Last week, gracious youngsters from Google, Inc. were stationed below 14th Street, handing cards to commuters. The cards confirmed that those wireless signal bars appearing on certain subway platforms weren’t phishing expeditions by identity thieves or digital phantoms. Rather, they were the fruit borne of a partnership between Google and a wireless Internet provider named Boingo. Log in to their hotspot and get a summer of free Wi-Fi access all over New York City. In return, Google gets to hoard the information they generate, assembling an accurate picture of who exactly was passing through the station and when.
Pundits on the right and left have described President Barack Obama as having a distant attitude toward the United States – on the right they call it narcissism and hint at secret agendas and question his patriotism, while on the left they wonder darkly whether he might be “too brainy to be president.” I think it is something else. I have never met President Obama, but our lives have converged in unusual ways. Perhaps unpacking my own intense and complex relationship with the United States might shed some light into what might at first seem like an aloof and distant attitude toward our homeland.
The rocket had failed. Kim Jong-un snapped off his the monitor and turned to face his advisors. What could they possibly tell him? This was total failure. Five ashen men in uniform glittered in the gloom. They groveled and made excuses. Kim lifted a hand and batted the air as if to shoo a fly, and the men backed away slowly, heads bowed deeply in shame. He waited for them to leave and left the control room for his private chambers. The hallway smelled of sandalwood and cognac.
As a strategy “Translit” is not new. This so-called new genre sounds an awful lot like Moby Dick, minus the throbbing heartbeat of Captain Ahab pursuing his white whale; or the multi-faceted storytelling of a Thousand-and-One Nights. But all novels are a soup of partially digested hanks of literary matter. A typical chapter is a hybrid of drama, description and transcribed speech. And this soupiness is probably the reason why novels have defied easy categorization into genre since they evolved from the golden triad of Greek drama, tragedy and comedy. But it’s certainly fun to try nail it down and coin a new term. What is disturbing about this trumpeting of “Translit,” however, is Coupland’s suggestion that it is an effective strategy for dealing with “interconnectivity across time and space, just as interconnectedness defines the here and now.”
I do not follow contemporary cinema, but with the Oscars looming, I felt obliged to weigh in on the moving image as I experience it. Since I do not own a television and lack the sophistication and desire to sift through darknets and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks hunting for shows to download, I have resorted to Youtube’s never-ending supply of serial killer documentaries.
“The most masculine of cats,” tout defenders of the breed, and they are indeed rugged, solid creatures who look as if they ought to be de-mousing a lighthouse on the stormy coast of Maine rather than sprawling on the settee. That is, after all, what they were probably bred for. Picture a cat, a large one, with tufted ears and a lumbering gait and a cheerful disposition; a coat with an undercoat of insulation, and oversized paws fit for trampling snow or scurrying up a tree trunk. Drooping whiskers, a propensity to sprout extra toes on his feet, an unusually expressive tail, and a dour, owlish expression that is almost a pout complete the Maine Coon, a creature on the cusp of entering America’s national pantheon of icons.
You never look directly at the face. Catch only glimpses of it and those glimpses are ever changing. One moment he is a she. The next there is a hissing void where a face should be. The only constant is an hourglass that hangs above its pillow, a cartoonish thing with the year 2011 stamped on one side and only five grains remaining and one of those grains is about to fall.
Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
[You are encouraged to listen to the NUMBER STATION soundtrack below while you read this, for atmospherics]
Call me McGirk.
Call me McGirk. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and read the wordy part of the world…
My sincere apologies to Melville.
After a semester traversing a series of literary seas within seas, prying at the “unsayable, the unspeakable, the unknowable, the unattainable” silences within a series of difficult texts, the greatest white whale of all [writing] has yet to feel our [critical] harpoons. That most unknown known remains – the reader. The mysterious diaphane, the field thrown up between the author, text, and reader. What on earth goes through a reader’s mind while he or she takes in a string of words? It is our good fortune that a suite of cutting edge automated ‘readers’ are coming closer and closer to providing an answer.
As you navigate the Internet, the Internet – which is to say certain entities using the Internet – navigate you. This isn’t a benign process. They want to learn as much about you as possible so that they can snag your attention; diverting your time into loops of advertisements and possibly even push you through a point-of-sale and taking your money directly. They do this by gleaning information about you. Where you go, what you search for, what type of computer you are using…. Websites leave small tracking codes on your computer called cookies, and each of these transmits data back to homebase. By visiting this site I have already captured your IP address, and can tell which keywords you used to find this site, what type of computer you used, where you are located and a couple of other data-points.
The data I’ve collected is a crude simulacrum of you; an inscription of your desires for an instant (or obligations, as is the case for my only guaranteed reader ). These simulacra have a purpose. Electronic texts can be altered according to the whims of their readers. All writers crave attention. Electronic texts, through their intelligent operators, are aware of their readers, and can quickly respond to being read. By understanding the wants of their readers, operators can better shape content to serve readers’ needs. There are even advanced analytics packages that will automatically generate ‘content’ for users in response to what they ‘perceive’ readers as wanting (in fact this is a multi-billion dollar a year business, or it was until Google tweaked its search results to waterdown these serar)
However, as is the case with traditional pen and ink reader-response, our analytics are incomplete – and at times totally flawed.
Keywords (also known as index terms) are among the most interesting and valuable traces left by users. Most users most often first come across a site by searching for a specific term on a search engine. With this site, jamesmcgirk.com, about 53% of users are directed by a search engine (33% are referred by another site, and the rest come directly). My users mostly come looking for “James McGirk,” “mfa personal statement example,” “maine coon,” and a plethora of business and espionage related-terms I listed to attract interesting visitors. (More on this below) An entire industry has sprung up to interpret these keywords, and another to optimize content online so it can be better read by search engines (this is called Search Engine Optimization). Using search terms as a crude model for a visitor’s mind, weird simulacra have been created. Content is generated automatically at the discretion of computer programs. There are even companies assigning stories to human beings based on the suggestions of algorithims. When you hear the term content farms, that’s what’s going on.
As in the simulacra in Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, these replications of desire are incomplete. It would take an infinite amount of data (and a correspondingly infinite amount of time to collect this data) to accurately model a human being’s wants and desires. But machines are getting closer and closer.
Content can be thought of as a diversion, as a product designed to leach time from the consumer. A moment of communication between man and machine. A relationship. Ideally this will be a symbiotic relationship – a user will discover an article that is pertinent to his or her interests or finds a link to a product or service that somehow fits into his or her personal narrative. But this is rare. Mostly these diversions are a nuisance, at times completely parasitical. To the point where some even launch malware to seize control of your terminal and force your attention on it. But most are more subtle than that. Perhaps the most sophisticated technique is gamification; in effect snarling a user in addictive gameplay, the way casinos try to dazzle their consumers until they’re too numb to do anything other than play.
Literary forms are beginning to emerge in response to automated reading systems, searches, and other more prosaic but no less important technological developments such as archives and instant data retrieval. Online, an age somewhat akin to the pamphlet-strewn amateurism of the 18th Century America is in bloom. The most exotic forms can be found on the Internet’s wild fringe, in its anonymous and pseudo-anonymous chat sites. Here there is a frantic economy of monikers, memes and spoofed identities. In online forums such as the all-text Autoadmit.com and the semi-anonymous Somethingawful users compete to create the catchiest, most innovative forms – most often an evolution of an earlier idea, name or other fragment of an idea. The best innovators become famous within their tiny little spheres. Other fora (or is it forums?) are completely anonymous – the most famous of these being the notorious 4chan/b ‘Random’ board, [NOTE: extremely non-safe for work] – where the only recognition earned is the sheer longevity of a creation. The best of memes were once charted on the Encyclopedia Dramatica. (This is a mirror site, the original was recently closed down after pressure from the Australian government, among other more mundane reasons.) But now there is no reason at all to create but sheer artisitc thrill. Although ‘board lore’ has developed a concept somewhat akin to ‘duende‘ – a dark, nihlistic form of amusement known as ‘lulz.’
The next evolution of the online literary form – which one hopes will eventually lead to the hypertext equivalent of MOBY DICK, which became a sort of bellweather of American long-format literary fiction – could well come from manipulating these mysterious semantic mechanicals. They offer the opportunity to make writing dangerous again. With the proper keywords, information is taken up into automatic readers belonging to some very interesting entities, to the point where there can be real world consequences. As a way of experimenting with this form I have created a series of posts with keywords that I imagine might appeal to some of the more peculiar gleaners out trolling for information. Among these posts are lists of oil rigs, information about espionage, a fake consulting company specializing in complex shipping orders in the Arabian Ocean (mostly deleted), electronic warfare, and other ‘edible’ keywords. The visitors I’ve received include: hedge funds, multinational banking concerns, the department of defense, oil companies, environmental organizations, the Pakistani government, the Kuwaiti government, the Iranian government, the Russian government, an unacknowledged US military facility, a few mysterious hits from ‘Cabin John, Maryland’ (a park across the river from CIA), Mi5, Mi6, but sadly I have yet to influence any. To my knowledge, all that I’ve managed to do is intensify the feeling that I’m being watched when I type online.
GLOSSARY OF STANDARD OIL SPILL OBSERVATION TERMS
OIL COLOR AND APPEARANCE TERMS:
Sheen: Sheen is a very thin layer of oil (less than 0.0002 inches or 0.005 mm) floating on the water surface and is the most common form of oil seen in the later stages of a spill. According to their thickness, sheens vary in color from rainbows, for the thicker layers, to silver/gray for thinner layers, to almost transparent for the thinnest layers.
Metallic: The next distinct oil color, thicker than rainbow, that tends to reflect the color of the sky, but with some element of oil color, often between a light gray and a dull brown. Metallic is a “mirror to the sky.”
Transitional Dark (or True) color: The next distinct oil on water layer thickness after metallic, that tends to reflect a transitional dark or true oil color. At the “Transitional” stage, most of the oil will be just thick enough to look like its natural color (typically a few thousandths of an inch, or few hundredths of a millimeter), and yet thin enough in places to appear somewhat patchy.
Dark (or True) Color: Represents a continuous true oil color (i.e., its natural color), commonly occurring at thicknesses of at least a hundredth of an inch (or, a little over a tenth of a millimeter). Oil thickness at this “Dark” stage (especially in a calm and/or contained state) could range over several orders of magnitude. At sea, however, after reaching an equilibrium condition, most oils would not achieve an average thickness beyond a few millimeters. Heavy fuel oils and highly weathered or emulsified oils (especially on very cold water) could, of course, reach equilibrium states considerably greater than a few millimeters.
OIL STRUCTURE/DISTRIBUTION TERMS:
Streamers: Narrow bands or lines of oil (sheens, dark or emulsified) with relatively clean water on each side. Streamers may be caused by wind and/or currents, but should not be confused with multiple parallel bands of oil associated with “windrows,” or with “convergence zones or lines” commonly associated with temperature and/or salinity discontinuities.
Convergence Zone: A long narrow band of oil (and possibly other materials) often caused by the convergence of two bodies of water with different temperatures and/or salinities. Unlike “windrows” and “streamers,” commonly associated with wind, convergence zones are normally associated with the interface between differing water masses, or with the effects of tidal and depth changes that cause currents to converge due to density differences or due to large bathymetric changes. Such zones may be several kilometers in length, and consist of dark or emulsified oil and heavy debris surrounded by sheens.
Windrows: Multiple bands or streaks of oil (sheens, dark, or mousse) that line up nearly parallel with the wind. Such streaks (typically including seaweed, foam, and other organic material) are caused by a series of counter rotating vortices in the surface layers that produce alternating convergent and divergent zones. Sometimes referred to as Langmuir vortices (after a researcher in 1938), the resulting “windrows” begin to form with wind speeds of approximately six knots or more.
Patches: An oil configuration or “structure” that reflects a broad range of shapes and dimensions. Numerous “tarballs” could combine to form a “patch”; oil of various colors and consistency could form a patch or single layer 10s of cm to 10s (or even 100s) of meters in diameter; and a large patch of dark or rainbow oil could have patches of emulsion within it. Patches of oily debris, barely able to float with sediment/plants in them, might be called “tarmats,” circular patches at sea might be called “pancakes”; REALLY BIG patches might simply be called “continuous” slicks. But, they are all “patches.”
Tarballs: Discrete, and usually pliable, globules of weathered oil, ranging from mostly oil to highly emulsified with varying amount of debris and/or sediment. Tarballs may vary in size from millimeters to 20- 30 centimeters across. Depending on exactly how “weathered,” or hardened, the outer layer of the tarballs is, sheen may or may not be present.
No Structure: Random eddies or swirls of oil at any one or more thicknesses. This distribution of oil is normally the result of little to no winds and/or currents.
OTHER OIL SLICK TERMS:
Black oil: A black or very dark brown-colored layer of oil. Depending on the quantity spilled, oil tends to spread out quickly over the water surface to a thickness of about one millimeter. However, from the air it is impossible to tell how thick a black oil layer is. The minimum thicknesses for a continuous black oil layer would commonly be around a hundredth of an inch to about two tenth of a millimeter. Dark (or Black) oils just begin to look their natural color at around a thousandth of an inch (or, a few hundredths of a millimeter). See chart on page 10.
Dispersion: The breaking up of an oil slick into small droplets that are mixed into the water column as a result of sea surface turbulence. For response purposes, dispersed oil is defined as oil droplets that are too small to refloat back to the surface. The physical properties of the oil and the sea state are the main factors that determine how much oil is dispersed. Chemical dispersants can be used to change the chemical properties of the oil and enhance oil dispersion.
Emulsification: The formation of a water-in-oil mixture. The tendency for emulsification to occur varies with different oils and is much more likely to occur under high energy conditions (winds and waves). This mixture is frequently referred to as “mousse.” Emulsification will impact the cleanup by significantly increasing the volume and viscosity of the oil to be collected.
Entrainment: The loss of oil from containment when it is pulled under a boom by a strong current. Entrainment typically occurs from booms deployed perpendicular to currents greater than 3/4 knot.
Recoverable Oil: Oil that is in a thick enough layer on the water to be recovered by conventional techniques and equipment. Only black or dark brown oil, mousse, and heavy Metallic layers are generally considered thick enough to be effectively recovered by skimmers. Thinner films may be recoverable with sorbents and/or concentrated with booms or chemical herders to enhance their recovery.
Slick: Oil spilled on the water that absorbs energy and dampens out the surface waves making the oil appear smoother or “slicker” than the surrounding water. “Slicks” refer to oil layers that are thicker than Rainbow and Silver “sheens”. Natural slicks, from plants or animals, also may occur on the water surface and may be mistaken for oil slicks.
Weathering: A combination of physical and environmental processes such as evaporation, dissolution, dispersion, photo-oxidation, and emulsification that act on oil and change its physical properties and composition.