Three Spheres for the Mouse!

Years ago, the late paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould cited Mickey Mouse as an example of neoteny, the evolutionary tendency for adult members of a species to acquire over time the features of their own infant counterparts. For instance, while we humans may bear only a passing resemblance to our hominid ancestors, who would seem brutish to us (not to mention unusually hairy) if we met them at a party, we bear a much greater resemblance, with our dainty features and unsloping foreheads, to our ancestors’ babies. Mickey Mouse, according to Gould, demonstrated a kind of cartoon neoteny, having gone from the relatively rodentine mouse of Steamboat Willie:

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

to the cuter, more infantilized mouse of later decades:

Mickey as infant mouse

Notice the shorter snout and larger eyes, which Gould claimed were features of infant or fetal mice. At a stroke, Disney had removed what was repellent to most people about mice — the beady eyes and questing nose — and made Mickey as cuddly as, well, a baby.

While Mickey’s initial function was to star in cartoons, he gradually took on a secondary function, one that now seems to be his primary role, that of corporate symbol. Mickey’s face has become better known (and perhaps always was better known) than that of his creator, Walt Disney, and certainly better known than the faces of any of the CEOs who have run the Disney corporation since its founder’s death. Amy and I have an annual pass to Disneyland this year, so we’ve seen a lot of the Mickster lately. It hasn’t escaped our notice that Mickey’s progression from rodent to infantile mouse has proceeded to places that Stephen Jay Gould never envisioned. Mickey has, in fact, become a complete abstraction. As a logo for Disney, Mickey has gone from a smiling cartoon face:

Mickey's face

to an abstract sequence of ovals:

Mickey Mouse as three ovals

In this respect Mickey has followed the path of recognizable simplicity pioneered by the logos for such companies as Apple:

and Nike:

Nike Swoosh

The three-oval Mickey logo has considerable utility — for instance, as the instantly recognizable identifier for a television channel:

Disney Channel identification

You can see examples of the abstract Mickey Mouse throughout Disneyland, perhaps most strikingly in the park benches, where Mickey seems to have fallen over on one ear:

Mickey Mouse park bench

But what’s most interesting to me about the three-oval Mickey is that, perhaps to a greater extent than any other corporate logo, it lends itself to extension into the third dimension. Simply replace the ovals with spheres and you have a version of Mickey that an experienced 3D artist can create in about five seconds:

This three-sphere mouse can then be rotated into perspective view:

Mickey wireframe model in perspective

and painted with color to give it a realistic solidity:

Mickey color 3D model

Does that three-sphere form in any way resemble a mouse? Not really. Yet it’s instantly recognizable as both Mickey and as the public face of the Disney Corporation. (This says a great deal about the human ability to recognize faces and forms given only the sparest of visual cues.)

This three-sphere Mickey has even more utility than the three-oval Mickey. At Disneyland and Disney World you can see it in the form of balloons:

Mickey Mouse balloons

which sometimes glow in the dark:

Glowing Mickey Mouse balloons

Or as tasty beignets in a New Orleans Square restaurant:

Mickey Mouse Beignets

But my favorite application of the three-sphere Mickey can be found hanging on our tree this Christmas:

This ornament can be purchased at the Disneyland gift shops in several different designs and color schemes. You can even get it with a more realistic Mickey — to the extent that a cartoon mouse can ever be described with the adjective “realistic” — climbing on top of it:

Mickey Mouse realistic ornament

So the modern Mickey isn’t entirely about abstraction and simplification. However, it’s possible for Mickey to be abstracted without being especially simplified. At first glance this t-shirt (found under the same tree where those ornaments are hanging) seems to depict a random collection of planets and moons:

Mickey planet t-shirt

until you view it in the correct orientation:

Another Mickey planetary t-shirt

It’s Planetary Mickey!  An artist, or maybe a Photoshop expert, has taken a set of what are probably NASA photos of our solar system (there’s also a spiral galaxy posing as Mickey’s right ankle) and assembled a surprisingly complex Mickey image from them. No three-sphere Mickey here! Indeed, Planetary Mickey even has that little bump on the tip of his snout (I suspect it’s Venus or maybe — no joke intended — Pluto) that represents what remains of his rodent nose.

Mickey’s in his 80s now, which may explain why you rarely see him in cartoons any more, and you have to wonder what he thinks about his increasing abstractification. (Is that even a word?) I suppose I could ask him, because this also showed up under the Christmas tree:

Mickey Mouse in person

Those Things With Words In Them

Christmas has come and gone since I last posted. Santa brought lots of fattening candy to my house, along with a couple of Disneyland t-shirts and two XBox games (Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.) There were also three unusual artifacts under the tree:

Stack of books under Christmas tree

These are called books. (They’re also all biographies, but that’s coincidence.) Look at them carefully, because there will come a time when you will tell your grandchildren that in your youth you could walk into a store and be surrounded by thousands of such things, while all of them were still shiny and new. The children will scoff, of course, but only a little bit, because young people sense instinctively that the world was very peculiar before they were born. What makes these books especially distinctive is that they have an actual physical presence — they exist as print on paper rather than as an electronic matrix of bits and bytes on a hard drive or in the static RAM of an e-book reader. All of the books that I’ve read this year have existed in this latter form and were mostly stored on my Barnes & Noble Nook, an original model e-ink Nook early in the year and a Color Nook later in the year because I prefer its backlit display. Here it is pretending to be the latest Stephen King novel:

E-books are not new. I remember reading them on my Palm Pilot nearly a decade ago. But over the last couple of years they’ve begun swallowing increasingly large chunks of the book market, even as the book market itself has become increasingly small, and publishers have begun to worry that the days of dead-tree books, and the brick-and-mortar stores that sell them, are numbered.

As a writer with approximately 90 published books to my credit, my feelings about the e-book revolution are mixed. I love carrying an entire library around in a device slightly smaller than a notebook, but I also love bookstores and if I ever write another book — the last one came out about a decade ago — I’d really like to see it on a bookstore shelf and not just on a bookseller’s Web site. Not all writers feel this way, though. Many have embraced the e-book not only because it gives them another market for publication at a time when markets for publication are disappearing but because e-books offer them a way to control their own destinies by publishing their books themselves.

Self-publication. I remember a time, not that many years ago, when writers uttered those words with disdain. The term we used for printing houses that catered to authors who wanted to self-publish was “vanity presses” and authors who turned to these houses as an outlet for their books were regarded as pathetic figures, unable to convince real editors that what they had written was worth the time and money it would take to polish, print, distribute and advertise. And, indeed, most self-published books went no farther than the bookshelves of the author’s family members. They were like those Web sites you bookmark and then never bother to go back to. They sounded interesting in theory, but the execution was just a little bit off.

This has all changed, and the change has taken place with remarkable speed. A lot of perfectly respectable authors, ones whose names you would have seen on the shelves in Barnes & Noble just a few years ago, are now publishing their own books, either because the shrinking roster of traditional publishing houses can no longer find room for them or because they feel that the relatively small percentage of a book’s price that traditional publishers let them keep (when I was writing books this was usually 6 to 12 percent of what was left after certain publishing expenses, vaguely defined in my contract, were deducted) can’t compete with the much larger percentage that they can skim off the sales price of an e-book sold through Amazon.com’s Kindle Store.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that a large part of my income comes from editing books for authors who are intending to self publish and that Amy, the professional graphic designer I live with, has a sideline in designing both e-book and print-on-demand editions for authors who want to use the currently available self-publishing outlets. (If you’d like to use our services, just ask. I recommend going through Hotspur Publishing, a small press run out of Eugene, Oregon, by my writer friend David Bischoff, the URL for which can be found in the Blog Roll on the right side of this page.) But I’m still not sure I see why any writer who might have a shot at traditional publication through a respectable publishing house would choose self-publication first, without at least attempting to go the traditional publishing (or, as some people now call it, the trad-pub) route. Yes, the respectable publishing house would keep a significant chunk of change from the books’s earnings, as would printers, distributors and bookstores. But the publisher would also secure the writer’s book a degree of public visibility that self publishers have to struggle to achieve.

Perhaps the most successful self-published writer that I know of is a 20-something woman named Amanda Hocking. As a private nurse with lots of spare time on her hands she wrote more than half a dozen books, mostly in the paranormal genre, and published them herself. By early this year these books had earned her something like two million dollars, a sum even a traditionally published author would envy. Yet the moment St. Martin’s Press, a traditional publisher, offered her a multi-million dollar advance for a new series of books, she took it. If self publication offers such tremendous advantages for authors who could secure traditional publication if they wanted to, why is the most popular self-published author of our time making the leap to the trad-pub world?

My guess is that this blog will be read by more than one self-published author and I encourage them to comment. Here’s the question I want to ask: What are you looking for in self publication? The freedom to write anything you want? Freedom’s great, but most self-published authors I know are struggling to achieve a fraction of the sales they once got as traditionally published authors. I reserve the right to have a personal epiphany about self publication as the logistics of the publishing field shift in the months and years to come, but for now I don’t really get it. In the meantime I’ll continue to play both sides of the fence, even as I struggle to figure out which side of the fence I’m really on.

Sex and Snow: Secular Songs of the Season

It’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north.

Those lyrics, which send happy little thrills up my spine when I look at them in the wee hours of Christmas Eve 2011, are from one of the most famous songs ever written, a song that’s probably second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” in the number of versions that have been recorded. If you don’t recognize the words, it’s because the songwriter removed them from the song’s most famous recording. The songwriter was Irving Berlin, the song is “White Christmas,” and I bet you’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the last week, if only on the sound system at your local Wal-Mart.

Actually, the full, original opening to “White Christmas” goes like this:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north

Those lyrics, which Berlin removed from the song for the Bing Crosby version and which have rarely been recorded since, mean a lot to me, and for more than one reason. The first is that I live in western Los Angeles, two miles from Venice Beach and less than ten miles from Beverly Hills, L.A. I didn’t grow up here, though. I grew up (and spent most of my life) in the Washington, DC, area, where we really did get snow this time of year.

The second reason is that I’m a Christmas music freak.

Yes, I’m that guy who starts listening to Christmas music shortly after Labor Day and is still searching the radio dial on January 2nd hoping to catch Nat King Cole singing about roasted chestnuts. When I was 13 I wore out the grooves on the Andy Williams Christmas Album (we still had vinyl recordings then) and I still listen to it on my iPod. I have Christmas music streaming through my iPod Touch and into my clock radio even as I type this. (At the moment Johnny Mathis is singing “Caroling, Caroling/Happy Holidays” on the Sirius/XM Holiday Traditions channel.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Christmas-loving atheist that I am, what I want to talk about is secular Christmas music.

I don’t really know when secular Christmas music was invented. Maybe it was when people started writing self-referential songs like “Caroling, Caroling” instead of songs about babes in mangers. Maybe it dates back to the years BC, when the season we now call Christmas was a pagan holiday celebrating the end of the sun’s long drift toward the southern horizon. All I know is that secular Christmas music, by which I mean Christmas music that has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, is what makes it possible for me to love Christmas music despite my total lack of religious belief.

My apologies to those of you who prefer hearing Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber sing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but the secular Christmas music I love was mostly written in the 1940s through the 1960s, by songwriters like Berlin, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”), Mel Tormé and Robert Wells (“The Christmas Song”), Ralph Blane and Hal Martin (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (“Silver Bells”). I adore “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” by Meredith Willson, especially when it’s sung in counterpoint with “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” (also by Willson). I turn into a grinning fool when I hear “Carol of the Bells” (which actually dates back to 1904 and was written by Russian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, but was converted into an English-language carol in 1947). With the possible exception of that last one, these songs all belong to the tradition of the American Popular Song and have the gorgeous melodic precision of the best mid-20th-century Tin Pan Alley songwriters. They were also the songs that I heard my parents playing when I was a wide-eyed child who still believed in Santa Claus, back in the days when I could stare at the lights on the Christmas tree for hours. (I don’t believe in Santa any more, but I still love to stare at those lights.)

Since secular Christmas music has no specific subject matter to address, either pagan or Christian, it tends to be about the collateral elements of the season: presents under the tree, carolers in the snow, getting home for the holidays, and of course Santa and his reindeer. But once I ceased being that wide-eyed child (to the extent that I ever did cease being that wide-eyed child), I realized it was mostly about either sex or the weather. Much of it is about both.

Let’s review: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (Frank Loesser) is an obvious case, and one of the greatest comic duets ever written. It’s about a man trying to seduce a woman and a woman trying to seduce herself, with a little encouragement from the weather. (“Never such a blizzard before!”) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” isn’t as funny, but it’s almost the same song: “Since we’ve no place to go/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” “Winter Wonderland” is considerably subtler (“He’ll say are you married/We’ll say, no, man/But you can do the job when you’re in town”), but “Santa Baby” just does away with the weather part altogether. Conversely, “White Christmas” does away with the sex and is just about weather.

Sex (or, to be less crass about it, romance) just became more and more popular as a subject for secular Christmas music when the Tin Pan Alley era ended. Karen Carpenter sang about it beautifully in “Merry Christmas, Darling” and, yes, for you Mariah Carey and/or Justin Bieber fans, it’s also what “All I Want for Christmas is You” is about.

But sex and/or the weather isn’t really what secular Christmas music is about to this yuletide-loving atheist. Christmas, for me, is an excuse to listen to music that would be much too corny and sentimental for me in any other context. It’s a chance to hear music that carries a message that breaks right through all the cynicism I’d normally be tempted to throw at it. When Sinatra sings “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love” (“The Christmas Waltz” by Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), he isn’t singing about either sex or the weather, and he makes me believe that, for this one brief moment in time, the world really is in love. Sappy, sentimental love.

And if it isn’t, I’d rather you didn’t tell me until at least the 26th of December.

Information Is Life

I live my life surrounded by information. So, very likely, do you. I’m writing this in front of a 23-inch computer display, with 17 tabs open in my Web browser. (They grow like weeds, those tabs. I trim them mercilessly and they grow right back, like dandelions or nose hairs.) Right now my iPod Touch is plugged into the iPod dock on my clock radio, playing Christmas music from a Sirius/XM satellite. In back of me is a shelf of books and CDs. Downstairs is a 48-inch flat screen TV attached to an XBox 360 configured to stream music, video and pictures through my home Wi-Fi network. (It also plays games.) I live in Southern California, where much of this information is manufactured.

I feel remarkably comfortable in this crowded infosphere. Maybe that’s why there’s more information in my house than there is food. The only information device I’m dubious about is my cell phone, which is often more of an intruder than a welcome guest. I tend to leave it at home when I go out. I’d rather take along my e-book reader (a Barnes & Noble Color Nook).

In the modern world, there are two ways that people react to this massive flood of information: They either run from it, as though the information dam has burst and the whole valley is doomed, or they swim with it and thrive in its flow. I tend to do the latter. I love information. I love to read, to play video games, to surf the Web, to listen to music, to go to movies, to watch television, to attend the theater and concerts, to browse the newspaper (though I only have time for the Sunday editions), and sometimes just to stare at the labels on the backs of food packages. By profession I’m a writer, so I spend my working hours producing still more information in case there’s anybody left who doesn’t have enough of the stuff. Information is my life. No, I should be more emphatic than that: Information is life.

This blog is about that infosphere, the shifting, pulsing, throbbing flow of information that surrounds us at all times. More specifically, it’s about the points at which my own life — my own biosphere? — intersects the infosphere. It’s about books, it’s about games, it’s about movies, it’s about music, it’s about TV. If I have anything interesting to say about these things (and you don’t become a writer unless you think you have interesting things to say), I’ll blog about them here.

Is there junk in the infosphere? Oh, god, yes. The infosphere is polluted with crap. Junk information surely outnumbers worthwhile information by a factor of thousands. But given the sheer quantity of information floating about, even that tiny percentage of good stuff is enough to fill anyone’s lifetime. You just have to look for it and recognize it when you find it.

And that’s what I’ll be doing here: Trying to separate the junk information from the treasures. You are invited — heck, encouraged — to post comments about any interesting gems you’ve stumbled across in the portion of the infosphere that your own life intersects.

I’m going to leave you for a moment. And then, as an ex-governor of my state once said (in a movie, of course), I’ll be back.