Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Everything We Deserve

I have a perfect history as a Kickstarter backer - 100% of the projects I've backed have been funded.  Of course these projects have a less than perfect history of delivery, but that's a different essay.  Yet another separate essay could be devoted to my track record and what it means.  Am I not backing enough real underdogs?

But what's on my mind today is several recent projects I've backed which are relatively modest goals (given the scope of the intended projects) by relatively well known independent artists, that narrowly meet their goals within their last day or two.  The Suburbs.  Rudy Rucker. Cyan Worlds.  And most recently, Hal Hartley.

I'm not even that big of a Hal Hartley fan, frankly, but I recognize the value of his work and his place in the culture of something I want very much to continue: true independent film.  So I made a very modest pledge and watched the thing crawl to a narrowly successful conclusion.

But it baffles me, or rather it confirms darker suspicions about the way we are in this country (and to a lesser but I fear catching-up degree this world).  Which is to say we are a nation of plebs who think and act like plebs and have therefore for a solid four decades been getting delivered the everything we deserve - government, media, economy - without much of a glimmer of hope in sight.  Elections are more rigged than they were in the decade I was born, wealth inequality is greater, the media is more consolidated, the economy is more brutal and less regulated.  And of course the plutocrats and their higher-end lapdogs, the politicians and lobbyists and lawyers, are the engineers and villains of it.  But we plebs don't deserve to get off the hook.  Unwittingly, we were handed an incredible equalizing force - the information technology revolution of the last two decades - and we haven't done shit with it.  Online journalism is a bizarre morass of nightmarish, Pavlovian link-baiting experiments funded by literally the scum of the earth.  Personal media trends away from original content, away from content with scope, towards repetition, compression, degradation of signal.  Tweet.

This is the Ned Rifle Kickstarter by the numbers: If you look at what I would consider to be normal people supporting a filmmaker, which is to say pledges 100 dollars and under - you know, those putative "1,000 true fans" - you end up with (by my hasty calculations and certain assumptions but I think a fair ballpark) 1,427 supporters coming up with $55,532 or 14% of the financing for the film.

On the other end, people who pledged $5,000 or more - what I think by any reasonable perspective on the world today you would have to call wealthy people, for the most part - you end up with 25 individuals pledging a collective $201,500: 51% of the final take.

So hooray, it got financed, another triumph of crowdfunding, except that it looks a whole lot like it might be more strictly accurate to say that, from the perspective of the narrow majority, the project got funded by 25 of Hal Hartley's best wealthy friends.

And I'm glossing that other 35% of the funding in between, 330-some people, but why not.  They're the upper middle class I guess and fuck knows their relevance is in pure freefall: 1 of them will ascend into the upper reaches while the other 229 tumble into the shit with the rest of us.

What really gets to me is that pathetic number: 1,427.  Not 1,500 people willing to pony up a ten spot, a twenty, fifty bucks, a single Benjamin for one of the fucking architects of the independent film movement of the late 20th.  What combination of apathy, ignorance, non-belief in the significance of personal agency, just world assumption bullshit... et cetera... ad nauseam... combined to add up that sort of pathetic, infuriating turn-out.

Actually, I don't even care to speculate about it any more.  Just the contemplation of it has soured my stomach and left a vile taste in my mouth.  It was all said 25 years ago by a far better writer than me: 17 years later he would look back on everything that went between and declare it "17 more than I needed or wanted".  In actual fact, I'm done throwing my pearls before You Swine.

I declare the Age of Blogs to be over.  I'm shuttering all my extant examples of the art with the exception of Songs of Days, which I here rename the tower of reproach.  If you are currently blogging I would urge you to cease operations immediately as utterly irrelevant.  Time to focus 100% of my attentions on Getting Mine.

Fat Men on Horseback

Last week was a slow one for news, but for big-time politicians it was like being put out naked and alone in the jungle and being forced to watch a python swallow a pig. There was no joy in Mudville, but so what? Ronald Reagan slipped the noose, George Bush walked, and Jessica Hahn was pictured on the front page of the New York Post while on a "shopping spree" in downtown Manhattan, accompanied by "a bodyguard with a pistol tucked in his belt."

"That goes with the contract," said her lawyer. "We just sold her  story to a men's magazine for $2.5 million." The details were hazy, but the lawyer said Ms. Hahn was grappling with offers "in the multimillion-dollar range" from Playboy, Penthouse and Esquire for her own personal version of that famous afternoon in Florida when she was flogged and sexually brutalized by Jim Bakker and at least two other born-again TV preachers. "They had no right to tell all those stories about how I 'knew all the tricks of the trade,' " she said. "So I decided to tell the real truth about that day. It was horrible. My life was ruined forever."

Sex and violence has become an everyday thing for the 1980s generation that once embraced the Reagan Revolution. We live in savage times. Oliver North is a hero, Ed Meese is rich, and a monstrous film called "Blue Velvet" is nominated for three Academy Awards.

Two months ago, Gary Hart was running 16 points ahead of George Bush in "presidential preference" polls for 1988, and syndicated columnists were saying that U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North was so crooked that he should be stripped of his uniform before he could go on national TV and give testimony in the U.S. Congress. . . . But things have changed.

Hart was exposed by the Miami Herald for lying about his secret life as one of the dumbest townhouse Johns who ever lived and was forced to quit the presidential race and slink off to the hills like a child-raper. . . . And Oliver North went on TV last week with a sloe-eyed story of lies, dumbness and treachery in the very bowels of Reagan's White House that made him a national hero like Audie Murphy and Daniel Boone, or even Willie Sutton.

In the quick crazy window of 66 days and two moons, Hart and North reversed roles in a way that only Hollywood could take seriously — and Bush came out the big winner. Six weeks ago he was looking at the very real possibility of getting jerked out of the White House by federal marshals before he ever had a chance to hit the bricks in Iowa City and get his picture taken on Election Day with his arm around the shoulders of the legendary local sportsman and political wizard, Marcos Melendez, who can deliver more votes than the stork.

When the buck stopped with John Poindexter, it was not only Reagan who beat the rap. Bush, long known in Washington as the guiltiest man in American politics, did a trick that made every camel that ever crawled through the eye of a needle seem like an amateur. If there were any real justice in the world, George would be working with Spiro Agnew on the wrong end of some driving range in Baltimore, for $2 a bucket.

Also in the weekend news, CIA Director William Webster has dismissed two high-ranking agents for "the roles they played" in the Iran/Contra affair.

Webster was planning to retire after 10 scandal-free years as director of the FBI when the Iran/Contra story broke last November, but when he learned that his nominal boss Ed Meese had known about it all along and never bothered to tell him, he got so angry that he canceled his retirement plans and announced he was going to stay on a little longer, or at least for the duration of the scandal.

Big Bill Casey didn't mind. He was dead. And so Webster took over the CIA and postponed his retirement back home to St. Louis for "at least the indefinite future."

That is what T.S. Eliot said, and also William Burroughs. But that was a long time ago, and neither one of them ever went back to their roots, as it were, in St. Louis. It is a nice town to be from, but that bridge under the great golden arch on the west side of the Mississippi is a one-way street for the big boys. The only St. Louis native who ever went back home after getting famous was Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, and they say she didn't stay long.

People like to talk about the difference between the '60s and the '80s, and also about the difference between Watergate and this monstrous Iran/Contra mess. . . . Well, I'll tell you the difference: The criminals in Watergate knew they were guilty and so did everbody else; and when the dust cleared the crooked president was gone and so were all the others. They were criminals and they had the same contempt for the whole concept of democracy that these cheap punks have been strutting every day for the past two months of truly disgraceful testimony.

The whole Iran/Contra investigation was a farce and a scam that benefited nobody except Washington lawyers who charge $1,000 an hour for courtroom time. North's bill for legal fees will be a million dollars, which has already been covered by the private donations.

If this low-rent scandal is the best this generation can do, they deserve what they're getting and they are going to have to live with it. They deserve to be called A Generation of Swine.

- Hunter S. Thompson: A Generation of Swine

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Laurie and Lou

...Finally he asked if I wanted to go to the Audio Engineering Society Convention. I said I was going anyway and would meet him in Microphones. The AES Convention is the greatest and biggest place to geek out on new equipment, and we spent a happy afternoon looking at amps and cables and shop-talking electronics. I had no idea this was meant to be a date, but when we went for coffee after that, he said, "Would you like to see a movie?" Sure. "And then after that, dinner?" OK. "And then we can take a walk?" "Um . . ." From then on we were never really apart.
     -Laurie Anderson on Lou Reed, Rolling Stone November 6, 2013

I grew up in a town of about 6,000 people in the heart of Southwestern Minnesota's farming country, an environment that (I hope it won't cause widespread consternation or dismay to observe) could be somewhat inimical to the life of the mind.

No internet (of course, this was the 1980s), no cable television for us situated amongst the fields several miles outside the town proper, if we wanted to rent a movie we rented a VCR to watch it on. Sometimes when I think back to those times I sincerely wonder how I ever found out about anything. I'm old enough to be capable of a certain prematurely crotchety nostalgia about it: these days the answer to where you learned about everything is just, internet.  Back then everything unusual, outside the mainstream that I got into had a specific story.  Harlan Ellison?  One of my brother's college roommates gave me an old, incomplete little Steve Jackson Games plastic clamshell "Car Wars" game set wherein I read, in the acknowledgements of the many "fighting car" stories that inspired the game, of Ellison's "Along the Scenic Route", which I (perhaps) improbably found in a copy of Deathbird Stories at our local library.  (The local library was huge - not in a literal, physical sense but in the scale of the role it played in my life - a monumental presence in my intellectual development.  I still have dreams that take place in that library, so deep and fundamental a sense of place it occupies in my mind.)

Everything: a story like that - though I surely don't remember them all.

Lou Reed?  There are a couple threads here and I can't really remember which came first.  I know at some point my brother, five years my elder, came home with an LP reissue of The Velvet Underground and Nico.  I know I liked it, because I made a cassette copy that I brought to college and played a lot, but I'm not sure I really identified Mr. Lou Reed within that influence.

What I remember for sure was that when I was 13 or 14 I pulled a cassette issue of Street Hassle out of a bargain bin in a Mall on a family trip to Willmar, MN (pop. significantly less than 20,000 in the mid-80s), what passed for a big town where I grew up, in that they had a mall. It was the first album I ever bought for myself, which makes me sound significantly cooler than I was (or am for that matter): I was under the influence of his Honda Scooter commercial. That line, that eternal cool baseline of "Walk on the Wild Side" - I had no idea it was from Reed's biggest hit, arguably the most recognizable piece of music he ever created.

But I told myself I'd look for "Lou Reed" the next time I got into a "real" record store and ended up with... Street Hassle. I imagine I listened to it on some kind of knock-off walkman. I was an instant convert. I had no idea music could be like that: a fair window on my context at the time was that an aunt had given me an LP of Make it Big by Wham! for Christmas. Street Hassle was dirty, profane, frankly incorrect - the music was loose, driving, often verging on sloppy, absolutely nothing like the tight new wave pop mostly showing up on Friday Night Videos, the only other consistent access to new music I had besides the top 40.

The next thing I managed to get my hands on was the 1980 Compilation Rock and Roll Diary, a cheap cassette reissue that I played to death: Reed's presence in my mind expanded even bigger. A few years later I sang "Rock and Roll" on stage with a goofy college band and when I sang "her life was saved by rock and roll" I meant every word.

Another big influence in my pre-college teen life came when we got one of those big, clunky, multiplex aluminum television aerials on the house that are almost pure anachronisms these days.  This added a number of channels to our broadcast spectrum, notably an intermittent (depending on the weather and other less discernible voodoo) KTCA, channel 2, the Twin Cities' public television station.  We had a local PBS affiliate but its offerings were notably more conservative and less arty than channel 2.

It was this that introduced that strange beast of locally produced, full-art-mode video whose opening strains I can so easily call to mind without reference to YouTube: Alive from Off Center.

Unfortunately you can't easily see Laurie Anderson's landmark episode "What You Mean We?" (you can get a taste from an excerpt); while many of the archives of Alive have been put up on YouTube without much fanfare or controversy, this one has been blocked by Warner Music Group for, of course, copyright infringement - if you're keeping track, incidentally, this pointless obstruction (there is no universe in which people having access to that show would prevent music sales) marks the difference between a true patron of art like (now) TPT and dickless corporate fuckers like WMG.

But that's where I first saw Ms. Laurie Anderson on video, anyway - in a parallel to my history with Lou Reed, my brother also shares a connection: another LP he brought into my sphere of attention was Mr. Heartbreak.  Which I likewise illegally dubbed to cassette and took to college.

Artistically there is a kinship and connection in these I can see now: art, Avant-garde and of course New York; at the time the two certainly seemed to exist on disparate poles: but I loved them both.  And they had this in common, that is so important in my history, my sense of self: both exposed me to a world, a larger and beautiful world, a world full of windows into things so strange, so unknown and unprecedented.  That among many others awoke in me a wanting, to see more, to dive deeper into these realms, and this has never left me to this day.

And so while it never occurred to me that these two might some day make a love match, when I heard of it, it didn't really come as any surprise.  I never met either of course and I'm leery of forming personal feelings about people I've only known through media... but I harbor a long-standing fondness for both and I feel very grateful that Lou Reed was in the arms of someone he loved, who loved him, when he flew into the sun.

I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou's as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn't afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life – so beautiful, painful and dazzling – does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.

It's time for my annual appeal to help The Little Kitchen Food Shelf in Northeast Minneapolis.

The most important thing to know is that 100% of your donation in this appeal (after transaction fees are deducted by the payment service provider) will be spent on food for people in need.  My home church and our other partners cover all operational costs for the food shelf.

We are serving over 1,000 individuals per month.  We are listed with United Way 211 as an resource for emergency food and operate as a no-boundaries, no-restrictions food shelf, meaning for individuals in a sudden resource crisis we often serve as an emergency food source of last resort.

Our annual year-end online fundraising drive, focused on and kicking off with GiveMN's Give to the Max! Day promotion on Thursday, November 14, represents a significant and essential component of our annual budget.  We count on our performance in this fund drive to keep the doors open.

One thing I'm particularly proud of is our many partnerships with other local organizations and our commitment to providing fresh produce, promoting true healthy eating, and addressing complex and interrelated problems of food insecurity, malnutrition, food waste and economic access to fresh quality food.  Partners like the Eastside Food Co-Op, A Backyard Farm, and the Garden Gleaning Project share our commitment to education, harnessing underused food resources especially to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, and pursuing big-picture solutions to hunger that recognize that everyone needs reliable access to fresh, wholesome food year-round.  We have so many other community partners - local churches, businesses, and non-profits committed to the mission of ending hunger in Northeast Minneapolis and the world.

Make your donation here, between now and November 14, with the "Make my donation count for Give to the Max Day 2013" box checked - this helps make us eligible for additional cash awards from GiveMN.

This appeal runs through the end of the year, so if you get to this late please don't hesitate to make a donation through this link anyway.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A way with the future

With Frederik Pohl, now I think the last of the true titans of the Golden Age Old Guard have gone past us.  It was a real pleasure to have discovered his blog a few years back (which noble endeavor having been, I've oft times lamented, pretty much given up by all but the professional linkbaiters).

Although he noted various bumps delivered by his imperfect health from time to time, he never dwelt on his mortality in the blog, though, clear-eyed old skeptic that he was, he certainly couldn't have been harboring any illusions about it.  It seemed he continued to get around and keep a hand in the fan game up to the last, and shared from his deep-as-it-gets reservoir of tales and character sketches from across seven-going-on-eight decades of science fiction history for as long a time as he had.

When I read the news I immediately thought of this little aside in the blog when he kindly explained to a friend that as much as he appreciated the motivations of the offer, he wasn't interested in receiving free cryogenic preservation after his death.  It is a special brand of pragmatic dedication to the here-and-now to accept the possibility of immortality - be it technological or spiritual - and dismiss its significance based on its basic irrelevance to this earthly existence.  Whatever comes next, or doesn't (as the case may be), you made it good while it lasted!  Farewell, Fred Pohl.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Forever Minus a Day

One of the innovations of my ill-fated (to jump the gun a bit on the postmortem) media empire crowd-funding experiment was to offer, in what is known in the parlance as a "stretch goal", to render some or all of the production of the songs of days into the public domain, utilizing the Creative Commons tool that exists (I was surprised to discover, having never heard of it before) for this purpose.

And you know, I know, I know, it's perhaps questionable largesse to offer to set free what nobody is really buying.  Even so, if you'll forgive my hubris I think you all missed the boat on that one.

So now instead I have rolled my own Royalty-Free License deal which is also a steal because, like, the information wants to be free, man.  But not too free. Give me five dollars dammit.

Seriously though, both topics have put me in mind of something I've been thinking about for a while,  namely how well these license strategies are going to hold up to the test of time.  My speculations on the subject began with open source software licenses, and certainly there's already been a certain amount of wrangling in that vicinity and I guess the principle of the license held up...

Here's the scenario I wonder about, and it applies just as much to things like Creative Commons licenses or for that matter the probably somewhat legally inept license terms I cooked up for my lyric offerings.  Someone offers their work on a creative commons license.  They die and the copyright that gives that license its legal authority passes to their estate without any guiding instructions.  Their estate says hey I never signed off on these deals,  the person who did doesn't have the authority to define the terms of my ownership of these copyrights, it's all void - and starts suing everyone who is making their putative property available under the Creative Commons.

Really I don't know anything about the law so maybe wiser minds could call this out as legal nonsense, though like as if that's ever stopped anyone from suing before.

I believe in the principle of the commons but when I start to go deep into it even I get confused... What about when the original copyright term expires? If nobody renews it what then? There doesn't seem to be much clear guidance on what an orphaned copyright really signifies.  The assertion that a license like Creative Commons should apply to a work until it enters the public domain gives me pause.  People (generally seen as the "bad guys" in the ongoing copyright) representing generally Big Media have advocated perpetual copyright - no public domain, essentially. Sometimes invoking the legal absurdism of copyright lasting "forever minus a day", an attempt to end-run around the clear Constitutional mandate for limited copyright by defining its term as something with a theoretical endpoint which in practical application never comes (of course many people feel that for all practical purposes this situation is already in effect as Big Media shifts the goal posts with a massively lobbied push to have Congress extend copyright terms every time Mickey Mouse's entry into the public domain looms).

To me though asserting that an external licensing scheme the original creator of a work imposes carries legal authority for as long as a a work is covered by copyright (regardless of who owns it) bears some uncomfortable resemblance to that "forever minus a day" mentality.  Obviously it is in service of a better cause but that justification is always dangerous.

There is a better way of course which is to give copyright the reworking it desperately needs for the information age.  I would advocate this include tightening up copyright terms to bring them back in line with the Constitution's original guidance.  I think a formal process for entering a work into the public domain and for that matter codifying the principles of Creative Commons licensing into law and dealing with these questions explicitly would be highly worthwhile and a boon to society (changes I'd naturally hope would extend into other countries and international law).

I won't be holding my breath.

For myself I'll state for the record that my intent would be for any extension of my individual rights I make on the things I create - whether private licenses I sell or if I use public tools like the Creative Commons - extend until these properties enter the public domain - and I hope whoever ends up owning them respects that intent.  If I end up having the time, the wherewithal and the means, I will establish a trust in my estate to administer those rights.  Or maybe modern society will collapse under the burden of global warming and the idiocy of late-model capitalism and hey, moot point.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Is it time to put video games on a pedestal?

I don’t know that I could be bothered at this point to argue with someone who asserted that video game design was not art.  Certainly it isn’t a closed question, not with ordinarily enlightened individuals like Roger Ebert having weighed in for the negative relatively recently.  I’ve chosen my camp, I guess, and the trajectory of the conversation seems too familiar (recalling similar over non-representational painting, photography, comic books, the movies) to bother getting into it with anyone over what seems a foregone conclusion.  Of course it’s art.  Not all of it good art, perhaps, not much of it even, but then what ever is?

Art history, art theory, art philosophy of video games, on the other hand, is still very thin on the ground.  Technical theory, certainly, the industrial arts and design practices of the art form have a firm if still nascent ground.  Analysis of games as art is barely born.  Video games are getting novelty exhibitions in museums now, the whole 50 year history afforded a room or two (or more likely a corner in one).

I don’t think it’s just about the usual “art form” resistance of the status quo, although that’s definitely there, as well as the “for kids” onus that still dogs comic books - with the “game” moniker probably as much of an albatross as “comics”.  And as unlikely to yield convincingly to whatever civilizing nomenclature is attempted (presumably “interactive” whatever).  Graphic novels, speculative fiction, we can say it with a straight face but there’s an involuntary eye-roll somewhere inside.  They are and will always be comic books, science fiction... video games.

On the same token, though, we’re used to these sorts of obstacles.  It seems to me that video games present some unique challenges to the development of a body of analysis of their form and function as art.  It’s about the core mechanic of consumption, I think, and how completely unique it is.  The core consumption mechanic of almost all the graphic arts is seeing, the core consumption mechanic of music is hearing.  The core consumption mechanic of games is playing, and there isn’t really any analog in art.  It isn’t just that it’s interactive, all art is interactive and some of it very much so (I’m thinking of some of the output of the short-lived Fluxus movement).

It is that play is a unique activity.  It is not seeing, hearing.  Its contexts, its media, have composition, formal attributes, but they are drastically different from those of visual or audio media.  In video games these attributes may be obscured by how thoroughly games rely on visual and sound elements, yet it’s trivial to imagine the outlines of a video game, for instance, with no sound or visual component, and it could indeed be an experience with powerful impact - however likely such a thing would be to appear anywhere outside, perhaps, a gallery someday.

Play has been studied, particularly in development and psychology, but I think the art form of creating contexts for play has been largely neglected, despite this art form being likely as old as anything that gets routinely studied as art - certainly it is on the same time frame as recorded history, at least.  I don’t know that the massive surge of video games into the forefront of popular art consumption is responsible for this deficit so much as it has highlighted it.  Photography and cinema genuinely didn’t really exist prior to the 19th century, but games have been with us forever.  I hope more intentional analysis of their history, theory and philosophy, as a unique branch of art, is on the horizon.

Monday, July 29, 2013


Update: Not too long after I wrote this, The Old Reader subsequently got some kind of support/backing and remains functioning as of this writing (October 2013) and I continue to be a generally satisfied user)

I feel compelled to keep updating the sad tale of my inability to land on a suitable solution for my incredibly non-complicated RSS reading needs.

The tale itself isn't so interesting, I know.  The topic was suitably done to death in the wake of Google's cheerful announcement of its impending murder of Reader and I've read all the same solutions everyone else had.  It's just that I fooled around with most of them and didn't like something about almost all of them and apparently I'm not in a minority here because we all tried to pile on top of The Old Reader and capsized itLe Sigh. So now I have to start over again and what gets to me is about how this is all about how I never bothered to really get it.

So I read something like the recent Metafilter thread about The Old Reader and there are basically three sorts of comments, those that are saying yes, I too cannot seem to stabilize my RSS situation post-Google-Reader and those saying Just Use Newsblur and those saying People it is not that complicated, you merely need to spend five minutes frantulating the lemuel settings, pick up some two dollar a year hosting and strap up your own cretchwell server.  Of course this is not what they are actually saying but I want to stress that there is no practical difference, for me, between what they are saying and that.  They are saying it is simple enough to Do It Yourself and you know, it is just not true for the rest of us.  But spending $5 a month to facilitate my reading things on the internet just seems like a lot of BS.

There is the weird broad swath in computer technology still where it is too complicated for me to do myself without spending considerable time on self-education that I just am not willing to spend but where there is either no commercial solution at all or what is offered just doesn't seem like a damn reasonable price.  For what RSS does for me five dollars a month is not a reasonable price. And eventually, because keeping up is a pain and I do want to keep up, with a few things, I will make one of the free solutions work, but jeeze, I've been through this three times already.

Presumably this will be updated again at some point...

Saturday, July 06, 2013

reading, coda

Aaaah so anyway after NewsBlur annoyed me, twice, I gave up and tried out The Old Reader which I was avoiding for some reason even though on reflection of everything I read about it it was pretty obvious that it was pretty much all I looking for.  I just want a list that tells me which of the slight selection of things I follow has something new.  It seems to be working just fine with relatively little learning curve.  The end?