Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Friday, November 7, 2008
Every four years, talk of dismantling the Electoral College drags itself, if only temporarily, into the public mind. Critics argue it undermines the concept of pure democracy by placing greater importance on some states over others. They also point out how a candidate can win the popular vote, the Vox Populi, yet lose the election. Both observations I agree with. Yet, to make a national election hinge solely on the popular vote fails to avoid both the aforementioned thorns. Take for example the battle ground state of
A simple solution I’ve been mulling over is having two layers of pure democracy. The first layer consists of leaving the popular vote on the state level just as it is. The change I’d make is this: whoever wins the state’s popular vote wins the state, and the candidate who wins the most states wins the election. In this system, no state is more important than then any other. Candidates would have to win a broad appeal across the country to win the election.
Have at it.
2020 Update. 12 years later. Nothing has changed. The Electoral College is still both hero and villain. It all depends on who you ask. Maybe that means it has just the right amount of flaws and strengths? Hmmm....
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
A few years back Mark and I produced a comic about giant zombies titled The Tall and the Dead, a mostly comedic tale of the Zombie Apocalypse featuring undead of ungodly proportions. Mixed into the jokes were a number of serious observations about the world. We are, after all, students of the Romero School of Zombie. The above panel is such an observation. Its topic is politics. In three panels, we illustrated a basic tactic in politics as old as society: control the language and you control thought. Control thought and you control people.
Don't like a rival? Call him or her a name and burden them with the weight of history. Stink them up with inference. Bloody their hands with the actions of others. Facts don't count, remember. We're talking politics. Repeat it enough and people will believe it.
Don't like a group of people? Use a label that invokes and evokes emotion. Better yet, take a loner's actions and wonder aloud within earshot of a live microphone. Wonder how many others are just like (insert name here). Suddenly, this person's name becomes a deadly germ. People will smile while gladly hacking off a healthy limb to avoid the slightest contamination. Guilt by implied association. Say it loud enough and people will remember it.
Will someone please invent a rehab program for the American political system so we are all free of its addiction to coercive labels and its unauthorized conscription of the language? Is that so much to ask? Is it?
I'm Sam Girdich and I approve this message.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Our second Strongarm Interview features the musician Smeff. Some on Myspace are already familiar with this multi-talented bard, but not nearly enough. 2008 marked the release of his solo album Letters From Oblivion.
**Without revealing your real name, unless you want to, why did you adopt a singular, monosyllabic nomenclature? In Letters From Oblivion, Smeff is a secret agent. Is Smeff more than a nickname? Has Smeff grown into an outlet for you, or is Smeff a fun device in your creative process?**
My real name is Jeff, but "Smeff" has been a nickname for years. I think it was Dez Tillman, my old bass player, who called me that first. Dez is an interesting character--long dread-locked hair, skateboarder, excellent guitar player--not someone I would presume to question about such labels; he just started calling me that, and it was so. Most of my musician friends have called me Smeff ever since, so when I went solo, it just seemed the natural choice for a "stage" name.
The "Secret Agent" thing was a fluke. This artist named "Etchi" and I got to talking about a graphic novel he was working on. He needed some male models for characters and he asked if I would be interested. We wrote back and forth on it for a few weeks, we came up with this "Agent Smeff" character, and he did some preliminary drawings which had my physical features mixed with crazy weapons (like a "smoke gun") and a fast sports car, etc. But as soon as I mentioned anything about profit sharing on the project, he split--no more contact, no acknowledgment, nothing.
A few weeks later, he started producing finished works in my likeness under a different name ("Agent 69" or something). There's nothing I can do to prove I had anything to do with the character, so I just dropped the whole thing. (Interestingly enough though, if you look at the early pictures of "Agent Smeff," he has a gold tie clip with "SL" on it for "Smeffland Incorporated." That's gone now in the final drawings since he changed the name.)
(INSERT Early panel of the Etchi "Agent Smeff" character.)
However, we had talked about turning the thing into a movie, and on a whim, I did the "Agent Smeff" theme song (this all before he bailed on me). I still had the dumb song, so I put it on the album. The "Maltese Midget" bit was just an extended (8 minute) joke based on the "Agent Smeff of Smeffland Incorporated" bit that we came up with. "If Everyone Was Nice" was just a final variation on that theme. The only other thing I did with the agent motif was the original video ad for the album, the one where I'm tied to the chair in the underground lair getting beaten-up by thugs. After that I just circular filed the whole thing.
Smeff is just my name, period. No hidden meanings or future plans for it. It's just like any band choosing a name for itself. It's something to call me and something that identifies my music. No mystery here. The only mystery is why the first album was so weird! And the answer is, because I've got a weird side--too many B-movies as a child.
**How many instruments can you play and what is your musical background? Formal training? Self taught? Both?**
I play drums, keyboards, and guitars, plus I do all my own recording, mixing, and mastering. I think of myself as an accomplished drummer and sound engineer and a so-so guitar and keyboard player. Of course, you never stop learning, but I am definitely not Steve Vai. In fact, there are old ladies teaching Sunday school who are better guitarists than me, but I do what I can to get by.
My parents set me up with piano lessons when I was about nine years old. When I was eleven, I said I wanted to play drums because my older cousin was a professional jazz drummer. They found a fantastic drum teacher, Kurt Ritchie, and he taught me everything I know about percussion. After studying with him for a few years, he forced me (really forced me!) to play drums in a country-rock band with a bunch of forty-somethings (I was barely old enough to drive!) and I did it. It was a sink or swim situation, but it taught me loads about music and live performance, and loads about life in general (fifteen years old and playing in biker bars and honky-tonks; your eyes are
**It's time consuming to learn a single instrument and you've tackled many. My hat's off to you. Was your family musically inclined and were you following in their footsteps? Speaking of parents, what did they make of your honky-tonk gigs? Any memorable stories the world should know about?**
Oooh, good questions...
My parents were both in marching band in high school--Dad on trombone (or some kind of horn) and mom on the clarinet. Mom played piano for as long as I can remember. But the real influential thing was the stereo. My dad always had a killer stereo system, like the best you could buy back in the sixties. And he had this fantastic record collection--Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, all kinds of Big Band stuff, Jonathan Winters comedy albums, tons of old Bill Cosby records, and on and on. It was mostly great music and great comedians.
The one album he had that really blew my mind as a kid was the original stage performance recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar." I would listen to that album over and over--the overture still gives me chills, it's so fucking cool--the best rock opera ever written. When I heard that, it warped my reality.
The earliest picture of me (besides newborn baby pictures) is one where I'm like one year old with these huge headphones on. The look on my face is "what the hell is going through my ears right now?!?!" It's pretty much the emblem of my childhood; I spent the whole thing sitting on the carpet in front of my dad's stereo late at night with headphones on listening to geniuses.
After that, it was my drum teacher, Kurt Ritchie, who introduced me to "Farewell To Kings" by Rush. That album affected me in my teens like "Jesus Christ Superstar" blew away my childhood. I haven't been the same since...
My parents were very supportive of my playing in the bars at a tender age. People just weren't as uptight about things like that back then like they are today. It did get weird sometimes though, and if they knew what was going on, they probably would have yanked me out of it pronto.
I once had a twenty-three year old woman proposition me by whispering what she'd do to me if I took her home; I was fifteen at the time. When our guitar player told her how old I was, she just about spit her beer.
I made the mistake of leaving the original band when I got hoodwinked by the new keyboard player we'd hired. He convinced me that we could form a better band with just him and me, that he knew people, and that I should leave these guys and help him form his new super group. I was gullible. It turned out that he was just a burnt out drunk and nobody wanted him around. I'm sure he drank himself to death a long time ago, but it taught me a esson about fast talkers and my own ego; both could lead me astray.
**Let’s talk marketing and the internet.
You had a Myspace page before you had your own site, Smeffland.
Was this by design or out of convenience? And what, for you, are the strengths and weaknesses of each for a musician?**
I guess it was by design. Before I went solo, every other band I was in always had a Myspace site; it's easy to set-up and free to run, so why not. Plus, I just like Myspace. Some of the best friends I have today I met on Myspace years ago, so I just like it for personal reasons (and just for the record, Facebook is LAME! I hate it. Why anybody paid millions for that crap I'll never understand...)
Smeffland. com is more for marketing the c.d., and it's undergoing a major overhaul this month. We're streamlining it down to the essentials and getting rid of the cumbersome animation that makes it load slowly. I really think it's going to be much cooler and I can't wait till it's done. Hopefully it will be finished in October.
Websites are essential if you're serious. They can be a lot of work, depending on how elaborate you want to be, but they are as common in the business world as morning coffee. If you don't have a website, no one thinks you're serious, whether that's right or wrong. I mean, people have websites for their pets!
It's like websites today are what the Yellow Pages were decades ago, only they're cheaper, much more effective, and a lot more fun. The only weakness is in those same facts; everybody and their mother has one, so even though it's important to get one, just because you have one doesn't mean you're diddly-squat.
Even if you get five-hundred hits a day, it doesn't mean they're going to shell out money for your c.d. I always think of that Simpson's episode where Homer makes a website as the "Internet King," and he thinks that just because he's online now, people will start throwing money at him. It doesn't work that way. It's a battle of marketing, name recognition, timing, luck, and talent, probably in that order. And there's a million other bands and musicians fighting that same battle.
**Myspace is how I discovered your music. Since I purchased Letters, I am a slash in the win column for using Myspace as a marketing tool. But you said it yourself, there are a million other bands trying for that sale. What are you doing to separate yourself from the sea of competition? And is it easier or harder to survive in music as a primarily one-person operation?**
First off, I'm trying to make better music. I know my work is different from most of what's out there already, which is good and bad. Being different and unique is a big plus if you catch on, because then you're leading the new wave, whatever that wave may turn into, instead of chasing the bus by just doing what everybody else is doing. But you've got to catch on and get a following or you're just a guy (or band) doing something different that nobody likes.
But deliberately trying to be different is a dead-end too. You just have to do what you feel and throw caution to the wind; it's the only honest way to make any art. But the key is to do what you feel and do it well. And I'm not there yet, but every album is bringing me closer to that ideal marriage of creative honesty and skillful execution.
But bottom line, you start with good music. Sure, there's plenty of "successful" bozos making "bad" music, but it won't be around in five years. An honest musician will deal with the real question; do I love making music, or am I just in love with the idea of being a "successful" musician, i.e., a rich one with a famous face? If the answer to the first part is no, and the second is yes, then quit music and go to business school--you'll have a much better chance at riches there than in music. But if the answers are reversed, then start by doing your best to make good music. Then the rest is all marketing, and for that, call your ex-guitarist who quit the band and went to business school, or read some books on the subject.
But in spite of all the bullshit about name recognition, promotions, distribution, etc., if people like what you do because it's good and it moves them, you've won most of the battle. Look at Vincent Van Gogh. His paintings sell for millions. Of course, he never saw a dime of that money during his life, and he sure could have used it. But his art was sincere and from an honest source of creativity, so it ultimately succeeded. Thus, it really boils down to what's really important to you. Art or money? You CAN (maybe, if you’re lucky) have both if you truly love the first, but you CAN'T have the first if you only love the second.
I think it's easier as a solo artist than as a band. Bands are like a really rough marriage; they're hard to keep together. When you're solo, you hold all the cards, and if things bomb, you've got nobody to blame but yourself. But to be honest, playing music with friends--when it works--is more fun. At least the creative process is, because you have someone to share the moment with. Solo music is like being a painter; long lonely hours in a dark studio. It lends itself better to recluses rather than socialites.
**If you could evolve any creature on the planet to self-conscious, existential intelligence what would it be?**
How did we go from internet marketing to this question? But okay, that's an easy one: mankind. Because we are obviously not self-conscious, existentially intelligent beings yet or we wouldn't be destroying ourselves and the planet just so we can have a lot of "stuff" that we don't need. What a bummer note to end an interview on...
Music does change people, I have no doubt about that. Look at hip-hop. Millions of teenagers changed the way they dressed and spoke in only a few years largely because of it. It's had a huge impact, for good or for ill, on our society in a very short time. But whether music can (or has) really made "positive" social change, I can't say.
I see music as personal psycho-sexual communication between the musician(s) and the listener. Musical notes are vibratory energy at a primordial level that strikes a sympathetic vibration in all hearing human beings. It transcends language. Music is pure communication on a mystical level with words being optional. You can be deeply moved by a piece of music that has no lyric. How do you explain that? I defy anyone to explain it outside of emotional terms; it's impossible, other than to conclude something like, "I don't know--I just like it! It makes me feel..."--fill in the blank.
Music, like sex, has an impact on the world, but what it is and whether it's "good" or not, I cannot say. I just know that I love it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
In his own words:
Widgett Walls is the chief cook and bottle washer of Needcoffee.com, the pop culture website he founded on an etch-a-sketch attached the internet via two cups and some string back in 1998. He previously had worked as a content provider and editor at the now defunct Corona’s Coming Attractions. He writes under the pseudonym of John Robinson at times, and has published a novel, *Mystics on the Road to Vanishing Point*, and a book of short stories, *Magnificent Desolation*. His first children’s book, *There’s a Zombie in My Treehouse!*, co-written by Ken Plume and with art by Len Peralta, is due out this fall. He lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia. He hardly ever sleeps.
**It is 1998. Ultra-sleek computer monitors weight 50 lbs., a revolution in human existence called Virtual Reality is just around the corner, and the internet, still in diapers, is crawling along at 56 kbs. And then you come along and start a website that just celebrated its tenth birthday. How and why did that happen?**
Who told you about CapnPetesPiratePorn.com? Or did you mean Needcoffee? You meant Needcoffee. Sorry. That, like so many things in my life, started off as a joke and then got serious. It was me and some friends talking about pop culture crap to the point where we said, “Eh. You know? We should put some of this nonsense online. Just for the hell of it.” And now ten years later, I’m trying to turn it into my day job. How that happened…I honestly don’t know. I wish somebody could explain it to me.
** I was disappointed to find Googling CapnPetesPiratePorn.com yields nothing. I'll be upfront with that. I had visions of a salty dating site for Pirates. Work on that, will you?**
As for Needcoffee, would you then say pop culture knowledge is becoming a commodity? In order to make a living with it you either have to tap into a pre-existing demand or create a new one, and we both know pop culture is well established. But has it grown to the point where it is a resource? And if so or not, why?
Well, I think it’s important to have people that you trust sort of minding the store on pop culture. When I was growing up, you had three channels on television. Back then Fox, long before Fox News—just Fox—was a fourth channel. Oooo. And you went to the cinema because it was a novel thing to do and because if you missed the movie, you had no idea when you might see it again. And trips to the mall to hit the coin arcade were a big deal. You didn’t need anybody to help you weed through all of that because there wasn’t that much to weed through. If some great foreign film or new band showed up somewhere else—guess what? Even if I told you about them you probably couldn’t get access to them. So who cared?
Flash forward to 2008. The pop culture world is freaking unrecognizable to what it was back then. The comics that sell like crazy? Manga from Japan. Movies come at you from all directions now: the cinema is almost an afterthought. iTunes, TV, pay per view, DVD, Blu-Ray…I have a friend who never goes to the cinema anymore, ever. He downloads movies to his gaming console and watches them on his uber-television. How many channels can you get? It’s insane.
Now, you’ve got a lot of people who that’s their thing. They are otaku for any type of pop culture and they’re your subject matter expert. But there’s lots of people who want to have lives, you know? They don’t have time to keep up with all this shit. Hell, *I* don’t have time to keep up with it. But I think the resource aspect is somebody who can cut through all the bullshit and say, “Look, forget all that nonsense. Here’s what you need to know.” Where I think Needcoffee strives to be different—and where I hope we succeed—is that we want to add to the conversation. We want to ask the next question. There are lots of ooh-that’s-cool linkblogs. If you want one of those, go find one. There are lots of sites who—and this drives me crazy—will write up a huge story based on a casting announcement for Saw V. Look: I got that same press release. No one and I mean no one gives a shit about how happy the director is that this person got cast, or how happy they are to work with the director. It’s just “X was cast in movie Y and will be playing Z.” If there’s some additional useful information, or entertaining information, then great. Otherwise, done. That’s why I started Stuff You Need to Know. Just distill the pop culture news down to a manageable level, you know?
Okay, one last thing and I’ll stop. The other thing that drives me fucking mental are DVD reviews. 95% of sites do not review DVDs. They review movies and then list the DVD contents. That is NOT a DVD review. That is a movie review with DVD contents listed after it. If you’re going to review the DVD, you have to watch the whole thing. And that’s frankly why we don’t do a lot of full-on DVD reviews—because it takes a long time to get through a well-stocked DVD with features. But if we review something—we have watched the whole thing and we can tell you about the whole thing.
Was there a question? I got lost there.
**You wrote one of my favorite zombie short stories of all-time. **
Holy shit. Really? Thanks, man.
**What is the appeal of zombies?**
Geez, there’s so many reasons. Especially for the Romero zombies. It’s like in DAWN OF THE DEAD. “They’re us.” They’re a diminished shadow of ourselves. They’re also death, shambling after you. Seriously. You can run but they don’t have to sleep. They don’t have to stop to take a piss. They don’t get winded. They will simply keep coming until you either drop them or you get dropped. It’s what Max Brooks described as the first true “total war” in WORLD WAR Z. But also, zombies can signify anything in your life that will eventually catch up to you and demand it be dealt with. But death is some scary shit just on your own. Not even just for yourself, because what will you care, you’ll be dead. But the horror is in the deaths of loved ones. Outliving those you love. And having to then deal with them. The little girl in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, for example. The mother in SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Nobody wants to have to look at a loved one and see something that has to be destroyed. It’s pretty much the ultimate apocalypse.
And they’re a lot more horrific in my opinion than say, vampires. Because most of the time, vampires are either elegant and snooty or 30 DAYS OF NIGHT bad mamma jammas. It’s only when you get back towards a more zombie-ish vampire like in Matheson’s I AM LEGEND that you get horror. Otherwise a lot of it’s just thrillers. And I’ve got a big problem with thrillers dressed up as horror movies.
Now the Rage Zombies of 28 DAYS LATER are interesting too. Because it’s the rheostat turned exactly the opposite direction. It’s an over stimulated shadow of ourselves. They are us with all safeties off and all gauges in the red. But even more than that they’re the ultimate expression of “Oh shit, NOW what do we do?” Fast zombies are bad, bad news.
Did that even remotely answer the question?
** Yes and you touched upon two very interesting point on zombies. The first: ...zombies can signify anything in your life that will eventually catch up to you and demand it be dealt with. Does the current zombie craze underlie a subconscious anxiety in our culture? I ask because when I managed a large, independent video store a number of years ago, the horror rentals always spiked during tax season and school finals. Perhaps zombies are a meaning of venting about looming problems and the inevitable end of the flesh.**
Oh, I think horror movies in general are that way. How do you explain this really disturbing torture porn movement? What point is there in a story about strapping someone to a chair and carving bits off of them? What the hell is that about? But to get back to your thing, yes, I think zombies are a way of dealing with a lot of problems. You can very easily make them symbolize anything.
**The second...And they’re a lot more horrific in my opinion than say, vampires. I agree. Is that the reason why you can find people who believe in vampires, but you would be hard pressed to find someone who believes in flesh eating zombies? Logistics aside, of course. I'm asking about the concept of the zombie versus the concept of the vampire.**
Well, I don’t know. When you’re talking conceptually, the difference between one bit of undead and the next is intelligence and sense of style, I guess. Well, and diet. I’ve never heard anybody who actually believed in vampires—and I listen to Art Bell, so I’ve heard them—say, “Well, you know, I’m talking more about the CONCEPT than anything else.” They actually buy into it.
**Final note, what age range is THERE'S A ZOMBIE IN MY TREEHOUSE?**
It’s for twisted children of all ages. That being said, use your discretion when reading it to a three year old, say.
**What websites make life worth living?**
There are websites that make life easier, and some that are very cool, but none that make it worth living. Haven’t found one yet, let’s put it that way.
**Which make life a living hell?**
Dunno. If I ever ran into any that bad I simply wouldn’t go back. That’s the beauty of the Internet. Freedom of choice. That being said.. irs.gov.
**Does America REALLY run on Dunkin? If not, what does it run on?**
America runs on stubbornness. Coffee merely helps us stay up longer so we can be stubborn about more things longer.
**What are the cool websites you mentioned?**
Hmmm. There’s a lot. Offhand, I would say BLDGBLOG, Chortle for UK comedy news, bighappyfunhouse, Classic Television Showbiz, Dark Roasted Blend and Neatorama are excellent linkblogs, Modern Mechanix, TED.com, and everything I want to know about comics I get from Invincible Super-Blog and Occasional Superheroine. Just to name a few. My Google Reader list is ridiculous.
**Are you stubborn?**
Hell yes. Are you kidding? You can’t run a website for ten years or self-publish books and not be.
** Thanks, John**
Saturday, August 23, 2008
I wonder what will happen to it next.
Monday, August 4, 2008
The Con was fantastic. Each year the large companies, e.g. Hasbro, Gentle Giant Studios, Warner Bros, raise the watermark. The full detail, life-size replica of Nite Owl’s ship looked incredible. The fan costumes were also better this year. We saw a number of quality Star Trek TOS characters, Planet of the Apes, Steampunk, and Grendel costumes we had not seen before. On a side note, one big bonus to wearing an Exhibitor badge is the freedom of travel in and out of the Con, so we were able to walk the floors and examine the goods hours before the crowds flooded in. Nice. For LOST fans, I partook of the Dharma recruitment testing at the Con. It was a small booth, but a cool, very digital experience. Check out the website. Dahrmawantsyou. I went to a small bit of the LOST panel, which was also very cool, but left so as not to leave Mark alone for an extended period. Our table bordered Pirate Cove, My Nerd Girl, Sherri Smith, and Tyler Hutchison among others. Good stuff and nice people.
2008 marked our forth trip to
Notice I didn’t say our return flight went smoothly. This is TWO years in row,