Monthly Archives: October 2010

Saturated with Steam

Steampunk is a mad popular subgenre of SFF these days. You can’t hardly swing a frozen matchstick girl without hitting a dirigible or someone who glued a bunch of gears on a top hat. It comes in part from the joy of a comprehensible future-that-never-was, one built out of machines that are beautiful and whose workings are more easily understood than those made of silicon and electron holes. Steampunkers also get the chance to dress up in fancy neo-Victorian outfits and build ornamental devices out of brass and wood.

While I’m not devoted to the steampunk aesthetic, I enjoy elements of it and am sympathetic to its devotees. At the British Museum I stared in awe and wonder at the clock displays until Misty dragged me away. If that impulse in me was ten times stronger, I expect I’d be building steampunk computers.

As with anything that becomes popular, there’s been a pushback against steampunk. I’ve seen people complaining about Yet Another Steampunk Novel, especially those where the authors are merely aping what previous authors have written. I’ve heard the sneering claim that “steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown”. But while steampunk is popular, I’m not sure it’s that omnipresent.

Well, ok, the TV show Castle incorporated steampunk into a recent episode, but that’s an isolated case of the mainstream acknowledging this SFF subculture —

Wait, what was that, NPR? What did I just hear in the article about The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, the new band featuring Sean “yes, John was my dad” Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl?

Muhl: “I think Victorian science is sort of our favorite aesthetic, you know. Right when the world was still sort of crafted of leather and wood, but they were discovering atoms and electricity.”

Right, steampunk’s now as overdone as zombies. Time to shoot it in the head.

A break from crocheting hats

I’m still making hats even though I made my 50 hat goal. But I took a break this weekend to make a couple of sweaters for my mom’s dog, Lola.

She was unimpressed with her fittings up until she had to go outside one morning and it was below 50°. My dog sister was slightly more impressed with my mad crocheting skills after that.

While my mom was here, she also helped me finish a bag I crocheted on my trip to Austin a while ago. She made the lining and I think it made the bag look awesome! (Thanks Mom!) It’s a birthday gift I’ll be mailing tomorrow.

Bag Pattern: Sarahbell’s Bag

Remixing Storm Troopers and the Stanford Prison Experiment

This weekend at GMX I met George Willis, who took part in a reality series called The Colony. The conceit is that a group of people must survive a global catastrophe — in this case, a viral outbreak. They dumped ten people in a Louisiana town near New Orleans that had never been rebuilt and left them to scavenge what they could from the wrecked homes. From time to time the producers sent in other people to steal their precious supplies or, in one case, kidnap one of the core cast.

George had a lot of interesting stories about what it was like to have so little food that he lost forty pounds in two months, or having to build your own forge so you can make machetes. What really caught my attention, though, was his description of how paranoid they all became after having to fight off raids and marauders, and how he and the others are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Do you know the Zimbardo experiment?” he said, and it clicked: the Discovery Channel had indeed re-created the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s nice to know that an experiment that led to new ethical standards for psychological experiments is A-OK for reality TV.

To distract you from how we’re torturing people for entertainment, have some K-Pop. The video for “Can’t Nobody”, by the Korean group 2NE1, mashes up so many pop music trends I can’t stop watching. It’s like a manufactured girl band from the 90s jumped into a Delorean so they could take advantage of Auto-Tuning, crazy costuming, and Ke$ha-like pitch bending. If you’re short on time, skip to 1:28 and watch through about 2:02. That’ll give you a concentrated dose of everything I’m describing, and will let you see dancing Stormtroopers. Culture is weird; culture filtered through someone else’s culture is even weirder.

I Don’t See Hair

I don’t see hair.

I mean, obviously I do see hair. It’s not like I’m blind; I’m just hair-blind. See, I don’t let someone’s hair affect my opinion of them. I don’t care if a person’s hair is black, white, or purple. It can be long or short, straight or curly or even tightly bunched.

It’s taken us a while, but I don’t believe anyone can deny that we live in a post-follicle world. True, in the bad old days of the 1960s or 1970s, people might yell, “Get a job, hippie!” if your hair was too long. They might even refer to young ladies as “nappy-headed hos” if their hair wasn’t properly straightened. But that was decades ago. Now people are free to do whatever they want to with their hair.

Some people, however, cling to the past. They’re the ones shoving quotas down our throats. Why, in a company I used to work for, I heard the vice president crowing over filling a marketing position, or perhaps a secretarial one. “I hired a ginger!” he said. I shuddered to think of the company VP promoting someone obviously unqualified just because of the color of her hair.

This practice is ubiquitous. The politically-correct mob has forced these kinds of hair-based quotas on everyone, from corporations to universities, to the detriment of those whom the quotas are meant to help. Growing up, before I began shaving my head, I thankfully had straight, light-brown hair. It’s so common as to be unremarkable, and I never had to wonder, “Did I get into university just because I’m brown-haired?” Imagine having kinky black hair and always having to wonder if you were only being rewarded because of your hair!

It’s true that the PC zombies cry foul. “You can’t not see hair!” they say, and call you hairist for even claiming to be hair-blind. That’s nothing more than reverse discrimination. I take comfort in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s barber: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their hair but by the content of their relaxer.”

I have taken his words to heart. I do not see hair. The truest way I know this is that, every morning, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see any hair on my head. What a privilege that is.

(Inspired in part by this.)

Two Crowdsourced Music Videos

One: the band C-mon & Kpyski, from Utrecht in the Netherlands, created a simple video for their song “More is Less” and asked fans to film themselves duplicating the duo’s motions. They then spliced frames from the fans’ contributions into the original video. The result is hypnotic and utterly engaging.

Two: if that’s not enough for you, how about the Japanese band Sour? For their song Hibi no neiro, they choreographed a video with their fans in which…well, it’s best that you just see the whole thing. And I’m not kidding about the choreography part.

Sometimes, in response to efforts like this, people dismissively sneer, “Those guys have too much time on their hands.” I humbly submit that, if the results are as innovative and fun as these videos, the contributors need more time on their hands.

My 2010 GMX Convention Schedule

Next weekend, October 22nd through the 24th, I’ll be up in Nashville, TN attending GMX and holding forth on several panels. Yes, yes, I appear to be turning into one of those people who go to science fiction conventions just to blather at others. What can you do.

I know: you can go to the Radisson Opryland next weekend and hear me talk about science!

Science of the Whedonverse
Saturday 2:00 PM, McGavock A
As at Dragon*Con, I’ll be talking about the actual science behind some of the ideas in Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Sadly I don’t have Jennifer Ouellette and Jason Schneiderman making smart observations, as I did at Dragon*Con, but hey, how hard can it be to talk brain science when you’re a physicist?

WhatTheCast Live!
Sunday 12:00 noon, McGavock B
Crispy, Brian and I once again free-associate about various nerd topics, from recent films to Gliese 581 c, as part of a live recording of our Parsec-nominated podcast.

There Ain’t No Stealth in Space
Sunday 1:00 PM, McGavock B
It’s really, really hard to make a spaceship be invisible in outer space, no matter how hard you try. I’ll run through the science of why that is and happily debunk your fool-proof scheme for making a cloaked spaceship.

So come on over and listen to me pontificate! When I’m not paneling I’ll be hanging out chatting, or possibly making a fool of myself in Rock Band.

Finding Lyrics Everywhere

The Gregory Brothers have made a name for themselves by writing songs whose lyrics come from YouTube videos and then auto-tuning the original speakers to make them effectively sing the song. Their most watched one is undoubtedly the Bed Intruder song, featuring fellow Huntsville resident Antoine Dodson.

Their work is an example of using found lyrics — texts that weren’t originally written to be art and setting them to music. It’s a lot like what Marchel Duchamp did with urinals and bike wheels.

Sometimes the composers are highlighting the bathetic humor of combining high-art compositions with goofy texts, like how Gabriel Kahane set Craigslist ads to music in his song cycle Craigslistlieder. I highly recommend “For Trade Assless Chaps”, “You Looked Sexy”, and especially “Neurotic and Lonely”, all of which you can download for free.

(An aside: Kahane’s not the only one to be inspired by Craigslist. Sam Krahn also created a whole song cycle out of Craigslist Missed Connections.)

Sometimes the composer seeks to provoke or comment on the original text. Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads borrows the words of reporters, politicians, and survivors and is stunning, powerful, and harrowing. Phil Kline took three of Donald Rumsfeld’s responses to the pressset them to music, finding poetry in Rumsfeld’s answers. He’s not the only one, either; Bryant Kong did the same thing.

Not all musicians turn the text into lyrics. Sometimes they write music around the person’s actual speech.

I find this stuff fascinating because it blurs the line between art and not-art, because it illuminates and elevates the banal or bizarre, and because so much of the music written using found lyrics is so well done. Want to hear more songs using found lyrics? The October 2nd episode of New Sounds covered many of these and other examples.

And that should be enough to fill the void of your Friday.