Steampunk: An Analysis (sort of)

I first came across the term “Steampunk” earlier this year, and I had no idea what it was referred to. I was actually a little disappointed in myself that I might have missed some major cultural development. With the futuristic elements at first I thought it was based on some sort of “Blade Runner”-esque view of the future. You know, where there’s lots of punks, and… well… steam.

I should have known that wasn’t what it was about, but it was a while before I figured out that it referred to the Victorian period. It was capturing an alternate history where adventuresome “punks” manage to corral steam-age technology into accomplishing all sorts of futuristic feats. Ultimately, it goes back to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, who were able to envision fabulous technology in the future but based in the only technology they knew at the time.

The first thing that struck me about this, was how often the signs of a cultural movement show up before the movement is really defined. Taking punk music for example, the Stooges or the New York Dolls were performing their music before anyone was calling it “punk.” In the case of steampunk, I immediately started thinking about works like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” or “Neverwhere.” I also saw the origins of the style in goth style. I could even see how it developed looking at my stepdaughter’s progression from something vaguely goth to more and more focus on Victorian styles to the point where she bought a top hat and dressed as a sort of Mad Hatter for Halloween.

But the most remarkable thing about steampunk to me is that it even exists. If you think about other cultural movements in recent times, they all seem to be aimed towards the future– like hippies or new wave– or total nihilism– like punk. Either way they’re about significant change: trying to make society something different than what it is.

But steampunk doesn’t seem to be about making change now. Instead it’s almost like it’s an attempt to hit the reset button. We don’t like how this future turned out, so lets go back to the end of the 1800’s when all this wonderful speculation was happening, and let’s take a different route. It’s total escapism, but it reflects a deep dissatisfaction both with how things are now, and also a strong suspicion that nothing can be done about it. I think this makes it different than escapism like fantasy novels or sci fi. The former talks about the distant past or even completely alternate worlds, the latter envisions a future where at least we still exist, even if things are going significantly wrong. Steampunk seems to say “we messed up in the last 100 years, wouldn’t it be nice if we could try again?”

I’m not sure if this is good, bad, or indifferent; but I do think it’s worth considering what it might mean about us and about what direction we want our world to go.


November 9, 2009 at 9:12 pm Leave a comment

Right Here, Right Now

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I’ve been thinking a lot about the event. Looking back on it, it’s hard to describe just how shocking it was for this to happen, and so suddenly. I might have been more aware of the wall and the cold war generally, since I read a lot of spy novels and Tom Clancy books at the time, but I think it’s safe to say that at the time no one thought the wall would ever come down, or at least not in our lifetimes.

I had been dimly aware at the time of how relaxed travel restrictions from Hungary and Czechoslovakia had led to large numbers of East Germans leaving the country and trying to get to the west through those countries, but I didn’t think too much of it. Anytime there had been protest like this, inevitably the government would crack down, become more restrictive, and do everything they could to prevent things from getting out of hand. I just heard on a documentary about the fall that Erich Honecker had plans to further improve the wall.

But then came November 9th. News showed people standing on the wall. This was just inconceivable. How could they be there without being shot? As we watched we discovered that the East German government had tried to diffuse the situation by relaxing travel restrictions themselves, but the people realized even before the government did that this meant the wall had no purpose.

Anything could have gone wrong at any point along the way. The soliders could have fired to prevent the people from leaving: they had no orders telling them to let the people through. But the beauty of what happened that night is that the Berlin wall fell because the people wanted it to. After almost 30 years, it was finally too much, and it could not stand.

The other thing that I knew that night was that the cold war was over. It would be another year before reunification. Two before the USSR ceased to be. But it was those people standing on the wall that was the real end. And it still gives me chills.

November 8, 2009 at 9:07 pm Leave a comment

Digital Killed the Radio Star

For a couple years in college, I got to play radio DJ. I know that I wasn’t especially good, but I like to think that at least I played good music. Our college radio station was pretty low tech at the time. We liked to say that we were broadcasting with the power of a light bulb (a 100 watt transmitter on the highest point on campus). And our equipment was far from sophisticated: an ancient board hooked up to a couple cart players, a couple turntables, and a couple CD players.

As you can imagine, with a bunch of college kids running a radio station, it could sometimes be a challenge to make sure that you stayed on the air. Someone doesn’t show up for a shift, or they don’t pot up the right channel, and nothings going out. Dead air meant someone had screwed up, or the transmitter had crashed (again).

So it always amuses me when I hear professional radio stations hit dead air. But it never really occurred to me why that might happen until today. I had known for a while that radio stations had gone digital. After all, why have to keep swapping CDs and fading between channels when you can set the whole playlist up on a computer and just let it run?

But as I was driving home today, in the middle of the song, the radio station I was listening to went dead. I figured it was a fluke and waited for it to come back up. After several minutes of silence, suddenly, clear as a bell, the station broadcasts the Windows log-on sound.

Apparently, they had to reboot. Who knew that Windows was alternative rock?

November 7, 2009 at 5:48 pm Leave a comment

Blow, Winds!

It never ceases to amaze me how much of a difference wind direction makes when you’re riding a bike. Even on days when it’s calm, on a bike you can tell what direction the wind is coming from. If you’re pushing into it, just a slight change in pressure can make it harder to pedal.

Today was one of the days when, even though the wind was blowing steadily from one direction, down on the streets you could hardly tell where it was coming from. One moment you’ll be straining to make headway into the wind, then suddenly it’s at your back. The pattern of buildings and cross streets can play havoc with the winds if they’re blowing off the street directions. Since wind can make such a difference to how easy or hard my ride is going to be, I almost always check the NWS website before I leave on my rides. It just makes me feel better knowing what I’m getting into.

This close connection to the weather and the outdoors is one of the many reasons I love riding. This week I wasn’t able to ride for a couple days in a row, and I realized I had no clue what was going on with the weather. I mean, obviously I could see if it was sunny or not, and I could tell whether it was cold or warm. But I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t tuned into how the wind could indicate what the temperature would be later. Or whether it was going to rain the next day.

It seems that all the time we spend in cars and well lit, well insulated, cooled or heated spaces has broken our connection with the world around us. There was a time when most everyone would have a decent idea of what the weather was going to do based on the wind or the clouds. There’s a reason why the ancient festivals (and even the ones we still celebrate) were tied into the changing seasons. Our ancestors were so plugged into the world around them that even without our sophisticated tools they knew exactly when the seasons changed.

It seems a shame to me that we’ve lost that connection. And I’m glad that by riding my bike to work every day I can experience a little of what that was like.

November 5, 2009 at 11:23 pm Leave a comment

The Job

One of the many things I love about my job is how varied it is. The “public” part of “public library” means that we see all sorts, and see the best and the worst of people every single day.

A few events in the past two days really brought this home to me. Yesterday I had young woman come up to me to get her library card number, having lost the card. This is a completely normal transaction 99% of the time, but this time was in that 1%. As soon as I looked up her account I could tell there was something seriously wrong. Looking at the notes on her account I saw that there had been issues with reserved items going missing, and materials adding up to almost $800 checked out in February that hadn’t been returned. The notes indicated that we needed to find out what was going on. So I started to ask about what had happened.

As I asked questions the girl became visibly upset. When I asked what her current address was, she told me that she had been kicked out and wasn’t really living anywhere right now. When I asked about the materials that had gone missing, she said that she knew about the items that had been checked out, but her aunt had thrown them all away because “she hates me.” Since there was no chance of anything being checked out or any more reserves getting placed, I gave her the card number to get on the computers, and told her that if she wanted to she could report her aunt to the police for stealing the library materials. That was the best I could do for her under the circumstances, but that was all she really wanted. This poor kid, totally on her own, just wanted to use the library’s computer. As much as her situation ripped my heart out, this is exactly the sort of thing we’re here for.

On the other hand side, today as I was flipping through my tweets I came across two colleagues who were having a back and forth about the sorts of questions we get. Anyone who works in libraries can totally connect to these sorts of questions:

What’s really scary is that interactions like this actually start to make sense. To the point where you can probably figure out what the customer is actually looking for:

I love my job.

November 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm Leave a comment

Welcome Back

Yes, I know, I’ve been gone for far too long. It’s been almost a year since my last serious post, and six months since my last abortive attempt to get started again.

So where have I been? Here, mostly:


Why? I guess it’s easier to be snarky in 140 characters or less. Or maybe I’m just lazy. I’ll admit, a big part of it is that Twitter feels more like a conversation. The blog is more about self-centered navel-gazing, more or less.

Okay, that’s not fair. I’m a halfway decent writer. Maybe some people enjoy reading my rantings. Or at least it’s another way for folks to keep up with what’s on my mind.

At any rate, we’ve rolled around to NaBloPoMo once again, and once again I’m going to try to use it to get myself in gear. What’s different this time? Well, for one, over the summer I rehabbed an old laptop so now I don’t have to run to the office to do my entry. And once again I need to write. I’ve felt my chops slipping, and that affects not only my ability to write snarky rants on the Internet, it affects my ability to write halfway intelligent sounding pieces to actually create change in my profession.

So once more we attempt to make the Internet explode. On, NaBloPoMo!

November 1, 2009 at 9:43 pm 1 comment

Ten Random Things

One of our administrators added a bonus challenge onto our 23 Things: Tell everyone 10 random things about yourself.

That’s wonderful, really. But I have 2 minor problems. First, I have an unfortunate habit of thinking that everyone already knows everything about me. After all, since I know it surely everyone else does too, right? The other problem is that I like to tell stories, so I’ve totally lost track of which stories about me everyone’s already heard and which ones are new to people.

So chances are I’m going to bore you with at least half of this post. Hopefully the other half will make up for it.

1. I was born in Cincinnati but moved to New Hampshire before I was a year old, so I’m a New Englander at heart if not by birth. It’s a complete coincidence that I’m back in Ohio.

2. I’ve been a Red Sox fan since I was at least 6 (my favorite player was Jim Rice). My mother is a professional singer, and sang at an annual charity event where she was able to get me autographs of many former Red Sox greats (including Ted Williams), and also sang the National Anthem at Fenway park.

3. I started ringing tower bells at my home parish in Concord, NH when I was 9. I still ring the chime at Trinity Episcopal Church on the corner of Broad and Third and was written about in the Dispatch for it.

4. My father and I have climbed all 48 mountains in New Hampshire over 4000 feet elevation, and most of them we did together. This started when I was in junior high school and first got into hiking and woodsmanship and my father realized this was something we could do together during my teenage years. I know this went a long way to making my teen years much better than they might have been and bringing us closer together. We finally finished in 2003 when we climbed Mt. Moosilauke.

5. In college my summer job was working as a tour guide at Canterbury Shaker Village in Canterbury, NH.

6. In college I was very heavily involved in the theater: so much so that even though I graduated with only two half credits in drama, I co-won the departmental award. By the time my senior year rolled around there was literally no dramatic production on campus that I wasn’t involved with. In addition to acting, I stage managed, directed, built and designed sets, hung and designed lights, and co-founded an improv comedy group that performed professionally (twice). I even used those skills to work as a master carpenter for Actor’s Company of Pennsylvania for a few months after leaving college.

7. I first met my wife while she was still married because her ex-husband was friends with my best friend in college (it’s not as much of a soap opera as it sounds).

8. I have a 19 year old stepdaughter who’s currently attending Rochester Institute of Technology. When I moved in with them she was 6. So to all of my older colleagues who currently have teenage children or children in college, even though I’m younger than you I’ve actually already been there!

9. I moved to Columbus to enter the doctoral program in Philosophy at OSU. 4 years later I failed my candidacy exam, quit the program, started working at the library and wondered what I had been doing for 4 years.

10. Speaking of Ohio coincidences, I found out only after I moved here in 1996 that my grandmother’s family was from Columbus, and that 4 generations of that side of the family had lived in Central Ohio. If you go to the Cardington cemetery, I’m related to any Maxwell you see there.

Well, that’s ten. I’m sure there’s plenty more, and like I said I like to tell stories. Ask me sometime and I’ll probably yak your ear off!

December 3, 2008 at 6:41 pm 5 comments

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