Category: Random Thoughts

A Brief History of My Typewriters (part 1)

Too Many Typewriters

Remington 5 typewriter

Remington 5 typewriter

For Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me a typewriter. Not just any typewriter, but an old one. I’ve been collecting these obsolescent hunks of metal for several years now, though my mania has tapered off quite a bit in the last year.

I love the look of classic typewriters, and the functionality. Most of them have been sitting ignored in attics for at least a couple of decades, and all they need is a new ribbon to start transferring words from my brain to a blank piece of paper. At least that’s true of the manuals–electrics are more temperamental, much like their computerized descendants. But if the power went out forever, those old manuals would keep spitting out the words with only a minimum of TLC.

Hideaway typewriter desk

Hideaway typewriter desk.

My Christmas gift from my wife was a desk with a hidden compartment for the typewriter. While digging through the closet to find a machine to test out the hideaway desk, I discovered a typewriter that I’d forgotten about buying. Clearly, I needed to do something with all of these things packed away in the closet. The downside of collecting typewriters is that they are too big to all stay on display. So I decided to take pictures of them, and write up a short description of how they came into my possession and why I give a damn.

During the point of my greatest interest, I joined two Yahoo groups: the portable typewriter forum and Typewriters, both of which are great resources for amateur typewriter repairers and aficionados. Based on the messages on those groups, I realize that I do not have that many typewriters for a collector. Relatively. My thirteen machines are a modest collection. But they are still about twelve too many for a sane person.

The End of a World

I began playing City of Heroes eight years ago, roped into it by a friend who was much better versed in the MMO-landscape, having started with Ultima Online. I remember watching him playing UO and marveling that he was chopping wood. Since then, I still refer to the mind-numbing aspects of crafting in MMOs as chopping wood.

City of Heroes didn’t have any wood chopping. In the early days, it was a pretty stripped-down MMO, in fact. You were a super-hero beating up bad guys from the very start. Even if they were hoodlums hanging out in crate-filled warehouses (and my god there were a lot of warehouses), at least you didn’t start out by killing rats. You could also create your own costume, without being tied down to whatever crappy gear fell off the rats you were slaughtering. So from the start, you could have an avatar that looked like a hero (or later villain) from their creation. Another groundbreaking technology that came a little later was the ability to team up with your friends, no matter what level they were, so you didn’t have to worry too much about getting ahead or getting behind. This is something that seems so obvious, yet is still missing from most MMOs.

I wasted a lot of time on that game. I could have written at least a couple of novels in the time I spent traipsing around virtual warehouses.

But there were a lot of good times. Perhaps because it was my first MMO, it was a fictional world that felt a lot more real to me than Azeroth or the other fantasy lands I’ve sampled. Though I thought the forums were bad when I was a noob, they look like tea with the Queen compared to the cesspit of the WoW forums. Perhaps most important: It was a great way to share time and a hobby with an old friend (we’re both very old!) who has moved farther and farther away over the years.

Tomorrow, NCSoft is turning off the servers. In the flicker of electricity, a world will die.

I suppose it’s naive to think that something will always be there, especially something as ephemeral as a video game, but it sneaks up on you. I had begun to take it for granted. After many hundreds of hours playing it over the years, I didn’t plan on getting sucked in for any great length again. But I knew it would be around. I could log in and fly around Paragon City for a while, then go back to the real world.

Not anymore. Paragon City will cease to exist tomorrow night. It will leave behind remnants in old YouTube videos and dusty unused wikis. But no capes will flap anymore in its virtual skies.

There are some chances that it will return from the grave. But a true resurrection seems nigh impossible. Most likely, it will be a shambling corpse that will make me miss the real thing all the more.

It may not seem terribly important in this bustling world of fiscal cliffs and foreign conflicts, but for eight years a mostly gracious community formed around a game about being a hero. There are worse things.

So if you think about it this weekend, raise a glass in remembrance of the quiet death of a world.

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Tweet if you’re not a spambot

In the past few months, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from Twitter. The subject line even claimed that John Scalzi had tweets for me! I thought, “Holy crap! What have I done that Scalzi tweeted about me? Hopefully, I haven’t shown my ass on the internet.” No, indeed, he did not tweet me or about me, or even in my general direction. The e-mail was simply to inform me that people I follow have tweeted.

Seriously, Twitter?

I guess Twitter is trying to get a few more real people to use their service. I know that I have a few fake followers. And if I ever want some more, I know where to get them. Pretty cheap, even.

Still haven’t figured out what Twitter is for, or how to fit it into my life. A blog is where I can put down lengthy thoughts much like an offline journal, only with the potential for invisible eyes to peer over my shoulder and maybe even whisper in my ear. Facebook is where I can be bombarded into apathy by political messages (more on that in another post perhaps) and keep up a casual relationship with a large number of the people I know or have known.

But Twitter? It’s pretty good for short jokes or quips. It serves up a link salad from multiple sources which is terribly ugly in its native format. Flipboard does help with that.

That’s all I’ve got. Should I give it another chance? Maybe twitter-out for about a week and actually follow it multiple times a day like I do with Facebook (which I honestly gotta cut back on, but that’s the other potential post I was referring to, so maybe later). Several SF authors I like seem to thrive on Twitter, the aforementioned Scalzi and Neil Gaiman ferinstance, but I feel like a Luddite railing against the tyranny of 140 characters.

Am I getting old, or am I right that Twitter is undercooked? Robert, did you ever learn to love the Twitter?

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It failed. (More Babylon 5)

Judging from my site stats, I was about the only one to read my last two posts about Babylon 5. I hadn’t planned on writing about subsequent seasons because of that. But I just can’t resist, even if it’s only for my own benefit.

As a reminder to anyone reading this, SPOILERS ahead. And if you haven’t watched my favorite show in the universe, it’s online for your viewing pleasure. Or it used to be. Only first season and a few episodes from second, now. Damn, the best episodes are gone from everywhere online. You can still get the DVDs, of course.

Anyway, I’m going to try to keep it short and sweet. Relatively, anyway.

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Nothing’s the Same Anymore (Babylon 5 Season 1)

And now, after being overly negative about season one of Babylon 5, here’s my mostly positive wrap-up of my re-watch experience. Hopefully, I can explain why I felt in 1994 that B5 would have been a great achievement at that point even if it had gotten canceled after the first season.

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And So It Begins (Babylon 5 Season 1)

I haven’t had a B5 marathon in something like 8 or 9 years. The last one was during the process of indoctrinating my wife in the geek ways. We started with Star Wars and then an introduction to the Whedonverse with Buffy. Once I had her softened up, I figured it was time for my second favorite thing in the universe (show reference!), and we embarked on a tour of Epsilon 3 and environs. At this far remove, I honestly can’t remember if we watched all of first season or not. I know that we ended with the dramatic finale of fourth season and never finished out the series. I probably haven’t seen the disappointing fifth season since it aired, so I’m hoping to revisit it with fresh eyes and to discover it’s better than its reputation.

So it is time. After struggling through Deep Space 9 last year, I’d been yearning for another look at the real thing. Then this series of weekly reviews of a re-watch popped up on the A.V. Club, giving me the last little nudge.

But before I tear into first season, let me just warn the virgins out there: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. It’s a show that’s nearly 20 years old, so I don’t feel bad for you. Well, I do feel bad for you actually. So I’m going to give you two pieces of advice. 1. Watch the damn show. 2. Skip the first season. Slight caveat to # 2 — the first season episodes “Midnight on the Firing Line”, “Signs and Portents”, and “Chrysalis” will give you a lot of backstory for the buck and are rather good.

So if you haven’t seen Babylon 5 before, go here right now and watch it.

And so it begins.

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Feces, Meet Fan

A couple of weeks ago, Frontline kept me up late when I got sucked into their four-part expose on the 2008 financial meltdown, Money, Power, and Wall Street. As always for Frontline, it was an incisive examination of the topic, revealing nuances that the mainstream press mostly overlooked. And it doesn’t appear that anything substantial has been done to repair the damage. The government threw (and continues to throw) lots of money at the problem, while any teeth of reform have been filed down by lobbyists.

I, like most Americans, have my own life to live, and can’t obsess about how big money is corrupting our republic. I have moments of clarity like cold water being splashed on my face, then I bury my head in the sand again. (Which means the sand is going to stick to my wet face. How’s that for mixed metaphors?)

Then my wife and I were talking about generational differences last night, started by a seminar a week ago by a rather good presenter speaking about the challenges of teaching to the Millennials/Generation Y/whatever the hell they end up being called. I had a few quibbles with his generational divides, based mostly on my reading of The Fourth Turning many moons ago. Which got me wondering how Strauss & Howe viewed current events, and if they thought things were lining up for the Crisis period that they had predicted.

Neil Howe believes that the Fourth Turning began with the 2008 financial crisis. Makes sense to me.

A comment on that post led me to a blog called the Burning Platform, where the proprietor has written up a very long analysis of the current Crisis in three parts, entitled You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. His politics appear to be a bit askew (from mine [though so are Neil Howe’s]), with a dash of conspiracy theory thrown in, but the vast majority of his points appear sound to me. (Just, for God’s sake, don’t read the comments! 9/11 nuts, crazy fundies of all stripes, and New World Order gold-standard bearers, oh my!)

I’m fairly convinced that the chickens are going to come home to roost over the deregulated banking industry sometime in the next eighteen months. Perhaps appreciably sooner. The news about JP Morgan Chase underscores that these banks are still engaging in risky behavior and are too big and too dumb to stop it. Perhaps when the debt ceiling looms again later this year it will be the breakdown that leads an authority figure (presumably the President) to step forward and take extraordinary measures. I know that it’s cliche to bring up the Nazi’s in totalitarian rhetoric, but I hope that whichever President has the reins then is not a Hitler, or a Caesar crossing the Rubicon, but an FDR, a Lincoln, or dare we hope, one(s) who has(have) the mettle and foresight of the Founders. I worry how Obama will perform in such a crucible, but perhaps the last four years have given him the on-the-job training. Romney thrown into such a crisis I suspect would be an unmitigated disaster, but he has been such a cipher to this point that it’s near impossible to judge what his true leadership would be under extreme pressure.

Being a (more or less) liberal, I think Obama’s stated values (some of which have been compromised over his first term) would be better for the continued health of the country, post-Crisis. But perhaps it will not be this President who will be the great leader who will save us or destroy us during the Crisis, but the next one. After all, we’re probably in this thing for 10-15 more years.

I would like for this to all be conspiracy theory, but historical cycles are clearly real, and the timing looks too convincing to ignore. Must not stick head back in sand…

The good news (assuming Strauss & Howe’s cycles are correct) is that now is the time when we can achieve great solutions to the conflicts of our day and forge a new, better consensus. But no one says it’s going to be easy.

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Facebook, it’s not you, it’s me. No, really, it’s you.

I think I need a break from Facebook. Hell, I think I need to stop using it entirely. Maybe limited to promotion, if that ever becomes a thing (that works).

“People are stupid.” It’s the mantra of a close friend, and I’d be better served by using it as preventative wisdom rather than disgruntled venom after the fact. I know that people have different opinions and we grow by discussing them and blah blah blah. This is the freaking internet. I’ve been here for over fifteen years. You’d think I’d know what it’s like out there by now. Facebook is like AOL ten years ago. Not your first destination for high-minded discussions.

Le sigh.

I’m too weak to go cold turkey. But I’ve got a new (spring? May Day?) resolution. Stop engaging in political discussions on Facebook. Just stop it. People are talking but nobody’s listening. It’s like the stereotypical family Thanksgiving dinner.

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Gimme some of that new time religion

Sometimes I want to found my own religion, but then I remember L. Ron Hubbard. And Joseph Smith. Apparently, you can’t found a modern religion without being cynical or a crackpot.

See, I’ve been reading about Buddhism. Not just recently, but over the past fifteen-plus years since I took a course in college. There’s a lot of kooky stuff in there, like in all religions: karma and reincarnation and celestial Buddhas and magic and demons. But it’s also a religion that meshes fairly well with the secular, scientific modern world. At its core, Buddhism is an agnostic religion, at least when it comes to gods, and its tenet of mindfulness is close to the scientific ideal of observation.

I’ve said a lot over the years that if I were forced to pick a religion, it would be Buddhism. But several things have increasingly bothered me about it in recent years. An old Slate article by John Horgan that I just came across explores some of those conundrums. I could quibble with a lot of his statements, or at least rhetoric. (For instance, saying that karma and reincarnation “imply the existence of some cosmic judge who, like Santa Claus, tallies up our naughtiness and niceness” seems to fundamentally misunderstand the metaphorical process of karma. Might as well say that the processes of genetic variance and natural selection imply some god-like guiding hand to raise some deserving species to dominance and condemn others to extinction. In the case of both evolution and karma, the key difference from theistic religion is that there is no Santa Claus.)

But as you see, this quickly devolves into theology. That just leads to doctrinal schism and different denominations and to one side calling themselves the High Road and the other side the Low Road.

It’s actually his conclusion that dovetails with the topic that’s been on my mind for many years:

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d’être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science’s disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Argh. Again, I quibble with his word choice. “Incidental, accidental, happenstance.” They imply the religious disappointment of a lapsed Catholic asking about the meaning of life. It’s a non-sequitur. Only we create meaning. It does not exist without consciousness. And contrary to our self-importance, there is no evidence that the universe would be any the less without our meaning. “What is the meaning of an apple? Of dirt? Of pavement?” Nothing is incidental, accidental, or happenstance. Everything simply is.

(“Is” demonstrates the insufficiency of English when attempting to capture these notions that are at odds with the some-odd millennia of Western thought. “Is” implies stasis. Essence. The sine qua non of a subject. But what I mean is that, “Everything simply dances. Everything simply changes. Everything simply moves invisibly. Everything simply does what it must do.” That’s a lot of freight for a single word, and “is” doesn’t really carry it well, but we’re stuck with it for now.)

But I digress…

Horgan hits the nail on the head with his last line. Can any form of spirituality be compatible with the scientific method? I sure hope so, because the uncertainty of science is not compatible with the human brain. People seem to need the certainty of religion, or at least the comfort of religious practice. And while science as an abstract, devoid of the personalities that fuel its progress, seeks truth, something in the human mind craves certainty. Buddhism appears to be the only religion that attempts to make peace with the uncertainty of the universe (multiverse?) and of human existence within that often unfathomable emptiness that contains everything.

Yet Buddhism has thousands of years of often unwieldy baggage, so perhaps it is not the answer for modern suffering/ennui/existential doubt/uncertainty. Hence, I wish I could start a new religion, one with no god and one that made people comfortable with the perpetual disproof of the scientific method. I’m uncomfortable with some atheists who seem to deify science and make it into Science with the same sort of unassailable Truths that they decry in religion. Humans need some sort of spirituality that can embrace both the intuition of religious/creative experience and the reason of the scientific method. Without it, I’m afraid that the religious meme, which has been such a powerful thought virus throughout human history, will wipe out the brief flowering of scientific enlightenment that we take for granted today.

Unfortunately, I think I’d be a pretty shitty prophet, so I hope someone else is up to the task. And I hope they’re not a nutjob, fraud, crackpot, or thief. And that the high priests who inherit the new religion aren’t power-mad, duplicitous dicks.

What are the odds? History suggests nil.

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Alan Moore is a whiny baby

Apparently, Joe Straczynski is upset.

The so-called blogosphere, comics section, has been calling out JMS on something he said on a panel at C2E2. From his FB post, he said, quote, “Did Alan Moore get a crummy contract? Yes. So has everyone at this table. Worse was Siegal and Shuster. Worse was a lot of people.” He goes on in his FB post to describe comments by Eric Stephenson, one of the heads of Image Comics, to the effect that JMS is saying that creative types should just accept that the world isn’t fair and should just accept it.

And JMS refutes that at some length, saying that what he meant was that all writers, artists, etc, have to work their way up through the business, starting out with crappy contracts (“get screwed”) and working their way up to better contracts as their clout grows (and as they prove they are better artists).

I haven’t read any of the internet kerfuffle that started this, I’ve only read JMS’ post on Facebook, so I don’t really know what anybody else is saying. With that caveat, I still think this brings up some interesting issues around Alan Moore and Watchmen.

First, going solely on JMS’ quote of himself, it didn’t sound like he was saying what he now claims he was saying. What it sounds like he is saying is, Alan Moore is a whiny baby. Frankly, it sounds like that even more now that he’s clarified his comment. He doesn’t deny that Moore got screwed in his Watchmen contract; he just claims that’s par for the course. The proper response for Moore would have been to use his new clout as the creator of Watchmen to get better terms for his next contract. Hell, DC even went to him several years ago and tried to give him better terms if he would agree to sequels and prequels, and he rejected the offer.

JMS seems to be saying that Moore needs to grow up and work within the system. After all, the comics’ publishing world is a lot fairer than in the days when Siegal and Shuster lost all their rights to Superman and were forced to work such jobs as janitor while DC made millions.

But wait… Siegal and Shuster got screwed, and then they never got a better contract. So if that’s what JMS meant, then his explanation doesn’t track.

I think it’s much more likely that JMS is upset that Alan Moore not only disapproves of the Before Watchmen prequels, but calls them “completely shameless.” It’s even possible that JMS is hurt, as he considers Moore to have written one of his favorite comic stories, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” I know I would be. If I had the opportunity to write a story in the Watchmen universe and its creator said that he only “wanted this not to happen,” I’d feel pretty shitty about it, too. And it might make me angry.

And if I was being constantly asked why I would work on Before Watchmen when Alan Moore got screwed by DC in the 80s, and I myself had been screwed multiple times by Warner Brothers (ironically, the current owner of DC) over the widely-praised TV series Babylon 5? Yeah, I can see how JMS might be fed up.

Thing is, JMS and Moore have different personalities. (Shocking, I know!) JMS seems more or less like a regular guy. Sure, he’s a sci-fi geek, but he works hard and plays within the system, and when he sees something that needs to be changed, he will fight for it, again, within the system. Alan Moore, on the other hand, is a wizard and a magician. I don’t mean that figuratively, either. When he broke with DC in the late 80s, he didn’t go across town to Marvel, instead, he started his own ill-fated publishing company.

If JMS is annoyed over the Before Watchmen blowback, Moore must be seething. An archly amused seethe, perhaps. He seems to want to put Watchmen behind him. DC never gives in to his demands until years later, and by then he doesn’t care anymore. He apparently left Swamp Thing not only over contracts, but also over the Mature Readers label. Money doesn’t seem to be much of a motivator for Moore; in fact, just the opposite–he’s refused money for any of the recent movie adaptations of his work. I think he wants respect on his own terms, and I think he hates corporate motives (for good or ill).

It comes as no surprise to me that JMS welcomes the chance to play in the Watchmen sandbox and that Moore proclaims a pox on all their houses. JMS is a craftsman and Moore is an artiste.

Funnily enough, I love them both. Watchmen is my favorite comic and Babylon 5 my favorite TV show.

And lastly, should Before Watchmen even exist?

Sure, why not? A large chunk of Alan Moore’s oeuvre is a mash-up of his prior influences. Lost Girls and A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are re-imaginings of their Victorian source material. (And if there is ever a movie that Moore should be angry about…) Watchmen itself is at heart a realist examination of typical super-hero myth. So, absolutely, other creators should take a shot at Watchmen.

But will it be good?

Only time will tell, but the first reports aren’t promising. Unfortunately, the writers and artists seem to be sticking somewhat slavishly to the source material. What’s likely to come from a fannish “expansion” of Watchmen is lukewarm, watered-down gruel. To do it justice, a new Watchmen should almost be a re-telling. A new staging of Hamlet can shed new light on the play, but I don’t think anyone is clamoring for the details on the early reign of Hamlet’s father. I suppose what I mean is that a new piece of the Watchmen myth, if it is to be worthy of the original, needs to be audacious rather than reverential.

I don’t know who is up to that task…

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