Pinterest.com is the hottest new social network. I know, I know, I can hear you thinking OMG, not another one! right through my computer screen. And to be honest, a few weeks ago, I would have been right there with you. Seriously, one person can only handle so many social media networks.
But Pinterest is something new and different. It’s not like any social media network you’re using anywhere else, and unlike a lot of social media networks these days, Pinterest is actually engaging and — most importantly — fun to use.
Basically, Pinterest is scrap-booking. You can sign up for free at Pinterest.com, either by making an account or logging in with your Facebook or Twitter account. You set up a profile, much like you’d do at any social networking site, and you can connect your Twitter and/or Facebook accounts to your Pinterest account, so that your “pins” are automatically shared with those sites. Once that’s done, you can set up your “boards.” These are categories of things you like. “Dream House,” “Places I Want To Go,” and “So n’ So’s Wedding” are pretty popular boards, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can make a board for any topic you want.
Here's an example of some Pinterest boards. Click to enlarge.
After setting up a few boards, the next step is adding a bookmarklet to your browser of choice. Once you’ve got that done, you’re good to go. As you surf the web, you can use the “Pin It!” button to add things to your pinboards. You can even make a new pinboard on the fly if you find a photo, article, song, video, etc, that doesn’t fit into the pinboards you made earlier.
The “photo, article, song, video, etc” is important to keep in mind, too. You can pin just about anything, but if it doesn’t have a photo or video or something else that’s visual for Pintrest to add, then you’re pretty much wasting your time. Pinterest is extremely, exclusively visual, which is part of what makes it so engaging and addictive. You don’t have to read misspelled status updates. You don’t have to keep floods of information organized. You don’t have to do anything other than stop in to stare at a gorgeously-arranged screen full of beautiful, funny, interesting, intriguing photos. And trust me, despite your best intentions, you’ll find yourself doing that for hours and hours.
As much fun as Pinterest can be, it’s not all puppies and roses. For one thing, the network is still in beta, which means it can be pretty buggy and wonky. It’s no worse than Facebook can be when they’re adding new code, though.
Pinterest also just caught some attention for the fact that they’ve already monetized their site – at least, partially – and didn’t mention it to anyone. They’re turning pin links into affiliate links and generating revenue that way. See, each pin links back to its source, so if you pin an awesome pair of boots from Amazon.com, Pinterest automatically turns that into an affiliate link. That means they can make a few bucks off of anything or everything you pin. It’s not illegal, but it is a little shady of them not to mention they’re doing it.
Back in October I wrote about SOPA and PIPA, and I’m sad to report the problem didn’t go away over winter break. In fact, if anything, it’s gotten worse.
For those of you who just got here, SOPA and PIPA (AKA, PROTECT-IP Act) claim to address the issue of Internet piracy by instituting new laws and regulations that will supposedly allow the government to stop “piracy” sites hosted in foreign countries. I use phrases like “claim to” and “supposedly” because these bills were written, sponsored, and supported by big media corporations and are so broadly and badly written that A) they’ll actually break how the Internet works on a technical level, B) they’ll bring any sort of new creative innovation on the Internet to a screeching halt, and C) will result in the suppression of free speech online right here in America.
Make no mistake: These bills aren’t simply unconstitutional, they are anticonstitutional. They would allow for the wholesale elimination of entire websites, domain names, and chunks of the DNS (the underlying structure of the whole Internet), based on nothing more than the “good faith” assertion by a single party that the website is infringing on a copyright of the complainant. The accused doesn’t even have to be aware that the complaint has been made.
These bills are so bad that companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, FourSquare, PayPal, Mozilla, AOL Time-Warner and Reddit – just for starters – are up in arms over it. In fact, they’re so up in arms they’re talking about shutting their sites down to protest.
At the moment, this is just talk. The aforementioned companies are floating the idea of going dark on Jan. 23, the day before the Senate debates SOPA. It may seem like a drastic step to take, but these may be desperate times. Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid said of SOPA just last month, “This is a bipartisan piece of legislation which is extremely important. I repeat, it is bipartisan. I hope we can have a productive couple of days, pass this bill, and move on to other matters.”
That’s a mighty flippant statement over a bill that is ripe with potential for abuse, folks. It’s that flippancy and stunning ignorance of what SOPA could mean for the Internet that makes a “nuclear option” like shutting down some of the most-used areas of the Internet start looking like a good plan.
Technically, these are “kids’ books.” Well, “young adult,” I suppose, is the proper designation. But, unlike a lot of kids’ books these days, Rick Riordan’s series doesn’t talk down to its audience. They’re smart books, written in a voice that neither patronizes its audience nor alienates any adults that might come along to read them.
Make no mistake, these things are about as urban fantasy as it gets. Our hero, Percy Jackson, lives in New York City, even though much of the books happen in either Camp Half-Blood, the summer camp for demi-gods, or as road-trip novels, as our heroes trek across America, or the whole world, during their adventures. These books start out with the idea that the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses are as real as they come, and still active in the world today. Not only that, but they’re still up to all their old shenanigans, IE, strewing bastard children across the landscape like so many used Kleenex. These children are half god, and half human, called demi-gods, and possess some incredible powers, inherited from their divine parent. Unfortunately, thanks to their divinity, they also regularly attract the attention of roving ancient Greek monsters that most humans can’t see thanks to “the Mist”. The Mist obscures the understanding of mere mortals, so when they see these Greek monsters, or the demi-gods in action, they think they’re really seeing some explainable mundane occurrence.
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
What we end up with is tons of great scenes of our hero fighting off harpies and hydras and whatnot in New York City museums or the St. Louis arch. It’s all sorts of fun. What we don’t end up with is your standard cast of urban fantasy monsters, like vampires, werebeasts, the Fae, ghosts, or whatever else you might generally expect to be dealing with. It lends a really fresh edge of fantastic to an otherwise mundane world.
One of the things I really appreciated about the series, besides the fact that we were dealing with a whole new cast and crew of monsters and heroes, is the way the kid heroes were treated in the books. There are dozens of these kids, a literal small army of them, living at Camp Half Blood. They may or may not have human families back home, or at least one human parent, but more often than not, the kids are alienated from these human parents. The parents not only don’t understand their semi-divine children, but the children frequently endanger the rest of their family by drawing in these monsters. The kids are treated as annoyances, mostly, misunderstood, usually orphaned, and those who aren’t orphaned are cast away by their human families.
Not only that, but these kids are almost completely ignored by their divine parents, as well. In fact, one of the major plots of the series is the idea that so many of these kids have been so heartlessly ignored by their divine and mortal parents, that they end up joining the bad guys’ side and rising up against the gods of Olympus. And it’s really, really hard to blame them for doing it, because Riordan presents the issue no holds barred, and really shows you how miserable and abandoned and angry some of these youngsters are. Even our hero, Percy Jackson, spends a fair amount of the time pissy with his divine father, because he never pays any attention to Percy. Some of these gods are even outright abusive, physically and emotionally, with their kids.
It’s a nice change of pace from the happy shiny adventure world you often see depicted in a kids’ book. I know, I know, some of you are going all “Harry Potter!” on me right now, about poor Harry living in the broom closet with the evil Dursleys, but really, in the Potter books, the situation was such an absurd caricature of a real abusive situation that it was hard to take seriously. While the situation in Riordan’s books remains fantastic, it retains an edge, like a slightly dulled razor blade. Percy’s human stepdad may act a bit of the buffoon, and may be a cartoonish character at times, but Riordan doesn’t pull any punches in describing how Percy and his mother are treated by this piece of trash. It’s clear and obvious that Percy’s stepdad is both emotionally and physically abusive.
Riordan’s books offer an emotional depth surprising in a so-called “kids’ book.” Percy’s sudden revelation of semi-divinity is more curse than gift, most of the time, seriously hampering his ability to function in the mundane world. His adventures through the course of the book, while fun and exciting, are full of danger and horror. His friends die, or worse. Percy himself nearly dies on a regular basis. And Riordan does a great job of instilling the very real fear that what we’re reading is an actual Greek tragedy, where the hero may have to die at the end.
These books offer a fresh perspective on the urban fantasy genre, but more than that, they breath life and emotion into a kids’ book. Riordan understands that a lot of his readers aren’t living in happy situations, and that they have to deal with real problems like feeling alienated and misunderstood, living in abusive homes, facing real challenges in school and life. He gives all that a magical twist, and in the process, produced a really compelling series of books, worth reading no matter how old you are.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about urban fantasy is that it’s “all the same”. There’s always vampires, there’s always werewolves, there’s always wizards of some sort. It’s the same monsters and heroes over and over again, doing basically the same things.
I guess, compared to other genres, I don’t understand this complaint.
Let’s take “high fantasy” for example. I could apply the same complaints pretty easily. They’re all the same. It’s always some innocent setting out on some epic quest to save the world from some uber evil villain who wants to rule and/or destroy the world. There’s always elves and dwarves and dragons, and there’s always good and evil gods, and there’s always an adventure hero and his side kick and the magician who is, as often or not, evil him or herself, or at least kind of morally ambiguous. When he isn’t, he’s usually a bumbling doofus.
Or what about sci-fi? Always with the spaceships and aliens and themes of losing humanity to machinery. Horror, much the same. Nasty monsters or supernatural evil of some sort or another, and a hero or heroine who nearly, if not completely, loses their sanity while fighting the Big Bad. Or god, westerns. Always with the cowboys and Indians in westerns. So boring.
Every genre has their conventions. I guess what I don’t understand is why urban fantasy comes under so much fire for using its conventions, when other genres don’t. I mean, if I pick up a horror novel, and the heroes are dealing with some Cthulhuian evil from outside space and time, I don’t bitch because other novels have used similar Big Bads.
I think part of the problem stems from over-exposure of our villains or creatures, and frankly, I blame Anne Rice for this. I think she wore people out on the vampire, and so now, every time you toss in a vampire character, readers roll their eyes and sigh heavy, tired sighs.
The vampire is an important convention in urban fantasy, though. It’s worth noting that in the “real world” humans, as animals, lack immediate predators. Nothing hunts a human, not really. You get some animals who might hunt a lone human in the natural world. Wolves come to mind, or lions. And there are quite a few animal predators that will snatch a child or baby if they get a chance. But outside of that, humans don’t have predators. And that informs our attitudes when we’re dealing with reality. We act like we own the world in a thousand little ways that we hardly ever notice, because we do own the world. For the most part, human beings are the apex predators on this planet.
So, when you’re writing an urban fantasy, where you’re tossing your humans into a world where they’re no longer the master, it helps to have a handy and fairly easily understood apex predator, like the vampire, to place against the humans, for contrast. Showing how humanity reacts when they’re no longer the toughest thing on the block, as a species, is one of the major themes of urban fantasy.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that most of the stories that succeed as urban fantasies are placing their heroes up against these predators, and giving their heroes some sort of edge over the rest of humanity. Harry Dresden is a powerful wizard. Blade is a half-vampire, himself. Sookie Stackhouse doesn’t have much to rely on, but that telepathy has saved her ass more than once. Even our favorite monster-hunting dynamic duo, the Winchester brothers, have a real edge in knowledge, ammunition, and sheer balls. In these cases, our heroes stand as protectors, guarding the rest of us norms against the terrors that surround us, that we don’t even know about. Even Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, for all that her stories hardly ever involve ordinary humans anymore, uses her hero as a protector of sorts. At least in theory, Anita Blake is responsible for killing the monsters, to save humanity from the evil creatures occasionally preying on them.
It’s pretty rare to see a plain jane mortal human fighting these monsters. I think that’s actually part of the success of Supernatural, right there. Sam and Dean Winchester aren’t magicians, half-monsters, or supernatural themselves at all. (Okay, well, technically Sam is, but he’s off the demon blood these days, so he hasn’t been getting up to much psychic hoodoo.) And yet, they’re still successfully taking names and kicking ass.
It gives us hope, and that’s also one of the main conventions of urban fantasy. Of any story telling, really. No matter how freaky things get, we can overcome them, or we can rely on better equipped protectors to give us a hand overcoming them. There’s a light at the end of the dark, scary tunnel, in these stories, and humans need that.
Some of you may be working up to objections already. Some of you might be prepping the caps lock key and getting ready to unleash the fury. Well, stop it. Doctor Who was urban fantasy before urban fantasy was even a thing.
Over the almost fifty years the Doctor has been bumming around the airwaves, books, radio serials, comics and (though I’m loathe to admit it) movies, he’s encountered vampires, werewolves, druids, wizards, and gods. Even, I’m all but certain, Cthulhu. And he’s done the bulk of it in London.
Who, then, is Doctor Who? Perhaps an overview of past Doctors is in order.
If you’re reading this here, you probably already know. Feel free to skip this bit, if you like.
William Hartnell doesn't remember the rest of this joke, but your mother is a whore.
This is Doctor Who.
Or he was, back in 1964. He was later replaced by (for reasons too involved to go into now but largely involving the fact that actors are unreliable and fickle and very often drunks) a series of other actors.
This has annoyed a lot of people. But in as much as the persons annoyed were sci-fi fans, nobody was all that inconvenienced by it. Some fans will tell you that each new actor who played the part of The Doctor breathed new life into the role, bringing a fresh perspective and a renewed vitality that was key to producing a series that has lasted almost half a century. Some fans like the sound of their own voices a little too much, and it’s best to ignore them until they run out of breath.
Hartnell was the first, but he was later replaced by these doctors: Read more >>