Dec 30, 2012

The Start Your Novel Zoscar Awards 2012!

The year draws to a close, and I have awards to hand out like perfume samples at a knock-off Sephora store in downtown Wuxi. Like that fabled Chinese city, I too am full of warmth and water (about 57% of me is water, I reckon), but since I can't share my water, I'll share my warmth.

Prepare for my generosity -- my shining trophies of boundless appreciation -- my Zoscars.

I don't really know what a Zoscar looks like.

A hypothesis.
Illustration by François Desprez

Anyway. Commence the good stuff.

Dec 28, 2012

Road Rage of Aquarius

You drive too fast, Malcolm, and you hate everyone. You refuse to acknowledge this is a problem. 
"Shut up, car," said Malcolm.
Warning: You've exceeded your monthly minutes of manual driving. Lock steering wheel in 3, 2...
"Override. 4167 B."
Warning: Seven manual-drive vehicles detected.
Malcolm's middle finger itched already.

Yes, I got my title from The 5th Dimension song, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in" and yes, I watched The 40-Year-Old Virgin and had a good laugh, loved that they included this song at the end of the movie.

The astrological Age of Aquarius is the age of electricity, computers, democracy, humanism, rebellion, nervous disorders...

... I look forward to the Age of Capricorn.  

Dec 26, 2012

The Red Tide of Deception and Compromise

The seven sea-wolves raised their eyebrows when the Titanian said "Tampons."
"Fresh?" asked captain Nye. Skipper Gurevitch touched his knee to Nye's. "Unused, I mean?" said Nye.
"Yes," said the Titanian.
"Still illegal," said Officer He, cracking her knuckles. "I'm out."
"You do like money?" the Titanian asked.

Today's my birthday. According to the Zodiac, which is of Babylonian origin, I'm a Capricorn. I've always related to that astrological sign, because, what the heck, goats are funny. They* say that the planet Saturn rules my astrological sign with a steadying influence. Hence the stunning picture of Saturn up there. Click here to see it much, much larger and learn more about it.

*They: The people who tend to say that kind of thing.

As my birthday gift to you, because I'm happy to have made it this far, here are some great music-themed pictures I've been collecting lately. I love music, it's a huge part of my life.

Music Break
by Robert Richter

More great pictures (and songs, too!) after the jump.

Dec 23, 2012

What can Diane Arbus teach you about writing?

I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do - that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse. 
-- Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was an American photographer and a student of human diversity, often described as a "photographer of freaks." Maybe one should admit that freakishness comes from within and 'normal' is a mirage. Join me now, fellow freak, and let us contemplate the normalness of strangehood.*
*Or normalhood of strangeness. Which do you like best?  

I wish Robert Downey Jr. would play more characters
with hypertrichosis.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), starring Nicole Kidman, paints Diane as little more than a dissatisfied housewife who takes up photography to the detriment of her husband's serious -- if uninspired -- professional efforts. A chance encounter with an epically hairy neighbor will arouse in Diane a longing for the unusual and the unexplored. Her involvement with the bipedal fur coat upstairs puts her on a collision course not only with her unsmiling husband, whose black eyebrows must be made of dead spiders, but also with her self-delusion. Diane can't sustain her facade as perfect wife and mother. It's an act. It's a betrayal.  

Curiously enough, for a movie that champions the discovery of your true self, Fur is not a little patronizing to the main character. Allan Arbus treats his wife like the eldest of his children and even goes so far as to suggest she shouldn't touch a camera. Diane's family belittles her aspirations, too. Let men, who know what they're doing, worry about photography. Photography is unladylike; art, a daydream for loose women.


Diane did not orbit Allan like some apathetic satellite. Before she struck out on her own as a fine art photographer, she ran a commercial photography business with Allan, serving as art director. But Fur owns the imaginary part of the title, so give it a pass. (Or don't.) That's not Diane Arbus you see on screen, but an invention that tiptoes around her life. Fur presents a woman looking for a key to unlock her greater being. It seems that a man holds that key. A man is the catalyst and adultery, the crisis that sets events in motion. This imaginary portrait hardly seems fair to Diane Arbus.

Who was the real Diane?

Born Diane Nemerov to a Jewish couple who owned Fifth Avenue department store Russek's, Diane grew up as the Depression spread its wings. The Nemerovs were wealthy, so the specter of the Great Depression didn't hound them as it did the men and women who flocked to the Hoover Dam construction site or applied for work visas to Soviet Russia.

Diane married Allan Arbus at the age of eighteen and studied photography under two remarkable women, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) and Lisette Model (1901-1983).

The year was 1923. The place, Paris. Abbott plunged into the world of photography, as luck would have it, because Man Ray was looking for a totally inexperienced darkroom assistant. Man Ray used creative methods to get highly unusual effects (such as extreme solarisation) and would have felt miffed at more knowledgeable assistants who objected to his 'mistakes.' Ray wanted someone to do exactly as they were told. Berenice impressed Man Ray, and he let her use his darkroom for her own work. Before long, she'd be photographing the likes of Joyce and Cocteau.

1929. Returning to New York, Abbott saw a world of people and things waiting to be photographed. She'd spend six years documenting the city at her own expense. Abbott's work displays a concern with uniqueness and honesty that Arbus would later echo and amplify.

1935 NY photo by Berenice Abbot. Click to enlarge and get a better look
at the man and woman's expressions.
The woman's moping behind the pole. The man looks ornery.
No attempt to make this shot picture-perfect or avoid the human element.
Berenice Abbott was an advocate of straight photography.
Penn Station, Manhattan, by Berenice Abbott.

Lisette Model, pupil and admirer of Arnold Schönberg, influenced Diane's camera technique and most definitely her gaze. Model's work is vivid, dynamic, unsentimental. It bursts with energy. 

A Broadway singer, captured by Lisette Model

Coney Island bather, also by Lisette Model. "Pretty" does not represent the photographer's
aim; beauty is the goal. And beauty can be understood/represented in a number of ways.  

Lisette Model claimed that photography is the easiest art form, and therefore the hardest. When the click of a button freezes a moment in time, when you try to capture the right moment, then you realize the full import of Lisette's words. You can stage a photo but you can't break the laws of physics. You can't make the same thing happen twice.

Diane left commercial photography behind and went in search of something raw. Something real. Something that hides in the shadows cast by tall buildings covered in neon lights and billboards. What can Diane teach you about writing a novel, story or play?  

Dec 21, 2012

The Man Who Sold Epitaphs for Free

Nobody knows how to pronounce her street name, Hthth, so they just call her The Lady, or the Lady of Expedient Means. She's the one who takes care of problems -- problems that live and breathe and talk too much. Rumor has it she was betrayed last night.


I was hoping to participate in extraordinary events today, seeing as the world was going to end and all, but the clouds haven't turned red; tree branches do not reach toward the sky like the hands of tortured ghouls; and blackbirds flit about and bathe in rain puddles as they are wont to do. Drizzle, light traffic, no wind: the gods must be asleep.

At least I can console myself -- and you -- with a few pictures of the otherworldly terror-beasts I'd so hoped would come out of their meta-spatial burrows on this momentous day, the Mayan Apocalypse.

by Kelly Perry
Creature from the Abyss
by Joel Hustak
by Mark Facey
by Nikola Radovic
The Octopus Man Rises
by Lloyd Harvey

Dec 19, 2012

Elfblood Tastes Like Honey

Ko's father returned to the village with a string of mouthwater glimmering on his beard and a mad glee in his eyes.
"Little people," he told Ko. "In the forest." He rubbed his belly, bit his underlip and nodded.
Ko went ahhh.
"They build houses now," said father. "We wait."

Twisted Wisp Eaters
by Mark Facey

Dec 16, 2012

It Was the Weekend, And All the Heroes Were Asleep

I stored all my mannequins in a barn that had been blue once and yet was still sufficiently blue that my enemies wouldn't see it.

They can't perceive the color blue, which must drive them mad because to them day on Earth is just as black as night. I think.

by toria

Several terrestrial and marine mammals have monochromatic vision or monochromacy. The lack of color vision is not an impediment to intelligence, so it is conceivable that the mannequin collector's enemies -- supposing they were aliens -- might be monochromats.

There was some uncertainty as to whether horses can see color.
(Romeo here can't see much of anything.)

This being a Sunday, when everybody's chilling with their iguanas* on their laps and watching reruns of Manimal, I thought I'd bring you an extra shot of inspiration and share some of the wonderful artwork I've been promoting on society6.

Posing for Photo III
by Tuky Waingan

by Louis Roskosch

Seahorse in Blue
by S.G.D.
*Iguanas are those little furry things with black eyes and an even number of feet, aren't they? They make webs and shit. You know the ones I'm talking about.

Dec 14, 2012

What You Banish from Daylight Does Not Disappear

Noelle's teeth chattered, though the night was warm. Maj tugged at her sleeve. "Hurry up," she said, "the show begins in five minutes."
"What if Minders catch us?" Noelle asked. "This was a terrible idea. Let's go home."
"Say what?" Majj said. "I've never seen a movie in my life."

out for a walk
by seamless

Today I got to thinking: What if a given society banished moving pictures on religious or sociopolitical grounds? This feeds into the twin concepts of censorship and blasphemy.

In fact, the very notion of blasphemy can be wielded as a political tool against people who hold minority views. On February 21, 2012, five members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot staged a guerrilla concert in a Russian Orthodox church, and their performance was subsequently edited into a music video called "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!"

Three members of Pussy Riot sit in a defendant cage during their trial.
Yes, a defendant cage. Image via Guardian
Pussy Riot's performance was described as hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Now, one thing I'd like you to bear in mind is that corruption favors plutocracy (the rule of money, as opposed to the rule of law) and plutocratic regimes do not look kindly on divergent thought. Transparency International publishes the annual Corruption Perceptions Index*. For the year 2012, Russia ranked 133rd.

Dissidence is integral to freedom of speech; without built-in tolerance for opinions you may disagree with, you don't have a democracy. Because democracy doesn't exhaust itself in the right to vote. It includes the right to participate in public discussions, the right of assembly and, more fundamentally, the right to challenge the actions taken by people in power.

Corrupt regimes train you to accept things as they are, to shrug off injustice and tell yourself, "There's nothing I can do." Not to tell right from wrong. This is the beginning of systemic corruption -- a disease that topples empires.

The authorities need your consent. When you don't speak out against terrible wrongs, somebody profits from your silence. As Alan Moore said, governments should be afraid of their people.

*Interactive map and explanation here. Go and check it out, it's worth it. 

Dec 12, 2012

And I Will Love a Shepherd, Though He Be Dumb as F***

The cyclops stopped typing and stared in disbelief at the woman across the desk.
"I'm not sure I understand," said the cyclops.
"Yes, you do," the woman said. "I want to insure my future husband's eye. I haven't met him yet, but I'm pretty sure his name is Polyphemus."

The first printed book on insurance was penned by a Portuguese jurist, Pedro de Santarém, in 1488 and, as was the custom, it bore a ponderous Latin title: Tractatus de Assecurationibus et sponsionibus mercatorum, which is to say, On Insurance and Merchants' Bets.

These bets, by the way, had little to do with gambling. As Pedro de Santarém wrote, "[I have been] encouraged to write an opuscule on assurances and promises between merchants, which in the vernacular are called bets [...]"

Pedro de Santarém also outlined what may be the first modern definition of an insurance policy as a contract taken out in good faith, whose purpose is not to make the insuree rich but solely to avert losses.

The Tractatus was first printed in 1552. Yes, it gathered dust on a shelf for 64 years before a savvy printer took an interest in it. 64 years... Talk about moving at a leisurely pace. We didn't have Smashwords or Scribd back then.

Pedro took his family name from the Southern Portuguese city of Santarém. Although the area had been settled by Celtic tribesmen for a long time, it was the Romans who founded the city in the 2nd century BC. They called it Scalabis. Its present name is a corruption of Saint Irene, after a Visigoth saint. The region around Santarém has been held by Lusitani (the Celts I mentioned above), Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors and finally Portuguese Christians. Santarém was once a part of the Al-Andalus, a province of the Umayyad Caliphate. 

The castle of Almourol, near Santarém.

Dec 7, 2012

The Engines of Fate

A dirty cloud lumbered across the moon's shining face as two stick figures in rags loped among washes of shadow, looking for trophies in a city of dead warmongers.

As the cloud crawled away, the moon shone on a half-buried giant, scarred and rusted and broken.

The giant I had in mind was the Terex 33-19, dubbed "Titan." For 25 years it remained the largest haul truck ever produced, until the Caterpillar 797 came along. Only one Terex 33-19 was ever built, as each unit would have cost $1.5M in 1977 dollars and as the Titan came along the coal market went soft, impacting mining operations all over the world, so the market for such colossal machines failed to materialize.

The Terex 33-19 pictured above now serves as a tourist attraction in Sparwood, B.C. Another nearby attraction, far older, is the mountain shadow popularly known as Ghost Rider. The rider appears on an upside-down mountain, Mount Hosmer. No, "upside-down mountain" doesn't mean what you think it does. This simply means that the oldest part of the rock formation is near the top, and the newest can be found toward the bottom.  

Just look at that beast. The Caterpillar 797 weighs 1,230,000 lb (557,900 kg). Those tires are 90 ft. wide (9.14 m). Here's a video of the 797B at work.

Dec 5, 2012

The Woman that Tamed Two Flying Snakes

Monique, the blind one with twisted horns, she drives. Jake the Living Torso is her co-pilot; born legless, two batrachian hands sticking out of his shoulders, his belly a wide, flat callus.

But after sundown, Jake's got eyes like a cat.
"We're close," he says. "On 3, hang a left."

Circular Forms
by Robert Delaunay, 1930

And now it's time for an announcement. 
(Two, in fact.)

I'm going to dial back on my regular series, What can they teach you about writing, because

a) I need time to do other things.
b) Having written 93,000 words for that series alone, I feel that I've begun to repeat myself.
c) I'd like to concentrate on giving you more substantial stuff with each story prompt; photos, videos, links to research papers and whatnot. I would also like to focus on delivering shorter, more diverse articles, and What can they teach you... has been taking up 95% of my writing time.

To be perfectly clear, the series will go on - with new pieces coming out once or twice a month, my schedule permitting. What does this mean to you? Only one thing: Better posts. Richer ones, with more sources and more suggestions for further reading.

Announcement number two: 
I've decided to make my photographic work available on, just in time for the holiday season. Two of my prints have already been selected for the society6 shop: the next step (below, left) and give the moon a little kiss for me (below, right).