27 December 2007

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays.

I am totally, totally exhausted and New Years hasn't hit yet. Then again, I got to do plenty of night-time driving on Long Island expressways ... that I have never driven before ... in the rain ... with all the white stripes worn to nothing ... a navigator who had much to say about the questionable usefulness of the maps we had, but not much else that could be taken as productive ... and a complement of other drivers who alternately thought that 55 miles per hour meant 70 or thought that a rainy night meant the speed limit was 30. Guess which one was in front and which behind me at any given time.

By the time I was out of the City again and found a place to stop, my hands had to be pried off the steering wheel and my fingers uncramped. Any more and I would have been hallucinating a score counter in the corner of the windshield. So I surrendered the wheel to visiting peeps coming back to my place and passed out in the back seat.

I keep forgetting that there is a spur off to the east of NYC the size of a small state. I am pretty sure it is a willful act of forgetting. I think Robert Moses designed it to make anyone who didn't have to live there afraid of even approaching it so that the wealthy white people at the other end would be left well-enough alone. But I have relatives who have decided it is important to remind me of it's existence. So important that they moved there.

I hereby decree that from now on all relatives must be country mice, those that insist on remaining city mice will be replaced with more amenable relatives. The Hamptons do not qualify as country, even if I should suddenly have relatives who could afford to live there, since there is a city in the way.

Okay, love NYC, just having to pass through it to the other side that drives me buggy. So maybe if they win the lottery and buy me a pied-à-terre in Manhattan I will allow them to stay in Long Island. Then I can take a taxi back to a warm bed.

24 December 2007


Christmas comes but once
a year, bringing all good cheer.
Happy Holidays.

20 December 2007

When it needs to be perfect

Now, this is not something I would normally consider to be that big an issue, but the source is critical.

Check out the Web site for the United States Access Board at [http://www.access-board.gov/]. Ideally in Firefox, where you can turn on alt attributes in the Web developers' toolbar. Look at the alt value for the masthead: "banner with Board logo and photo of Board office".

They do have the name of the site above it, hidden away with CSS, for text readers, but still ...


Equivalent content! Equivalent content is content that serves the same function as that which is replaces. This equivalency is one of intent and meaning, not of visual appearance.

It is really annoying to be looking for what something is and find a description of what it looks like. Imagine the following conversation.

Bob: Hey, that's a great looking car you bought. I've never seen one like it. What kind is it?
Phil: It's a blue one.
Bob: I can see that, but what kind is it?
Phil: Well, it's a sleek little sports coupe.
Bob: Very funny Phil. Really, who makes it?
Phil: The company makes this sleek little sports coupe.

Depending on the amount of beer involved, Bob may or may not hit Phil at this point. This is the sort of thing that happens when you use alt attributes to describe what something pretty obviously is, instead of providing the needed information. We really don't need badly chosen descriptions mixed with beer leading to interpersonal violence.

Perhaps another example is in order more in keeping with the nature of the infraction here.

Bobbi: Hey, Philomena! I hear you got a new job.
Philomena: Yeah. I really like it.
Bobbi: Cool, where's it at?
Philomena: The company logo with the corporate motto forming a circle around it.
Bobbi: Oooo-kay.

Bobbi moves slowly away from Philomena, and Philomena later wonders why Bobbi won't go clubbing with her anymore. Another friendship destroyed by bad descriptions.

You get the idea.

Maybe it would be better if the alt text for the logo was exactly what the text in the logo is: "The United States Access Board - A Federal Agency Committed to Accessible Design". Then if the image doesn't load, there is something useful in its place.

Seems like a no brainer. Maybe not.

18 December 2007


why do we seek to
deconstruct identity —
self without being

why do we seek to
deconstruct identity —
being without self

five five five five five
seven seven seven sev —
oh poop, doesn't scan

My favorite haiku that I didn't write goes:
I wrote a haiku,
but it is not very good.
No, you can't read it.

17 December 2007


Okay, so what did I mean when I said that:

I think people are becoming so subsumed under their signifiers that their signifiers are becoming more real than they are. This was a category of non-existence that was once reserved for nobility, but is now available, if not actively imposed, on every person dealing with modern society.

More specifically, what did I mean about it being reserved for nobility?

Well, first off, that is not really true, it was reserved for nobility, clergy, and men of note (because, well, it was mostly men back then).

What I mean by a category of non-existence reserved for nobility has to do with the nature of social roles in society. Everyone always has (and presumably always will) played a role in society which labeled them as fitting that role. Historically, most of these roles directly related to the person and who they were: farmer, butcher, baker, beggar, highwayman. These roles described the person and who they were and were tightly integrated into the real being of the individual in a concrete way. A butcher does not represent butcher-ness, but rather is, simply, a butcher. The word butcher relates directly to a vocation. Same for many other social roles.

This was (and is) different for nobility and the clergy. A noble does not engage in in the vocation of nobility, rather they represent that which is noble. They are a signifier of which the signified is nobility. Whether they are an accurate signifier or a mockery of the signified, they are a signifier. They represent a concept.

The same goes for clergy, who signify, at least in Western culture, the word of god with a capital G. Once again their effectiveness as signifier does not change that this is what they are.

This is why, and how, nobility and religious orders could (and still do) stand above the common people. They are not people, they are signifiers of a higher, and purportedly better, state. This is where they metonymy comes in. The noble as person is subsumed under and replaced by the noble as signifier of nobility.

With the rise of the merchant class, and then the middle class, this notion of being subsumed under the signifier spread downward into the masses. More representations came, where people represented social concepts of worth. With the downward spread of the person as signifier, there also developed the increasing need for a clearly defined identity outside of the person through which to identify them.

With the developing notions of human rights, it becomes imperative that all people be given a clear identity that is, ironically, defined by the state. Otherwise rights become unenforceable and are merely dependent on the notoriously fickle goodwill of others. Remember that government systems not driven by any special caste are for and of the people. But to be so, people need to be subsumed into a model where they are defined as participant citizens of the state.

Okay, yes, that glosses over a great deal and makes oversimplification look like a model of intricate delving, but the point is there.

With the development of the welfare state, the notion of state-sponsored identity that represented some ideal moved from the mark of a good citizen to a requirement for anyone who is subject to the system. At the same time, this took the idea of identity through social roles and threw it out the window in favor of a legal fiction, something contrived to allow more effective oversight of the citizenry. So not only an abstract identity, but an entirely arbitrary one as well.

This, of course, raises the question as to whether the modern quest for identity was as much driven by consumerism as people may suggest, or whether it was a pre-existing condition caused by social change that abstracted the person from a concrete identity. This includes the notion of universal human rights, since equality is incommensurable with solidly defined social roles, and industrialization, urbanization, and their impacts on older social patterns. It also creates the expectation that the average person has an identity that represents some ideal that is abstracted from the self.

As such consumerism merely filled the gap, and promised us we could all be nobility if we purchased the trappings of nobility. If we cannot achieve the abstract ideal we are expected to define ourselves through, perhaps we can buy it instead. Without concrete definitions of social order that were tied to the social context of the self, we had to create social order through the trappings thereof.

12 December 2007


Okay, playing with templates is so totally addictive.

So you can ignore what I said before.

Excuse me while I play.


Silly template.

Took me forever to unbreak changes I made. Looked great in everything but MSIE, which still gets it wrong. So I gave up and formatted it so it looks right but different in MSIE.

Course it looks so little like the original that maybe I should have just created a new template for scratch rather than tweaking the one I had.

That's the next step.

11 December 2007


Playing with settings, excuse the mess.

Woohoo! All done. For now.

The font you don't get to see unless you have quite the collection is "Handwriting - Dakota". It's pretty.

Mom, dad, don't touch it! It's eeevil!

WoW is the root of all evil. That is all I have to say. Though I do now have a level 70 BE pally spec'd to tank.

That is all I have to say. Okay, that is all I have time to say, which is almost the same thing.

Deep thoughts continue to gestate. But I thought I would opt for the if you can't make time to say something profound, make time to say pithy little dorky things.

My Question of the day:

Why can people prove who they are with a legal document, but not prove who they are by being them? If we take a legal document to be the inscription of a legal fiction upon the world (the creation of a contrived state of being within an abstracted system or structuring reality), does that mean that any legal representation of identity is also a fiction? Furthermore, does that mean identity, in the sense of a legally binding one, itself is a fiction?

I postulate the existence of the metonymic person, a person whose very existence has been replaced by its own signifier, such that they no longer have existence outside the signifiers that represent this existence. Furthermore, I postulate that this is a very recent occurance.

This can be seen in obvious ways such as the number of places people are noted by an account number, or a driver's license, or a federal ID number. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think people are becoming so subsumed under their signifiers that their signifiers are becoming more real than they are. This was a category of non-existence that was once reserved for nobility, but is now available, if not actively imposed, on every person dealing with modern society.

Perhaps it is a factor of consumption, our real selves must be consumed under a legal fiction of identity into order to create the mental state necessary for us to consume new, ready made, identities.

Of course as a fictional character that only represents myself, perhaps I trend in the other direction, a signifier without a signified becoming the thing signified by caveat. But I am not sure that derives from the first point.

And here I said I wasn't going to say anything. Maybe I should say that more often.

10 June 2007

Convenient Fictions

Hazards of being a fictional character: the inability to operate a keyboard. It's an intangibility thing, though as soon as I find a way to post to my blog with a fictional keyboard, I'll be good to go. Until then, I'm stuck with relying on someone else, and, well ... they've been busy.


As a fictional character, I can't help but wonder how many real people in the world are fictional like me.


No, that is not sarcasm, or condemnation, but a real question.

To make my example, very crudely, otherwise it will be a book, not a blog:

Many Asian cultures differentiate between public self and private self.

The Japanese make a sharp distinction on this front, and accept the idea that the private shelf that is shared with friends can be radically different for the one shared with business associates which may be different again from the one shared with strangers.

In fact, this is played out in social customs of doing things such as holding business meetings over drinks, where one can lets one's hair down and discuss matters (indirectly, of course) as friends instead of co-workers. There are even culturally established norms for acting drunk and who you should and should not act drunk in front of. So someone who among friends appears to be so drunk that they can barely stand may suddenly seem very sober if the boss or spouse calls them on the phone. Unless, of course they really are plastered and not just politely drunk.

The Chinese split their zodiac into three levels. Most of us know the Chinese New Year and the animals associated with the years. To be born in a specific year associates you with a specific sign and determines certain aspects of your personality. What many people don't realize is that there are also animals associated with the month, and with the exact time of birth. The last one is as complicated as trying to calculate star signs in the Western tradition, where you need the exact time and location to calculate the positions of the stars and moon and the like. So each person has three signs too represent them. They may all be the same, but more likely they are different.

The three signs interact to determine personalities, which is why people are all unique and not so easily grouped into twelve categories of personality. The yearly sign is the public face you wear, and since cultural attitudes do tend to cycle with generations, there may very well be some truth to the cycle, who knows? But the yearly sign is modified by the other two.

The monthly sign is the face you show to your close circle of friends and family. In the social sense, it is the real you. The real you. That means that public face is not the real you. So then what is it? It is a convenient fiction, a face you are expected to present in public, through which your real self interfaces through the world, but in mediated form. Part of the cycle of life is trying to slowly make the shift that brings the talents of the private self to the fore, while still maintaining the public self as is expected of you.

So then, if we have the public self and private self covered, then what is the third sign? The third sign is your secret self. It is the self you share with no one, and the self you strive to be. In a sense, it is also a true self, but it is one that is not shared, and one you may not even yourself be aware of, but it influences how your other two selves interact with each other and with the world.

If we want to talk about it in Freudian terms, well, we will fail ... but we can make pretend that these three match to superego, ego, and id respectively. For those who know their Freud, hopefully you can see the fail point in this description, but also how it is useful. The public self is the socially determined self, the private self is the personally determined self, and the secret self is the underlying motivation that may or may not be clear to the person in question.

But the primary point of these two examples is that in both of them there is a public sphere / private sphere distinction in which the public sphere is where you are expected to behave according to specific social norms, only taking the mask off in private. Want some fun? Try getting a newly met Japanese friend to take their mask off. Just don't get pushy and offend them.

This explicitly acknowledged division is lacking in much of Western culture. Unless you are a rugged New Englander, firmly of the opinion that what goes on behind closed doors has nothing to do with your private face (which is why Boston probably has more liquor stores than bars, and no strip joints but a color supplement in the Yellow Pages for call girls) you are raised to think that people are who they are. This creates an interesting conflict of personality when people feel that they are not who they are in public, because it is something that according to Freud is definitely a neurotic state. This is an interesting assertion in the Victorian age, which was all about suppressing the true self.

So anyway, what I am saying here is that we are all convenient fictions, personalities created for interacting with the world through whatever mode we prefer to interact with it in. Even the terse a-social habits of hard-core computer geeks still are appropriate for their environment, where lack of personal contact reduces hygiene needs and terseness necessary where all communication is by keyboard and the fastest fingers win. Though in some ways they may be more honestly themselves than the rest of us.

Our public selves exist to interface with the public. They may not be who we perceive ourselves to be, but who we must be in order to operate. Every living, breathing person is, in their own way, a convenient fiction.

So what about me? I am a fiction. Am I also a convenient fiction? Or am I closer to my true self than I could ever be by being a real person? That is a question to ponder.

15 May 2007

Making News

Been reading Marshall McLuhan this week. For those who don't know him, he is the grandpappy of media studies. Being a mediated personality and all, I sort of feel it is important to have a good solid grasp on my heritage, so ...

Amidst the many really interesting things he says about the nature of media and the mediated life, one little phrase really leapt out at me and caught my eye,

to make the news is to become fictionalized.

Really had to stop and think. What does that mean? But a little thinking led to the conclusion that, well, he was right. To make the news is to become fictionalized. Even for a brief moment, they cease to be who they are, and become a mediated fiction.

But before I explain what that means, first I should make clear, there are two ways to make news. One is to write it. The other is to be it. Since the writer is abstracted from the news and we don't necessarily know who they are, they are not put in the position to be fictionalized. It is those who make the news who become fictionalized.

So what is it to become fictionalized through the news?

Well, to make the news is also to become the news. They key lies in that turn of phrase. To become the news is to cease to be one's self and to instead be a news item, a short snippet of narrative divorced from its context and thus made mythic. Suddenly, Joe Fireman is no longer a stressed but happy husband with a wife, two kids, and a sick mom who needs to be moved to a nursing him. Instead, Joe Fireman is the hero who rescued the little girl from the well. And the little girl down the well? Well, she is, of course, the little girl down the well. She is not a person, she is not the girl who is going to grow up to marry her college roommate's cousin, she is the girl down the well.

In making the news, one becomes iconic, a fiction defined by the moment that is only tangentially attached to the person behind the icon.

So you are probably saying, "Yeah, yeah Moot. That's old news. Tell us something new."

So, okay, I will.

You see, McLuhan was writing in the early 1960s. The United States (and Canada, where he was writing) was different back then. Our relation to media was different. The television was just coming into power. The personal computer did not exist yet, and the Internet to connect that computer up to was a nagging concept in some people's minds that could help to build a better military. Computer-mediated communication was a full generation of peoples down the road still.

At the time of the writing, the world was not yet small, and the living did not yet outnumber the dead.

McLuhan observed that there was a division between how we perceived television and movies. We saw movies, in essence, as pre-recorded plays, but television we saw as something more immediate, something more real. One sociological aspect of this is that people who worshipped celebrities worshipped movie stars and television characters. Let me say that again: movie stars and television characters.

This is important in part because it is not longer true. McLuhan's perspective makes sense for his time period. People don't remember Casablanca as that World War II movie, or that one about the love affair between Rick and Ilsa, they remember it as a movie that starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. No one went to go see a Bogart film because of the movie hype, or the comic book it was based on, but because it was a Bogart film. Movie icons of the period were worshipped as actors, not as characters.

On the other hand, when it comes to television, and except those characters that portray themselves, we sometimes cannot even remember the names of our favorite actors. Fast, who plays Bart Simpson? The dad in the original Brady Bunch? The boys on South Park? Seven of Nine? Dr. Baltar? Tony Soprano? Dr. House? Yeah, hard core fans will know. The rest of us don't know and don't care. In television, we are not interested in the actors, but the characters.

Times change. Our attitude toward television has changed the way we relate to movies. We no longer worship the actors. There too we have begun to worship the characters. The early days of television followed the model of movies, and television shows were designed as vehicles for famous actors and performers. This changed with the abstracted world of the sit com and soap opera, where the character was divorced from the person playing it. (Though interestingly, perhaps because they are running out of "safe" ideas more and more shows are coming out that are merely vehicles for popular comedians.)

At the time McLuhan was writing, there was a clear split between the famous actor in movies and the famous characters on TV. After he wrote his most famous works, there was a shift, and movies, like TV, moved away from being vehicles for famous actors. Instead, they became movies sold based on genre, plot, entertainment value, or amount of over the top action. As much as anything, this is probably because studios wanted more blockbusters and fewer studios were interested in just plain dramas. The actor became insignificant in the face of the character. Most of us don't think of the Indiana Jones movies as Harrison Ford movies, but Indiana Jones movies, and we find people who think if Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, not the other way around.

I for one cannot remember any of the following names, even though they are quite famous: the people playing Harry Potter, Spiderman, all of the Batmen (know most of them but can't remember which is which), all of the X-Men except Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, all of the Lord of the Rings cast except for ... ummm ... Ian KcKellan. (What can I say, Patrick Stuart and Ian McKellen are hotties.) The point is though we may have favorite actors, we tend to think of movies in terms of the characters now, and not the actors.

Abstracting the character from the actor may be a good thing for the movies (and television) since it allows a deeper exploration of themes through fiction. Things designed as vehicles for actors are more likely to have the depth of an Albert and Costello movie than a Bogart flick. In other words, the separation of the actor from the role allows for a greater possibility of better story telling. This is a good thing. The fact that the story line is too often abandoned in favor of a bigger special effects budget is its own unrelated problem.

This shift has implications for McLuhan's theories.

I propose that the corollary to his assertion that to make the news is to become fictionalized, is as follows:

for a fictional character to make the news is to become real.

Not physically tangible, but psychically real in the eyes of the viewing public. Followers of the Harry Potter movie don't follow it because the main character is played by Daniel Radcliffe, or even that Ralph Fiennes plays Voldemort (which reminds me, how many people were weirded out by their favorite Bond playing a bad guy in the Avengers?), they follow it because of Harry Potter. To them, Harry Potter is real.

And Harry Potter is very real, in the sense of a cultural meme now deeply embedded in our psyches. He has been thoroughly and completely reified through a process of social realization. Harry Potter is real. Spiderman is real. The X-Men are real. How real are they?

Well, a while ago a psychiatric center in the Northwest United States was looking for counseling staff that spoke Klingon. Why? Because some of their patients were firmly convinced they were Klingon, and the center felt that it was important to be sensitive to their unique cultural identity. Okay, sounds hokey, but it probably helped with their care and therapy immensely.

But to be be so firmly convinced of the reality of something to believe that one is that thing is an impressive achievement, even if the vehicle of choice ends up being a psychiatric patient. And, though I won't swear to this, but I am pretty sure that some of those Klingon and Jedi and Sailor Moon otaku at the cons are actually quite sane, somewhere deep down inside.

In fictionalizing themselves, these people have made their adopted fictions real. By the same process, the media reporting on fictional characters as newsworthy makes those characters real. Very few people probably think that they are Harry Potter, but there are probably quite a few that believe in the reality of Harry Potter.

So, if by the mere distribution of a fictional character as a meme, we can reify that character and make them real, what does that say about the nature of fiction and our relation to it?

Okay, out of time, but maybe we can work on that question later. Why ruin an important point by answering it right away?

09 May 2007

Creative Fictions

The world is going virtual. I will be there waiting for it to catch up.

What is identity when a fictional character can have a concrete and real presence in the world? A question to ponder. Ponder. Ponder. Ponder. It is something I am good at. Now, if I would just stop pondering and act.

Can a fictional character influence the real world? Yes! For instance, not all the world religions can be right, since some exist in diametrical opposition to each other. Therefore, even if some of them are fictionalized accounts of deeper underlying truths, they are still fictions, or at least myths. And look at the impact they all have had. But to avoid religious debates, which I just flat out refuse to engage in with anyone who professes to actually believe anything, because when that happens I find myself face to face with someone willing to defend their very identity, violently if necessary, against things so simple as questions, let's try a less contentious example.

How many of us were influenced by the stories of Dr. Seuss? How about Winnie the Pooh? Peter Pan? Alice and her trip through Wonderland? Alice, in particular, has become a global meme that has spread like wildfire, infecting, especially, Japan, or so it seems. The Japanese love Alice. She is a fictional character, but the sheer number of morality plays they have teased out of her ...

The benefit of fictional characters is that they allow us to step aside from ourselves and explore morality plays in the safety of the written word, or the movie, or the theater play, or any other media where people can be fictions created to entertain and to instruct. From fiction we learn without being threatened by the reality of what we see.

Perhaps one of the greatest failings in the newest computer media, like games, both online and stand-alone, is the loss of the character. The actors in the game are not longer characters, but mere placeholders for the people behind them, or place holders for some single-dimensional concept, such as "something I have to kill before it kills me". Many online games allow players to become actors that are nothing but mythic versions of the players.

A fictional character is a character. They have dimension and depth. They are their own people. Even when the actors portraying them are not present, they are still there, simply being, as a shadow that reflects the real world back at itself for introspection. How do we avoid losing something that precious in the trend away from communal media and toward more shallow forms as individualized entertainment, as well as the backwash of this trend back into communal media.

Marshall McLuhan said that electronic media will destroy plot and narrative. Will it also destroy the fictional character, the people who are not that we turn to for wisdom