Roundup 19Nov20

This is a very sound to-do list.

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How ‘The Karate Kid’ Ruined The Modern World

So, people bail on diets. Not just because they’re harder than they expected, but because they’re so much harder it seems unfair, almost criminally unjust. You can’t shake the bitter thought that, “This amount of effort should result in me looking like a panty model.”

It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, ‘If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don’t have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc).‘”

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“The Centre for Applied Eschatology is a transdisciplinary research center dedicated to ending the world. We connect professionals from the public sector, private industry, and academia to develop new knowledge and apply existing research to curtail the world’s long-term future.”

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ooohhhh, pretty pictures.

International Landscape Photographer of the Year Award 2020

Magical Night in Tromsø, Norway / Kelvin Yuen /
International Landscape Photographer of the Year

The Atlantic has a bunch for you to look at.

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I decided I needed something to remind me to take a break from looking at the screen during the workday. After years and years of screen-staring, I want to give my poor eyes a break.

I started using Tomato-Timer, an easy-to-use web app that will countdown and give me a audible alert when a certain amount of time has passed.

You can adjust the time and it has a few sound options to choose from. It’s web-based so there’s nothing to download. I run it in a tab while I do my work.

It’s meant for those using the Pomodoro technique for productivity. I’m not much for productivity hacks, but I must admit that chunking my work seems to be paying off. Since I’ve started I don’t feel as tired at the end of the day, and my eyes don’t feel as strained.

Here’s a random article about the Pomodoro Technique: I divided my work day into precise 25-minute chunks — and it was the key to staying disciplined while working from home.

For many, the point is to be productive, but it works for me as a method for being mindful about eyestrain.

I Guess I’m a Robin Hobb Fan Now

I read so much as a child.

I still read quite a bit, but as a child and young teen I’d read for hours and hours, and for days and days. Reading for fun. (I read hour after hour in grad school as well, but that was a different kind of fun. In grad school I read to engage, as a child I read to escape.)

In my early teens I read buckets and barrels of sword & sorcery, and high fantasy, but at some point that kind of vaguely medieval, vaguely western Europe sort of novel (or, more typically, trilogy of novels) lost my favor. I probably haven’t read a half-dozen fantasies like that in the last forty years.

However, driven by my mind’s inability to engage with anything critically, I’ve been fishing around for escapist literature. For reasons I can’t fully recall, I picked up Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, and I’ve been reading compulsively ever since.

This compulsive desire reminds me of youthful Saturdays when I’d lay on the couch all afternoon, with nothing more substantial planned than maybe snacks between chapters.

As of this writing I’m about a third of the way through the third volume of the first Farseer trilogy. I’d give even odds I’ll continue with more Hobb once this trilogy is done.

To call it escapist literature is not meant to be a slight against Hobb. She’s great! My mind is flooded with the detail of her world, and moved by the danger and desires of her characters, to the exclusion of the world around me. I can sink into the world Hobb creates, and for a brief window of time I don’t think about politics, or human cruelty. Fear of contagion and sickness is banished from my thoughts. The future is neither grim nor uncertain, because it is tightly bound in what happens over the next few pages, and I know that with a little patience that future will be revealed.

Once this Hobb phase has ended, and I have the cognitive energy to engage a bit more critically (assuming that day ever comes), I have The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson sitting at the top of my TBR pile.

The Mystery of McKuen

I was puzzling over this a few months ago. What was the deal with Rod McKuen? For a minute, in the late sixties and early seventies, he was the most popular poet in the US.

When I started working in a local bookstore (local to me, in Texas) in the mid-eighties, there were still dozens of McKuen poetry books in print, and we carried them all.

They were, and remain, horrible.

A few months ago I wondered if I simply didn’t have the perspective to understand the hidden beauty of Rod McKuen. Perhaps there was some charm the callow teenage me couldn’t appreciate.

Nope. Pure dreck. Bad. Like…really, really bad.

The reason I’d gone back to reconsider McKuen is because I learned he’d translated the songs of Jacques Brel. If you know the english version of the song “If You Go Away,” or “Seasons in the Sun,” you know a Brel song translated by Rod McKuen. (While he often kept Brel’s references to taboo topics, he sanitized “Seasons in the Sun” for an American audience.)

I didn’t realize until this year that the guy writing that abyssmal poety was the same person that helped introduce Brel to an American audience. Not only that, but before his arrival in the upper echelon of fame and fortune, he did readings with Ginsberg, and Kerouac, and performed at the Purple Onion. Later, Sinatra would commission McKuen to write a whole album. (Which just goes to show that drugs and alcohol can have a profoundly negative affect on your taste levels.)

Anyway, The Neglected Books Page was also recently puzzling over the mystery of McKuen, and did a deep dive into his life and work.

It’s worth reading just for the choice quotes he finds from those unimpressed by McKuen’s talent.

McKuen’s books, he wrote, belonged in “the lachrymose quagmire of the KMart poetry section.”

“language is not his strong point”

I thought about dropping in a McKuen video, but saw this live performance of “Jackie” by Scott Walker and decided to end with it, instead. This is Brel translated into English, but not the McKuen translation.

Scott Walker singing a Jacques Brel song, but this one is translated by Mort Shuman

Jackie

And if one day I should become
A singer with a Spanish bum
Who sings for women of great virtue
I’d sing to them with a guitar
I borrowed from a coffee bar
Well, what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you
My name would be Antonio
And all my bridges I would burn
And when I gave them some they’d know
I’d expect something in return
I’d have to get drunk every night
And talk about virility
With some old grandmama
Who might be decked out like a christmas tree
And though pink elephants I’d see
Though I’d be drunk as I could be
Still I would sing my song to me
About the time they called me “Jacky”

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute in a stupid ass way

And if I joined the social whirl
Became procurer of young girls
Then I would have my own bordellos
My record would be number one
And I’d sell records by the ton
All sung by many other fellows
My name would then be handsome Jack
And I’d sell boats of opium
Whisky that came from Twickenham
Authentic queers
And phony virgins
If I had banks on every finger
A finger in every country
And all the countries ruled by me
I’d still know where I’d want to be
Locked up inside my opium den
Surrounded by some China men
I’d sing the song that I sang then
About the time they called me “Jacky”

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute in a stupid ass way

Now, tell me, wouldn’t it be nice
That if one day in paradise
I’d sing for all the ladies up there
And they would sing along with me
We’d be so happy there to be
Cos’ down below is really nowhere
And if my name were Juniper
Then I would know where I was going
And then I would become all knowing
My beard so very long and flowing
If I became deaf, dumb, and blind
Because I pitied all mankind
And broke my heart to make things right
I’d know that every single night
When my angelic work was through
The angels and the Devil too
Would sing my childhood song to me
About the time they called me “Jacky”

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute in a stupid ass way

Roundup for 3Nov20

Is it that time of the year already? Largehearted Boy has started collecting best-of-the-year book lists from around the internet. This is the thirteenth year he has done this. Use these lists to support your local bookstore, support independent booksellers, support Powell’s, and/or support the Strand. And while you’re at it, go ahead and send a few bucks to Largehearted Boy. He’s been doing amazing work for years.

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When I read the word ‘girl’ I take it to mean ‘female child’. Which occasionally makes whatever I’m reading deeply unsettling, until I snap that the writer means ‘adult woman’.

I know that ‘descriptively’ girl is often meant to mean adult woman, but my ‘prescriptive’ brain always finds it jarring.

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Fun excerpt from The History of EC Comics by Grant Geissman.

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Goldfish Generation – a way of referring to the group of people who have grown up with smartphones and other technology and have a poor memory and attention span as a result.

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The venerable F&SF gets a new editor.

Sheree Renée Thomas to be new editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree Renée Thomas is the award-winning writer and editor of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), which earned the 2001 and 2005 World Fantasy Awards for Year’s Best Anthology. She has also edited for Random House and for magazines like ApexObsidian, and Strange Horizons. She is a member of SFWA, HWA, SFPA, and Cave Canem. Thomas is an author and poet with three collections, Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, 2020), Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press, 2016) and Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems (Aqueduct Press, 2011). Widely anthologized, her work also appears in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy and The New York Times. She was honored as a 2020 World Fantasy Award Finalist for her contributions to the genre. Thomas will be the tenth editor in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction‘s storied history. Her first appearance on the masthead will be in the March/April 2021 issue.”

Charting Progress

In an earlier post I mentioned that I missed the little progress widgets NaNoWriMo used to have. It just occurred to me that WP probably has similar widgets. Sure enough, there’s a variety to choose from.

So, even though I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year, I’ve started writing the novel I’ve been plotting for the last four or five months. And now, I’ve got a little progress bar on the blog so I can show off how much, or how little, I’m getting done.

My (probably) overly-ambitious goal is to have this draft completed by the end of the year. More realisticially, it will be January or February, and then the edits will start.

Abdera, Florida

In 2013 I decided I needed a fictional city. Many of my stories take place in Tampa (or somewhere in Florida) just because I know the layout. I know how long it takes to get to the beach, what the patrol cars look like, how diverse the population is, and other little details that sometimes pop up in a story.

But for the urban fantasy story I was working on I wanted a fake town.

“Aha! Why not a fake universe?” I thought. “I should have my own universe where I can set multiple stories.”

And so, Abdera, Florida was born.

Among the classical Greeks, Abdera was the de facto city of nitwits. A shorthand for a comedic character was to say they were an Abderite. You might signal a joke by starting “In Abdera….” A current analog would be ‘hillbilly’ or (growing up in Texas), an ‘aggie’. (Ironically, Abdera was the real home of Democritus, “the laughing philosopher.”)

Abdera, Florida struck me as the perfect name for a city meant to be a little off-kilter, and full of ridiculous people.

Since then I’ve set four or five stories in Abdera, and at least one NaNoWriMo project.

A few days ago I realized that several stories I set in other locations could easily be moved to Abdera. Maybe I might even have enough for an entire collection!

I don’t. Not even close.

But in investigating this I re-read many of the stories I wrote in 2017 (the story-a-month year), and it turns out I enjoyed reading them. I can see from this distance how to make them better, and there are parts that hold up.

As I read them I realized one of the things missing from my creative endeavors lately has been a sense of play. This pre-dates the pandemic, and goes back to the growing work burnout I experienced in 2018-2019.

My current creative project definitely isn’t playful (near-future techno-thriller!), but since I’m making progress, I’m going to keep plugging away. But I’ve also started going through the stories that take place in Abdera (and the stories that CAN take place in Abdera) and cataloging all the names and locations. Now that I have these characters, it’s probably time to have them start running into each other in new stories. It’s time to put all that work into a blender, hit the pulse button, and see what sort of absurd concoction I can pour out.

Post-Consumer Propaganda

Non-profit organizations may take donated items, like t-shirts, and give them away (or sell them to wholesalers, who then mark up the price by 300-400 percent) in poor areas of the global south.

For example, at a championship sports games, shirts are printed for both sides to celebrate their championship win. One team loses, however, and those shirts are donated to a charity, mission, or non-profit organization.

Somewhere there is someone with a warehouse full of MAGA gear. If we move on to a new president in November, that means there will be a zillion hats and t-shirts with no US market. That apparel will likely/possibly end up in developing countries.

Which means that a half dozen years from now documentarians working in Liberia or rural Mali or Central African Republic will be shooting video of people wearing MAGA gear.

The future is weird.

Roundup 21Oct20

Tom Lehrer drops all his lyrics into the public domain. I wonder what that’s all about. I grew up with Songs by Tom Lehrer, and can still sing every lyric off the top of my head. Lehrer is still alive, though he’s 92. I wonder if this is a decision made as the end approaches.

Songs by Tom Lehrer

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Here’s a story (which I’ll never write) about a comedy AI, a levity machine. It’s a variation of Monty Python’s “World’s Deadliest Joke” skit (which I only realized after the idea popped into my head). Story: I ask my upgraded AI to tell me a joke. It’s pretty good. The AI calibrates my response and after a few jokes, it gets better at finding what makes me laugh. I ask for another joke. Hey, this is pretty good! Keep going, AI. And it does. But then, I start laughing so hard, I can’t catch a breath. I can’t tell it to stop. Ahhhh, the humor, it’s killing me!

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Ugh. Still avoiding the most significant problem. Rosen mentions it, and immediately sets it aside. Nothing changes in modern journalism until the ‘commercial pressures’ change.

“When you look at the American news sphere as it stands, two big things influence political journalism. One is extremely well-known: commercial pressures. We can call it ratings. We can call it clicks. We can call it the industry of attention. All these are names for the same thing, which is using news to generate an audience, and then selling that audience. And, of course, Trump assists with that. That’s why the words of Les Moonves, the former CEO of CBS, are so revealing: ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.'”

News, journalism, the media, whatever you want to call it, is profoundly, fundamentally broken. And it has been for a long time. In many ways the internet didn’t create the problems with the ‘news’ so much as reveal them.

The left stands loyally behind institutions of journalism when Trump derides them as ‘fake news’, but it wasn’t that long ago that Al Gore was going back to j-school as a professor to educate up-and-coming journalists how ‘fake news’ torpedoed his chance at the presidency.

In my lifetime, accuracy has never been top priority. It’s always been about capturing the most eyeballs.

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NPR and the Corporate Criminal Element: “Ever wonder why you rarely hear serious discussion on National Public Radio (NPR) about corporate crime and violence?”

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Eight short stories of Africanfuturism.

Roundup for 20Oct20

Wildlife Photographer of the Year images at the UK’s Natural History Museum.

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Viet Thanh Nguyen interviews Adrian Tomine for the Paris Review.

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I just finished Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems (it’s terrific!). This Rolling Stone article explains where she went when she vanished from the internet for six years.

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Whatever happened to quicksand?

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Gloria Steinem interviews Dorothy Parker in 1965 when Steinem is 30 and Parker is 71.

Dorothy Parker / NYPL Digital Collections.

She fondly remembers Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, and Scott Fitzgerald. She found disagreeable, Ernest Hemingway, George Kaufman, and Harold Ross. She also speaks highly of James Baldwin and Edward Albee.