Did You Get That Thing I Sent You?

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Stored Transmissions from a Slower World

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Getting a hell of a lot of press these days, and rightly so, is an excellent blog called Letters of Note.  Some British blokes decided to post historic and/or notable letters from or concerning famous people and events, and offer little background blurbs.  Very simple, like many good ideas.

It’s a bit odd, glorifying a dead medium on the medium that killed it.  Like a murderer making a shrine to his victim.  But the value of the blog comes through instantly and powerfully.  Seeing the handwriting or typewriter impressions of famous hands stirs something up.  These letters would cover much space and time before reaching their desired audience, and so their words were chosen very carefully.  Like with a painting, there’s much more of the author’s vague, intangible presence in the letter- than say, in an email from a coworker, which can be copied, and forwarded, and archived, and instantly retrieved.  It’s almost tantamount to the difference between poems and simple utterances.

If I’m talking too big I apologize- I suffered a minor head injury this morning.

Written by Peter Kelly

December 29, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Face Detection & The All-New, All-Marketed World

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Scott McCloud recently linked an entry from James Gurney’s blog (he’s the guy who wrote Dinotopia (which –  holy shit, remember Dinotopia??)) about the power of face recognition technology, which most know as those little boxes over people’s faces that appear on certain digital camera LCD screens.  He spoke thusly:

Popular Mechanics hints at what’s coming: “Sometime soon, face detection may even give way to facial identification, discerning one subject from another. For instance, the camera could retain an image tagged ‘Mom’ in its memory. Later, the camera would automatically recognize each subsequent picture of your mother and add the ‘Mom’ tag to it.”

Facial identification or recognition is a fast-growing technology that uses 3-D scans or interpolates various 2-D scans to assemble a knowledge of basic structure. Wikipedia says that some of the new algorithms are “able to outperform human participants in recognizing faces and can uniquely identify identical twins.”

To wit: if your mug is tagged in Facebook next to a bottle of vodka, expect to gets ads from Grey Goose.  If this isn’t here yet it’s coming very soon.  The ramifications are huge.  We’re in the middle of a sort of Perfect Storm of privacy invasion conditions: brand new ways of culling marketable data on people are appearing everyday, while at the same time the old means of generating ad revenue (newspapers, tv, radio) are become increasingly irrelevant.  Media outlets are desperate to lure advertisers, and advertisers are desperate to ensure demographic accuracy; the tending path of both seems to be towards closer and closer monitoring of all aspects of a consumer’s life.  I should know, I work in marketing.

Written by Peter Kelly

December 15, 2009 at 3:23 am

Back in action, yo

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No excuses, just an article about a guy who’s reviewing 1000 albums before the end of 2009.

Best to take his words re: how & why.  I will say though – we need things like this, even if it is just an internet stunt.  Weingarten’s project is like performance art; its statement is much larger than the albums its reviews.  Music criticism, like all criticism, is being crowdsourced by the internet, and tastemakers are now expected to deliver lifestyle rather than commentary.  We’re losing true expertise as a cultural value, and the @1000timesyes project is protest against this.

In a world of foxes, maybe we need more hedgehogs.

Written by Peter Kelly

December 5, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Louis Menand, I am going to slap you

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This article is deplorable.  As far as i can tell, Menand’s argument is that creative writing should not be taught because:

-Moving the locus of writing from the individual to the university creates literary hivemind,
-Using fiction writing as therapy or to improve ones communication skills cheapens the form, and besides,
-You can’t teach somebody to write a great novel.

Failing to properly articulate his first two claims, Menand routinely falls back on the third- which is a tired and altogether meaningless claim, akin to saying there’s no point in playing baseball if you can’t join the majors.  What this clown does manage to do is come off snooty ponce with an ego the size of Galactus.  My favorite part is a parenthetical about Nabokov teaching the novel at Columbia- Menand, himself a Harvard professor, can’t help but mention that his Ivy Institution “once considered hiring Nabokov to teach literature [but] Roman Jakobson, then a professor of linguistics there, is supposed to have asked whether the university was also prepared to hire an elephant to teach zoology.”

Oh. Oh ho ho.  Quel drole.

The problems with the ever-irritating argument that creative writing should not be taught are too myriad to innumerate, but they all essentially fall under the umbrella of academic elitism.  Louis Menand can’t for the life of him imagine why anybody would even bother to pick up a pen if not to write the next Work That Changes Everything.  Or, you know, to talk shit about other people’s genuine efforts to express what’s inside of them.  Society needs that!!!

UPDATE: According to wikipedia, Menand wrote a book on Pragmatism, which, as a set of beliefs, is to Analytic Philosophy what Episcopalianism is to Catholicism: most of the same ideas, but not half as interesting.

Written by Peter Kelly

June 10, 2009 at 2:02 am

MuuMuu House Embezzlement Scandal

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Brandon Scott Gorrell had a short story contest on his website (I linked to it a few posts ago).  Entrants had to pay $7, and the winner would receive half of all the entry fees, a final amount of $254.80, as well as a lifetime subscription to MuuMuu House books, and a bunch of other crap.

Long story short, head publisher at MuuMuu House and literary cult leader Tao Lin won the contest.

God I want to stop writing about this guy.

Gorrell posted the winning story on his blog.  The third comment on the post is Lin saying “Damn, Sweet story.” By the fifteenth comment, it is revealed that Lin wrote the story and then used one of his interns (possibly girlfriend?) to send it in.  Shit to fan.  “Sarah Schneider,” who submitted the story for Lin, told the whistleblower to “stop making up lies.”  Gorrell insists that the story was sent by Schneider, he didn’t know it was penned by Lin (though through employing some Critical Reading I learned in High School, I was able to find evidence that the story was written by Lin in the first word and then also in every single word that followed), and that even still he didn’t violate any of the rules he had established for his contest.  Then Lin admitted to sending it to Schneider, then later admitted to specifically using Schneider to enter the contest.  This all happens in that comments section, btw.

I won’t bother detailing the internet fray that followed.  The word “shitstorm” has been used a lot.  Though he never says it directly, Lin eventually acknowledges that all the prizes are going directly to him.  He will refund anyone “who asks.”

While Lin comes off as conniving and manipulative here, and his girlfriend Schneider seems spineless, its Gorrell who looks the worst from all this.  Let’s first believe his highly questionable claim that he didn’t know he was awarding a Lin story.  OK, he should have specifically stated that no interested parties can participate.  That’s how contests are typically structured.  Lin and Gorrell AND Schneider, as intern, make up the publishing company MuuMuu house, and this contest was partially billed as a way to get the attention of publishers.  But OK he didn’t say interested parties couldn’t participate, so he’s just not too bright.  No rules broken.

But what does it say about this guy, whose style draws heavily from Lin (you know, like how Dark Star Orchestra draw heavily from The Grateful Dead), who also works directly under Lin, and whose blog even looks like a rescripted facsimile of Lin’s , when he is finally given the opportunity to be in charge of something, something personal that could distinguish him from Lin, he just goes ahead and cedes the spotlight to his master, yet again.  Gorrell is a minion.  It’s a shame, because it was really a great idea for a contest.

Anyway, the larger picture has to do with the entire “internet writer” thing.  All the inappropriate quotations, the lack of punctuation, excessive use of phrases like “I feel,” “it seems like,” and “whatever,” the prevailing tone of slightly shocked existential awkwardness…it is all so tired by now.  But Lin, Gorrell, Ellen Kennedy, Schneider, and basically everyone who posts anything positive on any of these blogs, are all more than happy to maintain the hivemind.  Movements more famous and far more interesting have eventually crumbled due to stagnant like-mindedness.  Lin is still a genius of self-promotion (and this may be his greatest stunt yet), but it seems like MuuMuu House And Friends have forgotten there’s supposed to be literature being made.

PLUG: there is a new story of mine at The Whiskey Dregs.  It’s called Simon and it’s a very short story about becoming other people.  I wish I had given it another name.

Written by Peter Kelly

May 30, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Sumus Quod Sumus

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Last week I read Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and today I finished Paul Auster‘s The Brooklyn Follies, inadvertently studying the early part of this decade in New York, in reverse chronological order. Whereas NY lit darling Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel is about coming to terms with atrocity and loss in the wake of 9/11, The Brooklyn Follies is so staunchly “pre-9/11” that the novel actually concludes at 8:00 a.m., September 11, 2001. Much could be said about the styles of the two books reflecting the eras they occupy, but I’ll leave that matter to the academics and English majors who are forced to discuss such bland cliches.

The parallel between the two books that I’d like to talk about is a gradual shift that occurs in the voices of both novels’ narrators. Voice shifts, for better or worse, happen frequently in novels, and can typically be attributed to either a character’s transformation or an author’s straying from plans. The voice changing in both novels here examined is notable because it belongs to that unfortunate second cast.

Not that the shift detracts terribly from the end result in either case.  ELIC and TBF are both above average novels.  In TBG the change could not be more welcome- the sudden thawing of Nathaniel Glass’s demeanor pulls the novel out of the “High School Composition” feel that pervades the opening section.  Check out these first few sentences:

I was looking for a quiet place to die.  Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain.  I hadn’t been back in fifty-six years, and I remembered nothing.

One expects better from Mr. Auster.  He eventually delivers by taking the grave, humourless curmudgeon of the opening pages and retrofitting him into the role of wise, altruistic paterfamilias.  From then on the novel improves with each page, but the change is never satisfactorily explained.

Unfortunately, nearly the opposite is true in ELIC. The first few pages of ELIC detail the thoughts of a mind on fire, inventing, explaining, and free-associating in a rushed yet lucid manner that is both comic and mystifying.

What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack with me?  I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sing the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raison d’etre, which is a French expression that I know.  Another good thing is that I could traing my anus to talk when I farted.  If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart.  And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside of Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’etais pas moi!

Our narrator, Oskar Schell, remains delightful throughout the book, but the bottled-chaos energy that drives the opening section is gradually sapped.  It is impossible to argue that this change in voice can be attributed to growing up or a change of heart, because Oskar is 9 and, we are lead to assume, has Asperger’s Syndrome.  It seems unlikely his mode of interacting with the world would change to be more measured, precise, and focused, over the course of a year.

Yet one might say the speaker in the opening section would be unable to convey the whole of what the book wanted to accomplish.  Fair.  But to split hairs, technically anything can be done when the writer is capable enough.

Alas, very few of us are Yeatses and Joyces.  Most of us can only make do with the inspiration granted us, and hope to wrestle a passable product out of it.  And often the thing we make ends up little resembling the thing we thought we were making.  I cite Auster and Foer (who in his picture on wikipedia just looks so damn much like Alan Cummings in Goldeneye) only to show that even eminently capable authors are subject to the tricky winds of creation.

Written by Peter Kelly

May 25, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Achewood

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Achewood is an internet comic by Chris Onstad.  The strip stars three cats, two bears, a few robots, an otter, and a bunch of other hilarious creatures prone to drinking and doing things improperly.  Achewood’s format ranges from one-shots to months-long story arcs, but its consistent subject is the exquisite art of talking bullshit practiced by the average immature male.  What makes the comic so great is that, unlike so so so many other comedies about men being shallow and dumb, Achewood’s character’s don’t sit neatly in “type” roles.  There isn’t a stupid character, they’re all stupid.  They’re all smart too.   Onstad’s primary asset is his ability to be casually cerebral with his dialogue: in places where lesser writers would have a straight man set up a joke and a funny man deliver, Onstad has each character give as good as he gets, which keeps the dialogue sharp and the characters multi-dimensional.  It actually sounds like two (real) dudes bickering, rather than cat-shaped joke ciphers.  Great comedy just takes great characters, it’s as simple as that.

Go there are start clicking Random Comic, damnit.

Written by Peter Kelly

May 16, 2009 at 7:40 pm

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