Getting the Most for Your Money

A Rambling Post on Cultural Theft in the Internet Age

Last week was one of the more enjoyable ones in the realm of social tech, as hipster photo sharing app Instagram finally got an Android release, racking up an astonishing five million downloads in six days [and pissing off a small army of elitist iPhone owners in the process].  On the heels of that success came the news yesterday that Lord Zuckerberg and the Dread Facebook Legion were acquiring the service for a cool billion dollars.

Not bad for a company with 13 employees.

As users celebrated/bemoaned the acquisition, I found this interesting factoid via Tumblr [yes, I still use my Tumblr, it’s actually pretty useful for news, and I require The Daily Frenchie  for my well-being]: With the Facebook buyout, Instagram is now worth about a dozen Kodaks, the company who invented many of the cameras that inspired Instagram’s signature style.

One could argue that this is just the nature of the capitalism, that Kodak’s inability to innovate in the digital age is what sprung the leak that sank the ship.  But I wonder if you couldn’t also argue that a company like Instagram pilfering the creations of  Kodak didn’t contribute more to the company’s decline than we realize, and how many other online services we use are actually damaging innovation.  I’ll try to walk this through behind the cut.

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Thirty Days of Stories: Day Eight

Titles: [1] A Platonic Relationship; [2] Find and Replace

Author: Ann Beattie

Appears in: [1] Distortions [1976], [2] Follies [2005]; both found in The New Yorker Stories [2011]

Premise: [1] A recently divorced woman in her early thirties rents her house to an undergrad student and develops an intense friendship with him. [2] Following the death of her father, a woman travels to Florida to visit her mother, only to learn the older woman is preparing to shack up with a neighbour for no reason other than being ‘compatible.’

Thoughts: So, why two?  Because I love collected works editions, that’s why. My recent second-hand acquisition of Ann Beattie’s ‘The New  Yorker Stories,’ [which I admit I only bought for the typography of its cover] allows me to do with Beattie what I’ve done with Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and others: read a career, especially the early stages, which is usually what I’m most concerned with, being a beginner myself. Beyond that, it’s a useful exercise to use books like this to see how an author’s voice develops, which is what struck me most about these two stories, the former written in 1974, the latter in 2001: the confidence and assuredness in Beattie’s prose is so much stronger in the newer story it’s almost jarring.

Not to say that A Platonic Relationship is a bad story, because it isn’t. But it reads as the story of a much younger writer.  There’s so much more life under the fingernails of Find and Replace…maybe the newer story struck more notes for me personally, being about the changing relationships of parents and children and such. APR had some distinct ‘been there, done that,’ elements at work, it felt like the 70’s frozen in amber, and it hadn’t aged especially well. FAR felt more vital to me and ultimately had more to say about age, family, change and the infinite allure of irresponsibility.

Lesson: Perhaps not returning to fiction until I was older was not the tragedy I thought it might have been. At least, not if you want to do literary fiction, anyway.

Favourite line: “What kind of writing?” he said, “Mysteries?”
“No. Stuff that really happens.”
“Don’t people get mad?” he said….
“People don’t recognize themselves. And, in case they might, you just program the computer to replace one name with another. So, in the final version, every time the word Mom comes up it’s replaced with Aunt Begonia or something.” 

Where Ya At?

Oh, you know, here and there.  Don’t mistake a lack of presence here for a lack of writing, that’s actually how the bulk of my weeks go lately.  If you want to read ’em, feel free:

FOR CHAPTERS/INDIGO:

A lot of stuff, actually, mostly intro’s to pieces about cookbooks and such, but I did get to run on a piece looking at the recent Hardcover commemorating the 25th Anniversary of Def Jam Records, so that was fun.  All my recent pieces for them are collected here.

FOR 22 PAGES:

I seem to be moving to a monthly schedule with my articles for the University of Toronto’s Comics Appreciation site.  When I’m on fire, you might see a piece there every couple of weeks. This time out, we went a month.  Such is life.  The latest piece looks at comics icon Frank Miller and what his recent comments about the Occupy Wall Street Protests say about him.

So that’s where I be.  My Twitter usually finds me prattling on about one thing or another pretty much daily if it feels like I’m falling off here [which I will occasionally, let’s be honest]. But I’m also learning to make better use of scheduling blogs, instead of tossing a bucket of content up during the weekends when less people are around, I can schedule that content to go up throughout the week. Such are the marvels of the times we live in.

If you’re new here, thanks for stopping by. If you’re a regular, I hope you realize how much I appreciate that.  I don’t thank y’all enough.

Three or Four Things You Already Knew

The scary part is how 1970s my neighbourhood actually looks.

Am I one of the cool kids, yet? Man, I hope so.  Look at that!  Even the edges look like an old Polaroid.  That should at least get me a 15% coupon to Urban Outfitters.

Just a quick link roundup today of things I’ve had turn up on other places, in case anybody out there can’t get enough of me.  How is that even possible?!

Over on the Chapters/Indigo Non-Fiction blog, I have a somewhat more restrained look at the Mark Yarm book I wrote about the other day, along with recommended further reading.

At 22Pages, you can find a new piece on the merits of DCs replacement heroes who emerged in the late 1990s, only to be unceremoniously swept aside for their more iconic predecessors.  But iconic to who, I ask!  Iconic to who?!?

And over at PFG Express, you can find a somewhat rambling story about falling in love with the things my old band created, in light of finally listening to Slint’s much celebrated 1991 sophomore release Spiderland.  That’s probably the best example of why I started the Tumblr in the first place.  With the free audio embedding [I mean really, come on, WordPress!], I can throw up an old demo from the band and tell a more personal anecdote about it.  That seems a little indulgent for my purposes here.  Maybe I shouldn’t overthink these things. *shrug* You tell me, friends.

As well, I’ll probably start the gears in motion to assemble another installment of RadioPFG.  I never quite lose my itch to foist music on all of you, and until Spotify makes its way to Canada, podcasting will have to do the job.  Besides, don’t you just love my dulcet tones?  Shut up.

And that’s about how things are shaking up around the PFG camp for the moment. I’m kind of having one of those shark-moments, where I feel like I’ll die if I stop, so you can look forward to reaping the benefits, friends.

Estate Planning in the Internet Age

By R.O. Blechman

Last fall my coworker and friend Lisa passed away.  Like most of us who worked with her, shortly after hearing the news I visited her Facebook profile, scanned through her pictures, grieved for her in my way.  What I did not do was leave a message on her wall.  Other people chose to, and while the practice is no different from any sort of physical memorial, I still found it in poor taste.

But it did leave me wondering. This train we’re all on, it’s taking us to the same place.  I currently have two Twitter accounts, one Facebook, one Flickr, one YouTube currently active.  I also have a Blogger, a LiveJournal, a Deadjournal, an OpenDiary and countless email addresses in the digital trash heap. What happens to all this stuff?  It’s been almost four months since Lisa passed.  Her Facebook is still there, the messages still get posted. What happens to our digital souls when we die?

This is the question the NY Times tried to answer in a piece published today. I’m not going to spit back the details of the article, because you’re all big boys and girls, you can read it yourself.  The most fascinating part of the article, I found, was learning about the ‘information insurance’ agent Death Switch.  Simple concept: you create and assign digital archives to go to certain people.  You get periodic emails from the service to ensure you’re still alive.  If you don’t reply, the switch gets flipped and the messages and archives get sent out.  You control your last words to whoever you want, the last message you leave in their memories.  It’s the idea that launched a thousand sci-fi short stories, functioning in the present day [the sample correspondence, highlighting the service’s usefulness, is fascinating].

We spend all this time cultivating the brand of who we are online.  It’s what we’re constantly told, build the brand, get out there.  My own output is paltry compared to the tsunami of digital product put out by the more whoreish social media types I cross paths with, all in the name of creating the perfect version ourselves while we’re breathing, with little consideration for what could happen to it once we stop.

I mean, I make an effort [small] to present myself with a certain level of sophistication [also small].  Imagine my horror to discover one of my old blogs, left by the side of the superhighway, did not cyberdegrade into dust but is perfectly preserved, ready for perusing by anyone who wants to know what was going on in the head of a twentysomething editor at an alt-weekly who never got laid and still lived at home?  And what do I do about it? Leave it open as is?  And let anyone who discovers it use my naked baby pictures however they want, with my dead ass unable to do anything about it?  Not likely.  Purge it completely?  Writers are natural hoarders, we can’t bear to discard anything we’ve blessed with our limited genius.  What then, archive it?  How to do that reliably?  Data is much more fragile than we think.

I don’t have the answers, friends.  Neither does Rob Walker, who wrote the piece, nor any of the people he interviewed.  As the Internet further entrenches itself in our lives, we’re all going to have to weigh the benefits of exposure against the value of legacy.

There Ain’t No Party Like a Rock-Afire Party

I have what could be delicately described as an….obsessive personality type.  For the latter half of my life, my leisure time has been dedicated to any number of irrational passions, including but not limited to:

  • Comic books [twice, as a preteen and as an adult]
  • Anime
  • Japanese horror/extreme cinema
  • Designer vinyl figures
  • Sneakers, fitted hats and the coordination of the two.

An expensive summer of wedding attendance and all around focus on increased fiscal responsibility has lead to the sale or removal of many of the items acquired in pursuit of these various fixations, but the mindset never goes away.  If anything, I’ve tried directing those energies into this blog, since I’m a little anxious to think of what I would do without some outlet to pour them into.

As an obsessive, I appreciate and am fascinated by the level of dedication other people bring to the things that capture their imaginations, and am the target market for the new wave of documentary films that chronicle these quests like King of Kong or Man on Wire.

But I don’t know if anything is as wonderfully batshit crazy as the fandome behind The Rock-Afire Explosion.

My Canadians might not know this, but in the 80s Chuck E. Cheese had some strong competition from Showbiz Pizza Place.  Each establishment followed the same formula: arcade games, pizza that I’m sure listed sodium as the second ingredient and animatronic, anthropomorphic animals.

Oh God, yes.

When I was a kid I remember being enthralled by the ads for Showbiz Pizza Place.  Like I’ve said before, kids who grew up in Windsor are bombarded by US advertisements for things we will never have, and the ads for Showbiz made it look like Shangri-La.  In a world of Xboxes and backyard skateboard parks, Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese seem quaint by comparison, but for an 80s eight-year-old it was inconceivable that someone would put that much awesome in one room.  And the feature attraction for Showbiz was the stage show, starring a band of animatronic animals called The Rock-Afire Explosion.

Now times change, Showbiz got bought out, and the Explosion retired.  That should have been it. But if we’ve learned anything from the times we live in, friends, it’s that no one ever has to let anything go.  Memories lead to fandom, fandom becomes obsession, and suddenly a DJ from Alabama has it in his head that he’s going to buy up the remaining animatronics and rebuild the full band in his garage.  Of course this must be documented.

The documentary is out now, and I honestly can’t wait to watch it. I love how the music in that trailer perfectly captures the sad melancholy of missing something so insubstantial so much.

But the story doesn’t end there!  Once Thrash completed his set, he [and Rock-Afire creator Aaron Fechter] began reprogramming the characters to perform contemporary songs, filming the performances and putting them on YouTube. And this is where we move from weird pop culture fossil back around to….I don’t know what.

The fanatic in me can certainly appreciate the level of dedication that goes into something like this. I appreciate it so much I can overlook how goddamned creepy it is. So much more, including footage of a guy named Charlie who wanted to give his sister Amy the best 30th birthday party ever, can be found on The Explosion’s YouTube channel.

The saddest part is I can’t even make fun, because if I had the resources, I would totally have something similar in my backyard.  Salute, good sirs.

Thank You for Holding

Okay, so not so much technical difficulties as an afternoon spent on some housekeeping issues in an attempt to streamline the PFG experience, since I don’t have anyone to do it for me.

If you would direct your attention to the menu at the top of the screen, you will notice that one of those drop-down menus actually…drops down.

Where previously a click of the ‘Works’ tab would ultimately take you to a PDF of the work in question, those PDFs have now been given their own dedicated page here on the site, unless it requires  you to go to another site altogether.  Just trying to make it easier for the curious to connect with what I do, since I think it’s been forgotten that this was once upon a time the blog was supposed to complement the creative work and not the other way around.

So click away, friends.

Remember When This Blog Used to be About Books?

I miss that. Indulge me.

Because it provides me with a certain level of schadenfreude, and because I love to flog dead horses, one last review disassembling  Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, this one by John Crace in The Guardian.

So this summer, it looks like The Passage by Justin Cronin will be the bestselling behemoth. Why? Because everyone is telling you it will be. I don’t know friends, maybe I’m just not attending the right parties and aren’t talking to the right people, but I have no idea why this book has captured the force of the publishing marketing machine so much.  I know it has vampires, and everyone is desperate to find the book that will sate the the demands of all the Twilight readers who have tried to find a suitable substitute, and I know Cronin’s gotta be a better than good writer, what with his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and such, but why this book?  I’m just curious to know the calculations that go into deciding what projects get the money tossed around.  It also seems more and more, with new authors especially, that publishing is this ouroboros of marketing: like the post says, anymore the teaser trailer for a new author is the number of digits in his or her advance, which makes the project worthy of mainstream coverage, which creates a best seller.  Leads to another whole re-examination of taste and quality that seems like I’ve discussed before, but may have fresh ammo for after listening to the hosts of Slate’s Culture Gabfest discuss why Stieg Larsson novels have become a global phenomenon.

Speaking of Stieg, the Swedish National Library discovered some manuscripts of Larsson’s sitting around the offices of a small press magazine, unpublished.

Because I’m a closet design nerd: Twenty-five iconic book covers [but don’t try to buy them, Abe Books is a rare editions dealer, so unless you want to pay $3,500 for that copy of Psycho…]

And, in the coolest development I’ve heard all week, a man named Nathan Dunne is starting a new literary journal featuring two stories about 20 minutes in length read by the authors, then pressed and distributed on vinyl records. Respect the ballsiness to pull such a deliberately retrograde maneuver in the dominant currents of the culture.