Archive for April, 2007

Competition as a Universal Metaphor

Posted: April 29, 2007 in Culture

There is perhaps no metaphor for life as powerful as competition. In pure survival terms, the struggle for resources, for mates, and a place to lay one’s head top the list. (Darwinian theory would add to that list propelling one’s genes into the next generation through procreation and care for one’s offspring.) But when survival isn’t strictly at stake, competition is still the rule. We compete at school so that we can be better competitors in the job hunt. We play games and sports centered around competition for the pure thrill of it. Kids make up pointless contests just to make dreary tasks more interesting (who can do their homework faster? with fewer errors?).

We devote considerable energies and sums of money just to witness competition. Professional sports cost a hell of a lot of money to attend, yet most teams have devoted followings. The City of Chicago recently announced its bid to host an Olympics in 2016 — its first ever. Indeed, many of our entertainment choices are organized around the idea of competition. The endless string of mostly meaningless reality TV shows feature an eventual winner (and many losers, in all senses of the word). And then there are the awards shows and Nielsen ratings, all about actors, directors, shows, movies, etc. competing against each other.

I recently had the experience of buying and selling on eBay. The purchase of an item is completed with the phrase “You WON!” The odd thrill of participating in an auction has doubtlessly led more than a few to pay far more than an item’s ostensible value. My first two sales auctions haven’t yet concluded, but it’s an unexpectedly visceral thrill to see the bids mount up (for things I was willing to dump in the trash).

Perhaps the greatest long-term competition is politics, which has evolved into an endless campaign leaving little time and attention for actually conducting the business of politics: oversight and legislation. I’ve heard the political arena called horserace politics, referring to placing one’s bets (in the form of campaign contributions) and staking one’s fortunes on a candidate and/or a party platform. Even the first response upon losing a particular race (the presidency, a governorship, control of the Senate) is strategizing on the next scheduled competition four or six years away. The prize isn’t actually governing; it’s simply winning the competition.

Even making music, which is a cooperative and communal experience, is slowly being infiltrated by competition. The prizes awarded to songs and compositions often mean more than the actual music, and the American Idol effect — winning a competition and recording contract — is changing musical ambition from expressing an artistic idea to being rich and famous. Adding a competitive aspect to cooking (Iron Chef) is the height of ridiculousness, totally missing the point of preparing and enjoying a good meal.

Admittedly, competition acts as a tremendous spur to achievement. Winning an Olympic medal, for instance, validates a lifetime of preparation while it tends to invalidate the efforts of those who fail to win. However, striving and participation are themselves worthy achievements quite independent of winning.

On a personal level, my best musical experiences are the result of hard work and achieving the level of musical expression for which I am striving. My participation in the Chicago Triathlon last year (first time, in middle age no less) was about being out there, not getting the best time. The triathlon (or for others the marathon) is one area where average folks truly get that it need not always be about competition.

Punking the Public

Posted: April 19, 2007 in Classical Music, Culture

The Washington Post recently published a fairly lengthy article called “Pearls Before Breakfast” that answers a question no one in particular was asking: would subway commuters take better notice of music performed in a subway hallway if the busker were a world-class concert artist? I’m late getting to this topic, so there have already been plenty of bloggers offering their two cents. Of those I’ve read, none really speaks to my take on the subject, which is this: what on earth is The Washington Post doing punking the public so that it can then report on it?

As the article partially admits, ripping high art — in this case classical music — from its normal context and putting it in the lowly confines of a subway hallway is a disingenuous set-up of the would-be audience. Off the top of my head, I can think of many reasons why chiding the public for its failure to stop and take notice of a world-class concert artist (Joshua Bell) playing violin in the subway is a mistake. For instance, commuters on their way to work are far more likely to be on a fixed schedule than those on the way home. Many have iPods or the like playing in their ears already and simply don’t hear the environment. In fact, commuters may adopt a studied desensitivity to the environment of frequently traveled routes and never notice changes that don’t read as threats.

Music busking is also a considerably different activity from playing the Bach Chaconne, which was Bell’s main piece. I would have recognized that work instantaneously and Joshua Bell almost as quickly, but I don’t know that I would have stopped. It might even be true that I’m a better target for this prank than the general public precisely because I am discerning. But does it really mean that I’m uncultured if I don’t stop? I don’t think so. It could mean that I’m in a hurry, that I don’t want to pay him undue attention, or that for all his expertise a 14-min. impromptu concert isn’t compelling to me at the time. Part of the point of high art is the ritual and setting, which isn’t the case with busking. That’s closer to performance art.

Almost all of the comments I’ve read and heard about this stunt have been about what a fascinating sociological snapshot it is, even if the results are discouraging. Pshaw. It’s not a sociology experiment; it’s the media goosing us, tsk tsking us over our presumed lowness (which was to be expected), and stepping well over the bounds of ethical journalistic behavior. So don’t take any shame on yourself if you were (or might have been) among the passersby who failed to stop and smell the roses. Instead, shame on The Washington Post for staging such an outrageous set-up and reporting it as though it were valuable news.

Traffic Report No. 01

Posted: April 7, 2007 in Blogosphere

Judging from the increased traffic I’ve gotten the past few days (don’t get excited — it’s gone from my usual 10 to about 30 hits per day), some search engine, perhaps Google, must have come through and indexed my site. What’s drawing folks in? Pimped Hummers. (They’re certainly not here to read about malicious ecophagy ….) I’ve blogged a couple times dismissing excessively large, extravagant SUVs and Hummers as being among the worst examples of conspicuous consumption. Enthusiasts who follow the search engines to my posts end up with someone wagging their finger at them. I’m chuckling about that.

A friend recommended that if I really want to drive traffic, what I should do is have a gateway with a mini-IQ test to qualify folks before they’re allowed to view any content. My friend believes that keeping people out if they’re not smart enough will magically cause smart people to visit and comment. I don’t quite see it. But if you’ve read this far, I do at least encourage more comments.


Malicious Ecophagy

Posted: April 4, 2007 in Ethics, Nomenclature, Technophilia

I recently stumbled upon a really nasty threat in emergent science called “malicious ecophagy” that probably should have gone onto my earlier post called Steamrollers except for the fact that this threat doesn’t have the slow-moving inevitability of those I identified before. Rather, ecophagy (the consumption of the ecosphere) would most likely happen suddenly. The threat stems from the race in nanotechnology to create an assembler, a nanobot able to take apart material at the molecular level and reassemble it. Think of replicator technology contemplated in Star Trek fiction for a possible application.

The promise of such technology, which is partly the impetus for developing it, is the hope that, using nanotechnology, we would be able, for instance, to create corn from lawn clippings or clean up a toxic dump by merely rearranging the molecules. It could potentially be the end of want. An array of nanomedicine applications is also contemplated. The potential danger, however, is that if we manage to create an assembler, and if we can’t turn off the molecular transformation, the assembler could then go on to recreate itself ad infinitum until a swarm of biovorous nanobots has literally consumed the totality of biomass and reduced it to dust or some sort of gray goo. It has suitably been termed the “gray goo problem.” Science fiction has already suggested the problem, though of extraterrestrial origin, of an all-consuming biomass in the movie The Blob.

This passage from K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation describes the issue further:

Though masses of uncontrolled replicators need not be gray or gooey, the term “gray goo” emphasizes that replicators able to obliterate life might be less inspiring than a single species of crabgrass. They might be superior in an evolutionary sense, but this need not make them valuable.

The gray goo threat makes one thing perfectly clear: we cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with [self-]replicating assemblers. Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth, far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident.

This spells out the stakes fairly succinctly. Yet in their hubris, scientists appear to be confident that they can avoid the problem, and research continues apace because there is no regulatory agency to oversee and halt the development of potentially dangerous technologies. Indeed, weaponization of nanotechnology is virtually assured. It reminded me that in the dawning atomic age, the creators of the first atomic bomb considered the possibility that detonating a device might accidentally ignite the atmosphere. The danger was calculated to be sufficiently low, though, that the gamble appeared to be worth it. (We’re certainly comfortable with that particular doomsday scenario in hindsight.)

Everyone to whom I’ve described the gray goo problem has responded fairly simply that, well, we just shouldn’t go there then. We don’t want an “oops” we can’t recover from. That’s also the argument made by Bill Joy in his lengthy article in Wired titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” His preferred term is relinquishment, and he includes genetic engineering and robotics in a triumvirate of GNR (Genes-Nanotech-Robots) technologies that we should give up on before we outwit ourselves and alter something irrevocably. Joy’s credentials and scientific acumen are far better than anything I can bring to bear on the issue, and I rather trust his conclusions (and recommend reading the article). However, despite a few good examples of historical relinquishment, I have my doubts that we can muster the necessary humility and restraint to avoid delving ever deeper into the Pandora’s Box of science and technology. Like the so-called shot heard around the world, that “oops” muttered in a lab somewhere could be a signal event.

Sales Mentality

Posted: April 2, 2007 in Advertising

Sales, marketing, and advertising are all part of a sphere of activity that I find, well, distasteful. Since at least as early as the 1950s, the advertising racket has focused on discovering and exploiting purchasing behaviors and the stimuli that affect them. Subliminal advertising was among the techniques that raised red flags among the general population, and it was summarily made illegal. Since then, market research and advertising have become so subtle as to become virtually invisible to the layperson.

For instance, color schemes, floor plans, scent machines, and music are all employed to boost sales in one way or another. Consumer trends are tracked and analyzed through the now ubiquitous “shopper’s card” offered by grocery chains. Inferior products are sometimes placed next to even worse products as a hedge: “look, that one’s even worse, maybe this one’s not so bad.” Sales guarantees like “find this product advertised for less and we’ll beat the price” are often offered disingenuously, as many large chain stores have products manufactured specifically for them, meaning that no one else can sell the same product at a competing price. Timed discounts and/or rebates create a false sense of urgency. And these are just some techniques that don’t involve interacting with people.

Face-to-face sales are frequently no better. Every competent salesperson knows how to ask repeatedly for small “closes” before asking for the final sale. Encouraging and complimenting insincerely (“that’s a good color on you”) for the sake of a sale is certainly not above most salespeople. When I last went shopping for a new car, all the used models were priced about double their expected take-home price, and the salespeople would simply not let me off the lots until I had looked at at least a dozen cars, including those that in no way fit the profile I had provided. It was clear desperation.

I once unwittingly attended a multilevel marketing recruitment. When I asked how one develops prospects, the answer was “anybody, everybody. Talk to people in line at the grocery, your car repairman, friends and family, etc.” Everyone becomes a walking prospect, a sales mark, for one’s own enrichment. The multilevel marketing folks also relied on the cult of personality, stressing heavily and repeatedly what an “amazing person” such and such manager/trainer was, as if better sales technique translated into better character.

An acquaintances of mine sells telecommunications and has learned to see everything in terms of the “deal,” where he must maneuver for the best possible outcome for himself. No generosity, no concern for anyone other than himself, and an inability to see any value outside of a financial end result. His worldly disatisfaction and frustration are readily apparent.

Maybe some folks are built for this stuff. I know that I’m not, and beyond a couple minor flirtations, I stopped well short of going into sales. I have nothing against commerce. At this point in our history, it’s a necessity to our material existence. But acknowledging that fact doesn’t excuse some of the more despicable practices that have become de rigeur in the marketplace. Why, for example, should I be aware that women’s pupils dilate and heartrates quicken when they go shopping, or that small ticket items like Coke, being red, draw consumers close in, whereas large ticket items like TVs are predominantly blue (blank screen or case) to be soothing and put people at ease?