Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Scott McCloud makes the point in his book Understanding Comics that characters drawn without detail are more likely to be identified with by the reader. If a comic book writer wants a character to feel like “the other,” he or she draws the character in greater detail — with more facial features, more specific opinions and personality traits, etc. The logic is that when a character is only vaguely defined, the reader will fill in the blanks with whatever detail they wish — the reader can sort of pretend the star character stands for himself or herself. A reader can’t do this if there are no blanks to fill.

This seems accurate. While I might identify with a very detailed character or person, it’s because I feel the traits shown match me in some way. My friends and people in the same social situation as me might also identify with such a character, which might make it appear as if that character is widely popular, but the chances that the character would resonate with a large percentage of the general population would be, I think, low.

Think of Ralph Nader as an example of something that seemed incredibly popular in my universe: Most of my friends were planning on voting for him in 2000 — we identified with him as a fiesty progressive intellectual, a sort of aescetic monk who would truly have the best interests of the common people in his mind at all times. But then Nader gets about 3% of the national vote and about the same percentage of the Texas vote — I don’t remember exactly, but it was of that degree. Not much. He didn’t resonate with most people. The traits he presented were not traits that most people identified with and, thus, trusted.

To take a left turn, now: It’s the Trent Lott debacle that makes me think of this. To be a major politician, you have to have a major of people identify with you well enough to vote for you over the other guy. I think “identify” is a more accurate word than “agree” — I honestly don’t think that most Americans, myself included, know enough about the details of government to assess whether a politician is doing a good job. I believe we vote for candidates because we trust them, a trust built upon our Spidey-sense about the candidate mixed with a small amount of news we might absorb about their good or bad deeds.

And so detail is the enemy of the politician. (Yes, huge oversimplification, but I’m trying to make a point.) If you’re running for Senate, you want to appear trustworthy but somewhat undefined. Think of all of the campaign ads you saw a couple of months ago. How many brought up detailed policy discussions and how many tried to persuade you with sunny images of candidates shaking the hands of hard working Americans (or, alternately, shadowy, grainy videos with voice-overs saying, “What [Candidate X] doesn’t want you to know…”). Detail hinders identification, and since you choose who to vote for based mostly on identification, politicians are hesitant to give you much detail.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule such as the late Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura.

So Trent Lott accidentally lets slip a bit of detail about Strom Thurmond. And now his political life is in jeopardy. He’s certainly not the only guy in the national government who would think such a thing. But he let it out. And now the many Americans who were brought up to believe that segregation has been one of the greater evils in our nation’s past can no longer identify with Lott. So many, in fact, that his career may be trashed.

I think this tendency towards detaillessness exists in any industry built upon public opinion. Politics is one. Politics’ close neighbor Entertainment is another. Quirky politically-charged electroclash band may really make you and your friends pants come to life, but it’s the blurry, cute, seemingly mindless pop stars who will sell millions of albums. And Bowling for Columbine will never make as much money as Maid in Manhattan. There are exceptions, of course, but only exceptions.

So there you go. Some detail about my thoughts.


Fischer v. Spassky, 1972.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

“To placate Fischer the third game was played in another room and broadcast to the dismayed audience on closed-circuit television. He won handily. The players returned to the exhibition hall for the rest of the match, and Fischer soon grabbed the lead and held it, albeit still complaining about the presence of cameras (in the end very little of the match was filmed), the surface of the chess board (too shiny), the proximity of the audience (he insisted that the first seven rows of seats be removed), and the ambient noise. Distressed at their countryman’s poor showing, members of the Soviet delegation began to make their own unreasonable demands, hoping to unnerve Fischer. They accused him of using a concealed device to interfere with Spassky’s brain waves. The match was halted while police officers searched the playing hall. Fischer’s chair was taken apart, light fixtures were dismantled, the entire auditorium was swept for suspicious electronic signals. Nothing was found. (In a subsequent investigation a Soviet chemist waved a plastic bag around the stage and then sealed it for lab analysis. The label affixed to the bag read “Air from stage.”)” Bobby Fischer is a nut.

There are a bunch of other good chess-player rock-star bits in the story. To wit:

“To generate income, however, he resorted to selling himself to chess fans and curiosity seekers. The going rate for an hour’s phone conversation was $2,500. Bob Dylan is said to have received a call from Fischer as a gift from his manager. For $5,000 a personal meeting could be arranged. A student of the three-time U.S. chess champion Lev Alburt once paid $10,000 for several “chess consultations.” Alburt says his student considered the money well spent.”

“The old Bobby Fischer was back, and more bizarre than ever. This was made eminently clear when Fischer informed tournament officials that he wanted the toilet in his bathroom to rise higher in the air than anyone else’s.”

“But returning to America is no more real a possibility than the rook-shaped house he once dreamed of building. The federal arrest warrant issued in 1992 will not expire, and it is unlikely that Fischer will be shown much leniency—especially since he referred to George W. Bush during one of his radio interviews as “borderline retarded.”“

What a life…



Thursday, November 7, 2002

I forget exactly what I was doing. I think just driving home for dinner at my parents’ house last week. I had about a half-hour to spare so I stopped into the comix shop at 51st and Lamar. In that little strip center. Austin Books. It rained all that day and the wet and the crumbling plaster cast on my leg had me feeling out of sorts.

For me, taking a respite in a bookstore of some sort really helps calm my brain. They’re quiet, and new books deliver tidy packets of character and experiences when the real world keeps holding back…

So I hobbled into Austin Books and situated myself over along the wall to the right of the entrance, where all the non-superhero comix live. Not sure what to call them besides that. Superhero comix and non-superhero. I think of them as indy-rock comix just because the attitude behind them seems similar: they’re fun, colorful artistic shots out into space — just subversive enough to have an edge, but with an honest sort of… flavor. I don’t know. I do know that I have never gone into a comix shop looking for something in particular, yet I always come out with something I really enjoy. (The only exception so far being Road to Perdition, but I didn’t buy that, my dad did. And, granted, I only go into comix shops about twice a year.)

Anyway. The book I ended up grabbing — at the last second, really — was a compilation called SPX2002, published by the Comics Legal Defense Fund. It’s got a bright pink cover with orthographic letters on the from “s” “p” and “x” tilted in such a way that they look like “sex.” And a hand with a mouth on the palm. That’s on the cover, too.

I liked the design. Books are physical experiences for me as well as mental ones. Something nice and solid with pages that feel nice and a solid graphic design job really just does it for me. Ugly books I just don’t feel attracted to. During college I took this attitude that a book was more than just the words inside, that a book should be looked upon as a complete art object. And some authors really get into this idea — Dave Eggers being the one that sticks out in my mind most of all. You might have read A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. I read the first 100-or-so pages and I really didn’t get too into it and ended up not finishing. But the feel of the book is great, with the footnotes and graphic on the back. And I dig Egger’s McSweeney’s publications. The last one came in a lovely cardboard-and-cloth-bound book with an embossed bird on the cover — felt like books used to feel when I was a kid and books on my parent’s shelves were thick curious tomes. The one before that was a rough cardboard sheet wrapped around about a dozen seperate individually-printed novellas. Each with a different cover. All wrapped up with the world’s largest rubber band. And in that one the stories kicked ass: Courtney Eldridge, JT Leroy, Kevin Brockmeier… I love surrealism in literature and these stories definitely have surrealism. (The Eldridge story is especially cool.) So anyway. I like good-looking books. I’m very superficial that way.

Back to the matter at hand.

I bought this pink SPX2002 book. Not exactly realizing what it was. A collection of short comix — mostly less than ten pages long — yes. But a collection of biographical comix. That I didn’t realize until I started reading.

So I’ve read almost all of them, now. Some are mostly straightforward sorts of bios. Like the St. Clare of Assisi (patron saint of t.v.), Don Leslie (inventor of the Leslie speaker), and Terry Sawchuk (NHL goalie) ones. Some have presentations that reflect the person they’re about, such as the Lester Beall (graphic designer), Jorge Luis Borges (writer), Edward Gorey (cartoonist), and Kasimir Malevich (painter) ones. The Rasputin (clergyman) and Davey Crockett pieces play with form, the first drawn as a parody of goofy newspaper serial comics and the last entitled “Peep This Shit! It’s the Motherfuckin’ Story of Davey! Davey Crockett!” A few are just about quirky lives — such as Jocko Flocko (monkey racecar passenger), the Jaccuzzi brothers (guess), and the Invisible Scratch Piklz (DJs) — drawn in a quirky style.

The best ones of the lot are the ones where the novelty of the lives really shine through. The visual medium brings some of these stories alive in ways a written bio never could. Sounds cheezy to say that, I guess, but it’s true. More than a half-dozen of these really resonated with me. A couple just had really cool perspectives on issues that our culture traditionally define very narrowly. I don’t know if that makes sense. One is about Typhoid Mary, for example. The legend is of a woman carrying typhoid who managed to track the disease across parts of early America. Joyce Brabner (the authress of the piece) flips it around into a story of a woman lost and alienated and abused. It even manages to pull into the fold opinions about the destructiveness of modern-day corporatization and specialization. (By comparing it to the situation leading up to the Irish potato famine, the event that caused Mary to come to the US in the first place.) Another story is about just “Jane,” a prostitute — a friend of the narrator of the story — who keeps a happy, undamaged, good life dispite (or because of) her profession. And told in a very believable, non-cliched way. (The Hooker with a Heart of Gold is a stereotype of sorts, but this character is definitely not that stereotype.)

The story of Frederick Banting really drew me in, as well. Not so much for the new perspective as much as for the medical history lesson. Banting developed insulin (and won a Nobel for his efforts — the first Canadian to do so). So did the story of PT Barnum (you know). His story just told about a single incident in his childhood which, if true, seems to be the defining event for a man who would later be quoted as saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Then there’s the weird Bourbaki (mathematician) story — which I still haven’t decided whether to consider true or some sort of joke. The end note refers to a paper by Alan Sokol called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was, I believe, given to a respected magazine to publish (which it did) as a hoax — a statement about how postmodern theory had become about stringing twelve-letter words like “hermeneutics” together rather than saying anything in particular about anything. I want to know more about this. The book has made me want to know more about a bunch of people.

A few more stories that really struck me: Hedy Lamarr, a German actress who starred in a little porn, did a Cecil B. Demille film (Samson and Delilah) and then got a patent for a technology that would later become one of the bases for satellite technology. Whoa. And the story of “Mezz” Mezzrow (jazz trumpeter) is a touching tale about the destruction caused by trying to kick a drug habit. And no one should live without knowing the names Haruo Nakajima (the guy who played Godzilla in all of those films), Jack Nance (the guy who played Eraserhead), and Howard Scott Warshaw (that man who made the game that killed Atari). Good stuff.

So good stuff good stuff. A few of the stories miss, but for such a compilation this has a very high hit-rate.




Friday, October 25, 2002

So I’m feeling out-of-whack from sitting around inside all day. Hell, from sitting around almost non-stop for the past eleven days. So I decide to go take a walk to the Monarch convenience store, just a half-block from the house. (Part of “Waking Life” takes place in the Monarch, for trivia’s sake.)

I take my crutch and slowly hobble my little way up there — the rainwater on the ground has been loosening the plaster on the cast, allowing a bit of flexibility. I get a cut of soda, and hobble back.

The water has also been a problem, causing my bandages to sort of unwrap and flop all over like loose shoelaces, so I do this little thing, rubbing my bad foot along the ground trying to roll the bandages back up the foot and out of the way. And.


I feel this little “pop” in my foot and — holy crap — my foot feels my better. Like, whatever misalignment of joint or tendon has been giving me so much hell righted itself, snapped back into place. I’ve got the cast off, now, and seem to be okay hobbling around the house with just a couple rolls of bandages to provide some support. And I can walk comfortably with the foot pointed straight ahead, which has been impossible since last Monday.

The body has systems to right itself, I guess. And I got to feel one in action. As the swelling has gone down and the circulation came back, I guess the slight motion from my walking finally messaged a critical piece back into place. Whereas yesterday I worried about whether some functionality could possibly be lost permanently, the sprain seemed so ugly, tonight I feel confident that this mess will be over in a couple weeks.

And I’m at the point where I can hide my injury during short walks. I still gotta have the crutch for longer walks, but I can get to the kitchen and back or get out, pump gas, and pay the cashier without anything seeming amiss. Though it sort of hurts.

Look, folks — I don’t have an exciting life. These little events are the highlights. Being on crutches turns you into a freak, and it’s interesting to see how both people you know and strangers act differently around you. People have been very kind, for starters — opening doors, helping me carry things, and just generally letting me falter on my normal duties. People have also gravitated towards the same joke about it:

“You need a better story, like you broke it fighting a bike gang.” (After my: “I just fell while leaving the Spider House.”)

I said it to myself at the hospital, though, so I’m no better than anyone else.

So anyway.


Musical History

Monday, October 21, 2002

I wrote the first couple of tracks that I thought sounded good using a MIDI synth and a Macintosh back the summer after my freshman year of high school and during my sophomore year. That was 1993 and 1994. And I’ve played at Digital Showcases tracks I made in 1996, during my very first semester of college. (I remember specifically because they were written for a girlfriend who heard one of them while still my girlfriend and then broke up with me before getting to hear the second one.) Anyway. I work slowly. But my work spans a good portion of my life.

I actually got my first MIDI-enabled keyboard as a sort of accidental gift from my grandparents one year, Christmas when I was in the seventh grade. It was a crappy keyboard which had MIDI capabilities for no good reason. Happened that the guy across teh street from us had a huge electronic music set-up in his basement, with a Mac SE-30 (hot shit at the time), a couple Ensoniq samplers, and various other things I didn’t know about. Kelly Hodges was his name. I remember him pushing a disk into the Ensoniq and making big helicopter sounds all over this place. Anyway, he gave me the info about buying a MIDI converter (and some software), and I had fortunately just saved up for and bought my own Macintosh Classic. So there I was. Completely accidental on all fronts, really.

So I doodled with that set-up for a couple years before saving up for a bigger keyboard which was still rather amateur (had built in speakers — that’s the clue), but had an internal sequencer, some simple effects (reverb and chorus), and 255 instrument presets (and some wacky knob-mixer thing) — and 64 drum sounds. That cost several hundred dollars — a chuck for an eight-grader. Not professional-grade by any stretch. Not even that great, really, but it had enough to get me through high school. That, some old headphones, and a cassette deck with a mic-input, and I was set to go.

I remember putting together a little comp of stuff I’d been working on — probably about an hours worth — for Zane May of my freshman year. I don’t exactly know why. Just for fun, I guess. I did that, and I guess I made a second copy which I happened to have on me the last day of school. I remember vividly getting a ride home from Lee Whorley with Sean Owen in the car and — I think — Jennifer. Maybe Falana White or Hollie Hernandez. Anyway, somehow my dorky little cassette ended up in the stereo.

So Sean must have liked what he heard, because it turned out that he had his own little synth and that summer we got together once at my house and then at his house a bunch of times to hook it all up and see what happened. I remember having a messy room and having my mom set up a tray table for Sean and his keyboard. She probably loved it. Sean seemed uncomfortable.

And then into our sophomore year we continued our little sessions, sometimes every weekend, sometimes holding off for a month-or-so, just doing other things. These sessions actually lasted through high school and into the summers between our college terms, when Sean came back into town. Our sophomore and junior years of high school, though, I remember doing a lot of stuff. Making cassettes for people, including Zane and Brooke and Gunn and Daniel Spradley, doing some thing during a “Choice Learning” period (ask me later) called “Biostock” in the biology classroom. That involved us bringing our synths in to the school, rugging them up, and playing our little tracks. Sean had a small Alesis drum machine at the time and I had the drum sounds on my synth — I remember specifically Jordan Friedman repeating “kick it old school” over and over and us beating out little patterns. I think Chris Graf and Jody Henning, maybe Mellisa Barak, were the only ones who listened to us. These were years of frequent — sometimes daily — trips down to Waterloo Records to poke through the CD bins that I knew more-or-less by heart. Our finds of the time included the Aphex Twin, Autechre, the Orb, the Artificial Intelligence series, and the more main-stream Erasure, Depeche Mode, Front 242, and Nine Inch Nails stuff. (Owning the entire catalogue of Nails CDs was somewhat of a badge of honor for us. I remember Sean, myself, and Chris all owned the complete set, and going to see the band live ended up being a huge production, involving about a dozen kids. Got to see Marilyn Manson live, too, before they were a big name thing.) Anyway.

Sean got funding from his grandparents, I believe, to break into the serious music market with a Roland JV-1080 synth. I remember very well heading down to Strait’s and asking about good quality synths in the low-end range and being totally blown away by the recently released JV-1080. It was an all-in-one synth bank, effects processor, and drum machine that used the MIDI we knew and loved and sounded phenomenal compared to what we had. Sean got one, like, Christmas of that year. And I wanted one so god damned bad but it was just too expensive for my family at about $1400. Finally that summer, just months later but months during high school seem like years, I managed to wrangle one up. I still own it. And it still generates about 90% of the sound for my live performances. It has been an amazing unit. (The other 10% comes from my Korg Electribe and a bit of audio out of my laptop. The core layout of my set-up has not changed, though, since high school, though the individual pieces have become higher-quality.)

So, I had this thing during the summer. I should step back. We recorded our first CD in March of 1996, our senior year of high school. At that time we were writing stuff solely for Sean’s JV-1080. Our CD included five tracks originally by me, five by Sean, but we each had big input in each other’s work. My tracks were mostly things I had come up with on my older synth and remixed using the JV-1080. CD burners were not common back then and Gunn hooked us up with some strange Chinese dude who had a cluttered apartment and lived a bizarre life with his computer and pictures of oriental girls. He made us five copies and we paid him, like, $50 and, thus, “deus ex machina” was born. Named for what we were calling ourselves at the time. Around that summer we started abbreviating it to just “dxm” or “DXM” or “DxM,” depending on our mood. (A quick web search revealed too many bands called “Deus Ex Machina” — mostly metal bands. Thus, “DXM.”)

So, Sean took off for Harvard. Harvard didn’t want much to do with me, so I stayed and entered Plan II. (Just a couple of days ago someone told me that their daughter had been accepted to NYU, Yale, and Georgetown but *not* Plan II, that’s how selective it was. Whoo!) So. I fell in with a girlfriend right away and immediately started cranking our tons of tracks for her. Women: Do not forget your amazing power over boys. That first semester of school I put together hours and hours of music, sitting in my room and playing it for her. That’s the most productive I’ve been musically since the AMODA phase, starting last summer. The summer after my freshman year, Sean came back and we put together “Tapestry,” our best work so far. We were fueled on Pink Floyd, the Orb, and psychedelics and just crazy warped-out kids having a great connecting moment.

It fell off after that. I mostly just tinkered around with no real direction or goals, being more into the dorm or co-op or literature or whatever and not so entrenched in music. I think I got frustrated with it, thought it sucked, felt other things were more rewarding. Whatever.

So, I guess AMODA entered the picture last summer for me, giving me an excuse to focus back in. The thing is, no one in the co-op or dorm really cared much for it. Didn’t get much positive feedback. People found my hobby interesting in the dorm just because they found every idiosyncracy interesting — that’s part of being a freshman/sophomore in college. The co-op is more of an indy-rock, thrift-store scene. So, no real impetus to continue. So. AMODA came around, and suddenly people did seem to care and I felt reconnected to the broader musical world. And, thus, lots of energy went back into it. And here we are today.

And that’s the story.



Sunday, October 20, 2002

This past week I’ve a vivid dream nearly every night. At least one. Sometimes two or three. Since I don’t normally dream, I assume that my medication (see previous post) is “helping out” some… Some dreams worth repeating:

- I’m living back with the co-op people, but instead of living at the House of Commons, we’re in some bombed out hotel-type building, living in the still-complete rooms around a cratered center area. The building is in a depression, like a construction area, on the corner of a city block. Maybe the building is a construction area, rather than being bombed out. I don’t know. But it’s incomplete.

I’ve had other co-op and dorm dreams, and they usually involve the people I knew, but in different locations. Another co-op dream from a while back took place in a playground-playscape-sort-of structure, with ladders and platforms and few solid walls. (That’s probably a good metaphor for the co-op, anyway. I’ll try to hold myself back from breaking into Modest Mouse.) One dorm dream took place in a city on a very steep hill and we all had windows looking over the buildings going down the hill. Hm.

- I’m back in high school, and it’s the end of the semester (or six weeks, or whatever) and I’m trying to figure out what assignments I still need to complete and turn in before the deadline, but it’s all overwhelming and confusing and I have no idea what anything is. The memorable images I have from the dream are sitting on my bed with papers strewn around me trying to make sense of everything, and coming to class, not recognizing anyone or anything, and just being generally disoriented. This dream probably just comes from old, deeply buried high school memories of waiting until the last minute and completing all of my German homework for the six-weeks in, like, two days before the grades were due. Had a cool teacher that let crap like that slide.

I guess those are the only two that bear repeating. The others were mostly pornographic.


My Own Rear Window

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Here’s the story:

Leaving Spider House yesterday afternoon I stumbled and fell down on those front steps, the ones leading down the to street. I bit it. A guy following me down was kind enough to ask me if I was okay and to help me up. I could tell I hurt my ankle, but it didn’t seem like anything too major. Until I looked at it. I had this huge, lumpy, protruding bulge that scared the hell out of me. I’ve sprained my ankle many times, but never with such horrible visual results.

So. The kind man grabbed me a bag of ice. I asked him if he worked at the place (since he seemed to know everyone). No, he said, helping people out is just “what I do, buddy.” Cool. So, I got my parents to pick me up (I couldn’t walk back to the truck — I couldn’t even walk inside to get my own ice) and take me to the emergency room at Seton. I got looked at by a doctor and x-rayed. Nothing was obviously broken, but I’d clearly torn some stuff up. (The x-rayer even asked me about my other major left-foot injury, which left me in crutches two springs ago — those bones are apparently still out of whack.) So I got checked out again (which hurt like hell) and then some orderlies hooked me up with a plaster cast to use until I could see an orthopedic doctor to get the full story. While getting the cast ready, my dad and I noticed a nurse pointing me out to a group of nurses, my ankle looked so terrible. Very bad sign, we decided, when something looked so bad it impressed the people working at the hospital every day… Anyway, they sent me home with a vicodin prescription.

So. Now I’m here, after an uncomfortable night’s sleep. I’m still trying to plan out an approach to taking a shower, since I can’t put any weight on one foot and I’m not supposed to get the cast wet. No good ideas have come to me. I can’t drive, since I wouldn’t be able to push the clutch with my gimpy leg. So, I thankfully work sitting down. With my cellphone and computer I have a command center from which to run my life. But no telescope or binoculars.

And so far the neighbors don’t seem to be doing anything suspicious.



Monday, October 14, 2002

“Speex Joins Xiph To Bring Free VOIP To The Masses”

Thank f*cking god.

Actually, Xiph developed the Ogg Vorbis codec — the MP3-killer. So this is kind of audio-relevant. Regardless of the content, though, headlines with multiple space-age words like “Speex” and “Xiph” are awesome. Try making up your own headlines of the future. Like:

Xanthotronics merges with Zaphic-Vorbot to Introduce New Flying Borgulator


Compulectrix Expects High Returns on This Year’s Veebmobot Simulator


New Chicago Particle Thrusters Whip Triton Nebulas 2-0 in Neutronball Galactic Series

I could really keep going, but I won’t.