Monday, November 19, 2012

LoneStarCon 3 membership sale!

Just a quick heads-up on a LoneStarCon 3 media announcement I just sent out today. A good deal if you've got a geeky significant other you need to find a stocking stuffer for!

LoneStarCon 3 offers limited time membership special

November 19, 2012

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – LoneStarCon 3, the 71st World Science Fiction Convention, has announced a special two-week membership sale running Nov. 19-Dec. 2.

Attending memberships will be available for the reduced rate of $170 until midnight, Dec. 2. In addition to full access to the convention, attending memberships entitle the holder to make nominations for the Hugo Awards, receive pre-convention publications and advance information featured guests, exhibits and special events such as the LoneStarCon 3 International Film Festival.

"The committee saw this as an opportunity to say 'Thank you' to the fan communities who've given LoneStarCon 3 so much encouragement and support," said Laura Domitz, convention co-chair. "Think of it as getting a jump on the end-of-year holiday spirit."

Regular convention membership rates are scheduled to increase Dec. 31.

LoneStarCon 3 will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 2, 2013, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. The Mariott Rivercenter and Mariott Riverwalk will serve as the host hotels. This marks the first time since 1997 that the Alamo City has hosted a Worldcon, when LoneStarCon 2 drew thousands to the downtown convention center.

The guests of honor list for LoneStarCon 3 includes Ellen Datlow, James Gunn, Norman Spinrad and Willie Siros, with Paul Cornell serving as toastmaster and featuring special guests Leslie Fish and Joe R. Lansdale. Artist guest of honor Darrell K. Sweet tragically passed away Dec. 5, 2011.


Attending membership rates for LoneStarCon 3 are normally $180 for adults, $110 for young adult (17-21 years old), $75 for children (16 and under) and $480 for family memberships. The listed membership rates are good through December 31, 2012. The sale only lowers the rate for adult attending memberships ($170) and family memberships ($460).

LoneStarCon 3 is also offering a military discount rate of $110, which is not subject to future increases.


Founded in 1939, the World Science Fiction Convention is one of the largest international gatherings of authors, artists, editors, publishers and fans of science fiction and fantasy entertainment. The annual Hugo Awards, the leading award for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy, are voted on by Worldcon membership and presented during the convention.

LoneStarCon 3 is sponsored by ALAMO, Inc., (Alamo Literary Arts Maintenance Organization), a 501(c)3 organization. For more information about LoneStarCon 3, memberships or hotel information, visit

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Meanwhile, in an undisclosed secret location beneath Democracy Plaza

[Pic: Our secret cyborg overlord pictured watching the returns in the man cave of his Wyoming Eagle's Nest, while "interviews" using enhanced interrogation techniques are livestreamed to the iPad in his lap. Picture from Mary Cheney's Instagram feed, via Bruce Sterling.]

I spent last night watching screens on which other people were watching screens.

This was the first US presidential election I have watched without a television in my home. When I moved last year, I realized I had not watched television at home in more than a year, and decided it was finally time to live without it. So now I get my news from the web, the radio, and my anachronistic daily delivery of the print newspaper.

When there are breaking news events of the sort that make me want to see live video from major networks, I am limited to what I can get over the Web. So last night we watched the returns with a late model laptop, an 1990s-style software salesman's projector purchased at the CompUSA going out of business sale, a 1960s Da-Lite movie screen purchased on EBay, and a high wattage analog English stereo system best suited for blasting old vinyl. It's a bit of work to set up, and that's a good thing.

Watching the network returns on the Net provided a glimpse of the big three broadcasting networks trying to figure out how to evolve their journalistic business models to keep up with contemporary media. How do they attract the eyeballs and ears and minds of people like me, for whom a television connected to broadcast or cable networks is as anachronistic as a land line telephone? And how do they make money from it once they do that?

All three networks provided livestreamed online election coverage without commercials.

CBS was the only one of the big three that provided the full broadcast content online, complete with Scott Pelley as the post-Cronkite voice of calm authority and Bob Schieffer commenting live from the middle of the twentieth century. During the broadcast commercial breaks, the CBS Net stream switched over to CBS Radio's live coverage. Using voice content to fill downtime during a network stream (or other time-consuming computer process) is a great idea.

NBC online reported with deadpan self-parody "Live from Democracy Plaza" with Brian Williams anchoring and David Gregory and Savannah Guthrie at the table with him. But except when it was time for the gnomes to put another color sheet over the giant map of the states embedded in the ice rink (!), the online coverage was a clone cast provided by the NBC News Teen Titans, most of whom seemed like they were unsuccessfully trying to channel the news anchors they had grown up watching. There was no discussion in either stream of the irony in the fact that "Democracy Plaza" is the courtyard of a corporate office park, the true name of which is that of the Gilded Age robber barons that built it.

ABC News had a complete alternate network for its online coverage: ABCNews.Com • Yahoo! News. Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopolous only appeared after the election had been called for Obama, and the commercials had stopped pending the victory speech. There was no clear indication that you were getting an alternate version of ABC News. The set had all the same signifiers, the people were dressed the same, and the content architecture was essentially identical. But you quickly figured out this was ABC News with the interns in charge. ABC is using its online channel as a farm league to develop its new talent, and to provide a place to use old talent that no longer cuts it in prime time. The anchor desk was filled with three thirtysomething newcomers (anchor Dan Harris, Political Director Amy Walter, and Yahoo! News analyst Olivier Knox) and old timers Jeff Greenfield and Walter Shapiro.

And of course there was C-SPAN online at the ready with all the unprocessed political content you could eat.

A few observations from an evening devouring this content produced by a mass media driving with fog lights toward a new information architecture that has not yet been designed:

- The Net has a way of stripping the cultivated institutional authority away from the bid media networks, whether it's the evening news anchors struggling to keep our attention on them amidst the surrounding social media feeds, or the tendency towards amateur night fourth wall violations—as when ABC's Dan Harris cut off a colleague to proclaim "We can now tell you who won Kansas," unfurled the check box graphic, then cut himself off with "wait, we have to wait five seconds before we can show you that," and a moment later explained "sorry, the voice in my earpiece was telling me what to do."

- You can now watch network news coverage in which the anchor cuts to the reporter in the field and says "Holly, how are things going out there in the Internet?" [actual quote]

- The big networks still build their coverage on the platform of telegenic anchors and commentators, and they mostly provide no more than stock ticker-quality supplemental information in their banners. Last night we were constantly supplementing the net coverage with more detailed information available through other Web sources—just as the anchors were doing on-screen with their own laptops. When the networks use their resources to serve as clearinghouses of unprocessed information, curate the information at more intermediate stages of filtering, and use the video content and live subjective analysis as garnish, they will be closer to providing the unlimited information that 21st century news consumers really want.

- ABC and NBC both included periodic compilations of video commentary soundbites from social media users. The synthesis of that democratic cacophony into a chorus feels like the future of news—a video version of a Twitter feed (or the way the networks give you their version of a Twitter feed that matters).

- The emergence of alternate online versions of the major network news platforms has radical potential. Someday soon more innovative producers, anchors and analysts will realize the opportunity to reinvent mass media news on one of those platforms during some major event, and Dan Rather's ghost will be on a frequency you can no longer tune, Kenneth.

- What the network news personalities do on live television is a lot harder than it looks, and you can see it on the intern versions. This was especially apparent on ABC News.COM • Yahoo! News, in which it was clear all five people on camera were viciously competing to outperform each other, creating a stress lab in which the youngsters all flubbed badly—losing trains of thought mid-sentence, rambling into dead air nonsequiturs, defaulting to the pseudo-authoritative misdirection of big vocabulary (as when Olivier Knox concluded a stumbling comment by characterizing his view as "not Panglossian," eliciting the gleeful competitive ridicule of elder Jeff Greenfield).

- The business of television journalism remains fiercely competitive even as its relevance diminishes, with the on-air behavior characterized by an astonishing amount of troglodytic nonverbal gender domination cues. Just ask ABC News Political Director Amy Walter, whose first ninety minutes looked like the makings of a cathode ray hostile work environment that prevented her from projecting her normal confidence and insight until late in the night. Broadcast journalism is still dominated by preening dudes who are scared of (or at least fiercely competitive with) strong women. ((See, e.g., Ann Curry.))

- The information architecture of TV network election coverage is based on invented drama to keep you from turning the channel before the commercial, fueled by a sucker's adoration of democratic myths. In time, manufactured suspense will be replaced with parallel information streams that you can hop between. It's already happening in small doses.

- When election night broadcasts cut to unscripted speeches by candidates to their supporters live in a room, one is reminded of the potential power of pre-televisual political rhetoric. Can network culture provide a new oratorical forum unmediated by broadcaster yapping and editing?

- Does NBC really think they will inspire my confidence in our electoral system by showing me a roomful of volunteer geezers in portable chairs opening and sorting green envelopes?

- Did Nancy Pelosi really say "We're all for TEAM USA"?!

- Do you think @katiecouric writes her own Tweets?

- Who writes the music for television news themes? Why do the rites of republican democracy merit more venerable melodic loops than the fearcasts of war and disaster?

- Who picks the color coding of the political parties? Apparently it was in the 2000 elections that the common coding switched to cool blue for the left Dems and radical red for the right Repubs. I think the semiotic power of those codings is much more significant than we realize, and reflects a big shift in which party is positioned as the change agent.

- Why do I know the names of several of Mitt Romney's children, and how can I make myself forget?

- Watching the chorus of party representatives commenting across all media, it seems that 21st century political parties are like corporations where everyone works in the PR department, and is elected to their corporate office by their customers.

- Is the non-election of Mitt Romney a sign that we have put the last nail in the coffin of the Zeitgeist of the 80s?

- When can we abandon the pretense and just conduct all of our elections as viewer-decided reality TV shows ending in statistical ties resolved through prolonged litigation?

- (Howard Beale, where are you when we need you?)

- Why is Dick Cheney still smiling?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Biblion: Frankenstein

Vintage Frankenstein illustration from New York Public Library Biblion website
I am remiss. I've had a new publication available for months yet inexplicably failed to tell anyone about it. My apologies. This is a little different from anything else I've done in the past, so perhaps I can be forgiven for the oversight.

I have a paper, or essay, if you prefer, available now on the New York Public Library's Biblion website. The paper, co-written with Donald Olson, Marilynn Olson, Russell Doescher, Ava Pope and Kelly Schnarr (whew! That's quite a mouthful, innit?) is titled "Frankenstein's Moon" and reexamines some of the work done in pinpointing the time frame when Mary Shelley began work on her famous novel as well as validating her version of events (which have been questioned by various historians over the years).

The paper is part of a much larger celebration of Shelley and her literary creation, titled FRANKENSTEIN: The Afterlife of Shelley and Frankenstein. Here's a brief description from the site itself:
What makes a monster? What is it like living on the margins of society? Is technology inherently good or bad? These questions guided Mary Shelley 200 years ago as she wrote her classic novel Frankenstein — they remain just as relevant today. The second edition of Biblion explores the connections between Shelley’s time and our own, showing how the classics resonate throughout society and the breadth of NYPL’s offerings.
I'm very pleased to participate in my own small way, and encourage everyone to take a look. The site is well worth a look if you're a fan of Frankenstein and have an hour or six to spend going through all the fascinating features on display.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Of gorillas and gasbags

So, Armadillocon has came and went, and everybody else in the whole of creation has posted their thoughts and comments about the convention except me. Par for the course, I'd say. I've got a larger wrap-up coming, but I'd like to focus for the moment on Friday night's "Gorilla of the Gasbags" story challenge panel. As I mentioned last week, Joe Lansdale threw out a challenge a year ago to write a story centered around the cover of an exceptionally rare issue of Zeppelin Stories. We had one year to write them, and present the finished product at the panel in question.

Quite a few folks turned out with stories, myself included. "Prince Koindrindra Lives" is a direct sequel to my story "Prince Koindrindra Escapes," which appeared in Cross Plain Universe back in 2006. Except, since I'm not a particularly fast writer, and I'd only completed the first draft of my Chicken Ranch book the week before, I didn't get mine completed. Specifically, I wrote about 11 pages of what will probably be a 30-page tale once all is said and done. Everybody else finished theirs. Or at least claimed to. I'm not going to accuse anyone of bending the truth a bit, but those folks who hung me out to dry know who they are.

The Gorilla of the Gasbags story challenge panel at Armadillocon 2012

The Gorilla of the Gasbags story challenge panel at Armadillocon 2012

The Gorilla of the Gasbags story challenge panel at Armadillocon 2012

Bill Crider lapped the field by writing two stories on the topic. Edgar Rice Burroughs was a popular touchstone, and Mark Finn got in a jab at L. Sprague de Camp. Chris Brown wowed everyone with the revelation that his grandfather actually worked in a German Zeppelin factory, and had a trove of artifacts and souvenirs from those days. Chris also went against the grain by writing a borderline-pornographic innuendo-laden story based on the secondary "Balloon Juice" title from the pulp cover. It was, I must admit, magnificent.

I ended up reading several pages of Neal Barrett, Jr.'s story, as he couldn't make the panel (it's a corker!) as well as a little more than half a page of mine. I got lots of compliments afterward about my reading, but I found it a tad troubling that some folks hadn't realized I'd done two separate readings (Neal's and my stories both had strong 1930s German elements to them). To clear up any further confusion, here is what I read (it might help to know that Koindrindra is a 30-foot-tall ape who has just skydived along with 100 or so paratroopers into Castle Neuschwanstein):
Koindrindra had barely taken two steps toward the keep when the giant doors exploded open, propellering through the courtyard to embed themselves in the Palas wall. The very force knocked Koindrindra back. He stared at the keep, not believing his eyes.

Through the smoke-filled doorway, backlit by a hundred work lights, rumbled a massive... something. Mounted on a twenty-foot armored tank chassis, a sectioned cylindrical torso rose with a black Iron Cross emblazoned across the chest. One either side of the armored cylinder extended two jointed, hydraulic arms. One ended in a vice-like clamp, the other in a still-smoking gun barrel. Mounted atop the torso, more than thirty feet high, sat what could only be described as a head, ape-like in design.

The mad Fritz could not win against Koindrindra on the field of battle, so they'd build a mechanical abomination to do it for them.

Panzer Affe!
Amazingly, every single story fragment read came off as solid, quality literature. Don Webb actually recited his from memory, as he'd forgotten his manuscript. Amazing. This really needs to be anthology, as the stories ranged widely in tone and theme. I'd certainly buy it.

The Gorilla of the Gasbags story challenge panel at Armadillocon 2012

The Gorilla of the Gasbags story challenge panel at Armadillocon 2012

The Gorilla of the Gasbags story challenge panel at Armadillocon 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

Lost Trails

From the pulp magazine ADVENTURE, November 1945, a little bit of mid-twentieth century paper-based network culture:


NOTE: We offer this department to readers who wish to get in touch again with friends or acquaintances separated by years or chance. Give your own name and full address. Please notify ADVENTURE immediately should you establish contact with the person you are seeking. Space permitting, each inquiry addressed to Lost Trails will be run in three consecutive issues. Requests by and for women are declined, as not considered effective in a magazine published for men. ADVENTURE will also decline any notice that may not seem a sincere effort to recover an old friendship or for any other reason in the judgment of the editorial staff. No charge is made for publication of notices.


I would like to hear from Albert "Shorty" Armstrong, and "Butsy" Butterfield, who were members of the 13th U.S. Infantry Band in 1924 at Fort Warren, Mass. Also Philip Smith, Jr., who lived on Gainsborough St., Boston, in 1941. I have recently been discharged from the Army Air Force and would like to hear from some of the old buddies of the old days. John J. Delaney, 227 Broadway, Cambridge, Mass., 39.

Alex "Scotty" Mackie, age 34, weight 125, height 5' 3", blue eyes, dark brown hair, missing since 1939. Last heard from in Cleveland, Ohio. Anyone knowing of his recent whereabouts please communicate with his brother, Robert Mackie, 3774 Highland Road, Cleveland, 11, Ohio.

Captain Rudolph Petersen, who used to write sea stories, formerly lived at Locust Street, 133 Street, Bronx, New York City, N.Y. Last heard from 1940. Anyone knowing his present address please communicate with Norman Gilmartin, c/o General Delivery, Brooklyn General Postoffice, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Anyone knowing the whereabouts of John S. Peebles, Jr., please write J.S. Peebles, White Cloud, Michigan, RFD No. 2. His parents have considered him dead but have lately heard that he is still alive and they have been unable to obtain his address.

Bill Arenz, who left Jacksonville, Ill., in 1940: I am married to your daughter, and would like to meet or hear from you. E.D. Meany, 407 Highland Ave., Palisade Park, N.J.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Burial at Sea (today's in-flight movie)

The 1:35 scale cathode ray simulation of Ernest Borgnine packs himself into a yellow wetsuit, channeling Jacques Cousteau. Sealab has been knocked loose from its moorings. Ernest Borgnine is riding in a futuristic submersible made from the remains of plastic models of German tanks. The Neptune floats in a fishtank embedded into the airplane seatback. Ernest Borgnine exits through the airlock, floating free with the giant burbling bubbles. Inside the submersible, minor world historical figure Ben Gazzara wears a red Mr. Rogers cardigan. Yvette Mimieux, an imaginary marine biologist, watches over his shoulder. The view through the porthole is a television screen of a made-for-TV movie. Ernest Borgnine is beautiful floating in yellow rubber, as a tropical fish grown in the back room of a Toronto pet store tries to eat him, or kiss him, it's hard to tell.

((RIP Ermes Effron Borgnino, who lives on as a semiotic ghost lurking in the mediasphere))

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Transiting Venus

Sometimes, when faced with a once-in-a-lifetime event, you don't let anything so mundane as blistering Texas heat, a cloudy sky or a tragically cracked telescope mirror get in the way. There are other, better photos of the transit of Venus across the face of the sun out there, but not so many from New Braunfels and not so many taken under circumstances as trying.

Transit of Venus, June 5, 2012

The silhouette of Venus is the circle in the upper right quadrant of the sun. Quite a few sunspots are also visible, as is a region of brighter, white detail near the south pole. All things considered, this white light image of the sun (taken using Baader solar film filters--never look directly at the sun without specialized filters!) was able to capture quite a bit of fine detail, brought out with a little bit of coaxing via Photoshop. Someday I hope to own a dedicated hydrogen-alpha solar scope, but considering the fact that I don't have a reasonably useful straightforward telescope at the moment (I masked the damaged section to use the undamaged section of mirror for these images) that "someday" is probably quite a distance in the future.

Still, even though my shots of the transit of Venus are not what I'd hoped for, years from now when my eyesight's failing and I'm not able to look through a telescope, I'll cherish these photos all the more.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Flying Submarine!

Or, flying submarine theater, at least. I spent most of yesterday over at Aquarena Center, riding herd on the media gathered to watch an unusual sight--the removal of the 400-plus-ton Submarine Theater from Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

For those of you keeping score at home, the university, in conjunction with the Corps of Engineers, attempted to remove the old theater back in February using an assortment of heavy-duty construction cranes, the largest being a 500-tonner. They failed to lift the Submarine Theater after several days of trying. The pause button was hit and the situation re-evaluated. The Theater, it seems, was heavier than originally estimated, and the angle the cranes had to work at was too low for effective liftage.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

Not so this time. Using one of the largest industrial cranes in the U.S. with an 1,800-ton lifting capacity (it took 100 semi trucks to bring it in and assemble in place), the massive underwater theater came out with nary a ripple. That's not an exaggeration--the crane lifted the huge bulk very slowly to guard against any accidents (lifting straps snapped on one attempted lift back in February, sending the Submarine Theater crashing back into the lake) but also to avoid stirring up sediments and polluting the river and lake. The lifting began around 9:30 a.m., paused around 10:15 for more counter-weights to be added, and by 11:30 the entire Submarine Theater had successfully moved to dry land. The slow pace also allowed an estimated 100 tons of lake water to drain from the enormous ballast tanks.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

The old theater was once the centerpiece of the Aquarena Springs amusement park, and would submerge to treat audiences to "mermaid" shows in the crystal clear waters. By the time Texas State bought the park in the early '90s, competition from other entertainment destinations had nearly driven the park to bankruptcy. In 1996 the university closed Aquarena Springs for good and began the restoration project, converting it to Aquarena Center for the study of water science and the preservation of quite a few endangered species that live in the waters. The decaying theater needed to be removed because of its potential to contaminate the lake and river. Not to mention the fact that it'd become a dangerous eyesore. It will now be cut up and dismantled on shore, and trucked off for recycling. The glass windows may be removed and incorporated into an art project for a planned visitor's center at Aquarena, but not much else is salvageable. Personally, I think they should relocate it to Bobcat Stadium and renovate it into luxury suites. It'd be unique, if nothing else!

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

Me being me, I couldn't resist shooting a few images in infrared. The clouds drove me nuts by changing the light quality constantly, passing over the sun as they did, but ultimately I got a few images with some decent contrast. I never get tired of that white, infrared foliage on the trees!

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Infrared photo by Lisa On Location photography.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Infrared photo by Lisa On Location photography.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Science Fiction in the Edgelands

My essay "Science Fiction in the Edgelands" is up—online and in the April print issue—at The New York Review of Science Fiction. NYRSF is one of my very favorite publications. Editor David Hartwell has been using it as a forum for the very best sf criticism for the past 24 years (with immense help from his colleagues Kevin Maroney, Alex Donald, Kris Dikeman, Avram Grumer, and Samuel R. Delany). NYRSF was pretty much exclusively print until they ran into printer problems last year, leading the very exciting result that they are transitioning to electronic publication. As part of this effort, they are adding more content to their website, including putting featured articles online for non-subscribers to enjoy. I am delighted that my piece is the featured article for the April issue.

My piece is a report from last year's science fictional interventions at the Tijuana border crossing organized by Pepe Rojo and his colleagues, and an essay about borders and the future based on the remarks I gave at that conference. By way of a teaser, here's a video of las Bio(Mecánicas)—cyborg dancers visiting the border crossing from the future:

If you value quality sf criticism, and think it's important to have a well-curated outlet for longer essays about topics of genre interest, please consider subscribing to NYRSF, and pipe in on their new Facebook page—all of which is right here.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

¡Tiene que luchar por su derecho a enfiestarse!

In the past couple of months, a new billboard has appeared around Austin advertising Indio Beer, a new entrant to the US market. An Aztec warrior emerges from the jungle: "COMING PRONTO." (See above pic from Lamar Boulevard, courtesy of The Marcos Kirsch Experience.) Since I don't really watch television, I have to rely on billboards as one of my principal commercial cultural barometers. Billboards during the bust have become heavily focused on selling capitalism's cheapest and most proletarian anesthetic—beer (along with healthy doses of tequila and spirits with a Caribbean theme, often actually named after a pirate). And you can't help but notice how much of the advertising is devoted to peddling the beers of Mexico.

The core semiotic cues are all the same: beach, sand, surf, beauty, lime, sun, the Pacific, and lots of skin, perhaps with some lucha libre masks thrown in for ironic good measure. Ever notice how our Mexican beer ads rarely feature an actual Mexican? Even when they are self-evidently set in an unspecified Mexican fantasy location? That's because the beaches those dudes are visiting (sometimes with their hot but somewhat stuck-up Greek style girlfriends) are not actually set in Mexico. They are set in a dream world where we escape from the alienating cubicle grind of our lives as servants of 21st century Capital. You will never see a computer in a Mexican beer commercial, unless you count the Blackberry that vacationing investment banker tosses into el Pacifico in the above Corona ad. The idea of "Mexico" in contemporary American culture expresses our yearning for a place we can actually travel to where you don't have to live like *this*—and the beers (and tequilas and Margaritaville rums) provide us an actual means to simulate that escape, by lubricating our inner Benjamin Franklins into Dionysian liberation, in a mode that generates plenty of dinero for the Man.

Every year during the first week of May the media fills with arch features explaining what a ridiculous holiday we celebrate with Cinco de Mayo. The stories typically try to demythologize the idea of the holiday as Mexican Independence Day, explaining that it commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla against French forces of Napoleon III, in the struggle that ultimately resulted in the imposition of Maximilian I as dictator—a regional holiday celebrated in Puebla that has become, the stories always note, an excuse to sell Mexican beer. This Huff Post piece is more helpful, explaining Cinco de Mayo as a Latino-American identity celebration. But that still doesn't explain why the gringos are having so much fun, does it?

There's a Puritan subtext in all those mainstream media stories purporting to debunk the idea of Cinco de Mayo as a "real" holiday. No surprise, when you read a little more, and realize that the infiltration of Mexican beer into American culture really happened during Prohibition, when Californians and Texans would drive over a hot desert border to drink cold beer and recover their right to party. And now we get to drink their beer right here. Cinco de Mayo, gringo style, *is* Mexican Independence Day—specifically, the day on which we celebrate the idea of Mexico as the semiotic cue we use to liberate ourselves from the well-wired dominion of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism (si, claro, in a way that also pays sacrifice to that spirit). Squeeze a lime in that, Max Weber!

There's another important subtext lurking in all this, as well, I think. You can see it in Indio's Aztec warrior emerging from the jungles into our frontage roads. You can see it in the very un-American (and subtly threatening) masculinity of Dos Equis's "The Most Interesting Man in the World." And you can see it in the Mexican beer ads targeted at Mexicans living in the US, with their expressions of Mexican nationalism (and even in the *American* beer ads targeting the Latino population—like the BudLight ads with Pitbull). Mexican beers are probably the leading Mexican export to the US that's actually Mexican (as opposed to the electronic and automotive components we pay Mexican labor to produce for us at the other end of the Nafta express—digest this statistical analysis of Mexico-US import-export activity for some mind-blowing revelation). Their successful infiltration of American culture on its own terms represents a powerful articulation of that unspoken dream of reclamation, a vanguard for the demographic reclamation in process.

Maybe, in this symbiosis, there's another dream—one of real cultural integration, and the end of borders.

In the meantime, as you mourn the death of MCA, and examine your inner Prohibitionist that needs to be put in a time out, consider whether the silliest anthem of the 80s didn't have a point: ¡Es verdad que tienes que luchar por tu derecho a enfiestarte!

Feliz Cinco de Mayo—don't be a Jackass:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Baffling Wonders of the 21st Century

[Pic: MMA fighter Nick Newell, via]

The other day the New York Times ran a story about amputee mixed martial arts fighters. A few weeks earlier, the Sunday magazine featured a profile of Oscar Pistorius, the South African amputee sprinter, and the question of whether he is disadvantaged or advantaged by his disability and the prosthetic blades that let him run 400 meters in 45 seconds. Establishment examinations of the unique capabilities of a legless wrestler, and the awesome physics of a bionic runner, evidence the 21st century's evolution of very different ways of thinking about our relationships with our bodies.

[Pic: Sprinter Oscar Pistorius, via NY Times]

A smart friend of mine once joked that the reason Teletubbies have television sets in their tummies is to condition our children for their future life as cyborgs. We are already cyborgs in many respects, our neural networks adapted to the electronic tools that network us with the world. But I think these athletes are the vanguard of a more spectacular generation of altered humans, clearing the trail for the thousands of young men coming home from our decade of far away wars without all the homegrown parts they once had (see, e.g., the excellent Michael Chorost piece on military prosthetics in this month's Wired). I have long wondered how long it will take before the puritanical Chariots of Fire vision of white cotton athletics untainted by the unnatural finds its force inevitably flipped into a celebration of altered marvels. I even invented a secondary character in a story to make this point, and the idea revealed such truth that he nearly took the whole thing over like some postmodern Burt Reynolds crashing a Bruce Dern acid party:

Crile scratched his silvery buzzcut, flexing a bicep that pulsed with the texture of manufactured tendons and polymerically enhanced blood vessels. He was one of the alpha generation of real celebrity cyborgs, a Texas star college quarterback who was among the first to go straight to the UFL. The Ultimate Football League was the first to abandon professional athletics’ anachronistic insistence on the prohibition of performance enhancements, be they pharmaceutical, bio-mechanical, or genetically engineered. It was a genius stroke by the founders. The audience was far more interested in superhuman performances than fidelity to nature, and the athletes were addicted to the potential of even greater power. Crile hadn’t played in a decade, but was still a public figure, famous for his stamina in withstanding fifteen-plus years of pounding on behalf of the Los Angeles fans...

[Pic: Giants pitcher Brian Wilson, out for the season for extreme elbow surgery, quoted Monday as saying he looked forward to the "opportunity to get a better arm" and "get to throw harder." Via]

Crile appears in "Edge Lands," a story of mine that appears in the new issue of The Baffler. He previously appeared in a related story included in an sf anthology a couple years back, but I am very excited to have him pulling his creaky Kilroy head into the pages of a magazine whose readers might not typically read science fiction. This is thanks to the courage of The Baffler's new editor, John Summers, to include representatives of the self-appointed "literature of ideas" in the inaugural issue of his relaunched run of this amazing magazine that brings cutting edge scholarly thinking and critical intelligence to a general audience.

The fiction in Baffler 19 includes an excerpt from Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel, 2312, and a remarkable Lyudmila Petrushevskaya story beautifully translated by Anna Summers. The stories (and the fantastic selection of poetry) are just popcorn to complement the potent lineup of essays and other nonfiction from the likes of Thomas Frank, James Galbraith, Maureen Tkacik, Barbara Ehrenreich, Will Boisvert, Rick Perlstein, and Chris Lehmann (full table of contents here). It's thrilling for me to have one of my efforts at socio-political speculative fiction find itself in such superior company, even more so to be grouped with other pieces exploring the theme of how techno-utopian discourse (to which science fiction is a major contributor) masks cultural decay.

The most compelling piece of science fictional speculation in the issue is the social anthropologist David Graeber's amazing essay, "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit." Graeber uses the well-worked "dude, where's my flying car" meme as the launching point for a deep critique of the interrelation between capitalism and technological progress. Graeber starts by noting how much of our technological power is devoted to the *simulation* of technological marvel rather than its actual achievement (see , e.g., the science fantasies now responsible for the majority of Hollywood's take-home pay). Breaking out the anthropological toolkit, he sweepingly elucidates the ways in which American-style corporate bureaucracy and the singular focus on competition chill true breakthroughs and banish the eccentric and the imaginative to mom's basement.

Graeber, citing Giovanni Arrighi, draws a compelling contrast between contemporary techno-capitalism and British industrial capitalism after the South Sea Bubble through the early twentieth century—a period in which Britain largely avoided the corporate form in favor of a combination of high finance and family-run businesses, and integrated eccentric thinkers into the the culture, often as rural vicars whose "amateur" experimentation produced many of the mind-blowing scientific discoveries of the day. The absence of "poetic technologies" from the real world of the 21st century evidences the failure of capital, argues Graeber, with a compelling call to "...break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history."

Graeber's argument makes me rethink my dismissal of the steampunk explosion as evidence of sf's political failings—perhaps steampunk is transcendently political: an atemporal expression of our collective pent-up yearnings for a technology that liberates, rather than enslaves. I have remarked elsewhere how the cyberpunks helped us discover unlimited quanta of liberated territory—only to find it rapidly sectioned off by Capital for devotion to productive use. Networked computers have become the principal instruments of our alienation, and Guy Fawkes masks on YouTube really don't provide plausible architectures for change.

I was thinking about all this last week as I walked the campus of Stanford University. An objectively beautiful place full of beautiful people, almost like a Hollywood simulation of a college campus, full of those preppy blonde white kids that in other parts of California (like Berkeley) have become about as common as unicorns. So beautiful, and so boring—seemingly devoid of the experimental self-expression and naive political speech that should characterize any community of several thousand twenty-year-olds.

When you leave the original campus for the post-1999 quad—the archipelago of smart buildings named after Gordon Moore and Jerry Yang and the other cyber-barons who paid for them—you understand. You have arrived at Gattaca State: a corporate youth camp devoted to the indoctrination and reproduction of future members of the establishment within the new paradigm of techno-capitalism, the principal ethos of which is consumer marketing practiced as a branch of mathematics, supported by the Moore's Law of alienation: the capacity of information microprocessors to propel human brains into ever more efficient cubicle-bound servants of the numbers. Each of them lured by the illusory dream of the liberation from work. Instagram, anyone?

Baffler 19 provides a pretty potent radical diagnosis of the contemporary condition, and science fiction writers and readers should pick up a copy and and consider the critical speculations that accompany the fictions—and the implicit invitation to better integrate critical political economy into expressions of the speculative imagination. Essays like Graeber's remind us of the potential for science fiction to not just preserve our sense of wonder in the ghetto of filking conventions, but to help envision better ways to integrate imaginative wonder into the structuring of our societies. As network culture reveals the crumbling foundations of our socio-economic institutions, there's a whole lot of talk going on about what the world should look like on the other side of the current crisis, and science fiction has an important role to play in that conversation.

You can subscribe or buy individual copies of The Baffler (including electronic version) here.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Web-@nywhere: A look at the near future of the recent past

About a month ago, a coworker bought a number of archaic digital watches for everyone in the office. He found them in the bargain bin of a thrift store in Waxahachie, and since they cost about a buck each, he thought they would be a fun gag gift. With replacement batteries I ordered online for $1.50 each, we managed to get the watches working again.
But these are no ordinary wrist-watches. These are Web-@nywhere personal computation devices, a conceptual waypoint between the calculator watch of the 80s and the first smart phones of the mid-noughts. It has an LCD graphic display with a resolution of literally dozens of pixels, but its big selling point is the ability to surf the web. It interfaces with a PC through the serial port and a bulky proprietary clasp that fits around the entire watch. With the help of an installation diskette (compatible with Windows 95/98), you can establish a data link with your PC, and then browse the web from the two-inch display on your wrist.
Like most modern consumers of the internet, you are probably thinking to yourself right now: "Why would I browse the web on my watch, if it's already connected to my PC?" But for the consumer of the turn of the millenium, this was the first foray into an exciting new realm of mobile computing.
Archeological web searching uncovers tantalizing hints about the history of this gadget. The original website for the Web-@nywhere company is long abandoned, the domain snatched up and re-cycled as a trashy SEO spam blog (the ultimate fate of all web properties who don't have owners who love them). But there are still third-party references to the product, disused auction listings and dusty forum posts, which we can piece together to form a narrative of a product that burst onto the scene and then faded away.

We first see mention of the Web-@nywhere watch in early 2001. America is still reeling from the bursting tech bubble and the realization that an illiterate buffoon has cheated his way into the White House. We are a nation that is newly cynical of the future. We want our gadgets and our "information superhighway," but we want them wrapped in the vestiments of a more familiar era. On March 9, 2001, the Web-@nywhere earns a brief but gushy mention on the Entertainment Weekly website. The retail price is $85, which in turn of the millenium dollars could pay for a household's restaurant budget for two months or more. It appears to have been listed in the SkyMall catalog, along with other seemingly-advanced yet useless gadgets like the spider-vacuum and the inflatable car passenger. In 2002 a verbose review of the Web-@nywhere by a consumer highlights its many design and software flaws, and admits that the core design feature of the watch, the ability to download 128k of text-only web content for later reading, is not terribly useful.
By the end of 2002, the cost of the Web-@nywhere has collapsed to $55, and then $20. By 2003 the first smartphone Blackberries take to the market and the Web-@nywhere disappears from the digital record like the Anasazi.
The consumer of 2001 must have been dazzled by the Web-@nywhere's technological promise. The front face is dominated by two main interface features. One is a four-directional rubber knob reminiscent of a joystick or early laptop control nubs. The other is a large button that functions a little like an enter key and a little like a left-click button.
The buttons along the sides of the watch are design holdovers from the age of digital wrist watches.The buttons on the right are mainly selectors. By pressing them repeatedly you scroll through lists of features and menu options. The interface is neither intuitive nor efficient. In the coming years, improved GUIs will make watch-style buttons like these redundant.
The most fascinating anachronism on the watch is the button on the lower left side. It wasn't until I had actually pressed the "backlight" button, and admired its under-stated green glow, that I realized I hadn't seen a backlight button in a very long time. In our modern age, although we still employ LCD interfaces in our mobile devices, their design aspects are much different than the late-twentieth-century watch backlight. We don't have a dedicated button for backlights because a color LCD screen is essentially invisible unless lit. Any attempt to interface with the modern mobile device will trigger a luminescence to rival the flashlights of my childhood. The power for this light comes from the fantastic improvements in lithium ion batteries we've seen in the last decade. The batteries power a long-range microwave transmitter, so there's more than enough juice to spare for mere display purposes. The poor Web-@nywhere watch has only a modest 3-volt power source, what popular vernacular had once designated a "watch battery." However, the Web-@nywhere display has one advantage over most modern devices in that it's perfectly readable in normal light and only needs a backlight when in a darkened room.

Sadly, the Web-@nywhere serial port connector and the proprietary software are lost to time. We may never know what games could be downloaded into the 128k memory. We will never have the joy of reading text-only web content from a two-inch screen. Nor will we be able to store our contacts and phone numbers on our wrist.
The only functioning taste of 2001's future is a series of pre-programmed animations, and the option to change our local time to Paris.
I wanted to end this article with the declaration: The Web-@nywhere is the last holdover from the Dick Tracy vision of the future. How do you make a gadget more hightech and convenient? You mount it on your wrist of course.
But then I found out this morning that Sony is releasing a "smart watch." Like the Web-@nwhere it does not have its own internet connection, but has to be tethered to a device that does, like your smartphone, which almost certainly has a much larger and more convenient interface.
So in ten years, are we going to be looking back at the Sony SmartWatch and marveling at its weirdly useless design concept?

Friday, April 6, 2012

You sunk my littoral combat trimaran!

The front page of this morning's New York Times has a stroke piece about the Navy's new combat vessels that reads like a page from the technical manual of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds!. It even includes a cross section in the style of a Silver Age comic, with a sidebar explaining how different modules can be installed onboard for different missions.


Like maybe Thunderbird 4!

Sure, the story goes through the motions of presenting some kernels of serious political analysis, noting the debate about how many $700 million littoral interceptors we might really need, and the annoying questions about whether the things actually do what they are supposed to. But the lead paragraph is pretty clear where the Times comes down—on the side of: Dude, that is fucking cool!

"The Navy’s newest ship is designed to battle Iranian attack boats, clear mines from the Strait of Hormuz, chase down Somali pirates and keep watch on China’s warships. The ones built here even look menacing, like Darth Vader on the sea."

No wonder, as the story makes clear, both the President and his Republican buddy Jo Bonner from Mobile want more. They are so cool we are going to name one after Gaby Giffords! Because, you know, it will represent the spirit of frontier vengeance against tyrants...

Do you suppose it's a coincidence that this story appears at the same time as the military-entertainment complex launches its marketing campaign for Battleship—a movie based on the Milton-Bradley boys war game, brought to you by the post-9/11 joint venture of Hasbro, Universal Studios, and the United States Navy? Starring Taylor Kitsch as the prodigal SEAL, Liam Neeson as stone-faced Admiral Shane, and introducing Rihanna as the Esther Williams of deck gunners, the movie appears to be a brainless summer live action video game devoted to the semiotic fetishization of deep sea techno-leviathans. General Dynamics has the best product placement, and they don't even have to pay for it.

You know the globalist masterminds are behind this youthful propaganda when you see that the film features a Tora! Tora! Tora!'s worth of subtitled multinational naval officers united under a single command—blue helmets versus aliens who want to steal our oil! Bring the boys home, and instead get back to projecting our power with video game consoles attached to gigantic naval robots. The only people we'll kill with Rihanna's deck guns are alien others, and you can't even see them on the screen. How much do you want to bet Barry Obama played the game as a kid in Hawaii, after seeing it during commercial breaks of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?

When you read stuff like this:

"A tour at the Mobile yard of a ship that is nearly complete, the Coronado, shows a bridge with consoles of video screens that allow the captain to drive with a joystick or from a laptop. The 400-foot ships can go faster than 40 knots, or nearly 50 miles an hour (the ones built in Mobile have aluminum trimaran hulls — creating less drag in the water and more speed), and are able to operate in 20 feet of water. They have relatively small crews of 75, decks for helicopters and a variety of equipment modules that can be swapped for different missions, like mine-hunting, submarine warfare or special operations."

You can't help but wonder the extent to which our 21st century geopolitics is influenced by the science fictional imaginations of a whole bunch of inner 11-year-olds with good lobbyists (and better publicists).

Is it too obscenely heretical to suggest the deep psychology of our escalating drone wars, of the ultimate Virilian combat system that replaces The Right Stuff with the stuff of first person shooters, is more Jared Loughner than U.S.S. Gaby Giffords?


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The iceberg’s accomplice: Did the moon sink the Titanic?

Have I mentioned here how my day job can be very, very cool sometimes? Take today for instance--it's been incredibly busy with the phone ringing off the hook with reporters from BBC World Service, Chile, Australia and other destinations wanting to speak with the Texas State researchers who authored this latest paper in Sky & Telescope. Now, I didn't contribute to the research itself, but I did work closely with all involved to present it in this concise, tidy package for mass media consumption. It's the Titanic, it's science, and it's fascinating.
The sinking of the ocean liner Titanic 100 years ago is perhaps the most famous--and most studied--disaster of the 20th century. Countless books and movies have examined in great detail the actions, choices and mistakes that led to the Titanic colliding with an iceberg the night of April 14, 1912, and sinking within hours, with approximately 1,500 people losing their lives in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

One question, however, has often been overlooked: Where did the killer iceberg come from, and could the moon have helped set the stage for disaster?

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied its unique brand of celestial sleuthing to the disaster to examine how a rare lunar event stacked the deck against the Titanic. Their results shed new light on the hazardous sea ice conditions the ship boldly steamed into that fateful night.

Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, along with Roger Sinnott, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, publish their findings in the April 2012 edition of Sky & Telescope, on newsstands now.

“Of course, the ultimate cause of the accident was that the ship struck an iceberg. The Titanic failed to slow down, even after having received several wireless messages warning of ice ahead,” Olson said. “They went full speed into a region with icebergs—that’s really what sank the ship, but the lunar connection may explain how an unusually large number of icebergs got into the path of the Titanic.”

A tide for the ages

Inspired by the visionary work of the late oceanographer Fergus J. Wood of San Diego who suggested that an unusually close approach by the moon on Jan. 4, 1912, may have caused abnormally high tides, the Texas State research team investigated how pronounced this effect may have been.

What they found was that a once-in-many-lifetimes event occurred on that Jan. 4. The moon and sun had lined up in such a way their gravitational pulls enhanced each other, an effect well-known as a “spring tide.” The moon’s perigee—closest approach to Earth—proved to be its closest in 1,400 years, and came within six minutes of a full moon. On top of that, the Earth’s perihelion—closest approach to the sun—happened the day before. In astronomical terms, the odds of all these variables lining up in just the way they did were, well, astronomical.

“It was the closest approach of the moon to the Earth in more than 1,400 years, and this configuration maximized the moon’s tide-raising forces on Earth’s oceans. That’s remarkable,” Olson said. “The full moon could be any time of the month. The perigee could be any time of the month. Think of how many minutes there are in a month.”

Initially, the researchers looked to see if the enhanced tides caused increased glacial calving in Greenland, where most icebergs in that part of the Atlantic originated. They quickly realized that to reach the shipping lanes by April when the Titanic sank, any icebergs breaking off the Greenland glaciers in Jan. 1912 would have to move unusually fast and against prevailing currents. But the ice field in the area the Titanic sank was so thick with icebergs responding rescue ships were forced to slow down. Icebergs were so numerous, in fact, that the shipping lanes were moved many miles to the south for the duration of the 1912 season. Where did so many icebergs come from?

Icebergs run aground

According to the Texas State group, the answer lies in grounded and stranded icebergs. As Greenland icebergs travel southward, many become stuck in the shallow waters off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Normally, icebergs remain in place and cannot resume moving southward until they’ve melted enough to refloat or a high enough tide frees them. A single iceberg can become stuck multiple times on its journey southward, a process that can take several years. But the unusually high tide in Jan. 1912 would have been enough to dislodge many of those icebergs and move them back into the southbound ocean currents, where they would have just enough time to reach the shipping lanes for that fateful encounter with the Titanic.

“As icebergs travel south, they often drift into shallow water and pause along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. But an extremely high spring tide could refloat them, and the ebb tide would carry them back out into the Labrador Current where the icebergs would resume drifting southward,” Olson said. “That could explain the abundant icebergs in the spring of 1912. We don’t claim to know exactly where the Titanic iceberg was in January 1912—nobody can know that--but this is a plausible scenario intended to be scientifically reasonable.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning
I went to a party two weeks ago. I rarely get out to such things, at least those that don't involve giant rodents shilling the worst pizza known to mankind. This party, on the other hand, involved actual grown-ups and genre-themed literary discussion, among other things. And it took place in Austin, so you know the hip factor was cranked up to 11. Any dedicated blogger worth his or her salt would've written up a breathtaking account of the festivities that very night whilst tweeting an incredibly witty, blow-by-blow account in real time. These people are neither as lazy nor as easily distracted as I am. So sue me.

The occasion was the release of Chris N. Brown's labor of love, Three Messages and a Warning, an anthology of Mexican science fiction and fantasy writing co-edited by Brown that had just celebrated a major booksigning event over at Bookpeople just a few days prior. Two of the authors in the anthology, Pepe Rojo of Tijuana and Bernardo Fernandez of Mexico City, flew in for the event. There is an unwritten law amongst the Austin SF community that international writers are not allowed to leave town without attending a party, so a party was thrown in their honor.

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Of particular interest was the venue of this shindig--the new abode of Brown, the Edgeland House. I can honestly say this was the first event I've ever attended on a set straight out of Logan's Run. While not quite as eccentric-cool as living in a Ballardian missile silo, the sheer weight of its eco-futuristic gravitas is mind boggling. The floor is heated. The ceiling is designed as a digital projection display. Plus, they had lots of good beer that flowed freely. If Brown had any business sense, he'd charge 50¢ a ticket for tours and make a killing. He's got his own swimming pool with a built-in waterfall, people!

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Most of the usual suspects of the Austin writing scene showed up and one point or other, including Don Well, Lawrence Person, Stina Leicht, Jessica Reisman and Derek Johnson. Lots of other people flowed through as well, but as I don't actually live in Austin, I'm not quite cool enough to hang with them or reference them on a first-name basis. Yet.

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

Edgeland House, Three Messages and a Warning

I, for one, am counting down the days until the first Turkey City is held at this residential wonderland of concentrated genre aesthetic.