Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the archives with the pistoleer

I don't get to spend nearly as much time in archives as some contributors to this blog, so it was a bit of a treat when I stopped by the Austin History Center to page through their biographical file on Ben Thompson. A month ago on this blog I wrote about Ben Thompson, so I was hoping to glean a little more insight into the character of this notorious Austinite.

Most of the material in the file fell into three categories, relatively recent tabloid articles from England on Thompson (aren't all newspapers in England technically tabloids?), Austin newspaper articles from a number of time periods, and what appeared to be grade school essays about the gunman.

There wasn't a lot of new information, and some of it was contradictory, or interpreted differently than other material I'd seen. For instance, an incident which one biographer took as evidence that Thompson ran a protection racket in Austin's vice district was passed off as just lighthearted drunkenness by another account.

One source said that after Ben Thompson's notorious shoot-out in San Antonio, his coffin was followed by hundreds of orphaned children. Not the children of his victims as you might first expect, but the benefactors of his charitable largess.

(I read in G.R. Williamson's biography that Thompson had travelled with Buffalo Bill Cody's wild west show for a time, wowing the crowds with his trick target shooting. He also arrested a woman who was traveling with the Lampasas Sheriff for wearing pants, something which was illegal at the time in Austin. Luckily, you can now go topless in this town should you so wish.)

The most enlightening part of Thompson's biographical file was how the press from Austin and the press in England tackled different narrative themes.

The British articles (and there were about a dozen of them) all told the story of how a boy from Yorkshire went overseas into the distant and wild West and had fantastic adventures. So the stories they stressed had a tinge of exoticism and racial intolerance. They talked about Thompson pursuing Indians while a young man, something I don't remember reading in American accounts. They also stressed that as a boy Thompson wounded a black kid, shooting him in the buttocks with mustard seed (no American accounts mentioned that the victim was black, or that the victim was fleeing at the time of the shooting). The English papers also mention that Thompson probably left England because a slave stabbed his maternal aunt and Thompson had to care for the orphans.

And when Ben's brother Billy shot the sheriff of Dodge City, not only was that on purpose, but it was done with an English shotgun.

In 2000, the Daily Star devoted most of a page to Ben Thompson. A tiny photo of Thompson's grave (in the cemetery whose guidebook sparked my interest in him) came with the following caption: "Thompson - at one time a city marshal - came from Knottingley, but he was buried (right) in America's Wild West."

They don't mention that Thompson's Wild West grave is lit at night by lights shining from the University of Texas baseball field.

The Austin press wrestled with the dilemma of portraying Thompson as either criminal or hero, and had trouble fitting him into either category. On the occasion of the restoration of Thompson's gravestone in the 1980s, a paper called The Austin Citizen wrote an article explicitly addressing whether it was appropriate to celebrate Thompson. They quote Gaines Kincaid as summarizing Thompson's life with liberal parenthetical asides, "But even his worst enemies admitted that he was a kind-hearted man (when sober), a good husband and father (when sober) and, during his years as city marshal, he just about wiped out crime in Austin"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hacking the Winklevoss Algorithm

The other night I screened David Fincher's The Social Network at my local theater, the first time I have bought a movie ticket based on hearing the soundtrack on the radio. (Yes, I drive around in my truck listening to a satellite radio station that plays nothing but soundtrack music from movies I have never seen.)

The soundtrack is dark ambient electronica by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: soundtrack for a postmodern deposition. As penetrating emotional study, the movie does not quite achieve the potential of the soundtrack, but it has a pretty solid bead on the state of our alienation in the age of Web. 2.0+. Subtextually, a psycho-space odyssey of the birth of the Shopping Mall Singularity; on the surface, a pretty accurate portrayal of the culture of the venture-backed technology business. Cram-down!

I hadn't previously known that Zuckerberg had attended the same high school as me (revealed in the movie only by a T-shirt he wears), a New England prep school that, contrary to popular perception, has a lot more Zuckerbergs than Winklevosses. When I was a student there more than a few years before Zuckerberg (pre-Web), one of the favorite pasttimes was to take the student photo directory issued to each student at the beginning of each year — "the Facebook" — a customize it with a pen-and-ink overlay of annotations, cosmetic enhancements, and rankings, which would then be shared among friends as a source of entertainment. So watching the Facebook moment of conception, as Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg uses a chess algorithm to perform computer comparisons of the women of Harvard's dormitories, makes perfect sense when you have witnessed small packs of 15-year-old Zuckerbergs sitting in their dorm ranking each girl in the Facebook on a scale of 1 to 10 and otherwise annotating the images of their schoolmates in a way only high schoolers can manage. The genesis of Facebook lies in the adolescent objectification and classification of the members of one's peer group: alienation as adult identity formation.

When I got home after the movie, I found the new issue of The New York Review of Books in my mailbox, the featured cover story a review of the movie by Zadie Smith. Smith uses the movie, and her own recollections of similar late adolescent identity formation, to launch an insightful consideration of the evolution of the self in the age of the social web:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Smith is onto a powerful truth here: that cyber-emancipation and the ascendance of technological meritocracy achieve liberation from the confining primate identity tags of class and geography by replacing them with systems of symbolic language that accelerate the reduction of life into its purest transactional essence.

Code mediates social interaction in a revolutionary way we don't yet really appreciate. Code tolerates long-winded spans of natural language, like this blog post, but what it really wants are numbers and more efficient encryptions of human feeling in to text (LOL)—to facilitate our enslavement to Moore's Law.

Consider how the choice of application interface confines self-expression and promotes sameness—how everyone's iPhoto album or Flickr page looks basically the same. The Singularity-in-progress looks about as diverse as a suburban neighborhood, lot after lot packed with homes from the same builder, varying only surface details in the basic design—look at those window treatments!—to create the illusion of self-expression. No wonder that web pioneers like the Boing Boing crew lead the DIY Maker path, sensing the need to balance it out with equal devotion to hand made things.

Code's leveling effects also help to obliterate class, by transforming each brain plugged into the network into an input that is instantly proletarianized and pressed to operate at the speed of the photons that carry the information. A new meritocracy in which we are judged by the processing power of our wetware, the standouts the ones who can make the most inventive and insightful new connections between disparate chunks of information in the network, and the ones who can do it while retaining a sense of signature style when the bits are recomposed into human-readable form. The new Winkelvoss übermenschen are the most adept inhabitants of the Matrix—the ones who are so at home there, that the machine master lets them run off leash.

The most revolutionary and insidious quality of Facebook, considered in this context, is how it transforms self-expression into the obliteration of self. The application interface is all about breaking down privacy to let us know what each other are thinking, what we are doing, what our backstories are (see, e.g., the proclivity of people to post faded childhood photos, everyone and ennui-drunk Deckard trolling their artificial sepia memories in some anonymous flat). The Zuckerberg project is the elimination of adolescent alienation —the solitary male introvert reengineering the world to enable him to connect with those around him through his preferred binary medium. The result, a realm which reveals, replicates, propagates, our basic sameness, drumming out unique traits of bona fide individuality with the persistent reduction of our qualities and preferences into overlapping sets. Yes, I Partied at the Deadwood in the 80s. Zadie Smith on the way Zuckerberg approached the ethical question once his social network exploded:

Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other (as Malcolm Gladwell has recently argued), and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem to never have occurred to him.

He is, to say the least, dispassionate about the philosophical questions concerning privacy—and sociality itself—raised by his ingenious program. Watching him interviewed I found myself waiting for the verbal wit, the controlled and articulate sarcasm of that famous Zuckerberg kid—then remembered that was only Sorkin. The real Zuckerberg is much more like his website, on each page of which, once upon a time (2004), he emblazoned the legend: A Mark Zuckerberg Production. Controlled but dull, bright and clean but uniformly plain, nonideological, affectless.

In Zuckerberg’s New Yorker profile it is revealed that his own Facebook page lists, among his interests, Minimalism, revolutions, and “eliminating desire.” We also learn of his affection for the culture and writings of ancient Greece. Perhaps this is the disjunct between real Zuckerberg and fake Zuckerberg: the movie places him in the Roman world of betrayal and excess, but the real Zuckerberg may belong in the Greek, perhaps with the Stoics (“eliminating desire”?). There’s a clue in the two Zuckerbergs’ relative physiognomies: real Zuckerberg (especially in profile) is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus (only facially, mind—his torso is definitely not seven times his head). Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in. Zuckerberg, with his steady relationship and his rented house and his refusal to get angry on television even when people are being very rude to him (he sweats instead), has something of the teenage Stoic about him. And of course if you’ve eliminated desire you’ve got nothing to hide, right?

It’s that kind of kid we’re dealing with, the kind who would never screw a groupie in a bar toilet—as happens in the movie—or leave his doctor girlfriend for a Victoria’s Secret model. It’s this type of kid who would think that giving people less privacy was a good idea. What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that. Or else got bored of waiting for us to change in the ways it’s betting we will. On the question of privacy, Zuckerberg informed the world: “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

The morning after watching The Social Network, I read that Google had just increased its investment in 23andMe, a personal genomics and bioinformatics company devoted to helping consumers understand their own genetic information. Turns out Sergey Brin is married to founder Anne Wojcicki. If Facebook is an exemplar of how networked computing drives the evolution of the self, what will happen when the information transcends my favorite bands and my hometown to reveal my deeper genetic encoding? What will that do to the idea of difference, and the idea of the language and aesthetics-expressed self? And if biological systems are just another form of network (see Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse's recent remarks about DNA-based wetware as logical computational machines), what happens when they really get integrated with silicon-based IT? It will be something more than the Google Books of the human genome: imagine all of biological nature reduced to its informatic bits, manipulable with human toolsets. And then wonder what Capital will do with *that*.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Secret Origins

In today's Daily Ink at King Features Syndicate, Bill Griffith and friends of Zippy the Pinhead have some pretty awesome Obama origin myths.

Superhero creation stories were always my favorite comics as a kid, maybe because they filled in backstory in a way that gave the character new meaning. Maybe because they were "Secret Origins." Backstories for those with aspirations of Illumination.

Presidential narratives always have an origin story. JFK and PT-109, Clinton as policy wonk Elvis, Bush as post-temperance frat boy turned postmodern geopolitical Solomon Kane. They even apply to unsuccessful candidates, like the Vietnam stories of John McCain (who alternated between Chuck Norris MIA Christ and Manchurian Candidate) and John Kerry (born on the fourth of july, only he can walk and speak French like a Harvard boy).

But it's rare that the presidential creation myths take on such strangely dark tones as those regarding Obama, clearly revealing the extent to which race enables a different level of alienation into a malevolent Other. Just look at this monster of a Wikipedia entry on the Obama birth certificate controversy. The subtext, that Obama is a sleeper agent of malevolent foreigners who want to destroy our way of life. Or worse, the mythical silver-tongued antichrist of contemporary evangelical Revelations parables. A charismatic (well, okay, used to be) cross between Anna Chapman, Damien from The Omen, Marjoe Gortner and the Manchurian Candidate. A quintessential Middle American fear: He uses language! To persuade us to do things! Mind control!!

(Personally, I was more disturbed, and fascinated, by the revelation that Obama, Cheney, and the Bushes are all related.)

The Dingburgian take from Bill Griffith brilliantly shows how, in a society saturated with so many fictional narratives embedded in the collective cathode ray subconscious, other speculative plays on the Obama secret origins hack both the ridiculousness of the conspiracy theories and the earnest OBEY seriousness of the official Presidential Narrative.

During the election, I wondered whether Obama was the Kwisatz Haderach, only to later find a more compelling take in Salon: Obama is Spock. Which, I guess, is a simpler variation on Griffith's panel above.

All of which is a long-winded way of wondering whether science fiction, comics creators, and other manipulators of the pulp master narrative (the infinitely connected meta-narrative constructed from all the overlapping storylines and never-ending backstories -- Wold Newton on steroids) couldn't do the society a great service by proactively infiltrating the culture with alternative Obama secret origins. This kind of urban legend psyop has a long history in the deniable rumor-mongering that professional campaign managers do: consider, e.g., Lee Atwater's 1996 Iowa caucus rumors that Bob Dole's war wounds were self-inflicted, or the Kerry campaign's 2004 rumors that Howard Dean was a heavily medicated psychotic who got bounced from the practice of medicine. They expose the extent to which political reality already is constructed from pre-existing cultural narratives. So not reinvent them to make them, you know, less boring, more Reptilian?

In otherwords, I want a Jess Nevins-worthy deep pulp Obama backstory, slipped into the culture as anarchist prank. And if it can end up virally replicated on the straight television news, all the better.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How to make an ice planet

Vanity Fair, of all places, has a pretty cool slideshow of photos from a new book about the Making of the Empire Strikes Back. What's not to love about dudes in sheepskin making fantastica from repurposed plastic model parts?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Transylvania, the geographic equivalent of slow glass

(Slow Glass definition here).

Funny old place, Transylvania. Time seems to move a lot more slowly there than it does here.

Sure, the obvious candidates are things like the Romanians who dug up a corpse and ate its heart because they thought it was a vampire’s body, or the Romanian priest who killed a nun during an exorcism. While I’m sure I could find equal barbarities in rural Texas, I doubt any of them have been practiced for centuries the way the Romanian examples did.

More broadly, it seems that Transylvania has a way of keeping creatures around for a lot longer than anywhere else.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the exact citation (perhaps Tudge’s Time Before History?), but I recall reading about the discovery of a cave bear skeleton in the Romanian mountains. It was estimated that the cave bear died there around 2000 years ago. Considering that most cave bears died out ~26,000 years ago, that’s an unusually long survival.

If we go farther back, though, things begin to get really interesting.

Around 100 million years ago, the continents were differently shaped. Where southern Europe is now was the Tethys Sea. And where part or all of Transylvania is now was an island. Well, many islands, but there was one in particular, centered around modern-day Hateg (45° 36' 27" N, 22° 57' 0" E), which is of special interest to us.

The island was part of an archipelago of islands, with at least 200 km (124 miles) of shallow sea separating the islands from each other. The size of this island isn’t known for sure—anywhere from 7500 square kilometers (4600 sq. miles, roughly 68 miles by 68 miles) to 100,000 square kilometers (62137 square miles, or around 250 miles by 250 miles)—and is, like so much else in palaeogeography, a matter of controversy.

100 million years ago was right in the middle of the Cretaceous period, so, yes, the island had dinosaurs. And in fact a substantial fossil record has been found in and around Hateg. It’s the fossil record that is of interest.

(Well, that, and the fact that the first discoverers of the fossils were Ilona Nopcsa and then her brother Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933). Franz was one of the great pulp-era characters, because there weren’t a lot of other velvet-cape-wearing, flamboyantly gay paleontologists/spies/guerrillas and would-be Kings of Albania who could compete with him. I’ll be doing a post just on Franz sooner or later).

Hateg Island was essentially untouched for roughly 35 million years, which means that the creatures who lived there evolved in isolation. As is often the case with creatures on small-ish islands, the trend was toward dwarfism–with the limited resources that an island has to offer, it makes sense to be small rather than large.

Hateg Island had dwarf dinosaurs, most roughly 10% the size of their mainland kin: a 15 ft long hadrosaur, a 6 ft long “dwarf iguana,” an 8 ft long ankylosaur, a 9 ft long megalosaurus, an 8 ft long dino-alligator, 4 ft long dino-turtles, pterosaurs, and 6 ft long Velociraptor-like carnivores, the latter being the island’s apex predator.

What is of most interest here is not just the dwarfism, but the fact that many of these creatures were not just unique to Hateg Island, but they existed there for tens of millions of years after their mainland counterparts had gone extinct. Yes, Hateg Island was the real-life Dinosaur Island.

Dinosaurs lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else. Cave bears lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else. Belief in vampires lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else.

Neanderthals lasting in Romania longer than anywhere else? Vampirism as a pseudo-genetic memory of carnivorous Neanderthals? The skull found in Romania supports the Neanderthal-human interbreeding theory. Perhaps the children that resulted from the interbreeding were seen by ordinary humans as Wrong, and that’s what we now remember as vampires?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Untapped Potential of Hindploitation.

a.k.a., "Jai Hind! Jai-yah!"

It's a scenario familiar from many a blaxploitation and 1970s martial arts film: the African-American dojo in New York or Los Angeles, turning out black martial artists who fight for their neighborhoods against brutal and corrupt white cops and an uncaring white society. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s or have seen a lot of the films of that era know the premise well. In its way, it's almost iconic.

And the thing to do with icons, once they've grown over-familiar, is to re-invigorate them by placing them in a new context, or change the trappings while keeping the essentials.

You may or may not know this, but the victory of Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was seen by many colonial subjects as a signal blow against the white colonial countries. It was the first decisive defeat of a European country by an Asian power and helped bring about the "moment of departure" in the thinking of colonial nationalists, as well as reversed the Orientalist stereotypes in the minds of those same men and women.

In India, the Japanese victories were widely discussed, with Nehru crediting them for filling his mind with nationalist ideas, Gandhi urging South African Indians to "emulate...the example of Japan," and Tagore crediting Japan with having "infused hope" in the East. But many Indians saw the triumph of Japan as a further indication of how low India had fallen. The Daily Hitavadi of Calcutta wrote, "Is a chained dog to imitate a lion at large? The difference between Japan and India is the difference between heaven and earth."

Some Indians decided that what India needed was to imitate Japanese ways. In 1906, in Calcutta, Sarala Devi Ghoshal opened a martial arts academy in Calcutta for the purpose of teaching Bengali youth "how to use the staff, the fist, the sword, and the gun." Her focus was on jujitsu and fencing. She taught jujitsu, and for fencing she imported Professor Murtaza, a Turkish fencing master.

Ms. Ghoshal, as it happens, was a Person Of Interest to British Intelligence in India at this time. The granddaughter of religious leader Debendranath Tagore, Ghoshal was a disciple of Shiv Narayan Swami, a fugitive from the 1857 Rebellion and an instructor of a lathi-based fighting form. One of Ghoshal's fellow disciples was M.N. Roy, a revolutionary nationalist and "political dacoit" (gods, I love that phrase) who during WW1 tried to link up with the Germans and was a Communist agent in the 1920s until he broke with Moscow in 1929 and denounced Communism in 1930. Ghoshal herself founded a school for physical culture in Calcutta in 1902--you'll recall my speech on physical culture at this time and its association with superhumans--and her martial arts academy spawned a number of imitators in Calcutta and its suburbs.

You all see the potential here, right? Think what a splendid film it would make! (Or rpg or novel, etc).

Of course, Indian cinema has never been particularly good at making martial arts films. Even things like Sultan the Warrior (see Matthew Bey's piece here) are not up to the level of American or Thai actioners, to say nothing of Chinese or Japanese films. So perhaps an Indian take on Ms. Ghoshal's martial arts academy would not be for the best.

But there is one Indian subject that an Indian or Pakistani needs to film and would do an excellent job at: Ghulam Muhammad, a.k.a. The Great Gama, a.k.a. the greatest wrestler there ever was.

Gama's Wikipedia page adequately covers the basics: Punjabi, c. 1882-1953, took on all comers internationally, never lost. He was a Pehlwani wrestler, which partially explains his ability--their training regimen in Gama's lifetime was on par with Muay Thai practitioners' in its brutality. (A little more on Gama's punishing daily workout routine here.)

But the Wiki page doesn't really cover is how terrifyingly strong Gama was, how seemingly insensible to pain, and especially how excruciating his submission holds were. Contemporary accounts make him sound like a cross between Gilgamesh and a tidal wave: something to be avoided or submitted to, but certainly not resisted. Numerous big-name wrestlers--and, remember, this was a time when wrestling was a legitimate sport, not Wrasslin', a.k.a. soap opera for men--simply refused to fight him for fear of being humiliated. This was especially so of British & European wrestlers. (Interestingly, while there was some racism in their responses to Gama, for the most part their fear of him didn't spring from

Sure, an American (ugh) might be able to make an entertaining Gama film, but it'd be the usual exploitive and semi-racist garbage Hollywood usually turns out when it addresses a non-white culture in the past. For something like this, I'd rather see an Indian or Pakistani make the film. You'd get historical accuracy and a sensitivity to the subject matter. A serious treatment would be best--I'm thinking Lagaan, but with wrestling--but something that used Ms. Ghoshal's martial arts academy and had Gama, Ghoshal, and her students fighting the soldiers of the Raj in something like Once Upon A Time in China IV would be as entertaining and even more fun.