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Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

I've always admired Steve Martin. He's smart, funny, and avoids engaging in the kind of behavior that ends up in celebrity tabloids. (He's also a terrific banjo player.) I recently read his autobiography, Born Standing Up, and now I admire him even more.

This short book is about Steve Martin's career as a stand-up comic, which lasted about 20 years and ended abruptly (by his decision) in the 1980s. Martin starts with his childhood, which is full of wonderful anecdotes about working in the magic trick store at Disneyland as a young teenager, and doing magic and comedy routines at Knott's Berry Farm. Martin highly praises the old vaudevillians and magicians he worked with at the theme parks. These stage show veterans took Martin under their wings and mentored him in the art of timing, patter, trick presentation, and joke delivery. Fortunately for Martin, the Orange County high school he attended didn't assign homework, so he was able to spend every waking minute outside of school at the theme parks, learning his craft. (If he had been required to do as much homework as a student does today, he may very well have ended up working alongside his dad as a real estate agent, albeit a funny one.)

Martin goes on to describe how he went on the road, spending years developing his unique style of stand-up. As he describes it, he was not doing stand-up. Instead, he played the role of a foolish comic doing stand-up. In the 1960s, he experimented with his routines in the small clubs of San Francisco's North Beach, sometimes to a completely empty room, save a bartender.

Martin's rise to fame was gradual. But that all changed in the late 1970s when his brand of quirky humor caught on in a big way (thanks in large part to his frequent appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show). Martin went from filling 100 seaters to 1000-seaters. His success begat more success. In a period of months, his audience grew to arenas filled with 20,000, then 40,000, then 60,000 people. His brand of physical humor was impossible for most people in a mega-sized venue to appreciate. Martin was just a white dot on the stage.

The resulting fame, while not entirely unwelcome, was often a drag for Martin. An admittedly shy and private man, Martin said he felt uncomfortable when people on the street would excitedly recite his jokes back to him and expect him to be a wild and huh-razy guy."

Martin rode the wave for a few more years, but when he realized that he was no longer doing stand-up, but instead had become a kind of party host for giant throngs of people who wanted to hear him deliver the same stuff over and over again, he called it quits and never did another stand up show. Martin says that until he wrote this book, he rarely gave a thought to the stand-up up career that had made him famous.

I think the best way to read Born Standing Up is to listen to the audiobook, read by Steve Martin himself. That way, you get to hear the way he says his stock lines ("Excuuuuse meeee!") and you get to hear his emotions when he talks about his father (a cold-hearted man who wrote a negative review of Steve Martin's movie The Jerk first appearance on Saturday Night Live, in the company real estate newsletter he produced).

I hope Martin writes a follow-up book that covers his movie and music career, too.

[Update] commenter Petzl says:

Speaking of Martin's self-effacing manner, for years he's been (quietly) famous for handing out these cards.

They're brilliant: he doesn't have to give his personalized signature (which must get old after the first 1000 or so); he gives his fan something uniquely Steve Martin to take away, as well as giving them a "funny story"; it allows him to exit cleanly and quickly.

Born Standing Up

Let's go ahead and cast the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? remake

Fantastic news coming out of Comic Con: They are remaking What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?! It's such fun news that there is no way to properly punctuate the end of the sentence! Walter Hill, who just finished directing Sylvester Stallone in the cop drama Bullet to the Head, will direct and write the screenplay, because a movie about an abusive, deranged former child star torturing her crippled sister while both wither away in obscurity is clearly the next logical step in his career. Now that the news is out of the way, let's cast this thing! (And maybe look at more pictures of Bette Davis looking out of her blessèd mind!)

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Fables 17: Inherit the Wind


The latest installment in Bill Willingham's astonishingly, consistently great, long-running graphic novel series Fables is volume 17: Inherit the Wind.

The premise of Fables lets its creators use any mythos, any tradition, any narrative, and mix and match as necessary, and Willingham and his illustrators continue to show that these possibilities are indeed endless. While the long arc of the story continues in this book -- movingly along very snappily and satisfyingly -- the real delight is that what that Oz, Dickens, and highbrow narrative theory all climb around on top of each other in a squirming puppy-pile of greatness.

If you've been following the story for all these volumes, then you can rest assured that the Fables are really cracking along -- but you can also be assured that you'll find all the characteristic funny asides, meandering noodly mini-tales that are there for the sheer exuberance of the thing, and sly asides are not set aside for mere plot.

I'm told that this story definitely has an end, but it's hard to imagine. As Fables subsumes literally every other story ever told, and as Willingham shows no sign of boring with his creations, I can easily imagine reading this until Willingham breathes his last (and may that day come a very, very long time in the future). If he keeps writing them, I'll keep buying 'em.

Fables 17: Inherit the Wind

See also: My reviews of the previous volumes

Crackpots, geniuses, and how to tell the difference

Over at Download the Universe, Ars Technica science editor John Timmer reviews a science ebook whose science leaves something to be desired.

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Oatmeal Spells F U in Money Shots

I am kneeling on a sun-dappled hardwood floor with stacks of $20 bills in $2,000 bundles in each hand helping to spell out the word "douchebaggery," and thinking: $220,000 just doesn't seem like that much money. I found myself in this position after asking Matthew Inman, the artist behind the cartoon and business The Oatmeal, if I could take pictures when he withdrew the cash he will ultimately hand over to the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation in order to use it to make fun of a Web site that threatened him with legal action.

This is the latest episode in a saga that BoingBoing has documented in quite some detail, and which began June 11, when Inman posted an annotated version of a letter he had received from Charles Carreon, a well-known attorney representing FunnyJunk, a user-submitted content site, complaining about a post Inman had made a year ago. Inman complained in 2011 about FunnyJunk's business model, noting, "Most of the comics they've stolen [have] no credit or link back to me. Even with proper attribution, no one clicks through and FunnyJunk still earns a huge pile of cash from all the ad revenue." It's a common problem with sites that rely on submitted items, and each site has different policies on how to manage such unauthorized postings. Inman didn't issue DMCA takedown notices, though he would have been within his rights. He says he's just not interested in engaging in that sort of behavior. (By the way, did you know you have to register an agent with the copyright office to qualify for the safe-harbor provision of the DMCA? Me, neither! FunnyJunk's registration was received May 29, 2012, shortly before its lawyer sent the letter to Inman.)

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Scientists might have found the Higgs Boson

Back in December, I told you that physicists at CERN thought that by this summer they might be able to say, once and for all, whether the Higgs Boson particle exists.

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Comics Rack: Boing Boing's new monthly comics round-up

Photo: Ryan Hyde (cc)

"Comic books are cheap, shoddy, anonymous. Children spend their good money for bad paper, bad English, and more often than not, bad drawing." -- Dr. Fredrick Wertham, 1950s anti-comic book crusader, quoted from his book,

Seduction of the Innocent.

You know, Dr. Wertham was almost right. If he'd added the words "Ninety-nine percent of…" to the beginning of his blanket assessment, I'd enthusiastically agree with it. I receive dozens of comic book titles in the mail each week (sent to me for review), and I toss almost all of them in the bin because they suck. Once in a while, a gem appears, making it worth opening the packages instead of tossing them straight into the trash.

That's why I'm happy to announce our new monthly roundup of comic book recommendations by Brian Heater. Brian's a senior editor at Engadget and the founder of a wonderful comics blog, The Daily Cross Hatch. In his column, Brian will be presenting lesser-known comics that made it past his crap-filter. Please join me in welcoming Brian! -- Mark

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Raise Every Voice

Photo: Scott Snider

The phone system doesn't allow us to hear people at a distance in the same way they quite literally sound to us when up close. Alexander Graham Bell's accidental dehumanization has been redeemed in part by a technologically related godchild. And it only took about 150 years.

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Team Human: a high-school vampire novel doesn't suck (it rocks)

Team Human is a new young adult novel from Justine Larbalastier and Sarah Rees Brennan, about an ancient vampire who enrolls at a small town high school, where a beautiful young girl falls in love with him.

No, it's not that novel. Far from it, in fact. Team Human is an incredibly fresh and original -- and absolutely charming -- take on vampire fiction. Larbalestier and Brennan have a wickedly sarcastic turn of phrase (as fans of Larbalestier's earlier books can attest), and their protagonist, Mel -- a high-school senior whose best friend is besotted with the vampire -- is one of those iconic, absolutely likable but flawed YA protagonists that you find in the genre's best books.

Mel's best friend is Cathy, and where Mel is flamboyant and outgoing, Cathy is serious and studious and shy. They live in the small town of New Whitby, the birthplace of America's compact with vampires and the origin of the social contract that sees humans and vampires living side by side in a civilized (if not entirely comfortable) fashion. From the start, Cathy falls hard for Francis, an ancient, charming vampire in the body of a teenager, who is attending high school for mysterious reasons of his own (though Mel has her suspicions).

Mel is afraid that her intense relationship with her best friend is endangered by this, but what she really fears is that Cathy might be contemplating vampirism herself. This is a dangerous process for humans -- accepting an offer of "transition" from a vampire means a small but real risk of death or worse. About ten percent of humans don't make the transition and don't die either, becoming mindless, agonized zombies who are locked away until they rot.

And if you do survive the transition to immortal, super-strong, super-fast, super-keen vampirism, it's still not what Mel wants for Cathy. For one thing, vampires can neither cry nor laugh, thanks to some principle of conservation of emotion that flattens out the affect of immortals -- forever.

The story's on rails from page one, ripping along in a suspenseful, funny blur. This is the vampire-human supernatural romance you want the world to fall in love with: filled with kick-ass girls and boys, complicated vampires, and an internally consistent set of fantasy rules that makes the whole thing that much smarter.

Here's a sample chapter.

Team Human

The beginning of life

Sea urchin egg undergoing mitosis with fluorescent-tagged/stained DNA (blue), microtubules (green).

Cells divide. One single piece of life tugs itself apart and splits in two.

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Shamans of the modern age

Colorful flags snapped in the sea breeze as more than a dozen Korean shamans, dressed in bright colors, danced and chanted prayers in front of a huge cow's head stuck to a trident.

The ceremony on a ship was designed to exorcise demons that threaten fishermen and bring good luck to everybody on board. The presence of several hundred spectators underlined how the ages-old trance rituals were going strong again, having been shunned as recently as 30 years ago.

"People are trying to understand more, learn more, and see more. They are very interested in this," said Kim Keum-hwa, one of South Korea's most famous shamans, who led the ceremony.

Though an ancient practice, Korean shamanism - in which singing and dancing are used in trance rituals addressed to specific gods, often to get an answer to specific questions - had long been suppressed in Asia's second most Christian nation.

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From A to B and Through to Z: Brilliant, grotesque illustrated alphabet


Philip Harris's beautiful illustrated alphabet, From A to B and through to Z is a grotesque wonder of animals acting out different trades, and each drawing is more fabulous than the last. Mr Harris has graciously provided us with five of these, at a high enough resolution that you can really see the awesomeness:

  • D is for Docks
  • M is for Market
  • P is for Performance
  • U is for Underground
  • W is for Worship

Philip Harris Comic "From A to B and through to Z"

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Rasputin's Bastards: epic, psychic cold war thriller

Rasputin's Bastards is David Nickle's latest book, an epic novel from one of horror's weirdest voices. During the cold war, the Soviets established City 512, a secret breeding experiment intended to create a race of psychic supermen. It worked far, far too well. The dreamwalkers of City 512 may have given lip-service to their masters, but in truth, they were occupied with their dreaming, the sleeper agents whom they could ride like loas, the succesive generations of dreamwalkers, each more powerful than the last, and their own power-struggles.

Now the cold war is long past, and the final act is upon the world. The Babushka, one of the great powers of City 512, has established a stronghold in a fishing village in the remotest northern reaches of Labrador. Her enemies are legion, and some of them don't even know what side they're on. The dreamwalkers have always had the power to trap their enemies in false identities and false memories, and the main characters of Rasputin's Bastards are never quite sure who they are, what has happened to them, what is real, and what is poisonous illusion.

Nickle's book is an enormous tale, bewilderingly complex, but with lots of twists and turns that reward close attention. It is grotesque, violent, and exciting, with a supernatural tinge that is his hallmark.

Rasputin's Bastards

Soviet synthesizer bridged occultism and electronic music

You don't play the ANS synthesizer with a keyboard. Instead you etch images onto glass sheets covered in black putty and feed them into a machine that shines light through the etchings, trigging a wide range of tones. Etchings made low on the sheets make low tones. High etchings make high tones. The sound is generated in real-time and the tempo depends on how fast you insert the sheets.

This isn't a new Dorkbot or Maker Faire oddity. It's a nearly forgotten Russian synthesizer designed by Evgeny Murzin in 1938. The synth was named after and dedicated to the Russian experimental composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872–1915). The name might not mean much to you, but it illuminates a long running connection between electronic music and the occult.

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Venezuelan tribe angry at "sacred" stone in Berlin

Wolfgang von Schwarzenfeld's sculptures in a Berlin park were meant to promote world peace, but the 79-year-old German now finds himself at war with a Venezuelan tribe which accuses him of stealing a sacred pink stone known to them as "Grandmother".

The Venezuelan government is championing the Pemon Indians of the "Gran Sabana" region by demanding the return of the polished stone from Berlin's Tiergarten park - putting the German government in something of a dilemma.

With Caracas calling it robbery, and the sculptor arguing that the stone was a legal gift, the monolith is emitting more negative energy than its esoteric fans in Berlin are used to.

Blissfully unaware of the diplomatic tug-of-war, Robert, a Berlin gardener, got off his bicycle to light joss sticks among the stones from five continents that form the "Global Stone Project", awaiting friends for an afternoon shamanic ritual.

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King City: awesomely weird, silly/funny sf comic

King City collects Brandon Graham's magnificent Tokyo Pop comic serial in one mammoth, $11 (cheap!) trade paperback edition, and man, is that a deal.

Take the sprawling, weird, perverse cityscape of Transmetropolitan, mix in the goofy, punny humor of Tank Girl, add ultraviolent gang warfare, the impending resurrection of a death-god, and a secret society of cat-masters whose feline familiars can serve as super-weapons and tactical material, and you're getting in the neighbourhood of King City.

Graham's black-and-white line drawings have the detail of a two-page spread in MAD Magazine and a little bit of Sergio Argones in their style, if Argones was more interested in drawing the battle-scarred veterans of a Korean xombie war who consume each others' powdered bones to drive away the madness.

Despite the fact that this is a very, very funny story, it manages to be more than a comedy. Joe the cat-master's lost love, Pete the bagman's moral crisis, and Max the veteran's trauma are all real enough to tug at your heart-strings, even as you read the goofy puns off the fine-print labels on the fetishistically detailed illustrations showing King City and its weird and wonderful inhabitants.

JWZ wrote "It's the best comic-book-type thing I've read in quite some time. The trade is a huge phonebook-sized thing and it's awesome." He's right.

King City (via JWZ)

Zita the Space Girl: delightful kids' science fiction comic that's part Vaughn Bode, part Mos Eisley Cantina


Zita the Space Girl is Ben Hatke's 2011 kids' science fiction graphic novel about a young girl's adventures on a distant world that she is transported to after clicking a mysterious button that she finds in the center of a meteor crater. It's a pure delight. Zita's friend Joseph is sucked through the portal first, and she bravely pursues him, and finds herself on a world that's half Vaughn Bode, half Mos Eisley Cantina, populated by the motleyest assortment of robots, aliens, and beasts you could ever hope to meet. She quickly collects some powerful enemies -- primarily a tentacle-beast assassin in the employ of the Scriptorians, the planet's indigenous death-cultists, who engineered the kidnap of Joseph so that they could sacrifice him, fulfill an ancient prophecy and divert the doomsday asteroid that's set to destroy their world in a matter of days.

But Zita also finds allies: the immensely strong, none-too-bright steveadore Strong Strong; a rascally rogue of a showman called Piper (he can lull his enemies to sleep with his high-tech tin whistle); a vengeance-minded flying battledroid called One; a giant mouse with a printer around its neck called Pizzicato, and a shaky, neurotic robot called Randy. Together, they must penetrate the badlands, fight off the minions of the Scriptorians, and rescue Joseph, and either avert or escape the asteroid that is hurtling toward them.

Creator Ben Hatke's story fires on all cylinders -- Zita's adventures are funny, exciting, well-paced, and suspenseful. The art is fabulous, expressive and imaginative, and the characters are delightful. The book is recommended for grades 2-5, but I found it to be a great read-aloud for my four year old (I had to translate a lot of the dialogue on the fly, but that's half the fun, and the visuals are so great that they fill in any blanks arising from missed verbal cues).

Our read of Zita was triggered by an early look at the sequel, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, a great followup that comes out in September, and would be a great way to continue a summer reading adventure.

Zita the Space Girl