Archive for November, 2007

Crackberry Speak

Posted in Robots Scare Me, The Real World on November 21, 2007 by rkunzig

pearl.jpg

Since my family really got “wired,” I’ve owned second-string cell phones, the ones that come free with the plan. After a long string of dependable, if not sometimes idiosyncratic, Kyocera models, Mom took pity and urged me to pick out “whatever cell phone I wanted.”

Like that certain cheerleader–a little melancholy to the smile, a little thickness to the build, a little sarcasm in the swish of the pom-pom–the LG Chocolate wasn’t the best, per say, but the most appealing. It slid open. It was white. It was smooth, and when I touched it, it responded with a spry, eager click. It took pictures. And in less than a year, I’d owned two, both dying from ailments so catastrophic and terminal that they could only be replaced.

After the latest aneurysm, I spoke the word “BlackBerry.” It was a dependable technology. It had earned its stripes in the DC-Metro area, and with a few generations’ distance from whatever hiccups plagued the first, I felt comfortable calling it a safe bet. Who knows? In a years I could have a middling job as a pup reporter with some middle-rung paper. It might come in handy.

Happy Birthday: The BlackBerry Pearl 8130, the newest, sharpest and sleekest of the Pearl “Smartphone” series. On paper, it shines: It can juggle up to 15 email accounts, access the internet, execute SMS, MMS and BlackBerry messages, take two-megapixel pictures, provide directions; along with the other standard amenities. Navigation is handled by a trackball.

In practice, it lives up to its pedigree. The idea behind the “Smartphone,” I think, is to combine the versatility and power of a PDA with the compactness and access ability of a cell phone. Example: yesterday, while waiting for a friend to squeeze through a battery of red halter-tops, I read Nicolai Ouroussoff’s architectural review of the new New York Times building. On my phone. Am I embarrassing myself, or is this still cool?

The BlackBerry is another issue entirely. Debuting humbly in 1999 as a pager, the device evolved along with the modern cell phone, always staying a few integers ahead of the curve–and ahead of most wallets. When the familiar color-screen QWERTY 7200 series hit the market at a relatively affordable price, young Potomacians and the Bridge-and-Tunnel crowd pounced. By 2004, the number of BlackBerry users had reached two million, having doubled within ten months.

Enter CrackBerry. A unique form of Stimulus Addiciton emerged as the cheery Smartphone vibrated every time an email, text message or call was recieved. Users started feeling phantom vibrations, reaching for emails where there were none. Inane, wandering letters from friends, timestamped somewhere between 8 and 9 a.m.–the commuter surge–came post scripted with “Sent from my Verizon Wireless Blackberry.”

Gaurenteed, you’ll never find a more vanilla, inoffensive spread of language than in a BlackBerry message. While AutoText allows lightning-fast dispatches, predicting words based on context and probability, it also discourages words it doesn’t know. Typing your way to most compound words is like hacking through half a mile of Vietnamese jungle with a dull machete. God forbid you want to spell something so exotic as “fuckhead,” or “shitbird.” Most proper names, too–though, oddly enough, most Jewish surnames slide out easily, as if they were invited. Thus, even the most spirited complaint is sanitized. Example:

“Some birdbrain burned the coffee this morning. Fucking retard.”

Turns into:

“Some idiot burned the coffee this morning. What a retard.”

Suitable for the dinnertable, but I didn’t mean idiot; I meant birdbrain. Styrofoam speech is the price of convenience, and when it’s a labor of frantic backspacing to shape le mot juste, most will choose the supermarket-brand word. Welcome to the commuter’s lexicon, the lazy locution. Smile like you don’t mean it–unless you’re ready to spell it out.

Margaret Atwood, Oracle

Posted in Books on November 18, 2007 by rkunzig

Margaret Atwood

November 10: Peacoat weather, and the Kenyon Review Literary Festival is underway in Gambier, bringing small-time editors, authors, poets and eccentrics to our freshly leafless Ohio village. The centerpiece, of course, is Margaret Atwood, recipient of this year’s Literary Achievement award. While sycophants in Cleveland, Cincinatti and Columbus top off their cars with antifreeze, Mags slips into CMH on the beefy arm of David H. Lynn, Editor and Pontificus Maxiums, fresh from the previous night’s $1,000-a-plate gala in NYC.

As a Student Associate of the Review, I was invited to a cozy Q&A seminar that afternoon. A circle of chairs was set up in Weaver Cottage, with a rather imperious leather armchair reserved for Ms. Atwood. I came late, and settled into the only chair left–the one next to hers. As the room buzzed with tea-parlor chat, I wondered, perhaps stupidly, what she would look like in person. Probably shorter.

In fact, she was; and older, too. My earnest days under the tutelage of Paul Watkins taught me that author photos are always 15-20 years younger than the author actually is, but Mags, at 68, looks far more wizened than the pixie on the back of Oryx and Crake. She settled into her chair, exhaled, and smiled. “So,” she said, “I understand that you all have questions.”

After the inevitable cold-feet silence, an impetuous Associate pitched her question: What does Mags read while writing?

“I read things by accident,” she explained. She easily falls into old favorites, or anything at a bookstore that grabs here interest, really. Or research. Obviously. Magazines, too, at airports.

“Seldom:” she said, “Hello, Allure. Often: Discovery, Scientific American. Sometimes,” she admitted, with a smile that I can only describe as naughty, “Gentleman’s Quarterly.”

She began to unpack her fascination with scientific journalism, as she has done in many prior interviews. Unlike Ian McEwan, whose defense of scientific writing imagines the form as a medium of clarity for muddled times, Mags likes neat things; like, say, dragonflies genetically mutated to serve as surveillance devices.

“Soon,” she said, “We could all be the proverbial fly on the wall.”

Sometimes, she said, she reads National Geographic, because “They’re very good at digging up bones.”

While she doesn’t watch TV, she does “Surf the ‘net.”

“If I could recommend a particularly amusing YouTube video,” she said, with that pursed smile, “It would be ‘Introducing the Book.”

Her stillness amazes me. I’ve never seen such economy of movement in a human being before. There’s no wasted gesture, and every smile, narrowing of eyes, or change in posture is made with surreal deliberation, as if each were the product of half an hour’s thought. With this awe I swallowed and posed my question. I imagine it went something like this:

“Uhm. So, in a few of your novels–Oryx and Crake, The Handmaiden’s Tale–there’s a sense of alarm, Orwellian future-shock, and, ah, social imperative. They, um, look out as much as they, well, look in. Do you feel like the writer should pay as much attention to social issues as they do issues of, mm, story, or aesthetics?” Deep breath. Re-cross knees, tilt head. Chew on finger? Don’t chew on finger.

She arches an eyebrow, comma-shaped. Her eyes are a perfect, glacial blue, deep like pools of cold water.

“When you say ‘The Writer,'” she says, “Who do you mean?”

“Um.” I lunge for an answer. “You?”

She proceeded to dismantle my question: In addition, what did I mean by “should?” Should the writer do anything but what the writer does?

“Writing doesn’t start with a directive to yourself,” she said. “Nobody forces you to be a writer. And by the way,” she added with an almost imperceptible wink, “there’s no pension plan.”

Heuristic as her logic may have been, I couldn’t argue. I’m an English major, and empty phrases like “the writer” are pistols very close to my belt. What does she care about “the writer” as an empty, abstract concept?

I bow my head and smile. Humble pie.

“Are you all writing?” she asked the room, as if my question inspired some doubt as to whether or not we practiced the craft; or really, if we’d ever picked up a book at all. Nobody raised their hand. “Let me ask a different question: who here is not writing?”

Again, no hands. Plenty of polite smiles, though. I cringed still. She smiled sweetly, as if she had finally realized that this was not Kenyon College, but North Star Assisted Living, the old folks’ home up the road.

Next question, from a practically-minded English major: When she first started writing, how did she support herself financially? After some positing exposition, Mags eased into what is, more or less, the story of her career.

A small girl in Canada circa 1956, there were “no visible writers” in her vicinity.

“My idea of writers was that they lived in other places,” she said. “I had no idea that I would ever make any money out of it.”

Her first attempts at writing courted the ladies’ magazine market. That’s where the money was: cookie-cutter True Romance stories. Mags found them easy to write. They flew off the typewriter.

They were rejected to the last.

“As it turns out, I couldn’t use the vocabulary,” she said. “It seems to always build up to one sentence: And Then They Were One.”

Availed of this particular career path, she “decided to be a journalist.” It seemed proper. Her cousin agreed, telling her that she “would end up writing obituaries and ladies’ pages.”

University, then: she hated “logical positivism with a passion,” and perhaps in rebellion, determined to “to go France, live in a garret, get TB, and drink absinthe.” At work she ran her novel through her typewriter, unnoticed among the rows of other women seated at chattering typewriters, unaware that a bastard first novel was being born in their midst.

(Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor of The Kenyon Review, slouches in a chair behind the students, his eyes sliding back and forth beneath half-lids, lizard-like. I wonder if he’s falling asleep.)

After the first novel was not a first novel, the First Novel emerged, was published, and was optioned for a movie.

“It doesn’t matter if the movie ever gets made,” she said. “You still get the money.”

She was whisked away to France to write the script, but instead haunting a garret apartment and drinking absinthe, she found herself in a modest mansion, uncorking bottles from Bordeaux and the Cote d’Or. Her co-writer, Tony Richardson–after the “Hungarian scriptwriter” who had his own, incompatible artistic agenda whose thesis could be summed up as “alienation”–looked “like a parrot.”

They lived in the house with an assisting entourage of artist and film types, hammering out a script for The Edible Woman. Inevitably, perhaps, things fell apart. A pretty “assistant” was stolen. A swan dive into the shallow end of the pool ended in blood. Maybe it was an excess of wine, a collective overflow of grape-acid; whatever it was, the movie was never made.

My money is on the assistant.

Regardless, The Edible Woman established Atwood as a writer to watch. Her first novel made money, and the piqued expectations of the literary world gaurenteed her more.

“From that point on, I didn’t have to hold a regular job,” she said.

From there, the Q&A proceeded with courtly predictability, all the standard questions fielded with diligence: How did she see herself as Canadian writer? How much does she think of the reader when she wrote? What kind of music does she listen to? Bleakly, does she think the novel–the paper novel–will last?

“Yes, I do,” she said. “It’s a very tactile form.” A pause. A strange, quiet smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “The book is a violin,” she said, “and the reader is like the violin player. But you cannot know who that reader will be. You cannot try to manipulate the reader.”

Margaret Atwood is old, and in the shadow of the novel question must lurk a dozen other, ancillary questions: will her novels last? Will she last? Her answer doubles as a credo–thou shalt not manipulate the reader. Thou shalt not stretch too far for self-preservation. None of Roth’s embalming fluid. Just natural ingredients, and the lush, young jungle of Oryx and Crake.

A Season for all Dorks; or, Eugene, Go Buy Call of Duty 4

Posted in Robots Scare Me on November 13, 2007 by rkunzig

SAS commandos do gas-mask chic in Inifinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4.

A lot of deep thinking gets done on my doorstep. There , Eugene bums me a Turkish Gold, takes a first drag, and say something like:

“So, Call of Duty 4 is fucking awesome.”

And I say something like:

“Mass Effect comes out this month, too.”

Gene shakes his head, mutters “Goddamnit” at the ground. Then, “I’m running out of money.”

I tactfully suggest whoring out Aubrey, our housemate. She shouts something from inside. We scratch the idea. I tactfully suggest Gene whoring out himself, or whoring out myself, or maybe a dual whoring–tagteam as fetish appeal, complete with Mexican wrestling masks. Someone would pay. Someone would help us keep up with Quarter 4’s ridiculous videogame release schedule, which has so drained dear Gene’s coffers.

A brief summary of this Quarter’s “Must-Have” titles: Halo 3. Assassin’s Creed. Mass Effect. Call of Duty 4. The Orange Box. Bioshock. Were one to be kind to oneself–and prudent, not buying games of marginal interest like Timeshift or Virtua Fighter 5–one would be dropping a cool $359.94. Not to mention, dozens of hours with a controller in hand, staring at a screen while the world leaves concerned post-it notes on the door.

This isn’t counting PC or Wii giants like Crysis, Super Mario Galaxy or Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Truly, it’s been a red-letter season for the industry, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 2004, when Halo 2 and Half Life 2 both dropped before Thanksgiving. Halo, in fact, has secured itself in the popular imagination, getting ink on every paper from X-Box Official Magazine to The New York Times. Halo 3 netted $300 million in first week sales–smashing box-office records–and was blamed by the film industry for a corresponding slump in ticket sales. Everyone in the industry, from lead designers to coders, is putting a new car in their garage.

The question demands more scholarship and thought than is presently available in this venue, but I can’t help but ask: to what extent are video games supplanting cinema in the American imagination? Daring academics are already beginning to incorporate games like Half Life 2 into larger questions of narrative and story-telling. Is it possible that as interactivity becomes more, well, interactive, storylines branching further, the player’s choices becoming more complex, other, more static forms of storytelling will seem outmoded?

The knee-jerk Orwellian in me recoils, of course. But it’s a thought.

Either way, Eugene did buy Call of Duty 4, and the game has rendered such priceless moments as:

“Holy shit, you just blew his fucking arm off.”

“Spun him right around.”

And:

“Wait he doesn’t know you’re there. Use the knife.”

And:

“Fuck my balls!” (Eugene.) “Where the hell did that come from?”

“From your flank, dumbshit. Use the grenades that god gave you.”

“God has nothing to do with this.”

“You’re in Chernobyl. Think. God hates communism, and you are God’s vengeance. Use. Grenades.”

Such things my generation sees through the pixelated crosshairs of a sniper scope. Now let’s hold hands and pray for our brave new world, where we don’t tell war stories–we fight them.