Thursday, February 25, 2010

Conspiracy of Dunces

I have a huge interest in conspiracy theories, which I've covered before. In order to have any hope of understanding the core of illogic that underpins our political system, we have to try and figure out what motivates people to turn to this mode of inquiry, what makes them unable or unwilling to confront the essential confusion at the heart of the moving world. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism have equally useful and roughly analogous things to say about the fundamentally pathological relationship to knowledge we have established for ourselves as a society, one in which only total mastery amounts to insight. This is the regime that produces the desire for sealed, lost boxes that contain the answers to every unknown. Over at PopMatters, Jesse Hicks has put up a very thoroughly backgrounded report on one of the latest upwellings of the irrational desire for truth, Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

R.I.P. Def Jux 1999-2010

I’ve been pretty behind the curve on this, which should indicate how little I pay attention to U.S. underground hip hop as typically defined.  But apparently Def Jux decided to close down new releases effective a few weeks ago.  The L.A. Times has a thorough retrospective rundown of the label’s most exciting and important releases, many of which I was completely obsessed with during college, in particular Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein and El-P’s Fantastic Damage.  I recently did the writeup of The Cold Vein for Tinymixtape’s Best-of-the-Decade list, where it sits nobly at #17, up with Boy in Da Corner and Madvillainy in the territory that redefined rap and made possible things like (to cite only my most recent obsession) Die Antwoord

As sad as it is in some ways, I think the closure is a good call - It’s clear the label’s influence has waned mightily in the past five or so years, and it's better to go out with deserved recognition than to limp into half-remembered obscurity.   That same waning of significance is true of “the underground” as a whole.  You can look now at figures like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, and they’re basically institutions delivering quality, predictable product to a stable audience.  Not that that's the worst thing in the world, but there's not much newness entering the world via that door anymore. The only really exciting guy in the realm is MF Doom.  And let’s not even talk about Anticon, who have made a rather graceless transition from some really edgy, weird hip hop to a much more indie-rock centric outlook that I can’t say I’m too down with.  In the end, things come and go in culture, and something as amazing and singular as Def Jux simply could not stay meaningful forever.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Die Antwoord - My Inner Fuckin' Colored Just Wants To Be Discovered.

So I woke up this morning hung over after hanging out at Iowa City's main gay bar for the first time.  It's a weirdly faux-glam, cheap looking place, with moulding glued rather than nailed around the doors and lots of metallic spraypaint.  It’s clear that the gays around here need to get their shit together.  All the same, I had a hell of a night, the fake glitz lending just the right amount of seedy energy to proceedings – and then I woke up to the weirdly appropriate discovery of Die Antwoord, the South African “Zef Rap” crew that’s been blowing up the internet since a post on Boing Boing two weeks ago.  This is totally amazing music, if you’ve got a hunger for loud, clangy dubstep/future rap beats and strident, chest-beating raps with the ends bit off, all of it given a twist of adventurous artsiness.  You can listen to their debut, $O$, in full at their website

“Zef” is apparently roughly equivalent to chav in England or a certain breed of hip hop-obsessed redneck in the U.S.  Beat culture isn’t some child that grew full-formed from the head of black America (just ask Grandmaster Flash about Kraftwerk sometime), but whether you’re talking about Kid Rock, Ali G, or now Die Antwood, the appeal comes from an underlying image of toughness and bravado, derived from a cultural sense of blackness that’s being recycled and transformed by white people.  Whether this is good or bad or neither can be debated endlessly – I go back and forth, personally, and where I fall pretty much depends on how good any particular appropriation is.

Mark Trail - Who Knew?

A friend of mine just turned me on to this.  Mark Trail is an adventure comic about a guy who defends the forest from bad guys.  I laughed so hard I think I scared the neighbors.  You can read this genius in bulk here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cash Rules Everything Around Me: Is Freelancing Viable for an Underemployed Academic?

I don’t usually post personal stuff here, but I think my situation might be shared by quite a few people towards the end of their graduate school work, and it seems relevant to academia in general, albeit somewhat tangentially.  This year, due to major budget cuts at the University of Iowa, I got much less funding than I was expecting, and have been pretty significantly underemployed for about eight months now as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation.  In the fall I was teaching just quarter-time at the UI and now I’m teaching two classes at the local community college.  Neither of these pays badly for the amount of work involved, and I love teaching, but they haven’t been quite enough to cover my expenses.   Even with some part-time work on the side, I’ve managed to rack up more student loans over the last six months than over the course of my entire undergraduate and graduate career before that.  It’s still far from crippling, but it’s really bothersome.  I've been able to do some amazing things in the past because of my lack of debt, and taking it on now feels like mortgaging my future freedom significantly.  Even worse, the low-wage jobs I picked up to (try to) fill in the gaps ended up distracting me from the job search somewhat, and it’s seeming increasingly unlikely that I’ll find a full-time teaching/research position by next fall.  I’ve since quit those side-engagements so that I can focus on the last few months of the job search – in fact, yesterday was my last day working as a cashier at the university’s parking garages.

I have enough loan cash that, combined with my income from teaching, I don’t need to worry about money for about four months.  I also have several thousand dollars in stocks which I can fall back on, though I think I might face a tax hit for cashing out.  And like many grad students, I have parents who can help me out if I absolutely need it.  Those last two don’t really appeal to me, though (particularly the parents part), and although I anticipate having to look for an office job starting in the summer, I’m really hoping to take advantage of the possibilities of this little interregnum of being under relatively few obligations for the first time in several years – my dissertation largely complete, only working about 20 hours a week, and suddenly casting about for a purpose in life. With that backdrop, I’ve decided to spend the next three months or so on a kind of experiment - making money doing freelance writing.

Before I came to grad school, I had some interest in freelance writing as a way of making a living.  Now, even more than then, I have a head full of esoteric interests and I’m an above-average (and perhaps as important, fast and prolific) writer.  I didn’t have any success as a freelancer in my early 20s because I just tried to pitch a few articles here and there, mostly focusing on things I 'wanted' to write about.   I had a romantic vision of the freelancing life – persuing high-concept stories, executing them beautifully, eventually compiling them into book-length collections.  But the reality is that volume and diversity are the survival tools of the average ‘lancer, facts that are becoming clearer as I try and learn the lay of the land.   A lot of the cash in freelance writing has obviously migrated to the Web, where Search Engine Optimization and slow drips of ad revenue over time seem to be the model that has prevailed over pay-per-piece.  Still, I have some serious ambitions as a Writer with a capital W, so I’m trying to conceive a strategy that, over the next three months to six months, will begin to produce a small income stream and will potentially allow me, in the coming year before I have to plunge headlong back into the academic ratrace, the freedom to pursue some non-academic writing projects I’m interested in for less financial reasons.  My strategy, as far as I’ve thought it through, breaks down to several parts:
       1- Quick and Dirty writing for ad- and referrer-revenue based sites like Squidoo and eHow.  These are very, very tiny drips of money, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll turn out to be worth it, but it’s clearly possible to make a living just writing about fitness, cooking, and etc. for sites like this. 
       2 - Pay-per-piece freelancing through sites like and  These are sites where people looking to hire writers put up projects.  I have a pretty deep archive of work, so I should be able to get some unglamorous but paying work this way.
       3 - Putting together my own revenue-generating website.  My brother and I are collaborating at Haterade Gaming, which may end up becoming a small revenue stream if we can stick with it.

       4 -Conventional story concepts and cover letters for commercial magazines.  This market is dying, and maybe too competitive to be worth my while, but I have published in glossy magazines and have some real writing chops, so it would be crazy for me not to at least devote some effort to it.  My real goal here is to get someone to pay for me to go to India this summer and study Kerala martial arts.

My bigger goal is to try and make next year (assuming I don’t get an academic job) productive and fun, rather than just marking time.  I don’t want to move back in with my parents, but I also don’t particularly want to go out searching for a real job.  I’d rather figure out some combination of freelancing and part-time work to keep me afloat, but still free.  I see and hear about people living this lifestyle all the time, and it seems incredibly appealing.  Now’s when I have a chance to work towards having it for myself.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What Will The iPad do to the Magazine Market?

As part of my recent recommitment to popular writing as I enter the very end stages of my dissertation, I’ve been confronted with the rough reality of the writing market these days.  The iPad unveiling has got me really thinking about the possibilities of the device to do for magazines (and perhaps, magazine writers) what iTunes did for digital downloads, and the iPhone did for independent game developers – that is, open up a huge new revenue stream.  There seems to be a lot of promise here – but also a lot of uncertainty, both about the technology itself and about the ways people are going to use it.
I haven’t been able to dig up the 2009 numbers yet, but in 2008 alone the decline in magazine ads was between 8 and 12 percent.  This is partly cyclical, obviously – the down economy has been rough on everyone.  But it seems pretty clear to me that it’s also systematic, the product of wholesale shifts in eyeballs that inevitably effect ad value.  Even though people are reading more now than ever before, a huge proportion of that reading is online.  Meanwhile, the tech-nerd part of me finds magazines laughably dated. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Whaaaaaat! File sharing still exists like it's 1999.

I just got an invite to a closed-membership music torrents site that shall remain nameless.  I've only just started poking around, but I'm already blown away by the depth of what people are offering.  I worked for a website called Audiogalaxy in the 2000-2002 timeframe, and I've often sorely lamented the sites passing (and not just because I was out of a sick job).  The beauty of Audiogalaxy is that it both provided instant access to a stunning array of music, and provided links between similar artists, message boards, and other ways to discover new music.  The instant gratification was just amazing.  This new secret Fight Club-style underground site has something like that, or at least a little bit of it.  I'm thinking this is going to be a big year for my music consumption.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Joanna Newsom is Pretty Rad

I've sometimes been tempted to think of Joanna Newsom, as awesome as her first two albums both were, as something of a one-trick pony.  Her style is so extreme it can seem extremely limited, and only really tasty in small doses.  But this seems to show her growing her singing voice and musical style in a more mature direction - literally.  She sounds much less child-like (which always risked becoming child-ish) and more multidimensional.