Friday, December 29, 2017

2017 in Review

2017 is generally regarded as a bad year, but for me, it was fine. Time moved on from last year's celebrity death apocalypse to threats of actual apocalypse, but personally, I managed to avoid any direct effects. I can't pretend that Canada is immune from the growing evil in the United States, yet it hasn't manifested in ruining my life in any significant ways. My first full year as a science writer has been good fun, and I somehow managed to get a novel out too. None of my close family or friends died. I'm healthy.

It's easy to focus on the negative things, especially when you're searching the whole world for them, but the fundamental things that make my life unique have all been good in 2017.

Here's a recap of stuff I liked this year. I'm not sure anyone cares, but I have an obsession with keeping track of things, because it's nice to think that everything I do matters. Something's gotta matter, right? Anyway, this list enables that craziness. Thanks for being an enabler. Thanks a lot. Maybe you'll find something new here that you end up liking.

Music I Liked in 2017

I get these stats from, which keeps track of everything I listen to. One negative thing in 2017 is that I started using Apple Music, but it's difficult to integrate it with, especially on mobile devices. Spotify integrates, but I ran into a ridiculous 10,000 song limit (even with a paid account), so it's unusable. Anyway, I managed to find workarounds, so this captures most of what I listened to.

20. Halsey - hopeless fountain kingdom

19. Queens of the Stone Age - Villains

18. Whitehorse - Panther in the Dollhouse

17. Gorillaz - Humanz

16. Beck - Colors

15. Ed Sheeran - ÷. His appearance on Game of Thrones could qualify for worst thing of the year, but this album is actually pretty good.

14. Ke$ha - Rainbow

13. Serena Ryder - Utopia

12. Spoon - Hot Thoughts

11. deadmau5 - stuff I used to do

10. Lana Del Rey - Lust for Life

9. Lights - Skin & Earth

8. Portugal. The Man - Woodstock

7. The Killers - Wonderful Wonderful. I used to love The Killers, then I got bored with them for a few albums, but this one caught my attention again.

6. Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes - Modern Ruin

5. Nothing More - The Stories We Tell Ourselves.

4. Thundercat - Drunk. Nothing else sounds like this.

3. Nothing But Thieves - Broken Machines. They were #1 last year, and while this album took longer to grow on me, grow it did.

2. Lorde - Melodrama. Pop music was mostly a disappointment in 2017, but not this. Not Lorde. Lorde Lorde Lorde, I am Lorde.

1. In This Moment - Ritual. I still can't get enough of these guys, for whatever reason.

Pretty good list this year! If I'd consciously chosen a top 20, I'm not sure I would have done better.

Shows I Liked in 2017

Off the top of my head, in no order, here are the shows I've enjoyed recently:
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Handmaid's Tale
  • Halt & Catch Fire
  • Stranger Things
  • The Punisher
  • Master of None
  • Game of Thrones
  • Black Mirror
  • Trailer Park Boys
  • Ozark
  • The Walking Dead
  • The Expanse

Movies I Liked in 2017

TV is so good that I don't watch many movies any more. But, again with zero thought, here are the movies I did see that come to mind:
  • Get Out
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • Logan
  • It
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2
  • The Devil's Candy
  • Better Watch Out
  • I Don't Feel at Home in This World Any More
  • The Void

Books I Liked in 2017

These didn't necessarily come out in 2017, but I read them this year, so just ... just shut up and enjoy them. God.
  • Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell - The Disaster Artist. Nothing is more inspiring to me than books about unusual people finding success in their own unusual ways.
  • Cory Doctorow - Walkaway. I was lucky enough to be invited to an early look at this book, and wrote this blog post on about it: Cory Doctorow's Walkaway and the Power of Small Ideas.
  • Elizabeth Hand - Wylding Hall
  • Stephen Graham Jones - Mongrels
  •  - The Hematophages
  • Jeff VanderMeer - Acceptance

Video Games I Liked in 2017

That's it. I haven't blogged much lately, since pretty much everything else I do in life involves writing that people pay for, but I'll at least see you at the end of 2018—as long as Nazis don't make blogging illegal, and/or blow up the world. 

Sunday, December 03, 2017

A Deep Exploration of the Terrifying Stained Glass Windows at a Run-Down Children’s Museum

The London Regional Children’s Museum has seen better days, but I have fond memories of going there as a kid. A highlight is when a traveling Jim Henson exhibit was set up there, and I got to see the actual muppets from my favourite movie at the time (okay, still), Labyrinth.

There’s a story about how one of the animatronic muppets from Labyrinth, Hoggle, was later neglected, misplaced, and eventually found in an airline’s unclaimed baggage department looking like this:

I feel like the entire Children’s Museum has followed a similar path as Hoggle. The building has been sold, but remains open while the owners figure out what to do with it, and when I visited recently, many of the exhibits were missing pieces or otherwise marred by age. In the room educating kids about outer space, a mysterious purple drawer has a sign reading “What’s in here?” It evokes my sense of childhood wonder—if they bothered putting a sign up, it must be something exciting and/or educational! What will I learn today?! I hastily yank the drawer open, only to find … nothing. It’s completely empty.

Perhaps a lesson about how vast and barren the vacuum of space is? Who knows.

Nearby, a dead astronaut hangs from the ceiling.

A tribute to David Bowie? Unlikely.

But the oddest area is the music room. It’s a large room, but like the empty drawer, it’s mostly dead space. There is no furniture—just instruments scattered across the floor. Most of them are fully or partially destroyed. Drums have tears across their leathery membranes, so that banging the splintered drumsticks against them sounds no different than banging them against anything else. A wooden contraption makes clicking sounds when I shake it, but it’s not any instrument I’ve encountered in this reality. There are children here, unsupervised, eyes vacant as they try to wrestle music out of the wreckage. 

Where are their parents? Do they even have parents? Or have they always been here? Perhaps.

To distract myself from the racket, I look up, and this is what I see:

I recoil in fear from the kid in the middle, staring directly at me like I’ve interrupted … whatever he’s doing. But then I can’t tear my gaze from the stained glass window on the right. Can it be anything other than the wailing ghost of a dead child?

No. No. I’m a scientist, a man of reason—there must be some rational explanation for this. I turn to research for the cold comfort of knowledge, but unfortunately, there is nothing to put my mind at ease. It only gets stranger from here.

You Know, For Kids

The windows were created by Roy Edward Suhr, a local glazier, and installed in 1907 at Riverview Public School, which was later transformed into the Children’s Museum. (Source)

There were other windows, as well. Jack and Jill and The Big Bad Wolf lived at the school, but were removed for renovations, misplaced, then later found elsewhere. Sort of like Hoggle. Another one, The Pie Man, was used as the cover for a poetry book called Rat Jelly:

As has hopefully become clear, each window is based on an old nursery rhyme. The three still in the museum are Little Miss Muffet, Ride a Cockhorse to Banberry Cross, and Little Tommy Tucker.
Wait, cockhorse?

And who’s Tommy Tucker? Apparently he’s the dead kid on the right. The nursery rhyme goes like this:
Little Tom Tucker
Sings for his supper.
What shall we give him?
White bread and butter.
How shall he cut it
Without a knife?
How will he be married
Without a wife?
So I guess he’s singing for his supper, not educating kids about the wailing of the damned. And he’s given bread without a knife … and prematurely considering marriage. For some reason.

I wasn’t aware of Tommy Tucker, but he is big in pop culture, according to his Wikipedia page.

Wait, squirrel?

Tommy Tucker (Squirrel)

This is the squirrel named after the dead child at the Children’s Museum:

He, too, has his own Wikipedia page, because he falls into the (presumably small) category of famous cross-dressing squirrels.

Tommy Tucker (squirrel) toured the United States in the 1940s, wearing women’s fashions, doing tricks, and selling war bonds. He’s described as unusually docile, but did occasionally bite people, which makes me concerned about how often squirrels usually bite people.

After World War II, Tommy settled down and married another squirrel named Buzzy. But unfortunately, Tommy died in 1949. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article seems to suspect foul play, saying he ostensibly died of a heart attack due to old age, then pointing out that squirrels usually live for more than ten years in captivity. Was it murder? Did Buzzy do it? Or did the spirit of Tommy Tucker appear to him in the dead of night, this time not wailing for his bread, but for the soul of the squirrel who stole his name?

The squirrel’s body was stuffed and mounted. He was passed along, and ended up in the possession of an old woman, who died in 2005. She thought Tommy should be in a museum, and bequeathed him to the Smithsonian. (Source)

The Smithsonian didn’t want him.

Now he’s encased in plexiglass inside a cardboard box in the office of that old woman’s lawyer. The glass case is there because moths were starting to eat away at him.

It appears that Tommy, like the other windows in the museum, like the museum itself, followed the path of Hoggle. He lived his life, then when the world couldn’t use him any more, he was forgotten, passed from person to person, eaten by wriggling things and the passage of time.

There’s always hope, though. After the startling discovery of Hoggle’s mangled muppet corpse, he was purchased by the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a museum/store in a small city in Alabama, and restored to, well, something vaguely resembling his former glory:

Everything dies, nothing lasts, but if you’re lucky, you’ll end up stuffed, preserved behind glass, scaring children in a museum. I find an odd sort of comfort in that.

This was originally posted on Medium: A Deep Exploration of the Terrifying Stained Glass Windows at a Run-Down Children's Museum. I've started posting a few things there before I put them here, because I like what Medium is doing—basically paying content creators directly when subscribers like what they do. It's a big improvement over the advertising-infected world of much of the rest of the web. Anyway, go follow me on Medium if you like that sort of thing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Halloween and the Meaning of Life

I love when autumn begins, then soon it's Halloween. The trees are half-green, half-yellow, and half-orange, soon throwing off the shrivelled leaves that give the crisp air that musty fall smell and the sidewalk that delightful crunchiness. The temperature is just right; like a cool summer night, but all day long.

Then comes Halloween—a bittersweet celebration of light and dark. On the one hand it's about the things that delight us: kids, eating candy, dressing up and having a good time. On the other hand it's about the things that scare us: horror movies, monsters, haunted houses, and ultimately, death itself. Halloween is about that grey area between happiness and sorrow that's strangely comforting to all of us.

I'm worried that no kids will come to my door this Halloween. That I've become an adult living in an adult world. I wonder, though, if we've really matured into these responsible got-it-all together versions of our child selves, or if we've really just gotten bigger and now need alcohol as an excuse to express our natural childishness. Maybe adulthood is the costume we wear throughout the year.

We call it "growing up," but really most of life is growing down, shrivelling and falling ever-closer to the permanent holiday we spend a few feet under the ground.

So maybe life is Halloween. It's wearing adult masks to ward off the ghost of adulthood's inevitable end. And though this appears to be a morbid thought, maybe the strange joy we gain from Halloween is the same strange joy we should revel in all year long.

This was originally posted in 2008, but I had to republish it without images because of a takedown notice, presumably by the photographer who people said such nice things about in the comments.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Two Thousand and Sixteen

Everyone is saying 2016 was a bad year, but my controversial, contrarian opinion is that: 2016 was good. I started a new job that kicks ass, moved forward with my writing (get my new book The Arborist), and most importantly, avoided anything terrible happening directly to me.

Much of the "bad year" sentiment comes from shared events that everyone is aware of, such as celebrity deaths. I propose that people like me, who are in the privileged position of being able to mourn the loss of influential strangers, must actually be having a pretty good year. If I can sit at my kitchen table and shake my head at social media because something bad happened in Los Angeles, then I have shelter, I have free time, and I have the resources to be accessing information from halfway across the world. With those things alone, I'm doing better than most people on Earth, and much better than most people throughout history. 2016 isn't so bad.

Next year could be worse, of course. The tragedies that don't directly affect me now, like Brexit and Trump, could start having real, worldwide consequences. I remain a techno-optimist though; technology has, without fail, improved exponentially regardless of who is in power or how dumb the general population is. And technology is the main driver behind life, on average, continually getting better. There is no reason to think that will suddenly stop.

Anyway, here's my year in review, celebrating good stuff that entered my brain.

Most Listened-To Music:

As I do every year, here are the top 20 albums I listened to most, according to Some of these might not have come out in 2016, but I discovered them this year, so, whatever. This list actually looks pretty good this year; I recommend listening to any of these you haven't already heard.

20. Tycho - Epoch
19. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein (SURVIVE) - Stranger Things Soundtrack
18. Tove Lo - Lady Wood
17. Groenland - A Wider Space
16. BROODS - Conscious
15. I Monster - Bright Sparks
14. Wolfmother - Victorious
13. David Bowie - Blackstar
12. Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small Town
11. The Weeknd - Starboy
10. Zeds Dead - Northern Lights
9. Lady Gaga - JOANNE
8. Ariana Grande - Dangerous Woman
7. M83 - Junk
6. Black Stone Cherry - Kentucky
5. Glass Animals - How to be a Human Being
4. Britney Spears - Glory
3. Lindsey Stirling - Brave Enough
2. The Avalanches - Wildflower
1. Nothing But Thieves - Nothing But Thieves also provided some cool new stats about my listening habits this year:

The new job started in June, which obviously had an effect on my listening habits.

Best Television:

I watched a lot of TV in 2016. I don't really remember what I watched, but off the top of my head, the things that stuck with me most were:
  • Stranger Things
  • Black Mirror
  • Making a Murderer
  • Luke Cage
  • Westworld
  • Halt and Catch Fire
  • Sense8
  • Mr. Robot

Best Movies:

Again, I don't remember every movie I watched, or which actually came out this year, but here are the ones that come to mind when I think back:
  • The Greasy Strangler
  • The Lobster
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Rogue One
  • The Invitation
  • Don't Breathe
  • Green Room
  • The Conjuring 2

Best Books:

This is another category where I have a record of everything I took in, thanks to Goodreads. Here are the books that came out around 2016, and that I liked:

  • I Will Rot Without You by Danger Slater
  • Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
  • A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
  • City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt
That's all! See? There was a lot of good stuff this year even though David Bowie is probably responsible for inspiring half of it, and he died. But maybe the next David Bowie was born this year. Maybe it's your crappy kid. You never know.

Happy new year to each and every one of the five people who still read this. See you when the pixels turn to 7.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Deep Exploration of a Weird Doll From a Sketchy Second-Hand Store

My girlfriend came back from an expedition to the bad part of town, and shouted "I got you a gift! You're going to love it!"

She was correct.

This is Auntie Virus. The first thing you'll notice is that she is extremely dirty. Just soaked in various fluids. That's because she has been sitting on the shelf of a second-hand store for a very long time; if I had to guess, I'd say since the 90s. Meg thought she might have bed bugs or worms, so she lived in a plastic bag for a while.

Why would I assume she's from the 90s? Let's dig into Auntie Virus's true purpose.

At first glance, she appears to be a nurse with a computer for a head, but that would be doing her a disservice. Auntie Virus has layers. She is a Friendly Computer Companion that is also ... wait for it ... A PHOTO FRAME!!! The idea here is that you cut out a tiny picture of someone, then stick it in Ms. Virus's computer monitor head, like some horrible Silent Hill cyborg nurse that wears your loved one's face.

And she sits on any computer! At least she did, in the 90s. I think she'd have trouble balancing on the 6.1mm-thick computer I'm typing this on in 2016.

Apparently computers were seen as so soul-sucking that you needed another fake computer on top to "keep you smiling." With the idea of social media still a few years off, the only companionship to be found while surfing the web was a doll named E-Male who cruelly imitates your boyfriend, promising "you'll never be lonely when I'm on your computer."

N E V E R  B E  L O N E L Y  A G A I N

That's right, Auntie Virus is only one member of the WebHeads family. All the classic early Internet stereotypes are here, like the aforementioned e-MALE (a person with a penis who is online), The HACKER (a hacker), WEB SURFER (lol he's a literal surfer), eve SHOPPER (an online shopper who still needs bags?), WEBMASTER (a superhero for some reason?), and Dot E. COM (um ... a person with a plant on her head ... ???).

I wanted to meet them all, but unfortunately, is no longer in service. WEBMASTER ain't so super after all.

I said Auntie Virus has layers, so let's go one layer deeper. You may have noticed that she has pins sticking out of her chest. Those weren't mentioned anywhere on the box, were they? Oh, what have we here ... the doll came with a note:

We're venturing outside of WebHeads lore now, because I believe this note was put there by the owner of the second-hand shop. This person, presumably a powerful witch or warlock, seized the full potential of putting an actual person's face on a doll. Auntie Virus's purpose has been hijacked; she is no longer designed to make you smile, but to remotely murder your enemies.

I guess the pure WebHeads experience wasn't moving this thing off the shelf, so this person thought "maybe this will be a must-have holiday item if I, by hand, transform it into a Voodoo doll."

It worked! Now I own an Auntie Virus Voodoo doll. Don't fuck with me.