Archive for June, 2007

Branding Baby

Posted: June 24, 2007 in Advertising, Culture, Taste

The Wall Street Journal has a report on baby naming, which has apparently developed into a fairly robust niche market for both publishers and consultants.

About 80 baby-name books have been published in the last three years, according to Bowker, a publishing database — compared with just 50 such titles between 1990 and 1996. More than 100 specialty Web sites have popped up offering everything from searchable databases and online snap polls to private consultations.

The WSJ report also claims that information overload is driving the market, with anxious parents-to-be agonizing over choosing the right name. That’s a spurious claim, since the availability of new books and baby-naming consultants could simply be following the trend, but no matter. What the WSJ has right, in my view, is that we live in a marketing-oriented society and that parents have become desperate to choose a name that makes their kid stand out from the crowd. Getting suckered into that thinking means that parents consider the name a sort of brand marker for little Johnny or little Suzie.

Every child’s uniqueness must now be enshrined in her name or else risk dreaded Google search results that point to dozens or even hundreds of people with the identical name. Who hasn’t by now tried Googling his own name to see what information is out there? My name (withheld, obviously) is too common to narrow down to me without a couple other keywords. I’m just fine with that, but it’s now a sort of curse to be mixed in with the rabble crowd.

… there’s been a demonstrable shift in the way people name children. In 1880, Social Security Administration data show that the 10 most popular baby names were given to 41% of boys and 23% of girls. But in 2006, just 9.5% of boys and roughly 8% of girls were given one of the year’s 10 most popular names — a combined decline of about 33% from the averages in the 1990s …

The strangest thing to me is that parents are willing to pay consultants to help choose a name. What they’re really paying for is probably false authority (really — an authority on baby naming?) to quell anxiety or referee the decision. Some people really have too much money and not enough good sense if they’re willing to pay for such services. And how can anyone offer such services with a straight face? Lump them in with the reiki, feng shui, and iridology practioners (among others), I guess.

I also find the baby branding trend ultimately self-defeating. The culture has long since moved on from the inadvisability of naming one’s kid Moon Unit or Dweezil (or Ahmet or Diva) to practically insisting on such unusual names. It’s not the kid’s fault, of course, but it practically screams “look at me, look at me!” It also ironically signals “I’m different — just like everybody else ….”

I was recently driving a 160-mile stretch of highway between Hannibal, Missouri, and Cameron, Missouri. It’s now undergoing reconstruction as an extension of I-72 (extending to St. Joseph, Missouri). I’ve driven that stretch many times before and liked it particularly because it hadn’t yet fully become an interstate. It’s still U.S. 36 for a while yet. But it’s all changing now that the extension project is well underway.

As one approaches Hannibal, Missouri, from the east, the bluff on the western side of the Mississippi River Valley is visible from at least 10 miles off — almost like a mountain range rising in the distance. The old bridge across the river used to have a fairly steep ascent and attach to the top of the bluff, almost like a ladder leaning against a house. The impact of the topography has been blunted now that the new bridge rises smoothly through a road cut through the bluff, the bridge reaching its apex well past the actual geographical discontinuity. Of the entire stretch of the I-72 extension, Hannibal shows the most immediate changes, with all the small-town atmosphere — at least along the highway — giving way to what I often call “franchise hell”: a soulless expanse of strip malls populated by national franchises such as Olive Garden, Target, BP America, Lowe’s, etc. Even the new hospital gives off that same corporate vibe. And it’s all so sanitary and clean with ample access and parking provided by everyone’s tax dollars.

Once past Hannibal, much of the evidence of small-town American life has disappeared, replaced by a fifty-yard-wide right of way with a pair of parallel asphalt ribbons. Since the population density is low in north central Missouri, on and off ramps have yet to be built, so drivers nose up to the interstate and turn onto the highway from a dead stop — not a maneuver to be executed lightly. From previous traverses of this road, I remember plenty of one-room, clapboard-construction general stores and fuel depots with metal and neon signage dating from the 1930s or 40s. They were built right on the roadside, barely two car lengths from traffic, back before cars went much faster than 35 mph and before the road had progressed from county road to state highway to U.S. highway and now to interstate highway. Those businesses are all gone now, replaced by giant truck plazas set well back from the road with an inexhaustible selection of Doritos, Coke, Gatorade, beef jerky, etc. Of all those older buildings, I spied only a single church still standing perilously close to the 75–85 mph traffic whizzing by.

The farmhouses and quiet country life are probably still there, away from the highway, but there is new evidence of agribusiness. The era of the family farm may still exist in some small measure, but the monstrous grain silos with their complicated superstructures of conveyors and distributors signal the presence of ADM or a similar Big Ag corporate entity.

Perhaps the changes in the landscape are inevitable as we claim more and more land for different sorts of use. The rolling hills of the heartland and old U.S. 36 had more far character before they were smoothed out and updated as I-72. Inevitably, business and farm life nestled against the highway will gradually become the “everytown” (indistinguishable, really, from “nowhere”) with which we’re all so familiar. Heaven help Hannibal when it gets its first suburb.

Art and Craft

Posted: June 12, 2007 in Artistry, Culture

I’ve been reading The Middle Mind by Curtis White, which is pretty interesting and somewhat exasperating at the same time. His thesis is provocative, and his breadth is fairly impressive, but his writing is sometimes clumsy, crass, and obfuscatory. (This fact surprises me, considering how beautifully written are the two Orion Magazine articles I’ve linked to before.) This passage (from p. 52) in particular caused me some consternation:

Art is most itself, is “true” art, when it makes itself not through the conventions of the universal (genre: the rules for the proper construction of sonata or sonnet, or … the rote fulfilment of generic expectation) but, as Adorno thought, “by virture of its own elaborations, through its own immanent process.” Laurence Sterne understood this in the eighteenth century as the only true law of the novel: the novel is the “art of digression.” To be sure, these elaborations can deploy themselves only in a context made available by historical conventions; nonetheless, when an artwork is sucessful, it is in spite of the presence of convention and not because of it. This is why, ultimately, craft has little to do with whether or not a work is a successful piece of art.

I was with him all the way up to the last sentence, but then I screeched to a halt, probably because I’ve been frustrated over time with modern artists (composers, singers, writers, painters, etc.) who lack fundamental skills in their genres that would satisfy the idea of craft. White inadvertently hit one of my nerves.

This passage is careful to point out that artworks only work (can deploy themselves) when conventions provide meaningful context. That’s why so many artists trying to break new ground or create a new language, which is often more about ego or professional advancement, fail to capture an audience. Skill and craft have to show. But then, it’s also necessary to avoid being formulaic (rote fulfilment). This is why Hollywood films fail to rise to the level of art but are mere entertainment. They hew far too close to predictable, modular storytelling even while demonstrating considerable, essentially soulless technique.

Still, I can’t agree that craft ultimately has little to do with artistic success. It’s an absolutely necessary ingredient. But I will agree that the artist must have developed a sensibility that goes beyond mere craft, a sensibility that invests a work with its own organic, internal logic and expressive ethic that must be obeyed without being arbitrary. That’s what is meant by the old saw that one must learn the rules in order to know how to break them. Skipping the rules, failing to develop one’s craft and artistic sensibility, and ignoring conventions are all pathways to incoherence and anarchy.

From an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times called The Earth is Dying:

At the heart of the modern age is a core of grief.

At some level, we’re aware that something terrible is happening, that we humans are laying waste to our natural inheritance. A great sorrow arises as we witness the changes …

… changes [that] signal a turning point in human history, and the outlook is not particularly bright. The anger, irritability, frustration and intolerance that increasingly pervade our common life are symptoms associated with grief. The pervasive sense of helplessness and numbness that surrounds us, and the frantic search for meaning and questioning of religion and philosophy of life, are likewise often seen among those who must deal with overwhelming sorrow.

I’ve been reading too much recently about disaster, catastrophe, and threats poised to overtake us. The quote above describes how I feel better than I can.

This post is a follow-up of sorts to my previous posts called Malicious Ecophagy and Steamrollers. My latest awful discovery is something that won’t take time to manifest — it’s already a fait accompli:

A vast swath of the Pacific, twice the size of Texas, is full of a plastic stew that is entering the food chain. Scientists say these toxins are causing obesity, infertility … and worse.

The article this second quote comes from is fairly complete and doesn’t appear to require advanced scientific training to evaluate and appreciate. How any naysayers can explain away large portions of ocean (in each of the four principal bodies, the article informs) ruined and wrecked by human waste is beyond me, but let them try.

We’ve heard recently about how the decimation of the bee population could affect agriculture. How would the disruption of the aquatic food chain (from plastic waste), starting with plankton and proceeding up the cycle, affect a planet that is roughly 2/3 water? Although the article raises the specter, I’m not sure that anyone really knows, just as we don’t really know with certainty how global warming will play out.

At some point, perhaps I’ll stop reading these reports and adopt the attitude of the typical American: don’t worry, be happy. I’m not there yet, though, and in the meantime, I think it’s still worthwhile to bring these baleful prognostications to light so that we might actually consider heeding the warnings.

The U.S. is the creator and mythical home of the skyscraper, with Chicago and New York each vying for ascendancy over the decades. But according to an article in the International Herald Tribune, other countries are quickly overtaking the U.S. in the skyscraper sweepstakes. South Korea appears to be in the front of that vanguard, followed by China (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei), the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhab in particular), and Singapore.

According to to Emporis, 42 skyscrapers are in the planning stages or under construction around the world that are more than 1,000 feet, a height widely regarded as “super-tall.” At least 33 super-tall buildings have been completed in the past 80 or so years, including the world’s current tallest, the 1,667-foot Taipei 101 in Taiwan, built in 2004. Of those planned new buildings, only five will be in the United States.

The wonder, awe, and imagination inspired by super-tall buildings has lost little of its effectiveness despite how common they are becoming. However, there are diminished returns to adding more floors and height to a building. Services and access to a large number of upper floors require considerable infrastructure on the lower floors. For instance, unless occupants of floors 30-59 and 60+ don’t mind stopping every few floors in their elevator rides, dedicated elevator banks must provide access to a specific range of floors, but those banks by necessity take up floor space all the way to the ground level. One partial solution is to create sky lobbies, where riders change elevator banks so that no one bank goes from top to bottom. Either way, for a building approaching 100 floors, most of the bottom floors are dedicated to serving the top floors — a classic case of diminished returns.

Many of the world’s new super-tall buildings are rising in overcrowded cities where land is scarce, and a newly emerging middle class is clamoring for modern office and living space. But experts say the drive to go tall also reflects the aspiration of Asian and Gulf nations to join the ranks of the developed world, and to assert that their long-awaited moment in history has finally come.

The prestige factor may be the true reason behind so many buildings going above 1000 feet in second- and third-tier cities. Perhaps it reads as sour grapes for someone like me — living in Chicago with its three super-talls (and another already well underway) — but I nonetheless have to wonder if the leapfrogging effect of building the new highest building every two years isn’t an effort and expense best focused elsewhere.

The Skyscraper Page has some useful pictorial comparisons of the world’s tallest buildings. The page on proposed buildings is just plain scary.