, with massive foreclosures encroaching into the prime mortgages. In the end the United States may no longer be the most powerful, king-of-the-world nation. Nor is that the most important thing in the world. What is utterly important is that we all work well and hard on the right things, help each other, make sacrifices, and hang onto hope.

That's what saved the people on Flight 1549, why all of them made it to shore alive. Granted their travel plans and their luggage got ruined. Evidently, everybody felt that being alive was enough of a plus that they could leave the luggage behind.

A lot of people in the United States may end up doing the same thing: losing a lot of stuff. Many heretofore sheltered citizens may soon realize how inhospitable and soul-chilling cold this world can be for those who aren't so lucky. On the other hand, the United States is full of the descendants of people who contended with adversity. Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander evoked their shades in "Praise Song for the Day." "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here..." Our ancestors, and plenty of our relatives still living, went through immigration from far ends of the world, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, and poverty in various circumstances. Our peoples experienced anti-immigrant prejudice, backlash against women's suffrage, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, violence against the Civil Rights movement, Stonewall. Also the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the San Francisco Earthquake, epidemics of influenza, polio, and AIDS, and many other disasters. In our elders' wisdom and in the marrow of our own bones, we know how to be rich in what matters: courage and curiosity, compassion and honesty, hard work, faith, hope and love.

If we are incredibly lucky, the President will be a good enough pilot to turn the damaged ship of state toward the safest place to crash. And if all the rest of us, his administration, his political opponents, and ordinary Americans, rise to the occasion, we'll all come through OK. So USA Flight 1549 is as hopeful parable as I can imagine for our nation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

There are no endings

It's all one long national narrative, and you know the rules: he's going to be back for the sequel.

No doubt it will start out something like George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

And if Obama is our 21st century F.D.R., does that mean the grim Zeitgeist of the past eight years has just been the warm-up for some upcoming World War III, involving a next generation military-industrial complex in which the government owns all the financial institutions and privatizes the military forces? Is that when the cyborg will be called out of retirement, in the ultimate bipartisan Marvel Team-Up, like Reed Richards and Dr. Doom?

Because, you know the rule, the hero always needs to be initiated into the adult world of the dark father. Campbell's atonement as at-one-ment.

May you live in interesting times.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Deconstructing Gaza (and other lessons in covert geography)

Last weekend, NYT had an interesting article about next generation urban warfare tactics being utilized by the combatants in their ongoing conflict in the "feral city." From Sunday's "A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery," a description of a real-world conflict that sounds like it has borrowed heavily from the interactive virtual dungeon master pages of video games:

Hamas, with training from Iran and Hezbollah, has used the last two years to turn Gaza into a deadly maze of tunnels, booby traps and sophisticated roadside bombs. Weapons are hidden in mosques, schoolyards and civilian houses, and the leadership’s war room is a bunker beneath Gaza’s largest hospital, Israeli intelligence officials say.

Unwilling to take Israel’s bait and come into the open, Hamas militants are fighting in civilian clothes; even the police have been ordered to take off their uniforms. The militants emerge from tunnels to shoot automatic weapons or antitank missiles, then disappear back inside, hoping to lure the Israeli soldiers with their fire.

In one apartment building in Zeitoun, in northern Gaza, Hamas set an inventive, deadly trap. According to an Israeli journalist embedded with Israeli troops, the militants placed a mannequin in a hallway off the building’s main entrance. They hoped to draw fire from Israeli soldiers who might, through the blur of night vision goggles and split-second decisions, mistake the figure for a fighter. The mannequin was rigged to explode and bring down the building...

To avoid booby traps, the Israelis say, they enter buildings by breaking through side walls, rather than going in the front. Once inside, they move from room to room, battering holes in interior walls to avoid exposure to snipers and suicide bombers dressed as civilians, with explosive belts hidden beneath winter coats.

What the Times neglects to mention is that these new Israeli tactics were in large part derived from application of the urban spatial theories of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Lacanian psychoanalyst Felix Guattari. As recounted by Adam Elkus at Rethinking Security, to hack the urban warfare challenges of a densely populated, continuously improvised, structurally complex three-dimensional urban labyrinth defended by non-state combatants, the Israel Defense Forces under Shimon Naveh developed a very 21st century military arm: the Operational Theory Research Institute, dedicated to applying poststructuralist theory to the domination of Palestine. How to turn the city into a weapon against its inhabitants? Break down your tactics to the squadron level, use helicopters as weapons platforms in a three-dimensional wargame, turn tunnels into "sources of fractal maneuver," and train your troops to walk through walls, as reported by Eyal Weizman a couple of years ago in a piece that was distributed on Nettime, and later incorporated into the amazing book Hollow Land cited below:

The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as 'inverse geometry', which he explained as 'the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions'. During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of 'overground tunnels' carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manoeuvring simultaneously in the city, they were so 'saturated' into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they used none of the city's streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as 'infestation', seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF's strategy of 'walking through walls' involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare — a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.

Contemporary military theorists are now busy re-conceptualizing the urban domain. At stake are the underlying concepts, assumptions and principles that determine military strategies and tactics. The vast intellectual field that geographer Stephen Graham has called an international 'shadow world' of military urban research institutes and training centres that have been established to rethink military operations in cities could be understood as somewhat similar to the international matrix of élite architectural academies. However, according to urban theorist Simon Marvin, the military-architectural 'shadow world' is currently generating more intense and well-funded urban research programmes than all these university programmes put together, and is certainly aware of the avant-garde urban research conducted in architectural institutions, especially as regards Third World and African cities. There is a considerable overlap among the theoretical texts considered essential by military academies and architectural schools. Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. If, as some writers claim, the space for criticality has withered away in late 20th-century capitalist culture, it seems now to have found a place to flourish in the military.

I conducted an interview with Kokhavi, commander of the Paratrooper Brigade, who at 42 is considered one of the most promising young officers of the IDF (and was the commander of the operation for the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip). Like many career officers, he had taken time out from the military to earn a university degree; although he originally intended to study architecture, he ended up with a degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University. When he explained to me the principle that guided the battle in Nablus, what was interesting for me was not so much the description of the action itself as the way he conceived its articulation. He said: 'this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. The question is how do you interpret the alley? We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. This is why that we opted for the methodology of moving through walls...Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing. I said to my troops, "Friends! If until now you were used to move along roads and sidewalks, forget it! From now on we all walk through walls!"' Kokhavi's intention in the battle was to enter the city in order to kill members of the Palestinian resistance and then get out. The horrific frankness of these objectives, as recounted to me by Shimon Naveh, Kokhavi's instructor, is part of a general Israeli policy that seeks to disrupt Palestinian resistance on political as well as military levels through targeted assassinations from both air and ground.

If you still believe, as the IDF would like you to, that moving through walls is a relatively gentle form of warfare, the following description of the sequence of events might change your mind. To begin with, soldiers assemble behind the wall and then, using explosives, drills or hammers, they break a hole large enough to pass through. Stun grenades are then sometimes thrown, or a few random shots fired into what is usually a private living-room occupied by unsuspecting civilians. When the soldiers have passed through the wall, the occupants are locked inside one of the rooms, where they are made to remain — sometimes for several days — until the operation is concluded, often without water, toilet, food or medicine.

Smoothing space, they call it. Eliminating boundaries to their freedom of operation. A kind of tactical situationism, dérives by special operators viewing the world through the green luminescence of a night vision scope. Task Force DeBord: magic soldiers, applying lush abstractions as post-structuralist siege engines, conjured from the Cartesian ether and somehow threaded into the fabric of architectural reality. Theory that kills.

The grand tactical detournement in which a dense urban settlement of structures with common walls containing a labyrinth of rooms and halls and tunnels is turned into a video game playscape is partly enabled by visualization tools, like the handheld Camero device, which combines thermal imaging with ultra-wideband radar to generate a kind of terminator ultrasound that allows soldiers to see human bodies as fuzzy ghosts in a digital frame that has melted away all the walls and furniture and things. From the manufacturer's website:

Xaver™ 800

The Xaver 800 provides 'Through-Wall Vision' to change the dynamics of your urban operation. With the Xaver 800 you can rapidly and reliably observe one or more people in a room and continuously monitor their activities while positioned outside the room's walls.

The Xaver 800 was developed in close co-operation with leading individuals and agencies from the Military, Law Enforcement and Fire & Rescue communities. Whether protecting the lives of operatives entering unknown or potentially hostile situations, or playing a vital role in rescue operations, Xaver puts you in control of the situation and allows you to 'Step into the known'

Weizman documents the immense influence of OTRI's theories on the U.S. armed forces, who have tried to implement them in urban warfare in Iraq. While it's easy to imagine forward thinkers among the Army and Marine brass riffing on the John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt theories of "swarm intelligence" and netwar incubated at RAND in the 1990s, theories that were foundational components of OTRI's work, it's hard to imagine some buzzcut Brigadier name-dropping Deleuze. (Though the Pentagon and the French crits sometimes seem to share similar syntactical roots.)

But perhaps the Americans don't need theory to rethink urban space as being as malleable as a digital rendering of that space, because they already experience their personal and tactical reality through a televisual prism — the Narnian wardrobe into cyberspace that we carry in our heads. The smart bomb webcam view of "The Gulf War Did Not Occur" has evolved into the green gamespace of night vision goggles and the real-life flight simulator screenshots beamed from the avionics pod of the Predator drone to a trailer in Florida. And the grunts have all been weaned on HALO and Grand Theft Auto, pre-programmed first-person shooters with better point and shoot kill rates and combat reflexes than any marksmanship course could ever teach.

We know that tactical mapping is being reinvented along these lines. Austin's Zebra Imaging, a Wired magazine poster child founded by three Media Lab wonder boys during the boom, found the most reliable application of its next generation holography technologies after 9/11, when DARPA and others realized it was the ideal mapping medium for urban netwar. Zebra takes the same kind of information used by a street view on Google Maps to generate digital holograms that can be reproduced on a hardy two-dimensional film and viewed in the field with a single-source LED. In time, no doubt, available information about enemy soldiers, bombs and booby traps will be embedded in the three dimensional images. And given that Zebra's technology already supports animated holography, how long before live imaging technologies like Camero are integrated into real-time holographic displays of the urban environment complete with fuzzy ghost soldiers moving through the lethal simulacrum like combat fetuses on the screen of an ultrasound?

The escape route for the next Black Hawk Down will be identified by a squadron huddled in the darkness holding a single flashlight over a three-dimensional near-real-time replication of the environs unrolled out onto the seat of a Humvee, a video game cheat code that cracks the key to the city. The current tactical holos are even rendered in translucent green, the perfect palette to reinvent the consensus reality through which soldiers move as the liquid data structures Neo discovers at the climax of The Matrix.

In the future, squadron-level combat will include critical new specializations. The combat video game designer, the ghost-busting operator of the live imaging technologies, and the tactical architect. I can't wait for those action figures.

For an amazing in-depth exploration of these topics, see Eyal Weizman's Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (Verso 2007). In particular, Chapter 7 on "Urban Warfare: Walking Through Walls."

Thursday, January 15, 2009



Flavius eased onto his side, Memory’s scabbard uncomfortably hard beneath him. The room spun in perfect time with the pounding of his head. Barely daring to breathe, he gripped the side of the bed and pushed himself up. An involuntary groan caught in his throat, and he winced.

“Ready for another go, Flavius?” Anacaona popped up beside him, entirely too perky and enthusiastic for such an ungodly hour. She cocked her head and pressed her three pair of copper-red breasts against his bare back, leaving new smudges of glittering dust to join the others covering his body. She buried her face against the nape of his neck and inhaled deeply. “Huna! You have the most erotic scent.”

“It’s called sweat, lass,” Flavius muttered, rubbing a bleary eye.

Anacaona laughed, reaching around the swordbelt into his lap. “Whatever it is, I’ll have some more.”

“Easy there.” Flavius gave an involuntary start as she grabbed him, her over-jointed fingers far more stimulating than should be possible. “Lassie, I dinnae want ya to think I’m nae having fun, because yer a blessed wild ride. But four bouts in only...”

“About two hours,” she offered helpfully.

“Only two hours? Christ. Give us a bit of a rest, eh? My poor head’s pounding and my mouth’s gone all cottony,” he said, lifting her hand away. “Besides, my dobber’s all shagged out. Nae to worry, though,” he reassured her with a quick kiss. “Good as new in the morning.”

Anacaona raised her eyebrows. “Doesn’t look all that ‘shagged out’ to me. Quite the opposite, actually.”

“That’s nae natural.” Flavius stared at his urgent erection in disbelief. “It’s that witch’s brew of foodstuffs at work, innae it?”

“I know a way to make it go away.”

“I’ll bet you do.” Flavius smiled in spite of himself, then stood. “Lassie, as much as I’d love to cater to yer every depraved desire, I’ve nae had any sleep going on... well, seems like days. I’ll be getting me a drink of water to wash away this cotton mouth. Then I’m away to me bed there and going to sleep, and nae even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse themselves could wake me. Do with me as ya will, but dinnae expect any effort on my part.”

Anacaona’s skin nearly sparkled in the faint light from the window as her lips curled into a sly smile. “I’ll try not to break anything.”

“Ya are a wicked little thing.” Flavius shuffled to the bath and took a long drink of water from the basin. “Makes me wish Parric and I dinnae have to leave tomorrow. Have at ya when I’m fully rested and fed, then see how saucy ya are.”

Her face fell as if Flavius’d just told her a hawk’d just taken her kitten. “You’re... you’re leaving? Tomorrow?”

“Aye, we have to. Yer Emperor made that clear as day during dinner. Ah, do nae look like that!” He came over and cupped her face in his hands. “Just a little sleep, eh? I promise I’ll give ya a good send-off to remember me by.”

“But, but... it’s only one night!”

“Ah, but I have it on good authority one night with Flavius is enough for any woman.”

“Do you pay attention to anything but the sound of your own voice?” She gave him a withering look. “Were you a greater sentient of the Eternal Dominion, we’d currently be inextricably cojoined for the next month.”

“Ya mean...” Flavius frowned, mulling her words over, “when ya said there was a ‘physical bond’ between yer men and women, that werenae just a figure of speech?”

“Our men don’t have the luxury of going up and down like you,” she said, prodding his penis for emphasis.

Flavius stared at her, dumbfounded. “So... So then the night so far--”

“Barely taken the edge off.” Anacaona stood with a sense of purpose, and wrapped herself around Flavius. “I’d thought to have you to myself for a week. I’ll just have to make do with the hours that remain.”

“Damn. Yer serious.”

By way of answer, she pushed him back onto the bed and sidled atop him.

“Oh, I’m going to hurt in the morn--”

A knock at the door interrupted him.

Flavius lifted Anacaona off him and sat back up. The sudden movement set his head back to throbbing. “Who the hell is it?” he bellowed, ignoring Anacaona’s frantic motions for silence.

“Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Malinche, requires an audience with Flavius MacDuff of Clan MacDuff,” a muffled voice answered. Anacaona threw up her hands in frustration, glaring at Flavius.

“Well, what was I supposed to do?” he whispered angrily.

“How about shut up so she thinks you’re not here and goes away?” Anacaona whispered back. “That’s Papantzin’s voice. She’s here to bring you back to Her Imperial Majesty.”

“Nae, nae. Ya said at dinner ya’d shelter me from the Empress’ attentions if I’d shag ya,” he said accusingly. “Now, ya may argue with me regarding the quantity, but ya got nae grounds to complain about the quality. So start yer sheltering.”

“I meant,” she said through clenched teeth, “I’d shelter you in my suite, where she wouldn’t think to look for you. Not in your room, which, unless I’m completely divested from reality, is the first place she’d look!

“Then why are we here?”

Papantzin knocked on the door again, more insistent this time

“Because you said you’d have me ‘on your terms.’ Your words, remember? You didn’t leave me much room for interpretation.”

“Bugger me. What’s to do, lass?”

I’m hiding in until you’ve gone,” she said, opening the wardrobe door. “You’re going with Papantzin to your audience with Her Imperial Majesty, and protecting my honor by keeping our private affairs to yourself.”

“Oh, nae ya don’t.” Flavius bodily pulled her back out of the wardrobe. “I’ve nae desire to have nuse--whatever that may be--steep itself in my blood.”

“Damnit, let me go you idiot lesser-sentient!” Anacaona said in a panic, ramming her elbow into Flavius’s hair chest. “Do you have any idea what’ll happen to me if the Empress caught me with you?”

“No,” a clear, honeyed voice cut in. “Please, tell us what will happen?”

Flavius and Anacaona froze, then looked in horror to the now-open doorway, where the Empress Malinche stood with the handmaiden Papantzin before her.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009


If you are in New York, be sure to head to the new location of Feature Inc. on Bowery just south of Houston (west side of the street, by the tree) for the show of new work by painter Alex Brown, opening Thursday, January 15, 6-8 p.m. Digital photos don't do the paintings justice, partly because of the post-Monet scale of the works. Think Gerhardt Richter meets Chuck Close, but with a deconstruction beyond pixellation that finds a weird transcendence in the mundane everyday of the negative space of your city. Here's an interview with the artist that Feature just posted over the weekend (the tour of Japan referenced in the first question is the recent tour of NYC hardcore band Gorilla Biscuits, in which the artist plays guitar):

.how was ur tour of japan? is the creativity of being in a band n e thing like the creativity in making paintings?

Amazing. Tiring. Confusing. Uncomfortable. Beautiful. Crowded. Foreign but familiar. Traveling with a band is a unique way to go. Being in that tour bubble and having people show you around and hold your hand is great but it takes some of the memorable challenges away from the experience. You never have time to really do much else than sound check, try and find something decent to eat, play, and try to get a few hours sleep. The creativity with this band takes place when we're doing anything other than playing. The challenge is to see who can make the rest laugh the hardest. Painting and music are pretty different beasts. The immediate satisfaction of playing live is exhilarating but it all seems so fleeting and over with too quickly. Not too dissimilar from an art opening. Solo vs. group. Quiet vs. loud. Full vs. hungry. Rested vs. exhausted. Crisp vs. ragged. Empty vs. crowded. Home vs. away.

.r the single person people pics portraits or chosen because they are interesting mmmmages? who are all these peeps; need we kno? this little game reminds me of the notion of think global, act local.

More than interesting images I tried to think of how they would work together as a group and how one might compliment another. Black, white, yellow, brown, geometric, organic, male, female. Those choices are much more part of my decision making process than anything else. The particulars in this case weren't the primary concern. They're paintings more than they are portraits. There's that automatic distance generated by presenting these anonymous heads without giving the viewer much more insight than the hint of a smile or a backlit ponytail in profile. Respecting local/global, yeah, I wouldn't disagree with the idea that I am both personalizing and making universal the images. That's also a nice parallel to the micro/macro world I always find myself drawn back to. Things that upon first, up close viewing seem completely abstract, full of seemingly random designs, but after stepping back from come into focus and make sense as one cohesive picture.

.what is it about pics of people? whats the fascination, esp if we don't know who they are?

Maybe it has something to do with finding imagery that I can execute and represent with the most economy. Does that make sense? It's the same reason I use landscape; when these very familiar things are broken down to their root they still maintain a certain, albeit varying, recognition and ubiquitous understanding. It remains a challenge to try and recreate something somewhat specific with varying degrees of information. Ultimately the images are simply a reason and vehicle to keep painting.

.do you think of paintings, or art, as a way to increase perception but slow down meaning? Isn't that question just as relevant if we said that art is a way to slow down perception but increase meaning?

Maybe that might be more germane to the less recognizable paintings of mine. That meaning thing is a tough one. Once we attach specifics we lose the act of looking. That's always the best experience in viewing art for me and probably the reason I shy away from producing work that might lead to a quick summary of me, my beliefs, my experience, etc. That's a bit of a bore don't you think?

.though still quietly so, do you think your recent paintings have become increasingly charged with emotions and that you accomplish this through the modulation of colors?

After the decision of what to paint and how to filter it onto the canvas, it's a rather simple matter of sitting down and doing it. They're fairly time consuming but definitely not exhausting to make. Digging ditches is exhausting. I wouldn't make them that way if I didn't like the outcome and there's something undeniable with work that bears evidence of attention to detail. Regarding emotion, I feel too close to the work to really comment on that other than to say if I am doing my job as a painter I certainly would hope that there is something other than mere labor indicated in the work. There's that myth about someone crying and overcome with emotion while looking at a Rothko. Have you ever had the reaction to a piece of art? The only time I was ever affected like that was upon seeing Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's. And that was ephemeral. Music, film and literature are much more effective at drawing out a more fervent emotion.

.what are some of your pleasures with mashing and meshing images? as a viewer one could look at it as multi tasking yet also it really is a simple obvious day to day function of the thinking process.

It's fun to look at these worlds within worlds. It offers a nice balance to the ones that are done with rigid, geometric grids and vice versa. Somebody attached the word palimpsest to the paintings you're asking about. Something altered but still bearing traces of it's original form. Here's the gallery's interview with the artist about the show:

.who or what are some of the things that inspired your interest to have your work delve into the interdependent relationship of representation and abstraction? Lack of skill as a painter in a more traditional sense of the word? Unwillingness to give you a clear picture of what's really going on in my brain?

That relationship is a direct result of the manner in which I have chosen to paint. I have always been confused by abstraction. Confused because of a lack of orientation. Taking something realized and turning it into something unrecognizable makes sense to me. I try not to think in those terms so much. They're all just paintings and some look more like something that you've seen in your experience than others do. It all trickles down in varying degrees from a clear source image to finished painting. My abstractions are really just less than overly clear realizations.

.given all your years of making paintings, do you feel progress is linear, circular, spiraling? do you feel like you now know more? does motivation change?

All of the above. I feel like the more you know the less you and I definitely know very little. You're making me feel old by the way. I don't think the motivation ever changes. It all goes back to trying to one-up your brother by drawing a better super hero than his. Making things that people appreciate or are drawn to always feels pretty great.

The brother the artist references in his life-long effort at one-upsmanship would be me. Alas, I cannot make it to New York for the opening, but I hope some of you will stop by and check out Alex's outstanding new work.


Located on Bowery, west side of street, just below Houston St., by the tree.

Subways: 6 to Bleecker St., walk east on on Houston St.
B D F V to Broadway Lafayette, walk east on Houston St.
F V to Second Ave, walk west on Houston St.
N R to Prince St., walk north to Houston, east on Houston

Open Wednesday through Saturday 11AM - 6PM, Sunday 1 - 6 PM

Victoria Strauss honored for work with ‘Writer Beware’

A well-deserved honor for a well-deserving volunteer. Would that there were more folks like Victoria in this world, scammers would break a lot fewer hearts (and abscond with far less lucre).
CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) President Russell Davis announced Jan. 6 that Victoria Strauss will be honored with 2009 SFWA Service Awards during the Nebula Awards® Weekend. The award is made at the sole discretion of the President, and has previously been called the “Service to SFWA Award.”

Strauss is receiving the award for work she had done with Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group which “shines a light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes and pitfalls.”

“I'm thrilled and honored to receive this wonderful award (though by rights it belongs equally to Ann Crispin, Writer Beware co-founder and co-conspirator, without whom Writer Beware wouldn't exist--or be nearly so much fun). Ten years ago, when WB was just getting started, I could never have imagined how much we would accomplish and how far we'd come,” Strauss said. “Beginning as a two-person committee and a modest subsection of the SFWA website, we're now a major Internet resource that has warned thousands of writers about schemes and scams, and has helped to put literary scammers out of business and into jail.

“I'm deeply grateful to SFWA for its unflagging support, and for its commitment to the importance of educating writers about the scams, schemes, and pitfalls that make the publishing world a dangerous place,” she said. “Thank you, and here's to ten more years (at least) of scam-busting!”

Strauss has donated countless hours of her time to advising, educating and warning aspiring and established authors about dubious, questionable and outright criminal business practices on the fringes of the publishing industry. She maintains the Writer Beware website ( and is a major contributor to Writer Beware Blogs! ( Writer Beware is sponsored by SFWA.

“Victoria is one of those rare volunteers, who has been willing to give so much of her time and energy, and continues to do so,” said SFWA President Russell Davis. “Her work with Writer Beware has been invaluable to our members and the writing community at large, so I’m very pleased to offer her this recognition of her outstanding service.”

This is the ninth time that the award has been presented. Previous recipients were Chuq Von Rospach, Sheila Finch, Robin Wayne Bailey, George Zebrowski and Pamela Sargent (joint), Michael Capobianco and Ann Crispin (joint), Kevin O'Donnell, Jr., Brook West and Julia West (joint) and Melisa Michaels and Graham P. Collins (joint).

Prior to 2000, the award was a surprise announcement at the Nebula Awards banquet, but in recent years the recipients have been announced in advance.

Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America will descend on Los Angeles, Calif., with an all-star lineup slated for

The 2009 Nebula Awards® Weekend will be held in Los Angesles, Calif., April 24-26.

Harry Harrison will be honored as the next Damon Knight Grand Master, while M.J. Engh will be honored as Author Emerita. Singer/songwriter/author Janis Ian will be on hand to serve as toastmistress.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

FF2 nominated for PKD Award

This just in — Lou Anders' anthology Fast Forward 2, which features my story "The Sun Also Explodes," has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, given each year to what the judges consider the most meritorious sf paperback original, a very cool category for genre work that bites into the copper wire. This year's nominees include:

EMISSARIES FROM THE DEAD by Adam-Troy Castro (Eos Books)

ENDGAME by Kristine Smith (Eos Books)

FAST FORWARD 2 edited by Lou Anders (Pyr)

JUDGE by Karen Traviss (Eos Books)

TERMINAL MIND by David Walton (Meadowhawk Press)

TIME MACHINES REPAIRED WHILE-U-WAIT by K. A. Bedford (EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing)

More here at Lou's blog.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Moon Rover

"If this country can send a man to the moon, surely we can. . . ." has been a moldy oldie for years. But it's starting to sound fresher now.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the final float in Barack Obama's inaugural parade will be NASA's Small Pressurized Rover, the machine designed for missions returning to the moon in 2020. How very apt. As I noted in this space after Election Day, during Obama's televised acceptance speech, I was struck by the stage setting in Denver. No pompoms, confetti and other silliness, but the large letters USA spelled out in white lights. The plain, sans-serif letters reminded me of the USA on the Saturn Five rockets in television coverage of moon shot liftoffs. Indeed, on Election Night 2008 I was proud of the USA in a way I haven't been since Apollo. In the intervening years this country has a lot to its discredit, including several presidencies and unwarranted wars and the Wall Street greed debacle.

If this country can send a man to the moon, surely we can: get our financial house in order; stop lusting for war, and get ourselves out of the last ill-advised war, without completely destroying the luckless country where it plays out; and last but not least, get back to the moon. We can hope. Yes, we can.

NASA Constellation Program photo

Patagonian overthrottle

After being cancelled last year due to fear of terrorist attacks, the Dakar rally this year is being held in Argentina and Chile rather than West Africa. Which is kind of cool, the vision of Mad Maxed VW Touaregs and Russian trucks and combat 911s roaring through the Borgesian backcountry for an extreme Gaucho autogeddon. Maybe they stop in the lawless tri-border area of Alta Paraná, reported to be an Al Qaeda safe haven?

Though I have to say, moving the race out of Africa due to concerns about terrorism seems to miss the point. This is already the deadliest auto race out there (already several casualties just a few days into the race this year), with all the hazards incident to taking your car off the road and into wild nature, from blown tires and dusted-up engines to the simple old problem of getting seriously lost in the middle of nowhere. Which is how the race got started, when an adventurous Frenchman got lost in the Libyan desert and said, hey, what a cool spot for a race. So wouldn't the additional hazard of potentially being abducted by Janjaweed militiamen, members of the Polisario Front, or Tuareg sand people just amp up the Speed Racer-meets-War of Terror 21st century potentiality of the whole affair? Maybe next year.

2009 Dakar Rally.

(Yeah, I know, they don't come anywhere close to Patagonia.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

It'll all end in tears

Now, a word from the "Pulling it out of your ass" department...

You know, I was a fairly strong fan of the revamped Battlestar Galactica through the first two seasons. I had some issues with some characters, and occasional creative decisions that struck me as sloppy or lazy, but overall there was a solid internal consistency to the show that I appreciated. It was a smart show, but that intelligence wasn't flaunted--it was applied inwardly to up the quality of the series. That is, until the big "destruction of the Pegasus" episode. The freeing of the trapped humans from New Caprica was a great episode, no doubt. One of my faves of the series, in fact. But once the Pegasus went blooey, for me, the series jumped the proverbial shark. Not because of the destruction of the Pegasus, mind you, because from a narrative structure that had to happen eventually. But because every episode after that seemed to take on "A Very Special Episode..." vibe. Suddenly, the writing staff wanted to show off to everyone how clever they were. The drama became ham-fisted. Internal consistency and continuity flagged. Plot devices appeared out of convenience, rather than growing from what had gone before (rewatch those awesome first six episodes from season 1 if you don't believe me). And, to me, the most telling detail of all was the fact President Roslin kept keeping track of the number of human survivors.

In short, Ron Moore & company, after such a disciplined early run, started believing their own press clippings and started pulling plot elements out of their collective assholes. Some folks I've discussed this with simply abandoned Battlestar because "It's not good anymore." Me, being obsessive at times, couldn't settle for so subjective a dismissal. I had to understand the root of the malaise. I had to have evidence, hard evidence, to back up my nagging disquiet.

The so-called "Final Five" continued to nag at me beyond all reason. The sudden plot-centrality of these mysterious Cylon units didn't jibe with the first two seasons, nor with interviews Ron Moore had given over that period. They felt... contrived. When four utterly random characters suddenly met in an isolated room on the Galactica to groove on Dylan's "Watchtower" (and really, if they were going to pull a stunt that cheesy, couldn't they at least have the balls to go with the hard-edged Hendrix take on the same material?) I threw a pillow at the television and shouted "They're making this shit up as they go along." Now, lo and behold, Ron Moore has agreed that indeed, he is making his shit up as he goes along:
So, for instance, when you decided who four of the Final Five would be, how much thought did you have to put into it before revealing it in "Crossroads," and how much was, "Oh, we'll say this and figure it out over the hiatus"?

The impulse to do it was literally an impulse. We were in the writers room on the finale of that season, always knew we would end season 3 on trial of Baltar and his acquittal, the writers had worked out a story and a plot, they were pitching it to me in the room. And I had a nagging sense that it wasn't big enough, on the level of jumping ahead a year or shooting Adama. And I literally made it up in the room, I said, "What if four of our characters walk from different parts of the ship, end up in a room and say, 'Oh my God, we're Cylons'? And we leave one for next season." And everyone said "Oh my God," and they were scared, and because they were scared, I knew I was right. And then we sat and spent a couple of hours talking about who those four would be. Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard to lock in who made the most sense and who would make the most story going forward.

Now, to be perfectly fair, that's not an invalid method of storytelling. That's how Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings. That's how Gaiman wrote The Sandman. That's how Dickens wrote everything. I'm even trying my hand at it with Memory. But the trouble is, when you continually pull stuff out of your ass, sometimes that shit's going to stink. Ron Moore, apparently, doesn't think his shit stinks (or anybody else's for that matter, since he heaped praise on the much-maligned ending to The Sopranos). While the blasted and desolate Earth he left us with midway through season 4 was a pretty damn good Planet of the Apes moment, I just don't have faith in him to deliver the goods in the end. I'll watch--in for a penny, in for a pound as they say--but from someone who thought The Sopranos wrapped it up beautifully, I fear the best we can hope for is some baffling namby-pamby, navel-gazing handshake reminiscent of The Matrix Revolutions.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


On Epiphany, the day after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, I reflect that to a very unusual extent for Houston, this year the holiday season's color was white. For one thing, Houston had a delightful evening snowfall a week before Christmas. Then as I watched the holidays unfold, a whole string of symbolic moments were white, as over against the Technicolor extravaganza that Christmas in Houston can be.

Actually, though, it all started with the refrigerators.

After Hurricane Ike, three million people lost electricity for days on end. Eventually most of us broke down and cleaned the fridge. Out went condiments of great antiquity and variety. Hurricane parties and post-hurricane barbecues had already dispatched the imported lobsters, Gulf seafood, and choice cuts of venison and beef. Cleaning the fridge meant discarding innumerable mystery meats and desserts of uncertain provenance. Spills, stains, crumbs and the fossilized radish leaves in the vegetable crispers got cleaned out too. It was a banner day when the power came back on and another banner day when we were able to go to the grocery store and find fresh milk and vegetables to tuck into the fridge.

So in this holiday season there were three million clean, white refrigerators. Clean refrigerators is an understated grace note that seems apt on the brink of 2009. Most of us got through Hurricane Ike OK or at least alive. But reminders of Ike are still everywhere. As I jot this down in the Harris County Jury Assembly room, it's just been announced that we, the potential jurors waiting to be called, will not get to watch the Travel Channel on the video monitors. "Back in September, Hurricane Ike took the satellite dish off the roof and didn't give it back," says the Bailiff.

On the heels of Hurricane Ike came Hurricane Financial Meltdown. That one is nowhere near over. A couple of days ago I heard a pedestrian on his cell phone advising somebody to "hunker down," which undoubtedly had to do with either their job or their retirement plan. This could be the worst Christmas for years to come. Or if things keep going downhill, this could end up as the best Christmas for years to come. Christmas 2008 definitely wasn't Christmas past, with the usual excess and self-congratulation. Christmas Present was grateful, but somewhat weary and wary. Christmas Future had a lean and hungry look.

This year I intended to put up my tree as a brave exhibition of celebration amidst uncertainly. For most of the year Christmas lives under my bed. I got as far as dusting the boxes containing ornaments and artificial tree and all. Then I fell ill. For several days I subsisted on white rice, white bread, and yogurt. All, you will note, white, and a lot better than not being able to eat anything (or keep it down) at all. I felt bad enough for long enough to skip the tree. But I had the Advent wreath I made in a workshop at church on the first Sunday of Advent. Even better, I had a good place to put an Advent Wreath this year, because last May I brought my grandmother's sewing machine back from Georgia. The machine is hidden in an elegant table with a smooth top—a perfect place for the wreath. It was a large evergreen wreath with four candles symbolizing the four Sundays of Advent. Three of the candles were blue and one, to symbolize the Third or Rose Sunday of Advent, was pink. In the center of the wreath was the white Christmas candle.

On Christmas Eve I crept into bed at 6 PM, pulled the warm covers up, read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, slept until almost midnight, got up to light the Advent Wreath and say the prayers that go with it, and went back to bed feeling blessed. Christmas day I didn't run around giving and receiving. Still recuperating, I stayed home. But I had some presents to make me feel better. Two of these meant especially much to me. One was in a plain white envelope from my mother. She has Alzheimer's, and last Christmas she had just moved into Assisted Living in Georgia. Last year for the first time in my life I didn't get anything from her for Christmas. That was deeply unsettling. This year, though, she insisted on my cousin Roy giving her a blank check; she obtained a perfectly nice Christmas card; and she sent me the card with a nice little check enclosed. Never mind that I write her bills with the same checking account. It's the thought that counts, and she thought clearly enough to go through the giving steps for me, and I'm glad.

Christmas morning I opened a present that came just the day before from my friend Flo in San Francisco. In the white FedEx box, inside the bright wrapping paper, there was a white gift box. It contained a pretty sun-catcher. The wreath, the sun-catcher, and feeling well all felt like enough on Christmas morning. I've noticed in years past that the less cluttered Christmas Eve and Christmas are with parties, food and drink and social things, the more brightly the spiritual dimension shines, like the Christmas candle. There is profound difference between having too little and having enough, and an equally profound difference between enough and too much. Consumer capitalism does its damnedest to implant the conviction that the best definition of "enough" is more, more, more. As we go into 2009, that lie looks more transparent than usual. In an editorial in the New York Times on December 26, Bob Herbert refers to the idea "...that the essence of our culture and the be-all and end-all of the American economy is the limitless consumption of trashy consumer goods."

The engines of consumer capitalism long since hijacked Christmas as much as possible. The liturgical churches have more or less held out against the hijacking of Christmas by observing the season of Advent. Thank you very much; the poinsettias don't get put out until Christmas Eve and even then it's not the same Christmas as in the local mall. I was back up on my feet by the Sunday after Christmas and glad to be able to go to my church, St. Stephen's Episcopal. The Christmas decor was all greenery, gold accents, white banners and while poinsettias. No red decorations. It was beautiful, reverent and appropriate. White is a peculiarly barren yet promising color—the color of snow, or desert sand, or a fridge without food, or the white page before any words are written. As I understand the history of textiles, white is a rather hard color to manufacture. Nature has lilies, stars, snow, sand, milk, and creatures with snow-white fur, but in the old days the word white (Latin albus) just meant relatively white, including the flaxen color of linen garments. So the linen church vestment called an alb, which is derived from the Roman linen tunic, doesn't have to be snowy white.

By New Year's Eve I felt well and had a wonderful evening out. My friend Yazmin invited me to spend the evening at St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church. The three-hour (!) service included an Orthos, Divine Liturgy, and I'm not sure what else, in celebration of St. Basil the Great, the Circumcision of Jesus, and I don't know what else. Orthodox services are not easily understandable, or meant to be. However, the worship was radiant with mystery, fragrant with incense, and resonant with the chanting of the choir. Some of the tones sounded Arabic. This particular church is a small, acoustically live basilica with many icons and white walls. So again: the color white.

At one point (I think it was at the consecration of the bread and wine) the entire congregation prostrated itself. This means to kneel and touch your forehead to the floor. It can be a shock to the system of a Protestant Christian. Yet even for a Protestant visitor in an Orthodox church, prostration can feel profoundly right and heartfelt. There's a slightly famous quote from I know not where that refers to people who bow down in awe and reverence before no wisdom greater than their own. At the end of 2008, after CEO's, a presidential administration, and other wise fools left the United States mired in war and financial ruin—and after Hurricane Ike, when the power grid of Houston, the energy capital of the world, ended up in shreds—after all that, some bowing at the idea of wisdom greater than our own does seem in order.

After the church service, St. Joseph's threw quite a party. Having been raised Southern Baptist, I quickly realized that whereas a Baptist church might well sponsor an event on New Year's Eve, they wouldn't have a) bottles of wine on every table, b) tastefully sexy dancing such as occurred in the St. Joseph event hall when the DJ played Arabic dance music. All of it, the music and colored lights, the fine food and the dancing, greeted a new year that isn't like most I can remember. 2009 probably won't be about entitlement. It will be about loss, hope, and a basic truth: that having much and expecting more and more has nothing to do with joy. Worldly goods and wealth don't create happiness. Joy comes from community, meaning, and hope. Happiness, the icing on the cake of joy, is having just what you need, no less and no more, like a clean refrigerator with some milk and vegetables.

Happy New Year!