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Dec   Feb





(Done with Mirrors)

(Statistical blah blah blah)

Other Blogs I Read
Regularly Often

Athletics Nation

Andrew Sullivan
(Daily Dish)

Kevin Drum
(Political Animal)

(Obsidian Wings)

 Saturday, January 31, 2004

The idea for this blog was born a little over a year ago, when my friend Pete first introduced me to blogs. He had discovered blogdom through his work at Sybex and had recently begun his own blog, RaptorMagic. Like Pete, I published a zine through much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, so I had grown used to having a forum for broadcasting my commentary on various topics, political and otherwise.

It's been ten years, almost exactly, since my zine (that would be Benzene 3...) went defunct. I forget the exact reason, but I assume it had something to do with being more busy in the rest of my life. For the first year or two, I didn't miss it, but the habit of commentary didn't disappear, and it started finding other outlets. In recent years, the main one has been off-topic threads in rec.music.opera (RMO), but there have also been other newsgroups, private emails to various friends and colleagues, letters to Jim Burgess's The Abyssinian Prince (my one lingering contact with my old zine community), and posts to the comments box on other blogs.

It was one of the latter that provided the final impulse to get started. My blog ambitions had been on the back burner for a long time, due to general procrastination plus significant changes in life, location, work, and computer system. Earlier this month, a comment by Orcinus about Iran, reprinted by Atrios, happened to provoke me to write a lengthy essay, which I posted to Atrios's comments box, where I had to break it into pieces due to a size limit on comments. Orcinus picked it up and reprinted it on his own blog, with the intention of furthering the discussion. Attempting to send follow-up comments to Orcinus, I discovered that his blog has an even smaller size limit in the comment box, reminding me that what I really ought to do is start up my own blog. This time, my various life changes being mostly settled since Christmas, I downloaded Radio-Userland and got started.

Following up on that Iran topic is one of the first things I want to do here, just as soon as I get all these preliminaries taken care of.

Why Benzene?

Notwithstanding the conceit of some young Net-geeks, the advent of the Internet did not mark the beginning of communications, only an expansion of its scope. Before email, there were letters, and before blogs, there were zines.

The zine idea is pretty simple. If you're a person looking for a forum, you simply type up a few pages of whatever you have to say, make several photocopies, and mail them to the various members of your reading audience. If you repeat this act a few times, have a regular readership, and put a title and number on each issue, it's a "zine". Most publishers ("pubbers") charged a small fee to their subscribers ("subbers") to defray costs of postage and copying, but few if any actually made money in the venture.

As with blogs, zines tend to spawn little communities. Pubbers encourage subbers to submit their comments, which are reprinted in the zine. Pubbers subscribe to one another's zines, and subscriber lists overlap as readers gravitate toward those zines which align with their interests.

I've been told that there were several other zine communities, but the one I got into revolved around board games played by mail -- in particular, a game called Diplomacy, which was unusually well-suited for postal play and which tended to attract players who liked to write a lot. The entire community -- a large society with many subcommunities within -- was known as "the postal Diplomacy hobby" (or sometimes "Dipdom"), even in zines where interest had strayed to other games. Many zines, mine included, abandoned the games almost entirely but were still part of the postal Dip community.

That zine was the third incarnation of Benzene. The second Benzene was the subzine. A "subzine" is not unlike a guest blog. A person has something to write but lacks the initiative or wherewithal to go through all the business of mailing and photocopying, so he sends a few pages to some other pubber, who includes it along with his own. Benzene was an unusually long-lived subzine. Most subzines, I'd guess, lasted no more than a year, after which they'd either fizzle out or become independent. Benzene outlived four host zines, spending well over a year each in two of them. It also had a few issues as a "roving subzine" which was briefly fashionable -- sort of like hobo chic, I suppose.

The name "Benzene" is nothing more than a play on the word "zine". Etymologically, "zine" is a truncation of "magazine" (and sometimes spelled with a preceding apostrophe). It wasn't until long after Benzene was named, that it came to the communal attention of Dipdom that roughly half its members pronounced the word "zine" to rhyme with "nine". This led to a large, tongue-in-cheek controversy between the two factions, which one particularly witty person (Gary Coughlan) characterized as "Sein oder nicht sein? That is the question." This is also when I got into the habit of spelling the word "zeen", or occasionally "zene".

"Benzene" was, in fact, not my first choice of title. The one I liked better was "Limo-Zeen". When I started Benzene the subzine, I chose the runner-up title thinking that I'd save the better title for when I expanded to a full zine. But by that time, I had become attached to "Benzene", and so Limo-Zeen never came to be.

That explains Benzenes 2 and 3. I'm not sure that any of my readers, save my mother, even knew about Benzene 1. That was a local zeen I handed out to a couple of friends at high school. It didn't last very long.


Preserving the Benzene name is more than an exercise in nostalgia. It reflects my fixed idea that this blog is a continuation of the old zeen in a new format, and that infects my attitude toward several blogging traditions and conventions.

For one thing, with a zeen, you know exactly for whom you are writing. With a blog there's the idea that you are writing for the universe, because your words are out there for anyone to see for the rest of time. This is largely theoretical, and I imagine most bloggers realize that their audience is fairly limited. Still, there's a cultural idea in blogdom that every blogger wants to be Andrew Sullivan. Everyone wants to have lots of readers and lots of links and make the top 100 list. Of course another ideal of blogdom is individuality, so of course there will be numerous exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions.

I don't want to write for the universe. I want to write for my subscribers. And I imagine those subscribers will be the same people I've been writing for (and with) all along -- about a dozen from RMO (but not all of them...), whichever old friends from the Dip world I can still track down, and a few new people I've met through their blogs -- only now I'll have them gathered together in my own place. I do appreciate that the blog format is available to anyone, making it easy for anyone to join the group, but it's still about the group.

I chose UserLand's Radio software in large part because that's what Pete uses, and I never bothered to look at anything else. But the reason I never looked at anything else is that I liked Radio. I like its peculiarly open and open-ended code, and I like the corporate attitude toward selling the software. I don't, on the other hand, care for the vision of blogging promoted on Radio's website and the nearby Radio community. To me, it seems to promote form over content, and there's an awful lot of cheerleading centered around making a name for yourself in the blog community and being as linked as possible with all the other blogs. They encourage the habit of including a link list that includes every blog you've ever had a happy feeling about. Hmph. Maybe it's just my unsociable nature, but I find it nauseating when I see a "blogs I like" list so long that no one could possibly keep up with them all. There are currently six blogs I read fairly regularly (seven if you count news on the Oakland A's site), but if I ever figure out how to make a link list, I'll only include those which I feel I have a real connection to, which is one or maybe two (RaptorMagic and Orcinus).

I have mixed feelings about Comments fields in blogs. My model for audience participation is the letter column model I remember from zeens. I might try out the standard Comments some time, but for now, if you have something to contribute, you email it to me, and I might reprint it in the blog under the "letter column" heading. With the other Benzene I was fairly catholic in what I'd choose to reprint. Many were conversations I wanted to participate in, in which case I'd often intersperse my comments. Others I was happy to just run unedited, particularly if it's a known friend of the Benzene community, figuring that it's your forum as well as mine. I guess that's my answer to the Comments. I do, in fact, have one friend in RMO, maybe two, whom I will happily welcome to guest-blog here, with the not-so-ulterior motive of easing him into the habit so that he'll start up on his own.

Another habit of many blogs (not all) which the Radio culture seems to endorse is the idea of creating a blog out of short, snippy items with lots of links. I expect to be rather the opposite. If I have a lot to say, I'm happy to let it be one enormous run-on item (like this one), even if it meanders through several topics or has subheadings along the way. I don't like the way that the XML culture has so often reduced narrative to glorified outlining. One reason the 15th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica is inferior to its predecessors is that every article is broken down into bite-sized pieces which can be viewed in isolation. The same thing has happened to software "manuals", some of which are so fragmented that they are almost useless.

This brings me to my largest pet peeve about blogs. When items are short and there is no continuity, it makes little difference what order one reads in. When they are longer, or when the entire discussion has history and continuity, the arrow of time is relevant. So why is it that virtually every blog displays its items in reverse order? To me, this is just crazy. If I'm reading the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition, I don't read the last entries first; I want to read them in order. If I fall behind reading news stories about the A's, when I return to catch up I don't read the last stories first; I want to read them in order. Why then should I read the last stories first in a blog?

In fact, I don't. My usual habit when reading blogs is to scroll down until I recognize where I left off from before and then read items from bottom to top. It's a nuisance. Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way, but I don't care. I think that blogdom's institutionalized upside-down-ness is a stupid convention, and I intend to defy it.

Just as soon as I figure out how, that is. I'm convinced that virtually anything is possible with Radio, so long as one learns enough wonky code to rewrite the rules. I've already started twiddling with my templates to make Benzene appear how I like, and I intend to twiddle plenty more as I go, but reinventing the blogroll is still far beyond my ability. As a partial solution I might at least figure out how to end each item with a link that jumps to the following item above, but I haven't gotten that yet, either. For now, all I can do is recommend that my readers join me in reading from bottom to top.

A couple of other quirky characteristics from the old Benzene might be preserved. Once I get my templates reasonably stable, I intend to create themes in a variety of colors, so that I can change the color of the "cover page" every so often, as the old Benzene always did. I will not type in lowercase letter, e.e. cummings style, though if BRUX pesters me enough, I might give in and include a lowercase "b" when I remake the title bar some day.

[Update, Feb. 8: One thing I forgot to mention: Something I liked about my old zeen was that the political discussion included participants ranging from far left to far right with all sorts in between. I hope to have that again here. Most blogs I've seen attract large groups of people with nearly uniform political views.]

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