Passing glances: On pop music, poetry, and looking back

I often copy into my journal extracts from newspaper and magazine articles. I used to do the same for passages from books but have dropped it as too time-consuming. Here’s something I copied in today from a summer issue, as I try to catch up. Continue reading

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Unsold! My New Yorker cartoon idea

Now and then, I tinker with ideas for cartoons and captions. Long ago, having noticed that the typical fortune-cookie fortune is unspeakably boring, I thought of a captionless image that would show, in the foreground at left, a restaurant table with a fortune reading, “Call the kids! Something’s wrong—I just know it!” In the background at right, we’d see a woman rushing madly out the door, followed by a man who was perhaps flinging dollars at the cashier on his way. Continue reading

What’s the future of being human? Beats me, but here are some guesses.

A prize-nominated portrait of an android

A prize-nominated portrait of an android, discussed in a recent New York Times article here.

It isn’t necessarily the job of science fiction writers to predict the future, any more than it’s necessarily the job of other fiction writers to describe the present or reconstruct the past. I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell you what I’m going to wear to work tomorrow, much less tell you what anyone else will have on, and if I were a science fiction writer it’d be no different. As a second-look review of Isaac Asimov’s SF novel Foundation recently pointed out, that book premised on the possibility of predicting the future failed to anticipate changes in the social roles of women that were just around the corner. But then Asimov wasn’t trying to see the future; he was just playing the old “what if” game. That baseball-playing font of wisdom Yogi Berra hit something home when he remarked, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” What’s more, we can’t always say after the fact whether somebody got it right. Novelist William Gibson is sometimes credited with foreseeing the Internet in Neuromancer, published in 1984, but networked computers already existed when he wrote that book, and no one yet experiences the Internet as the enveloping virtual space that he termed a “consensual hallucination.” In some cases we can’t even be sure about the past; about 10 years ago, no one knew whether that line about predictions should be traced to Berra or Niels Bohr. (Maybe that’s been settled now; to adapt another supposed Berra-ism, the past ain’t what it used to be, any more than the future is.)

Still, it can be fun to try predicting the future, Continue reading

Getting back to work in Houston: the drama of Harvey and the Alley Theatre

Not long after Hurricane Harvey put much of Houston underwater and practically turned it upside down, the Houston Astros played two baseball games in their hometown and reportedly sold out both. It turned out that Houstonians wanted to see the games—it was something normal amid the disorder. I imagine the team wanted it too. Baseball is their job; it’s their duty, in a way; it’s something they know how to do and do well. If they didn’t play, the storm would’ve taken away, for a while, their raison d’être. It’s a simple and fundamental feeling: when the world around us goes awry, whether it’s the illness of someone we know or a large-scale disaster, most of us want to be able to do something.

The same is true for the workers of the Alley Theatre in Houston, which is about to premiere a play by Rajiv Joseph. Continue reading

Before and after Pong: a new book traces the rise of video games

Comic Book History of Video Games cover (w)

In The Comic Book Story of Video Games, due out in a few weeks, the author and the artist present a history of video games that’s knowledgeable and wide-ranging but somewhat eccentric. Initially, Jonathan Hennessey focuses equally on “electronic games and electronic screen displays,” but much of the book covers the highways and byways of computer history, in which he finds that computers, which were “intended only for military, scientific, government, and industry use,” were soon used for games as well: a tennis game, a mouse-in-a-maze game, a billiards game, even a clever text-based game called Colossal Cave Adventure, which used only words on a screen. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who already knows the story of computers, but it’s presented in a rather colorful way. Continue reading

The Way We Protest Now: Zeynep Tufekci on activism in the age of social media

On January 28, 2011, a man on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, near Tahrir Square, tries to pick up and throw back a tear-gas canister.

On January 28, 2011, just days after the first protest gathering, a man on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, near Tahrir Square, tries to pick up and throw back a tear-gas canister. (Photo by Alisdare Hickson. Original image here. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

For the better part of a decade, we’ve been watching protest movements arise around the world and wondering what role was played by Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Did Facebook bring down the Egyptian government in 2011? How did the Tea Party movement in the United States elect sympathetic legislators while the Occupy Wall Street movement did not? Did Chinese government censorship of online platforms thwart the democracy activists in Hong Kong in 2014? Was it their methods or the activists themselves that succeeded in some cases and not in others? In Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who has been studying and often participating in digitally networked movements since the late 90s, discusses the new technologies, how they’re used by protest movements, and how they’re used as well as countered by governments and opposing groups.

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What to do before the sun goes out: reading suggestions

Depending on which way you lean, you may feel that a darkness is upon the land. Relax—it’ll get worse soon! A total eclipse of the sun—not to be confused with this—will cut a swath across the United States on August 21, leading perhaps to “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!” (as the original Ghostbusters had it) or maybe just a lot of oohs and aahs and other exclamations of epic awesomeness. The few, the proud, the unimpressed may not be moved, but hardly anyone will be able to say, “I’ve seen better.”

Continue reading