Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jackson Bollocks

Happy Holidays, everyone!

I'm in the middle of a fun back and forth with an Anonymous commenter who apparently takes exception to the premise of my previous post, the idea that mashups are worthy of consideration as Art. I've decided to pull the discussion out of the Comments section and relay them in this new post rather than spending all my energy on stuff that many readers will likely never see. (I'm leaving all original comments in place, too.)

I'm assuming that all the Anonymous commenters are the same person. If they're not, well, they are now.

Here's the exchange so far (although I flipped the order slightly to improve the flow). Anonymous' comments in italics:

"The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works."


Surely you jest...

...and the analogy to Picasso is absurd - Picasso mastered the form. Very different from taking two paintings and digitally laying them one over the other.

And my response:

Rare indeed is the work of art which does not in some way build upon existing sources. When two or more elements are combined to create a new work which comments on and expands on the sources, the new work is an original work of art.

I used Picasso to make a point, but I acknowledge in retrospect it may not have been the best choice since he DID in fact invent Cubism. But I think you'll find if you study Picasso that he lifted many forms from African art. This is the nature of art and culture.

Perhaps Roy Lichtenstein would be a clearer example of a major artist who appropriated material from popular culture and turned it into new works of art.

In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues. Imagine if some RIAA goon had been sitting in the audience taking notes ("Let's see, 12 seconds of The Beatles Lovely Rita, twenty seconds of Miles Davis, twenty-two seconds of Sinatra's Love and Marriage..."); Cage literally would have been unable to perform the work!

At any rate, I think American Edit is a superb work of art which is fundamentally different from Green Day's American Idiot. Obviously, "Dean Gray" took advantage of excellent source material, and their mashup honors Green Day while creating an original and fantastically energetic soundscape.

Remember, too, that this was a NON-COMMERCIAL work of art; no one ever attempted to make any money on this. The idea that artists can't freely make art unless they get "permission" strikes me as deeply offensive and anathema to a society that prides itself on its free exchange of ideas.

"In music, avant-garde composer John Cage famously had a composition in which a bunch of people turned up radios set to random stations on pre-arranged cues."

And it famously wasn't very popular. Coincidence? You decide...

Where did popularity enter the picture?

Kinda then depends on your definition of "make art."

If any hack with a computer can then sling together two existing works, then where's the art?

Here, I'll play: I'll drop paint splatters on a Sex Pistols album. Boom! Jackson Bollocks! See? I've made art!

[For my less hip readers, Anonymous is suggesting a hypothetical mashup between Abstract Expressionist genius Jackson Pollack, he of the "Action" paintings, and the seminal punk album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, which sports one of the most famous covers in rock history.]

Jackson Bollocks? Brilliant! Pollack was the punk artist of his day!

In fact, sometimes inspiration like that can be better than you think; "Jackson Bollocks" would be a hell of a tee shirt! Of course, Art also depends on context; the same "Jackson Bollocks" tee shirt would have a different meaning coming from, say, David Byrne than it would if you saw it for sale at The Onion store. But I hate the idea that neither you nor I could legally create the shirt, regardless of context, even if we wanted to GIVE THEM AWAY and ask those who receive them to donate to alcohol and heroin rehab programs for starving punk painters.

Regardless, it is NOT the case that "any hack" slinging together two existing works can produce American Edit, any more then my ten-year-old slinging paint at a canvas can produce a Pollack. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but if you can't see the Art in excellent mashups like American Edit or The Grey Album (or in Jackson Pollack, for that matter), then we probably don't have much more room for discussion.

There's a huge difference between 'influenced by' and 'lifted outright.' If you don't see that then we're speaking two different languages.

The term "lifted outright" is the same as "stolen," which seems a ridiculous term for an openly acknowledged remix. After all, American Edit is very much a tribute to American Idiot, and as such it has a significanly deeper meaning if you're familiar with the original work and understand the relationship between the two -- and the social and political meaning of mashups in general.

Incidentally, if you want to see "lifts," go check out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a film in which half the shots (the interesting ones) are lifted straight from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Strange, I didn't see any attribution in the credits...


[A big shout out to Anonymous for the title of this post -- which I shamelessly appropriated.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fun with Mashups

'Tis is the season of the mashup. Mashups are the combining of two or more songs into a new musical collage. The best mashups match beats and rythms, blending or contrasting tone and theme, into wholly new and original works. The concept of mashups has been around for years; one of the earliest popular examples, a 1978 novelty song known as Stairway to Gilligan's Island, inserted the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song into the music of Stairway to Heaven. (Full story here).

Back in the day, such mashups had to be done acoustically; with the rise in digital media extraordinary musical collages can now be done by enthusiastic fans with computers and talent.

Unfortunately, such mashups don't sit well at all with the recording industry, which prefers to attack fans rather than encourage them. Stairway to Gilligan's Island was banned almost from the moment it first appeared (but -- thank God for the Internet! -- it's once again widely available via P2P). The most famous example occurred with last year's The Grey Album, DJ Dangermouse's excellent collage mix-up of The Beatles The White Album and JayZ's The Black Album. Despite being selected as the number one album of the year by Entertainment Weekly, The Grey Album received a "cease and desist" letter from Beatles song publisher EMI, which effectively outlawed the music. (Have no fear; it's still widely available here and via P2P, samizdat music for a revolutionary digital generation.)

EMI's heavy-handed attempt to ban the album earned them much contempt in cyberspace, and on Grey Tuesday (February 24th, 2004) hundreds of Websites carried mirrors of the complete Grey Album in protest. Far from stopping this new work of art, EMI in fact brought it worldwide exposure.

BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow summed it up nicely:

Copyright maximalists like to contrast copyright with the old system of patronage, when you could only make art if you could convince the Pope or a duke or a king that your art was worthy. Patronage really distorted creative expression, and copyright did indeed promise to decentralize authority over what kind of art was permitted.

But the EMI rep's answer to the Grey Album is patronage. "You must not make this art unless we permit it." If you work for one of a few big record companies, you can use their legal apparatus to clear the material you want to use in a mashup. Otherwise, your art is illegal and will be censored.

I think patronage is wrong -- I agree with the maximalists here. Let's end it. Let's share these mashups, make samples without permission, and continue to produce art without permission from the latter-day aristocracy of creativity.

Cut to the present. Another great mashup, this one a remix version of Green Day's phenomenally popular American Idiot called American Edit. The mashup's creators, who go by the Green Day-flipping handle "Dean Gray," release their extraordinary album and ten days later they, too, get a "cease and desist" order, this one from Warners, Green Day's label. Another "Grey Tuesday" (December 13th, 2005), roughly a quarter million downloads, more embarrassment for the recording industry, and worldwide publicity for American Edit, which is still also available all over the Net via P2P (and HIGHLY recommmended by yours truly).

Here are a couple of other mashup albums to whet your appetite:

Q-Unit: Greatest Hits combines 50 Cent and Queen. The results are fun, if less revelatory than those in American Idiot. The back cover art is a terrific visual mashup: 50 Cent reimagined as Freddy Mercury!

And, just in time for Christmas, the funky Santastic: Holiday Boots 4 Your Stockings.

Imagine if Picasso had received a "cease and desist" order from reps for the African sculptors who inspired his seminal 1907 classic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. He might have painted Blue and Rose people for his entire career!

The Magic Circle Jerk - Coda

I was really hoping Andy of MCJ had just disappeared forever; I think it would have been the ultimate capper to his brilliant (and mysterious) career. But in fact Andy sent out a general letter to anyone who sent him an email, a part of which is reproduced below:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for your recent kind and/or furious e-mail in regards to my site no longer existing. It's really not coming back so you can go ahead and delete it from your bookmarks or whatever.

I've gotten a lot of questions about the whole situation so I wanted to make a final statement to the fine people who used to read the site.

First, there was nothing that happened that caused me to shut down the site. It was just something that was going to happen eventually and last week was when it did, that's all. Nobody threatened me. Nobody coerced me. I didn't find religion (putting down the sponge ding-dong and picking up the sponge bible). I just kind of decided I needed to stop. The truth is, when I started the site I figured I would eventually run out of things to say and when I did the site would be over. But what happened was I kept on coming up with new ideas and while that would have been a blessing if I planned on writing a magic blog for the rest of my life, I never planned on such a thing and so it just became a distraction from other creative endeavors that actually put food on my table....


Some people have questioned why I took down all the old posts. I didn't really put much thought into that, other than that it made more sense to me to say "poof" and have everything be gone, rather than say "poof" and have everything still be there. Those posts will be made available in some way in the future as well as about 50 unpublished posts that I have lying around here. I'm just not sure what I'm going to do with them yet.

Which brings up the question; what is next for this titan of magic? I'm not really sure, but I have a whole bunch of ideas. The first thing I'm going to do is take a few months off. Then I want to do a couple of things that are larger in scope and a lot of things that are smaller in scope than the blog was. Ultimately I just want to be involved in some different things magic-wise. The blog was a lot of fun, but what made it fun was that it was a new type of thing in magic, now it's something of an established form, so it's not as much fun for me personally.


So, anyway, if you want in on whatever happens next send me an e-mail and let me know. It's not necessary, but you might want to provide a mailing address too because not all the news that comes out of the MCJ camp is going to be e-mailed. Even if you're not interested, feel free to get in touch any time. I'll be in the usual place.


I hope everyone has a good holiday season if that's their thing.

Your pal,

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Magic Circle Jerk

That broadly cynical bite in the opening sentence of my last post reminded me, as I was writing it, of Andy, the anonymous genius behind one of the greatest conceptual masterpieces the magic world has ever seen.


A couple of years ago, Andy made a fairly innocuous comment on The Magic Cafe, a popular Internet forum for magicians and wannabe magicians. Someone posted the question, "What's a good magic trick for picking up girls?" (The percentage of dorks on the Cafe is similar to the percentage of dorks in the magic community at large, which is to say about 95%.) Andy replied, "The Magic Ding Dong," a reference to a well-known smutty climax to the popular (and criminally overused) Sponge Balls trick.

Well, this silly little bit of risque humor got Andy banned from The Magic Cafe on the grounds that it was "inappropriate." No warning, no "check the rules and please refrain from making this type of post in the future." Just a flat-out ban.

I'm sure Cafe owner and operator Steve Brooks has regretted this banning ever since, because Andy's response was to start a blog, The Magic Circle Jerk, whose entire original purpose was to make fun of the Magic Cafe and it's overweight owner.

This is my forum to talk shit about magic and magicians. If you aren't into magic, you probably won't like it. If you are into magic, you probably won't like it either.

Rather quickly, The Magic Circle Jerk morphed into a more general blog about the sad state of magic and magicians. At the time, serious critical voices within the magic community were few and far between, so every post seemed like a blast of pure oxygen into a stale and stagnant community. As an added blessing, Andy proved to be an extraordinary blogger: by turns literate and raunchy, scathingly witty, ferociously astute, and casually hip.

Within a few months and with virtually no self-promotion, Andy's readership encompassed a quite healthy swath of the magic community. Andy had an amazing ability to cut right to the meat of any magic-related issue and find comic gold with his lacerating dissections. Frequent readers of this blog have probably followed more than one link to a Magic Circle Jerk post; in general, once Andy had covered a topic all the other magic blogs that sprang up in his wake had to scramble to find anything useful to add to the discussion.

I probably read the entire two+ years of MCJ posts all the way through at least three of four times; they were that astute and that funny. A small sampling of the topics either inspired by or covered by Andy:

The pros and cons of anonymous bloggers
The inanity of much of magic
The inanity of most magicians
The hypocrisy, greed, and inanity of magic marketing
The inanity of much of what passes for discussion on The Magic Cafe
The hypocrisy, greed, and, er, gluttony of Cafe founder Steve Brooks

Andy's beef with the Cafe emerged because of a double standard he noted; Cafe sponsors, especially if they were somewhat well-known in the magic community, got to say things mere mortals like Andy couldn't. As The Magic Circle Jerk became better known, Andy claimed to be getting inside information about the shady way the Cafe was run (exaggerating membership numbers in order to attract more advertisers, for instance), some of which he posted on his blog.

For a while (and perhaps still) Cafe members could get themselves banned just by mentioning The Magic Circle Jerk in a posting.

Andy always gave people a chance to respond, and some of the idiotic responses he got were jaw-droppingly funny. People threatened to sue him, threatened to beat him up, called him names...It's not a stretch to say that Andy was the Howard Stern of magic, the guy who broke open all the taboos with a combination of intellect, comedy, and scorching bad taste.

In one of his most inspired undertakings, Andy ran a contest to see who could start and maintain the most idiotic thread on The Magic Cafe. Circle Jerkers got points if their posts stayed up, which meant they couldn't be obviously fake (and with genuine threads like, "Which are better for card tricks, red-backed cards or blue-backed cards?", the challenge was harder than it seemed). I don't remember what post won, and it doesn't really matter. The point was that you really couldn't tell the fake moronic posts from the real ones.

Through all of this, Andy remained anonymous. From his posts one could determine the following:

He lives in New York.
He's probably somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five (I'd guess around thirty).
He's very knowledgeable about magic.
He's very well educated.

From my own back and forth with Andy about psi research, I know that he has some mathematical and/or scientific training. Other than that, I know nothing. On his old Magic Rants blog (now reborn as MagiCentric), Steve Pellegrino claimed he knew where Andy worked.

As far as I know, no one else has a clue who this guy is. Rumors occasionally bounced around that he's actually a well-known magician who couldn't speak out under his own name for fear of losing his esteemed place in the magic world. But nothing ever came of any of the stories; Andy remains an enigma.

Since Andy started The Magic Circle Jerk, scores of magic blogs have sprung up. Many of them try to follow in Andy's footsteps; most of those come across as petty and nasty rather than astute. It's the difference between Jon Stewart and Michael Savage, wit and insight contrasted with infantile ranting.

A new generation of magicians has appeared on the scene in last decade, hip young magicians bred on David Blaine, Penguin Magic, and yes, The Magic Circle Jerk. For the first time in my lifetime, the public's image of a magician isn't necessarily the "fat guy in a bad tux with birds" (as Penn Jillette used to say). Young magicians are more aware of both their audiences and themselves -- and it shows in their performances.

The influence of The Magic Circle Jerk cannot be overstated, in my opinion. The Web has facilitated an open exchange of ideas impossible in previous eras, and among magic voices MCJ was in the vanguard of that shift. Many who never read it, indeed who never even heard of it, are benefitting from the dialogue wrought by MCJ. There have always been individual iconoclastic voices in every field; magic has had its Jarretts, its Annemans. But it took the distributed, networked power of the web to bring such a refreshingly caustic voice to the masses (of magicians).


On Tuesday, November 29th, at 2:22 a.m., the entire Magic Circle Jerk blog, archives and all, vanished with a --POOF--. It's Andy's final turn of the screw, his closing masterpiece, the sublime crowning touch of his short and brilliant career. I hope against hope that he remains anonymous forever, the Erdnase of his day, an enigmatic figure who arrived on the scene, changed the face of magic, and vanished into myth.

The historian in me would like to see his complete archives turn up in an expensive coffee-table book for the holidays, a Protocols of The Magic Circle Jerk. Of course, without those everpresent and hilarious links, a coffee table book of MCJ would probably be a leaden affair indeed. Perhaps it can reappear somewhere on the Web, an essential document in the early Twenty-first Century salvation of magic.

This was my forum to talk shit about magic and magicians. If you weren't into magic, you probably didn't like it. If you were into magic, you probably didn't like it either.

My New Venue

UPDATE: The picture is a hoax. After initially claiming it was 100% genuine, Josh sent me the same picture with different words in the sign. Oh well, I guess I can call off the lawyers.


Yesiree, I'm sure pleased to be able to bring my profound wisdom and folksy homilies to the good folks at the Baptist church...

Actually, magic buddy Josh sent me this pic, which he snapped in Santa Cruz. I have no idea what it's about, but I'm thinking of suing them anyway.

I'll update this post if I figure out who this wannabe "PeaceLove" is, and what he's "musing" about.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Stainless Steel Playing Cards

Update: I fixed the link below, so if you have an extra 195 quid the cards can be yours.

For the magician who has everything.


Via BoingBoing

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Colored Bubble Story

Popular Science has a lovely article on Tim Kehoe and his 11-year quest to develop colored bubbles. It seems that the classic clear soap bubble, a perennial favorite toy for hundreds of years, has never been produced in color; trying to blow bubbles from colored soap yields clear bubbles with color running down the side and collecting at the bottom.

Kehoe succeeded in creating a beautifully colored bubble, but when it burst it stained everything in its path. Read the story to see how he overcame (with a little help) this "minor" setback to create the world's first colored soap bubbles.

Keep an eye out for these to break bigtime in the media when they come out. Zubbles probably won't be out for Christmas, but February or so these will be everywhere.


Thanks, again, to BoingBoing for the link.

Hip Hop: A Love Story

Beautiful. Salon has the best love letter to Hip Hop by a Hip Hop-hating white liberal I've seen anywhere. A masterpiece.

Okay, it's also about survival and poverty and racism and classism, about the social forces that shape our lives, and about paedamorphosis, evolutionary change happening in the young and moving upwards. There's a stunning moment in which the author, Camille Perri, realizes that her Hip Hop son is far more Progressive than she is. I realized then that all that time while we were thinking that Joe was moving off on his own, he had been moving us with him.

Said essay is excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves, edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses. Published by HarperCollins and coming out in paperback in January 2006, by the way.


You will need to watch a short ad in order to read the essay. Or, better yet, subscribe. Salon is consistently one of the most valuable sources for uncorrupted news anywhere, a diamond. I'm a subscriber, which means I pay my hard-earned money to read Salon every day. And I don't like spending my hard-earned money on nuthin.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Music from the End of the World

I haven't posted these last few days because I've been too busy working the Comments to my A Funny Thing post. The first comment took me totally by surprise, coming out of left field to accuse me of "stealing music" and thus setting a bad example for my son. Much back and forth merriment ensued, with an old friend stepping up to the plate in my defense.

An unrelated comment (unrelated to the Comment discussion, but related to the original post) led to my opining on filmmaker Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, a flawed but intriguing film that somehow generated one of the greatest soundtrack albums in the history of film. If you haven't heard this soundtrack, I urge you to sniff out a copy. Take a look at these Amazon reviews if you don't believe me.

Go ahead, check 'em out. I'll wait until you get back.

Wow, that's a very moving set of Amazon reviews, isn't it? They really reveal the deep, deep reservoir of love and loyalty to this album. Count me among its devotees.

This haunting collection has been in heavy rotation in my life on and off since it came out. Until the End of the World doesn't quite come together as a film, in my opinion (apparently it was heavily butchered by the studio before release, and a redeeming five-hour cut may one day be released), but Wenders' tremendous gift for illuminating love and human connections in the midst of isolation and despair permeates this extraordinary album. The consistency of tone is extremely Wenders-like, despite the amazing diversity of artists contained within.

The Amazon reviews do a fine job covering specific tracks by the likes of U2, Talking Heads, Jane Siberry, Daniel Lanois, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, and many others; suffice it to say that all these talented artists seem to have been magically inspired to produce at a special meta-level for this soundtrack. Wenders asked the artists (in 1991) to produce the music they thought they would be making in 1999, the year in which the film is set. The result has the feeling of a dispatch both from and for the future.

Wenders cemented his genius as a filmmaker with Wings of Desire, but it is with the Until the End of the World soundtrack that his vision finds its perfect aural complement.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dispatch from 2014

E-buddy Rick Carruth of Magic Roadshow hipped me to this provocative documentary from the future about the breakthroughs introduced by Googlezon (Google merged with Amazon). It's quite a thought-provoking piece, although I'm not so sure about its conclusions. Of course, as (I believe) John Perry Barlow said, when it comes to predicting the future we're all amateurs.

I think this little media project does capture just how amazing the last ten years have been, and its ideas about where we're going are mind-bending and startlingly plausible.


Thanks Rick!

A Funny Thing

The other day, as my nine-year-old son Daniel sat on the couch leafing through a book called Star Wars: Incredible Cross-Sections, I began ripping Marianne Faithfull's 2000 CD Vagabond Ways onto my iBook.

For readers unfamiliar with Faithfull, she was a beautiful but vapid teenage folkie with a string of minor (and quite ghastly) hits in the mid-sixties who became famous as Mick Jagger's girlfriend, got heavily into drugs and alcohol, wound up a homeless junkie, then somehow re-emerged in the Eighties with the most extraordinarily poetic whore and whiskey voice ever heard in rock and roll (she also sings Kurt Weil, brilliantly).

I had gotten Vagabond Ways out of the library and I hadn't actually listened to it yet. As the eponymous first song was ripping it began playing -- a haunting, plaintive lament delivered with fifty-four-year-old Faithfull's world-weary grace.

Oh, doctor please, oh, doctor please.

At this point Daniel looked up from his book and said, "Dad, can we listen to something else?"

Well, there's no accounting for taste, I thought. I said, "This is great stuff..."

I drink and I take drugs, I love sex and I move around a lot.

At this point, I was looking right at Daniel, and he at me. I think I managed a slight comic roll of the eyes as I made my way calmly to the laptop to pause it and find "something else."

I had my first baby at fourteen.

Picture the scene. The music has stopped. Daniel and I are looking at each other. He has obviously heard this lyric, but I see no particular reaction -- though no particular disinterest, either. So I start laughing. And he starts laughing. And next thing we know we're both in hysterics, I because I have no idea what he's making of what we just heard, and he for some unknown reason -- perhaps because he's smart enough to know transgressive when he hears it.

Beautiful moment.


We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Beethoven's Wig.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Jaw-dropping Technology -- Follow-up

I'm not sure if I communicated the point I was trying to elucidate with my Jaw-dropping Technology post. I closed it with the line:

I long for the day I can buy a petabyte iPod for $50.

I was going to say "terabyte" iPod in the sentence above, but then I figured, why skimp? A terabyte is one thousand gigabytes (the biggest capacity iPod at the moment holds 60 gigabytes). A petabyte is one thousand terabytes, or one million gigabytes.

It turns out I'm glad I changed it, because already today some prognosticator predicted the release within five years of a terabyte iPod. I wouldn't have wanted my own vision to be so pedestrian.

It's now perfectly clear that powerful new technologies empower us in ways we absolutely can NOT predict. A terabyte iPod would be cool, but a petabyte iPod would be a fundamentally different device. In New Rules for the New Economy, Kevin Kelly says:

Count on more being different. A handful of sand grains will never form an avalanche no matter how hard one tries to do it. Indeed one could study a single grain of sand for a hundred years and never conclude that sand can avalanche. To form avalanches you need millions of grains.

Kelly is talking about the power of networks (or swarms), but his rule applies to storage as well. I already have over 46 gigabytes of music alone on my computer, too much to fit on my 40 gigabyte iPod. If I wanted to store photos and movies, I could easily see my current needs hitting 1000 gigabytes, or one terabyte. I'm sure the advent of a terabyte iPod will make many new avenues possible, but my theoretical petabyte iPod is liable to launch a paradigm-shifting avalanche inconceivable to us small-minded humans in the current year of 2005.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Blue Ball Machine

Strangely hypnotic.


Thanks to Grow-a-Brain for the link. The music is from Danny Elfman's brilliant PeeWee's Big Adventure soundtrack.

Who is Chris Morris?

I recently updated my old Sarah Suicide post with the news that the magician in question is a young U.K. artist and filmmaker named Sarah Sumeray. In a bio I found online, Sumeray cited caustic British comedian Chris Morris as a major inspiration, so I decided to go searching a bit to see what I could dig up on this virtually unknown (in the U.S.) performer.

What I found was a gonzo, take-no-prisoners satirist with one of the sharpest comic minds anywhere. Morris seems to have created a scathingly surreal Daily Show type fake news show called "Brass Eye" back in 1997. He also had a sketch comedy show called "Jam" which ran in 2000 (and is the show cited by Sarah Sumeray). His style has been referred to as "radical subversion." Like Sacha Baron Cohen of the brilliant Da Ali G Show, Morris often traps famous people into endorsing or condemning fake products or causes, but where he differs from Cohen is in style. Where Cohen tends to be a bit over-the-top, Morris skirts a very fine line between absurdist truth and satire.

Here's a terrific clip about Morris, with bits and talking heads from famous (in England, I gather) public figures caught in Morris' web. There's some apallingly funny footage here, like Morris as TV host arm-wrestling a guy with AIDS ("Who says AIDS guys are puny? This guy has AIDS and he's about to beat me in arm wrestling. Ooo, well done!"). In another bit Morris, dressed in a huge red ball hat and a diaper, double-talks some drug dealers trying to ply their wares.

Here's another good profile, with discussion of Morris' radio shows (including one called Blue Jam, which the writer thinks is his best work) and links to download the shows. This site has a wealth of audio and video clips, enough to keep you well entertained for a few hours. And here's a hilarious overview from a 1997 Melody Maker profile on Morris:

"Brass Eye", the awesomely sacriligeous, fearlessly iconoclastic mock-ummentary series he made for Channel Four earlier this year, caused headlines before, during and after its six week run, and it wasn't difficult to see why. In one episode a scientist claimed that the disabled weren't really disabled at all but simply lazy. Another began with explicit footage of Morris shafting a woman from behind. In another a Kilroy-style debate show host drew a distinction between people suffering from "Good AIDS" (haemophiliacs, blood transplant patients) and "Bad AIDS" (homosexuals, drug users)....

Most spectacularly he subverted our implicit trust in "experts" by fooling a host of celebrities and politicians to denounce a made up drug called Cake and campaigned on behalf of Carla, an East German elephant with her head jammed up her anus ("She's got eyes... but she hasn't got any ears") And these were just the bits that got shown. Among excerpts considered too much for British audiences were: A children's board game based on the Holocaust, an American pro guns advert featuring Christ shooting Judas, and famously, a musical based on the life of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe....

Can anybody say BitTorrent?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Jaw-dropping Technology

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I was at the Apple store the other day and saw the new Video iPod. That's gotta' be the wettest piece of technology I've seen in a long time, as jaw-dropping as, maybe, the original iPod itself. I hadn't really played with the iPod Photo either, so I was unprepared for the visceral shiver I got when I began playing with this new generation of iPods. The addition of a color screen that's useful for more than song-info display is a fundamental change in the nature of the iPod.

Seeing this new technology, and feeling that shiver of paradigm shift, made me think to the other times in my life in which a new technology gave me that kind of jolt. I can't really remember how hip I was to the effects of technology back in 1974, but I remember well the day when my parents bought their first portable calculator. It was about the size of a high-end Texas Instruments technical calculator today, with an LED (!) display and the basic functions -- addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and maybe a square root key or a percentage key. The price: a bargain at eighty bucks.

I remember playing with big multiplications and being delighted with how quickly I could get an answer to such probing questions as: what's 23,445 times 8537? Buckminster Fuller once said that the two years he spent figuring out all the mathematics for his geodesic domes could have been compressed into two days if he had had access to a modern calculator. How extraordinary that the tool I held in my hand back in 1974 was destined to change the world.

The next great technology I grokked was the cassette deck. By the late Seventies, I had a pretty nice stereo set up, and I was able to make myself mix tapes out of the one or two best-loved cuts per record. I also taped favorite songs off the radio. I became quite expert at starting and stopping the tape exactly where I wanted it, and also learned to drop the needle quite accurately into the little space between tracks.

[On a side note, I recently got a good laugh while hanging out with some friends in their early twenties. They had inherited an old cabinet-style record player and some records from their parents, and I impressed them with my dazzling ability to nail the chosen track. It was a bit of a shock for me to realize that these kids had never used a record player growing up!]

Making mix tapes was an early step in the personal empowerment of the music lover. For a while, I had two tape decks so I could dub songs from other people's mix tapes onto my own. All through college, I collected unusual alt rock and punk tunes, and I guarded them jealously. With the technology of the day, where could I ever hope to find another copy of seminal punk band Wire's Dot Dash?

Back around '79 or so, I also got my first inklings of a new, portable cassette player that was due on the scene. My orthodontist (!) first told me about the little Walkman he had picked up in Japan. "It sounds really good, just like you're listening to a great stereo," he had said.

This is one of those examples -- and there have been several others in my life -- in which the description of the technology didn't communicate (to me, at least) just what powers it held in store. I thought, "Huh, that sounds cool," and left it at that. Sometime later, while hanging out at Myer Emco, a moderate high-end stereo store in Bethesda, MD, my buddy Mike (who looked like Doug Henning, right down to the long hair and gap teeth) hooked me up with a Walkman to test out. The demo tape (which I still have somewhere) was of an airshow, with airplanes roaring past overhead.

Freaked the shit out of me. I actually yanked off the headphones and accused Mike of cranking up some big speakers in the background. When it became clear that I was in fact listening to the little tiny Walkman I knew I had to have one.

Although I used my cassette Walkman occasionally (on the bus on my way to work at Al's Magic Shop, for instance), I discovered that the device had one fatal flaw: it ate batteries. The batteries had to move that big old motor as well as amplifying the sound, so if memory serves I would get only about two or three hours on a set of batteries. I recall now that I also had an outboard battery pack that ran on two Ds, but then you needed to have both things hanging on your belt and that got a bit unwieldy. At some point I sprang for a set of rechargeable batteries, but by this point I was "over" the glamour of carrying music around with me for the time being.

I'm humbled to admit that much of the important technology that followed went right past me, at least as far as grokking the significance. I started using computers in college but had no idea how critical they would become. Senior year I wrote all my papers at the computer center and walked three blocks to pick up the printouts. When a friend who was a computer geek told me he was buying himself for graduation a computer with "one megabyte" of storage, I thought he was a bit too nerdy; who needed that?

[My vision was similarly cloudy back in 1995 while I was living in Prague. A guy I knew told me he was moving back to the U.S. and buying a computer with a whopping one gigabyte of storage. Again my major question was "why?"]

I think the first time I really felt the need for better technology came when I first returned to the U.S. in 1996 and tried to get online with a 386 PC. It failed miserably, jammed up, and was functionally useless. The day I got my first Pentium PC and went online was the beginning of a new consciousness, for me.

Tracking the Web over the last ten years has taught me as much about the future as the past. I now have, to borrow a term from the late FM2030, a "deep nostalgia for the future," and I long for the day I can buy a petabyte iPod for $50.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Time Delivers - Part 2

This post has been in draft form for over a week, and it's starting to get stale. So I figure I'd better post it before it's completely obsolete.

Part 1 described how Time magazine presented a surprisingly progressive view of gay teens. In Part 2, I review (briefly) the surprises of the next three issues.

The issue after Gay Teens contains a cover story featuring alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil on Living Healthier Longer. It's not the first time Time has featured him on the cover, and it's a pretty generic story, but still it makes Time look more like Alternative Medicine than the bland corporate magazine it has always been.

The next issue (October 24, 2005), which features a cover hagiography on Steve Jobs, also contains a well-balanced article on the fluoridation debate, the first such article I've seen in a mainstream magazine to actually present both sides of the argument with open-minded respect. Remember when fluoridation opponents were generally branded as sociopathic kooks?

The same issue contains some amazingly forward-thinking prognostications about the future from superstar futurists like Esther Dyson and Malcolm Gladwell. Most notable, for me, is the discussion with tech publisher Tim O'Reilly about the "collective intelligence" of the web (what he refers to elsewhere as the architecture of participation). This includes such user-created databases as Wikipedia, a massive online encyclopedia which anyone can add to or edit.

I have a little bit of experience with this particular site, having contributed in small ways wherever I've found a hole. For instance, after my recent reminiscence about Ormond McGill, I checked over at Wikipedia and found (to my surprise) that there was no entry on this legendary hypnotist. I promptly added a brief entry, and also added him to the Deaths in October, 2005 page under "October 19th." I also sent this information to Ormond's closest colleagues with the invitation to modify or expand the entry as they saw fit.

The Architecture of Participation, the structure of the Internet that allows millions of people all over the world to contribute to the ever-growing database of human knowledge, is only beginning to reveal itself. How progressive of Time to give such a concept even a little bit of room in its pages!

But nothing could have prepared me for the cover story of the October 31, 2005 issue. The headline is The Great Retirement Ripoff, and it has the subheading: Millions of Americans who think they will retire with benefits are in for a NASTY SURPRISE. How corporations are picking people's pockets--with the help of Congress. Hello! When's the last time you saw Time magazine take a specifically anti-corporate and anti-government position? Beautiful! And that's the cover; you don't even need to read the article to get the message of the story. "Picking people's pockets" -- that's a crime! Time is accusing big corporations and Congress of engaging in quasi-legal but nevertheless criminal behavior! Is this Time or Mother Jones?

I can't prove this (and I'm unwilling to go digging to do so), but I believe that, oh, five years ago this story would have looked something like this: "Is Your Nest Egg Safe? How bottom-line pressures may be jepardizing your retirement benefits." In other words, a nice alarmist story about economic pressures and a changing world rather than a hard-hitting indictment of corporate greed and Congressional malfeasance.

What changed? The Web. Blogs. Free Speech. Time is a follower, not a leader, but at least it now looks like the leader they are following may just be the truth.

On Stooges, Camera Tricks, and Strong Magic

In a comment to my last post, Mike from The Wizards Ball remarked:

The key difference with [Cyril's] tricks and the Angel window stunt (and his levitations) is that half the spectators are not stooges. To my mind that is really lazy magic.

Notwithstanding the fact that, to my eyes and experience, almost none of the spectators in the Angel video are stooges (or need to be), I have to take issue with Mike's general point. I used to parrot the standard magical purist line, that using stooges is somehow "cheating," or "lazy magic." A related viewpoint with regards to magic on television, is that the use of camera tricks -- or what has euphemistically been referred to as "creative editing" -- is unacceptable to "real magicians."

I have now come to understand that all magic is cheating; in fact, a pretty good definition of the magical arts (with apologies to Darwin Ortiz), would be the judicious and subtle use of cheating to create the illusion of impossibility. If you're a magician, cheating is your job! Assuming you accept that premise (and if you don't you're going to have trouble with that "illusion of impossibility" thing), it becomes obviously silly to try to make some determination about what is and is not acceptable cheating.

As far as I'm concerned, anything is permissible as long as it helps create the illusion of impossibility. Camera trickery, stooges, an entire fake set -- everything is okay as long as it contributes to the power and believability of the illusion. The great mentalist Ted Annemann once said (I'm paraphrasing), "If you need to use nine stooges to fool a tenth person, then go right ahead."

"But," he added, "it had better be one hell of a trick."

This brings up a more serious concern with the use of stooges and creative editing; there is an increasing risk that your audience will catch on and cease to trust you. Ironically, even though they know you are cheating to create the illusion, if they catch you, or even suspect you, you're dead in the water as far as your effectiveness goes.

The risk that my audience might lose faith in me is one reason why I never use camera trickery; the other reason is that I never perform on TV.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Cyril Slays Again!

You might remember the crazy hamburger trick I posted about back in July. The magician's name is Cyril Takayama, and he's a former L.A. kid, F.I.S.M. winner, and member of Magic X Live who moved to Japan and became a star. Here are a couple of other killer routines, and one certifiable stunner.

Cyril dresses like an old man and loses his head.

Cyril does something very cool with chopsticks.

And now, one of the craziest magic routines I've ever seen, a series of penetrations involving a glass table.

I have absolutely no idea...


Thanks to John B. for that last one.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Criss Angel Window Stunner

Criss Angel is a hot goth magician with his own series of specials on A&E. The magic blogosphere is full of ignorant naysayers who bash Angel right and left (many magicians bashed Blaine, too), but I think he's got real talent. He actually comes across as a sweet guy, too. I've seen only one of his specials (the one in which he zaps himself with a giant Tesla Coil), but to my mind he shows a lot of promise.

Whatever you think of him, however, this clip is pretty cool.

I think Angel is riding the coattails of David Blaine just a bit too much, but at least he's hip and sexy -- two qualities not often associated with magicians. Also, I heard him on Loveline the other day and he seemed intelligent and down to earth, too.

Magic needs more superstars and I'm rooting for Criss.

Tip O' the Hat to Russell for the link.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Google AdSense

You may have noticed the Google AdSense ads to the right. In theory, if you click on any of the ads it sends some minor sum of money into my Google AdSense account. Bloggers with large readerships can apparently do pretty well with this program.

I signed up a while ago, mainly because I was interested in seeing what came up. I'm obviously not trying to make any money off of them (I don't even remember my login for their home page, or where it is) and I'd be quite shocked if they sent me a check even for fifty cents. But it is amusing to watch the ads customize themselves according to the content of my posts. I'm sure for "single issue" blogs this could be a very effective way to reach customers. If I were the leading blogger about bicycle technology, bike manufactures would wet themselves to reach my readers' eyeballs.

What's brilliant about Google's system is that the blogger himself does nothing but sign up. Once you've put the Google source code into your template Google's automated system does the rest. The advertiser pays only for clickthroughs, so it costs them nothing to have the ad up on my blog -- or anyone else's, for that matter -- unless they get a response. This is what enables a small company (a custom bike manufacturer, for instance) to get closely targeted results for very little money; like much of the Web, it helps level the playing field considerably.

With my blog, the ads range from magic themed to (now) gay-targeted ads. I'm sure by the time you read this there will be a bunch of hypnosis-related ads in their place. The power of the web to target both ads and information is being harnessed by Google like never before; it costs them virtually nothing to place an ad in every single location where it might be relevant. Since they only get paid if the ad gets a response, they have a huge incentive to continually improve their algorithms to increase their effectiveness. The benefit to you, the consumer, is that you don't have to read through a whole bunch of ads for products and services of no interest to you.

Maybe that's why Google is now trading, as of this writing, at $379/share. I read somewhere recently that uber-VC (venture capitalist) John Doerr invested $12.5 million of startup capital into Google, for which he received the pre-IPO equivalent of about 25,000,000 shares (at a then-theoretical price of 50 cents a share). I don't know if these numbers are exactly accurate, but if they're even close then Doerr (who previously invested in Amazon, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Compac, Genentech, and just about every other major tech-related company of the last decade), with $12.5 million times roughly 760, is doing just fine.

And Google, by figuring out how to harness the extraordinary architecture of participation engendered by the web, is in fact changing the world.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Internet is God


UPDATED: R.I.P. Ormond McGill

After initially reconsidering, I have edited this post slightly.

Ormond McGill, the "Dean of American Hypnotists," has died. Born in 1913 in Palo Alto, California, Ormond (as everyone called him) became interested in magic as a kid (he's also pretty legendary in magic circles), taking up hypnosis in 1927 while still a teenager. He wrote the seminal Encyclopedia of Genuine Stage Hypnotism (the acknowleged Bible of stage hypnotism) in 1947, and continued to teach courses and lecture right up until a few weeks ago.

The Guardian has a nice appreciation here. Here's SF Gate's obit. And Palo Alto Online has an archived story about Ormond here, dating back to 1998, when Ormond was a youthful 85. I'm sure Ormond was the last living person who could claim to have had an ice cream cone at Palo Alto's Penninsula Creamery on the day it opened in 1923!

I saw Ormond a few times at the local magic meetings, where he just looked like a sweet old man trotted out for display, the local boy made good. So I was truly blessed to have heard him lecture on hypnosis to an audience of hypnotherapists about eight months ago. At the time I was totally unaware that he was also a skilled transpersonal hypnotherapist and mystic. He gave a beautiful and moving talk on hypnotherapy, it's uses and abuses, and the ways in which it could transform individuals and the world. The highlight, for me, was when he did a demonstration on a woman in the audience.

The woman told Ormond she was scared to drive on the highway; could he help her with that? Ormond took her through a very gentle induction and then talked her through her fears. I was struck by the softness of his demeanor, the kindness of his heart, and his casual but absolute mastery -- the result of seventy-five years of practice. I and the rest of the room felt totally at ease with this man; any one of us would have happily volunteered to be the object of his attention.


I've known a lot of hypnotists and hypnotherapists over the years, and a very high percentage of them have come across as egotistical, insecure buffoons (apologies to any healthy hypnotherapists reading this). In my experience, hypnotherapists you encounter socially are more apt to offer unsolicited help (at bargain rates) than any other type of therapists. The field of hypnotherapy is frequently associated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a quasi-scientific system that claims to be able to help people change by teaching them how to restructure their brain functions.

The Skeptic's Dictionary has an informative analysis of NLP which concludes:

It seems that NLP develops models which can't be verified, from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience... NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works. However, how do you measure the claim "NLP works"? I don't know and I don't think NLPers know, either.

Just in case I haven't adequately communicated my discomfort with the cult-like aspects of NLP, here's a creepy 1989 Mother Jones article about megalomaniacal NLP cofounder Richard Bandler and the murder he may or may not have committed.

Because NLP emphasises self-hypnosis and behavior modification, it seems that many hypnotists either start out in NLP or pursue its study at some point in their careers. Hypnotism, like NLP, is an attractive field for those who like power (NLP-based systems for picking up women flower on the Net these days), and it frequently attracts those who have trouble making friends the old fashioned way -- through charm, intelligence, and shared passions.


What an honor it was, then, to watch a man with an abundance of all three. Ormond was sharp, smart, and sensitive and he brought an unexpected (to me) spiritual awareness to the proceedings. He was ninety-two at the time, but his teaching and lecturing schedule was quite filled up for months to come. His boundless energy and enthusiasm were an inspiration to everyone in the room.

After the lecture, I had the great pleasure of accompanying him and his friends to dinner, where several of us (magicians) entertained by performing magic for everyone. My friend and I even got to drive him home from San Jose; by sheer coincidence he lived four blocks from my work -- where my car was parked. What an honor is was to hang out with this guy, this legend who turned out to be better than the legend!

Ormond wrote somewhere between twenty-five and forty books (sources disagree on the total), including such titles as Grieve No More Beloved (about his afterlife contact with his deceased wife), Hypnotism and Mysticism in India, and his autobiography, The Amazing Life of Ormond McGill. A Google search on his name reveals 89,000 pages ("PeaceLove's Musings": 213).

Yes, the magic and hypnotism world has lost a giant. And a beautiful man, too.

Monday, October 31, 2005

More Gay Musings

Er, perhaps I should call this, PeaceLove's Musings on Gayness, lest you should read this and think, "That's so gay!" Here are a few more thoughts on homosexuality and culture that I really wanted to put into that last post but couldn't quite shoehorn in.

The expression above -- "That's so gay!" -- sounds for all the world like it should be derogatory towards homosexuals but I think it's not, at least not as it's generally used in popular culture. I hear it used a lot by young people I know are not homophobic or prejudiced. Hell, I've even heard it used by gays. It's worth unpacking the expression a bit, and I think what's going on is this:

Gay people are different, and not only because they sleep with people of the same sex. They are different because they come from a persecuted minority, because they are bound together by a commonality (sexuality) which remains largely taboo and hidden. In addition, many of them share a particular type of dysfunctional family background, especially if they grew up somewhere in America's "heartland."

The historically hidden aspects of gay culture mean that much of the gay presence in the mainstream culture has had to be communicated via a whole occult (hidden) language of signs and signifiers. I remember sitting in film classes with the late Gerald Mast, who was gay, and learning something of the visual language of gay Hollywood film. For instance, the director George Cukor was gay, and if you watch his classic comedies like Holiday (1938) and Adam's Rib (1949) with this in mind it becomes easy to spot the gay characters - Hepburn's brother Ned (Lew Ayres) in the former, Tracy and Hepburn's next door neighbor Kip (David Wayne) in the latter. Mast was fond of pointing out the signs, such as Kip's Buddha statue (a sign of gayness in the 1940s) and his line to Hepburn (who in the movie is married to Tracy), "You should marry me, Amanda. It'd be so convenient."

From Mast's class I began to realize that there's a whole language of homosexuality, hidden in plain sight within mainstream culture. This is not hidden in there with the intention of secretly converting heterosexual children to homosexuality (take note, fundamentalist gay-bashers), but rather as a way for gay people to communicate to other gay people that they're not alone. As the culture opened up, the avenues for gay expression opened up, too. Today, many of the most familiar signifiers are so well-known as to approach (or surpass) camp. In film and television, a man interested in musicals (especially involving Judy Garland or her daughter Liza Minelli) or the fashion industry is tagged (with some justification) as a gay character.

The Internet has opened the doors wide open; without the Net there would probably have been no Time cover story like the one I discussed previously. Given the well-established gay signifiers in the culture, the expression "That's so gay!" is simply an affectionate tease, expressing that the straight recipient of the comment is dressing or acting in a manner that overlaps a bit too heavily (for a straight person) with gay style and culture. I don't think there's any undercurrent in the comment that gayness is inherantly bad, only that it's unbecoming for a straight person to look or act gay.

Just the other evening on Loveline, a radio show with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew, Adam had on his assistant Matt Haber (who is also his TV sidekick on The Adam Carolla Project). Haber is an openly gay young man, a sassy queen with a sharp sense of humor and a sweet spirit. It was refreshing to hear him discuss his sexuality and culture so openly, but it also amused me when Adam used the "That's so gay," line a few minutes later to a different person in a different context. I'm quite sure that Adam in no way meant to disrespect gay people; rather he was hitching a ride on a cultural idiom in a way only someone comfortable with gays ever could.

Years ago, a Canadian friend told me that she was perfectly comfortable making jokes about race with black friends of hers because "we don't have that whole slavery thing you Americans have, so we don't have to worry about being taken seriously when we joke." I believe something similar is happening with today's young people with regard to homosexuality. They are beginning to grow up in (and perpetuate) a world in which they can embrace gays and straights alike. Last year, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the courthouse for gay marriages -- thus pushing the issue permanently into the forefront of our national consciousness -- I suggested to a twenty-four-year-old straight male friend that Newsom should get a Nobel Prize. I was extremely surprised and moved when he replied without any hesitation, "I think he's going to be President."

That had never really occurred to me as a possibility, since historically, standing up for gays has never been a path to political success. Perhaps times have changed. Maybe voters have changed.

Maybe, in this new world, a little joke about gays is just that: a joke.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Time Delivers!

I don't normally read Time magazine because, well, why bother? But it's around at my work so I tend to skim through it on my downtime. I've been rather shocked--shocked!--at what I've seen over the last four issues.

What on earth could possibly have come over them? Four cover stories in a row I've read where they've actually taken extremely progressive stances, not necessarily in the most straightforward way, but quite specific nonetheless. This post will cover the first of the stories.

In The Battle Over Gay Teens, Time offers up an extraordinarily balanced view of what's going on with gay teens in America these days: how they're coming out earlier, how they're less scared to come out, how the Internet gives them a home no matter where they happen to live, how being anti-gay is beginning to be seen as uncool among the young, how 57% of teens favor gay marriage (compared to 36% of Americans overall). Of course, they also have the requisite right-wing primitives who decry the end of civilization as we know it, but for the most part the article is quite specific in humanizing its subjects -- and the undercurrent clearly communicates the notion that gays should be free to do whatever they want in a free society.

In short, if you read between the lines, Time is announcing to the country that the battle is over, that within a generation or so gays will be fully integrated into the culture.

I suppose I ought to add in my own two cents about just why I find this story so refreshing. It requires addressing what I call "liberal bias," which I've referred to elsewhere in the context of Hip Hop music. In reference to homosexuality, the standard liberal stance contains a paradox: most liberals will try to convince themselves that there's no difference between gays and straights while simultaneously praying that their own sons and daughters don't end up being gay (because "life as a homosexual is difficult," or some similar argument).

By contrast, the Time article cites a number of studies showing that almost ninety percent of gays would NOT choose to be straight even if they had the choice. In other words, there's obviously something specifically rewarding about being gay, such that a majority of gay people are apparently grateful for their orientation (I encourage comments from gay readers on this point).

This reminds me of a controversy covered by Atlantic Monthly some years back about a new procedure intended to give hearing to deaf people. The controversy centered around the fact that many deaf people (especially the "elite" of deaf people, deaf children of deaf parents) resented the notion that they were somehow "incomplete" without their hearing. Deaf people have their own language (American Sign Language is not simply a signed version of English) and culture; to be deaf is to be part of a whole community. Giving the deaf children of deaf parents hearing, the argument went, risked alienating them from their parents and culture.

I don't know what percentage of deaf people wish they could hear, but it's not safe to assume that all deaf people do, or even that they necessarily suffer the way you or I probably imagine we would suffer if we suddenly lost our hearing. Similarly, if it's wrong to assume that most gay people would jump at the chance to be straight, why should any parent care one way or the other if their child is anything other than happy?

I don't follow any particular religious path but my spirituality is very clear on the notion that God doesn't make mistakes, that everyone is here for a reason. If that's the case, then gay people are absolutely equivalent to straight people (not identical, equivalent), and it literally does not matter whether your children are gay or straight. The pseudo-Christian Right is forever lamenting the "normalizing" of homosexuality in our society, but their infernal battle is already lost. Raise the consiousness of the young and the "battle over gay marriage" will seem quaint in ten or twenty years.

Up next: Time delivers again, and again, and again!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Scanner Darkly

I'm definitely waiting for King Kong, since Peter Jackson is on my all-time heroes list after Heavenly Creatures and the masterwork Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson has taken the revolutionary step of posting extensive info about the production online; check out the fascinating "production diaries" on the Kong is King website.

But my most-awaited pick is Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. The trailer is a trip; they seem to have adapted the "digital rotoscoping" technology used so brilliantly in Linklater's astonishing Waking Life and added a whole reality-bending element.

Linklater has made a string of extraordinary films over the last ten years or so, including Before Sunrise, its nine-year follow-up Before Sunset, and the aforementioned Waking Life. He also has a pretty sharp commercial sensibility; School of Rock rose above its pedestrian Hollywood roots by combining Jack Black's sweetly manic performance with a keen sensitivity to the kids in the band. A Scanner Darkly looks to be another notch in his belt; even the Philip K. Dick Trust has high hopes for this one.

Linklater himself has a long cameo in Waking Life as a guy (himself?) telling a long story about Philip K. Dick, dreams, and time travel. He seems to be a director comfortable with serious investigations into the nature of consciousness, the contours of reality, and the netherworld between imagination, dreams, and the temporal and spatial consensus reality. In Linklater, Philip K. Dick may finally have found the director he's been posthumously seeking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

On Connectedness, MySpace, and The Future

The single most important engine driving the popularity of MySpace is that it's free. Free to have a Profile, free to post pictures, free to have a personal blog, free to have a friends list, free, free, free. Free is the engine that has driven much of the Internet. If you like this blog and want your own, it's yours for the taking; blogs here on are free, too.

[Actually, the only person who had to pay anything for MySpace is Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News Corp. just paid 580 million dollars for the company that owns MySpace. I guess Tom, the dorky-looking geek who started MySpace, and who adds himself as a "friend" to every new member's profile, won't have any problem getting dates from now on.]

Mention MySpace to the average adult and, if they've heard of it at all (I live in Silicon Valley where a disproportionate number of adults actually know about Internet trends), they usually dismiss it as "a big teenager thing." There is some truth to this, even in my own personal experience. Two of my three "friends" are the teenage daughter of a friend of mine and a friend of hers (the other is an early-twenties magician buddy).

I don't know the statistics, but any search without an age range will return far more 18-25 year-olds than 25-60 year-olds. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that teenagers have the skills and the time to mess around on MySpace; they don't have kids and mortgages to worry about. But I think something else is afoot as well.

The Internet Generation, which I have dubbed Gen I* is growing up with a sense of global connectivity unseen in the history of life on earth. They keep in touch with their friends as often as they desire, through their ever-present cell phones (via talk and text messaging) and through myriad channels on the Net. MySpace and the other social networking sites give them a place to homestead in cyberspace. Because everyone is connected to everyone else at all times on Myspace, it really does share an important quality with a village: everyone lives in your neighborhood.

In perusing various profiles on MySpace, I have been repeatedly struck by the level of personal detail people put out there for all to see. I'm not talking about sexual proclivities, or that sort of thing. But people have huge lists of their favorite bands, films, TV shows, drinks, sports, activities, and other passions. You can tell a lot about a person by the info they put out there, and it's clear the subjects of the profile want it that way.

For the moment, much of the activity on MySpace does seem somewhat infantile, but the kids who are growing up on this and similar sites will very soon be the adults of tomorrow. They will be used to having their own personal profile as an extension of themselves. I have already noticed how useful the web can be for finding out more about people I meet, especially in the context of where they work, since most companies have a web presence. How useful it would be to be able to pop over to my doctor or lawyer's MySpace profile to find out quickly how likely we are to be compatible (doctors who love hunting - no; lawyers who do pro bono work with the ACLU and listen to Radiohead -- much more likely).

It's hard to predict where social networking sites will be in five years, but I doubt they're going away anytime soon.

* [Damn. Gen I seems to be mine, but with Generation I Bill Gates seems to have beaten me to the punch by an embarrassing five years.]

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Simpsons: Origins

My continuing adventures with MySpace are a work in progress, but in the meantime here's a trip down my memory hole.

A few of my readers may remember that The Simpsons started out its life as a series of shorts on Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show way back in 1987. They were extra bits intended to get the show in and out of commercials, but they quickly developed a life of their own. I was already a huge fan of Simpsons creator Matt Groening's work, having developed a delirious passion for his his darkly plangent Life In Hell comic strip from reading it regularly in the Chicago Reader when I first moved to that fair city in 1982. I'm pretty sure I knew early on that Groening was the creator of the shorts; I may have even watched the show on that basis.

At any rate, I saw the first-ever short episodes of what later became The Simpsons on its premiere airing on April 19th, 1987. I remember well the refreshing bite of those quick snips; there was nothing like its satirical blend of family dysfunction, neurosis, and fear on television at that time. The first series, "Good Night," has stayed with me for the last seventeen years and from that single viewing years ago I can quote you almost verbatim the entire four-section mini-cartoon.

Now I've had the chance to check my memory. Those early episodes are available online for viewing here. They're as funny and sharp as I remember, if a bit rough around the edges. Popular culture has evolved and grown by leaps and bounds in the last eighteen years, and The Simpsons has been in the vanguard of that change. And Tracey Ullman, as part owner of The Simpsons, has become a very wealthy woman indeed.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Next week's Time magazine (sigh)

Tip 'o the Hat to the folks for hipping me to this HUGE upcoming story...

Saturday, October 15, 2005

On MySpace and the Future

Wired News has a brief article about the job market for Futurists -- and the lack of any accountability or certification program for those self-professed prophets who purport to interpret the signs and advise businesses which way the wind will blow. I mention this because I think this would be a perfect gig for yours truly, since I love nothing more than to analyze kiddie trends and prognosticate about what will happen when said kids grow up to be the leaders and trendsetters of tomorrow.


[Sorry, I drifted off there for a moment while imagining my son running the World Bank, or Halliburton...]

At any rate, a few weeks ago I was sitting in the hot tub at my gym when I overheard a couple of young men (high-school seniors, I gathered) discussing one of their girlfriends. "Where did you meet her?" asked the first. "MySpace," replied the second, matter-of-factly. "Oh, cool," said the first, without much further thought.

Meeting a mate online is nothing new, but when most adults (people over thirty-five, say) describe such a meeting, they inevitably effect a tone somewhere between salaciousness and wonderment -- "He met her on the Internet" -- implying that this is still an exotic and perhaps not-entirely-savory way to meet someone. I was, therefore, particularly struck by the casual affect of the young man; he may as well have been describing a meeting in school, or at the mall.

MySpace is the hottest of the social networking sites on the web (other popular sites include Friendster and Orkut). Basically, these are sites where you can set up your own personal website, with pictures, music, links to your interests, passions, sexual preferences, favorite color, and anything else you'd like others to know about you. On MySpace, you also get your own MySpace blog linked to your Profile, as well as a linked email account and instant messenger.

Most importantly, everyone you know who's on the network can join your "friends" list, so it's easy to quickly acquire a large network of "friends," some of whom are no more than people who 1. have a profile you find interesting and 2. agree to accept your "friend request." Of course, all your friends become the friends of all your friends as well, and their friends' friends become friends of friends of friends...

The whole "Friends" network can get pretty big pretty fast, which is sort of the point. On MySpace, you can quickly feel that you're part of a larger community. Networks of friends can keep in touch about what's happening on The OC or where to find out about tattoos.

Built into the system is the power to peruse the massive database for potential romantic partners, too. MySpace allows you to do searches by zip code, marital status, gender, sexual orientation, and a variety of keywords. You can find all the 25-27 year-old slender/slim vegetarians within fifty miles of you who are into mountain biking, or Matisyahu (The Hassidic Reggae Superstar), or (all over MySpace) Adult Swim.

Now, this wasn't the first time MySpace had intruded into my consciousness, but the casual way these particular kids referenced the site was a major wakeup call for me. I chatted with them a bit about the site, and from the discussion it was clear to me that this site was a huge part of their lives. So I started paying attention to the MySpace meme, and once I started looking I found MySpace showing up wherever teenagers were prevelant.

The Next Big Thing is happening right now! I figured I'd better get right over there and investigate...

Up next: What I learned about MySpace, young people, and our future (Hint: it's brighter than you think)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

More on Shining

Wow! The New York Times did an article about Robert Ryang, the 25-year-old creator of the "Shining" trailer mentioned below. That's just so wild that a little project he put together and emailed to a few friends suddenly got him into the New York Times. He won a contest and...well, read it and you'll see.)

The power of the net to spread a good idea...damn.

[Sorry about the light posting schedule this week; I've been exploring MySpace. I'll tell you what I think very soon.]

Thursday, September 29, 2005

UPDATED: New Comedy: The Shining

UPDATE: The new Harvey Danger CD I discuss below is fantastic; I urge you to go download it for free as soon as you're done reading this post. I've now listened to it five or six times and it reveals new pleasures with each listen -- while older pleasures gain in power and welcome.

It's cranked up on the headphones even as I write this.


Via Screenhead (and many others), here's the trailer for that heartwarming and wacky new comedy from Stanley Kubrick, The Shining.

Okay, for fans of The Shining, this is no kidding the funniest thing I've seen in a while.

And, as a bonus to my readers (and via BoingBoing), Seattle's Harvey Danger have put their entire new album Little by Little online for free download. I don't know much about the group, but I consider myself a fan just on the basis of their megahit song Flagpole Sitta', with it's punchy beat and bitingly intelligent lyrics:

been around the world and found
that only stupid people are breeding
the cretins cloning and feeding
and i don't even own a tv

paranoia paranoia
everybody's coming to get me
just say you never met me
i'm going underground with the moles

hear the voices in my head
i swear to god it sounds like they're snoring
but if you're bored then you're boring
the agony and the irony, they're killing me

Delicious! Little by Little is playing on the computer even as I type this, and it's a beauty. I have crappy little speakers here, but every song so far has been a winner; I look forward to getting this onto the iPod for a serious listen. Or two. Or ten.

Incidentally, if you like the album, Harvey Danger would like you to know that they'd appreciate if you would support them by buying it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

UPDATED: The Museum of the Hard-to-Believe

UPDATE: Doh! My buddy Greg left a comment here that Johnny has closed the Freakatorium (see below) and moved to Connecticut with his wife. I posted back in June that he was closing, but when I checked the Web site I saw nothing about it and I assumed that he had somehow managed to stay open (silly me, to assume people update their Web sites when they actually SHUT DOWN PERMANENTLY).


Kudos again to the Web, whose intricate and organic linking structure yielded the idea for this post, a journey into unusual museums.

BoingBoing has a fun post about, a neat repository of lore and info about sword swallowing. They even have an extensive list of contemporary sword swallowers, including Prague's own Emil Ondracek, (who I used to watch all the time during my own fabulist days in this most extraordinary city) and my old acquaintance Johnny Fox.

Johnny is also the owner/curator of the Freakatorium (El Museo Loco) in Manhattan, a direct descendent to the "Cabinets of Curiosities" that used to grace every major city worthy of the name. Johnny's amazing collection of oddities and freak-related memorabilia includes sideshow banners, Tom Thumb's clothes, P.T. Barnum's "Fiji Mermaid," and Sammy Davis Jr.'s glass eye. I haven't been to New York for about a decade and I have yet to visit the Freakatorium, but it's definitely on my short list of things to do when I make it back.

Thinking about the Czech Republic (which, for my less geography-centric readers, is in fact where Prague is located) reminded me of the jaw-dropping Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech town of Kutna Hora. This world-famous church is decorated with the bones of about 40,000 inhabitants of the cemetery that used to lie underneath it. Check out the coat of arms and the chandalier; this place is definitely worth a visit!

Mystery writer John Connelly has a lovely article about Sedlec; he was so taken with the place that he featured it in his latest book, The Black Angel.

And while you're in Kutna Hora, be sure to take a stroll over to the new Museum of Alchemy.

Another legendary museum I've not yet visited is the Mutter Museum, run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (which, for my really non-geography-centric readers, is in the eastern part of the United States, close to Colorado). From the site:

The Museum's collections include over 20,000 objects, including approximately 900 fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens; 10,000+ medical instruments and apparati, primarily dating between 1750 and the present; ca. 400 anatomical and pathological models in plaster, wax, papier mache, and plastic; ca. 200 items of memorabilia of famous scientists and physicians; and ca. 1500 medical illustrations in the form of lantern slides, 35 mm. slides, photographs, drawings, and prints

The Mutter is most famous for it's "fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens" (there's a fun description here), but they also have an excellent OB-GYN Instrument Collection, among other medical historical curiosities. Currently, they are running an exhibit on conjoined twins.

I've saved the best for last. No visit to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT), an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic. MJT is a tough place to describe; it's a "cabinet of curiosities" in a similar vein to the Freakatorium and the Mutter, but it's also a meta-museum, a museum about museums. The exhibits at MJT are as much about the elusive nature of knowledge and the arbitrary construction of reality as they are about forgotten neurophysiologist Geoffery Sonnabend or the little-known megolaponera foetens, a stink-ant from Cameroon.

I first visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology about fifteen years ago, after reading about it in local artsy paper the L.A. Weekly. My friend Mark and I found the non-descript storefront on Venice Boulevard and wandered in. The proprietor, a soft-spoken simian-looking man named David Wilson greeted us calmly (the place was otherwise empty), took our money, and then suggested we start with the introductory movie.

From there things got strange and stayed that way. I'll not describe what we saw; best to visit yourself and find out. Deliriously gifted writer Lawrence Weschler was so taken with MJT that he wrote Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, a loving examination of the museum and it's creator. Weschler also co-produced a beautiful Sound Portrait on MJT that's as good a place as any to start your own exploration.

Since my visit, David Wilson has won a MacArthur "genius grant" Fellowship, expanded the physical space considerably, and earned himself a devoted cult of followers. I consider the Museum of Jurassic Technology to be one of the great conceptual masterpieces of this century, and I urge everyone to check it out if you go to Los Angeles (which, as my more geography-centric readers well know, is an easy forty-five minutes southeast of Orlando, Florida).


Special Honorary mention to the first reader who can identify the geeky pop-culture origin of this post's title.