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The Dangers of Geek Chic

Shot: “Man is probably not a machine, but he behaves as such in a situation where the machines impose his operating rules. Indeed, the progress of technology should not be understood as necessarily being the progress of mankind: far from it, they are not accompanied by a progress of thought, reflection and responsibility, since they eliminate their intervention and even often make them impossible.”

Chaser: “It is possible to handle the difficult truths of being alive in the twenty-first century, to sublimate existential pain in the service of something higher. But first, one must be fully in the real world and not be distracted by the escapist spectacle of…geeky elites.”

Quote of the Day

“I believe that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of [man’s] puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

William Faulkner

The Truth Is Out There

Disappointing news from Congress’s first public hearing on unidentified flying objects since 1966: While UFOs (or, rather, UAP, for unidentified aerial phenomena) “could pose a threat to national security,” investigators “found no evidence of aliens.”

Bob Lazar would like a word.

As for the frequency of sightings lately, well…the government has an explanation for that, too. It’s nothing more than “the increased presence of commercial drones near military sites and better sensor equipment detecting debris, such as mylar balloons, in military airspace.”

Balloons, huh? Please. It’s like they’re not even trying.

Things I Wish I’d Written, Part 3,481

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

I am staring at about a dozen, stiff, eight-foot high, orange-red penises, carved from living bedrock, and semi-enclosed in an open chamber. A strange carved head (of a man, a demon, a priest, a God?), also hewn from the living rock, gazes at the phallic totems – like a primitivist gargoyle. The expression of the stone head is doleful, to the point of grimacing, as if he, or she, or it, disapproves of all this: of everything being stripped naked under the heavens, and revealed to the world for the first time in 130 centuries.

That’s Sean Thomas, and it’s from his remarkable article about “what might just be the greatest archaeological revelation in the history of humankind.”

Waxing Pedantic

So what’s the story with backstory? Though I’ve never particularly liked the word—bit on the redundant side, isn’t it?—I’m fine with its (occasional) usage as long as it’s employed correctly. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

backstory (noun) a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film)

And here’s Dictionary.com:

backstory (noun) a narrative providing a history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series

Pretty clear, yeah? Dumb and unnecessary, but clear.

And yet here’s Colin Nagy writing about the recent prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S.: “We’ll never know the true backstory behind these cases. But it is interesting to see the commonality: Russia snapping up American citizens with a convenient military background on trumped-up charges, and holding them as political chits.”

“Backstory behind”? That there’s straight from the Department of Redundancies Department. If a backstory is a narrative that provides background context, then you don’t need to add behind. It’s the very definition of the word. Not to mention that these are real-life events, not works of fiction.

This is the problem with neologisms (the first known use of backstory dates to 1982): Once they’ve wormed their way into the lexicon, it’s not long before they’re everywhere. I mean, a cliché is one thing, but a cliché where it doesn’t even belong? Maddening—especially since the fix is so easy: “the true stories behind these cases.” (Note the switch from the singular backstory to the plural stories. There are plural cases; therefore there are plural stories.)

Why does any of this matter? Because, as John Boyle O’Reilly said at the opening address of the Papyrus Club’s inaugural ladies’ night, “the right word fitly spoken is a precious rarity.”

How to Write Good

The inestimable Matt Labash has some advice for all you would-be writers out there.

“Read more than you write,” he admonishes. “It’s your duty, as a writer—any kind of writer—to always keep filling your tank. And you can’t just do that by huffing your own fumes.”

Sound familiar? Yeah, we’ve covered that already.

“All writing should feel like music,” says Labash. “It’s all about beats, and determining whether your sentences need an extra beat, or have one too many. The ear often knows what the mind doesn’t. So don’t just edit or read your pieces. Listen to them.”

Hmmm. Been there also.

“It’s better to write than to think too much about writing, or to hang out with those who talk it to death. Nothing can kill creativity faster than comparing notes with others.”

Yup, you guessed it.

So. Either Matt Labash is lazily stealing my material (I kid! I kid!) or these are universal truths that bear repeating from time to time, if only because they’re just not taught anymore—if they ever were. So do yourself a favor and read the whole piece. He’s a lot better at this than I am, so you might actually learn something.

Miscellany

Birthday-shopping for a child you hate? The Department of Homeland Security has you covered.

“Institutions like the Ivies,” writes B.D. McClay, “are not meant to make or house Kants or Wittgensteins, let alone Platos, anymore than the Iowa Writers’ Workshop aims to make Tolstoys. They are meant to make survivors—of the careerist type.”

The world keeps getting more interesting.

Speaking of interesting, if you’ve ever wondered how a mechanical watch works, well…wonder no more. (And speaking of watches, check this out.)

Jimmy Carter’s grandson is “unlocking the mysteries” of the White House’s “weirdly hip record collection.” I mean, how can you not read on?

When a Tree Falls in the Forest

Over at Smithsonian magazine, Ellen Ruppel Shell waxes eloquently about The Tree—a 500-year-old, 100-foot-tall mahogany salvaged from a remote forest in Belize some 40 years ago. Several luthiers have built guitars out of its timber, and those instruments start at around $30,000.

Is it worth it? Some people seem to think so:

Saul “Slash” Hudson, best known as lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, owns more than 230 guitars, including priceless vintage models. Still, when he first tried a guitar made from The Tree, he was floored—the sound surpassed anything he’d heard before. “When I picked it up, I was completely humbled,” Slash told a reporter in 2016, and confirmed recently through a personal email. “It was a shock-and-awe moment. It changed everything I’d ever thought about acoustic guitars.”

I’ve got a birthday coming up next month, so y’all know what to do.

Going Down the Rabbit Hole-in-One

Apparently, hole-in-one insurance is a thing. As is insuring prizes for all manner of promotional events, like, say, guessing the exact weight of a giant pumpkin, or winning a rubber duck race. Or, um, taking first prize in “cow chip bingo.”

Turns out that hole-in-one insurance arose from the custom in which the golfer who scored the ace was expected to buy drinks for everyone in the clubhouse. Because that can get expensive – and because this is America – “an industry sprouted up to protect these golfers.” Under an insurance model that dates back to at least 1933, golfers paid a nominal annual fee to cover the bar tab in the event they got lucky.

But here’s where it gets weird – for me, anyway: “Though the concept largely faded away in the U.S., it became a big business in Japan, where golfers who landed a hole-in-one were expected to throw parties ‘comparable to a small wedding,’ including live music, food, drinks, and commemorative tree plantings.”

A commemorative tree planting? At a wedding? So that’s a thing, too?

Like usual, I’m way behind the times here. (There are even scripts!) According to brides.comwhere else? – “planting a tree to celebrate a new marriage is an ancient unity ceremony recognized in many cultures throughout the world.” But then, they also point out that it’s “an eco-conscious practice that catches the eye of modern-day partners looking for a fresh twist on more traditional wedding ceremonies,” so, grain of salt and all that.

But that brings me back to the insurance story. Apparently, if something falls within just one of three categories of risk – mathematical (like coin-flipping), skills-based (the aforementioned hole-in-one), or odds-based (sporting events) – it’s insurable. But a marriage is both skills- and odds-based; heck, if you accept the argument that everyone has a soul mate, it’s also mathematical.

So if we could come up with an algorithm based on the relative skills of the bride and groom, the chances you’ll find your one sweetie among 7.9 billion contenders, and the 1/1 odds the marriage will fail regardless, we could come up with a premium – one that would cover not only the legal fees, but also the cost to dig up the tree you foolishly planted.

Wait. I just realized that a prenup is basically just marriage insurance. Never mind.

Autre temps, autres moeurs.

There are two reasons to post a link to this story. First, €2.6 million is a cracking bargain. Second, if you’re not familiar with Hergé’s Tintin series, well…what are you even doing with your life?

Make that three reasons: It’s after 5:00, I’ve been working on a single mind-numbing project all day long, I promised regularly scheduled programming this week, and I need to go home.

So there you have it.

And…We’re Back

It’s been a minute, as the kids say.

I thought it might be a good idea to not post anything during the week before Easter. That’s Holy Week* for a lot of folks, after all, and the dreck I write feels a bit…well, if not exactly blasphemous, unedifying at the very least.

As for the week following, I have no excuse, other than a rather large project that consumed most of my time.

Then this morning Shirlee says to me (and here I’m paraphrasing somewhat): “Dude. Get off your arse and blog about something.”

So here we are. Let’s lead with what Robin Sloan has to say about the Twitter situation.

How about the rise, fall, and rise again of polyester?

You fellow Spokanites weren’t wrong about this spring being colder than normal. But don’t complain. It could be worse.

Our next weapon in the fight against superbugs? Honey.

And finally, 1,100-year-old graffiti.

There. That should keep y’all busy until next week, when we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

*The missus and I attended Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter morning services, so we’re probably holier than you.

BREAKING NEWS

Ordinarily, I don’t post anything on Fridays. But my source in Cambodia just sent my this story, which, for men of a certain age (i.e., me), is, if not exactly the fulfillment of prophecy, at the very least a nod to the ne plus ultra of 1980s filmmaking.

Yes, I saw it in the theater. And yes, it was glorious.

Musings of a Wannabe

“Good writers make you want to read,” writes Matt Labash, “but great writers make you want to write. To ride the whirlwind, pin it down, then to try and make some sense of it. They can make you want to do what they do, or to die trying and failing.”

It’s true. But is that a good thing? Back in my misspent youth, for instance, I worked (with only a modicum of success) as a professional musician. And I blame everyone I saw live—Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, the Grateful Dead, Mike Stern, Dizzy Gillespie, Michael Hedges, Chick Corea…hell, even the Philadelphia Orchestra—for making me think I could do what they do. Because ultimately, unless you’re really, really good, disappointment awaits. (There’s a joke we used to tell: What’s the difference between a Spokane jazz musician and an extra-large pizza? An extra-large pizza can actually feed a family of four.)

It’s the same with writing: Every time I read Marilynn Robinson or Thomas Merton or Christian Wiman I’m reminded how much I suck and how little I know. And that my grasp of our language is tenuous at best.

The only real difference, I suppose, is that I’ve managed to make a living as a writer. Maybe it’s a function of the marketplace—after all, do we really need another jazz musician?—or maybe it’s because that’s what I should have been doing all along.

“I was just blouse…browsing.”

Not sure about the somewhat, um…provocative photo accompanying this story, but there’s a lot of truth in what John Sturgis says. Browsing in a book or record store is so much more rewarding than ordering exactly what you want whenever you want it.

“So much time in one’s cultural life before the digital revolution,” he writes, “was spent physically flipping through things: racks of records, CDs, VHS cassettes, DVDs and books. And the very act of doing that would set mental hares running: you’d come away with the fresh desire to watch or listen or read something new. Or something old.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love how just a few taps on my phone will result in an obscure, out-of-print, or just plain hard-to-find book or album landing in my mailbox days later. But I’m not discovering anything in the process. There are no surprises; no “cultural detours” along the way.

Not too long ago, in fact, I was browsing at Go! Records up on Garland, searching for 70s and 80s ECM titles to add to my collection, and walked out with Silver Apples’ debut album and the Electric Prunes’ Release of an Oath—neither of which was even on my radar. And it was glorious.

I know, I know. There’s a distinct “back in my day” vibe to this post. But I really do think we’ve lost something in the mad dash toward the future.

Miscellany

Electronic Beowulf? For reals??? Guess my weekend’s settled, then. In the meantime, I’ll be re-reading Maryann Corbett’s masterful take on translation in the third millennium.

Friendly reminder: It’s “moot point,” not “mute point.”

“A robot made of magnetic slime with a custard-like consistency can navigate narrow passages, grasp objects and fix broken circuits. It could be deployed inside the body to perform tasks such as retrieving objects swallowed by accident.” Check it:

This steaming pile of techno-horror was six years in development. Six years! Quick: What are the odds it makes it to production—and is actually worn by a real human?

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