You have a hole in your mind

A fresh viewing of Babylon 5 commences


Over the next few months or so, I’ll be rewatching the entirety of Babylon 5 (the series itself, Crusade, the movies — all of it) and blogging about it (Note: As it doesn’t stream currently, if you want to watch it that means purchasing it as DVDs¹, digital episodes on Amazon² or iTunes³, or using other means I don’t condone). I’ll try to make it a more critical viewing than not… but this is mostly just for pleasure (I’ve been meaning to rewatch it for a couple of years now). So, if you’re looking for a more critical read of B5, I’m not sure I’ll be able to help. Maybe? We’ll see.

Anyhow, like most of the good TV I’ve watched from college forward, I came late to Babylon 5 (it’s a bad habit of mine — I don’t do well picking good stuff when it first airs and then I end up playing catch-up; let’s not talk about when I finally started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

The issue with B5 was it aired in the 1990s. Had it come a decade later, things would have been different (but then the show wouldn’t have been what it is). I knew it was on. It originally was on a weird little ad-hoc TV network (PTEN) that had space on UHF channels across the US (in Detroit, it was on Channel 20). We didn’t have DVRs yet (or, if we did, they were probably prohibitively expensive), scheduling the VCR to record was a pain in the ass (plus managing those tapes was annoying beyond belief), and I was usually busy when it was on. So I skipped it for a while.

I picked it up somewhere in the fourth season and realized I liked what I was seeing… but I was lost. I had no idea who Sheridan was, or why Londo and G’kar didn’t like each other, or why Delenn had hair but the other Minbari did not. It’s a testament to the planning that went into that series — but it also made it beyond difficult for a new viewer to easily get into (remember that there wasn’t any streaming to binge, but there were VHS tapes to attempt to catch up with — if you could find them all). That was one of the major failings of the series — it was difficult, and potentially expensive to the viewer, to catch up (even if you joined just a little late in the series). When TNT surprisingly picked it up near the tail end of the series, the network tried to catch newcomers up with Babylon 5: In the Beginning, but it never truly pulled in the audience they were hoping for (and it’s full of spoilers if you watch it at the actual beginning). In the end, Babylon 5 wasn’t a good network show, but it’s an excellent one for binging. It is one of the first serialized TV shows that would have lent itself to the current streaming environment… but was a couple of decades too early. I wonder: What would have happened had the show been on Netflix or Prime or Hulu 20 years later (other than a completely different cast)?

Eventually I ended up fully watching the series a few years later when I picked up the DVD box sets in a sale at Best Buy. After watching the series through once, I came across The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5 (yes, that’s what the web used to look like) and the larger B5 community — including the establishment of the preferred viewing order. When I watched it again, my wife joined me and we watched one of the preferred viewing orders.⁴ I was very happy with the way it played out.

It’s been about seven years or so since that last viewing. In addition to just wanting to watch it, I find the current political environment lends itself to the overarching story the story presents. And, as I’m finally getting back to my own storytelling, I think B5 is an excellent example of how to tell stories correctly (despite some missteps here and there). So, once a week or so, I’ll post my thoughts (as members only stories, so please sign up as a Medium member) on the episodes I watched that week (I’m thinking I’ll summarize a disc or two per post). After some thinking about the viewing order, I’m going with what is said to be creator J. Michael Straczynski’s perferred viewing order (I’m through “Born to the Purple” at the time of this writing, so will post soon after watching “Infection,” I think).

If you’d like to watch along with me, please do — and let me know what you think. As it’s been quite a few years since I last watched B5, and as I’m a bit (a lot) of a tech and gadget geek, I’ve upgraded our media hardware a couple of times.⁵ So, for the record, we’re currently using an LG 4K OLED display with an Apple TV 4K for streaming and an Xbox One X for physical media. When trying to decide what standard definition source to use (DVD or iTunes digital files) for rewatching B5, I chose to use the original pilot movie The Gathering. It’s probably the one piece in the series that is of the least quality film-wise, and it’s also the best to help you calibrate and forecast what results you’re going to get with the poor-quality scenes in the series (I’ll just say the digital files are not the best route to go in a setup like ours. If you can get the physical DVDs and upscale correctly, do so).

Let’s go do some exploring on this side of the galactic rim, shall we?


¹ The discs are available by individual seasons (Season One, Season Two, Season Three, Season Four, Season Five, The Movie Collection, Crusade (the follow-up series), Legend of the Rangers (pilot for another follow-up that went nowhere), and The Lost Tales) or, in some cases, large collections can be purchased that include most (if not all) of the discs. Yes, they are all DVD — there is nothing on Blu-ray.

² Amazon has the full B5 episodes available here. Crusade is here. The movies are in a collection here. And, yes, they’re almost all standard definition — you will find no HD here except The Lost Tales.

³ iTunes has the full B5 episodes here. Crusade is here. The movies are available seperately: In the Beginning, Thirdspace, River of Souls, Legend of the Rangers, A Call to Arms, and The Lost Tales. And, as above, they’re all standard definition except The Lost Tales.

⁴ Why is it that science fiction series get these sorts of “preferred” viewing order things? Babylon 5, Star Wars, Firefly. I’m sure the list goes on.

⁵ I’ve debated setting up a retro 480i standard definition rig — something for analog sources (VHS, LaserDisc, my old Atari 2600, maybe an NES or a Genesis) to be presented in something more appropriate to the context they were originally released for. I just haven’t had the time to go after a good used CRT with S-video on it nor the space to set it up in. One day I may still do that, though. Then that will give the old standard def stuff (like B5) an appropriate place to live.

The Soundtrack of my Summer of 1989

It was a summer of Tom Petty

It was a high school bachelor’s summer of staring at unobtainable girls and trying not to drown in Lake Erie (those are both different stories).

This story starts out more along the lines of…

I didn’t have a car when I turned 16.

Hell, I didn’t even have a license. I had to rely on my mother and friends to get around. My best friend, Scott, had a car. And a cassette player in the car. And neither of us had girlfriends at the time, so we ended up spending a decent amount of time with each other that summer.

That is a cover I’ve looked at for a long, long time.

We listened to a lot of his music when we would drive. We agreed on quite a few performers — the Doors, INXS, U2 — but in the summer of 1989, the tape that was the soundtrack for driving through metro Detroit and southeastern Ontario was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever.

I was about six months from discovering Brent Bambury’s Brave New Waves and David Wisdom’s Night Lines on a static-y late night CBC Stereo signal from Windsor and London and being exposed to a great deal I hadn’t heard yet. At this point, I was still regularly listening to mostly classic rock. Between that and always having been a fan of the Beatles, I got into the Traveling Wilburys in 1988 (George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty). Full Moon Fever felt like a continuation of that (you’ll see why if you look at the contributors on it and the two Wilburys albums… and perhaps that’s the real reason why their second album was titled Vol. 3). And since Scott enjoyed Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it wasn’t a surprise when we both enjoyed Full Moon Fever.

I’d be shocked if Scott doesn’t still have his cassette copy stashed somewhere. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the tape is long gone after snapping or tearing after hundreds of times being auto-reversed.

But I digress.

“Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were three we played the most. The fun he and the others were having on the album was almost palpable and it was definitely contagious. “Free Fallin’,” in particular.

Something about it sort of encapsulated the feelings of Gen Xers in high school to me. Especially the third verse:

I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothing
Gonna leave this world for a while

I’m not sure if Petty was making a comment about his kids or what he was observing or had observed or what he felt as a teen (the video makes a lot of effort to try and connect three post-WWII time periods and find similarities between the teen girl in each, but I’ve never found the video to fit the song that well), but I found that song to be emblematic of what a teenager at the end of the 1980s was feeling and trying to come to grips with. As a generation, I would definitely say the Gen Xers were in a sort of free fall at that time — we were unsure of what was going to happen in the next year (let alone the next decade). It felt like we were all close to paralyzed with indecision and hope and uncertainity and ennui to all eventually be revealed as promise as the World Wide Web came into fruition and we realized what could happen (shame it’s all been wasted on becoming a massive channel that’s only about selling each other products and ideologies). “Free Fallin’,” to me, summed up where we were before all of that.

(One day I do want to explore those vampires in the valley heading west on Ventura Boulevard… but that’s another story.)

Tom Petty isn’t one of the first artists I discovered. He isn’t my favorite (he probably isn’t even in my top twenty). In the end, when we heard of Tom Petty’s passing yesterday it wasn’t the punch to my gut that David Bowie or Kurt Cobain or even Chris Cornell’s was. I was saddened, but not shocked or surprised or dismayed at the loss the world has suffered (and that isn’t to take away from those who do feel that). But…

But for a few short months in 1989, those lines summed it all up for me and helped me make sense of what I was going through. That’s priceless. For that alone, I wish him a good, well-deserved rest.

Too many fatheads

…I decided that I couldn’t afford to like everybody anymore, you know? I went on a low social cholesterol diet. No more fatheads.

Utah Phillips, “Mess with People”

I discovered Utah Phillips through Ani DiFranco. Rarely does a day go by where I don’t think about something he said (especially on the album The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere).

A couple of years back, I wrote a post opining about hollow Easter candy. I hate hollow easter candy. If you’re interested… go check it out here. I discussed the issues of form over substance.

The current state of social media has me thinking about this post and the issues of form over substance. I mean, we elected a game show host to the presidency as the ultimate realization of form over substance.

But that individual is not what this post is about.

It was the utterly insipid announcement Twitter made about testing a 280 character limit that started me thinking earlier today. Jack Dorsey then followed-up with a statement saying how proud he was of the team “solving a real problem people have when trying to tweet. And at the same time maintaining our brevity, speed, and essence!”

It’s “a real problem” he says. This service has existed since 2006 and this is “a real problem.” I feel like beating my head against a fucking wall.

I agree, Dr. Jones.

No, Jack. The real problem is the abuse. For example, as Zoë Quinn has pointed out time and time and time again (I don’t care what you think of her, you know she’s 100% right on this), Twitter is a haven for literal Nazis and trolls who love to play Nazi. In the past year alone, these trolls, others like them, and the environment they’ve created there have helped drive innumerable users from the site, inhibited Twitter’s growth, and destroyed any attractiveness Twitter once had as an acquisition… but Dorsey thinks the team really nipped a big one in the bud by testing out a doubling of the damned character limit.

Go team!

What sort of reality does he live in?

That sort of broke it for me. While my current Twitter account is from 2011, my presence on Twitter goes back to 2007. I’ve been active on that site for a decade. That’s a lot of time, energy, and (honestly) fun that I’ve put into it — but it has become work now. Twitter is supposed to be ephemeral. It’s supposed to be organic communities coming together and interacting. And for a long time, it was. I won’t blame GamerGate — I think the toxin was already flowing through Twitter’s veins prior to that. But GamerGate showed the trolls the “power” they had. It showed them the vitriol gave them a sense of control and they liked it. They turned ephemeral and interesting and quirky and communal into absolutes and poison and hate and spite — and good old 45 led the way with it. And they loved it.

And it led to the site not knowing how to react. And instead of coming up with ways to better fight the trolls… we get 280 characters.

Wheeeee. It’s form over substance all over again. Dorsey is so scared those literal Nazis will leave the service and make him lose more users that he simply won’t fight them they way he should.

So, for how, I’m done with Twitter.

As for Facebook: Russians played Facebook like a damn violin last year. They understood Facebook better than Facebook understands itself.

Why are we rewarding Facebook with our time? Why are we rewarding them with our data? Why are we allowing them to make money off of us when they allow advertisers to find ‘Jew haters’ (amongst other racist demographics). Facebook was so focused on their ads, on the form… they didn’t realize how they were lacking in substance.

Why do we continue to enable these sites that care nothing for their users? Why do we pay them with our data?

So, hey — Zuck? Jack? Until you guys care more about the substance than the form, I’m out. If Twitter can get its collective head out of its ass & start doing better by its users, I’ll come back. I’m not too sure about Facebook, though. That damage may be too extensive.

If you need me, I’m here. Drop me a line.

Papa Hemingway’s Blues

I’ve been in a Monkees mood lately, so I borrowed the title of “Papa Gene’s Blues” — I’m not saying the Freewrite makes Hemingway, or me, blue.

The typewriter’s paradigm has persisted, hasn’t it?
In a day where music is consumed via streaming services charging a monthly fee and the e-reader has done something similar with books, something as anachronistic as a typewriter should be should be dwelling in a disused basement alongside Babbage’s Difference Engine. It’s old. It’s obsolete. It’s of a bygone era.

Or is it?

The typewriter was the realization of moveable type at a personal level. A printing press at your fingertips! That sort of power — the power to essentially print your own pages (albeit slowly and one at a time) was a massive cultural and societal shift when they were invented 150 years ago. Mina’s ability in Dracula to quickly transcribe all of the journal and diary entries and letters and phonograph recordings was still an amazing phenomenon in the 1890s.

If we fast forward to the late 1970s and the Apple II, we see that the personal computer (and the later advent of word processing) changed the medium but not the basic concept. Yes, the ability to edit “on the page” became a game changer (I recall pain of that last typewritten paper I ever turned in — for US History in 1989, my sophomore year of high school — and its grueling mess of White Out). It was after that (and my mother upgrading us to computer with a printer) I realized how important and expedient it was to move to a computer to write and edit.

Fast forward once again and we are in front of our tablets and phones… using the same keyboard layout typists used a century ago. The medium has changed, but not the concept. Except in specialized cases, anyone from the 1950s dropped in front of a phone/tablet/computer with a word processor open on it would likely understand how to type on it. Sure, this hypotethical 1950s typist would not know what a mouse or touchscreen are or how they work, but a keyboard in front of a blank word processing or text editor window would make sense. In the past 40 years of paradigm shifts, the keyboard and its utility in personal writing has barely been touched — the output and the ability to manipulate it has simply evolved.

While the paradigm hasn’t changed as much as some think, it has become distracting. In 1996, as I was writing my thesis on a Mac Classic borrowed from the English department (and with no Internet connection), the distractions were few. When I upgraded to a Power Mac a year or so later and had a modem, email and games were a bit distracting (oh, the hours I lost to Civilization II). As the years rolled on, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, SMS, etc., all started vying for my limited attention. And then, in the real world, came children.

It’s no longer as easy as it was 20 or 25 years ago to sit and write without something nagging me to pay attention to it. And I dare say I’m not the only one.

There have been various distraction-free word processors on all the platforms, but they still have all those tempting apps running in the background, waiting to pull you in and drag you into a Twitter discussion or chasing topics in Wikipedia. Some (myself included) have attempted to use older tech to get around this, but that then introduces the issue of the older formats, connectivity, and the issue where you are troubleshooting more often than writing.

In comes the Freewrite (formerly the “Hemingwrite” on Kickstarter — https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adamleeb/hemingwrite-a-distraction-free-digital-typewriter), a mashup of a typewriter, a Kindle E-Reader (the black and white one that looks like paper), and the cloud. For writers. Perhaps for others, but its initial target is writers.

The concept is simple and ostensibly borrowed from Hemingway’s writing process: Write (once it’s configured, of course). Just write. Worry about editing later (in fact, there are no cursor/arrow keys, so the only way to go back is to delete, and if you have to delete a lot… then it’s best to just move forward and go back later). Simply write and, when the piece is ready to edit, then you pick it up from the cloud and edit in your preferred word processor.

It’s a device that has been dismissed by the more elitist of both the IT and writing communities as “hipster” due to its limited functionality and somewhat steep price. I’d argue many of us need a device with this sort of limitation and it’s worth the price and the scorn of these neo-hipsters who can pound-out a piece while being distracted, publish it to their blog (typos and all), and like to lord this over others. If you don’t see the need for a device like this, good for you. I do. I know others who do. If something like the Alphasmart Neo works for you and this is too much, too expensive, etc., that’s fine. No one is telling you to buy this. If you are telling people not to buy it, or that they are stupid for buying it, however, then I would kindly ask you to leave the auditorium at this time. Thank you.

Now, for those who are still around…

Do I think it’s a “finished” product? Yes. Is it complete? Not quite. I’d consider this a 0.9 release rather than a full-fledged 1.0 and there is nothing wrong with that since it’s clear it’s under development. I’ve read some complaints stating the machine shouldn’t have shipped without it being more “finished.” I think this argument has no legs, really. To make the statement a fully functioning device that does almost 100% of what was laid-out in the Kickstarter is “unfinished” is to basically not understand the entire concept (or possibly Kickstarter itself, but that is better served in another discussion). So, in that this is an evolving device and is clearly still setlling in terms of its feature set (which, let’s be very honest, what 1.0 version of a shipping product actually ever has its full feature set? Show me a dev or PM who makes the claim that their 1.0 is finished and flawless and I’ll show you an individual who might not have a firm grasp on reality or has a project team keeping them in the dark).

Instead, we’re looking at a device that does work but could use some additional features. And it has a team behind it that is actually working on delivering additional features.

So, in terms of what this is, how does it stack up?

HARDWARE

It’s almost retro enough for Gilliam’s Brazil or even Max Headroom (but not as technologically stripped as, say, Mad Max), but it’s a little too neat for either.

There’s no arguing — the hardware here is fully cooked. From the mechanical keys to the retro-styled switches and power button, this is a well thought-out piece of hardware. There are little imprections that, were the device coming off a regular assembly line, I would hope wouldn’t be there (the still existing flashing on some of the keys, for example), but they also add a bit to the charm of the machine.

I do have a few complaints.

First, I think there was a missed opportunity with the labels for the switches. Those look like decals or some sort of applique and considering how nice this piece of kit is, they seem a little cheap. Something that had been part of the machine would have been nice.

Another complaint is uneven lighting (a common complaint for E Ink backlighting). The Freewrite originally shipped with the backlight permanently on. A recent firmware update has come along to turn the backlight off. There aren’t backlit keys, so having a backlight on the screen seems a bit like overkill to me. (I do wonder if the USB port will power a little reading lamp? That could be useful.). And for something as retro hip as this, I find it an oversight there is not a mechanical switch to turn the screen’s backlight off and on.

The keyboard is almost exactly what they promised — nice keycaps, very good action. I did, however, find myself needing the appropriate dampeners for the key caps on the keyboard (and, while the keys were off, I cleaned-up the flashing mentioned above). I’m fairly hard on my keyboards and I usually bottom-out with each keystroke. Because of that fact, the dampeners made sense (and the fact that it will allow me to type when the click-slam of bottoming out isn’t really acceptable). I also seem to type faster with the dampeners in place. Obviously how you handle it is up to you.

Speaking of places it can be taken, there is the mobility factor. The built-in handle is nice (and seems to have a bit of a magnet to hold it in place when it’s stowed) and comes in very useful because the Freewrite is heavy. Considering how many Apple laptops I’ve had over the years, this feels like a tank (that isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I don’t want a device I will potentially use for writing hundreds of thousands of words to be skittering across the table at a coffeehouse as I’m pounding away at the keys). That said, the concept about this being portable is called into question because of the weight and the lack of a case or even keyboard cover. I’m of the thought Astrohaus should have had someone design a case or a sleeve or something for it. Something to protect it a bit when we move it around.

The biggest hardware issue (and this is an issue with E Ink as a whole) is the screen refresh. It is slow. The user can tweak it a bit (the screen refresh is marginally better with the smallest font than the medium), but an E Ink display is designed for static reading and the occasional page “turn.” It’s not for a regularly refreshing block of text. It’s a hardware limitation, but one that can be somewhat overcome through software. I’ve seen suggestions in the support forums for a change in how the text is displayed and I can wholeheartedly agree with that. Yes, this is supposed to act like a typwriter, but the reality is we aren’t putting these words on real paper — there is no carriage turning on its return, there is no paper to advance. As such, I’d argue the typing should occur from the top and progress down. Once you read the last row of text, it refreshes and you begin to type at the top of the window again. Considering how distracting the software is, and that this is the behavior E Ink is better at handling, and this approach should at least be an option for the users to choose from.

SOFTWARE

Well… it writes well. There’s little in terms of user-facing interface to the software on the machine itself. You can navigate (by keystroke) amongst different documents in one of three folders. You interact with the software when connecting to a network. That’s about all you see in terms of software interaction on the main screen. The software should get out of your way in a case like this. In that regards, it does precisely what it should.

The secondary screen has some software-related items and really could allow some user control. The “widgets” (for lack of a better word) are useful, but feel spread across three areas you have to toggle through. I want to see word count, time, and battery charge. No toggling. That’s pretty much it. The two clocks and other widgets are a step in the right direction, but status is probably the most important thing to have in that window.

Other than that, in terms of software, there’s little to review. Which is as it should be for this device.

WEBSITE

The core of the Freewrite is the actually the Postbox website where the preferences are set and maintained. There is also a growing and involved community on the site. Understanding how the controls work on the site is key to being able to use the Freewrite correctly. Really getting to know the site is important (especially once more features come about).

There are issues with the site. The lack of a real knowledgebase on the website or introductory documentation in the package is problematic. I’m the type who will poke at things and see what happens, then poke them another way to see if the work the same or differently. Regardless, I’m somewhat rare in that regard and even I’d like better documentation. I recently had issues with my wireless network at home (someone keeps stomping around in the 2.4GHz spectrum) and decided to segregate my 5GHz network off on its own. But could the Freewrite handle 5GHz? I couldn’t find any specifications as to what standard it uses for 802.11 (I was able to view the 5GHz network and add it, so it’s clearly using N or even AC — but where is that published?). I wanted to know what the maximum output on a USB charger should be. The port is USB-C, which is very forward thinking, but can I use one of Apple’s 29W USB-C adapters for speedy charging? Or will I kill the battery? (The power adapter question was eventually answered — 7.5W is as high as the battery will take, but you can pretty much use anything.) The Special and Send keys — what are they? Both can do cool stuff, but nothing tells me what functions it has. It’s those sorts of things that need to be better communicated.

Not being able to easily use the text you write without conversion is another issue. Currently, the Freewrite syncs to Postbox and then Postbox syncs to either Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive (or all three, if you want to set a provider per folder on the Freewrite’s switch). The text, when it reaches its destination, is currently saved as a DOCX file (despite the website and the Kickstarter site stating it would be saved as TXT — again, communication and documentation are a must) and that is causing quite a bit of gnashing of teeth and rending of breasts in the forums. To get the text for this blog post (roughly 1,700 words of this were written on the Freewrite itself, but I did have to eventually edit), I had to go through hoops to pull the DOCX into iA Writer on my iPad. It’s not horrible, but there are easier ways to handle this and the device should have the ability to make it as seamless as possible (a save to WordPress option, for example, which isn’t impossible due to the WordPress API, or working with Automattic to allow them to sync to Simplenote). Scrivener (on iOS, at least — I’ve yet to try on my Mac) actually helps solve this issue (as you can import the documents into a Scrivener project directly from Dropbox), but not everyone will want to use (or pay for) Scrivener.

A possible problem I foresee with this dependence on the website is Astrohaus not being able to afford keeping the servers going. This device is dependent upon their servers for syncing and settings. Yes, there is the promised ability to pull documents from the device via USB — in a future firmware update. What if it reaches the point where they don’t deliver and go belly up? Astrohaus has stated they are going to unveil that plan, but I would like to see that sooner rather than later.

FINAL VERDICT

I have to commend Astrohaus for sticking with the original vision. There were long discussions by backers on Kickstarter who wanted arrow keys and spellcheck and built-in dictionaries and bolding and italics, etc. (formatting is solved by using Markdown, though). Frankly, I’m just not sure how any of that would have happened having the final product in my hands. If the screen were a touchscreen… maybe? Maybe a stylus to allow you to strike out words and place the cursor? Even that seems a little much for this device.

The positives far outweigh the negatives, in my personal opinion. I’ve seen grumbling here and there. I’ve seen someone say it’s too expensive (it’s not cheap, no) and another (an IT project manager) make the claim the project clearly went off the rails because it was about six months late to deliver and doesn’t have all of its features baked-in. I would normally say that’s legitimate criticism, but this is a Kickstarter award (I’d love to see what projects they worked on that were 100% complete upon delivery). When I think of the big tech Kickstarters (specifically the Pebble), those were not fully baked when they went out to their backers either. We pay for the opportunity to be on the bleeding edge of someone’s possibly fantastic dream. I have an outstanding award for one Kickstarter that was supposed to deliver four years ago — but the guy is communicative and things are finally about to ship. Being the sort who knows thart life can get in the way of your other plans… I roll with it. I don’t expect a fully baked solution from a Kickstarter. Now, I also don’t expect Astrohaus to leave us hanging — I expect firmware updates for years to come (there’s a reason why companies like Blizzard have the following they do when they release upgrades to almost 20 year-old games in order to make them play on modern operating systems). If Astrohaus treats us well, we will treat them well. And I’m willing to go through these minor growning pains to get there.

Do I think there is room for improvement? Most certainly — note the observations I made above.

It works, it’s comfortable, it’s close to what they originally promised. It’s not for everyone, but as a geek with two English degrees and a perchant for writing long blog posts, I love this thing. I think the third or fourth iteration (if it makes it that far because, as is clear, this is a massive niche product and perhaps it will become solely a curiousity in the future) will be an insanely great product. For now, though, it will just have to settle for great (with caveats).

Expression and the right to offend

I was wrapping-up the audio version of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (an excellent read) and reached the portion about the Boston Marathon bombings and her “a poem for dzhokar” (and the blowback she received) the morning after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Palmer describes what her thought process was when she fiddled with the poem, describes the reaction from her community after she posted it, and then the reaction of people who came across the poem as a news story. [1. “a poem for dzhokar” is not a particularly good work, and Palmer’s not going to be awarded anything for it. But it’s a thought, and it’s art, and it’s designed to provoke and make the reader think. As not just a parent but someone who worked at a university for 15 years, I look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s pictures from the time of the arrest and I see a dumb 19 year-old kid. I see a kid who is unsure of his place in the universe, life as a whole, and who might have had a bit of hero worship for his brother (who was seven years older). I see a fool who just threw away his life and the lives of many other innocents for nothing.]

The attacks on her were brutal.

Was the poem it in good taste? Perhaps, perhaps not. Was it offensive? Most likely.

She posted the poem a week after the bombing. A lot of people’s emotions were still very raw… it was going to be taken the wrong way by a certain segment, no doubt. I suspect there are plenty of individuals who lashed out in the comments and on Twitter who were emotional wrecks and might have taken it differently two or three months later. They weren’t ready to express any thoughts towards Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or his family — and Palmer’s poem was making them think outside of the pattern they were comfortable with at that point.

I know artists and cartoonists, writers and poets, singers and songwriters. All of them, at some point, have had someone, somewhere, claim their work is offensive. Indeed, if someone is so fundamentally tied to a belief, the work may even be seen as blasphemous.

The more I thought about this, the more I recalled a bit by George Carlin. I think this is a good piece to add to this discussion — it hits on all the topics in the exact ways you’d expect Carlin to. (Let me warn you: This can be a pretty offensive piece. Carlin talks about joking about rape, feminists trying to control language, and the general stupidity of the American male. If you are easily offended, ignore the video and move on.)

Regardless of what you think about what Carlin says in that bit, he has the right to say it. And you have the right to be offended. You have the right to express your disapproval. You do not have an argument simply for the sake of an argument, you have to question who you are as a human being if you threatened him or is his family in response… and you certainly don’t have the right to tell him to shut up.

Simply put, he’s exercising his rights as a human being and an artist. You do not have to like what he’s saying or how he’s saying it, but if you consider yourself an adult and a human being, you need to allow for him to say it. Regardless of how repugnant you may see it, he has the right to say it.

Art, at some point, will (and should) make people uncomfortable. That’s not to say all art that makes people uncomfortable is in bad taste. For example, 2001: A Space Odyssey can make people uncomfortable (though I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who feels it’s offensive), whereas Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat can make many people uncomfortable and also make them feel it’s in bad taste.

We see it in other art forms across other media — James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the videos for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” the songs “War” by Edwin Starr and “Cop Killer” by Body Count. Each of those make certain people uncomfortable for certain reasons, and more than a few find some of those to be in bad taste as well.

To bring in something more recent: Joss Whedon (the director of The Avengers: Age of Ultron) deactivated his Twitter account recently. He later said it wasn’t because of this, but it coincided with a mass of violent tweets aimed at him for supposedly (in Age of Ultron): equating Black Widow’s forced sterilization to being a “monster” and treating her as a damsel in distress [2. I don’t see anything anti-feminist in the characterization, but rather a reinforcement of many feminist critiques of society as a whole. She makes an excellent point about what choices were made for her, when she had no control over her own existence. As for being a damsel in distress — she was doing her job and was simply captured on the field. And she’s the one who leads the team to the base. Stark or Barton would have had to deal in the same way.]; and joking about rape by having Stark (if he is able to wield Thor’s hammer) say he’s going to reestablish prima nota. [3. He’s saying that once he lifts the hammer, and comes to rule Asgard, he’ll establish the rule that a ruler may sleep with any bride on her wedding night. I’m not crazy about the line, but I see where it was headed. Regardless of the things he’s done over all these movies, he may be a good guy, but he’s not a nice guy — and it feeds into the drastic differences mounting between his character and that of Captain America. Again, I think a different line could have been chosen, but I see why it was put in Stark’s mouth to say.]

Whedon offended some people with his choices. He has the right to. And they have the right to voice disapproval. When we all have a discussion, these sorts of things tend to work themselves out.

But then he was attacked. The vitriol was horrible. When you look at the attacks on Whedon, though, are they any different than the attacks on other individuals (regardless of what you think about her, does Anita Sarkeesian really deserve death threats? Or should you debate the topic better?)? Whatever merit a counterargument may have is completely undercut by calls for someone’s death. Simply disagreeing with someone else should not mean that other person needs to die — it means you need to do a better job at either defending your side (or ignoring that other person).

It all comes down to the right to offend when expressing oneself. And, for many, that’s an issue. This banner and tweet from Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan sum it up:

Such an attitude pervades the Internet — it is not just the stance of an Islamist party in Pakistan. As soon as some segment feels as though it’s being wronged, it starts prepping for battle. There is almost no corner where some variation of that statement above has not been bellowed-out with great fervor, sending the minions forth to attack and tear down and threaten those who have “blasphemed.”

How are the attacks against Whedon different than the ones against Sarkeesian? How are they different than the fatwā issued against Salman Rushdie when The Satanic Verses was published? How are they different from the lead-up to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices? Or the lead-up to the French Christian fundamentalists who attacked the Saint Michel theater in Paris in 1988 when it was showing the The Last Temptation of Christ?

An entrenched, fundamentalist attitude pervades a community in cases like these — and that community refuses to be criticized or have its notions challenged. Thus, they become violent (through words and, sometimes, actions). It seems it doesn’t matter what topic you’re speaking about, the fundamentalists will see blasphemy, and carried to its logical end, the price for blasphemy is the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Expression is part of who we are. We have to have the freedom to voice ourselves. We have to have the freedom to offend and voice dissent to the offending thing. But violence is never called for.

For everything we love and admire, there is something we will find disgusting. For every Sistine Chapel, there will be a Piss Christ. For every Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” there will be a Bieber’s “Baby.” For every Citizen Kane, there will be The Room.

We have differing opinions. We will disagree on that which is offensive and that which is not. It is the mark of an adult to be able to determine why they are offended and voice why that is without resorting to violence (either emotional, verbal, written, or physical). And, sometimes, the mistake may be so small, so inconsequential, that we need to know when to walk away from it.

In my view, the recent controversy over the episode “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” of Game of Thrones is an example of how to handle disagreement. There have been a few people who have taken the low road and been relatively vitriolic in their reactions, but most have taken a higher road and made their views clear (they won’t continue to watch the show or are canceling HBO, for example). The is constructive and useful, in my opinion. The discussion of why a rape is (usually) a relatively poor literary device for a writer to employ, the discussion of a rape culture and the surrounding media, and the overall back and forth on the topic has been healthy and fruitful (in my opinion). A discussion such as this helps us all.

We have to accept there will be things and people and opinions and stuff we don’t like. We have to accept we will be offended. We will be made angry. And we have to accept those things aren’t going away. There are ways to express discontent and make yourself heard — but you cannot expect to never be offended and you cannot expect anyone and everyone to agree with you.

Freedom of expression is a human right. That expression may be a painting, or a movie, or a book, or a crucifix in urine, or a blog post, or a simple tweet. If what I or others express is seen as offensive or blasphemous, that’s on you to deal with and find a constructive way in which to respond — do not attempt to make someone shut up or threaten violence against them. Do you want to treat each other like adults and discuss the difference, or act like children on a playground? My suggestion is to voice disagreement and debate (civilly) the topic. Perhaps, if you discuss it in a civil manner, you may find yourself at a point where the other person(s) agree with you. If you can’t discuss it in a civil manner, then just pull an Elsa and…

Maggie & 1994

It was 20 years ago (not today… still have a couple of weeks to go for that).

Disregard the fact I was recently single twice-over (my first real serious girlfriend had broken up with me just two weeks before my 21st birthday and the rebound relationship was just a poor choice for both rebound chick and me), or I was starting my senior year of college that fall, or Kurt Cobain (an artist I had, and continue to have, a great affinity and respect for) had killed himself in April. Disregard the fact I was clearly on the precipice of true adulthood and had reached the points where I had the ability to see my decisions had ramifications and that it was time for me to take responsibility for them.

Disregard those as they were things I was disregarding at the time. Had I not disregarded them, and been more introspective, perhaps it would have been more obvious to me I was at a special point in my life (and, later in the fall, such introspection might have saved me, and the girlfriend it was aimed at, the most stupid and hurtful relationship meltdown I ever caused… alas, I wasn’t, and it didn’t).

I was 21, after all. I had long hair, flannel, ripped jeans, an earring, a goatee, Chucks and combat boots (not at the same time, of course), and a grudge against the world because I couldn’t keep a girlfriend and my grunge muse had just offed himself.

A legend in my own mind. I was all that and I was performing at Lollapalooza (you can keep your bag of chips).

No, I wasn’t touring with the show or playing in a band. It was a single day and I was performing poetry.

Now, had you not been alive in the early-mid 1990s (or blinked for about ten minutes), you might have not seen the influx of spoken word artists (poets, only a little less rhyme-y) that flashed (and just as quickly disappeared) on the national scene. We were rock stars without a band (and, in most cases, a competent signing voice) and we wanted our art to be heard! It even made its way to MTV in the way of a few specials and some videos by the likes of Reg E. Gaines and Henry Rollins. I mean… it had to be cool, right? Henry Rollins was on MTV performing spoken word.

Do not get me wrong — there were (and still are) some wonderful performance poets, slam poets, and spoken word artists out there to this day. The Nuyorican Poets Café (one of the epicenters of this literary upheaval) was founded the year I was born and is still going strong. In all seriousness, if you have any interest in American poetry, you need to check this scene out.

But I digress.

My interest in the scene was likely due to the fact that I had some modicum of talent (not much in terms of the poetry, but more in terms of the performance) and there were girls all over. Had I been promiscuous and not a serial monogamist, I likely would have tried to get into dozens more panties (after all… I was 21 and single).

I had beaten back others in a qualifying poetry slam at Planet Ant in Hamtramck earlier in the month and was now performing at Lollapalooza. A surprising (and, in retrospect, humbling) amount of friends came out to support me at Planet Ant, and a good deal of friends, colleagues, mentors, and would-be lovers went to Pine Knob with me that day.

No, I wasn’t on the main stage. Or the second. And the third hadn’t been established yet.

We were squirreled-away in “The Revival Tent of the Rev. Samuel Mudd’s Little Spoken-Word Armageddon”… which meant we were in a fenced-off area of the parking lot. And it wasn’t a cool day. It was late July on an asphalt parking lot in metro Detroit. Thankfully, water was cheaper to buy at Lollapalooza that year than it was the year before, but I digress.

Regardless of all of that, I was performing on the same stage as Maggie Estep.

Now, to understand that sentence, you need to understand the context, which means you need to understand a bit about me.

There are two key parts to the sentence. The first is “performing” and the second is “Maggie Estep.”

First… “performing.”

I’m rather the introvert.

Some assume this is not the case.

As I mentioned earlier, I have some modicum of talent when it comes to presentation and performance. I estimate I’ve presented, performed, or spoken to a rough total 40,000 people in the past 22 or so years. That, alongside my strong embrace of social media, likely makes people assume I’m heavily extroverted to the point of being an exhibitionist (as evidenced by the fact I’m writing an essay for my blog about my experience at Lollapalooza the summer after I turned 21) and that it’s only a matter of time before I appear nude on Rolling Stone in some sort of parody or salute to the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono cover (the one where she’s fully clothed and he’s nude, entangled around her and giving her a kiss on the cheek).These people are wrong.

If you know me (and I mean truly know me), you know what my idea of a good time is (a handful of friends, good discussion, some music, some food and drink). You know I’m a brooding type who likes to have his space. You know I absolutely hate talking on the phone. You know that I get very nervous each time I have to take a stage. The confidence and swagger is a ruse.

But… girls. There were girls. My thought process? “I might be able to sleep with one of those girls.” (I was 21… stop judging me!) This was enough to get me past introversion and stage fright. Especially when you consider one of those girls could be (in my wildest dreams)… Maggie Estep.

maggie estep cover

Oh, Maggie.

I loved the look. The attraction was not solely about the look, but I loved the look. The slightly disheveled hair on the front of the CD, the black tights, combat boots, the lips (oh, those lips!) mixed with the Jersey/New York accent, all accentuated the mind inside that head of hers. Her work spoke to where I was (politically, mentally, and maturity) at the time, and I knew the mind had to match.

The attitude on her face made it clear if you, consumer of this CD, could somehow get past the disdain and manage to work your way into her panties and not have her tear you into tiny pieces verbally, the work getting there would be paid off in the sweetest damned reward (not just physically but mentally)…

She was not just the sex goddess of the western hemisphere, but she was the sex goddess of my mind.

It’s ebbed and flowed over the years, but I’ve always had a strong affinity for her work (even if some of it, in retrospect, is fairly immature).

Early in the morning on February 13 of 2014, I learned the news.

I flipped through the feeds on my iPhone as I was preparing for the workday and came across an entry to Neil Gaiman’s journal entitled “Remembering Maggie Estep.”

Now, I remember thinking clearly Gaiman had to be talking about a time in the 1990s he met her, or a reminiscence of sharing the stage with her or something fun… this couldn’t be a remembrance in terms of a memorial. Estep was only 50. She couldn’t be dead, could she?

I read on. She was dead. Died the day before from a heart attack.

The sex symbol of my then-modern literary awareness was dead.

I’ve thought on her death for these past five months. I thought about how my infatuation with her so clearly summarizes my 21-year-old self’s over-inflated ego and sense of self-importance. I’ve thought about all the lessons I learned in 1994 and how they all boiled down to Maggie Estep.

I was performing at Lollapalooza, yes… but I was performing on the SAME FUCKING STAGE AS MAGGIE FUCKING ESTEP!

There is very little memory of that day for me. I missed most of the concerts (not that I minded much, as Nirvana, the original headliners, were no more), rebuffed advances from a fellow poet (someone I really should have explored a bit with, frankly, because that would have been a better relationship than some of the ones I kept putting myself into prior to dating the woman who became my wife… but her age, 27 or 28, had me a bit freaked-out and I kept her at bay), I performed on the stage, took a literal soapbox out with a friend into the venue and perform (we were encouraged to “stand on our soapboxes” and perform for the crowd), sold a single chapbook, and bombed the main slam (likely due to my piece being critical of Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, who were headlining, and the fact that I didn’t have a stacked audience like I had at Planet Ant).

My main memory is of seeing Maggie, watching Maggie, meeting Maggie, and getting summarily dismissed by Maggie (no getting into her panties for me, it seems… not that I would have deserved to).

The thing that sticks in my mind is, having a literary name (“Geoffrey,” after Chaucer), when it came time to get a CD of hers signed, I told her my name was spelled like the giraffe at Toys R Us.

What did I do that for?

She looked confused, then tolerant, and then I had to move along. I looked at the CD cover she had just signed and what did she write? “I don’t know what your name has to do with a giraffe.”

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. And not in the good way.

If I could have hid in the group of concert-goers at that point, I would have. I would have just disappeared into it, like Liam Neeson does at the end of Darkman.

But, no. I had to keep up the ruse and perform.

My heart wasn’t in it. I was done for. Not only was my piece the wrong one for the venue, and I had precious few people there to vote for me, I just wasn’t up to pulling it off. I was deflated and dismissed. I didn’t even stick around much longer after the competition was over. I just took the swagger and left for home.

Now, had I learned the lesson and accepted the blow to my ego and learned to turn it around, the rest of that year would have been more pleasant, I think. But I choose to ignore it, and sweep it under the rug, and not really think about what it meant for me.

Honestly, Maggie meant nothing by it and was just confused by the clearly twitterpated 21-year-old in front of her. But had I thought on it, I likely would have learned a lesson then that ended up taking me another four to get through my head (but, again, I was 21…).

Five months ago, I realized I would never have the chance to thank Maggie, my combat-booted sex goddess of the performance poetry movement, for the lesson she inadvertently taught me that day (regardless of the time it took me to actually learn it), and I realize I need to thank her for it.

I realize that such a simple, minor thing in her life, and what I then thought was minor in mine, turned-out to be a massive change in the better for me. As overused as this phrase is, it was a true paradigm shift for me… my entire world was tweaked just a touch by that one little encounter. I highly doubt I’d be who I am today due to that.

We never know, do we? We can never tell when some thing or some one is going to make us something better than what we are? Sometimes it take years to realize it. Sometimes we never do.

I’ll never get the chance to tell Maggie. I hope she died knowing she had an impact (and I don’t use that word lightly). At least one of those who was enamored with her look and voice and mind is able to say she truly touched him, too (and it was so inadvertent she likely would have no idea why, much less still not know what my name has to do with a giraffe).

So, it’s too late for you to hear from me, but… thank you, Not Normal Girl.

Dirty Harry vs. the Invisible Man

In 1952 (60 years ago at the time of this writing), Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man was published.

In 1953, it won the National Book Award.

Invisible Man is a vital piece of American literature. Any student of writing should read it as it is, arguably, one of the most important novels of the 20th century for multiple reasons.

However, I’m not here to conduct a lecture. If you want to read Ellison’s great novel, go over to Amazon and pick up a copy. You needn’t have read the book to understand the gist of what I go into here.

I’m here to discuss the actions of a man who was 22 at the time that novel was published. Whether or not he ever read Ellison’s book isn’t something I know, nor does it really matter. This young man was working on breaking into a career in Hollywood, and he eventually did, getting his break in the western TV series Rawhide, and later having a long and successful career most widely known actors in Hollywood with great influence and clout. He has created great works of cinematic art (and some poor ones), and has greatly influenced the generations of actors after him.

He is, of course, Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood stood in front of the delegates at the 2012 Republican National Convention and proceeded to have a talk, of sorts, with President Obama (who, being a Democrat, was absent from those proceedings) by pretending the president was sitting in a chair to Eastwood’s left.

He is clearly intending to have a one-way dialogue, while also making asides to the delegates, with President Obama when he states “So I — so I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here. And he’s — I was going to ask him a couple of questions.”

So, Eastwood is talking to, as one Twitter user appropriately called his or her spoof account, “InvisibleObama.”

The president’s campaign, naturally, shot back at Eastwood:


Now, just as this post isn’t about discussing Ellison’s novel, it’s also not about discussing politics. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve never voted for a Republican (though, keep in mind that doesn’t mean I’ve always voted for Democrats), but this is not about politics. I would be making this same exact observation if it were, let’s say, Alec Baldwin doing a similar bit about J.C. Watts at the Democratic convention.

This is a social observation. One that I think needs to be made.

Clint Eastwood, in that ad-libbed, impromptu, un-rehearsed bit summed up the attitude some of (not all of) President Obama’s detractors have had since day one of his arrival on the national stage:

They don’t want to see him, so he’s invisible to them. He is not white, so has no merit in their mind as a man, much less a president, so they completely dismiss him.

Make any arguments of substance you wish against him — I will gladly accept it.

I, for one, think health care reform should have been a single payer system and not echoed the Republicans’ reform efforts from 20 years ago. I want to see Gitmo closed. I want to see the PATRIOT Act repealed and warrantless wiretapping done away with. These are issues of merit.

But these are not the things I hear about from his detractors.

I hear vague fear-mongering — He’s taking away our freedom!

I hear conspiracy theories — His father conspired to make him president to turn the country into a muslim dictatorship!

I hear outright lies that attack the man’s basic identity as an American — He wasn’t born in the US. The birth certificate is fake!

He’s not our president, I’ve heard them say. I don’t think his wife acts like a First Lady. I don’t like to look at either of them. He’s not like us, and, because of that, we do not like him.

Yes, this is about the color of President Obama’s skin.

But, for these detractors to speak up and simply admit to their racism is something they are not prepared for and will not admit.

So they couch it by marginalizing, obstructing, and ignoring. They claim the work he’s done has amounted to nothing, that he has done no good, and that he is inept.

They call him a socialist (without knowing what a socialist is) and attempt to confuse the situation with non-defensible name calling and fear-mongering. And when they do criticize him, they do so in a way that trivializes who he is. They make him imaginary and essentially hurdle insults at him. This marginalizes him… not just as the president, but as a man.

He is to be avoided, shunned, and ignored. He is to be seen as nothing more than a shade passing through our lives. He is to be fought against and demeaned because he is “other” and, to his detractors, being “other” is scary because that’s not the way America used to be.

This is all done in order to tiptoe around their issues with his skin color, which is how these detractors have made him the perfect example of Ellison’s invisible man.

For all that his bit was, I must thank Mr. Eastwood. He underscored the specific thing this group of the president’s detractors have been doing since 2008: Treating him as if he wasn’t there, as if this invisible man might just fade completely away come January of 2013 so life can return to “normal” (a normal that involves a white male president).

This is no different than attitudes during slavery. The dismissal of any humanity the slaves had, the arrogance that they were simply property, and the thinking the slaves should know their place and stay in it… this is the same attitude. The slaves were the invisible men and women of the colonial times and the first 90 years of this country… they were there, but they weren’t there.

The Civil War began 150 years ago.

150 years, yet we still fight the same attitudes and have the same arguments.

Ellison’s novel was published 60 years ago.

60 years, yet Ellison’s invisible man, and the society around him, hasn’t aged a damn day for all that has happened in that time.

If you think any of the non-substantive vitriol is about President Obama’s policies, take a look at the old white man asking questions of the “InvisibleObama” on the chair and making up the answers and reactions.

Take a look at that and realize that has nothing to do with political disagreements. It has everything to do with telling President Obama he has overstepped his boundaries as a black man in America and needs to be put back in his place.