Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Geek hipster: I was a nerd before it was cool

I recently read these two articles on, which is both suspiciously informative and highly NSFW. Anyway, these articles are proposing that the term "nerd" or "geek" is being outdated in these modern times because all the things that used to be associated with these words is now "cool" and "mainstream" and "pop culture". And before the hundreds of you spam the comments with how "nerd" is different from "geek" and post links to their etymologies, I'm going to start here by saying that I'll be using the terms interchangably, since they (used to) have the same general connotation, i.e. in that you were a social misfit because of certain reasons, like having a collection or being a gamer or basically being a fan of anything that was not mainstream.

If you examine some of the social and technological explanations put forth by the articles of why this change has come about in modern culture, it makes a lot of sense. The era these words were thrown about was a time where money was paramount, and that getting a house and a car and a girlfriend were the most important things in life. There were no computers in those days, not the computers we know of; and there was certainly no Internet. People were ostracized for having an unconventional hobby, or for valuing something that wasn't valued by the majority.

It's all different now. Technology has changed a lot of things. The Internet connects like-minded people together now in ways never before seen. And when companies realised that there was such a large population of people willing to part with their money for obscure things that they could mass-produce, the economies of scale just racked up. Intelligence isn't a minority anymore - you need some brains to operate all the technology around you (though the world is still full of idiots). Things that used to be exclusive to a small group of enthusiasts are now being introduced into the mainstream media, being pop culture.

A lot of you may wonder why I'm writing about this phenomenon, because how can it be a bad thing? People who used to be ostracised and shunned and excluded now have their interests shared by a large majority of like-minded people! It's like Hitler announcing that Judaism was "quite cool" and having a bunch of Nazis come over to your bar mitzvah in their yarmulke and shouting along while you say "Oy vey". You are not reviled or hated anymore, but are one of many; how can that be bad?

I put forth two reasons why the world isn't as straightforward or wonderful as that. The first is quite understandable: geeks and nerds still exist. There are still people who are ostracised for liking things which are not mainstream. One example that comes immediately to mind is anime in Singapore (and Japan, for that matter, but let's keep things within our borders). It's still being shunned by a lot of the outside world for a lot of the same reasons comic books were shunned back in the day. Though its followers are growing in numbers, they are still generally perceived as reclusive peverts who would rather indulge in "cartoon" girls than "real" girls. It's not even that anime is more risque or explicit than other types of media - Hollywood has been sexing it up for years - but it's just not common enough yet to enter any kind of national consciousness.

I have very few problems with people who like specific things: games, anime, guitar, sewing, high-altitude skydiving - I mean, whatever makes you happy, right? What I do find sad about these people is that they are usually fanatically devoted to their area of interest, but are woefully ignorant in a lot of other areas. I guess this is more of a personal thing: I prefer to be a jack of all trades, to dabble in all knowledge, whether it be psychology or pop culture, because knowing a bit about everything means that you'll never be stuck in conversation with another person. And a lot of humour nowadays is pop culture and, as a comedian, I strive to know about my world and all the funny relationships between everything in it. So it really saddens me that some people don't know who George Clooney or Anne Hathaway is - like, you don't have to obsessively follow every tabloid and stalk every TMZ news-site and rattle off the list of actors and actress who have won an Emmy three times - but it never hurts to know a bit about everything.

The second reason why the world isn't a better place now that nerdism is mainstream is because nerdism still isn't. Not in the way that it was ostracised in the past. Even though a lot of ideas have filtered into mainstream media, the inherent nature of pop culture is that it has to cater to the masses, which usually involves a lowest common denominator of some kind so that the most number of people can like or understand it. Everything is watered down. I think the Internet has to take some of the blame here: by reducing our attention spans to only process the most repeated short bursts of information, the market for quick, compartmentalised entertainment is the market right now.

I watched The Dark Knight Rises yesterday, and at the end of the movie I was just mindblown. As a comics fan for almost a decade now, I thought Christopher Nolan's vision of the classic characters was fantastic, and as a fan of good storytelling I thought his trilogy capstone was jusy bloody brilliant. And as I'm sitting there in the theatre watching the credits roll, taking deep breaths to calm the blown-away feeling, I realise that none of the people now streaming out of the cinema will ever get the full effect of what I was feeling then, that same level of "holy-crap-that-was-awesome" that defined that movie for me. Because I knew the lore. I knew what all the characters represented and symbolised before I stepped into that dark hall, and I knew their relationships and their true identities, and somehow the big reveal and plot twist in the end was so much more meaningful to me as a comics fan, than it would probably be for someone who is just watching it to see Batman punch the crap out of a bunch of thugs. Comic books are still not mainstream; comic book movies are.

Here's the thing: I don't want to come across as a snob, that just because I know more about the comic book history I am better than you in any way. That's not what I was feeling at all. I actually want to know how to transmit that feeling into more people, people who have never picked up a comic book before and who might do so now. Because that feeling is one of the best feelings in the world, and I don't deserve to be the only one to have it.

Geeks get the girls,
The Edna Man


So, that was The Dark Knight Rises.

I have no idea what to do with my life anymore.

Mister Nolan, you are a genius, and I salute you. You are also a sneaky, conniving bastard, and you sold me so completely that I thought you had changed the lore. And for that, I thank you, because if you didn't, I wouldn't have enjoyed myself so immensely. You sly, double-crossing con-artist master of misdirection you.

You couldn't have picked a better Catwoman,
The Edna Man

Monday, July 09, 2012

Barking Spiders!

So, after all this time, I finally finish Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy.

It started out a couple of years ago, when I picked up Leviathan from a library. I recognised the author's name, having read bits of his Midnighters series before (first and third; I never could find the second book). And the blurb was too interesting to ignore.

Then a couple months ago I decided to get the set as a birthday present for Ernest. It was during the Great Singapore Sale, and I realised that it was so worth it then I went back a couple weeks later to get it myself.

And I just finished the last chapter a couple hours ago.

The Leviathan trilogy is an alternate history set in the chaos of World War I. In this steampunk world, Charles Darwin not only theorised evolution, but discovered DNA, the "life chains" which form the basis of every living creature. A few decades later, Britain is a metropolis of genetically-modified creatures, replacing machines in almost every regard. In contrast, German scientists shunned treads when constructing their war machines, and instead developed walker technology. The two world powers, Darwinist and Clanker, are poised on the brink of destruction.

The assassination of the archduke of Austria-Hungary is enough to plunge Europe into war. On the night his parents are killed, young Prince Aleksandar of Hapsburg is smuggled out of the family home and into the wilderness, heading to the neutral territory of Switzerland. Meanwhile, in London, a young Scottish girl who wants to fly dresses up as a boy and joins the Royal Air Service as Dylan Sharp, and ends up aboard the pride of the British fleet, the Leviathan.

It's a fantastic set of books and probably the first steampunk setting I've plunged myself into. Without giving away too much of the plot, the story has everything, from secret romances to badass inventors, airship battles to walker revolutions, intricate politics to adorable lorises. Also, did I mention the giant freaking airship made from a genetically-modified whale, or the giant tesla cannon which was supposed to warp the Earth's magnetic field as a weapon?

Because it's the world that Mr. Westerfeld has created that has enthralled my imagination. From one worldbuilder to another, it's not easy to come up with a world that works on its own. Sure he had our history to guide him along, but the technology is so vastly different, it's life-changing. And he didn't have to just plan out one civilisation: Britain, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, America and Mexico are just a few places on the global tour.

And what's so great is that everything is so well thought out, like how well everything fits together in a system that works. What sold me, in the first book, was this small description about the signal system aboard the Leviathan, the giant whale flagship of the British fleet. The foundation of Darwinist technology, true to their name, is the use of fabricated creatures in lieu of the many machines we use today (or at least, in those days). And the Leviathan operates not just as a single creature, but as an entire ecosystem: kept buoyant by hydrogen, which is produced by bacteria in the whale's gut; the bacteria are fed organic food - honey, collected by the fabricated bees and game caught by the ships aerie of strafing hawks, which double as weapons against enemy airships and aeroplanes. This barely scratches the surface, but I want to talk about the signal system.

See, the bridge has to send signals to the engine pods to dictate the speed of the ship: full ahead, half speed, etc. So instead of the crank system that I keep seeing in ocean liners, they have a fabricated piece of cuttlefish skin on each end of artificial nerve wiring. A piece of coloured paper is placed over the one in the bridge, and the creature's skin mimics the colour, which is imitated by the other piece of skin over at the engine pods. That's barking brilliant, that is.

So, read Leviathan, and Behemoth and Goliath. Don't let the "young-adult" tag scare you off one of the best imagined worlds of all history.

Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube.
Let others wage war; you, happy Austria, marry.
The Edna Man

Monday, July 02, 2012

Of Cats and Comics

Okay so I had a very weird night this morning.

I surface from unconsciousness at around 5:30 am, still confused from some forgotten dream. I was going to immediately slip back under, when I catch this noise on the edge of my hearing. My first thought was, naturally, that it was some Fatal Frame ghost here to devour my soul, but then when I struggle back to awakeness, I realise it sounds more like a television set left on. But I could see my hallway from my room, and there were no flickering lights, and my parents' room was dark.

As I strained my ears trying to identify it, I realised the sound was more like a television left on with people speaking continuously, but like muffled and piped in from the end of a long tube. I curiously wonder if it's a neighbour's set left on, or possibly watching some final Euro cup match, but the dialogue was incomprehensible, and too continuous to be anything from a programme.

So I lay there on my bed, irritated to death about the noise but trying to get back to sleep. About five minutes into the repetitive background soundtrack, the sound gracefully morphs into a cat's long MRRREEOOOOOOWWL and I realise that I awoke to the sound of kitty porn. I mean, sheesh, get a room! Now I understand why cartoons always show people throwing boots at cats at night.

Anyway, I get back to sleep. A couple hours later I'm having another dream. I'm not making any of this up, and I cannot believe how insane my brain gets when it's trying to organise thoughts while I'm in hibernation mode.

The dream is about this game show called "Man Up", which is a mind-over-matter type show and tries to see if their contestants can overcome certain problems by just "manning up and doing it". This episode, contestants were myopics and were challenged to overcome their shortsightedness by not wearing their glasses, and see if their eyesight improved over the course of the game. Their glasses were kept in an easy-to-access location and surrounded by cameras, so that any contestant succumbing to temptation would be eliminated from the game.

There's a mix of male and female contestants, and they were locked up in a house and forced to not use their spectacles for a week. One part my brain televised was a short interview of one of the women, after a day of blurry vision, and the hosts were asking her "Have any of you started dating?" and the woman said, "What? No!" and one of the hosts said, jokingly, "Yeah, because the love triangle would be too big, right?" And they all laugh, but the woman stops suddenly with a serious face and pulls out a huge chart depicting the romantic relationships of all the contestants.

My brain wisely cuts to the next scene, and it's the end of Day 1, and with everyone managing to survive without their eyewear for a day. So in the Survivor-style wrap-up, there is a game challenge for the remaining participants. And the game works like this: they each pick a guy from the two teams and task them to write two four-panel comic strips each. The catch is that when one strip is placed above the other, each column is supposed to be coherent when read downwards.

Still with me so far? The catch is that the first strip has to be about Mr Bean, and the second strip has to be about bananas, and the dialogue in each column-comic, when read, must produce a lie, or a false statement. Also, they are given little pictures on small squares, which they must incorporate into the first comic.

So my subconscious is looking at one of the strips, and it's amazing. The top row shows four men on an island, separated into four panels but it's one of those panorama comics, and the last one is Mr Bean. And this particular guy got pictures of body parts, so he incorporated them into his four men. I remember the picture of Mr Bean in the last panel was eating a banana. And the thing is, he wrote his dialogue under the four cards, so I couldn't see what it was. The strip below was made up of anthropomorphic bananas, each saying some short catchphrase, and I only remember in the last panel the words "You, and me." And I was sooooo freaking excited to see what the downwards colums would read, but I couldn't because they were blocked by the cards, and then, to my utmost horror and disappointment, I woke up.

Scumbag brain,
The Edna Man