A little more content lite (even though my complaint is unavoidable). Saw on Motherboard a report on a first-person, Web-based shopping game about Black Friday zombie mall shoppers. You can play here. It’s pure kitsch but does reinforce the deplorable behaviors of sale-crazed shoppers swarming over each other to get at goodies (especially cheap electronics), sometimes coming to blows. Videos of 2015 Black Friday brawls appeared almost immediately.

We apparently learn nothing year-over-year as we reenact our ritual feeding frenzy, lasting all the way through New Year’s Eve. (I never go out on Black Friday.) I might have guessed that big box retailers face diminishing returns with store displays torn apart, disgruntled shoppers, traumatized employees, and the additional cost of rent-a-cops to herd the masses and maintain order (which obviously doesn’t work in many instances). Yet my e-mail inbox keeps loading up with promotions and advertisements, even a day later. The video game in particular reminds me of Joe Bageant’s great line: “We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.”

This blog of mine (nearing 10 years old) is in need of something besides ranting and complaining. Time to organize another traffic report.

Since my previous report, rather than reining myself back to 3-4 paragraphs per entry, I’ve gone the opposite direction and begun breaking entries into 3- or 4-part series. The “more” html tag is used with some frequency, and an addendum post is not unusual, as I always think of more to write. Seems to be lots of ideas to unpack and argue, even though commentary remains minimal. Which brings me to another development. Since telling other bloggers to stop subscribing so that I’ll go look at their blogs, my subscriber count has more than tripled and is now up to 626. If even half of those subscribers read my new posts when notification is sent, Spiral Staircase would be getting regular traffic spikes. But that’s not happening. Rather, I’m ignoring them, and they’re ignoring me, which is fine with me; I’m not a whore self-aggrandizing personality trying to drive up meaningless numbers via social media.

The Filipino cohort searching, finding, and clicking on my post about Scheler’s Hierarchy continues to gather the most traffic. When I blog about doom and collapse, Global Risk Report (an aggregator) sometimes picks up my post and refers traffic. A week’s traffic these days varies from 50 to 250 hits, which is a five-fold difference but still nothing in comparison to other blogs. So how about that collapse? Some believe in a fast, tumultuous crash, others in a slow, incremental fading away that only looks like a crash when viewed from the vantage of considerable hindsight (e.g., the Fall of the Roman Empire). Although I don’t discount the possibility of the fast scenario (should banks in particular seize up), it seems that the corrective mechanisms keeping the house of cards standing but wobbling madly are effective to forestall the worst for now. The slope still points down, but we’re still only just over the crest of the wave.

And finally, considering that today is Thanksgiving in the U.S., what can I be thankful for? All the usual, no doubt: hearth, health, food, and friends. That’s absolutely for real, not some sort of snark. But knowing what I know, I often wonder what to wish for, considering all the conventional American desires (wealth, fame, influence, etc.) feed back into the culture as distortion. Further, the longer industrial civilization persists, the worse it will be for whatever life remains on the other side of the bottleneck. Whereas some counsel resistance and even sabotage to hurry things along, the behemoth is so great by now that it will eventually fall under its own weight. My active contribution to that eventuality, whatever attitude and behaviors I adopt, is minuscule to the point of irrelevance (sorta like voting). So while the lights stay on and there’s air to breathe (unlike China), I suppose simple thanks for this life we enjoy is plenty enough for me.

The video below came to my attention recently, which shows a respectable celebrity, violinist/conductor Itzhak Perlman, being dicked around in an interview he probably undertook in good faith. My commentary follows.

Publicized pranks and gotchas are by no means rare. Some are good-natured and quite funny, but one convention of the prank is to unmask it pretty quickly. In the aftermath, the target typically either laughs if off, leaves without comment, or less often, storms out in disgust. Andy Kaufman as “Tony Clifton” was probably among the first to sustain a prank well past the point of discomfort, never unmasking himself. Others have since gotten in on the antics, though results are probably not any worse dickishness (dickery?) than Kaufman’s.

Fake interviews by comedians posing as news people are familiar to viewers of The Daily Show and its spinoff The Colbert Report (its run now completed). Zack Galifianakis does the same schtick in Between Two Ferns. It always surprises me when targets fall into the trap, exposing themselves as clueless ideologues willing to be hoisted with their own petards. However, Colbert in particular balanced his arch Republican stage persona with an unmistakable respect for his interview subject, which was at times inspired. Correspondents from The Daily Show are frequently pretty funny, but they almost never convey any respect for the subjects of the interview. Nick Canellakis (shown above) apparently has a whole series of interviews with classical musicians where he feigns idiocy and insult. Whereas some interview subjects are media savvy enough to get the joke and play along, I find this attempt at humor tasteless and unbearable.

Further afield, New Media Rockstars features a burgeoning list of media hosts who typically operate cheaply over the Web via YouTube, supported by an array of social media. At least one, Screen Junkies (the only one I watch), has recently blown into an entire suite of shows. I won’t accuse them all of being talentless hacks or dicking people around for pointless yuks, but I often pause to wonder what makes the shows worth producing beyond the hosts’ embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of comics, cartoons, TV shows, movies, etc. They’re fanboys (and girls) who have leveraged their misspent youth and eternal adolescence to gush and gripe about their passions. Admittedly, this may not be so different from sports fanatics (especially human statisticians), opera geeks, and nerds of others stripes.

Throwaway media may have unintentionally smuggled in tasteless shenanigans such as those by Nick Canellakis. Various comedians (unnamed) have similarly offered humorless discomfort as entertainment. Reality TV shows explored this area a while back, which I called trainwreck television. Cheaply produced video served over the Web has unleashed a barrage of dreck in all these categories. Some shows may eventually find their footing and become worthwhile. In the meantime, I anticipate seeing plenty more self-anointed media hosts dicking around celebrities and audiences alike.

This xkcd comic bugged me when I first saw it, but I didn’t give it too much thought at first because its dismissive approach to media is quite familiar and a bit tiresome:

On reflections, however, and in combination with other nonsense I’ve been reading, the irksome joke/not joke hasn’t faded from my thinking. So I’ll be very unhip and respond without the appropriate ironic detachment that modern life demands of us, where everything is cool and chill and like, dude, whatever ….

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I had a disheartening private (now public) e-mail exchange with a friend, who surely doesn’t read my blog, about refugees streaming out of MENA (= Middle East and North Africa). Our exchange is quoted below. I wrote:

I’ve been saying for some time that we’re facing a diaspora away from ecologically and economically ravaged locations. Europe is currently on the front lines, but we’re been dealing with our own slow, steady influx from all points around the globe. The Central American refugee crisis in Texas (lots of children) is a good case in point. I figure, too, that people will soon enough (hard to predict precisely when) be streaming out of California and Florida as they face different water woes.

My friend replied:

I believe you…pretty violent protests in Germany…they are a product of their own guilt from 1935…I doubt they are refugees, they look pretty buff to me like ISIS terrorists…just another example of obama’s failed foreign policy in Syria…I expect my man, Putin to take care of business especially after the airline bombing…I could really careless about loss of Muslim life, the more the better they are all the enemy as far as I am concerned…

I replied:

Gotta disagree with you here. You sound like a right-wing Tea Party supporter. Germany has addressed its guilt over WWII, as has Japan. We can’t continue to throw that in their faces. The Islamic faith has over 4 billion adherents. They’re not all terrorists, though the small sliver of Islamofascists make the most noise and news and thus represent the entire 4 billion plus in the popular mind. Serious mistake. People are people all the world over, and most are constrained culturally (including religious affiliation) by the accident of birth location. We got lucky, sorta, being born in the U.S. I don’t expect anyone, including you, to go “kum bah ya — all men are brothers” with so many pundits and media organs banging the drum about “them.” But with a little circumspection, the differences between us are not so great that one can blithely consign an entire continent to oblivion because someone put the idea of the bogeyman in your head.

His final reply, to which I did not respond:

I guess I sound like a right wing Tea Party Supporter because I share a lot of their views…I do not consider islam to be a faith, I consider it to be a violent cult, I don’t buy the small sliver either, I can give you hard numbers to support this if you want…I do agree with your statement about being constrained culturally but that’s not my problem. History has show[n] us to be a culture of conquest…the strong conquering the weak…. a conquest ethic…we’ll see if your position changes over time as Chicago transitions, in the mean time I continue to prepare for the race war…no one put the idea of a bogeyman in my head, I was born in condition yellow…where ever there is a strong muslim population in the world there is violence and chaos, you can’t reason with their people…

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I received an e-mail with the usual ranting about some travesty by an anonymous Internet troll. These are always forwarded to me by a family member. I can’t decide whether this rant (grammatical and punctuation errors uncorrected) is more nearly economic or social. We should have a word like socioeconomic to cover both. Oh, wait … My counter-rant follows.

This is why  people are supporting TRUMP! From a Florida ER doctor:

I live and work in a state overrun with Illegal’s. They make more money having kids than we earn working full-time.

Today I had a 25-year old with 8 kids – that’s right 8, all Illegal Anchor Babies and she had the nicest nails, cell phone, hand bag, clothing, etc. She makes about $1,500 monthly for each; you do the math.

I used to say, “We are the dumbest nation on earth,” Now I must say and sadly admit: WE are the dumbest people on earth (that includes ME) for we Elected the Idiot Ideologues who have passed the Bills that allow this. Sorry, but we need a Revolution,

If the Illegal Immigrant is over 65, they can apply for SSI and Medicaid and get more than a woman on Social Security, who worked from 1944 until 2004. She is only getting $791 per month because she was born in 1924 and there’s a ‘catch 22’ (notch) for her. It is interesting that the Federal Government provides a single refugee with a monthly allowance of $1,890. Each can also obtain an additional $580 in Social Assistance, for a total of $2,470 a month. This compares to a single pensioner, who after contributing to the growth and development of America for 40 to 50 years, can only receive a monthly maximum of $1,012 in Old Age Pension and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Maybe our Pensioners should apply as Refugees!

Consider sending this to all your American friends, so we can all be ticked off and maybe get the Refugees cut back to $1,012 and the Pensioners up to $2,470. Then we can enjoy some of the money we were forced to submit to the Government over the last 40 or 50 or 60 years.

PLEASE SEND THIS TO EVERY AMERICAN TAXPAYER YOU  KNOW! We need a real change that will be healthy for America!

No way was that penned by a Florida ER doc. Educated, licensed professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, CPAs) do not speak or write incoherent screed and straight-up lies like that — at least until they become presidential candidates. The mention of Florida should invalidate that bogus appeal to authority all by itself, considering what sorts of craziness come out of that state. It’s far more likely that it was written by some anonymous Tea Party supporter, typically a cranky old white person who can feel him- or herself being overwhelmed by an unstoppable demographic wave (just like the rest of us).

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I indicated before that I would not blog about Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head because his content is too close to things I already blog about plenty. However, I would like to bring one thing — one thing! — out of his book:

It is fashionable to scoff at the idea of a “privileged” moment in culture (for example, the Baroque era for organs, or the decades before the 1990s for automobiles) that is better than any other moment. Let it be conceded that the orchestral organs of the early twentieth century must have swelled the worshipers of that time with an aesthetic-religious experience no less real than that of their Baroque predecessors. To speak of decadence, then, smacks of nostalgia, that thought crime that popular writers are quick to detect in anyone who glances backward.

Yet our low regard for nostalgia often seems not to rest on some substantive standard of excellence, in light of which a preference for the past is seen as missing the mark, but rather expresses idolatry of the present. This kind of “forward-thinking” is at bottom an apologetic species of conservatism, as it defers to and celebrates whatever is currently ascendant. [p. 222]

Crawford’s remarks here are an aside, not really part of his main arguments. Yet he describes well our knee-jerk disdain for tradition and the past, which I previously blogged about here. This particular idea is of significance to me not for its musical associations, though his example of Baroque vs. 20th-century organs offers an obvious musical connection (about which Crawford discusses only craftwork, his pet project, skipping past purely musical and aesthetic considerations). Rather, Crawford is right that the nostalgic frame is regarded as no less than thought crime, especially by technophiles easily impressed with gadgetry. Accordingly, the accusation of being a Luddite or not “with it” resounds in the ears of anyone without the latest electronic accouterments. Crawford puts the lie to that notion fairly handily in the course of the book. I find it curious, too, that he turns the word conservatism on its head.

Since the time of my initial post, however, the dilemma of ceaseless, destabilizing flux has taken on new dimension (at least from my vantage point). Whereas the argument used to be mostly about those who felt they were being left behind by a culture always on the move (yet surprisingly not so when one looks deeper), it has now also become about individuals losing themselves to ideation. Crawford’s subtitle speaks to this directly: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction. From time to time, I point to The Compulsive Explainer (see blogroll), who also circles around the idea of people now being nothing, nonentities, absorbed in and by their machines, especially the computer. To go just a little further, this is what it also means to observe that the U.S. has progressed out of agrarian, manufacturing, and service economies into an information economy. Progress is the wrong word, of course, but it encapsulates what I have been saying for some time now, namely, that we’re living in our heads, in a world of our own imaginations rather than in the real world of things.

A listicle for your (more likely my) amusement:

  • All cats are girls, all dogs are boys. Everyone knows this from childhood. Additional discussion is moot.
  • Money is virtue. Those who earn (or inherit) the most money are the most virtuous and obviously get to make all the important decisions.
  • Sexual intercourse occurs late at night, lights out, in bed under the covers, man on top. The result is either disease or pregnancy, sometimes both.
  • Everything of value below ground and underwater is there for us to dig up and harvest to burn, smelt, eat, or exploit at will. It’s all within our domain with no boundaries whatsoever.
  • Jesus loves you. And when you die, you will go to heaven as reward … for … um … what, exactly?
  • Pointy-headed, ivory-tower, nerd academics and scientists have nothing to tell us about the world that we can’t figure out using our own minds. Interior, passionately felt “understanding” has far greater authority than expertise.
  • Alternatively, what the media, government, clergy, teachers, parents, and friends tell you are the important things needing knowing, especially if they come loaded with salacious, scandalous, envious, fear- and guilt-mongering content. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.
  • Rights are best articulated through an incoherent mashup of nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and more. None, however, compare to the right of the consumer to buy, have, and enjoy any damn thing he or she pleases. Consequences do not exist.

No Nudes Needed

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Culture, Economics, Idle Nonsense, Media

I’m a few days late, having only learned of it today, but can’t help but to take note of Playboy‘s new policy regarding nudes in its flagship publication:

As part of a redesign that will be unveiled next March, the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

The irony of this development is rich, though I have no Schadenfreude about it. The arguments in the linked article are undeniably true, a quintessential example of the democratization of production having brought the power, if not the cachet, of publication within the reach of anyone with a functioning Internet connection. Thus, the business model that made print publication profitable in the first place is largely gone now.

Considering Playboy‘s significant brand, I can’t help but wonder what’s to become of the venerable Playmate of the Month. Will Playboy‘s online division continue to crown new weekly, monthly, yearly winners of the genetic sweepstakes — albeit often aided by bosom-stuffing plastic surgeons? If that hallowed beauty award is no longer conferred, it’s doubtful any upstart will be able to establish itself as a replacement. Oh, how the times be a-changin’.

As wants go, many are conventional and seemingly innocuous, at least on an individual level. If within reach, most of us will pull in what we want without much compunction regarding costs and effects downstream. Short-term satisfaction overrides forward planning. The most ubiquitous example may be sugar, which provides an immediate boost to brain chemistry, not dissimilar from that of cocaine, but is not a large part of the diet to which our Neolithic biology is evolved. Yet sugar is a large part of the typical American diet for a number of reasons beyond mere palatability. Indeed, food manufacturers have refined their recipes to create irresistible appeal by loading processed foods with fat, sugar, and salt. (As the saying goes, can’t eat just one!) Portion sizes don’t help: the typical tub of popcorn and 32 oz drink that for many accompany a typical movie showing (viewers squirming in their seats desperate to escape to the restrooms as soon as the credits roll) are a complete overload of all three. Little wonder that an obesity epidemic in the U.S. exists, along with diabetes appearing earlier and more regularly in the population.

Another typical indulgence is the automobile, indispensable in most American households as a frankly irreplaceable means of transport. We’re forced into our cars by virtue of the dearth of alternatives, but we want them anyway because of their obvious utility and the freedom they represent — a highly successful part of the marketing. No one tells you at the time of purchase, first vehicle or any thereafter, that you have also signed on to clog the atmosphere and streets alongside all the other drivers. Those who complain about the traffic are often oblivious to the fact that they are the traffic. Just be glad not to be part of this crazy 50-lane traffic jam in China:

Everything is bigger in Texas? I’d say China’s got the Lone Star state beat on this score.

Perhaps the most egregious example is arms, to use the term from the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although the 2nd Amendment is over 200 years old and conceived for a society quite different from the one we now have (well-regulated militias being notably absent from today’s society), the recognized right may have outlived its usefulness now that citizens are increasingly at risk of violence at each other’s hand in the home, workplace, church, and school. Maybe the shooter is an aggrieved postal worker (see the original provocation for the term going postal), a downsized factory worker, an abused spouse, a jilted boy- or girlfriend, a religious or political zealot, a social misfit, or an honest-to-goodness terrorist (a few exist, though the actual numbers are IMO grossly exaggerated to keep everyone on edge and to justify our ridiculously out-of-proportion security apparatus), easy availability of the gun amplifies the force an individual can bring to bear on his or her targets.

In the wake of yet another school shooting — yes, senseless and deplorable like so many others, both past and future (there’s bound to be more) — beyond the condemnation of the shooter and by-the-numbers characterization of the “lone, crazed gunman” no one could see coming, wouldn’t it be interesting to describe wanting a gun in the first place as having the collateral effect that others, too, would have guns and that a background level of (increasing?) violence and mayhem would simply have to be considered part of the package, part of the right as equally applied? The consequence of too much sugar is getting fat and/or being unhealthy. Lots of people have already made that deal. The consequence of driving an automobile is contributing to pollution and congestion. Few of us have realistic alternatives given how society is structured. The consequence of gun ownership is that people will have to die, not by one’s own hand necessarily, but as an inevitable part of the right of gun ownership made available to most anyone who wants one. This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons for law-abiding citizens to want guns. I acknowledge that fully. But illegitimate uses are stowed away in the baggage hold.

No politician will describe the current state of American society as violent and arbitrary, where one’s fellow citizens could snap at any moment and rampage through one’s own workplace or neighborhood. Frankly, I’m surprised that Wild West shootouts depicted in cops-and-robbers movies have not yet become commonplace. Rather, the lone shooter in most scenarios tends to proceed unhindered until the event is played to its conclusion, typically with the shooter taking his or her own life. Blaze of glory, etc. Will we reach a point at which everyday violence becomes so intolerable that American citizens will relinquish their right to bear arms in the hopes of gaining peace and tranquility? No, I’m pretty confident that we will instead go out in a blaze of glory — cold, dead hands and all that.