Archive for May, 2007

Deficit Living

Posted: May 21, 2007 in Consumerism

The New York Times has a profile of a couple who are up to their eyeballs in debt, lots of it on high-interest credit cards. The slant of the article is that their problem is something that is happening to them, not that it’s something that they are doing to themselves. Now I’m no fan of the banking and credit industries. Their practices are often deceitful, predatory, and usurious. For instance, lots of folks have been roped into signing questionable mortgage instruments. (The interest-only loan is a good example.) But where is the personal responsibility in this profile? Where is the simple recognition that the couple in question is living beyond their means?

For the Moellerings, juggling balances and interest rates has enabled them to pay for things they could not otherwise afford, like their 2004 wedding and house renovation, or to eat out occasionally, when “we’ve both had a bad day at work,” Mr. Moellering said.

This is just plain wrong, and eating out occasionally is only a minuscule part of the problem. The truth is that they can’t afford a big wedding and a house renovation. And being financially unwise, when crunch time comes (typically in the form of penalties on top of penalties, some of which are avoidable if they learned to manage things better), they apparently turn to their credit cards rather than refuse further purchases.

If this profile is representative of typical American couples/families, and I suspect it is, then a lot of people are in for rude awakenings when their bills come due and the only recourse is declaring bankruptcy. Recent reforms to bankruptcy law, however, no longer allow escape from debt. They will still be on the hook for their inability to say “no” and live within their means. It might be easy to blame the media, which sells the good life and the expectation that home ownership, large screen TVs, and Caribbean vacations are within the reach of all of us. But the disconnect from reality that this couple exhibits is ultimately their own responsibility.

Technology that replaces human effort has been around for a long time, which in its benign form may be a labor-saving device. The benefits are typically increased productivity and decreased labor costs, while the casualty is nearly always the disappearance of someone’s livelihood. Progress has always been a double-edged sword, technology is impossible to hold back, and most laborers do in fact find other means of earning a living. Those transitions are by now inevitable in a world that changes so rapidly that there is little continuity from generation to generation.

The Wall Street Journal has a recent article called “Fugue for Man & Machine” reporting on the development of a computerized orchestra made from sampled sounds, all of which can be conducted with a Wii remote or similar device. From an economist’s or empressario’s perspective, this may be just another labor-saving device, which allows music to be made with fewer actual musicians, or with none. From a musician’s perspective (mine), this is the worst idea I’ve stumbled across in some time. On a purely technical level, computer sampling must by its nature create an idealized notion of what each instrument should sound like, which homogenizes and strips out the character, variation, and imperfections that give music so much of its essence. How different players interpret a phrase, the nuances of vibrato, the timing and mistiming of an articulation, these all make huge differences in a performance, and manipulating the “performance” of a combination of computer voices completely misses the point of what it means to behave musically. Indeed, many of the best moments in musical performance are purely transient or accidental and they simply can’t be recreated. They’re temporal and momentary. Even a recording can’t fully capture them. To a trained ear, the fatuous “fauxharmonic orchestra” is clearly distinguishable from a real orchestra. Even if the technology erases the ability to hear the difference, the replacement of a real musical experience with a indistinguishable virtual experience cannot possibly be the direction intelligent people want to go.

Some 25 years ago, a similar threshold was crossed when a synthpop group called the Art of Noise made recordings from sampled sources. Many of the sounds were so heavily manipulated that a “performance” could only exist as a recording; live performance was impossible. We have similar impossibilities in, for instance, oversaturated pictures of the Grand Canyon with none of the haze of modern atmospheric conditions, or swooping camera shots in movies created from computerized images that can’t possible reflect a true human perspective. They’re titilating, to be sure, but totally unreal. If we used to be able to distinguish easily between the real and the synthetic, those boundaries are blurred by each new technological development or formulation.

Thinking and acting musically is a fundamental aspect of human culture. Singing and dancing are among the first experiences we all have, and now art music is being created using computers. It may signal the eventual triumph of technics over humanity. People are being rendered dispensable by technology in perhaps the most essentially human of all arts. This isn’t merging art and technology as one might observe in architecture. It’s the destruction of an art by those who should know better. It boggles the mind to read that so many sophisticated musicians are throwing in with this technology.

Update: I meant to include the video link below but couldn’t immediately locate it.

The important thing to realize is that the maker of the video can’t play drums or piano. Yet he has fashioned a “musical performance” based on his video editing skill. It’s clever, entertaining, and funny, but it’s not really about the music; it’s about the editing skill, which is considerable (maybe not — he has a lot of imitators). As mentioned above, it’s the triumph of technics.

Some musicians have been complaining that such editing skills are actually ruining music. Many studio albums are so heavily edited that the end product is essentially cut and spliced together from hundreds of takes. In pop music, the result is recordings by performers who can’t perform live, much like the Art of Noise, or are terrible live performers. They end up lip synching to their own recordings. In classical music, the result is live performances that can’t stand up to the quality of recordings. As a result, performers get so wrapped up chasing notes and avoiding imperfections that live performance frequently lacks feeling, transcendence, or abandon. The recordings, like the doctored images on a calendar or the impossible shots in a movie, ultimately undercut the art they purport to serve.

Deep Time

Posted: May 12, 2007 in Idealism, Nomenclature

I remember being tantalized as a boy at the thought of the year 2525, as the old Zager and Evans song from 1969 goes. For at least the past 200 years (an arbitrary number), each 50-year interval (another arbitrary number) has represented such a thoroughgoing transformation of civilization (which seems to occur at shorter intervals each time, or perhaps it’s that each transformation is increasingly broad) that the prospect of 11 such intervals (1975 to 2525 — remember, I was a boy) was too much to imagine. The song spins forward millennium by millennium to the year 9595, by which point we may not even recognize ourselves. It sort of begs the question: will the world of, say, the year 4545 (about 2500 years from now) be more different from now than now is different from 500 BCE (about 2500 years ago)?

These are recognizably human timescales, even though they may be at the outer limit of imagination. However, we have considerable conceptual difficulty with evolutionary, geological, and cosmological timescales, any of which might be called “deep time.” For instance, predictions of global warming look back over tens of thousands of years and plot trends that take geological time to fully manifest and observe. But we’re warned that human activity in the last 200 years has broken through the geological timescale and will effect widespread changes within a few more generations. The real failure is when a brief cold snap or the absence of a nasty hurricane season every year is taken as evidence against global warming.

To get a good idea of different times scales, this description from an article in Orion Magazine of a metaphor used in A Collector’s Guide to Rock, Mineral & Fossil Localities of Utah is instructive:

With one frame for each year of the Earth’s 4.6 billion-year history — there are twenty-four frames in a second — a film of that history would run for six years, all day, all night, every day of the week. Most of the movie would be astronomical [cosmological] and geological: the formation of the Earth, the filling of oceans, the movement of continents. Not until the sixth spring would vertebrates appear. That summer and fall, the dinosaurs would come and go. Not till the last month of the last year would mammals and birds proliferate. On the last morning of the last month of the last year would skulk the first protohumans. And in the last three seconds of the last night of the last month of the last year would arrive and pass the great events of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. That’s it. Three seconds out of six years.

The article goes on to describe other events on the far side of cosmological time, such as the destruction of planets, stars, solar systems, and galaxies. The fact that those events lie well beyond our human time horizon probably means that it’s fair not to concern ourselves too much with their eventuality. Do they still function as harbingers of the ultimate impermanence of everything and therefore invalidate our decisions and actions today? Only for the most despairing of us. More to the point, should logical and foreseeable effects 100 years from now of decisions made today be considered with greater ethical seriousness? Yes, definitely.

Free Vending With Video

Posted: May 12, 2007 in Advertising

Lots of advertising is pretty much inescapable. More websites have what I think of as the “interruption site” between you and the content you want. The interruption site is always an ad for something and is about as intrusive as a pop-up. Usually you can click through without hesitation and move on. Ads at the beginning of DVDs are sometimes really obnoxious (I’m not referring to the movie trailers). The worst offender in recent memory is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which must go on for over five minutes. Some locations, such as sports stadia and arenas; Times Square in NYC; South Beach, Miami; or nearly all of Tokyo, Japan; are cornucopias of blinking, glitzy, neon overstimulation. One has to tune out almost everything just to stay sane. Advertising drives at capturing the eyeballs and attention of people (think of them as sales marks), even if only for a couple seconds. A static print ad apparently isn’t riveting enough, so videos and TV-style commercials of 15 or 30 secs. are preferred. The idea has been implemented in Japan by inserting video screens in drink vending machines that give away free drinks. The novel inducement is an obvious one: give away the product in exchange for showing an ad.

Far from disapproving (as I usually do), this seems to me a far better exchange than the interruption site or the deluge of unfocused advertising because the free drink compensates the viewer/sales mark for his or her time and is more nearly voluntary. Advertising is rarely cheap, but this arrangement also makes it clear that the financial burden is on the advertiser. Time spent watching ads isn’t cost-free (especially if there’s a queue), but no one is held hostage. I don’t know whether free vending with video will catch on, though. Once people learn that a give-away is available, I can well image the machines being emptied quickly and routinely.

We’re a species tragically marred by our own success. This article by Jeremy Rifkin presents the depressing numbers. Similar disaster is predicted everywhere these days. Here’s just one other example. (You’ve got to be living under a rock not to be aware of other, similar reports.) Some are considering how to face coming catastrophe: see here and here and here. The picture is bleak, and it’s been looming over the horizon for no short time.

The overarching story is that humankind and human nature has run its course and that, like the virus that eventually destroys its host, we have unwittingly sealed our own sad fate and ruined the planet for human habitation (and most other habitation with it). Unfortunately, unlike a virus, we can’t simply leap to a new host. In short, our basic form of social organization in the modern world, capitalist industry, has wrought changes in the ecosystem so vast that they’re now unrecoverable, and we’re too committed to our current paradigm to change in time to avoid catastrophe. In addition, our sheer numbers have been gained through a base exploitation of everything at our disposal, as though no other living creature has any right to survive.

Lost somewhere in the detritus of my abandoned and unfinished blog posts is the notion of maximizing, minimizing, and optimizing. Whereas most of nature occupies a niche in relative balance with the rest of creation — or at leasts lacks the wit and tools to overcome the cycles of ebb and flow — mankind since the Industrial Revolution (and perhaps since the Enlightenment) has been hellbent on maximizing its ecological niche. (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrates rather unequivocally that this has ever been our modus operandi. Human expansion in prehistory was always the trigger for local extinctions. Basically, we ate everything.) We’ve succeeded marvelously. Now, in this our latest stage of development, our impact is astonishing. Industry has provided us the means to wrest from the Earth everything we can, and no morality has effectively suggested that a more restrained approach to living, establishing, for example, an optimized or balanced harmony with the rest of nature, might ultimately be a better way of living.

I’ve been reading on the subject for over a year now and am still struggling to get my head around it. The extrapolation of current trends is almost too depressing to contemplate, and I can’t profess to having the hopefulness of many others who have similarly recognized our dilemma. However, the ethical response is to at least acknowledge what’s happening in the wider sweep of human history and hopefully alleviate some suffering down the line.

The best statements on this topics I’ve come across so far are two essays in Orion Magazine: “The Idols of Environmentalism” and “The Ecology of Work” by Curtis White. They are beautifully written and lack the sort of doom and gloom that is inescapable for me. They suggest the basic response that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael and other books, has been recommending: that we walk away from civilizational culture.

Shakespeare in the Basement

Posted: May 1, 2007 in Education, Tacky

Here’s a questionable development: a new videogame has been released that uses facts, lines of text, and problem solving from Shakespeare plays to entertain gamers teach gamers about the Bard.

While zapping enemy spaceships players have to help recover the stolen text of Romeo and Juliet by memorizing lines from the famous play, learning facts about Shakespeare’s life and devising synonyms and homonyms for parts of the text.

How desperate have educators become when they resort to this sort of pablum? Spin it and dress it up however you wish, it’s a reckless admission that Shakespeare holds no intrinsic value (must be reshaped as a videogame — the proverbial spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down) and that students can’t learn unless they’re pandered to. Take Shakespeare out of the basement and put on the plays in the park or on a formal stage. They’re pretty compelling.

Update: It seems things get worse, or better, depending on one’s point of view. Educators are now using a videogame called Dance Dance Revolution in physical education to entice students into aerobic activity, and the kids are loving it. According to the article in the Herald Tribune,

“Traditionally, physical education was about team sports and was very skills oriented,” said Chad Fenwick, who oversees physical education for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where about 40 schools now use Dance Dance Revolution. “What you’re seeing is a move toward activities where you don’t need to be so great at catching and throwing and things like that, so we can appeal to a wider range of kids.”

and in a confluence of ideas with the previous entry on competition:

As Leighton Nakamoto, a physical education teacher at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao, Hawaii, put it: “The new physical education is moving away from competitive team sports and is more about encouraging lifetime fitness, and D.D.R. is a part of that. They can do it on their own, and they don’t have to compete with anyone else.”

As with the Shakespeare example above, the implicit admission of failure to teach that accompanies the new emphasis on videogames just floors me. Do none of these professional educators realize that, collateral benefits notwithstanding, they are in actuality teaching kids to play videogames?

That’s not an educational goal!