GoOgle glAss–Look Where You’re Going, Masses

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By Shawn StJean

Ah, maybe I’m just paranoid.  Hell, it’s not like Star Trek has EVER successfully predicted future technology run amok before {cough, cough cell phones, body scanners, lasers, cough, cough}. . .

So jack in, and Go Ogle  in public today (ogle Dutch,  frequentative (oogen  to make eyes at, derivative of oogeye (compare Low German oegeln, German äugeln )  : To look impertinently or stare in an inappropriate manner at something or someone

But be careful where you point that thing: or don’t be surprised when a POV-video of you getting your lights punched out turns up on YouTube.

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Indie Authors Defiant: What Are We, and Why, and Who Wants to Know?

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By Shawn StJean

In part this post is a response to my friend Emily McDaid’s ruminations awhile back, Why Do We Do it?, http://emilymcdaid.com/blog/12/why-do-we-do-it and to anyone feeling a similar crisis of spirit over your chosen, unremunerative path.

I’ve been teaching English for 22 years, and every Autumn I find myself reviewing whether I think it’s still worth it–okay, so I’m a bit early–it’s been a tough year. 

My best students are often the most concerned about their grades.  I always tell them, “Do your best, and the grades will take care of themselves.” To me (who was a college student myself for 10 years,) this referring them to a higher standard seems so clear.  But from the undergraduate perspective, and given the pressures and competition of the job market out there, I can empathize with their concern. 

Now, as an Indie author, try this one on for size: “Do your best, and the sales and reviews will take care of themselves.”  Seems hard to swallow, right?  Yeah–now we can really feel my undergrads’ point-of-view. 

‘Cuz writing is no more about making money than going to college is about grades.  College is about learning, making friends, drinking too much, sleeping in the wrong bed, finding out excuses won’t work anymore, doing your own laundry, not eating right, throwing a frisbee, flirting, and. . .learning.  Writing is all of that, too, and more (I’m fairly certain they still offer courses in writing, so it’s no coincidence.) 

Writers have a higher standard to uphold, and that makes us a bit freakish.  The Amazon reviews will be unfair, the good ones mysteriously vanish, sales slump or never start, favors go unreturned, the blog doesn’t get enough hits, it never ends, and it’s all so much damn work. 

You aren’t writing for fame and fortune.  You aren’t.  If those things are in the cards for you, they’ll come like the pot that boils, unwatched (I love to mix metaphors.  Take that, corporate editors!)  You’re doing it for a dual-higher purpose.  One: You’re doing your mite to keep literacy alive on our small planet.  Once we lose it–the ability to communicate at a level above the blurb, to ponder our purpose in words, to think in other than cliches, to access the records of our own fitful past, to force those dormant neurons to fire into life so that our heads actually hurt from the brain growing, a useful pain very few human activities can produce–once we lose those, we’ve lost civilization.  And we don’t want to find out what replaces it–worse, we don’t want our children to find it out for us. 

Purpose Number Two:  You’re writing because you are a freak.  Somehow the latent and preposterous belief that everyone possesses–that, deep down, you really are special, a unique if garbled snowflake–is actually true.  Why else would you pursue such a pathetic risk-vs.-reward-ratio, against all the common sense that pushes most of the human race to their toolboxes, spreadsheets, trucks, plows, cubicles, and secure paychecks, every day?  Face it: you’re a mutant, an X-Man.  There’s a screw loose. 

And you can think of your reward for reaching toward a higher standard this way: When there’s an errant nail sticking up above the hardwood floor, will the carpenter raise the entire floor to meet it?  What will he do?  That’s right–he’ll drive it down, to the level of all the other nails.  It better have a hard head.

But my feeling is, if they’re going to beat on your head anyway–and they will, ‘cuz everyone’s a nail–you might as well go down hard, and bend, or work your way out again, your best way. 

 As Thoreau once insisted, it’s not enough to be a philosopher, or even found a school and think better, if you can’t live according to your wisdom.  And if realizing that pursuing money is not going to improve your life, but will actually hinder your progress, isn’t one of the first steps in reaching a higher standard, then what in Hell is? (I paraphrase).  

To put it another way: 

If you’re a freak like me, Wave your flag 
If you’re a freak like me, Get off your ass 
It’s our time now, To let it all hang out 

So shout if you’re a freak like me, Don’t apologize 
They can’t hold you down, You were born to rise 
It’s our time now, to come out    -Halestorm

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How To Milk A Dragon: Jackson’s Desolation of Smaug Versus Tolkien’s Hobbit

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By Shawn StJean

About a year ago, I posted some cultural criticism comparing Peter Jackson’s adaptation to J. R. R. Tolkien’s source novel in the first part of his second film trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  My analysis arrived at the conclusion that the film, from the perspective of an American viewer at least, and despite its considerable achievement as escapist spectacle, does not merely drag out Tolkien’s book for more profit.  It fundamentally alters Tolkien’s children’s novel, in order to support a cultural endorsement of violence against “lesser beings,” and even subtextually endorses the War on Terror.

I’ve held off on writing up the second part for a month or so now, because this is not a review designed to evaluate the latest film, The Desolation of Smaug, for the purposes of recommending it to theatergoers.  Rather, this cultural analysis aims to interrogate some substantive departures Jackson makes from Tolkien, and to see where they, and the general tenor of the film, lead.

As long as he sticks close to Tolkien’s original material–and he often does–Jackson can’t produce too much to disturb the average thirteen-year-old (which is good, considering that millions of children below that age will have seen it by now, under the law.) The MPAA rating states: “Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.”  And what exactly is the nature of “fantasy action violence,” and how would a twelve-year-old define “fantasy”?  A ten year old?  Eight?  Given what follows, I’m not sure the film shouldn’t have been rated “R.”  But then again, how many ten-year olds received human-target-based Rated M video games this holiday season from their families?

The “Barrels Out of Bond” adaptation parallels, in Jacksonian idiom, the distended flight of the dwarves and Bilbo from the Orcs in “An Unexpected Journey.”  Adding the elves Legolas and Tauriel to the show, the same bashing of non-human skulls is enhanced by bow-and-arrow strikes to the head and face for several minutes, and at extreme close range, along with the usual decapitations and garden-variety impalings of orcs.  Combined with the spider scene earlier, one wonders what age children should be barred from viewing, for the sake of a peaceful night’s sleep.  The importation of Orlando Bloom’s character for the nearly sole purpose of killing, in various spectacular ways, seems an especially egregious alteration of Tolkien, given that children have no way to distinguish CGI-slaughter from the real concepts of battle and death.  Legolas even, unaccountably, turns his bow on his friend Tauriel at one point –in order to reinforce his dominance over the female 1, one supposes.

Bilbo, of course, Jackson turns into a swordsman as good at dispatching enemies as any of the dwarves–this is a particularly telling change from the novel, as viewers are meant to identify with the everyman protagonist.  I don’t mean to suggest that killing giant spiders (who would most certainly kill you, a la The Incredible Shrinking Man) is suggestive of violence against humans, though Jackson–in an otherwise brilliant cinematic device–allows Bilbo to hear English words from them, by putting on the ring.

The premise that Smaug could be turned into a Weapon of Mass Destruction by Sauron–who has yet to manifest himself as a threat–seems particularly resonant in this decade of government-fostered nuclear anxiety, both real and invented, the like of which has not been seen since the 1960s.  A common scholarly interpretation back then was that Tolkien’s LOTR, with a great alliance (elves, dwarves, hobbits, men) against an axis of evil (orcs, Sauron, Saruman) and vying for a weapon of power so great that it would corrupt anyone who used it, functioned as a political allegory for the WWII/Cold War period, with Tolkien implicitly arguing against the use or at least expansion of nukes, even as “deterrents.”2  In 2014, of course, the alliances have changed, but the principles remain the same: We have It only for good, but if They get It, only evil can result.

Such proactive thinking must underlie the role of the White Council.  Gandalf’s reconnaissance mission to the tomb of the future Lord of the Nazgul (at Galadriel’s prompting) leads him into a direct confrontation with the disembodied Sauron at Dol Guldor.  Knowing this for a trap, he nevertheless dismisses ally Radagast beforehand on a pointless errand.  This seems uncharacteristically hubristic of the wizard, who spends most of his time setting pieces on the board in defense of Middle Earth, not actively participating, and then mostly as a non-combatant advisor.  “We must force his hand,” before he regains his full strength, Gandalf insists to the Brown wizard.  Again, as in the first film, the implication that we had better heed the greater wisdom of those with power, and that power equals wisdom, shines through here.

Thus, some of Tolkien’s non-intellectual minor characters have, paradoxically, been tamed and de-powered by Jackson.  Bard, willing to bend the rules and smuggle the dwarves into Laketown, functions as the sole and ineffectual voice of reason against stirring up the dragon, contrary to both the mob and the corrupt government (cf. John Proctor in The Crucible, Brody in Jaws).  Even the sane shapeshifter Beorn, though he professes a dislike for dwarves because of their greed and androcentrism, admits to supporting their doomed errand solely because he hates orcs more.  We have to wonder if Jackson isn’t working at cross-purposes here, since these brief pauses for warning can’t possible compete with the epic splendor of violence that follows.

The Smaug chase sequence and climax of the film is, unfortunately, drawn out to a fatiguing degree.  Since western dragons are an archetypal symbol of greed, Tolkien appropriately pitted Thorin’s desire for the arkenstone against it.  Leaving Kili, Fili, and Ori behind because no individual can be allowed to jeopardize the quest (the CIA’s old “big picture” argument) proves that Thorin has been corrupted, just as the ring is corrupting Bilbo into lying.  But there is further irony in the fact that this run-away-from-the-fire-breathing-dragon business had to be convoluted to an effective 45 minutes of screen time in order to make the trilogy-formula work for the studio (read “ticket sales”.)  The dwarves are allowed to show some spontaneous ingenuity here, in navigating the mazes of the lonely mountain, Erebor.  That is good, since Jackson requires credible descendants of those who built such an underground city, just a generation previous.

The film continues Jackson’s tradition of amplifying violence, on every level: from the personal to the communal.  Bottom line, Tolkien’s songs and comical scenes (such as Gandalf’s incremental introduction of the dwarves to the gruff Beorn) have been replaced with extended chases and gratuitous killing (the wood-elf-King’s lying to and beheading of a captive orc jumps out as an example).  The sad thing is, this is no unique malady of Peter Jackson’s, but epidemic to our culture.  Are we really so addicted to profit–commercials in movie theaters, merchandise tie-ins, multiple releases on DVD and Blu-ray in extended editions–that we’re afraid to produce a simple children’s story that is appropriate for children?  Or are there darker forces at work here?

Notes

1. As important as I think it for young people to see strong female characters onscreen, Jackson’s introduction of she-elf Tauriel into an admittedly very male-centric narrative accomplishes nothing outside of the male-copy mode.  “You fought well today,” the wood-elf monarch deigns to appraise her, but, like Ophelia, she is immediately forbidden a romantic connection to a male above her station by an imposing father figure.  So with seemingly nothing else to do, she develops a romantic interest in “tall for a dwarf” Kili.  Both Tolkien’s and Jackson’s own handling of dutiful-but-secretly-rebellious daughters Eowyn, and Arwen, in LOTR, was far superior to this obligatory and disappointing character abuse.

2.  Tolkien famously rejected the interpretation of political subtext–as all allegorists inevitably do.  Allegory by design insulates the artist from charges of subversion.

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Cell Walls. . .Or, Can You Look Me in the Eye?

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By Shawn StJean

Much has been lamented, by cultural critics, concerning the unintended side effects of 21st-century technology.  Lately, I’ve begun to notice just how alienating the cellular telephones of friends, students, and just about anybody one engages in conversation can be.  Not only are the manifold apps and services that the newest handheld screens bring to light every day, literally held in the hands of some, while others watch–thus unwittingly flaunting a “tech gap” defined, at bottom, by how one chooses to spend money–but users often exhibit a particular brand of Boethian evil (evil that arises unintentionally).  Just as we once free-associated during a normal, spoken conversation, but had to await our turn to speak, in order to share the new insight (those who interrupted were likely to find themselves less frequently in the company of conversation partners,) NOW the person with the new thought can instantly raise a screen (synonymous with “shield,” to me a more chilling version of the mirrored sunglasses effect) and dart her eyes down, in quest of 3rd-party information.  To the other party, still speaking, this takes on the appearance of having lost interest, or split it.  We have no idea if the phone-owner is receiving a call, texting a third person, reading a transcribed voicemail, or so on.  Naturally, not wanting to interrupt the flow of talk, the user neglects to inform us, and we are faced with a figurative brick wall (cell phones, in enlarging their screen sizes, have again begun to vaguely resemble two-dimensional “bricks.”)  And as Pink Floyd once opined, “All in all, we’re all just bricks in a wall.”

The self-enclosing narcissism of this phenomenon is not only, apparently, completely acceptable these days, but unacknowledged as such by most people.  Type “texting” into an image-search engine: 90% and more of all the photos you’ll see are from the point-of- view of the user. Any interlocutor, present but forgotten, fades out of reality.  Replaced by a reflective surface.

I often answer my students, explaining my old-fashioned lifestyle choices–why I don’t text, watch very little television, use Powerpoint presentations, or carry a phone on my person–that it looks to me like communication technology has done as much or more to drive folks apart as to bring them together.  For example, an e-mail message is as likely to be misunderstood as understood (the old Deconstructors like Derrida would have a field day here).  Having never sent a text, I can only imagine it’s worse.  Take the following three-word message: “WHERE ARE YOU?”  Is the questioner idly curious, or demonstrably angry or upset?  Should I be nervous in answering?  Did I miss an appointment?  Without an aural tone and inflection to cue me, how am I to know?  Dude, I’m here! . .on the other end of this phone.

I’ll refrain at this juncture from pursuing a related discussion of the decline in literacy skills that the recent e-mail-to-phone apps encourage. Salutations, signatures, thank-yous, well-wishes, grammar, spelling, punctuation, basic politeness.  Suffice it to say, bid Goodbye to them all.  Instead, embrace the single letters “C,” “R,” and “U,”–but very little “Y?,” (as well as nine or ten other inconvenient letters, along with the good-ole skill of critical inquiry)–as if the world were suddenly transmogrified into some perverse version of Sesame Street.  Oh, and get ready to speak in cliche’s. Then write in them, and finally think in them, ‘cuz that’s all you can do, ‘Coz.  But we like it “short and sweet,” anyway.  I NO, right?

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Small Publisher and Indie Author Alert: US Postal Service Rates Reach Critical Mass

ImageI think we can all agree we’d like to see the venerable old USPS survive its current difficulties, and adapt to the needs of the 21st century to remain competitive.  Just about everybody who has been shipping E-bay items and gifts for the holidays lately, and indeed for the past few years, has been caught up short by the rate hikes.  If you’re like me, you may have personally taken a bath because you under-quoted a rate for someone. I’m not just talking to overseas buyers either, but domestic ones.

“Book rate” (old-school lingo for what is now known as “Media mail,” was one of those sacrosanct bits of American business culture we could all count on.  Sell or buy a book, magazine, or even music or film in CD/DVD form, and get it anywhere in the country for less than a couple of bucks.  Not only has this rate doubled (here I’m quoting personal experience,) domestically, but it is now cost-prohibitive to sell, in physical form, your novel or collection or handbook to overseas markets (its status as a book is irrelevant; the rate is strictly by weight, if over one U.S. pound.)  I yesterday found that a single 2-pound copy of my novel (540-page paperback in a bubble envelope) would cost nearly $25.00 US to post to a reader in Great Britain.  That’s almost 10X the rate within our own country.  A single book.

That’s a dealbreaker.  I’d do better (a little) “gifting” her my volume direct from Amazon UK.  But I still can’t make a farthing that way–and indeed, I’d be losing my shirt.

This is more than a simple complaint about inflation.  We’re talking about a branch of the federal government that cuts costs, updates its business practices (note the solar panels on the above truck), and literally can’t take your money fast enough, so that many branches have installed a computerized teller to help cut down the long lines.  And still, they can’t afford to help keep vital small businesses, not to mention literacy in our culture, alive?

Sure, e-books, e-books.  They’re great, except for those who can’t (many people) or won’t (not without justification) use them.  And of course, refusing to patronize the USPS only contributes to the vicious cycle of their demise/our loss.

The writing is, so to speak, on the wall.  Try finding paper tax forms this season–you’d better hurry.  They want you to e-file.  Bank records?   In the computer.  Speaking of these, about seven years ago, the state in which I reside accused me of not filing my tax return for year 200x, promptly doubled the amount supposedly owed, and then penalized me, to the tune of $750 for a lost document I did, in fact, file.  But against the age-old advice, I had not retained copies of my tax records more than a few years old.  They lost it; I lost it–what are the chances?  It was finally only a slip of paper, a returned check, endorsed by the state comptroller, that proved my innocence.  This personal digression is only to help make the point that paper, indeed, still has its place. Ever lose your precious photos to a crashed hard drive? Non-digitized books, films and TV, photographs–these form part of the records of our lives, our families, and our society. Can the Feds adapt to that?

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Vampires, Part I–The Seven Strictures

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Not exactly seasonal subject matter, I know, but here’s the third in our series analyzing the enduring popularity of certain types of ghastly figures and horror stories (Zombies and Human Sacrifice have been covered in parts 1 and 2.)

So many versions and modifications to the mythology have arisen even since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) that it would be counterproductive to survey their evolution here—and we are really interested in the archetypal fascination we all have with these figures of the night, anyway, and not their various historical guises.

Perhaps the best way to proceed would be to look beneath the common, classical “rules” about vamps, in order to uncover a theory that accounts for them. It is vital not to ignore the basic truth that even the most powerful vampires are extremely limited, or bound, by inviolable tenets. Writers who ignore these–in order to be “new”– are merely exhibiting a failure to comprehend why they became indispensable to the mythology to begin with. They are seven:

  1. “Vamps” are, almost by definition, sexual: we may as well begin on a compelling note. Animalistically sexual: nocturnal, sucking blood through canine teeth, and hypnotic if not actually attractive. The pop culture’s recent insistence on physical prettiness for both male and female nosferatu is not only redundant, but deceptive, and akin to confusing rape as a sexual crime versus its reality as a crime of violence. Remember that the victim is often killed, either immediately or over a succession of feedings.
  2. Vampires cannot withstand direct sunlight or mirrors, and cast no shadows or reflections. This would seem to suggest more than a hint of unreality about the creatures. But how can an illusion harm you?
  3. Certain vampires can morph into other forms: bats, mist, rats. Even in human form, they possess supernatural strength and are impervious to many kinds of harm.
  4. Vampires cannot enter a private dwelling unless invited in by the human inhabitant. The philosophical implication here is that only an act of free will can entangle one with a vampire, despite the seemingly contrary myth of hypnotic abilities or “glamoring” as a vampiric power (the two are not really mutually exclusive, and the paradox is resolved with the qualification that only individuals of weak will succumb to mesmerism.)
  5.  Vampires must rest during the day, often in contact with the Earth or in a coffin (superficially suggesting another connection to Death; however classical mythology contains many chthonic beings associated with life—the Greek gods of the harvest, Demeter and Dionysus, for example).
  6.  Vampires are immortal, or, alternatively, no longer alive—in either case, immune from further debilitating effects of aging, “frozen” at the age in which they perished from human form. Curiously, this also seems to manifest itself as an eternal adolescence, an inability to mature (in spite of many decades or centuries of experience and memories.) They can be destroyed, in certain ways: wooden stake to the heart, consumption by fire, and cutting off of the head are most commonly agreed upon.
  7.  Vampires have no power over sacred Christian objects: crosses and crucifixes, holy water, recitations from or direct contact with the Bible. This invokes the often-made claim that a vampire is a human being divested of a soul.

In part 2 of this article, I will argue that these rules, far from being excessively imaginative or arbitrary, can all be resolved into a consistent and logical system, by an interrogation into the true nature of a vampire: Do they exist, or not? And if so, what are they, really?

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