Archive for December, 2007

Professionally Useful Friends

Posted: December 30, 2007 in Culture, Friendship, Tacky

Some acquaintances of mine have adopted a curious outlook on which I want to comment. Although I work in a fairly high-powered and well-remunerated field, I’m at a low level of responsibility, and accordingly, a low rate of pay (at least compared to my bosses). I’m in the middle quintile, whereas they’re all in the top quintile (sometimes well into it). The degree of that imbalance poses a few ideological problems for me with regard to social justice, but that’s not really the subject of this blog post. What concerns me here is the perspective that one’s friends, often drawn from one’s workplace, are only worthwhile to the degree that they’re capable of advancing one’s career prospects.

I’ve known my share of climbers in professional life — the sort who can’t imagine a world that isn’t organized around a dog-eat-dog meanspiritedness. These folks see no problem befriending (on the short term) and then selling you down the river to get ahead. Indeed, they would give up their mothers if it were necessary (read: advantageous). While I do sometimes get blamed for problems that are not my doing or truly my responsibility (blame-shifting), my larger finding is that I’m simply not of any particular interest as a person to most of my bosses (with one notable exception) except for the functions I perform on their behalves and perhaps some idle workplace banter. It’s tacitly assumed that I have nothing to contribute to their personal happiness, and worse, no possibility of enabling them through things such as landing a big account or referring someone from within my network. Further, since I can’t keep up with their rate of spending and living large, I’m regarded as a conspicuous drag on their prerogatives and am omitted from invitations to lunch, dinner, drinks, golf, poker, parties, etc. If I’m entertaining company and a good guy, they won’t find out because first and foremost I’m not professionally useful except in the routine performance of my job. In fact, they’re conspicuously blind to that in situations where it’s apparent to others more inclined to make friends based on laudable personal characteristics such at humor, wit, generosity, etc.

This self-reinforcing bubble of power lunches and cross-referrals and country clubs is the domain of the professional class, and indeed, much of this maneuvering makes companies and economies work. It’s a convincing mode of operation for the 30+ years of professional life most of us endure. However, despite being handsomely enriched by operating that way, climbers are often surprised to learn how quickly they are abandoned once their own usefulness to others has waned. Basing friendships on less craven values and learning how to be happy among people is frankly antithetical to professional advancement. So managers and CEOs and power players may end up surrounded by sycophants and themselves become asshats and perfect shits in the course of their professional pursuit. Later in life, if they make it past the round of heart attacks visited upon so many stressed-out professionals, they often end up alone and ignored, since no one values them as people, either. Yeah, I want that life.

Fact and Fiction

Posted: December 30, 2007 in Nomenclature, Writing

The reason why stories work is that they reveal us to ourselves. Even science fiction is about human nature and the problems that arise from it, though technology is significantly featured and aliens are used as proxies. Fiction and nonfiction may therefore be interchangeable entities, since they both tell stories about human nature and what happens to humans. Both types of writing fit into a structured, stylized, closed form with a beginning, middle, end and, most importantly, a viewpoint that automatically makes them subjective accounts. Fiction and nonfiction both bear the weight of structural impositions that shape their content through word choice, omission of information, and other aspects of point of view, which is also a result of editing. There simply is no way to be purely objective as a human storyteller because storytelling insists on having a perspective that makes the teller an editor who manipulates facts, emphasizing some over others, to fit a form that has embedded themes. Therefore, is there really such a thing as nonfiction? It’s merely fiction with more verifiable details.

After Looking Away

Posted: December 22, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture, Technophilia

As children, everyone learns not to look directly at the sun. Intrepid kids might dare to test themselves for a few seconds, but for the most part, we all recognize that while the sun is the source of light, warmth, energy, and indeed everything that makes our world go round, we can’t fix our eyes on it. Nor do we need to pay much attention to it, as its regularity and reliability are part of processes far longer and greater than our human scale. If one does look at the sun, or even goes out in bright sunlight for those with high photosensitivity, a sort of light blindness occurs after looking away: the afterimage that temporarily blots out normal sight. Such is the effect of other types of glare.

Most of us know of someone who seems to live in his or her own world, inside an isolation bubble, perhaps of his or her own making. Sometimes that’s merely the result of being focused; other times, it’s a decision to remove certain things from one’s information environment to avoid influence and/or contamination. Refusing to look at some horrific crash scene might be the best everyday example. (News networks get quite of bit of wire feed that gracefully isn’t broadcasted to the public for that same reason.) A more specific example might be those who refuse to watch TV (possible malware site).

I often refer to the dominant culture as an entity of questionable character. I find that television, radio, movies, most books, magazines, many blogs, fast food restaurants, sports, and even schools all spin a seamless, omnipresent story about ourselves that is part of the socialization process but more importantly that creates a version of normalcy more in common with light blindness than an ethical, healthy perception of reality. Most of us are firmly ensconced within this media bubble (what Joe Bageant calls the hologram) and only have infrequent opportunities to achieve an independent vantage point from which to see the bubble for what it truly is. Traveling and living abroad are such opportunities, though foreign cultures are increasingly being transformed into our style of normalcy.

All of this came back to the forefront of my thinking recently. Like most Americans, I was for a long time uncritical of the imperatives of the dominant culture. I thought I’d get a car, a good job, a wife, a few kids, a nice house, and generally just get along in life untroubled by the disasters imposed by industrial civilization. So I’m familiar with that structure of thought and the modes of inculcation. But I’ve cut myself off from a lot of it for a period of years now. I don’t watch TV, listen to radio, or read the newspaper. Most of the news filters down to me anyway but without the incessant instructions to buy this by the advertisers who support the media. I also find that I’m able to be more critical of movies and news sources (blogs mostly) to which I do attend, where the cultural imperatives are buried a little deeper since the economic arrangements aren’t quite the same.

One of my ongoing projects is to get to be a better runner, so I’ve been spending more time on the treadmill. If I’m out on the trail or the track, I don’t get so bored; but the treadmill is stultifying. So I often turn on CNN and read the closed captioning while I run. (Omigod are those people orange or what?!) Oddly, some of the commercials are closed captioned, too, but those that aren’t are interesting from a distanced vantage point. It’s often said that TV is a predominantly visual medium, and watching TV commercials (or indeed the news) without sound reveals that to be true. I don’t need any of the voiceover or soundtrack to make sense of it. Ads are typically full of text (unlike most other programming) and the nontext images play like familiar vignettes recycled from other fuller versions of standard narratives. The automobile and pharmaceutical ads are among the most formulaic types, always promising a much improved life if only one buys that particular brand. I recognize all the high points, since I was inside the bubble for so long. And even now that I’ve looked away for an extended period, I realize that the afterimage is still burning strong on my retinas, especially considering my close proximity to the glare all around me.

Traffic Report No. 02

Posted: December 21, 2007 in Blogosphere, Writing

Following up on my previous traffic report, things haven’t changed much over the course of the year. I continue to get 15-30 hits per day, though I suspect many of those are spambots. My best day was 120 hits for reasons I don’t understand. If there were more comments and greater discussion, I would be more inclined to post more often. (There are no lack of ideas to develop — I just have other priorities when I appear to be working in a vaccuum.) There was also a period when The Spiral Staircase appeared to be driving most of the referral traffic to Creative Destruction, the group blog at which I also post. That time has passed, and indeed, that group of bloggers (including me) seem only half-heartedly interested in maintaining that blog’s raison d’etre, which is an ongoing robust discussion of a variety of ideas from a variety of perspectives.

With a couple long holiday weekends in front of me, I expect to knock out additional entries on topics I’ve been considering for a while. I’ve also decided to run a little experiment: until the end of the calendar year, I will unblock all the spam comments I get and let them go through. So readers can expect to see plenty of information on replica watches, celebrity nudes, penis enlargement, mortgage refinancing, etc. (I really don’t get why spammers continue dumping this stuff on online venues. Do they really get traffic and make any money from that?) After the first of the year, I’ll go back to blocking the spam and will probably delete the spam goes through in the next few days. If there is any real change in blog traffic, I would be surprised. Maybe The Spiral Staircase will be indexed more frequently with the increase in commenting activity. Who knows?


As expected, my experiment (approving all spam comments) yielded no observable increase in either traffic or meaningful commentary. I thought perhaps I would attract more spam, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case. Numbers stayed pretty consistent with past experience. There didn’t appear to be any clickthroughs to spam links. So I’ve deleted all the spam comments and will return to business as usual.

The Spice of Immorality

Posted: December 10, 2007 in Ethics, Religion

Something to consider from John Gray’s book Straw Dogs:

A sense of guilt may add spice to otherwise unremarkable vices. There are undoubtedly those who have converted to Christianity because they seek an excitement that mere pleasure can no longer supply. Think of Graham Greene, who used the sense of sin he acquired through converting to Catholicism as an aphrodisiac. Morality has hardly made us better people; but it has certainly enriched our vices.

Post-Christians deny themselves the pleasures of guilt. They blush at using a queasy conscience to flavour their stale pleasures. As a result, they are notably lacking in joie de vivre. Among those who have once been Christians, pleasure can be intense only if it is mixed with the sensation of acting immorally.

I guess “post-Christians” are those who used to be believers. I don’t know if I am one of those, since my childhood Catholicism wasn’t at all a choice for me. Either post-Christian, non-Christian, or nonbeliever, I think Gray may be onto something above. I’m reminded of the familiarity I felt watching the movie The Breakfast Club when, sneaking through the school corridors, the bad boy said to all the others serving detention, “It’s good to be bad.” The thrill of getting away with something does indeed beat out the pious rectitude of refraining. That’s why all those ways we circumvented our parents’ controls those (often many) years ago in adolescence were so sweet. That, and the hormones.

No Free Will

Posted: December 1, 2007 in Philosophy, Science

Scientists have been working feverishly over the past few decades to debunk some of our most closely held beliefs about ourselves, many of which stem from religion. Among them is the notion that we have free will, that we are rational actors able to determine our own fates according to our best judgment. Free will, of course, is predicated on other psychological constructs such as identity, consciousness, and some sort of immutable soul — all of which have been explained away as emergent properties of the brain or nervous system. The latest chink in the armor is the finding that cockroaches, a rather unworthy proxy for man, may not be automatons responding purely out of instinct. In short, their behavior is suggestible, and by extension, perhaps ours is as well.

In insect societies, individuals lack significance compared to the life of the community. The prevailing thinking is that if there is any sort of awareness with insects, it is a group mind, not an individual one. Though cockroach society isn’t hierarchical, like bee hives, ant farms, or human society, cockroaches behave mindlessly on an individual level, and according to this article in the New York Times, can be induced to act contrary to their nature and instinct, at least in the mundane experiment being reported. In short, they are vulnerable to peer pressure and their internal or instinctual controls can be trumped by external ones.

Writ large, this reports suggests that we humans, too, are less agents of our own authority than metaphorical pinballs careening from impulse to impulse, basically responding to the needs of the moment, and interestingly, constructing a narrative after the fact to soothe ourselves that we chose rather than being subject to mindless response patterns. Philosophers have pointed to this possibility for a long time now, but the rational arguments that demonstrate it are too subtle for the average person and run contrary to our self-interest. Who wants to study and work to discover that in truth there is nothing up there, no one driving the bus, no me in there? The illusion of identity, like the illusion of faith, is so powerful and indeed comforting that even those of us who have been convinced by the arguments in favor of materialism still act on the conscious level (which doesn’t exist, handily) as though we decide things. I don’t actually believe that I have no choice in the matter of writing this blog, yet beneath that self-delusion, my rational mind forces me to admit, albeit unhappily, that I’m responding blindly to the complex of intellectual experiences and memes to which I’ve been exposed. But blindly isn’t quite the right word. Nor is mindlessly. Rather, my lack of free will means that I’m hardly different from the cockroach being tricked into following robot cockroaches. The only difference is that whereas humans may influence cockroaches, there is no puppetmaster pulling our strings. As a society or culture, we’re pulling each others’ strings.