February 21, 2005

A slight clarification of policy.

I had a number of people write to me to discuss the current General Protection Fault storyline. Now, I wasn't reading it, because it's on the "You had me, and you lost me" list. But, naturally enough, I checked it out and I've engaged in a number of formal and informal discussions with people about it. Or as discussion as I get when I'm barely answering my e-mail, anyhow.

But an increasing number of the letters wanted to know when I'd discuss the plotline here on Websnark -- give my official opinions on what Darlington is doing.

Well, I've indicated this in a number of responses I made to people, but let me state it for the record, out here.

When you go onto the "You Had Me, and You Lost Me" list, you officially become exempt from critical commentary on this website. I just don't do it.

Yeah, if I find out someone who went on that list did something amazing or significant, I'll mention it. There's nothing keeping me from saying something nice about a strip I've decided to drop. But for general commentary, particularly on contentious issues, I don't think it's fair for me to make a big deal about walking away and then keep going as if nothing had happened.

So, while I might make offhanded general remarks about GPF or Megatokyo or It's Walky, I'm not going to snark them, or harp on them, or point out their foibles or highlight their triumphs, unless a foible is so catastrophic that it would be disingenuous not to speak, or a triumph so phenomenal I can't help but speak.

GPF isn't in either category right now. Some people really like what he's doing. Some don't. And it'd be dirty pool for me to say how I feel on this forum. If you're curious about whether or not he's doing well or poorly, have a glance at it yourself. It's free, after all.

Or check some of the other commentary sites. It's not like people aren't talking about it....

February 20, 2005

In review:

I had a medical thing that -- among other things -- had me mood swinging like a madman, and which still goes on to a degree.

Flint ended.

Queen of Wands looks to be very close to ending.

Hunter S. Thompson shot himself. Which, admittedly, is pretty much how we expected him to go, but still.

I got nothing. Maybe tomorrow.

February 14, 2005

Multiple blasts from the past, and other cliches.

As for today? I don't want to talk about it.

However, having had some issues with my old revived Essay Journal -- which I had started writing in for a few months before the arrival of Websnark, which then overwhelmed it -- I finally got around to exporting those eight posts from it and importing them here into Websnark proper.

So, if you want to read something of mine you probably haven't seen, and would rather it not have anything to do with "Infinite Canvases" or the like, have a look at this group of essays. They cover coffee makes and musical tastes and the excitement and fear before major surgery and even a crappy 'meme.'

I'm going to bed.

Hello, My friend, won't you tell me your name?
Playlists and Coffeemakers: Recapturing the Personal
Confessions of a Liberal Heinlein Fan: Worldbuilding and Utopia
The Alchemy of the Slow Cooker
Good Night, Captain
Six Days
On Names and Innovation
Recycling the Meme: On Writing

February 02, 2005

Snarky, know thyself.

It seems to work like this:

If I've had enough sleep, my snarks tend to be positive.

If I haven't had enough sleep, my snarks are more likely to be negative.

I try my best to express my true opinions regardless, but I'm getting to know what kind of stuff I put out in different situations.

Update on the day

I remember when sleep came easily. Last evening it came too easily, really. I fell asleep at seven, woke up at one in the morning, and then I was up. I ended up washing dishes and doing crap like that. This evening I'm tired as Hell, but forcing myself to stay awake by traveling down to a cafe and writing.

Mostly, I'm working on the comic strip. I've had some good interest from artists and some kickass character sketches. I think this could work astoundingly well. At the same time... part of me wonders if somehow this would become... I don't know. Like a reverse selling out or something. Do I lose my license to snark as a disinterested party if suddenly I have a strip on the web? Especially if it sucks?

For the record, this is a Story comic, with some Funny thrown in. It's not a Funny comic with Story. Though the In Nomine strip is a Funny comic with Story thrown against the wall to see what sticks, so I'm trying a little of everything. So no, by definition, I won't be going for a Cerberus Syndrome because it'll be opening that way. As for First and Ten... well, that's for other people to say.

Ah well, if it sucks, it sucks. I want to do this. Is there ever a better reason?

This is more babble than snark, philosophical or otherwise. So, from somewhere in central New Hampshire, I remain ever your servant....

January 29, 2005

This week has at last ended...

...and I'm feeling better tonight. I'm in Maine, having seen the family for festivities. My sister and both her daughters are now firm Todd and Penguin fans, to the point where one niece (the one sitting next to me) punctuated several statements with "so... I guess there aren't any cookies then?" I'm working on getting them to read Count Your Sheep.

With a little luck, I'll be far more myself in the upcoming week. Certainly I'd have to be feeling better, which means more concentrated and tons more writing. (I looked back at this week and just kind of shook my head. I'm glad I did the Rabbit Hole thing or else it'd practically be a wash on the writing front. And there aren't many washes on the writing front for me, usually.

Have a lovely tomorrow, all!

January 27, 2005

Fan Art (1 of 2), birthdays and rabbit holes

I'm still pretty damn sick. Fevers all through yesterday and last night (without the insulating power of scotch, I'm sorry to say), plus any number of other symptoms. Despite this fact, I did wake up this morning, and it was January 27. Which means that I have successfully cheated death for another year.

The best birthday present I could receive was seriously cool fiction, and that's been heartily available thanks to Down the Rabbit Hole day. See, I share my birthday with Lewis Carroll, and so this fellow called Crisper (fellow being unisex, because hey, how should I know?) suggested that instead of a crappy meme about how many pieces of Halloween Candy you received or something like that, this should be a meme where for 24 hours you write about the strange new world you woke up in, through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole.

I loved the very idea of it. And so I wrote a five part entry myself. If you'd like to have a look, they're here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and finally Part Five. Feel free to have a look if you want.

If you'd like to see some more primo examples of Down the Rabbit Holery, my good friend Greg Fishbone has been collecting examples of the best he's seen today. If you've been following along on Livejournal and seen one or two that Greg's missed, send them along to him for inclusion.

As it is my birthday, I should mention a couple of gifts I've recently received. Namely, two pieces of art, both coming out of Arisia (which I still owe you a report from -- I've been very sick recently, in my defense). One really needs an entry all to itself, so it'll go up in a bit. This one, however, is an adorable Snarky in the Snow (not exactly Sad Snarky in Snow, either), done by the talented Poinko of Fever Dream. (You know, that comic title is apropos given how I feel...) It's so cute, and Snarky looks so thrilled! Yay!

The other piece of art... heh. You'll see.


January 25, 2005

The Irish get parades, drink green beer, and have jokes about vomit on their special day. We Scots read poetry on ours. I think we come out ahead.

For those who have been wondering, I'm sick. I was completely exhausted on Sunday night from the trip back through the snow, I was a walking corpse of fatigue Monday, and then I fell asleep Monday night only to wake back up with stomach pain at 2 am, and stay awake the rest of the night. During the day, I began to develop chest congestion and head congestion, and even more fatigue. Writing was out of the question. I was lucky I could recognize the keyboard.

I fell asleep as soon as I got home, though I tried not to (I didn't even eat dinner). I slept through until a few minutes ago, and woke up more congested, more achy, and slightly fevered. I just put on a humidifier, threw a basic dinner into the microwave, and came here. Because there are things we need to talk about. It is January 25.

It is Burns Night.

Robert Burns is famous for any number of reasons, but somehow he didn't "click" with the American Educational System before college, at least when I was going through it. We all know he wrote Auld Lang Syne, but we didn't talk about his Romanticism, his class warfare, his unique voice in writing in the vernacular of the working classes of his native Scotland, not the poncey language of a Wordsworth or Keats. He lived through the American Revolution, and believed in the spirit of Revolution. He is revered in Europe, and Australia, and Russia. In fact, during the days of the Soviet Union, he was one of the few poets to be heavily studied, because he was felt to be a champion of Communist Ideals without Manifesto. Dogmatic though it may be, this was one of the few strong expressions of Western Civilization into Russia.

He drank too much. He fathered an inordinate number of children, including several bastards (or so they say). Burns itself is a dirt common name in Scotland (it means rivers or brooks, which seems funny to me, since it seems to mean 'Careless with Matches.') He was rude, he was perfectly willing to publish poetry castigating his enemies, and the semantic quality of much of his poetry seems to boil down to "My luv is faire an' tru/an mine is the heart that luvs/an she feels my luv too/but now she's dead and lying in the fucking ground and worms -- worms -- are eating her skin and eyes and CHRIST I need a drink." Which made him both an early Goth and early Emo. It's also felt he was among the first poets to use the pain within his soul to talk otherwise respectable women into having indiscriminate sex.

He was an archivist. Many of his poems -- especially those published in the volumes of his Scots Musical Museum -- were meant to clean up folk poems and folk songs and the native music of the Scottish people and put it into a form where it would never be forgotten. This has been successful: I can sing about nine Burns songs off the top of my head with their original music, up to and including the real tune of Auld Lang Syne. (There are two tunes associated with it. The one you know, and the good one. Just, you know, for the record.)

I'm Scottish American, and my name is Burns, and I love Burns Night. I don't usually have a Haggis and speak the traditional prayer -- the Selkirk Grace -- and I sure as Hell wouldn't put Haggis in my mouth already feeling sick. Still, as I look at microwaved meatloaf, now sitting and waiting for me, I stop and ponder, and at least think, if not say:

Some hae meat and canna eat, And some would eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit.

And as I eat, I consider Burns's poetry. The songs, the airs, the ode to a mouse whose home was destroyed by a plow. The satirical ode to a bug that crawls on a rich woman's head. Green growing rashes. To the weavers we gin going.

And I remember the words to a song everyone in the Western Hemisphere knows, despite the fact that not twelve of them actually know the lyrics. They are an invocation of good health, for good friends, for those we know now, and for those we have known who are not here today. And I think of all of you.

And I think of all of you as my friends, coming here and reading what I have to say. Which is nuts. I mean, it's totally batshit insane.

But still. You're my friends.

And so although I'm sick, I pour some Dalwhinnie in a glass (I should probably have Laphroig -- that'll kill any disease in me -- but it doesn't seem right), and I drink a toast to my food, and a toast to the beautiful lassies I know. I imagine the toast they make in response. And I eat, and I read, and think of friends and think of a man who died after only 37 years, his heart strained by backbreaking labor in his youth (not to mention all the alcohol). And though I'm coughing to much to sing out loud, inside, I hear the words sung:

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine,
And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne.

And there's a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o thine,
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

And though I'm not a religious man, I'm reminded of two prayers right now. The first, I'm told, is modern Wiccan, and they say it at the Renaissance Festival where once I worked, because that's where one says Modern Wiccan Prayers to middle Americans and not get yelled at:

Merry meet, Merry part, And merry meet again.

And the other? Though I'm no more Christian than I am Wiccan, there's only one thing left to say:

God bless you, and God bless Bobbie Burns.

Good night.

January 16, 2005

A difficult admission

You see, there's things I want to say, and do. And forms I want to work in. Very, very badly.

Or maybe you don't see. How could you. I did the in media res trick, only that doesn't work in essays, does it? Well, let me pick things up and see where they fall from here.

Back in 2002, I wrote a comic strip. It was called Unfettered by Talent, and it was terrible. It's not the worst strip to ever be written (some of the writing was actually okay), but I can't draw. It's possibly not the worst drawn strip of all time, but it's in the top twenty.

But I would like to work in the webcomics form. I honestly would.

I have a working plan to do so, in one sense. A quiet little strip with a collaborator, on the subject of In Nomine. But while I'm excited to do that strip, because I like In Nomine, I like that artist, and I like jokes about coffee and demons, it is what it is. And there's more I want to say.

So, I have a thought in mind, and I would need to find an artist who would be willing to draw it, at least initially. And perhaps later, other artists could try it out too.

In tone, it would be more story than funny, though there would be funny. Really, it owes more to Modern Tales and the like in concept than anything else. And, because I'm predictable, it's about art, and magic, and muses.

And I'd like to find someone who'd want to do the art for it.

In the best of all possible worlds, this would be a three strip a week comic, and many weeks worth would be completed before it even began to appear on a website. What home it would end up on depends a lot on what's available when we get to that stage, of course.

I'm open to suggestions, or offers, or discussions.

Oh, and the vast likelihood is there would be no money involved. So... yeah.

Anyway. The worst thing that will happen is no one will respond. I can cope with that.

(Oh, and the other strip? The In Nomine one? I'll keep you posted with where that one's headed.)

January 15, 2005

Twenty four hours without Livejournal

So, a catastrophic failure hit Livejournal yesterday -- a power loss at their entire center, including all UPS systems (systems that they describe as "insanely redundant power and UPS systems"), leading to a total collapse of the organic interwoven server cluster. In restoring it, they discovered many of the machines that they use as backups failed, that other machines reported operations that weren't actually happening. and that they're literally having to recreate the database transactions on some of the restored servers -- like they were trying to compress weeks of posting into hours, one action at a time.

It's also apparently the second time it happened. From that same document detailing their recovery efforts: "now that this has happened to us twice, we realize the first time wasn't a total freak coincidence. C'est la vie." Which blows my mind. Seriously. I think it's hysterical. Your entire company's business is based on this kind of thing, and you have a catastrophic failure, and decide afterward that hey -- it was probably a coincidence. It couldn't possibly happen again. In my Imperial Space stories (including Trigger Man for those of you following along at home), that's called invoking Murphy, and Murphy enjoys these situations way too much.

Setting aside the logistical nightmare the LJ team's piecing their way through (and everything the Six Apart people -- who just bought this company, remember -- have to be wondering about, right now), there's the question of the greater Livejournal community. Several million of them.

And they're going through withdrawal, right about now.

Seriously, thousands of these people stay connected to their online world wholly through Livejournal. Take LJ out of the mix, and suddenly the center of their universe is broken. Hell, I use LJ as my RSS reader -- so I'm not following any of the lists I read through RSS at all today. So, no Boing Boing, no Wil Wheaton, no Neil Gaiman, no RPG design lists. Not to mention not seeing what's happening in the lives of my friends, acquaintances, and the various people I voyeuristically stare at.

And Livejournal isn't that big a deal for me. I can't imagine what the people who base their lives around Livejournal are doing today.

Maybe in the end this is a good thing. A reminder of the fragility of digital communities. A reminder that there's also this outdoors thing. Maybe.

But maybe not. The thing about Livejournal is... it represents millions of people who decided to write for the world to see. That's powerful juju. These are folks who, whether vapid or profound, are expressing themselves with the written word. They're expressing their opinions. They're delinating their hopes and dreams. And yeah, some of them are easy to make fun of, but some aren't. And all of them are trying.

Being without that is shocking, for some people. Suddenly, their tongues have been silenced. Their support groups are gone. Their fanbases are empty. Suddenly, they're being plunged back into 1999, and they don't want to be back in 1999.

It's going to be very interesting to hear what they have to say, when LJ comes back online.

January 12, 2005

Some days... just don't have anything to say.

Tomorrow night, I'm making the trek out to the Haymarket Bookstore Cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts, as I mentioned. I'm going to see the Dumbrella soiree, including people with the surnames of Rosenberg, Rowland, Stevens and Allison, and see what they have to say to we the public. I'm told a fellow with the last name of Jacques will also be in attendance, though not perhaps on the dias so much as hanging back and heckling, and there's a couple of Snarkoleptics who have mentioned they may make the trek as well.

Other than that... there were many good strips today, but none said "snark me." I did get some work done on that short story, though -- so it's not a complete wash.

Out of curiosity... in the spirit of such era-defining terms as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Victorian Age and so forth... what do people think of a future group of historians and lit scholars referring to the main body of the 20th Century as "the Convolution?"

If you like it, the credit goes to my friend Chris Angelini. If you don't, it's my fault.

EDIT: Technically, though I wrote this post on the 12th, I accidentally saved it to draft instead of publish, so it only appeared after midnight. So technically I didn't post on the 12th at all. But I wrote this on the 12th, so damn it, I say it counts.

January 10, 2005

I seem to be becoming a professional devil's advocate.

I don't like Garfield.

I said it. It's official. I don't like it. I don't like that it's repetitive and unimaginative. I don't like that it was designed to be innocuous and marketable, not artistic and funny. I don't like that despite that fact, Garfield has potential (proven most clearly by the Garfield and Friends saturday morning cartoon, which was actually funny and clever and imaginative kids' fare) that it steadfastly refuses to exploit. I don't like the lasagna jokes. I don't like the "Jon is a helpless dweeb" jokes. I don't like the "I don't like Mondays" jokes (like a given housecat has any reason to care what day of the week it is). I don't. Like. Garfield.

So, here's a Snark defending Garfield.

See, Garfield is big news in comicdom right at the moment, thanks to the Los Angeles Times dropping the strip to make room for a new one. (My favorite part of that article? The one where the Syndicate representative describes Jim Davis as "hands on" with Garfield. Do you think anyone would ever describe, say, Lynn Johnston as "hands on" with For Better or For Worse?) And, when big news happens in comicdom, I get letters, most of them excited. "Did you hear?" they asked. "When are you going to comment?"

I guess the answer to that was 'Monday.' And yeah, I was glad to see it -- mostly I was glad that there was some actual response from the newspaper community cheering for the move, for artistic reasons. But, it didn't much impact on me, since I don't read the L.A Times and I don't read Garfield. However, it got me to thinking about Garfield... and about the down side to dropping the strip.

First off, this is unreservedly a kid's comic strip. Yes, its creation was cynical, its writing is hackneyed and uninspiring, and it repeats itself constantly. But to be honest, I don't think it's intended to hold readers past, oh, 12. It wants kids -- the ones who've never seen the jokes. The ones who like repetition because they're still having their brains develop (this is why, on Teletubbies, everything is done twice. This is not why there's a giant fucking scary sun baby overlooking them all on Teletubbies, to my knowledge). Kids quickly learn the lay of the land and laugh. They anticipate the joke the moment they see the pan of lasagna, or the moment Garfield thinks "Jon has a date tonight," or the moment Odie is shown sitting on the corner of the table. They get it, and that makes them happy.

And the thing is, that gets the kids reading the funny pages in the newspaper. Something toned to them, that they think is funny, sets a habit. And by the time they outgrow Garfield (when their brains get formed enough to start thinking "Jesus, did they just photocopy this?") the habit's formed and they go back to read stuff that's actually funny.

Secondly... Garfield actually is popular.

I know, I don't get it either.

But it has a readership. For that 1 prominent newspaper who dropped Garfield last year, there's 40 or 50 that picked it up. According to the Syndicate, it's in 2,700 newspapers world wide. Twenty seven hundred newspapers. That doesn't happen today -- not because of issues of quality, but because there's nothing so popular that jumps out of the current information glutted environment. Which means like it or not, Garfield is a part of our collective culture, in a world that increasingly doesn't have a collective culture. There's very few comic strips you can say that about, these days. Even the old (bad) standbys like Hagar and Blondie and B.C. can't claim that -- they might be on almost as many newspaper pages, but if you ask random folks to name Hagar's children or who Mr. Dithers was or any character names from B.C., they're not likely to know. Cathy is lucky people know Cathy's name, and her name is the title of the strip, for Christ's sakes.

But odds are, those people will be able to name "Garfield," "Jon," "Odie," "Veterinarian," and "Lasagna." And maybe even "Nermal." Christ, I can name them all, and I haven't willingly read Garfield in 20 years or more. The only comic strip (not counting Peanuts, which is even bigger in terms of culture, deserves it more, but is in eternal reruns now) in current production that comes close to that level of recognition are Dilbert, and Doonesbury, and neither are really meant for kids, and Doonesbury often as not is on the editorial page anyhow.

There is a value to shared cultural landmarks, even when those landmarks are insipid. There is a value to the shared referent we get from Gilligans Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, even when there were vastly better shows on the air at the same time. (And Married with Children and Baywatch, for that matter.)

And honestly, it's unseemly to despise the popular because it is popular. It's all right to despise Garfield as recycled humor by committee designed to push merchandise instead of art or humor, but it's not all right to despise people for liking it.

There's lots of strips I'd like to see off the comics page, because I don't think they're very good, I think they're taking up space, I think we should try to do better, and I think editors are typically a cowardly and superstitious lot. But when a strip actually is popular, especially with the children we're trying to recruit into the comic strip habit... I guess I give it more than a bye. So yeah, I hate Garfield. I'd give anything for Count Your Sheep to be sitting in its place in those 2,700 newspapers -- it's vastly better, funnier, and just as accessible, I think. But in a world where The Lockhorns and Marmaduke and B.C. Which Means Before Christ Not That You Can Tell In This Fucking Strip and the aptly named Hagar the Horrible are allowed to run free, stinking up the joint and bringing powerfully little in return... the fat cat who likes italian food and has a lame sense of sarcastic humor... and who actually hooks people on comics... gets more of a bye from me.

January 08, 2005

A day of rest, light coughing.

This was another day of... well, next to nothing. Clearly, I needed the downtime. Tomorrow is a heavy writing day, both for here and other bits I'm behind on and bringing sobbing down from those who deserve better from me.

But I wanted at least to say hi, and say the unqualified astounding things about Issue 3 on City of Heroes, hand in hand with the Crappy Council (and they're not improving with time, I'm afraid -- their coolest new characters are the "Galaxy" figures... and they look almost exactly like Destro from G.I. Joe, only without his keen fashion sense.

Yes, I'm serious.

However, first off, the new zone, Stigia Island (which I think I just misspelled, but I'm not going to look it up because I'm... well, crap) is the best new zone of the game, so far. It's got all the joys of the Hollows without the impending sense of doom clinging to them. And they have lots and lots of new maps -- especially the cargo ship map, which just rocks.

Secondly... they did an amazing lighting engine upgrade. The sewers have always been somewhat funny -- these well lit sewers where villains like to hang out. Now they're full of shadows with shadow effects as you pass under the light sources. They're creepy, and that's perfect. We did the Dr. Vahzilok mission today -- a mission I've done about nine times before now -- and this is the first time it scared the crap out of me. Ambience is everything, and they've nailed it.

And when you go into the room where the Doctor is hanging around in his meat suit? Oh my Fucking God. Someone deserves bonus pay for this Issue.

So, City of Heroes remains an astoundingly cool game, and this free update remains phenomenal. Except for the Council. Fucking Council.

(You know, if they'd retconned the 5th Column into something cool, I'd have no problem. But they did things like take the Steel Valkyrie drones -- what a great name. The Steel Valkyrie -- and renamed them the "Zenith Hoverbot." The Zenith Fucking Hoverbot. It sounds like a brand of floating television! But I digress.)

On the other hand, the Council does have a Volcano Fortress. And it's amazing. I just wish it weren't being leased by such a pack of lamers.

January 05, 2005

The Twelfth Commandment

All right. This is going into unusual territory for me. It's going into where the religious crosses over into the political, and it's going into a couple of hot button issues. You need to know this going into it. I promise that later on, I'll post something about a comic strip, and if you'd like to wait for that without reading this, I'll be perfectly fine with it.

Still here? Coolness. Let's talk.

I make no bones about my political ethos. I'm a liberal. I'm not an extremist, but I advocate things that moderates don't, so I pretty much have to call myself "liberal" and be done with it. I'm proud of this fact.

You may intuit, from that admission, my opinions and beliefs when it comes to gay and lesbian civil rights, gay marriage, the "gay agenda," and the "religious right agenda." Let's stipulate those before I move forward. I am a liberal. You know how I feel about the above, at least in general. I'm very unlikely to disappoint you.

Further, as I told you back when I was talking about Christmas in schools, I'm not a Christian. That's an important part of this essay too.

Got all that? Good.

In the last few days, I've seen a number of people -- including a number of my friends -- launch into tirades against what they see as the latest horrific tirade from "the Fundamentalists." Namely, the conflation of the Tsunami and all those killed with some kind of divine justice against the Sodomites. They're horrified. "This is why I despise Christianity," some of them say. "This is the kind of ignorant hatred these people spew! How can so many Americans be fooled by this bullshit?"

And I'm here as a cheerful Liberal Non-Christian to say to all of you reacting in this way a simple, pleasant message:

Know your opposition.

Notice I don't say "enemy." Any belief structure that necessitates making millions of Americans my "enemy" isn't one I agree with even slightly. But there are issues I am in fundamental opposition with those Americans over, and there are millions of Americans who agree with me as well.

But the tirades that you despise aren't coming from the Evangelical Christian Community. They're not.

The tirades mostly come from the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas. Their website is the cheerfully named God Hates Fags, if you care to have a look at the bile-filled hatefest for yourself. They describe themselves as a Primitive Baptist Church. However, their belief structure is mostly based on a particularly strict form of Calvinism. God has decided who will be saved and who will not. Those who will be saved will enter into grace and act perfectly before they die -- perfection meaning "agree with the WBC's interpretation of the Bible in all ways and act accordingly" in this case. They will have no choice in this matter -- God will select them and there will be nothing else they can do.

Please note -- this is the polar opposite of Evangelist Christianity. To the Evangelists and Charismatic Christians, it is all about Free Will and choice. Sinners are born Sinners, but can choose to repent, declare their faith in Jesus Christ, and enter into Grace. God Loves Everyone, and Everyone can be Saved, but you have to come to Him -- He doesn't do the work for you.

To the WBC, all things are expressions of the Divine Will. And, as an Apocalyptic Cult, they feel that Divine Will is very unhappy with we the sinners. And when God gets unhappy, he destroys cities and floods the world and kills pretty much everyone and most of them get cast into Hell. And that's a good thing. By definition, because God Wills It. To them, God explicitly does not love everyone. He hates gays and lesbians -- and Jews and Muslims and Catholics and any other church they consider to be apostate. This explicitly includes, but is not limited to, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Catholics, the United Church of Christ, the Assemblies of God, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Southern Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Unitarians, and of course all Jews who don't accept Jesus as the Messiah. They single out Billy Graham in particular as a dangerous heretic and false prophet.

The WBC has offered up loud and public thanks for the Tsunami, because they believe that it killed thousands of Americans and Swedes (they hate Sweden) and is yet another sign of Divine Wrath against the Sodomites and their Sympathizers. They have offered up thanks and praise for the 9/11 attacks for the same reason. They have openly expressed their hope that God destroys the entire North American Continent as punishment for our sinful ways, and they have expressed out and out joy that prominent gays who have died (especially those murdered) are now burning in Hell without release. Their God has no room for Mercy -- there is nothing anyone could have done to prevent this. Had he wanted to save Matthew Shephard's soul (they've been actively trying to raise a monument commemorating Shephard -- who was a teenaged homosexual brutally killed by gaybashers -- as burning in Hell, and they picketed his funeral with God Hates Fags placards) God would have reached out, caused Matthew to renounce homosexuality, and preach the gospel as they see it. They also believe God made Matthew gay, as God made all things, and chose not to save him.

They take joy in God's Hatred and Wrath, joy in the death he spreads (including, explicitly, children -- since they were being raised to do evil anyway), and joy in the coming End Times that will see America and all nations like her destroyed by a vengeful hand. They preach their hate-spewed gospel because the Bible says they must, but they don't believe it will do any good -- God will save those he wants to, and besides, it's too late for us.

So yes, I despise these hateful, tortured bastards. I despise anyone who takes pleasure in the death of one person, much less the death of thousands upon thousands. I wouldn't share a meal with any one of them. And if it turns out they're right and their God is the true one, I'd rather go to Hell. Eternal torment is preferable to a Divinity of Hatred and Selfishness, and I do not accept any deity capable of creating the Heavens and Earth could also be capable of that much bile and intentional, impersonal horror.

But I never, ever confuse these horrible people with Evangelical Christians. The Religious Right has an agenda I can't stand, but their churches don't advocate the destruction of America, joy in the death of tens of thousands, and joy in the torment of sinners. I know more than one Christian who believes in Exclusive Salvation -- the doctrine that only through Christ's grace and the acceptance of Him as your Savior can you enter the Kingdom of Heaven -- and none of them like the thought of their friends and even acquaintences burning in Hell. They would give anything to help you avoid that fate. The WBC will just literally dance on your grave.

So when we the Liberals point to the WBC and say "you see? This is what those bastard Christians want to do to us! This is what they stand for!" the Religious Right -- the real, honest to God Fundamentalist Christians stare at us and say "you honestly have no idea what our religion is about, do you?" They give up on trying to have a meaningful dialogue about the issues dividing this country, because we're not trying to understand -- we're lumping them in with the worst of their breed. It's exactly the same as the days when all left-leaning people were tarred as Stalinists -- not even just Communists, but followers of the Butchers of Budapest. It's exactly the same as when environmentalists are looped in with radical ecoterrorists. It's exactly the same as when the Gay and Lesbian Movement is conflated with NAMBLA.

And it wasn't true in those cases and this isn't true now. And by conflating the Religious Right with Antiamerican Apocalyptic Death Cults, we're ensuring that no decent communication can take place between the left and the right in this country. We're ensuring that Christians fully believe we aren't willing to distinguish between decent people who have different moral values than we do and monsters. And right now? That hurts Liberals more than Christians. Take another look at who won the last election if you don't believe me. And when we go on the offensive against all of Christianity because of the radical, hateful ethos of one tiny splinter of horrible people acting in unChristian ways nominally in the name of Jesus, we put all of Christianity on the defensive. That's just plain stupid.

You should all know the Ten Commandments (even if you're not a believer. This is a part of your civilization). Robert Heinlein informed us that the Eleventh Commandment was "Thou shalt not get caught." Well, I think the Twelfth Commandment is "Know Thy Opposition."

We have fundamental issues before us right now. We have battles that are crucial -- that must be fought. If, like me, you are a Liberal (at least on these issues) or even a Moderate who leans left on civil rights, you have to know what the positions the Right (especially the Religious Right) hold on Abortion, on Gay Rights, on the Separation of Church and State. You have to know the nuances of those issues, and know where the battle lines have to be drawn. And you have to know that your Opponents are not your Enemies -- they are Americans you disagree with on a number of issues.

And we can't do any of that if we're drawn into tarring them all with the WBC's brush. Trust me, the Religious Right doesn't want the WBC on their side of the debate any more than we do. But if we force them to include them, they will... and it will lead to ever worsening conditions for the Left.

And, if you're on the Right in these debates -- if you disagree with my stances... know too the difference between the Liberals and the Extremists. Know the difference between proponents of Choice and Gay Civil Rights and the extreme left nutjobs and proponents of pedophilia. And know that while we oppose many of the things you believe in, we are not your enemy either... and if you cast us as your enemies and lump us all into one great Leftist Horde... it will lead to ever worsening conditions for the Right, as well.

Know thy Opposition, and know thy Battlefield, and don't get distracted by the depraved rantings of a few horrible people. The issues are too important, and America needs us to be at our best in this debate.

December 29, 2004

On Unity in Disaster.

The planet has been shifted in its orbit. About an inch, or so they say. We're moving about three millionths of a second a day faster now too. That's how much power was unleashed by the Earthquakes that spawned the tsunamis that have cost over 80,000 people (as of today) their lives, and countless hundreds of thousands their way of life.

Extra, Access Hollywood and several other shows of monumental excess and celebrity worship have been throwing Petra Nemcova's mostly nude body up on television (file footage, of course, not pictures of the terrified, traumatized girl), advertising their shows by promising updates on the condition of the "Tsunami Supermodel" and the search for her missing boyfriend. I feel something in my soul boil up when I see that. I mean, eighty thousand people are known to have died. That's like a meteor destroying four cities the size of Ithaca, New York at once. I don't care how good the girl looked on a beach in a bathing suit. Not compared to this level of horror.

I know there's been some backlash against people writing about this horrible scene. People don't want to think about it. It's too big. It's too horrific. And there isn't even anyone to blame. When there's an attack and thousands die, it galvanizes a response -- we have to beat those bastards back.

But there's no one to blame here. Unless you're religious, I suppose. And I can imagine any number of deities and devils or interpretation of deities and devils have been blamed in the last 96 hours. But for the most part, this is just something that happened one day.

I don't know if there's any tectonic activity in the Atlantic, but it's crossed my mind recently. What would happen if an Earthquake like that generated a tsunami like that off the American coast, I mean. What that would do to Boston, to Portsmouth, to New York City. Manhattan is a fucking Island. Boston is exposed to the ocean.

And there's Portland. And Freeport. Bar Harbor. Lincolnville. Camden. Rockland. Rockport. Searsport. So many places that are a part of my life, part of my past, part of Maine. All along a hungry sea.

These things just happen, sometime.

It's not going to happen, of course. These are astronomically rare events. But there are other disasters out there. Other horrors, that no one causes... that just happen one day. And in the face of those horrors, it falls upon the rest of us to close the gaps and help out. Help others the way we pray we'll be helped if it happens to us.

I'm reprinting something Randy Milholland posted on his website. Aeire reprinted this message in the Queen of Wands Livejournal as well. D.J. Coffman posted a similar message on the Yirmumah forums. I'm reprinting it because I don't think I could say it any better than Milholland did, and I think he'll forgive me:

As many of you know by now, over 22,000 60,000 80,000 people are dead now in Asia after an earthquake, and resulting tsunami, devastated lives in Thailand, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Maldvives - among other places. Hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless as a result and need help. Organizations like Unicef, Direct Relief International, World Vision, and American Red Cross are beginning humanitarian efforts in these areas, but need your help.

Both Unicef and World Vision take monetary donations which allow them to meet the food, medical and shelter needs of those affected. Direct Relief International takes monetary and product donations. The American Red Cross is currently only accepting financial donations, but you can donate online or by call 1-800-HELP-NOW.

If you don't have the money to contribute, it's okay. Honestly. If you do, I hope you do. I have, because it's important to me.

Most of all... this is a time to be reminded that the world is much, much larger than we are, and there are times we have to come together as a race and help out.

December 17, 2004

On jumping the shark: a fast irrelevant comment

For whatever reason, discussions of the term "Jumping the Shark" are floating around the blogosphere today. Different things are accused of jumping the shark, other essays and comments accuse "jumping the shark" of jumping the shark... it's a chumfest, boyos.


It's cut up fish. They use it to bait for sharks.

Look, I'm under medication.

Anyway, I like the term because it does its job. It conveys a concept, quickly and easily. "This is the point where something cool went past its peak and into its decline. This is the point where everyone knows its over." All things jump the shark, eventually.

But I'm thinking back to the Happy Days cliffhanger where the term originated, when the Fonz, to prove how cool he was, learned to water ski and then jumped a shark.

Well... I also remember that it was done cliffhanger style... the Fonz hit the ramp, went into the air, hit his apogee high above the shark holding area... and then the screen froze, with "TO BE CONTINUED" superimposed over it.

I was, like ten years old when that happened. And the thing I clearly remember thinking was "well, duh. He's at the high point of his jump. I saw the first half of it. He's clearly going to make it assuming that a team of Supervillains didn't extend a transparent sheet of glass for him to slam into the way they did in front of the highway Superman and the Flash were racing on, so they could take the place of Our Heroes and fix the ending. Damn villains."

So at ten years old, it wasn't that the concept was lame. As Bobby in Superosity once said, "dude! He jumped a shark. He can do anything he wants!" It was that I had to wait the entire summer to see the back half of a jump that any cretin could see was going to make it, and we had to pretend like there was suspense involved.


December 16, 2004

A pause, because my brain is full and mushy

Hey all. Not much on the snark front today. I'm tired and worn down, in part because it's been a busy week at work (though the students are leaving! Soon, all will be joy!) and in part because I had an excellent, but late night last night.

I and a couple of friends (and fellow Superguy authors, for those playing along at home who read Randy Milholland's news post on Superguy -- though no, he wasn't at dinner with us) did our "friend's Christmas night out" last night, as they're both driving for home tomorrow, and they wanted a day of recovery between the events.

So, we hit the comic book/game store. Which looks different to me now (I look a lot more at the alternatives than I used to, I have to admit). And, while they both negotiated their purchases (which took a while -- I wasn't buying today but they were) I read Identity Crisis. All seven issues. I'm a fast reader.

It... well, it made me sad. I mean, it was something of a complete waste. They hired a writer of thrillers -- stunt casting, except in the writing world -- and it really showed. The "shocking twist ending" was straight out of the last ten minutes of a melodramatic TV movie, right down to the "smiling, calm, insane discussion." Hack work at best, in my not so humble opinion, and utterly out of place in the world of DC Comics. There were also implications throughout that... well, that are meant to tarnish. Specifically meant to tarnish the Justice League, in fact.

And I put it down, and glanced at the comic. Obviously, there was no Comics Code Authority emblem on it. (Is there even a Comics Code Authority any more?) And that's okay....

...but I realized that it was official. The Justice League just isn't for kids at all any more. Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman aren't being written for 12 year olds any more.

Oh, I know. This is a comic book store. This isn't the newsstand. This wasn't meant for the kiddies (though I don't think I saw a Mature Readers label -- though there may have been). But they're simply not even trying any longer -- this is an event meant to span all their titles (certainly every issue of Batman is going to have to deal with this, as is the Flash, the JLA...) and it was clearly intended for people in their twenties and thirties, not their tens, tweens or teens.

And that's sad. I mean, no one needs to sell me on the idea for comic books for grownups. I'm sold. Whether Fantasy or SF or contemporary or real life, alternative or mainstream... I'm good with this concept.

But that doesn't mean giving up comic books for kids in the process. Especially the core Super Heroes -- especially Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman and the Flash... the heroes who create a sense of wonder, who encourage a sense of justice and honor, and who thrill kids with every minute.

It's just sad. But that was just part of the evening. From there, we did some light shopping, then hit dinner at Uno's, where we traded friendly gifts. (My gifts were largely DVD based, and involved the suggestion that perhaps the Murdering of William was in order. Plus a season of South Park). And then we went to see National Treasure at ten to ten.

It was fun. We did some MSTing of the movie (no one was within four rows of us, so we didn't disturb anyone), but there was also a basic element of the clever throughout. I like Clever. And the ending was not what I expected from a Brukheimer movie, and that's a good thing.

And then home, well after 1 in the morning.

So today, I'm tired. I'm stoked, because my cable modem was installed today (yes, my school's T1 is so oversubscribed it's worth it to me to get outside internet access again), but I'm also blunted. And I don't think the snarking is going to come to me today. Well, beyond this bit here.

Peace, all.

December 14, 2004

If this is true, that Snark Auction was desperately overpriced.

According to Froogle, is on sale for $147.50.

I should mention they are in error. I'm always high priced, baby.

December 11, 2004

Some fast notes on a good day

So it was a day of meetings and festivities. I'm now slightly liquored up, so I'm feeling cheerful back to the home, while my cat lies on my foot and slowly sands it to the bone with a painful tongue of affection. And now I want to give you all a snapshot of a pleasant day.

First off, I had lunch and saw a popcorn movie with a couple of friends from the world of the Internet. We had good sushi. I'm a fan of good sushi. One of these friends, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, is also the one official, on the record fan of Unfettered by Talent. That's right. My webcomic... actually has a fan. She used to bug me to start writing it again, in fact.

To me, this tells me that there is in fact an audience out there for anyone, if they try their best. Even if they draw like a retarded vole.

Secondly, we went to see Blade: Trinity. I can say without fear of contradiction that this movie succeeded on every level it actually tried to succeed on. Particularly on the level where Wesley Snipes kicks someone's ass while making it look like he's affecting nonchalance, followed by his adjusting his coat and preening. Also, Jessica Biel is even hotter when she's killing things.

The movie also had the most mind bogglingly gratuitous product placement known to man. Apple better have paid them a lot of money.

(By the way... if your encryption routine causes the computer to explode when it completes... why do you have to encrypt in the first place. I'm pretty sure when your computer's hard drive is in tiny burning fragments, no one's going to be pulling data off it.)

This evening was a work-related Christmas party. I had scotch, one of my coworkers is a new grandfather, and I discovered a true thing I will now impart to all of you: any song that causes a white man in his fifties, while dancing, to throw a spin into his dance, should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

And then, as I was walking home... I stopped to look at the Christmas display at the Dentist's next door. Santa on the lawn, some lights... some kind of light in their lobby... no, wait it's a lamp.... wait...

...this was the lamp from A Christmas Story. The Very Special Prize.

I am so getting a teeth cleaning there.

Settling down to Justice League Unlimited. More later.

December 07, 2004

When did we become the No Fat Chicks club? I think I need to see the bylaws.

So, I was talking about body shapes in one of my snarks, yesterday. Specifically my Questionable Content snark. And it's inspired some lively debate, which I'm good with. Debate means people are thinking about what was said, and there's literally nothing else an essayist can ask for.

But one of the comments threatened to move away from the point of the snark, and into questions of unrealistic body image, sexism... the usual, in other words. And I suggested that particular snark's comments weren't the right place to discuss those issues, because that wasn't the point of that snark.

But, it also occurred to me that it's a good topic of discussion. Because body image and the choices artists make in webcomics, especially in depicting women, is an area strongly worth discussing. And also because the complaint, when ascribed to Questionable Content, actively surprised me.

I read a lot of webcomics. By now, you've figured that out. (Though at least one webcomic creator of note, when discussing Websnark, has indicated he likes the site but wishes my trawl list wasn't so limited. On the other hand, said creator's strip is one of the ones not on said trawl list, so that might have something to do with it. Or it might not.) And one thing I figured out early on in reading webcomics is the women aren't very realistic. They don't act realistically. They don't look realistic. There's lots and lots of bodysuits and bikinis and miniskirts and catholic/japanese schoolgirl outfits. There's breasts that would give Supergirl a backache as far as the eye can see, and they're copiously on display. Female sexuality becomes implicit, in many, many, many webcomics, including some by artists who would vehemently deny it.

The Unsurpassable Wednesday White examined the "Smoking Hot Geek Girl" phenomenon in detail over in her Comixpedia article on the subject. It happens over and over again. Jade and Miranda in PvP (though Marcy is a solid geek girl without the need to be red hot). Ki in GPF. Miranda in User Friendly. The utterly pneumatic Cecania in Sore Thumbs. The seminal, supergenius, supergorgeous Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet.

If we extend the scope of the discussion beyond geek girls in particular, it goes nuts. Josh Lesnick's Wendy (and to a lesser extent, Girly). Any female who was in Exploitation Now (and most of the ones in Errant Story) by Michael Poe. Almost any science fiction babe. (The fact that we can typify them as science fiction babes, for that matter.) And so on and so on and so on and so on. I can name examples pretty much as quickly as I can type. There are acres of gorgeous girlflesh just a-waitin' for you out there.

On the other side of it... there's a significant dearth of plain girls, or of attractive but overweight girls, or of attractive women who are older (and are depicted as older, rather than looking thirty-one with grey hair). But go on the other side of the aisle and you'll find tons of overweight, balding, bearded, misanthropic men. Sometimes dating the gorgeous women, no less.

Which brings me to why the commenter's complaint over Questionable Content surprised me so much. Said complaint was twofold -- the women were unrealistically attractive, and they were uncomfortably sexual. Well, I grant they're both overtly sexual and overtly attractive -- though I think they're far, far, far from most of the women I mentioned above. The former was a little surprising because... well, this is essentially a sex comedy. The central conflict of the series is "will Marten and Faye get together," and it's clearly not to hold hands and discuss poetry. This is a series based on sexual tension. Which is appropriate for young twenty-somethings who're still pretty flush with hormones (when I was that age, I thought about sex pretty much all the time, which my girlfriend of the time could no doubt attest to). In a comedy, you accentuate the points of tension for comedic intent. In a relationship comedy with a core premise of sexual tension, that's what gets accentuated. Further, the men are neither studly nor homely either. There is equality of attractiveness, which sets more of a theme instead of an inequity. This is Romantic (sex) Comedy, not workplace humor where the gorgeous systems administrator is having regular sex with the male hacker who has no sense of hygiene.

But more to the point, the complaint was about their appearance, and that just floored me. Let's set aside one complaint, which was unreasonable height proportion -- it's cartoon art, and cartoon art is... well, cartoony The same way that we accept Charlie Brown's mammoth skull, we accept that Faye and Marten's heads are larger than normal.

So, taking the cartoony nature of the art as a given, the question is are the women particularly unrealistic. And I have to say that not only aren't they, but that Jacques is actually touching on body image issues far more realistically than I've seen almost anywhere. And that's in the charming little ball of neurosis that is Faye.

Faye is very pretty. There's no denying it. Marten and Steve have both remarked on it. But Faye's little sister grabbed Faye's stomach and made disparaging remarks, which Faye deflected. And then Faye began making remarks about her 'squishiness,' and said the same to Ellen, who she didn't even know. Clearly, Faye is sensitive about her weight, even though she clearly doesn't need to be. And she compares herself to the skinny Dora (who's skinny enough that Ellen described her as "boyish" and put her foot in her mouth over it). And which Dora clearly has some (minor, one hopes) issues about herself.

Yeah, they're all pretty... but they don't know that, it seems. And that's ground that rarely if ever gets covered in webcomics.

Does that make the commenter wrong, in what she (she identified herself as female) said? No, it sodding well doesn't. I might disagree with her opinion, but I understand it. Would I like to see more diversity in feminine archetypes in webcomics? You're damn right I would. Every day, Bruno (the Baldwin version, not the McDonald version) seems lonelier and lonelier out in the webcomics world. Strips like Fans, which takes pains to cover all sides (and shapes) of the SF Fan community, and treat them all as both worthy of attention and attractive in their own right are precious gems, all the more precious because of their sad rarity. And it makes a strip like Lost and Found Investigations, which played with the subjectivity of appearance (Beth gained enough weight that she got dumped by her shallow boyfriend, immediately began seeing herself as much fatter than she really was, but when we saw her from Frank's point of view she was ravishing, because that's how he saw her) intriguing and interesting in the extreme.

But from where I sit, that doesn't mean a strip like Questionable Content (or Scary Go Round, or Diesel Sweeties, or Queen of Wands, or Something Positive, or any other strip that trods the relationship ground) has to fill those gaps. People are going to tell the stories they're going to tell, and there's nothing wrong with using attractive people to do it, if that's what the artists are going to draw.

But at the same time, we need to have an awareness of the issues at hand. And if someone wants to have a sexy, sassy female lead who's also a size 18 instead of a size 6, they'll have a reader in me, at least.

And as for my practicing what I preach? Well, Rhonda, the one female character I drew in Unfettered by Talent, certainly didn't look like the traditional standard of beauty. Of course, that could be because she looked like a sock puppet made by a deranged four year old with a glue gun, but I digress.

November 30, 2004

The frightening side of change: why syndicates don't like Scott Kurtz and Keen

So I've been keeping an eye on how the Syndicated Cartoonist Industry is reacting to the slow -- but steady -- encroachment onto their turf by young turks with machetes. Put another way, I've been watching the reaction of the traditional newspaper cartoonists and syndicates to the "syndication" models that Scott Kurtz is trying with PvP and which Keen is trying with KeenSyndicate.

(For those who came in late -- Scott Kurtz is offering a full year, already drawn, of daily PvP to newspapers for free, so long as they have his website's URL. The idea is the exposure to PvP will drive Kurtz's comics sales, drive merchandise sales, and bring traffic to his site which will drive advertising sales. Keen, on the other hand, is offering a full page of newspaper strips twice a week to newspapers so long as they also include Keen's embedded advertising.)

Needless to say, the reaction hasn't been stellar. I've seen a few dismissals of the proposals "on the record" by established syndicate cartoonists. I've seen some "off the record" comments that blister paint off the walls. Let me sum up their position as succinctly as possible:

  • You're doomed to failure, because you're not selling your artwork. You're using your artwork to sell something else.
  • You're causing damage to newspaper comics as a whole because by giving your strips for free to newspapers, you cause them to undervalue the form
  • Any business model that doesn't involve selling the art to someone else directly is somehow less legitimate -- it's not art, it's prostitution (the old "you just want to sell tee-shirts and plush dolls -- you're not an artist" statement
  • I hate you.

It's fear.

Pure and simple, it's fear driving this reaction. And this is the only reaction that many (I fear most) syndicated cartoonists are going to have for any model that seriously (or even trivially) challenges the established system.

Look at it from their side.

They went into this with a very specific plan. They learned to draw -- maybe (even probably) going to school for it. They practiced and refined their craft. They did weekly shopper newspaper cartoon placement and drew comics for their friends. If they're post-world wide web maybe they did a small webcomic and maybe they didn't. Most of all, they drew. They came up with new strip ideas and did thirty strips and sent them to syndicates and got rejected, over and over again. They networked. They joined the societies. They joined the mailing lists. They worked and worked and worked to force an opening for themselves. They got rejected a lot and prized every handwritten rejection note they received, both for its advice and as validation that they should keep trying.

And finally they pulled it off. They got a concept together and some editor liked it and suggested changes. They made those changes. They sent in the revised proposal. And the editors liked it more -- they thought it was funny, and it showed the capacity to sustain. So they ink a development contract, with a series of guidelines. The artist puts together another six week window of strips, this time with an eye to the syndicate selling them to newspapers. The editors come back with a series of changes and individual strip rejections. "Don't do this -- we can't sell this to papers in Topeka. Change this. Take this out. Less continuity over here. More continuity over there. A Lesbian joke? Not until you're bigger, pal."

And the artist makes changes. He reluctantly concedes that some of the content changes makes the strips better. He gnashes his teeth over the others, because he thinks they dilute the strip -- but he wants this. He wants this. And after a couple more refinement passes, they have a package to send out. They do... and a few newspapers nibble.

That's it. They've made it. He's getting paychecks now. He's beginning to make headway. He's a cartoonist. He draws and draws and draws, and sends out packages and gets notes back -- change this character. Don't make this one black unless that's the point. Do you really think this is funny? He learns to value the comments his editors make that improve his strip. He learns to hate the comments they make that slash through what he wants to do. A few more papers nibble, and a few drop the strip. But he's getting some momentum. He has a few conversations with publishers about a collection -- only to hear back from the syndicate that they handle collections and publishing and merchandising, and they need to be cut in on everything, and right now they don't feel the circulation warrants a push. Still, he knows that'll come with time and effort and the slow building of a fan base. He starts getting fan mail. He starts getting hate mail. He starts getting comfortable.

And after a few years of this, he's tired. It's not as much fun as he thought it'd be, but he also loves cartooning with all his heart. He's doing everything he ever wanted to, and if the reality isn't as great as the fantasy, that's life. He's becoming established. He's becoming a name. He's beginning to entrench in the community, and giving advice to kids who're just like him.

Only... those kids don't want his advice. It seems that they're publishing their cartoons on the web, and building an audience for them. Not a newspaper circulation, maybe... but....

And they don't have editors changing things, and they own their merchandising rights, and they write and draw whatever the fuck they way -- Jesus Christ, they say Fuck right in the strip -- and they don't seem to want to make the changes and compromises he had to. They don't want to jump through the hoops or go through the crucible. It's like they want to be like those independent and alternative cartoonists who get published in the Stranger in Seattle and the local equivalents all over the country, only there are thousands of them. And some of them totally suck and some of them can't meet deadlines and he feels better, because all of the advantages of an editor standing herd over the artists just aren't there... but some of them post cartoons every day, and they have book collections and merchandising deals... and they seem to think they're professional cartoonists.

And now they're saying "you know what? The syndicate system is a relic of a different era. We make our money in different ways, but newspapers can be a part of our strategy. Here. We'll give your papers comic strips, if you accept our advertising as part of the package, or if you drive traffic to our site. This'll be good advertising for us."

Now... they're not only trying to leapfrog the system, they're saying the system doesn't matter. They're saying they don't need it, or want it. They don't want editors telling them what they can draw -- if a paper doesn't want to run a strip because of content, that's fine. They're not paying for it anyway -- the artist isn't out anything.

They are, in effect, challenging the tenets that the syndicated cartoonist has based his career and his entire life on.

...and some of them are more significant than the syndicated cartoonists in question.

Seriously. Have a look at uComics and sometime. The big guns are there. For Better or For Worse. Doonesbury. Beetle Bailey. Those guys aren't sweating because Chris Crosby is offering comic strips to newspapers. I promise you Beetle Bailey has too much traction and cultural significance to disappear tomorrow. If it got dropped from papers, there would be angry letters.

No, it's all the strips you vaguely know the names of on those pages. Or all the strips you've never even heard of on those sites that are mad as Hell over this. Because those strips are at the early stages of the process. They're trying, damnably hard, to get traction in papers and spread through and begin to have an impact on cultural consciousness.

PvP, on the other hand, already has cultural consciousness. Thousands upon thousands of people read it every day. And they're a good demographic of reader -- young men of an age where they blow cash on video games and expensive high tech toys. PvP got a comic book deal from Image. Do you think Cats with Hands could get a comic book deal? Or CEO Dad? Or Heart of the City?

Note -- I'm not setting an agenda or releasing the hounds against those strips. I'm mentioning strips I've never heard of. That's right, after decades of comics page reading, of spending money on comic strip history, on devouring comic strips in almost every form I could get my hands on... these are strips that aren't even blips on my radar. They might be really successful. They might have thousands and thousands of readers. But from where I sit, they haven't had cultural impact. Not yet.

But Penny Arcade has. And so's PvP, and Nukees. You think Nokia would send these people free cell phones with video games built in if they didn't? They want the audience for those strips to buy N-Gages. They want them bad.

So the syndicated cartoonists lash out. This is literally a challenge to the way they've conducted their entire lives -- and a challenge to their capacity to become this Generation's Wizard of Id or Cathy. (We won't even discuss becoming the next Bloom County or Garfield or Peanuts. These days, there's an overwhelming feeling that that boat has left the dock and won't be coming back. And, with the Internet and cable television and information and entertainment bombarding from all sides, they're right, barring a total miracle -- and that miracle could happen to the web as easily as it does to the Boston Globe.)

You bet they're going to lash out. They're going to say hurtful things and trash talk Scott Kurtz and Chris Crosby. They're scared and they're angry. This is intensely personal. If these alternative models succeed -- and if Kurtz and Keen make their money off of alternative models that don't involve getting paid by the newspapers -- they directly impact the syndicate cartoonist's ability to get paid by syndicates to deliver content for newspapers.

Oh, some of their laments are just plain stupid. My personal favorite are the ones who claim Kurtz et al are sellouts. That's right, sellouts. They're trying to sell merchandise, not comic strips. That cheapens the comic strip. No, really. Honest.

(The stupidity of that statement is self-evident, but I'm on a roll here: comic strips aren't in newspapers for artistic reasons. They're in newspapers because newspapers want to increase their circulation, and a majority of newspaper readers flip to the funnies as part of the reading experience. A huge number read the funnies first. A nontrivial number read them before they read anything else. This is why newspapers have comics, period. Trying to sell tee shirts and mugs and advertising isn't selling out -- it's finding a way to draw and print comics that also feeds the family. There's a lot of easier ways to make money, to be blunt. In fact, it could be said that the artist who sells his comic strips to a syndicate for a paycheck is more of a sellout than the artist who retains all rights and offers the strip, making his money off of book and merchandise sales. But that's almost as spurious.)

What does that mean for people like Scott Kurtz and Chris Crosby? Not a lot. Oh, they're not going to like being trashed by other cartoonists, but they're still going to give it a try and they're either going to succeed or fail. And if they do fail, someone else will try something else. The one thing that's certain is the publishing and syndication landscape isn't what it was in 1990 (or 1980 or 1950 or 1900, for that matter), and twenty years from now new cartoonists aren't going to follow the same steps to reach a point of making money and cultural significance as the current crops do.

And like it or not, there is a growing feeling that not only isn't syndication the only game in town... it's not even the most desirable game in town. Frank Cho, when he pulled Liberty Meadows from the syndicates, made that point extremely well. Crosby and Kurtz are making it again. In his own way, so's Joey Manley. And the folks at PV Comics. And Gabe and Tycho. And J. Jacques. And Randy Milholland. And every person who's now putting food on his table by drawing a comic strip but not sending that strip to someone at Universal Press or King or Tribune Media Services.

That's scary as Hell to the guy who spent his life getting into the syndicate, because it makes him question everything. And so he lashes out.

But it doesn't change what's happening, and it doesn't change what's coming. It doesn't change the fact that things are changing.

So I don't get angry when I read these rants. I feel badly. I feel as badly as I would for people who used to work for buggy whip manufacturers. "I got a good job making buggy whips," they said. "These new 'horseless carriages' won't replace the horse. They can't. And the only way to motivate a horse that's been proven and true is with a buggy whip, like the ones I make for Universal Buggy Whip. So when these new things fail -- and they will, because I can't see how they'd succeed -- the guys working on those new assembly lines are going to be out of luck. But not me. I'll be making buggy whips."

It can be a bitch to see.

November 28, 2004

It's a donation, asshole. Not a purchase.

So I'm reading Something Positive, and then I go on to read his rant....

And then I just stared for a little while.

You see, someone e-mailed him anonymously bitching about... well, lots of things. And going over and over again to the whole "we donated a year's salary" riff to justify the bitching.

Okay. You all know I have a mantra for people who make this stuff their job. It's a simple mantra. "It's your job, stupid." And I believe it. Once this is the way you put food on your table, you have a responsibility to your audience, what who are feeding you. It's the deal.

But there is a qualitative difference between having a responsibility to your audience, and being your audience's bitch, dancing when they say. And you know what? No one gets to write a trash talking letter to a webcartoonist, period. Because while the artist who makes their living this way owes his best efforts (within reason, asshole) to his audience, he doesn't owe one audience member the confluence of Jack and Shit.

Something Positive updates put near every day. There's a lot of energy put every week into the strip. He knows his responsibilities and he meets it.

Milholland reported that the people who complained end up almost inevitably not to have been the ones who donated in the first place. Well, I donated, long before I had this website. I gave him some of my hard earned cash, because I felt he was worth it.

And I have never, ever regretted it -- or any other money I've donated to webcartoonists, or products I've bought from them.

They don't owe me anything. I owed them some appreciation for what they'd produced. I gave it to them. Everything's square.

If you don't like that kind of transaction, don't donate.

And if you haven't donated, don't fucking speak for those of us who did. Because you know what? You don't fucking speak for those of us who did.

Jesus Christ. What is this, their hobby?

November 24, 2004

Sure, I'm late with snarks tonight, but on the other hand, I seem to be bitter. Doesn't that count for something?

This is try two on this snark. Which is indicative of the day.

I can't really talk about my day job. I can't because first off you don't care, and second off because I like my day job and want to continue to do it. However...

Well, let's put it this way. In systems administration, there are certain things that pretty much anyone with any understanding of the Internet would understand treads into grey or black areas morally, ethically and even philosophically. And sometimes, the administration above the systems administrator decides that... well, the janitor is probably morally, ethically and philosophically opposed to murder, but he's still going to mop up the blood when someone gets whacked in the hall.

So, having had to mop up some blood and bits of brain, I was in a fine fettle when I came across something I could get pissed about on here. And so we're going to discuss it, because I can't talk about the other and you wouldn't care anyway.

I buy stuff from I love e-books. I love carrying around my library on my PDA. I love it and I wish there was more available. And because I buy stuff from them, I get their advertising. It's not really spam because I did, in fact, ask for it.

Well, yesterday, I got a notice that there were "Sherwood Anderson classics" available. Sherwood Anderson, in case you slept through American Lit, was the man who gave us Winesburg, Ohio. Which, I would add, was written in 1919 and is available on Fictionwise. And, as this advertisement mentioned, they also have Anderson's Poor White available -- one of Anderson's most celebrated of novels. And you can buy and download it right there, for just two and a half bucks. Forty cents off if you're a club member.

Great, right?


Which means Poor White is solidly into the Public Domain.

So what. It's available in bookstores too. has it for almost ten bucks. Two fifty-four is a bargain, right?

Guys... another place I turn to for e-books is Blackmask. Blackmask works hand in hand with organizations like Project Gutenberg, adapting public domain works into popular e-book (and HTML) formats.

Poor White is there. For free. In fact, a huge selection of Sherwood Anderson right here. For free. In the same basic formats for e-books, I would add. Including iSilo, which is my book type of choice.

Do I begrudge Fictionwise from making some money from public domain works that you could get for free elsewhere? No. Not really. They're trying to make money. But the idea that they need to charge two dollars and fifty cents, when they could get the text from Gutenberg or Blackmask, process it and slap it up on a server, and then have effectively no costs of production whatsoever, is ludicrous. There's no money going back to publishers. (If there is, someone at Fictionwise needs to be fired.) There's no money going back to the Anderson estate. It's free. I could slap the entire text of Poor White on Websnark if I wanted to.

And it pisses me off that instead of offering that work, and the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, of Charles Dickens, of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment is three dollars and forty-nine cents to buy from these people! A 19th Century novel that can't cost them two cents in bandwidth for you to download, that they almost certainly didn't have to keyboard or even scan in.) for maybe ten cents apiece, or as freebies if you buy X numbers of current, high cost pieces, they're charging absolutely absurd prices because they figure they'll get a few people thinking they're paying for convenience and that'll be enough.

We live in an era of unprecedented distribution. I have no problem with people making a little bit of money while they do it, but to push the margins so obscenely high on fiction that the public already owns the rights to is just plain ugly. And it pisses me off.

Somewhere, there's a sysadmin coding the engine driving it, and it pisses him off too.

But they just have him mop up the blood and move on.

November 19, 2004

When you stare into the chocolate, the chocolate is also staring into you.

I'm not asking for one, but if I had one of these dolls, I'd feel obligated to put it inside a closed box and never, ever take it out. Though occasionally I'd have to push a rose petal in through the cracks.

(These folks also make the Nietzsche Will to Power Bar. The brilliance of this is frightening.)

Things become clearer with mission statements

After yesterday's Snark on Graphic Novel Review's cover, and the ensuing quasi-debate in the comments, Alexander Danner, the editor of GNR, posted the Mission Statement for GNR in his latest Profundities Forthcoming post. With his permission, I'm reprinting it here:

Many literary readers, having been exposed to one or two or three "crossover" graphic novels every few years, are already interested in exploring the larger context of the form. They want to gain a better understanding of the "scene" from which these outstanding works emerged, and they want to find new graphic novels to read. We provide that context and that understanding. Although we welcome readers from both the artcomix scene and mainstream fandom, we do not expect our audience to have comics at the center of their lives: We are writing for the average reader of contemporary literature who wants to explore the field of graphic novels.

Now, this I can support. If Graphic Novel Review, as a matter of editorial policy and intentional decision, is specifically targeting contemporary readers and not targeting either indy or mainstream comics fans (though of course, they'll be happy to have them too), then I can accept that their emphasis will be on graphic novels that would appeal to those fans.

I don't know if their mission can be successful. I do know it's a worthy one, and if it is will go light years into the promotion of Sequential Art as an art form.

Now, I think they both have to put this online and rewrite their Writer's Guidelines to reflect it more clearly. As it is now, the natural assumption a reader makes when they look at the writer's guidelines is going to either be mine -- which is that they were cutting their nose off to spite their face -- or one of my other readers, who thought it was an intentional shafting of mainstream comics fans. I take Danner at his word that it's neither -- and this makes it explicitly clear that what they're doing just doesn't involve mainstream or indy fans, editorially, and so it'll greatly serve GNR to rephrase things to make that clear to everyone.

And will clear the decks for me to write snarks about pretty covers and well written articles without having to throw in caveats, and that's a good thing. Caveats scare me.

November 18, 2004

A link to something nice.

I haven't had a lot to say about Graphic Novel Review since it came out. I posted an opinion on its guidelines before it came out (I felt that taking a hard, though not absolute, editorial bias against mainstream super hero graphic novels was a mistake, ensuring that the very people who most needed exposure to creator owned and independent graphic novels would have no reason to read it. It's an opinion I continue to hold, though I don't know if it's been borne out or not.) I think it's well written, and some people I respect highly are associated with it, editing it, writing for it, or all of the above.

But... well, I'm not steeped in graphic novels anyway, right now. I haven't been to the comic store in months, and while I trek through the graphic novel section of Barnes and Noble whenever I go in there, I don't usually buy anything.

(The same is sadly true of Science Fiction these days, but that's because I'm a lot more likely to buy and download E-books from Fictionwise or Baen to read at my leisure than I am to buy physical books. I carry my Treo 600 with me wherever I go because it's also my cell phone, and I bought a monumentally large SD card so I can carry a library with me. There's nothing quite as satisfying as discovering that you're caught behind a car accident on an interstate, that you've probably got a half hour before any traffic's going to move at all, so you pull out your PDA/phone and start rereading Soothsayer. I just wish Sean Stewart novels came electronically right now.)

But, I do like the articles they write. And right now, I'm going to go suggest you look at this month's cover. Jenn Manley Lee has produced a striking and evocative piece that's just plain pretty.

Once you've seen it, feel free to head inside and see if anything catches your eye. "M." Campos and Kelly J. Cooper have reviews, and that's worth it all by itself. But it's the cover art that really yanked at my eyes this month, and that's worth a mention, don't you think?

November 14, 2004

Ruminations between dizziness and excitability

So... I'm at a weird point right now... still too wound up to go to sleep, but feeling the medication effects (my heart rate's still way up and I've got adrenalin in my system still, but my blood pressure is now dropping like a stone thanks to the ACE inhibitors and then the coreg will flog said heart for a bit and force the beat to slow back down, if I understand the mechanisms correctly. All I know is these pills kept me alive a few years back, when a few years before that my only recourse would have been a heart transplant). So, I thought I'd type for a few minutes on one of my unwritten policies for Websnark.

If I make a mistake, or blow something, or post something I later regret... I'll own up to it, but I won't delete it. This is a record of... well, something, at least. Of my thoughts and blatherings, if nothing else. And when I blow it, I'm going to leave it up and own up to it.

I thought about deleting the boing boing post. I think it was a mistake to post it in the first place, because I e-mailed Mark Frauenfelder, and I should have given him a chance to respond.

(Note, by the way, that I'm glad Mark deleted the post in question on Boing Boing. I'm talking about me in this post. If anyone else out there was sensitive to the things I was, Mark did right by them. So, to sum up -- post about me, not him. Thanks. Kisses.)

I left it up, because... well, because I posted it. If you think I overreacted -- or at least was unfair to Boing Boing, you may be right. But I don't go for revisionist history on Websnark.

I decided to modify the entry, making it clear that Boing Boing had responded well, and replacing my own link to their entry with a strikethrough. But I leave it up there. It's the same with comments I or others make on the site. If someone makes a comment I don't like, I won't delete it (with the exception of true harassment of others. If Timmy posts a comment, and Bobby posts something obscene and horrid about Timmy in response, I reserve the right to pull Bobby's response off. If Bobby posts a rant about how I'm a fat loser living in my mother's basement, I'll leave it up. At least one of those assertions is accurate anyhow).

We live in an age where the historical record is easy to alter. We combat that not with technology, but with integrity. When I overreact or blow a call, that mistake becomes a part of this archive. That just seems fair to everyone.

(This may be why I posted a link to the terrible webcomic I used to draw. On the other hand, that may have been more of a preemptive strike.)

November 05, 2004

I wonder...

...if I should recruit some guest snarkers?

I mean, at least for November. To keep the output up while I write stories about far distant futures where people... well, talk to each other while drinking beverages for hours upon hours.

November 02, 2004

On Decorations and Democracy

It's weird. I moved offices at the beginning of the summer (I had changed jobs, so it kind of went without saying I needed to change offices). My last office was 'decorated' somewhat randomly. Bookshelves full of books, a large collection of toys that students and friends gave me over time, piles of kipple... that sort of thing.

When I moved to my new office, for whatever reason I decided to decorate it. I got a "Sacrifice" Demotivator for one wall, right next to a whiteboard and a piece of digital art I produced (one of the few bits of art I've done that I feel really happy with. On the opposite wall I have the famous Picasso "spider painting" of Don Quixote, because my father had that same print in his own office and because Don Quixote just feels right to me. On my bulletin board I have pictures of my sister and my nieces, plus postcards and the like from friends. (And my "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper sticker, which both Democrats and Republicans get a huge kick out of.) Opposite my desk, I have a small framed sheet of the "Comic Strip Classics" postage stamp set from a few years ago.

And finally... I have something I picked up at the Battle of Benneton monument last September -- a "historical documents" set. It only cost four bucks for four different sheets -- a bargain. They're all printed on yellow, rumpled paper designed to look 'old.' It's just ink on distressed paper, but it works.

So, by my desk I have a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. On the inside of my office door, I have the Bill of Rights. Behind me, on the wall, I have the Constitution of the United States. The fourth 'document,' the Gettysburg Address, didn't interest me as much, so it's tucked into the bookcase right now. I'm a lot more of a Revolutionary War buff, anyhow.

The Revolution was really remarkable, when you think of it. At its core, it was fought for idealistic purposes. Not for monetary ones (oh sure, taxation issues were at the the forefront, as well as deeper issues like the injunction against the colonies developing their own industrial base, but those were symptomatic), but for idealistic ones. Read Common Sense sometime, or any given example of Ben Franklin's editorials from the period. Or John Adams's diaries or letters. They were doing this because they believed, with all their heart, that we have the right and the responsibility to choose our own destiny. We had the right and responsibility to have a voice in our own future. We had the right and responsibility for our own Sovereignty.

Remarkable. Astounding, really.

In the 228 years since the Declaration I've got hanging in my office was signed, we've made a lot of boneheaded moves. We've gotten it wrong a lot of the time. We've lost sight of who we are as a people and what we stand for as a Nation. But so so so much more often we've gotten it right. We've expanded our definitions of liberty, of citizenship, of the very Republic. We've taken a moral stand as a people, and declared our principles as well as our interests. We've grown to be the dominant nation on this planet, at least for now.

I get angry, a lot, at the American political leadership. I get angry when they disagree with me. I get angry when I can see a better way. I get angry at petty corruption and special interests and corporate greed. And sometimes, I even lose heart. And I never lose heart as much as when it seems like my fellow Americans just don't give a rat's ass. When they don't vote, or when they prove they have no idea what the issues are they're voting about.

But I never stop being proud. I'm proud to be an American. I'm proud to be the inheritor of a legacy born of ideals, of liberty and freedom, of rights and responsibilities. I'm proud of my Nation.

That's why I have the closest things we have to national sacred documents up on the walls of my office. And when I'm at my darkest hour, I can look at them and remember that it looked pretty bleak during the Revolution, too. "These are the times that try men's souls" indeed. But they held on, and eventually they won a Nation.

Today, the single most sacred ritual in American Society will be conducted throughout the Nation. Today, we have the right and the responsibility to come together in common caucus and express our opinions and our beliefs. We have the right and the responsibility to set the course for the next four years on the National Level... as well as the next two or six years depending on individual state elections. This ritual is crucial -- not just to America, but to people all over the world. (Which is one reason I don't mind writing about this topic even though my readership is international. What we Americans do today will have an impact on them as well, and they will be watching.)

Today, we vote.

If you truly have no understanding of the issues... if you're truly "undecided" because you just haven't bothered to learn the differences between candidates or if you think it'll be really funny to write in a porn star or cartoon character's name on the ballot... then please, stay home. Let the adults handle this.

If you are decided... or if you're "undecided" because you've learned so much and you're balancing the pros and cons and you're just not sure which way it will break... then please. For me. For your fellow Americans. For the people of the world. For the people of the Revolution who fought and died to give you this sacred right, this sacred responsibility, and this sacred trust... vote.

And if you're a praying person, please, pray that all goes smoothly today and that by, oh, midnight tonight we know who's won. Because if we have to go through another month of this bullshit, I'm going to have to throw myself into a wood chipper. And the Founding Fathers wouldn't like that one bit.

November 01, 2004

A Modest Webcomics Proposal, that doesn't involve eating babies. *pause* It's a Jonathan Swift reference. Honest.

More and more, when I need fast information on a topic, I turn to Wikipedia. I like Wikipedia. I like the concept behind Wikipedia. I like the open source methodology of Wikipedia. Me like Wiki.

For those who don't know, Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia that anyone -- anyone -- can edit and write for, as easily as they click on hotlinks. As a result, esoteric subject matter can get in-depth coverage thanks to the Web's ability to create support groups for anything, erroneous information can be corrected in a robust way, and obsolescence is fought by the power of dynamic realtime corrections. This is an amazing resource and an amazing tool, and I'm a big big fan of it.

I don't think Wikipedia is a replacement for traditional encyclopedias yet, mind. I've read all the debates and comparisons between Wikipedia and, say, I know the theories that make Wikipedia stronger than the old school editorially-driven encyclopedia model (as a fast review, the theory is that with many thousands of eyes watching Wikipedia, erroneous information will be corrected much faster and more completely than with the top-down editorial model of a traditional encyclopedia), and I think in the end they'll prove conclusive, but they're not there yet. Like many other people, I tried the "Wikipedia Challenge" that proponents have been shouting at those people who say "but if anyone can edit the entries, they'll throw in a lot of bias or false information." That challenge, in short, is "pick any 1/2/5/10 pages in Wikipedia, insert false information, and see how long it takes for it to be corrected." The subchallenge is "take any three topics and compare the Britannica's entries to Wikipedia's and see what's better and more complete.

Nine times out of ten, the information is corrected in record time... because nine times out of ten, the corrector picks subjects he knows a lot about, which (given the nature of the Web and the sort of person attracted to Wikipedia) tends to be a subject geeks like you or I hold near and dear to our hearts, and therefore receive huge corrections in nothing flat. Thesis proven.

Except, of course, this is the web, and computer geeks/open source proponents/anime fans/the like thrive on it. If you insert errors into entries on Ethernet, Sakura Cardcaptors, Sluggy Freelance and Libertarianism, you're damn right they'll be noticed and corrected in no time. People online live these topics. This also tends to color the subchallenge. A very typical subchallenge was found in a Freedom to Tinker post Edward Felton did, comparing six different entries in the Britannica and in Wikipedia. Wikipedia came out very very well in these entries, which sounds really good until you realize the entries were: Princeton University (which would have a large body of computer literate people interested in it), Princeton Township (which is a legitimate advantage to Wikipedia, IMO), Edward Felton himself (frankly, I don't expect to see an Eric A. Burns entry in either source, but I recognize it'd be a Hell of a lot easier to get into Wiki than the Britiannica. I'll give that a nod, though), Virtual Memory, Public-key Cryptography, and the Microsoft Antitrust Case.

Honestly, the only decent test in the above are the Princeton pieces, and I'll admit freely they did well. But a computer proponent with a web presence, a hardware/software specification, a method of encrypting information particularly over computers, and the war against Microsoft are undoubtedly playing to Wikipedia's strengths. It's like claiming the Catholic Encyclopedia is superior to Funk and Wagnell's because it has better information about the Saints in it.

For my own test, I made a couple of modifications to the entry on Fort Kent, Maine -- my hometown, which I know quite a bit about, and none of the rest of you have ever even heard of. To me, this was a more robust test. Fort Kent is an obscure topic, but has a couple of historical notes that make it possible someone would want information on it (including three tourist attractions, an Olympic Training Center involving the twin Northern Maine passions of guns and snow, a dogsled race, the northernmost terminus of U.S. Route One, and a War we once "fought" with Canada. Yes, we were in a War with Canada. No, no one got hurt). I think Fort Kent is a better test than Princeton because it's much more obscure -- few people have a driving reason to care about it unless they live there or lived there, as I did.

Well, the Britannica Entry was significantly better and more fleshed out than the Wikipedia entry. I did quite a bit to correct that, though, using Wikipedia's innate power to flesh out entries. I put in information about the Historic Landmark in town (the Blockhouse), the Biathlon training center, the Can-Am dogsled race, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the "Bloodless Aroostook War" (Wikipedia has a good entry on the Aroostook War, I should mention), the textile industry, the potato farming industry, MBNA's recent call center (which essentially saved the town, I should add), and the shipbuilding industry.

Did you see the intentional error put into the above? Here's a hint -- Fort Kent is on the Northernmost Tip of Maine. It's significantly farther away from the ocean than Albany, New York. Hear of any ships being built in Albany, recently?

No, no one caught the error. I waited two weeks, and corrected it myself. Thereby "proving" that Wikipedia isn't perfect yet. The other significant issue it's facing, from where I sit, is the area where two strong opinions, neither of them "wrong," duke it out for supremacy in an entry. The Lyndon LaRouche editorial discussion showed to distinction the ways in which diametrically opposed viewpoints can clash. (Snowspinner, you have my eternal respect, just so you know -- I was following this debate as a lurker before you ever commented on Websnark).

But to be honest, these issues aren't dealbreakers. If you go into Wikipedia with your eyes open, it is one of if not the most powerful, most potentially significant tools being built on the web. It's one of those things that couldn't possibly exist without an Internet, and it's one of those things that not only uses the web's strengths to good advantage, but also doesn't bog down with meaningless kipple. There's no Flash animation or needless frames on Wikipedia -- just information and lots of it, and an easy chance for you to make a difference.

And that brings me, all these words later, to lay this here proposal on you, the Websnark audience. I hope it's a proposal that will spread far beyond these borders, because I think it could be of tremendous benefit to the webcomics community as a whole:

I think every webcomic with more than 100 strips worth of archives on the web should have an entry in Wikipedia, and I think the Webcartoonist should not be the person writing the entry.

The reasons are simple -- Wikipedia is capable of storing and presenting vast amounts of information. That information is of particular benefit to the webusing public. The consumers of webcomics by their definition are the webusing public, and Wikipedia becomes an obvious resource that they could fall back on for information on their strips. There is a clear convergence of population and, leveraged properly, a clear opportunity for both Webartists and for Wikipedia itself.

For the webcartoonist, a Wikipedia entry becomes a convenient location for hard information about the strip, the main characters, and the like. If you need a good example of how this can be effective, have a look at the Megatokyo entry. As you know, one of my issues with Megatokyo is its density of story (what I call the "Megatokyo for Dummies" effect) and its lack of a cast page (despite a very involved cast). Well, both of these are addressed here, along with a good discussion of what Megatokyo is and what it is not, a summary of some of the complaints people have with the webcomic, and a summary of what people truly love about it. A link on Megatokyo's front page to this entry would go a long way to correcting some of the areas it's weaker in, and the effort needed on Gallagher's part would be minimal.

Note, by the way, that someone actually wrote a more in-depth entry on Tohya Miho, which is just plain silly. Unless a character is so universal that it becomes ubiquitous outside of its source work, it doesn't need more than the article itself could provide. On the other hand, that's an opinion on my part.

The Webcartoonist shouldn't write his own entry because he's not going to have the proper distance from his own work to properly describe it for an encyclopedia entry. He may include thematic elements and future revelations that one day might be made clear, but simply aren't in the work as it stands, thereby confusing the issue. By putting out a call to his fandom, however, and finding someone who can spearhead the creation of the entry, the Webcartoonist can get the ball rolling and, with a little work, get his dedicated fanbase working on updating and correcting the entry over time. This is also why I say 100 strips, though one could also limit the entry by amount of time worked on the strip. If you have twelve strips on the internet, and "big big plans" past that, you're not at the point where an encyclopedia entry can do you any good. Wait until you've got enough to talk about before you unleash your fanbase.

Wikipedia benefits by many additional links to the Encyclopedia, of course. The more links in (to articles of interest to the readers), the more likely Wikipedia becomes a first reference for other matters and materials, which in turn means more eyes looking at the content, which leads to more editors, more corrections, more content being generated... it's all good.

Please note, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a collection of fan pages. While there is always bias in an entry, whoever writes a given Webcomic's entry should strive to be as objective as possible. Don't feel you have to be all intellectual, but you should be concise and factual. If enough people are drawn to the entry, the more intellectual stuff will come with time all on its own.

In my perfect world, these entries would have a short description of the premise, a light discussion on technique and classification, a list of the primary characters, a list of the secondary characters, and a very, very short synopsis of major events. The last bit, oddly enough, is the least important -- this isn't Cliff's Notes (or [Webcomic] for Dummies). If someone wants to know what happened in the webcomic, they should read the webcomic. But this would provide a good grounding in who the characters are and what, in general, is going on, with the potential to grow into a detailed critical analysis over time and with effort.

And that can only be to the good.

October 27, 2004

On the Nature of Public Speech.

I get asked, every now and then, why I don't talk that much about my life here. After all, they say, this is a blog. I'm supposed to talk about my loneliness, or do memes, or stuff like that. Or, they know something about me, and wonder why I don't talk about those aspects of my life; why I don't discuss the surgery I had in March (I'm fine), or the life threatening condition I had a few years back (I'm fine), or why I don't talk about the time I was a professional actor (I'm fine).

Some people like to answer that question for me, too. "Oh," they say. Or write. Usually write. "You're shy. You're humble. You don't like to talk about yourself."

I'm not sure any writer who puts words out for the world to see every day of his life can really be called 'shy.' And folks who know me know 'humble' isn't exactly the best word to describe me. And as for talking about my self... hey, I'm my own favorite subject. I acknowledge that. I own my arrogance. I'm good at arrogance.

However, I also understand venue. I don't talk about myself here on Websnark because people don't come to Websnark to read about me. They come because they like my insight on something, or they come because they're entertained by my ramblings about outdated sitcoms and fart jokes. And I'm grateful. I love it when people read this stuff. I love having an audience.

But that audience isn't here to hear me talk about myself. For that, I have a Livejournal. And before that -- before these trendy Livejournals and Bloggers and Moveable Type Installations, I had an Online Journal. In those, the subject is me. My politics. My health. My tortured soul. The Memes that catch my eye. You know the drill. You've all read Livejournals.

(I will not be brokenhearted if folks don't decide to visit these things, mind. But I'm also not ashamed of them.)

If Websnark is a lecture hall, where I'm up on a stage dancing and cavorting and trying to entertain you, my Livejournal is like a coffee shop where I'm sitting nearby and reading you poetry. It's more intimate, less preachy. If you wonder why I don't go all fanboy when I get linked by the artists I revere, it's because you don't read my Livejournal and see it happen. If you wonder why I don't go all Emo when I'm down, it's because you don't read my Livejournal and see me act like... well, every other person with a website. It's a different venue, with different purpose.

But there's one thing I never, ever forget. Because I've learned my lesson. My Livejournal... and my Online Journal before it... are not private. They are public. They are just as public as Websnark, even if there's a couple of orders of magnitude difference in readership.

And what I say in them, I'm saying publicly.

I once hurt a friend's feelings. It was stupid, and thoughtless, and I still kick myself over it. Said friend was someone I went to college with, and he told me something personal once. Nothing truly bad, but something that was part of his own life that he shared with me, his close friend. Some years later, I related that event as an anecdote on a Usenet newsgroup. It wasn't a very high traffic newsgroup, and it was easy to imagine that I knew everyone reading it -- that it was private, in its own way. This was in the days when the Web was still spreading, slowly -- when the Internet was still primarily textual. And when a young guy who wants to tell a good story can be pretty fucking blind about what he's doing.

Well, it was over a year later that my friend's brother did a websearch for his brother's name, and had it get flagged on Deja. And he e-mailed my friend.

And it was maybe eight months after that that I found an e-mail address for my friend, and excitedly e-mailed him, asking if this was really him or someone else. You know -- a "If this is you, let's get back in contact!" letter.

The response I got back was nothing less than I deserved. I had hurt him, publicly, and embarrassed him, and seeing an e-mail from me wasn't exactly the high point of his day.

I apologized. And meant it. And because he's a big man, he forgave me. But I've never forgotten. And I've never forgotten the lesson I learned.

The Internet is public, kids. And we have been given the most incredible of gifts -- the capacity to publish our free expression for the whole world to see, for the cost of an internet connection. (Or not even that, if you go to a library and use their equipment). If you take time, and work at it, you can build an audience. If you use Livejournal, you don't have bandwidth costs. Hell, you don't even need to pay them for an account if you don't want to.

It's easy to think "this is mine. This is intimate. This is my diary." But it isn't. It's public. Even if you lock your entries to Friends, unless you know all of your friends well, you're still speaking to an audience.

As many of you know, Livejournal's been in a bit of an uproar today. It seems a young woman, a few days back, wrote a satirical post for her Livejournal. And it seems that in that post, she expressed (I'm not sure of the exact details) a desire to see the President of the United States stop breathing. By force, if need be.

I don't take a political stand on Websnark (that's what my Livejournal is for), but given my attitudes and my stand that "art matters," you can probably intuit my opinions of the current administration.

But I don't want physical harm to come to the President. And chances are likely neither do you. And chances are likely neither did that young woman. She meant it satirically.

But the United States Government, specifically the Department of the Treasury and the Secret Service which works for them, cannot have a sense of humor.

Let me say that again, giving it obnoxious emphasis and a blink tag that will make it look jarring and ugly and all newbieish, because if I ever tell you one true thing that I want you to remember, this is it:

The United States Secret Service cannot have a sense of humor.

They have to take any threat to the President seriously. Any. If you go here, you'll see the justification for this policy, as well as a couple of egregious examples of "no sense of humor" from the Clinton administration. But you can find examples from most modern administrations.

Guys, they've killed four Presidents. And wounded one. And shot at two more. There are people who shoot at Presidents because they want to commit suicide. There are people who shoot at Presidents because they want to impress girls. There are people who shoot at Presidents because they believe they're going to save the world. The President is a world leader, and they've been assassinating World Leaders about as long as we've had a concept of 'world' and 'leadership.'

So. This girl got a visit by the Secret Service. And by her own account they were reasonable and nice, and drank coffee with the girl and her family, and were perfectly satisfied that the girl was not a threat. She was upset, however, that someone turned her in, and she was upset, however, that she now has an FBI file that says she once threatened the President.

For many people who read the Internet, reporting threats to the President isn't optional. It's required. If a Livejournal user who calls himself "Berstanpeniswang" claims he's going to kill President Catgirl because he doesn't like the way she wears pink, and a United States Marine reads that message, he is obligated to report it. If he doesn't, and President Catgirl takes Berstanpeniswang's bullet right between the pink cat ears, that Marine is culpable for allowing the death of the President. "I didn't think he'd do it" is no excuse, when there is a National Tragedy that could have been prevented.

So yeah. The outrage people are expressing is wholly misplaced. No, I don't think that girl meant to threaten anyone. But the Secret Service doesn't assume that. They check things out. And yeah, it goes on your permanent record.

When I ranted about political leaders in the past, on my Livejournal, I did it knowing fully well that someday, someone might use my words to justify not hiring me for a job. Even though at the time, I could count my Friends list on one hand. Because those words are committed to the Internet, and they're never going away. Ever. If I deleted the Journal tomorrow, that just means I've deleted one record of what I wrote. There's still the Internet Wayback machine. There's still backup copies going back Christ knows how long that I have no control over. It's the way that it is. This is a public forum, in a public medium.

My words may offend people, sometimes. I don't get to take them back after I use them. It's come up, here on Websnark. It will come up again. All I can do, whether here or on my Livejournal or on some Forum I comment on or in other peoples' journals I comment on, is be cognizant of the fact that I'm doing this in front of the whole. Fucking. World. And the mike is live. And there are no takebacks.

When you're writing on your journals, and you bare your souls to the world, know that you're in fact baring them to the world.

When you're frothing about the political figures you hate, and you threaten them with violence because it's a funny way to rant, know that in fact you are threatening violence against others and official notice can and will be taken.

When you write about something embarrassing your best friend from college did four years later and you post it on the web, know that you are in fact embarrassing your best friend in front of potentially millions of people. (Don't believe me? Ask the Star Wars Kid.)

And when you invoke the right of Freedom of Speech, don't ever assume that means you aren't responsible for what you have said.

Sorry I didn't write about many webcomics today. Work was a bear and a browser crash killed this essay once, so I had to rewrite it from scratch. And right now I'm watching the ninth inning of the Sox game. They're up by three, so it's going to take some spectacular choking for them to break my heart this time.

October 09, 2004

Web congestion embers the baby pony.

So, one thing about being someone who comments on webcomics that seems obvious in retrospect... it's difficult to actually do that commentary when there's heavy lag, especially to Keenspace. It's disturbingly like trying to operate a television remote control by poking its buttons with a yardstick while it sits on the coffee table. Yeah, sooner or later the TV gives you the show you want, but it takes a lot of time and promotes a lot of frustration.

On the other hand, it's Saturday -- so at least I have a cat sleeping on my leg while I do it. Of course, that also means I can't get up. I can just sit here, and watch web sites slooooowly develop content. And always -- always -- the webcomic is the last thing to appear. God knows it couldn't appear before Burstnet's ads do....

October 04, 2004

Do you have any idea... many quality webcomics there are out there?

To every decent, hardworking webcartoonist who creates a strip that I simply haven't gotten to... I'm sorry. You deserve recognition. And whether or not you get recognition, at least on Websnark, is entirely based on my time, whim and dumb luck.

What? At least I'm honest about it.

October 02, 2004

Entitlement and the Modern Fandom

I've said before I'm not much of a webcomics forum-participator. I've joined a number of them, and occasionally I read through them, but often the participants on a given strip's forum (or LJ-Community, or what have you) represent the Fandom more than the fans of that strip, and that's generally not how I want to spend my time1.

The implication in the last paragraph is correct, by the way. There is a difference between the fans of a strip and the Fandom, The fans of the strip are the people who read the strip and like it. Period. It doesn't take much to be a fan.

A strip's Fandom are those people who community-build around their shared appreciation of the strip. In the old days, they made fan clubs. These days, they join forums (Forums? Fora? It feels like there should be some kind of funky plural on that word) and LJs, spread the word, and organize events around the strip.

Let's use as an example the venerable Marmaduke. You remember Marmaduke, don't you? Yes, the one with the dog. A Marmaduke fan (there must be some) likes to read Marmaduke. They find the dog amusing. They might even clip their favorite Marmadukes out of the paper (or print them off the webfeed -- which I just discovered is here. I am now as scared as I have ever been) and tape them up over the ancient and brittle Dilbert cartoons in their cubicle, back from the days when Dilbert was funny.

The Marmaduke fandom, on the other hand, spends a significant amount of time on the Marmaduke forum (the Marmaduchy, let's call it). They have many different discussions on Marmaduke, and on things that have nothing to do with Marmaduke -- to the point that the Marmaduke forum moderators had to create a specific topic for off-topic posts, and have to kick folks there whenever they stray. They trade LJ icons and forum avatars based on Marmaduke art. They collect pithy Marmaduke sayings. They affirm each other and their common love of Marmaduke, and they find close friends through Marmaduke -- friends that mean a lot to them far beyond Marmaduke. This is what the Marmaduke Fandom has given them, and it means everything to them.

The idea, for many of the Marmaducets and duchesses (so clever, those Marmaduke fans -- the guys naming themselves after currency and the girls making a delightful play on Marmaduke's name), is not so much the individual Marmaduke strips themselves, but the zeitgeist of all that is Marmaduke. It's the attitude. It's how Marmaduke makes them feel, and how much they can amplify that feeling in the company of others. It can be terrifically empowering and it can be terrifically satisfying. Right here, in this little community on the internet, Marmaduke is the coolest thing around, and by showing your love for Marmaduke, you're cool too. And as for Marmaduke-creator Brad Anderson? The Marmaduchy provides feedback and, more importantly, validation. It's damn hard to be a cartoonist -- or a creator of any stripe. It takes effort and ego and skill and talent, and you spend a huge amount of time wondering if anyone gives a fuck. The Marmaduchy tells Anderson "yes. Yes, we give a fuck. We give many fucks. In fact, if you want us to, several of us will in fact have sex with you if you want, because you have brought so much pleasure to our lives that we would dearly love to repay you."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Communities like this are good things, for most of the people in them. They're generally good for the creators as well. They mean something. They mean a lot, really.

I'm in a few Fandoms -- not generally webcomics Fandoms (I spend my time on so many different webcomics it's hard to develop the monofocus necessary to be a good Fandom-member) but other Fandoms. I'm definitely in the In Nomine Fandom, I used to be in the Legion of Super Heroes Fandom (and even quit in verbose disgust when they changed the Legion -- so I'm not claiming any moral superiority here) and I spent time in the Babylon 5 Fandom. I enjoy the SF Fannish subculture, which puts me in kind of that overall metafandom. And I'm occasionally in a fandom for individual creators of webcomics -- I do like reading creator-journals, for example, and I comment a lot more in those than I do in the strip-forums. I'm not wholly immune to fora, either, though I'm a totally arrogant jerk so I spend more of my time in strip-forums seeing if anyone's mentioned Websnark than actually participating in discussions.

But I see Fandoms, all the time. And as I spend more and more time observing them, I also recognize the dark side of Fandom.

Its name is "Entitlement."

The most common lament of Webcartoonists who achieve any kind of following is the overwhelming number of comments they get -- whether in e-mail or on their forums -- demanding things of them. Demanding that picayune mistakes not happen next time. Demanding that characters act the way the fan thinks they should, not the way the cartoonist actually portrays them. Long screeds get published on the forums of how a given plot arc is driving the readers insane and they hate it. And don't get me started on what happens when a webcartoonist actually misses an update. Holy Jesus Christ Without a Spine Curled Up I A Basket, this is a mountain of suck for the cartoonist.

Almost all fandom members feel a certain sense of entitlement. This is normal. This is healthy. This is even slightly legitimate. The overall feeling is "I have invested something of myself into Marmaduke. I evangalize Marmaduke. I spend a portion of my day on Marmadukish things. I affirm Brad Anderson. I deserve some recognition for this." And yeah, they do deserve some recognition. They certainly deserve Brad Anderson saying "guys, thank you so much for supporting Marmaduke. It means a lot to me that you like the strip."

And... well, that's about it. They're already getting Marmaduke for free (or for the cost of their newspaper). They don't get part-ownership of Marmaduke by virtue of liking to read it. And if they offer Brad Anderson sex and he takes it, that just means that Brad Anderson got some. It doesn't mean they get to dictate what Marmaduke would or wouldn't do. The majority of Fandom members get that.

There is a minority, however, that dives into Entitlement, butt naked and way over their heads. They do own Marmaduke, damn it! They've been loyal and they've been true, and Brad Anderson is a total asshole who doesn't really give a fuck about Marmaduke or great danes in general! If he did, he'd do the strip the way we want him to! Dammit! Someone should be able to take Marmaduke away from him, so that Marmaduke could be done right! This can mean anything from Marmaduke doing nothing but cat loving (or cat hating) jokes to redesigning Marmaduke to be female with human breasts, depending on the person in question. This minority is always there, lurking under the Fandom's surface, waiting for prey... and the moment any kind of deviation from the norm happens, they break surface, ready to devour.

The absolute worst examples of this are when they don't like the turn of events in the strip. "You made Marmaduke sad!" they write, truly outraged. "He went to his bowl, and that fucking Pekinese had eaten all his food, so he had no food and he was sad! I don't fucking read Marmaduke to see him sad! He should always be happy!" And then they get into an eighty-post long flamewar with other forum participants on whether or not it was appropriate that Marmaduke was sad.

The problems with the Entitled in a creator's fandom are threefold:

  1. Conflict in a webcomic is a good thing. Bad things happen in webcomics because they either set up situations where the Funny can be brought forth or they set up situations where the Story can be moved forward. Without conflict, the webcomic becomes nothing but a barely connected series of pictures without meaning or merit. If you need an example, have a look at the Simpsons episode where Itchy and Scratchy, bowing to pressure from parents' groups, stop being mean to each other and instead give each other lemonade all the time. Sometimes, the characters are going to do stupid things or make bad choices -- that will then feed the strip material to work with for a long time to come. So get over it.

  2. The Cartoonist is under no requirement to worry about other peoples' emotional state. If you invest so much of your own sense of well being into a comic strip that anything bad happening to the comic strip characters feels like a personal affront, you officially need to get a fucking hobby away from your computer. If the Cartoonist does his strip as his job, his only obligation is to produce strips on time, and try to make them high quality enough so he doesn't alienate his audience. If the Cartoonist is doing this as a hobby or on the side, he doesn't even have that obligation. In neither case does he owe you or me a good life. He probably doesn't even know us. So get over it!

  3. Cry wolf too many times, and those rare times when outrage is warranted it won't be forthcoming. Look, there is an appropriate level of expectation involved in producing art on a regular schedule or basis. If, after 40 years of tenderhearted dog antics, Brad Anderson put in a strip where Dottie is brutally anally raped while Marmaduke is spiked to the floor with railway spikes, you better believe there will be outrage. There should be outrage, in a situation like that. Anderson has given his readers every reason to expect he won't suddenly subject them to a situation like this. But, if Anderson, Anderson's fans, the Marmaduchy Moderators and the support group has gotten accustomed to defending Anderson every time someone has a conniption because the Pekinese ate Marmaduke's food, then as soon as the far-more-justifiable outrage over anal rape and dog torture begins, his support mechanism will out of habit immediately begin defending him, hopelessly muddling the situation.

Just to make everything more difficult, there's also the question of the Creator's relationship to his Fandom. Because despite everything I said above, there's something crucial a creator of any stripe must understand about the Fandom that's grown up around him. The Creator owns his creation, and may do with it whatever he wants, but he doesn't own his Fandom and he doesn't get to dictate to them. Oh, he can try to dictate, all he likes, and the fans who weren't the problem to begin with will happily jump in with both feet. However, the Fandom as a whole is something that the members have invested in, and they do get as much of a say as the creator on how that Fandom is going to go. There are two highly public situations where a creator/owner of a property and that property's fandom came to serious terms, and in neither case was it pretty:

  • White Wolf Studio, owner of Vampire: The Masquerade, had given its blessing and official status to a group called the Camarilla (after an organization in the game) which provided an official framework for developing LARP characters who then could move all around the country. Well, there reached a point where White Wolf and the Camarilla couldn't see eye to eye, and acrimony developed. On the one hand, the company had significant investment in their product line and had to be able to influence their "official" fan club's use of their materials. On the other hand, the Camarilla members and leadership had invested tremendous time and energy into the official Chronicle the group ran, as well as the organizational structure. (This is an incredibly simplified take on the situaion. I know there was far more depth to it.) Eventually, there was a messy divorce between the pair, with the license being pulled and ultimately threats of lawsuits. White Wolf owned Vampire, but the group was more than just a Vampire chronicle at that point, and the bad feelings and rift the breakup engendered extended far beyond the actual event, on both sides.
  • Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, began participating in the forums that had grown up around the West Wing on Television Without Pity. He enjoyed greatly the intelligent commentary, the humor, the feeling of community, and the implicit offers of sex he received. And then he started taking heat from one segment of the fanbase. Unlike White Wolf, he had given no official sanction to the group that he could revoke. Instead, he actually put a subplot about insane Internet forums onto the West Wing itself. His intent was to imply the forum participants on TWoP's forums were insane and stupid. His effect was to make pretty much every member of every fandom whether connected to Sorkin or not pissed off. It was one step above making fun of trekkies. Naturally, he did that later on. As a result, even though Sorkin is a brilliant writer who elevated the craft of television writing, there were far fewer tears shed than expected when he lost his job and moved on into... um... well, I assume he spends a lot of time on the Internet himself these days.

In both of the above situations, the Fandoms persisted after the hullabaloo. There is still a Camarilla, and it's still chugging along in Vampire (despite the relaunch of the World of Darkness). And Sorkin's tirade on the West Wing had no effect on the West Wing forums at Television Without Pity at all -- except maybe to remove some of the luster from the show for the participants.

So, in the end it's a two way street. Fandoms are powerful things, good for spreading the word about a community and giving a webcartoonist some much needed positive reinforcement, love, and implicit offers of sex. However, they are their own entities, unto themselves, and will feel some justified entitlement because of the energy they're putting into themselves. Some members of that Fandom will have batshit insane feelings of entitlement, leading them to tirades and demands that no one will think is appropriate, and the webcartoonist might find him or herself hating the very organization that has grown up around the strip in question.

I tend to side with the webcartoonists in these things, by the way. But I understand implicitly that it doesn't matter -- the Fandom will do what the Fandom will do, some asshats will be in the Fandom and will act asshatty, and -- most importantly -- an implicit offer of free sex over the comic strip you create will turn into the most expensive sex you have ever had.

Oh, if you're wondering... Websnark has no Fandom. Critical commentators get to have arguments for free.

1 The case can be made that the entirety of represents my entry into overall Webcomics Fandom, and that any critical commentary I put into Websnark represents my own embrace of entitlement and all the rest. To anyone making that case, I say: "dude, you're not paying for this. I'll do whatever I want." When it's pointed out that that isn't a denial and that I am in fact calling the kettle black, I respond by beating the crap out of the questioner and running in one direction for one hour. Thank you, Superosity, for refining my debate skills.

September 29, 2004

The decline and fall of Esteem: why the Eagle Awards depress me.

I have three core "favorite comic books of all time." I went through a stage where I read a ton of comics each month (I'm almost completely out of comic books now, I should mention. If it ain't online, it's not likely to hold my attention), but there are three that had me, held me, and to this day I revere to the point of psychopathic obsession.

The first is the Legion of Super Heroes. Which means I'm one of those bitter people who still refuses to buy the 'Legion' they put out now, with the snake wearing Jeckie's powers and the dead "leviathan" and all the rest. The forthcoming rereboot of the Legion has me no happier. My Legion died at the end of the Magic Wars, and my desperate hopes that the corpse would reanimate ended at Zero Hour when they finally put a bullet into the Legion's brain and cut off the head.

The second is the Green Lantern Corps version of Green Lantern (though I dearly love Alan Scott and I think Kyle Rayner could have been handled well. He just wasn't). Maybe it's that part of me that loves Space Opera. Or maybe it's because I desperately want a power ring. But I've just adored the Silver Age Green Lantern, and while I think trying so hard to wipe away the last twelve years and bring Hal Jordan back is just plain stupid, I can hope it means a Corps will rise again. I might even buy that comic.

I loved the above two. But neither of them can claim to be my all time favorite comic. No, there's just room for one at the top, and that one is absolutely clear. The Micronauts.

The Micronauts.

I loved loved loved the Micronauts the way only an eleven year old could love anything. They were grand and majestic -- and yeah they were based on toys, but so what? I owned those toys. And the toys were the leaping off point for the series. They were epic, cosmic space opera. Baron Karza was a kind of evil Doctor Doom only dreamed of. Commander Arcturus Rann was the epitome of heroes, and his embodiment of the mysterious Enigma Force produced the kind of reaction in me that five or six years before fans of Darkseid and Kirby's Fourth World felt when they read his stuff. I was passionately in love with Princess Mari/Marionette, I thought Michael Golden's art was the best stuff ever (and became a dedicated Pat Broderick fan -- an opinion that carried me through his runs on Firestorm and Captain Atom later on -- when he took it over), and as for Bill Mantlo's writing? The man grokked space opera, simple as that.

The Micronauts never got to be rockstars at Marvel, though. They were also rans, after Spider Man and the Avengers (this was all in the years before X-Men hit it big and wiped away the Stan Lee era pretty completely, mind). Eventually, they were one of three "more sophisticated" books to go direct-sales only (along with Moon Knight and Ka-Zar), which proved to be as fatal for them as it was for the New Titans and to a lesser extent to the Legion over at DC (In effect, Marvel tried it with their lower-selling books, and DC tried it with their top selling books. It wasn't until the speculator craze hit that comic book stores took off enough to make direct-only workable.) So, I always felt like the Micronauts weren't getting their due.

And then one day, emblazoned across the top of the cover, just under Marvel Comics Group, was a banner. "WINNER OF THE EAGLE AWARD FOR COMICS EXCELLENCE," it read, or something like that, with the Eagle-in-a-Circle logo of that award.

I was thrilled.


Someone got it. Someone got that Micronauts was good good stuff. And, because I agreed with the award, I raised the Eagle up to tremendous heights in my estimation.

Well, I haven't heard of the Eagles for years. But now, PvP is up for one. And I was thrilled -- not only were the Eagles still out there, but by God, they were adapting with the times. So I clicked on the link that was in Scott Kurtz's news post on the item, and followed it along to the ballot.

Dear God, what a disappointment.

There are three nominees from each category, chosen by "professionals." These nominees seem typically to be a mainstream fan favorite, an independent/alternative favorite, and something alternately obscure or mainstream-but-borning. Ho-fucking-hum. Take "Favorite Colour (Sic -- this was British, originally) Comicbook." The nominees are Fantastic Four, Planetary and the Ultimates. Is it really possible that Fantastic Four, Planetary and the Ultimates deserve a one in three shot at this award, above all others? Looking back over Dave Van Domelen's reviews, it sure doesn't look like those are the cream of the crop before all others. But I wanted to be sure, so I asked him. And, in his words:

FF is good, but not great. Planetary has its lovely moments, but there's other stuff I like more. Ultimates can bite me. Of the three, Planetary is least out of place. If it came out a little more often, I might even consider it for inclusion in my own top three. But when held up against stuff like Neotopia that comes out on schedule AND is lovely....
Or the Manga selections: Battle Royale, Blade Of The Immortal, and O! My Goddess, which don't strike me as anywhere near the top of the current Manga listings. (Shaenon Garrity might correct me on that, but I sincerely doubt she will.) Or "Favorite Comic Character," which gives us Batman, Hellboy, and Jessica Jones of Alias (mainstream, independent and obscure, respectively).

And then we get to categories I know quite a lot about, these days. In order:

Favourite Newspaper Strip: Maakies, Mutts, Spooner

Okay, first off? I like Spooner. I've always liked Spooner. But Spooner hasn't been in newspapers for well over a year, and last I knew he wasn't drawing new strips for his website (which itself expired on August 31, and seems like he's not that interested in reviving). Maakies -- eh, if you like it, you like it. Mutts, the same....

Those are the three they could come up with for Newspaper Strip? An independent strip, a low-to-moderate circulation King's Features and a retired strip? No Boondocks, no Foxtrot, not even fucking Dilbert? 99% of the newspaper reading public won't even have heard of those three strips. But that's what they get to choose from for their "favorites?"

Internet: Favourite Comics E-Zine: Newsarama, The Pulse, Sequential Tart

A little better. I like all three sites, and if Sequential Tart were up against sites I frequented more often, it'd probably still get my vote. But still, there's a feeling like their "professionals" googled and put up whatever they found....

And then, my favorite....

Favourite Web-Based Comic: Marc Hempell's Naked Brain, Mike Snart, PvP

...what... the... Fuck?

Okay, I like Marc Hempell just fine. But does anyone seriously think he's had an impact of any kind on the Web? I didn't know he had a webstrip. Googling for it turned up a home page but no links to any actual strips. It sure as Hell didn't seem like a webcomic to me. Googling Mike Snart, on the other hand, turned up nothing but notices that Mike Snart was nominated for an Eagle. It didn't turn up any site, any links to a site, any reference to a site -- anything that suggested that maybe, just maybe this thing was somewhere on the Internet. Hell, I still don't even know what it is, and I write a webcomics blog with some obscure tendencies!

Who were the "professionals" they consulted for this piece of crap? I promise you Scott McCloud wouldn't have suggested Naked Brain or Mike Snart. Why in God's name didn't they consult with Chris Crosby, Scott Kurtz, Joey Manley, Wednesday White, Pete Abrams, Gabe and Tycho, the Comixpedia folks, the Sequential Tart folks -- people with some basis of understanding what the Hell webcomics are about? Jesus Christ.

I encourage everyone reading my words to go in and vote. Vote for PvP. It actually deserves consideration for an Eagle in Webcomics. In fact, it deserves to be up there among worthy peers, fighting it out with Sluggy or Narbonic or Penny Arcade. As it is, landslide Kurtz's ass. Send as clear a message as you possibly can that it is unacceptable to put up "nominees" the webcomics community has never fucking heard of, and if they're going to include Webcomics at all, they have to put some fucking effort into it. They have to find professionals in the Webcomics community to do the nominating. If you're going to acknowledge the form, acknowledge it. Otherwise, we webcomics fans don't need you to do us no favors.

Kurtz deserves this award, this year. Overwhelm them with votes for him. And maybe next year they'll actually nominate a full field of creators, including Kurtz. That'll give him an award he can truly be hungry for.

I hate these people for making me wonder if, all those years ago, the Micronauts only won their Eagle because it was the one choice people had heard of in a group of nobodies. I want them to suffer. FLY MY PRETTIES! FLY!

Oh, sorry. I forgot. My name is Mr. Burns. So instead -- release the hounds!

(And if you really want to see me froth about awards, ask me about the Origins, sometime.)

September 27, 2004

I wonder how it is....

...that webcartoonists find one another. There's an interesting column on this week's Comixpedia feed on the subject of collaborative webcomics versus single-creator comics. And obviously there's success in the collaborative model. T. Campbell, Shaenon Garrity (who's just as successful in single-creator stuff, of course), Gabe and Tycho and the like all show the strength of having a separate writer and artist. More than a few people who Megatokyo lost credit the time Rodney Caston left and Fred Gallagher took over the writing as well as the art duties as the breaking point for them.

My question is... how the Hell do most writers and artists find each other for collaboration?

In the garage band world, you go down to the local coffee house or guitar shop and tack up a note that you're looking for a bassist for your band. However, I don't know of any place you go and tack up "WANTED: One Writer -- must not suck at dialogue. Gag-a-day preferred but good if you know Nordic Tone Poems too" or "ARTIST WANTED FOR COMIC STRIP: no pay and I want you to stick to my script, but your name will be on it too if you want! Please have some understanding of how large a woman's eyes and mouth are proportioned to her face."

I honestly don't know the magic. Maybe it's because I live in New Hampshire, but I just don't see it happening. The one time I looked to collaborate on a webcomic was after I'd gotten to know an artist well electronically, and she ended up having commitments crop up that no person could possibly work around.

I agree that Collaboration creates powerful comic strips, sometimes. I just don't know how it comes about. Or should we petition to start an art-matching service?

September 16, 2004

Hey, what's time, energy, effort, payment model and site design. I WANT! I WANT SO SCREW YOU!

It's called Comanche, the WebComicServer. It's one of many well written open source alternatives for slurping webcomics from their pages into a nice, convenient place. Or even pulling down entire archives (on the artist's bandwidth) to sit, resident and pristine, on your hard drive.

This has little to do with me. My one foray into webcomics sits on Keenspace, lonely, unloved and crappy. And my own writing (which you're reading now) is under a Creative Commons license for noncommercial purpose. So I have no vested interest in what I'm about to say:


This is beyond offensive and straight into full bore selfishness. These people generally put hours a day, time and effort into creating something. All they ask in return is that you go to their site and see the strip under their model. But why would you want to do that? Why would you want to look at their advertising or see their tip jar or merchandising day after day. You're busy and that makes you feel all guilty and stuff.

I especially love how it'll pull strips down and archive them locally, so those strips who give one strip or 30 strips away for free but require you to pay for deeper archives? Meh. What do you care? Subscriptions shmubscriptions! These people will do the work anyway, so why should I do anything here.

They have a FAQ entry on this site I absolutely love. Here it is:

Q: Don't you rip off the artists when you view the strips, but not the ads?

A: Ad revenue on the web is so low these days, comic artists have already added (or completely switched to) many other support models. And I encourage everybody to make those models work for them. Please buy books or T-shirts, join their clubs, tip them money, do visit their homepages and click on some ads... I do regularly!

Yeah. That's why you have plugins to pull down archives for Doonesbury (which after 30 days you're supposed to pay for access for). And why your tool takes you away not only from the ads the artists put on their site but also their merchandising, their donations, their subscriptions -- in fact, from every possible "support model" they could have.

Also? Guess what. Keenspot makes money on advertising. They make it work. PvP? Makes money on advertising. They make it work. Something Positive? Makes money on advertising. They make it work. Just because you believe that ad revenue on the web doesn't work these days doesn't make it true. We're not in the .com bubble any more, but neither are we in the bust -- and there's a reason ads still exist.

I had to make a decision, when it came to how Websnark was set up. How do I handle excerpting the strips, without dicking over the artists either in bandwidth (which Comanche is happy to use, just not help pay for) or in giving their strips away. I decided to do all-thumbnails (so someone has to go to the site for the full sized strip) with click-to-enlarges that take you to the very page the thumbnail references. You want to see the strip? See it the way the artist wants you to see it, in the model that most supports him.

Some artists probably don't care if you rape their bandwidth and steal their children comic strips to enjoy away from their sites. They don't do this for money any more than I write Websnark for money. But for others? This is their job. This is how they put food on the table. This is their artistic expression -- the whole thing, not just the bits that change from day to day.

This thing takes food out of the mouths of their children, and I have nothing but contempt for it.

And now, we achieve infrastructure.

Now here's something interesting. Randy Milholland of Something Positive did an interview with the Guardian on online fundraising, cyberbegging, and the difference between them. It's a good piece, and it actually puts Milholland's story out accurately (which is never a certainty in these matters). It's worth a read if you're at all interested in how the web is transforming asking for money.

That being said, it raises a red flag for me. One that goes back to my last snark on the subject. You see, one of bits the article goes into is a new service called Dropcash, which links Typekey (you all know Typekey -- it's the authentication service that Websnark uses to keep people from easily being able to comment, as part of my ongoing effort to spread rage and insanity across the land. So far, it's working) to Paypal and gives a progress bar page to keep track of your progress.

Which means we now have a ready made infrastructure for people who are developing fundraising goals. It is now officially simple to organize a campaign to raise money.

You know, I used to keep an online journal, back before the turn of the century, that did pretty well. I got a couple of thousand readers at its height (I was going through a medical drama then, and pathos=ratings, my friend). This was before Livejournal, before Blogger, before Movable Type. Heck, the first version of the page was before CSS. I coded each new entry page manually, then uploaded it, then changed all the necessary links to it. There was a small community of journallers in those days, so it was relatively easy to keep up with each other, and there was more than a little work to get things going. You had to understand HTML, server configurations -- all kinds of things.

And it got popular, so the folks at Blogger made a tool to make it easier. And then came Livejournal, and all its spinoffs, and Movable Type, and all the rest. And now anyone who wants one can have an online journal, and we all do as a result. And unless you have a specific purpose blog (like, well, the one you're reading now), you're a celebrity of some stripe for some reason, or you're young, pretty, female and uninhibited you probably don't have more than a few dozen readers, if that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, either -- it's just that in a land of plenty, people graze from the plates that are near them instead of seeking out the tasty cheeses at the front of the room.

It's the same with webcomics. When there were no automated systems for posting, revising, updating and archiving, it was harder to put your comic on the web and less people did. Now, between Keenspace and the Autokeenlite scripts (and, pretty soon, the Webcomicsnation hosting service), it's become dead simple to put an automated webcomic up. And people do. By the truckload.

We've had a few instances of donation drives/membership models working well, but there's been some barriers involved with setting up infrastructure, even with Paypal. Now, it's going to be dead simple to set up a funding drive. Simple enough that everyone will do it. Hell, I might set one up myself, under the title "Eric wouldn't mind owning a high definition television he can mount to his wall." Not that anyone would donate to it, because why the Hell do you care what's hanging on my wall, but it'd be simple enough to do so why not?

Why not indeed.

In the land of plenty, people graze with what's near to hand. When everyone has a fund drive going, they'll each get twelve people donating money to their cause, and no one will actually meet their goals.

I wonder if Amway started like this.

September 14, 2004

On supporting webcomics and the survival of the fittest fandoms.

Bang-bang. Two announcements, right in a row, unrelated except thematically. So close together their respective news posts are next to each other in Comixpedia's 24 Hour Pixel People.

Jamie Robertson announced that he would be ending Clan of the Cats in December, without resolving the plotline. Though if enough people subscribe to his new service he'll be able to continue it, he hopes. His reasons are financial -- with his current profession falling out from underneath him (in a way that reminds me, wistfully, of¬İDerryl Murphy's SF short story The History of Photography) he's looking at finding more work, and more work means taking the time to produce so elaborate a comic would be unfeasible.

Michael Jantze announced that he would be ending The Norm within the next six weeks. Though if enough people subscribe to his new service he'll be able to continue it, he hopes. His reasons are editorial -- after years of battling with the syndicates, he's getting out of the rat race, and as this was his job, he has to find other ways to support his family now, treating this as an ending.

Comixpedia connected the dots between these two strips, R. K. Millholland's successful challenge to his readers to financially support his leaving his job, and Fantagraphics's recent drive to raise money to survive. Robertson's situation is closer to the Fantagraphics situation -- he wants to continue, but doesn't see how he can afford to do so. Jantze's situation is closer to Millholland's -- he's effectively challenging his readers to put their money where their mouth is. Both clearly love cartooning and both have dedicated fandoms, with the question being can enough subscribers be drawn in to justify the decision.

To be honest, I don't know what to tell them. I'm in a weird situation. As you know, I support webcomics. I believe in them. I believe we're moving into a new era of patronage and micropayments and all the Scott McCloudisms you want to hear. I want to be supportive of these artists taking steps to change their circumstances.

And yet... I don't read either strip. So it's hard for me to be passionate, this time. And maybe that's good, because it lets me consider the model at play, here.

I don't read Clan of the Cats because despite its clear skill, it just didn't appeal to me. I tried archive trekking a few times (backwards and forwards, thank you), and the story didn't speak enough to me to make me want to continue. I think it's good, but clearly it's just not for me. I think it's an excellent citizen of the Webcomics community, however -- so I'd be really sad to see it go.

Note, by the way, that I think PvP is an excellent citizen of the Webcomics community too. So clearly, I'm insane -- to hear others say it, anyway.

I don't read the Norm, on the other hand, because I've never even heard of it. It just missed my radar. Go fig. And this doesn't seem like the time to start.

So the pitches being made aren't being made to me. They're being made, in effect, to the fandoms for those strips. I know Clan of the Cats has a vociferous one. I assume The Norm does as well. The question is, are the fandoms broad enough and generous enough to pony up the subscription fees. Unlike Something*Positive, they're not asking for one time donations with a clear goal in mind -- they're looking for a sustainable model. X number of subscriptions at Y amount of money = Z amount of food for the cartoonist and his family, and therefore we can do this thing. But even if they were just doing a straight donation drive (which is how Milholland, Fantagraphics, and even Sluggy Freelance did it), they're looking to their fandom to in effect become their bosses. Publishing, at the lowest order. They get paid to produce, and produce they will.

The question is, how many fandoms is the average webcomic reader a part of, and how many of them can they afford to support. Take me. I'm more nuts than the average person. I spend money on webcomics, and I subscribe to subscription services. But I don't tend to be part of individual fandoms. I don't do more than skim forums and communities (and being vain, it's more to see if Websnark was mentioned if anything). Other than tip jars (which I support when the mood strikes me) and merchandise (which is a whole other deal), when I subscribe to subscription sites it tends to be larger ones with lots of comics on them. The exception is American Elf, and even that's coming in less than Sebo's Kitty Klub and Join The Norm. There's only so much money I have to give. I'm not particularly affluent -- my needs are met and I buy nice toys, including money into cartoonists' pockets -- but I won't be able to subscribe to too many more sites if I want to have spending money for anything other than webcomics. (Not even counting paying my own bandwidth bills for what you're reading now, I would add.)

There has to be another way.

Frankly, I think that Clan of the Cats should eschew Keenspot (though Keen's been a good home to them) and sign on with Graphic Smash. I bet T. Campbell would be glad to have them, and have their extensive archives as a hook to draw people in. I think Robertson should do his Sebo strip, but host that on Modern Tales, so that someone who wants the Daily Funny is drawn to one pay site and someone who wants the Story is drawn to another.

But he might not be able to get enough to live on, doing that. He says he needs 200 subscribers. If they take the more-money-up-front-but-less-expensive-yearly subscription option of $25, that means he needs five thousand dollars a year to produce Clan of the Cats, even at 0 bandwidth costs by sticking with Keenspot. It doesn't seem like that much money, but I bet it's more than a Graphicsmasher gets, right now. (I'd love it if I were wrong.) As for the Norm? They're doing multiple levels of membership (shades of Sluggy, Kevin and Kell, and User Friendly) but also doing the Modern Tales thing of taking the archives away except for subscribers. Their lowest level of membership is $25 but it goes up to $5,000, and will include a magazine. We don't know how many subscribers are needed to "save the Norm."

I hope both of them make it, one way or another. But there's only so many independents who can do this before their fandoms' means will be exceeded by prior commitments.

There has to be a better way.

September 10, 2004

This is a commentary site, not a fucking confessional...

...but it's mine, so I'm going to break the rules just once. I'm not going to go into details on my life, because honestly, no one here cares. You're not here for that. I will say, however, that since March 3 of this year (when I had doctors with various frightening implements do things to me while I was unconscious), I have lost 108 lbs. Or, the combined weight of both of my nieces.

And tonight I joined a gym.

HAH! In your face, Death-Before-40! You want me? Hit me with a fucking bus!

September 07, 2004

Mornings are too damn early. Also, Dumbrella still seems to be down....

Maybe it's just me, but I can't hit the Dumbrella sites at all this morning. So, no Diesel Sweeties. No Goats. No Scary-Go-Round. And other such things.

Though Wigu? Wigu came right up. And looked good in black and white, no less.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm the only one who can't reach the other Dumbrella sites. Maybe Old Man Stevens is on his porch with a shotgun full of rock salt, keeping a weather eye out for me, ready to blast a few barrels at me. "G't off my damn property!" he shouts, in a virtual sense, eye narrowing as he sees my pickup approach. "Go down th' damn road! Peddle your sass to Krazy Larry, see if he puts up with it!"

Later that night, I'll climb over the fence into the cornfield he shares with Old Man Rosenberg. I'll climb into their gazebo and drink beer with a couple of my buddies, and we'll try to keep our voices down but we'll be laughing too hard, and Old Man Stevens will come out of his house in his nightshirt, lantern in one hand, Ol' Bessie in the other, shrieking like a banshee. Years from now, when we get together at the 20 year high school reunion, we'll trot the story out and snicker about it, our children embarrassed as Hell. The cornfield will have been paved over for a strip mall by then, of course -- bought out by the Allison twins when the bachelor farmers couldn't make their mortgage payments. Young Sassy Rosenberg will be a teacher at the school then, and she'll be at the other end of the room, quietly seething for her uncle's violated pride. Mr. Rowland, the principal now and still the principal then will put a hand on her shoulder. They'll share that moment together, as my friends and I laugh. And Mr. Rowland will remember with cold pleasure that he still has our permanent records under lock and key, and one day, when the time is right, those records will see the light of day....

It occurs to me that all evidence suggests I'm significantly older than all of the named cartoonists above. It also occurs to me that I'm barely awake because it's too damn early in the morning. These are not necessarily related facts.

September 06, 2004

On what to snark, and why to snark.

I get a lot of mail these days, which honestly is very nice. I hear from people who like what I'm doing and I hear from people who don't like what I'm doing. I hear from wonderful people and I hear from Assholes. Some of the mail I get has me staring and saying [Name withheld to prevent lame namedropping] wrote to me? He/she/they/it/other read something I wrote?" Other of the mail has me staring and saying "how does someone with no command of the English language manage to fill out a request for a Yahoo mail account in the first place?" Some mail is insightful, some is sophomoric, and I love all of it.

A nontrivial amount of mail I get are requests to look at comic strips -- either by the creators or by fans of the strip. I really like that. Honestly. I can't swear I'll check these recommendations out quickly or snark on what I find if I do, but the world of webcomics is so tremendously large and involved, and the best way to find fresh goodness is to be led to it.

And then there are the other recommendations. The ones that, more or less, say "hey! You should snark about [name of webcomic withheld to protect the innocent]! It sucks! I love when you tear into crap!"

That, I don't need so much.

See, pretty much any webcomic that I stick with long enough to be able to snark reasonably about it is one I like. If I don't like it, I honestly don't care enough to put in the time and energy to develop an informed opinion. And, if it's not an informed opinion, I don't really want to slap it up here.

Yeah, I know -- it's "websnark." That makes it sound like I'm always going to say nasty things. Except I don't think a snarky sense of humor precludes writing about stuff you like. This isn't a site that reviews webcomics and gives out stars. (The closest thing I do is give out biscuits -- tasty, tasty biscuits -- but I don't give those for whole webcomics. I give those for individual strips that impress me. And they're not that serious as all that.) This is a critical site, but the criticism tradition I'm working in isn't reviews, it's art and literary criticism. I'm making points, and the stuff I comment on either illustrates that point or illustrates the absence of that point. Hopefully in an entertaining fashion.

Sure, I make a lot of references to strips I'm not as enamored about any more. I'm not as happy with User Friendly or It's Walky or Megatokyo as I once was, and I'm unashamed to say why... but I did like all three, terribly much. I invested some of myself into them because they pulled me in. Even if they had me and they lost me, there was a point where they had me, and that's why I care.

A good number of folks are following the stuff I snark to strips they haven't tried before. And that's fantastic. If you follow a link to a strip and enjoy it, I've done a good thing. Even if it's a strip I've lost my smile over. If I have to be a reviewer, I'd rather be a reviewer in the style of that Simpsons episode when Homer became a food critic. He loved food, he loved restaurants, he burbled happily about every place he went into, and all of Springfield prospered -- restaurants did a boom business and all of Springfield happily gained weight. It was only when the other critics pressured him to write only bad things that everything went south.

I respect reviewers. I respect bad reviews, but that's not my thing. If you want to read entertaining snarks about really bad popular culture, read Television Without Pity. It's hysterical and sarcastic and mean as Hell to shows they can't stand. And they pay their contributors, which is I expect why those contributors are willing to continue to watch television they loathe.

Me? I don't get paid for Websnark. In fact, I've spent a nontrivial amount of money to produce it, and I expect to spend more. I never expect to make more money than it costs, and I'm okay with that.

But I'm not okay with spending a large amount of time reading stuff I just don't enjoy. I won't swear I'll never do it -- if it illustrates a point I want to make, I'll use it -- but for the most part, I'd rather celebrate the stuff I enjoy.

September 01, 2004


I just wrote a long, in depth snark, which I then lost because I made a stupid mistake. I'm a computer professional. I really ought to be able to use the damn things, ought'n I?


August 30, 2004

It's raining in Maine...

...and I have far to drive before I get home. I'm back to work tomorrow (which means probably more Snarks through the day than you saw over the weekend from me).

My folks say hi. My Mom has no idea what you people see in me.

While here, I was officially given our copy of The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, by Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams. This 11x17 coffee table book (clocking in at 336 pages) fueled my love of comic strips from a very young age. Not only does it cover the evolution of the form, it has context and deep archives -- including an entire adventure of Thimble Theater -- the comic strip Segar wrote and drew, that brought Popeye and Olive Oyl to the world (and didn't have much of a spinach fixation -- other than the fact that Popeye ascribed his toughness to eating right). The adventure is "Plunder Island," and features the Sea Hag.

That's right. Back in 1977, lying on the floor of our living room, I was going through the archives of Story strips from the 30's. Story strips that brought the Funny.

It marked me. And now I get to revisit this tremendous book.

FAQ: Cast Page

So, I've received more than one note from folks that while it's all well and good for me to campaign for webcomic cast pages, I don't have one of my own here on

"But..." I said in reply. "This isn't a webcomic."

"Put up or shut up," they replied.

So. Here's my cast page. Enjoy.

burnsbio.jpegEric Alfred Burns is one of the heroes of our story. Like all good English majors, he makes his living as a systems administrator. He also has a bad habit of writing. Born in a very small town in the very far north of Maine, Eric has lived in different places in Maine, in New Hampshire, in Ithaca and Syracuse, New York, and in Seattle, Washington. He currently lives in New Hampshire, but is wondering if his roots are beginning to get a touch long and therefore need uprooting.

While systems administration puts food on his table, Eric lists his occupation as writer. In addition to, Eric has written and published short fiction and poetry. He has also written for and designed Role Playing Games, including work for Decipher and Steve Jackson Games. He was one of the primary authors on the ENnie nominated Sidewinder: Wild West Adventures, and the subsequent Sidewinder: Recoiled won the Gold ENnie for best Electronic Game (non-free). He's listed as a contributing author on Recoiled, and would be much prouder if the sum total of his 'contributions' wasn't stuff from the first edition of the game which they rewrote parts of to make it sound less like the somewhat urbane Bat Masterson and more like Festus from Gunsmoke. But Hell, they got the gold with it, so why should he complain?

In the webcomics world, Eric writes a monthly column called "Feeding Snarky" and occasional features and reviews for Comixpedia, where they have learned to curse his procastinating name.

In addition, Eric has the unfortunate distinction of being an amateur novelist, but is deep into work on a novel that will hopefully change his professional standings. He has tried his hand at webcartooning himself, and epitomizes the old saw "those who can't draw, snark." He has learned from this mistake and is now hard at work at writing webcomics instead. He is hard at work on Gossamer Commons, as drawn by Greg Holkan.

Eric has a cat named Sarah, which is short for Seraphim Kyriotate. He has yet to notice angelic behavior from her. He can be reached at "websnark" "at" "gmail" "dot" "com." It's like a reverse rebus, isn't it?

wedsbiol.pngWednesday White is, at best, a cameo in all things. An uneducated boor, she used to sneak onto university newspapers' staff because the high school papers wouldn't let her in. Every few years, it occurs to her to write something. This time, it landed her in webcomics. "If I write about it for a little while, I'll learn how to do my own sensibly." God help us all.

This way lay contributing to Comixpedia, then throwing stuff at The Webcomics Examiner. At the moment, Wednesday is the associate features editor for 'Pedia, heading up columns, which means she's effectively Eric's editor. Everyone can laugh now!

Wednesday's proudest creative achievement to date is having some of her artwork appear on a Bill Mallonee album traycard -- she imagines it's something like having your fanart appear as part of the packaging for your favourite TV show's DVD boxed set, only with whiskey involved.

August 26, 2004

On the philosophy of snarking

Someone over on PvPForums asked if the PvP Update Pool was a joke or not. I'd have answered over there, but they have a 12 hour "cooling off" period between registering for their forums and being able to post replies or threads (which on balance is likely a good idea -- much like there's a waiting period for guns. Before you can buy a gun in a rage and run into a gun club where everyone has guns and a willingness to shoot you, they make you sleep on whether or not you want to shoot that fool thing).

But still, it's a fair question. And deserves an answer.

Of course it's a joke. All of Websnark is a joke, from its name to its posts. Yeah, there's plenty of opinion here. It's an opinion site. But in the grand scheme of things, if something like PvP or Penny-Arcade are Network, I'm at best Basic Cable Entertainment and very likely Cable Access -- shooting for Daily Show, settling for XPlay, dreading ending up as Unscrewed.

Scott Kurtz ain't gonna sweat me or my snarking about his inability to set a time for updates. And, as someone (quite legitimately) points out on his forum, Kurtz does typically manage an update every day, at some point in the day. What I find funny is the broad range of times that might be, and so that ends up fuel for the snark.

Like I said in the original post -- and, for that matter, in PvP's entry in the Daily Comics Trawl -- PvP is Damn Good. Sooner or later one of the daily strips will be snarked, and it's highly likely said snark will be on all the ways Kurtz gets it right. As said before:

And Kurtz deserves his success -- he can sometimes piss me the Hell off, but his strip is one of the most consistent I read -- it brings the Funny, each and every day, and evolves without bogging down. It's just. Plain. Good.

So why pick on it at all? Its update wonkiness doesn't begin to touch Megatokyo's, for example. This is true -- but then, Megatokyo's update wonkiness was part of why I dropped that strip entirely. I'm not about to drop PvP. I am, though, going to mock what I find mockable.

And, like I've said many times before, it makes a difference between whether a cartoonist's strip is their job or their hobby. I dropped Hound's Home in large part because I got sick of having it sit, unupdated, in my trawl for months at a time. If I ever do a "You Had Me, And You Lost Me" on Hound's Home, I'll mention that as part of the reasons. But I won't snark about updates on Hound's Home because Ryan Duchane doesn't succeed or fail at eating daily by the success and failure of Hound's Home. He doesn't owe his audience anything, because he's not asking them for anything. Someone who does their strip as their job gets held to a higher standard, because the risks are higher. Kurtz, Abrams, Milholland, Gabe and Tycho and the like use their strips as the foundations for keeping themselves, their significant others, their children and their basset hounds fed.

By the same token, that puts responsibility on me, in my humble opinion. I'm one of those guys who contributes to tip jars. I buy stuff. I buy memberships. I'm in Defenders of the Nifty. I sent cash to Randy Millholland. I buy the PvP comic book. I bought a Skull Plushie. (Sidenote -- the Skull Plushies are brilliant. I can't wait for mine. I'll snark in depth when it comes in.) I go to strip advertisers. It's just what I do, when I like a strip. Hell, I sent Kurtz money for a Macintosh, even though I couldn't care less if he uses a Mac or not.

And, if I like a strip and I continue to read about it, I snark about it. And go for humor, while expressing an opinion. Which was the point of the PvP Update Pool, to answer his forum-goers. And in writing snarkish stuff, I feel I owe the people who read me, now and into the future, my best efforts to be funny and my opinion as I see it. And some expectation of guidelines, which I'm trying to flesh out as we go along.

How much do I think Scott Kurtz should care about my mockery? Why, that's "not at all," Wink. Scott Kurtz doesn't sweat me, and he certainly knows his reputation when it comes to update times. (He's even mentioned it in his strip -- usually in strips where his father is threatening to kick him in the ass if he doesn't put the strip up earlier.) If anything, I hope he snrked a bit when he read "PvP Update Pool." And when I snark opinion stuff about his strip, I hope he finds something useful in that opinion.

But I don't expect it of him. He doesn't owe me the combination of Jack and Shit.

July 02, 2004

On Names and Innovation

As many if not most of the people reading this (generally neglected) essay site knows, Apple has just announced the latest version of their operating system: Mac OS X 10.4, codenamed Tiger. Tiger follows in the footsteps of its predecessors Jaguar (which signed a lot of checks) and Panther (the most successful of their OSs to date, which managed to cash most of the checks Jaguar signed). In what may be the best sign of Mac OS X's maturity, the announcement covered mostly a pack of features few if anyone asked for, and almost no core improvements to the OS. (A major exception to this is in Tiger's improved developer tools -- but that's something for developers and codemongers to be excited about, not end users).

Believe it or not, this is excellent news for Apple. When you reach the point where you start Microsofting (a verb I have just coined that means 'to add superfluous features in an effort to get people with a perfectly usable version of your software to buy a new version they don't really need) your OS, your OS is pretty rock solid. And as a hearty Panther user, I can attest to this. Panther works exceptionally well in all its core areas, and its own superfluous features, while spotty, can be ignored with impunity. (Anyone out there use Filevault? Anyone? I didn't think so.)

However, that leaves us with a glaring issue on Apple's part. They have to continue to appear innovative. They have to continue to seem not only cutting edge, but bleeding edge. Their stock in trade, and their core business -- the sale of computers -- relies entirely on the cachet of using Apples, and that relies on consistently being the kids with the coolest toys in town; the things that make you say "ooooooooooooo..." when you hear about them are what keeps Apple alive.

(This, by the way, is different from Microsoft's stock in trade. Microsoft makes its money on sales of its software and its Operating System. It needs to sell new versions of Windows in massive numbers to keep the dream alive. Apple doesn't sell OS X as anything more than a secondary revenue stream -- they need to keep the Macintosh at the top of the heap, so that they continue selling truckloads of computers. It's an entirely different business model, which is why Microsoft isn't really working to kill Apple off these days. Microsoft likes having Apple around, because Mac users buy Microsoft software.)

The problem with needing to innovate within the Operating System, however, is the complete and utter lack of need to innovate within the operating system. Once your OS is stable and fast, that's pretty much the ballgame, in terms of functionality. This is why the king of Operating Systems is Unix and its derivatives. The world runs on Unix, despite Unix's 'core innovations' being decades old, because Unix is rock solid and fast. Period.

Well, Darwin is pretty damn rock solid now, and the Aqua window and file manager running on top of it has reached a zenith in Panther. Panther is bloody easy to use, it's pretty damn solid, it's fast and it has all the features people expect in an Operating System. Which means innovation is damn hard for Apple now.

Well, if 'To Microsoft' means to add superfluous features to a product to get people to buy it, then the adjective 'Microsoftish' means 'to adopt the veneer of other peoples' innovations in an effort to improve your own product and eliminate competition.' And, following a clear trend started by Sherlock 3 (vs. Watson), Apple has wholly embraced Microsoftish coding practices this year, with the announcement of the most 'innovative' of their new features: Dashboard. A product that on the surface resembles a third party product called Konfabulator.

I say 'on the surface' because their engines are entirely different. Dashboard uses the webcore engine that Apple's developed for Safari, while Konfabulator uses a homegrown engine driven by Javascript. But, when you look at the proposed screenshot for Dashboard and the actual screenshots of Konfabulator, they appear functionally identical.

And... they call their subprograms by the same name: Widgets.

And therein lies the problem.

The idea of small programs that handle tiny tasks is as old as the Macintosh itself. "Desk Accessories" were a part of the original Macintosh, and were the clear spiritual predecessor of widgets. So, no one could legitimately complain that Apple 'stole' these subprograms from Konfabulator. They could argue that Apple is undercutting the innovation from third party developers (and have shown a habit of doing this, by the vastly clearer wholesale theft of Watson's functionality for Sherlock 3, the year after they honored Watson as one of the most innovative products of the year). They could argue that producing something with such a close look and feel was crass at best. But theft? Nah. Doesn't wash.

Unless, of course, Apple were stupid enough to steal Konfabulator's terminology. And 'Widget' is an idiosyncratic term at best -- I doubt I've used that term more than twelve times in my life, except when referring to Konfabulator. It's not an accepted term for a subprogram. American Heritage defines it as:

1. A small mechanical device or control; a gadget.
2. An unnamed or hypothetical manufactured article.
Software isn't hardware -- you might write a controlling program, but that doesn't make it a 'mechanical device.' And I'm sorry, but nothing in Dashboard constitutes a manufactured article. You can hold a manufactured article in your hand without it being enclosed by a computer screen.

So. Language evolves. That's fine and dandy. But when someone uses a term in a new way as an integral part of their software product, you don't get to take a product that does exactly the same thing, use the modified term in exactly the same way, and duck charges of intellectual theft. It doesn't matter when you started developing your product. It doesn't matter what engine you use to produce it. You can't take someone's terminology as your own and then claim you're not copying them.

Especially when you were already accused of doing it once.

This is a stupid move on Apple's part. Had they called Dashboard's components 'gauges' (which fits the dashboard model) or 'gadgets' or 'gizmos' or 'thingamajigs' or 'instruments' or anything like that, people would be sullen about Konfabulator but wouldn't have a real leg to stand on. If they'd called them 'desk accessories,' they could have both trumpeted the return of a classic Macintosh function and clearly demonstrated prior art. But they didn't. They called them 'widgets.'

And so branded Dashboard as a wholly stolen product, now and forever. And sent notice to third party developers that Sherlock 3 wasn't a fluke -- if you want to be sure Apple won't steal your ideas, better patent all of them or (more likely) better not write them for the Apple. Besides, there are more Windows users anyway, right?

And that, if it spreads far enough, kills Apple far more completely than failing to innovate ever would.

January 23, 2004

Good Night, Captain

Bob KeeshanMister Green Jeans. Mister Moose. Bunny Rabbit. Miss Frog. Slim Goodbody. Dennis the Apprentice. Grandfather Clock. Picture Pages. Miss Worm. Mister Bainter the Painter. The Professor. Ping Pong Balls. Carrots. The Treasure House. The Captain's Place. Dancing Bear. Picture Pages. Mr. Baxter the Math Teacher. Debbie. The Toothbrush Family. Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings.

These are touchstones to a time on television when a major network could allow for gentleness, goodness, and warmth without panicking or selling toys. This was an era of thirty straight years, when a show for preschool children could rule the morning, and the most important lessons it taught were about reading and wonder. This was a time when we had a friend, and his name was Captain Kangaroo.

Bob Keeshan brought the Captain to life, as part of a rich legacy of characters and children's television which he truly pioneered. How much of a pioneer was he? Bob Keeshan was a member of the first nationwide true television program for children, Howdy Doody, starting all the way back in 1947. In fact, he was the silent clown Clarabell, who honked a horn to communicate. He disliked Howdy Doody's frenetic style, however, and pushed for a gentler kind of children's show -- one where kids would find learning a source of delight and wonder. One that didn't pander to kids and didn't preach to them. And against all odds, he found it with Captain Kangaroo. At one point even after the start of Captain Kangaroo he created Mr. Mayor, for Saturday mornings. After the end of Captain Kangaroo, he went on to continue promoting reading with CBS Storybreak. He promoted musical education for children, releasing albums that would introduce kids to jazz and classical music. He used to tour with Pops orchestras, drawing children to come out and see him introduce classical works, and inculcate a love of music in them. In a world where so many media figures fought to promote themselves or their sponsors, Bob Keeshan promoted children.

Captain KangarooMost famously of all, he promoted reading. On every episode of Captain Kangaroo he read a book, his voice comforting and lulling, even as he provided the sound effects for sirens or cars or cows or what have you. And what books they were. Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Caps for Sale. Make Way for Ducklings. So many, many more. Books that told a story and usually had engaging pictures, but also encouraged thought... and encouraged a love of reading. Captain Kangaroo didn't have to convince us books were special -- he made them special. He believed it, and he passed that belief onto us.

The sketches were funny. The puppets were allowed to trick the Captain, who was generally the butt of the jokes. Bunny Rabbit found a way to get carrots from the Captain. Mr. Moose found a way to get the Captain to say 'Ping Pong balls,' and drop a load of balls on the Captain's head, time and time again. Nickelodeon might have refined the art of dumping disgusting things on actors, but the Captain pioneered the art and didn't even need gooey slime to do it.

Bob Keeshan died last Friday. He was 76 years old. He hadn't been on television for several years. Back in 1985, CBS decided that they wanted to compete with the Today Show and Good Morning America, and so they cancelled Captain Kangaroo while Keeshan was in the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. This had been after several years of changing what time he was on and reducing the length of his show, all for the news. Saturday Night Live satirized the moment perfectly, running a sketch where the Captain and Tom Snyder -- recently thrown out of his traditional timeslot for a then-once-failed David letterman -- were forced to work for Ted Turner. The Captain (in the sketch) told the story, Captain Kangaroo style, of his being a beloved figure to children, an icon of America, and then he had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital -- rrrrrRRRRrrrraaaaaaaaarrrrrr -- and while he had tubes in him and was trying to get better, 'some sleazeball from the network' showed up and told him he was fired because they wanted more time for the news.

Captain KangarooKeeshan would never have said such a thing in public, of course, though of course SNL was right. That many, many different iterations of the CBS Morning News/CBS This Morning/The Early Show have all failed in their time slot, over and over again seems to highlight the sheer hubris of cancelling the distinctive, beautiful, gentle children's program. Keeshan brought his program to PBS for a time, then retired after Hugh 'Lumpy' Brannum, who played Mr. Green Jeans, Mr. Bainter the Painter and so many others passed away. In later years, he worked to return to television as the character he embodied, but he didn't own the rights, so "The All New Captain Kangaroo" didn't include the one person who made it all work, and failed. (From all accounts, this new Captain Kangaroo sacrificed honesty and wonder for political correctness and talking down to the children -- things Keeshan never did nor would do.) However, he kept busy. He wrote children's books of his own. He helped produce videos of the Captain and of other worthy subject. He was an advocate for children's issues and for children's right. He was an advocate for the control of advertising to children and controlling tobacco advertising. In a world where children's performers were often disgruntled actors who yearned to 'make it' and escape their signature roles, Bob Keeshan walked the walk. He was the real deal.

It's sad. We all know that. And we're going to miss him terribly. We know that too.

But as with Mr. Rogers last year -- a man who was Bob Keeshan's close friend -- we know that we carry the Captain with us where we go. He is a part of who we are. He is a friend. And, so long as we remember him, he will be there, ready to set sail or perform some magic or introduce a cartoon where dreams come true with the scribbling of chalk.

Good night, Captain.

January 22, 2004

The Alchemy of the Slow Cooker

I used to say that I was culinarily impaired. "I need special ramps to use the toaster," I would say. That would get a chuckle, and then I'd tell the regretfully true story of how once I toasted a plate, while leaving the bread on the kitchen counter. This was when I was a teenager. The counter was orange. The plate was quite small. It was four in the morning, so perhaps there is some slack that can be had.

I don't tell those stories now. Instead, I have begun, slowly, to learn the arts arcane. The alchemy of the kitchen is rich and warm, and raw foods combine to make the most remarkable creations. Set free by the wild magic of approximation and experimentation, any two edible things can together make something new. New and often better than the components.

Last night I prepared for tonight's dinner. As with all good spells, it began with a cauldron. This one was black and ceramic, however, fitting in a metal sheath with a low and high setting. Crock. Pot. One fits within the other. Its scientific name is 'slow cooker,' but no matter what magicks I learn from Alton Brown and no matter what scientific names he ascribes to it, cooking is not science. Perhaps one day, for me, it will be art, but for now it is a craft. It is construction paper cut apart and pasted together with Elmer's, for my own pleasure. If I do it well, my mother may hang it on the refrigerator.

This is my best alchemy. It starts with chuck roast, steak cut so the muscle fibers are short. But that sits in the fridge. I need it to begin, but it is the last to be added to the slow cauldron.

Onion is first. It would be best to have fresh, they say, but onion's purpose in this pot is to change and almost vanish, to impart flavor to the broth and become texture without form. To make the parts that aren't meat all the grander. So I take the frozen chopped and slide some in. White crystal chunks of onion spread out over the black ceramic of the pot's bottom.

The first is potato. I have potatoes now. Real ones, that wait for peeling. But this was late and I was not prepared to play with knives, no matter how grand my Christmas knives are. So out come cans. A can of whole potatoes that turns out to have two tiny potatoes and one giant one, so I drain and dump within and, with freshly washed hands, I reach down and break the large one apart. Chunks of potato in my hands. I then add a second can, this time sliced, and there is potato enough. I do not need to touch the sliced potato with my hand.

I have carrots too, sitting in the bottom of my fridge, but pot roast is not a time for slicing. Tonight, when the dregs of one meal becomes the base of another, I will slice fresh potato and fresh carrot and add them, but for today, another can gives up orange goodness, mixing with the white of onion and the gold of potato. A blend of colors.

And then comes spice.

The modern alchemist has his own tools and accoutrements. Gone are the days of beaker and crucible, for the most part. Only the most arcane and well rounded enchanters use mortar and pestle. And for all too many, the open flame is disposed of in lieu of the glowing red electrical coil or the microwave.

The microwave itself is a wonderful, terrible device. It allows for the heating of food made elsewhere, the application of heat without cooking. For years, I 'cooked' with it, a panorama of premade meals and prepared things. The closest I came to cooking was pasta, and that rarely.

Then, I started making what I termed "Bachelor Casseroles." I learned a good method of making rice in the microwave, then added frozen vegetables, sometimes some kind of meat and some kind of sauce base -- golden cream of mushroom soup being the traditional -- mixed and microwaved again until hot. If there was cheese to be had, it would top it to make a crust. Not as good as a baked casserole, perhaps, but a casserole nonetheless, and with appropriate Mrs. Dash or Garlic or other simple spicing, something cooked. Something made. Something which, by virtue of its very randomness had never existed before in quite that form.

Then came the George Foreman Grill. This is a sandwich style grill, heating top and bottom at once, as no doubt you know. And sandwiches was its first result, of course. It took roast beef or turkey and cheese and vegetable and resulted in panini, the bread grilled flat and the foods combined. And the fear and surety of my non-cooking ability began to fade.

Then came the steamer. The steamer which turned eggs into perfectly hard cooked eggs, made a different quality of rice than the microwave, made vegetables glorious.

And then the Crock Pot. The Slow Cooker. Magical thing, that took ingredients and, unattended, made glorious things from them. And then I was cooking not just pot roast but stews and soups and dishes. Now I was truly cooking. Now the craft came easy, and fear was banished. Even a failed beef stew did not ruin it for me.

And make no doubt, I was learning new arts. Alton Brown and cooking shows and books and experimentation began to teach me the black sorcery of the kitchen. Oh, I was a hedge wizard at best, unsuitable for court and perhaps not able to call down rain, but I was learning which spices to use when, and what herbs were best on what vegetables, and how to coax what I wanted from my tools and -- if need be -- from my oven or stove.

Most recently, George Foreman brought his Rotisserie into my home. Now comes simple oven roasting. I am still learning this magic, but it goes well. Pork is now a glorious thing, and I have seen the black spice glaze of roast beef form before my eyes.

There are other tools -- a juicer, a bread maker, a cuisinart -- but these see little use, comparatively. For now. Given time, who can tell how often I might use this.

In the meantime, we have gained utensils. Good knives. A zester. A peeler. Spoons and ladles.

Slowly we learn.

For the spicing, I chose a bold blend. Old Bay, unknown to me until now but as familiar to Alton Brown as his beloved Kosher salt, made its first appearance. A pinch of said kosher salt -- a pinch more than my mother would use, but hardly much added sodium. Black pepper. Garlic powder. All over the potatoes and carrots and onions.

Then, the liquid. I usually use broth, but today beef consommé takes its place. A can of Campbell's, and then a can of water.

And then the meat comes out, and out of its package. It is deep red, somewhat marbled but not too badly. With this cut of meat, it looks almost like a too-thick steak, and perhaps that is apropos.

I start with the kosher salt again. Just the tiniest bit. Kosher salt is thick -- flakes and chunks, rather than grains -- and settles across the meat visibly. It is visceral. Then, I dust with garlic powder, then Old Bay, then Black Pepper. The same blend as before.

My hands freshly washed, I press the spice into the meat. Perhaps this is silly, but perhaps not. It connects me to the meat, to the food. I am part of this process. I am part of the cooking.

And then the meat is turned over, and the spicing is repeated. Both sides needed. Balance must be achieved. Both sides rubbed.

I lay the meat across the spiced vegetables and consommé, sitting atop it all. I add the lid, and lift the crock out of the pot, putting it in the fridge where it will lie in wait. I wash my hands of spice, and set a timer to remind me of dinner in the morning. I let it sit. I walk away.

Comes the dawn, just before seven, the timer will go off. At 6:58 I will lift the crock out, and set it in its chrome enclosure. I will turn the dial to 'low,' and I will again walk away. The magic, prepared hours before, will begin to flow. The alchemy will begin to occur.

By 7:40 the meat has changed color, and steam has collected on the top of the heavy glass lid. I leave it to work. All the day long, it will change and alter and percolate and cook. All the day long, it will become. And when I return home, sometime after five, its smell will have filled the apartment and the transformation will be near to complete. I will sit and chat with my cat, and then I will eat. Good food, made from base components. Hot and tasty and wholly unlike any other pot roast that came before or will come since. Gold from lead. Health from cans and packages.


I am no chef, but I can cook. I am no artist, but I have craft.

The remaining juices and consomme, blended together in the pot after I have eaten and packaged the leftover pot roast, will become the stock for beef stew. This will be where fresh carrots and potatoes are added, along with yet more frozen onions and some other frozen vegetables. This is where stew meat and flour will come to thicken and hearten. Thyme and cumin and basil and onion powder will join the spices already within. From this, food. Days worth of pot roast, days worth of stew.

And then? I have a yen to make Beef Bourgogne. I have all the ingredients. I have rice to serve it over, and two ways to cook it, not counting the stove.


January 11, 2004

Confessions of a Liberal Heinlein Fan: Worldbuilding and Utopia

My friend Bruce pointed me to a discussion he thought I'd be interested in. (He thought that, by the way, because he is right. He is often right when it comes to what I'm interested in.) Later, I also found that discussion referenced on Boing Boing, which, besides being one of the online homes of Cory Doctorow contains tons of links to cool things.

The discussion in question was on Electrolite, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden's weblog, and contains many extremely interesting layers of discussion around the common themes of Robert Heinlein, Heinlein's 'new' book For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs, and John Clute's Excessive Candour column reviewing For Us, The Living. The discussion is fascinating because of the sheer plethora of authorities contributing to it. Scientists, futurists, fans, literary critics -- there's something of everything in it, and the content of the discussion is unusually high for the web.

Which isn't really what I'm going to talk about here. Though interestingly enough, I'd already seen the Clute review. In fact, the Clute interview was what told me the book was now available. I knew the book was going to be published, because I'm a member of The Heinlein Society. Somehow, however, I'd missed the publication announcement, so it came as a surprise to find a post-publication review.

I was home in Maine when this happened, over Christmas break. This was a wonderful time, mind, and my first real vacation in a very long time. I was relaxed, going through electronic things, chatting with my folks, hanging out with my cat (Sarah) and their two dogs (Buddy and Teddy). And I found the review in question, and read it.

I imagine it was pretty startling both for parents and animals when I started bouncing on the couch going "EEEEEEEE!"

They say that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. I think it may have been a couple of years before that for me. But, I can remember it very clearly -- the moment when I became an SF fan. And it involved Robert Heinlein.

We were in New York City. We did that a couple of times when I was growing up. And we were in a bookstore. I'm certain it was a bookstore and not some kind of game store. Besides, this was before I got into gaming. Before Dungeons and Dragons and all the rest. But I remember clearly walking through the bookstore and looking at different things, and I remember turning and seeing a game.

It was purple and blue and lurid red, and golden armored men were in the process of falling from the sky. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers it declared itself. Man vs. Monster. Interstellar Warfare in the Twenty-Second Century.

I was in love. I don't know why. I don't know why my father decided to buy it when I asked, either, but he did. And he even played it with me a couple of times. Looking back, I'm a little surprised we ever played it at all. It was a pretty complicated wargame for someone as young as I was.

But even if I rarely played it, I read through the rules over and over again. Especially the rules on the different scenarios. Especially the 'in character' descriptions of those scenarios. I loved them. I loved the descriptions of Rasczak's Roughnecks and the tremendous esprit de corps of the Mobile Infantry.

And then I found out there was a book. I don't even know how. But I bought it. And read it. Many, many times. Most recently I reread it last May, actually.

From there, I worked my way through every Heinlein novel. Every one of them. I anxiously awaited any new one. I bought books by writers Heinlein referenced, eagerly. From there I bought other SF books. I bought Fantasy novels. I read glorious works and crap, alike.

But always I read Heinlein.

He shaped my early political and sociological opinions. This meant I went through the Libertarian phase almost every Heinlein fan passes through (and a good number never come out of, and there's nothing wrong with that). It also meant that my concepts of personal honor, of liberty coupled with responsibility, of duty, of sin and of love were shaped in part by Heinlein's writings. As I later entered a moderate and then liberal phase of my thoughts, I still found much of who I was shaped by Heinlein and his own evolving beliefs.

I was in the theater alone (one of the rare times I went to a movie by myself) to see Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters. I went with my friend Russ to see Starship Troopers, and had a great B movie time while decrying the loss of opportunity to make an actual movie out of the book. I know where I was when I heard (on NPR) that Heinlein had died. I remember that moment like the generations before mine remember where they heard that Kennedy was dead.

After his death, I bought each 'new' book as it came out. I bought Grumbles from the Grave and devoured it. I bought and cherished Tramp Royale. I read Requiem and cried at the parts that all the other fans cried at. I bought the "uncut" Stranger in a Strange Land. I bought the 'sad ending' Podkayne of Mars.

When I was at Baycon last year, I went to some of the Heinlein panels, and discovered that regardless of my current ethos, Heinlein's children are my people, and I'm proud to be among them. I joined the Heinlein Society after that convention, and discovered I still had plenty to learn about a man whose writing I can now put into a proper perspective -- but which will always have tremendous personal significance to me.

Imagine what it is like, for one of Heinlein's children to learn that an unpublished manuscript had been found. Imagine what it is like to learn that a Heinlein novel -- in fact, his lost first novel -- had been found. And then to learn that apparently when he wasn't looking, that book had been published.


I called ahead to Borders. They had one copy left. Sales, I was told, had been brisk. I asked them to hold it.

My parents and I drove down. I got the book, along with Cory Doctorow's short story collection and the second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel. I started reading on the way home.

By the time my vacation was over, I'd read the new Heinlein twice, straight through.

Clute's review of For Us, The Living is excellent. He has a truly valuable understanding of what this book is and what it isn't. And as much as I loved the book, I do understand what it isn't.

For example, it's not a novel. It's barely a story. But more on that in a bit.

Clute also recognizes the value of Dr. Robert James's afterward. Dr. James is an excellent scholar and researcher -- and clearly a very cool person. I had the pleasure of meeting him at Baycon, and am hopeful he'll be at Arisia in a couple of weeks. Clute is less charitable toward Spider Robinson's introduction, and I admit Spider does come across as a little silly. But, I'm inclined to cut him a lot of slack -- during a period when the SF establishment couldn't find anything good to say about Heinlein (an attitude which is fading but still clings here and there) Robinson went loudly and on the record in support of the Dean of Science Fiction. And may have had his career suffer as a result. As a result, he gets to be as silly as he likes, for my money.

(All right, I think the idea that somehow Virginia Heinlein's influence on her husband extends clearly into this work, written several years before they'd even met while he was married to a different woman entirely, is as silly as Harold Bloom's contention that Shakespeare influenced Chaucer. Still, having written an unapologetically sappy reunion story after Mrs. Heinlein passed on, I'm not about to cast stones at Mr. Robinson's reverence for the lady.)

Clute goes on to discuss the remarkable points of the work -- particularly Heinlein's advocacy of liberal issues and attitudes, born of his reverence of the time with Upton Sinclair, who he knew and under whose theories Heinlein ran for public office (unsuccessfully) -- in great detail. And certainly, those who have decided Heinlein was an ultraconservative will be more than a little surprised by his love of fiat money, social credit and government control in this story. However, before one decides Heinlein's views were wholly different later they need to see all the myriad ways his most famous opinions are echoed in this first major work. Most significantly, Heinlein's lifelong commitment to personal privacy is echoed in the constitution of his Utopia:

Every citizen is free to perform any act which does not hamper the equal freedom of another. No law shall forbid the performance of any act, which does not damage the physical or economic welfare of any other person. No act shall constitute a violation of a law valid under this provision unless there is such damage, or immediate present danger of such damage resulting from that act.

That paragraph would fit in perfectly in works from Beyond this Horizon through Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all the way up to To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Heinlein may have been a fiat money advocate in For Us, the Living and a hard currency advocate in Time Enough for Love, but the banking conversation Lazarus Long has in Time Enough's "The Tale of the Adopted Daughter" finds its roots in the extensive economics lessons in For Us, the Living. Heinlein's advocacy of homosexual rights, womens' rights, and racial rights can be found in For Us, the Living and are echoed throughout the rest of his work. And as Liberal as Heinlein seems to be in For Us, the Living, he still clearly sees the military as both honorable and necessary. And even the service-franchise of Starship Troopers is presaged in a Constitutional amendment in For Us, the Living: in this future time, any time the United States Congress or the President wants to go to war without the United States first being attacked, a referendum is called -- and only those people eligible to be drafted for that war are allowed to vote. If the vote carries, those who voted for the war are the first to be conscripted into service, the very next day, automatically. The next group pulled into service are those eligible soldiers who didn't vote. Those who opposed the war are called up last.

(Don't you wonder how the last two years would have been different if the Invasion of Iraq had to be voted on and approved by those required to register for Selective Service before it could have begun? Heaven knows I do.)

It's a fascinating view of Heinlein's work, and made all the more fascinating by the hints of Heinlein's later content. Quite apart from the political and economic themes, echoes of Heinlein's future writing appear again and again. Elements that would appear in the Future History, in Beyond this Horizon, in "If This Goes On..." and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, in Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice and many, many other stories -- right down to some of the conflicts in The Number of the Beast and To Sail Beyond the Sunset appear in this book. Clute and Robinson and James alike note these elements and similarities.

And also note that as a novel, it's not much of a novel. It doesn't have much plot. Its story elements are, in Robinson's words, a sexy but thin negligee the book wants you to tear off, so that it can seduce you with its long essays on Utopia. And make no mistake -- this is a Utopic Work. This is more an essay than anything else, they say. They even point out Heinlein's use of footnotes (rather pretentiously attributed to "the Author" but clearly written from within the fourth wall, not through it.)

They're right about this not really being a novel. But they're wrong about it being an essay, really.

I recognize this form, you see. And I'll bet everyone else in my own profession does too.

This isn't a novel, and this isn't an essay. This is Heinlein's notebook for his Role Playing Game and campaign.

I'm quite serious. I've seen this any number of times. Hell, I've written it more than once. The same way my 2nd Edition AD&D game 'house rules' broke 200,000 words and had 230 footnotes, this is an extended work of Worldbuilding on Heinlein's part. He puts in huge pieces about how they got there, he follows them up with all the ways this world is different than we might expect, and despite a token effort, there's really no conflict to be found anywhere within. At the end of the book I expected to find hyperlinks to his game logs and to system mechanics.

Naturally, Heinlein wasn't a roleplayer, but the RPG Worldbuilder's phenomenon is also the budding SF writer's Worldbuilder's phenomenon. Before anyone can become a writer, they have to learn a core lesson -- setting is not story, and no matter how fascinating your fictional world is, until you put real people into it and give them problems, no one's going to care. Eventually, writers evolve out of the habit and, if they're smart, mine the huge backstory they've so painstakingly worked out (believing they're preparing to write, but really doing it for their own sake) and use it where appropriate for their later works.

As Heinlein himself does, it's worth noting. His decline and fall of the United States into Theocracy under Nehemiah Scudder, the fate of a United Europe that descends into 40 Years War (and predicts the European Union pretty amazingly, in ways), the rolling roads, the Crazy Years, Coventry and its rules, the essential "An it harm none, do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" nature of the Constitution, the Privacy Customs, the pneumatic tube internet... all of these things, mutated and changed somewhat, found their way into later Heinlein works, almost always as elements of backstory instead of the lead element.

The book's tone reminds me the most of Beyond this Horizon, all told. And anyone who enjoyed that book will enjoy this one. Anyone who read more than a couple of Heinleins will also enjoy this, and if you read more than five Heinleins this book approaches a must-buy, sheerly for the insight into the development as Heinlein, the writer. As a standalone work, it's weak, and as a Utopia it's passable. But no matter what this does to my New Critic credentials, the value of For Us, The Living is contextual, and from that standpoint this work couldn't be more important.

Hey, I read it through twice in three days. And I'm going to read it again. What more do I need to say?

January 08, 2004

Playlists and Coffeemakers: Recapturing the Personal

It takes a good amount of time to come to terms with iTunes.

Our music collections have always been quasi-public affairs. We showed off our record collection to friends. We pointed with pride to the racks and racks of CDs we have. We kept huge boxes of tapes in the back seat of our cars, ready to be popped in at a moment's notice. We built careful mix tapes both for ourselves and for the people we liked. Having a large music collection showed good taste, good breeding, and an appreciation of the artistic. And when we managed to talk an attractive member of our preferred sex into our room, we had a huge range of mood music we could put on and hopefully help said person out of their underwear.

But, the problem with being quasi-public is... well, just anyone can end up seeing your music collection. The snotty girlfriend of your best friend can show up and snark about how much she hates the Bay City Rollers. The Music Geek Wannabe can snort when they see your prized collection of 45's, talking about how crap Foreigner was. So you shrink back, argue, or otherwise get put on the defensive. And the next time you look through your albums, you see that piece of music, make a face, and never listen to it again.

Do you have any idea how stupid that is? I mean, who gives a damn if you like Anne Murray? Well, besides Anne Murray herself. Is there anything as personal as what collections of sound you find appealing? Is there any reason what we like should be dictated by what other people like? I'm in my mid-thirties, not high school.

The worst I ever got with this comes from the mid-nineties, when I was living in Seattle with Bill, Dominic and T. While we were sitting around one day, I made some innocuous reference to Billy Joel.

"Oh, Christ," Dominic said. "I hate Billy Joel."

"Me too," Bill said. "Ugh."

Now, here I am. I'm an admitted geek. I'm living with geeks and nonconformists and men with Travolta hair. I'm (at that point) in my late twenties, and I'm an intelligent person.

"Oh Jesus," I thought to myself. "I didn't know Billy Joel sucked!" So I stopped listening to Billy Joel.

See, all three of my roommates at that time have musical tastes that appeal to me. They introduced me to hardcore Elvis Costello, to Bare Naked Ladies, to Kirsty Macall, to They Might Be Giants, to Bad Religion, to Oingo Boingo, to Stan Ridgway, to Tom Waits, to Warren Zevon, to the Jazz Butcher and that's just off the top of my head. About the only heavy music influences from my time in Seattle -- one of the music capitals of the world -- not from Bill or Dominic or T was jazz, and that's just because we had KPLU, which has to be the best jazz Public Radio station on Earth.

So, while I had always been a huge Billy Joel fan, I suddenly had doubts. And make no mistake, I was a huge fan. I went to his Bridge tour. I had all his albums. I listened to his greatest hits collection on shuffle.

Flash forward five years. I'm living in New Hampshire. I'm getting my CDs out of storage. I'm revisiting old favorites. I'm revelling a little. And I come across Glass Houses.

"Oh, that," I think. "Forget it. Billy Joel sucks."

Five years. Five years after an offhanded comment from a couple of guys who didn't like Billy Joel, and I was still marked. It was another year and a half before I started listening to him, and later still when I realized that what Bill and Dominic think of Billy Joel couldn't possibly matter less to my current life. Especially since I know almost all the friends I see on a regular basis like Billy Joel. Or love Billy Joel. Or want to bear children by Billy Joel.

(All right, I admit freely I think the 'Classical Composer William Joel' needs a good hearty punch to the stomach, but that has nothing to do with his music.)

Now... let's move to today. And to the iTunes Music Store.

Holy Mother Juggs and Speed.

Forget Kazaa and the original Napster and Grokster and all the rest. iTunes is phenomenal. You hear a song you like on TV, and one buck later it's yours. You remember an album you like, or a new one comes out, and ten bucks later you're listening to it. It's addictive and it's beautiful and it just plain works. iTunes is just plain fantastic.

And it's entirely personal.

No one is going to be walking through my apartment and chancing upon my iTunes playlist. If I walk into my office and see someone scrolling through something on my computer without asking, I'm going to make him wish he'd never been born. When it syncs to the iPod, it's syncing to my personal music machine, and no one else matters.

And one day, it hits you that you're free. You're free to indulge your musical tastes, no matter how unpopular they may be. Hell, you're free to indulge your musical tastes, no matter how popular they may be. Music Snobbery can no longer touch you.

So yes, I have reams of quirky, brilliant, indie and alternative music. Yes, I have collections of folks men in dark suits without ties, short haircuts and hornrimmed glasses will nod their approval on. Yes, I have music I can play at any party and not have anyone make a face.

But I also have Billy Joel. And some Pat Benatar. Hell, I have some Neil Diamond.

Neil Diamond. I forgot how cool a song "I Am, I Said" is.

And I have "Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé -- absolutely pop, absolutely currently popular, and no doubt hated as trash by most right thinking Music Geeks over the age of 30. But I like it, so I have it.

That's what iTunes has given us. That's what MP3s and AACs and OGGs have given us. That is the freedom we have. We have the power to create the soundtrack of our own lives, and the power to do it without censure from everyone around us. We can have the Beatles and the Monkees and the Flash Girls and Madness on the same playlist. We can indulge our love of blues and our love of cheesy 70's overproduced easy listening. We can listen to Sinatra and Tony Orlando and 50 Cent in a row, and it doesn't matter to anyone but you.

That's cool. That's power. That's just plain neat.

It's damnably cold right now. It was -3 plus 30-40 MPH winds this morning. Last night it was cold enough that they decided not to have the kids walk from their dorms to the academic building to study, lest they get flash-frostbitten. Winter has officially arrived in New Hampshire, in all its windtunnel glory.

I'm coping well enough with the cold. I have the coolest coffeemaker on Earth. It's a Keurig single cup, and it just. Plain. Works. You fill it with water every few days. You get a hankering for coffee. You put a cup down. You select what coffee you want (I'm big on Hazelnut or French Vanilla.) You drop the little tub -- still sealed -- inside. You push the button. Thirty seconds later you sip the hot, fresh, well perked, good cup of coffee. It just plain works.Keurig Coffeemaker

This is huge. This is major. This is tremendous. You have to understand -- I hate making a full pot of coffee. Not only can't I ever get the proportions quite right for what I want, I inevitably don't want more than one or two cups. This thing just makes what I want, and it makes it as good coffee. Every time.

The Catholic Church should look into the possible theological implications. I'm relatively certain the Keurig would count as one of the three miracles needed for canonization. I know, I know. I'm mister gadget. But aside from the Tivo, I don't know of a single gadget I've ever had that I use each and every day without fail. Except this one.

Every day.

I haven't had a caffeine headache in three months.

(Yes, I know. Long time readers want to know why I'm drinking coffee instead of tea. Tea is special. Tea is a ritual. Tea is a calming. Tea takes time and effort. Coffee is a caffeine delivery system. You see the distinction? Knew you would.)

So, in walking to school and trying hard not to freeze to death, having a full travel mug of hot coffee is an amazingly nice thing. In fact, the winter should be pretty good, all told.

Or so we hope.

January 06, 2004

Hello my friend, won't you tell me your name?

Do we really need a new incarnation of my journal?

It's a fair question. Yes, I certainly enjoyed writing in my full online journal before (from April 18, 1999 to June 4, 2001), but do I have more to say, now? And do I need to say it in the full Online Journal format? I mean, I do have a Livejournal, and don't keep that nearly up to date enough. Why add to my discontent by reviving something that hasn't been active for so long?

Why indeed.

The world is not the same place it was back in April of 1999. This is true both online and in real life. I shudder to think the moments of horror we have all had to endure in the last five years, and the systematic challenges to our way of life, to our essential freedoms, to our Constitution and to our community have come from bombers and terrorists and the highest officials in our own government. We have had ample reason to know fear and lose hope. And yet, we have as a people endured and moved on. We have remembered who we are and why we are, and fought back against both the assault on our nation and the assault on our Constitution.

In the last five years, online journals have also given rise to the phenomenon of Weblogging. Blogs and Livejournals are everywhere now. Everyone has them, it seems. Weblogging was considered the strategic key to Howard Dean's ascent to the front of the Democratic pack in the upcoming primary season. Wil Wheaton, TV's lovable Wesley Crusher, went from a mostly despised afterthought from the 80's and 90's incarnation of Star Trek to a mostly beloved fellow geek and traveller through life, thanks to the power of his blog. Iraqis blogged from the heart of Iraq during the war. Journalists blogged from the heart of the troops during the war. And tens of thousands of 19 year olds wail into the night in their Livejournals. The weblog has both come of age and supplanted the Online Journal utterly, and today Online Journalling of any stripe is not seen as revolutionary or even exhibitionist, but average and normal. It's a part of what folks do when they're online. A part of who they are.

So why should I pick my own journal back up? It's nigh impossible that I'll get the thousands of daily readers I once had back -- there's plenty for them to read out there now, and a substantial portion of it is written by hot young things who like to post pictures of themselves in ragged clothing. How does a fat guy in New Hampshire compete with that?

And does he have to?

I'm reminded of an entry I wrote on April 18, 2000. It was the one year anniversary of Some Days in the Life, and I was waxing philosophical. And I reminisced about all that had happened in the previous year... and how much of it I would never have thought about again without a journal like this one to follow. As I said then:

Without this journal, I'd think back over the past year and, but for my Cardiomyopathy, I'd figured very little has changed. With this journal, I realize everything has changed. The changes are all right here, in electrons and HTML.

That remains true. The last few years are more of a haze, even with Livejournal entries to follow. And the Livejournal isn't nearly as good for essay writing as a true journal is. Livejournal entries are more immediate, somehow. More focused. Less objective. No matter how personal a journal entry is, it seems somehow less like short correspondence and more like serious writing. Like something someone does to actually produce instead of just to ramble.

That means something. That feels good.

The tools are almost entirely different, now. In the old days of journalling, we created and worked on websites and built each new journal page by hand. These days, I'm driving creation with Movable Type, which does all the crosslinking. And I've got an RSS feed for Livejournal, so folks can see when I write new entries. It's all very automatic and magical now. I suppose that makes me a little sad. There is something to be said for handcrafting, even when the hands are really just typing. Mostly, it's more convenient, and that's a very good thing.

So, maybe it's time for a whole new volume of this journal. Maybe it's time to go back to basics. After all, I didn't start this with the idea of getting much of an audience, last time. As I said in my original 'first post:'

It started with Bill Dickson. Bill's a friend of mine from my Relay days (ah, Relay, we hardly knew ye), my days in Ithaca, New York and my days in Seattle. Bill has an online journal which gets addicting to read. There are two reactions to something like this. One is to anxiously await his next entry and follow his links to other journals to ease the pain. I suspect this is what people who aren't colossally arrogant do.

The other is to start your own. Which is what people who don't meet the above requirement do. Guess which camp I'm in.

Arrogance is a part of writing. It's a big part, actually. It's that part that says "I am so good at this that you will want to read it because I'm good enough for that. It's like that in poetry, especially. There are three types of poet in the world. Two are poseurs, and one is a poet. They break down like this:

Poseur sub A: A poet who truly believes that his tortured soul can't withstand the pain any longer. He needs to express himself. So he writes poetry. Reams of it. Enough poetry to make Sir Philip Sydney take up plumbing as a profession. And he never shows it to anyone -- it's too personal. It's too intense. It would be like a woman unbuttoning her blouse on the bus -- most women don't want you to know she's wearing a wonderbra. This is fortunate, as most Poseur sub A's poetry is extended masturbation where they didn't have the decency to clean up after themselves.

Poseur sub B: The Artiste. They talk about poetry. A lot. They talk about the specialized, internal, highly personal world of the poetry. They often wear tweed and smoke pipes or clove cigarettes. Notable because they haven't actually written more than three lines of poetry. In it for the lifestyle and in the hopes they'll get groupies.

Poet: Irritating fellow who writes poetry and then tries to force you to read it. These are the folks who go to poetry slams and scream out "shut the fuck up!" at the top of their lungs to try to get you to listen to their eight hundred line prose poem on breakfast. Carry chapbooks in the trunk of their car.

The third type -- the actual poet -- is arrogance personified. It extends into all media. The person who reads every newsgroup specifically to find idiots to flame because their idiots is a form of usenet artist, striving for a voice and recognition from someone. The person who writes fiction and leaves it under your windshield wiper for you to find coming out of the grocery store. The person who publishes an online journal. Arrogance and a belief that the things they say will be interesting to someone fuels them.

Without these people, we would only have Morality plays and Viking Sagas for entertainment, and those get repetitive after a while.

So, in summary, I'm writing this because I liked Bill's, and am arrogant enough to want to write one.

These are all still true. I still like Bill's Journal -- which, as intermittent as it is, is still being written all these years later, so Bill wins the prize. And I still believe in the artist who simply has to create, who simply has to say something, who simply has to be let it be known, because they're arrogant enough to think someone, someday will want to know it.

That's still me, five years later. I'm a lot more battered, and in a lot of ways more cynical, but in the end I still like Bill's journal, and I'm still arrogant enough to want to write one of my own.

I won't give up my Livejournal. It serves a wholly different function now -- it's the quick fix, the 'oh by the way,' the place where I bitch about Health Insurance bastards and point out online comics I think are funny. This journal's for something else. For something where I want to write for long periods of time. For when I have something to say that's more relevant than 'man I feel like shit.'

In short -- for when I want to get my Opinion on.

So. Here we are again. You and I. Hi there. It's been a while. My name is Eric. I'm a writer. I work as an I.T. Manager at a private school in New Hampshire. I have a cat, a car, health problems and a tendency to think.

Let's see what happens.