The 7 types of stories

See the list of tags in the right-hand column of this blog? Turns out they’re obsolete. Categories, too.

(Side rant: there isn’t a single coherent explanation anywhere in the WordPress internet kingdom of what the difference is between ‘tags’ and ‘categories’. I vaguely get the sense that you’re supposed to use them both in concert with each other… which would be fine if I had 5 hours a day to write posts or a teeming staff of assistants to delegate such matters to. Like I’m conducting interviews and explaining So, once the post comes back from the copy desk and the fact-checkers, it’ll be your job to assign appropriate categories and tags. It’s important that you do this before we get the galley proofs back from the publisher! )

According to this WaPo profile of economist-blogger Tyler Cowen, there are only seven possible variants of story line, blog or otherwise:

Cowen also has rules about stories: He distrusts them, particularly ones like this profile. The writer is arranging facts to keep readers reading. “The more inspired the story makes me feel, very often the more nervous I get,” he once said. He believes nearly all stories follow seven templates: “monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth.”…Cowen, based on his reading of thousands of books, thinks stories trick readers because they are filtered: Writers ‘take a lot of information and they leave some of it out,” he says.

So there you go. From now on, blogs should come pre-populated with only those tag/category options:

  • monster
  • rags to riches
  • quest
  • voyage and return
  • comedy
  • tragedy
  • rebirth

There could still be a ‘edit tags’ button, but this would only shoot a thick black inky substance across your monitor, like a retreating octopus.

As far as taxonomies go, this is a good one, although not as quite as fun as Wolfgang Weinart’s enumeration of the different kinds of typefaces he designs:

  • bunny type
  • sunshine type
  • ant type
  • five-minute type
  • typewriter type
  • for-the-people type

I guess if I were to write a post about the Led Zeppelin tribute band I saw last night, that one would go under… hmm: tragedy and rebirth? Why was I watching a tribute band, you might ask? Well, my friend was playing the part of Mitch Mitchell in a Hendrix tribute outfit that opened up for the Led Zeps. (Maybe quest would be a better categorization for this post, actually, given man’s ancient quest to have Hendrix and Zeppelin play on the same bill). Czech Zeppelin was entertaining and played the songs well, but made no attempt to look like the members of Led Zeppelin. Here, for example, was our Jimmy Page for the evening:

Other than the commendable accuracy of the red sunburst Gibson Les Paul, he looks more like Ray Cole from The Wire:

Now, the idea of a cover band whose members play Zeppelin songs but look like characters in The Wire would be a perfectly welcome innovation, but they didn’t extend this concept across entire band. Only Page, and the singer who looked passably like that Stevedore character whose name I can’t remember who helps Ziggy lift stuff off the dock:

With the singer– who sounded exactly like Robert Plant, by the way– there was this hilarious juxtaposition between his Czech speaking voice and his howling, vowel-laden sung Plantisms. Example:

SPEAKING VOICE (quiet, clipped, lots of consonants): “mutter, mutter…. zxk k kvvvvkkx xsxxxkkxxvvv….”

[music kicks in:]


OK, time to put a sock in it. Wouldn’t wanna offend Tyler Cowen any further.


After I blogged about Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur a few months ago, a reader named Katie suggested I read his first book of essays and sweetened the deal by mentioning that it includes an essay on the Sims, the virtual reality game that seemingly enslaved the entire female Midwest a few years back. So, during my SF trip, I read a friend’s copy of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and was riveted by the whole thing, especially the Sims essay, Billy Sim:

I am not a benevolent god.

I am watching myself write in a puddle of my own urine, and I offer no response. I have not slept or eaten for days. My cries go unrecognized and my loneliness is ignored. I am watching myself endure a torture worse than death, yet I decline every opportunity to end this self-imposed nightmare. Darkness… imprisoning me… all that I see, absolute horror. I cannot live, I cannot die, trapped in myself; my body is my holding cell.

I am the master and I am the puppet. And I am not the type of person who still plays video games.

So go the opening paragraphs of the essay, foreshadowing Klosterman’s eventual boredom with the game and subsequent decision to neglect his SimSelf while the latter writhes in his own pee.

The first thing I can immediately tell from this passage is that Klosterman and I are about the same age (he was born a year before me, in 1972). The tell is the phrase ‘video games’, which only men currently between the ages of about 33 and 39 use. Younger people call them ‘computer games’ or just ‘games’. Older people can’t refer to them coherently at all. The women I know don’t mention them unless its in the context of the final flaw that persuaded them not to date some guy they were perviously thinking about dabbling in (e.g. On top of it all, he sits at home and plays video games). We late-Gen-X males are the only people who became fully accustomed to the idea of manipulating a character on a screen before the advent of the personal computer age.

Next, I also immediately identify with the co-mingled curiosity and contempt that Klosterman expresses towards gaming (‘It’s fun, but– somehow– vaguely pathetic’). For my part, the contempt partly serves to mask a fearful respect that I have for the gaming industry and its potential to enslave me. I have only played one game in my adult life (Civilization), but that’s less out of lack of interest and more out of a wary realization that I love games in general and can easily picture myself getting sucked in if I strayed past a certain threshold. This dread manifested itself in a particular anti-social habit that I developed towards a guy I used to share an apartment with, who worked at Electronic Arts as a producer for the Sims. The roommate had an Xbox lying around that he would bring out (albeit only quite rarely) to show his friends what he was doing at work. After they would invariably disappear and leave the console lying on the floor in front of the TV, I would always respectfully pick it up and place it on top of the tallest bookshelf in the living room– the most inaccessible shared spot in the house. Such was my determination not to become an addict.

Klosterman writes at great– and persuasive– length about the bizarre and abstracted aspects of the game, but one personal experience I had involving the above-mentioned Sims-producer roommate really drove home for me how weird the whole thing is. One Saturday, my roommate spent the whole day at his office furiously working to correct a mistake one of his programmers had made. The programmer was supposed to have designd a disco ball for a dance club environment. Instead of creating the disco ball from scratch, the programmer had taken a lawn sprinkler and decided to modify it (this apparently being a common approach, according to my roommate). But, the programmer had done a really lazy job of it, so the ‘disco ball’ was still acting more like a lawn sprinkler and spraying dancers with water. My roommate stomped home at about 7pm having lost an entire sunny Saturday to getting the disco ball to act like a disco ball. He was so deeply immersed in the problem and so enraged about it that he managed to relate the entire scenario back to me without expressing the slightest awareness of what an absurdly meta way this was to spend one’s Saturday. If I wasn’t thoroughly creeped out frightened by virtual-reality game play until now, this lawn-sprinkler/disco-ball anecdote totally scared me straight as shit.

Authorial self-doubt and torment note: I previously promised myself that I would boycott the ‘#FAIL’ construction in this blog, as I think it’s the lamest, most overused, mind-rotting meme currently in circulation. But, I couldn’t think of a single other title for this post that works nearly as well. So, there you have it.

The printing press: pain in the ass, now as it was then

On Monday night, veteran newspaper and magazine man David Wadmore did a guest lecture at Prague College, the second of his highly entertaining talks that I’ve managed to catch. Wadmore has been designing for newsprint and periodicals for so long that some of his reveries about the old days remind me of those sepia-toned segments in the Simpsons where Monty Burns recalls his youth. Ah, the Lord Stanhope Press… she ran on steam!

For almost the first five and half centuries of its existence, the printing press barely changed at all, which is pretty amazing when you consider that it was probably the most significant invention of its millenium and landed Johannes Gutenberg at the #1 spot in A&E’s goofball ‘People of the Millennium‘ countdown. Personally, I was a little disappointed that the other Gutenberg– Steve– didn’t make the list as well somewhere– I mean, four Police Academy movies? Get out. Meanwhile, how about being Bill Gates (#41, the highest-rated alive person) and knowing that you sit a few spots above William the Conqueror and Machiavelli? That’s gotta feel good. On the other hand, imagine James Joyce watching from heaven as he’s dropped one spot behind Ronald Reagan.

Getting back to the point: in the 1880s, the cartel of New York newspapers were offering an open reward of a cool million dollars to anybody who could speed up type-setting production by 25-30%. Having done some type-setting by hand as a nerdy enterprise, I literally find it hard to even wrap my head around the idea of a daily newspaper being set by hand– it makes me slightly nauseated to think of the constant frantic whirl of human activity that this entailed. A German named Otto Merganthaler delivered humankind from this bondage with his invention of the linotype machine, a wild contraption of a thing that looks like this:

Person sits on stool, taps on typewriter; meanwhile, sinister spindly arms up top slide corresponding negative-impression letters, numbers and characters onto a tray to form a line onto which hot lead is poured, producing a line of type (‘line o’ type‘). Newspaper production is sped up, newspapers can afford to sell copies for slightly less, news-literate public grows widely, whole system flourishes until a combination of Roger Ailes and the internet conspire to squash it like a bug.

What’s easy to forget– unless you’re reminded by a handy guest lecture– is what a pain printing then remained for the next hundred years. Wadmore had a great account of how the simple process of reversing out a box of type (that is, printing white on a black box) required something like seven people, in part due to the insane union regulations that essentially forbade anyone from physically giving anything to anyone else and instead demanded that a messenger be used as a conduit. My old typography teacher used to create the impression that the phototype and early pseudo-computer processes that came along right before desktop publishing were almost more thankless than handsetting type, in the sense that they involved a lot of the same inconvenience but also took you away from the ameliorating rustic pleasures of handling type by hand and instead replaced it by peering into monitors that were attached to computers with no undo function:

(Photo credit: Flick user Alki1)

After his first Prague College lecture, Wadmore opened things up to Q&A– I immediately asked him something designed to get him to tell us about the most hair-raising screw-ups and blunders that he experienced in his many years on the job. He diverted the question slightly but came up with a great response: the night that Lady Di (someone who also inexplicably appears on the ‘Top People of the Milennium’ list, by the way) died, the entire press corps of London happened to be at a uproarious wedding of some high-ranking colleague. So, in the wee hours of the morning, they were woken up one by one by their respective papers and ordered to get to Paris on the first possible plane. So: the next time you see re-run news coverage of her death, stop for a moment to appreciate the collective hangover of the press covering the event, and their unsung heroism in soldiering forward with the story.

Something about Andy Warhol

These are two very well-written paragraphs, in my opinion:

“The essence of Warhol’s genius was to eliminate the one aspect of a thing without which that thing would, to conventional ways of thinking, cease to be itself, and then to see what happened. He made movies of objects that never moved and used actors who could not act, and he made art that did not look like art. He wrote a novel without doing any writing. He had his mother sign his work, and he sent an actor, Allen Midgette, to impersonate him on a lecture tour (and, for a while, Midgette got away with it). He had other people make his paintings.

And he demonstrated, almost every time he did this, that it didn’t make any difference. His Brillo boxes were received as art, and his eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building was received as a movie. The people who saw someone pretending to be Andy Warhol believed that they had seen Andy Warhol. (“Andy helped me see into fame and through it,” Midgette later said.) The works that his mother signed and that other people made were sold as Warhols. And what he made up in interviews was quoted by critics to explain his intentions. Warhol wasn’t hiding anything, and he wasn’t out to trick anyone. He was only changing one basic rule, the most basic rule, of the game. He found that people just kept on playing.”

This is from Louis Menand’s article in last month’s New Yorker (subscription required), which also does a nice job taking on the annoying conceit that Pop Art was an entirely American idea. As I drone on about at length in my history lectures, the U.S. was a pathetic nowhere in terms of creating abstract visual ideas until a herd of Bauhaus-era designers and artists came flooding over from Europe during World War II. Rothko? Russian. De Kooning? Dutch. Gorky? Armenian. DuChamp? Not a chance. Maholy-Nagy? No way. Mondrian? I won’t even dignify that with a response. And so on. If Pop Art needed American consumerism to supply its subject matter, it also apparently needed a foreign observer to make sense of it.

This brings us to the subject of Warhol’s ancestry, which confused the hell out of me for a long time. In the U.S., you generally hear him referred to as Polish. But once I started teaching at Prague College, however, my Slovak students were quick to inform me that he’s actually Slovak– and indeed he was born in an area that now belongs to Slovakia. But, it turns out that his family was in fact Ruthenian– the Ruthenians being a teeny distinct Slavic people whose homeland was absorbed by what are now Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. So here’s to you, Ruthenia– today I salute you. I like to imagine that when you did still exist, you were a fine destination to hit for a bit of the old orientalism.

On a personal note: back in the 50s, my grandmother was an account manager with Ogilvy (something I think about a lot as I watch Mad Men, as it’s fair to presume that she probably faced a lot of the same institutionalized hurdles and general BS that Peggy faces in the show, and was probably kind of a cool, ahead-of-her-time lady). Anyway, she apparently knew Warhol back when he was a commercial artist and bought some of his sketches back then, which now must be worth a fortune. I wouldn’t know, because they were somehow stolen from her home in a manner that no one can exactly pinpoint (probably happened during a brief point when she was renting her house). So, that stinks.

Animated GIF party

Via Mission Mission, I was delighted to come across GIF Party, where animated gifs abide in thriving plentitude. Burrito Justice has a nice one too of the La Tacqueria sign at Mission and 25th lighting up, bit-by-bit.

Animated GIFs were a static, frame-by-frame animation technique that ruled the internet before Flash came along and ruined everything by introducing more sophisticated multimedia. I miss animated GIFs: they had that whole technological-limitations-make-it-easier-to-be-creative thing going for them. Plus, they remind me pleasantly of black-and-white TV now in retrospect.

I got really into making animated GIFs after seeing an experimental film at Artists Television Access that had these sequences where two frames of video would be looped and repeat over and over for minutes at a time. The effect was the same as when you repeat a syllable or two over and over again until it looses its meaning and becomes this weirdly suggestive drone. So, I started taking and looping photos of friends, like this one:


See this one in its full twitchy context here at the original Mock Duck project, where there’s some crude, oddball interactivity thrown in to boot.

I liked to over-compress my animated GIFs on purpose so they started to take on a weird broken-up dotted texture, like the halftone pattern visible when you peer at a newspaper from up close. In this sense, they differ from the ones on GIF Party, which tend to go in for more of a high-tech uncompressed look.


taylor_keith_birdnest_artworkimageI’m a sitting duck for things like Ian Frazier’s mammoth account of his road trip across Siberia in the current New Yorker (subscription required to read article, but there’s also a free podcast about his trip). For one thing, I’m morbidly obsessed with the gulag – Russia’s infamous penal colony system – and once spent a year reading gulag-related literature to the exclusion of almost everything else. Second, I can never get enough of hearing how big Siberia is, always couched in different exciting terms: 8 time zones! One-twelfth the land mass on earth! etc.

Then, perhaps most of all, there’s the sheer haplessness of the place and the stories of persistence of the human spirit in this environment that are equal parts pathetic and touching. Consider, for example, this toss-off line in Frazier’s piece:

Phillip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swede captured by Peter the Great’s army at the Battle of Poltava, in 1709, and sent with other Swedish prisoners to Siberia, wrote that the region had six species of deer, including the great stag, the roe deer, the musk deer, the fallow deer, and the reindeer. He also mentioned a special kind of bird whose nests were so soft that they were used for socks.

[emphasis added]

Just when you think you’re all gulag-ed out, along comes the heart-breaking image of an exiled Swede dutifully cataloging the wildlife while trudging around in his bird nest socks. I’m sufficiently inspired to have already gotten a beat on my Phillip Johann van Strahlenberg Halloween costume for this year.

Fun with bribes

I’ve always been fascinated by the protocol of petty bribes: the folded bill nonchalantly inserted into a functionary’s pocket, the suavely encoded ‘suggestion’ indicating what the bribe is for. One of my unrealized goals in life is to subtly condescend to someone by pretending to try to bribe them with a one dollar bill. Imagine your friend drags you to a posh nightclub that you don’t want to go to anyway and the doorman refuses you entry because you’re wearing sneakers instead of fancy shoes. Theatrically slip him a crumpled $1 and conspiratorially murmur, “My friend George Washington would like to join the party,” then enjoy the series of expressions that pass over his face as he realizes that you’ve essentially tried to buy him off with a candy bar.

In the Czech Republic, these ‘My friend so-and-so…’ lines take on an added dimension because the historical figures printed on Czech bills have biographies that are both more dramatic and obscure than their American currency counterparts. Imagine the fun/confusion that could result  from slipping someone a 100 crown note (equivalent to five dollars) and indicating, “My friend Jan Komensky would like to come in and develop a language where false statements are impossible.” Or: “Excuse me, but I think my friend is late to his defenestration.” A Tomas Masaryk would set you back about $250, but you would get to say, “My friend would really like to join the League of Nations.”


Czech currency, incidentally, is really beautiful–  I will be sad when it’s eventually retired in favor of the Euro. The very first Czechoslovakian bank notes (along with the first stamps) were designed by the great art noveau artist and Czech patriot Alfons Mucha.

The midget folio

This is a book I once saw in the rare books room of the San Francisco Library called Quads Within Quads. It was published by an oddball British printer named Andrew W. Tuer in 1884 and contains a collection of jokes about printing.

The jokes about printing that I am capable of understanding are generally pretty corny and hard to explain and not really worth the effort of explaining anyway. Take, for example, the left-hand page pictured below: you see a caption THE NEW STEAM COMPOSITOR under a robotic figure of someone standing at a weird kind of table. The joke is that steam-powered presses had been introduced earlier in the century to speed up the printing process; compositing, meanwhile, was the thankless task of assembling metal type by hand (thus, the weird table which held the type); therefore, one expects to see some sort of newly-invented machine that automates the task of compositing but instead sees a compositing automaton. Get it? No? OK, let’s just move on…

The great thing about Quads Within Quads is that it was printed with a square section cut out from the middle pages, like where you might hide a bottle of whiskey or a roll of microfilm. So, what’s placed in the cut-away square section? A miniaturized version of the same book. Apparently, this is called a ‘midget folio’ (when you produce a mini-version of a larger book). I was a little disappointed to learn that the miniaturized version does not itself contain an even smaller version, and so on and so forth like Russian dolls.

Quads Within Quads


Top photo: both versions together. Lower photo: zoom-in on midget folio.

Nerd Time: The Leopard Seal

UntitledA few years ago, I got really into reading accounts of extreme adventures and explorations. There’s something comforting about sitting in the warmth of your living room while other people haplessly freeze to death, fall of cliffs, catch on fire, have their still-beating hearts removed by Mayan priests, or  get half-digested in a the stomach of a whale and emerge bleached and peevish.

During this time, I read two accounts of the Shacktelton expedition. Basically, Shackleton and his mates head off from the south pole, but their boat gets frozen in ice in the Weddell Sea, effectively trapping them for 6 months of dark Antarctic winter.  Adorably, they actually stage puppet shows and stuff like that in order to maintain their sanity. Eventually, the ship is crushed by ice and the crew is forced to float around on giant ice bergs for months trying to sail their way out of the sea to land.

All sorts of terrible stuff happens, but one thing that was really a head-scratcher for me was the frequent account of attacks by Leopard Seals. Leopard Seals? Apparently, this is a species of carnivorous seal specific to the Antarctic. Shackleton and his crew are constantly trying to drift off to sleep on their flying ice floe when this leopard seal thing clambers out of the sea and starts attacking them. Apparently, it’s a worst-of-both-words proposition, in the sense that the Leopard Seal is dangerous (like a non-seal) but totally fatty and non-nutritious (like a seal). So, once they kill it, there’s still nothing in it for the beleaguered crew

All this makes for a good scenario to re-enact with guests as an after-dinner game. Just commandeer a few sofa cushions to use as ice floes.

(Above: real Leopard Seal cranium. Eek.)