Archive for September, 2009

Vertical Drinking

Posted: September 28, 2009 in Culture, Health, Idle Nonsense, Politics

I blogged before about vertical excitement. The latest term to cross my mindspace is vertical drinking, which refers to patronage of bars with cheap drink, limited seating, and few or no food options. It seems some bureaucrat thinks a crackdown on such establishments is due because these bars don’t merely enable but actively encourage drunkenness. This concern over our beverage habits echoes recent consideration of levying a new tax on soft drinks, which would purportedly serve as both a healthcare measure (by decreasing consumption) and a means of closing a funding gap should healthcare reform ever be enacted (don’t hold your breath).

As usual, a plethora of competing issues opens up. Politicians have apparently learned little from the experience of Prohibition or the failed so-called War on Drugs. Taxing and/or criminalizing behaviors deemed unsavory or unhealthy has never been a path to success in achieving the stated goal — even if the stated goal is honest. People simply circumvent or flaunt the law or pony up the dough to pay the sin tax; little or nothing changes in the underlying behavior. Further, whether a matter of deep culture or the result of the thrum of marketing machinery, the public’s desire to imbibe booze or carbonated sugar may by now be beyond the power to resist, at least for most of us. Despite a misplaced faith in the ruggedness of the individual and his or her associated free will, it’s more true that we are all products of our environment and its conditioning. Once the soft drink was successfully bundled as an indispensable ingredient of every meal, it followed that everyone would accept and even expect soft drinks rather than seek something better or neutral, such as water. And since booze has long been established as a primary social behavior (which overcomes the initial wretchedness of the flavor of booze by making it an acquired taste), it’s virtually a foregone conclusion that nearly everyone with means and opportunity will try drinking and have to work out some equilibrium with it.

Do drinking establishments that promote vertical drinking (that is, drinking until the patron passes out and goes horizontal) create or answer the demand? It hardly matters. Nor does it make sense to try to regulate or legislate drinking behaviors. People gonna do what they’re gonna do.

While traveling recently in the Southwest, I made a startling realization, more like a reminder than a discovery. When traveling, one’s usual feeding and grooming routines are interrupted, and if one lacks access to kitchens and showers, one is forced to improvise and/or forgo some of the basic maintenance we perform daily, almost automatically and without much circumspection. The reminder is often expressed after a nice, warm shower and a decent meal, whereupon one begins to “feel human” again. Of course, the natural world is indifferent to whether humans are fed, clothed, housed, and after that, cleaned up, powdered and pampered, and entertained in the myriad ways that we now take for granted as being civilized. The utter indifference of the natural world to the considerable energies spent on such basic maintenance is often interpreted as hostility, especially in a difficult clime like the Southwest, where plants and animals have evolved some fairly elaborate and effective means of survival where the heat of the sun and the lack of water make men blanche. Some of those means survive beyond death, as I discovered when I was occupied clearing away a dead cactus and ended up covered in burrs, bloodied pinpricks, and scratches. Once upon a time, humans had also adapted to that environment, but those cultures are now gone.

Our civilized ways have moved beyond most conscious thought as technologies have arisen to make civilized prerogatives largely invisible. For instance, we live and sleep in warmth (or in hot summers and southerly locations, relative cool), drink from the tap, take hot showers, and power our many devices via wall plugs. We telephone the utility companies to activate services. Automatic timers and thermostats regulate such devices for us, removing them further from our day-to-day awareness except for bill paying. Very few of us have experience with hauling water or applying our labor to turning a grindstone or digging a pit for an outhouse. But if predictions of many awaiting the imminent collapse of industrial civilization come true — which predictions range from as close in as 20 years to as far off as 150 years — we are assured that those still here on the other side of the collapse (a far smaller population than now exists) will be less familiar with the relative ease we now experience in the First World as “civilized people” and will become far more familiar with a bleak austerity where practical skills confer more power than does pushing electrons around a computer screen or network. Whether society declines gradually to such a state or hits a figurative wall where everything falls apart at once is still the subject of considerable debate in some circles, but the eventuality is scarcely worth questioning anymore. The short-sightedness of human nature and the ineffectiveness of our leadership and institutions have already carried us beyond the tipping point, whether or not we have the courage to accept it, so no hope for a technological fix or a last-minute turnaround are reasonable to a rational observer of the direction history is taking us.

The newly emerging primal fear is that those in the halls of power when the crunch comes, who may be among the most “civilized” among us, will mount a last-ditch though futile effort to preserve those structures that have performed the basic maintenance to which we’ve all become accustomed. The power elite have the most invested in industrial civilization. The masses will cling to an unsustainable past, too, until it becomes clear that, like the disproportionate amount of wealth (nearly half) controlled by the top ten percent of earners, provision of basic services is no longer their right or preserve. Severe dislocations and deprivations like those experienced post-Katrina will be the norm, except for those who retreat to well-prepared and -armed enclaves, abandoning the masses to their lot even more fully and abjectly than today.

Like others deeply enmeshed in the Information Age and its myriad technologies, I spend a lot of time at the computer. I use it for work and for information gathering. I don’t use it much for games, entertainment, or viewing video. So I found myself wondering recently what numskull conceived of the computer screen in landscape orientation when almost everything I read is better in portrait orientation. All the documents I create are in portrait, and the inability to see more than a portion of the page is irritating. Almost immediately, the answer occurred to me that, despite the computer display’s meager origins in command-line user interfaces and vertically scrolling text, the screen itself had more in common with the landscape orientation of the TV than with the portrait orientation of the printed page.

Although we live in three-dimensional space, the height dimension is so thin or flat compared to length and width that height is poorly perceived by the human visual sense. (Side note: height used to be spelled heighth, with the same final th as length and width, but that concordance was dropped at some point.) Prior to the last century, we had no flight, no buildings taller than a few stories, and relatively few needs to process visual stimuli in terms of height. Accordingly, we believed for millennia that the world is flat, and our mental maps were organized primarily in two dimensions: along and across the horizon. We took a landscape view of most visual stimuli: having depth and width but little meaningful height beyond the scale of the human figure.

In fact, I suspect the height of the portrait orientation derives from the obvious need for vertical space in portraiture. Why the printed page also settled into portrait orientation isn’t so obvious to me. On occasion, one finds a book created in landscape orientation, but that’s usually when publishing a picture book, typically a children’s book. Printed music varies more widely than text, but it also uses the portrait orientation as the standard. A perfectly square area might be the obvious compromise, but it appears only rarely — mostly in charts, graphs, and maps that are more constrained by the information they present than are text or imagery. Photography may be the sole medium where changing orientation has clear utility and is accomplished so simply by rotating the camera 90 degrees.

Back to the computer screen. The origins the screen and display technology were in pictorial display, which is to say, visual processing of moving images on TV rather than reading text. If the CRT (cathode ray tube) constrained early computer screens to landscape orientation, that limitation was overcome with the rotatable screen, which though still available has not been widely adopted. As computer usage has matured, it’s become clear that the medium is better suited, like the TV, to video than to text. Although reading from the screen isn’t foreclosed, the nature of the medium inevitably transforms reading into something else, something akin to reading but not quite the same, really. Christine Rosen develops this idea in a fascinating article in The New Atlantis titled “People of the Screen.”

The introduction of the widescreen display for computers clearly moves the computer away from being a work machine towards being an entertainment device. Any argument that it can be both simultaneously strikes me as hollow, along the lines of the TV being an educational device. If the computer does eventually become the complete home media center and replaces the TV and stand-alone stereo system as hoped by many technophiles, perhaps it will be fulfilling its destiny, with obvious implications for further debasing the literacy and erudition of the general public.

Tab Dump 01

Posted: September 7, 2009 in Blogosphere, Idle Nonsense

Any given week, I have at least a dozen blog ideas. Most of them don’t get written because my style of blogging requires more time than I have to devote to careful consideration and eventual organization and writing as a thoughtful blog. With all the reading I do, I have a much higher input than I do output. So the ideas and links pile up and get stale. If I’m to be honest, most of them will never make their way into a blog post. So I’ve decided to purge some of my link file, in no particular order, and make a few comments on each. As always, comments are welcome.

A library in Massachusetts has decided to relinquish its book collection in favor of digital media. A friend of mine characterized the book as the flagship carrier of knowledge. A library without books begs the question whether it can still be called a library. Either way, it’s a short-sighted move and pretty risky in terms of how students best learn.

Until fairly recently, I knew practically nothing about subatomic physics. I still know almost nothing, but I keep running across mentions of the Higgs boson, also sometimes called the God Particle. This question/answer from The Straight Dope describes it pretty well.

Names for geological periods exist in multiple timescales, from supereons to eons to eras to periods to epochs and finally to ages. Those who consider such things believe that we’re at the end of the Holocene epoch as global warming and climate change threaten to destabilize what we’ve known through all of human history. Most apocalyptic discussions focus on the collapse of civilization. This one is about the end of human dominion.

A video that discusses media ecology and the impact of, ironically, video. Media ecology has been one of my preoccupations in the last few years, primarily from reading Neil Postman.

Dmitri Orloff offers a comparison of the former U.S.S.R. and the current U.S.A. vis-a-vis our ability to cope in the event of systemic collapse. The hindsight perspective is instructive because the U.S.S.R. actually did collapse, but Orloff believes the U.S.A. will be far less able to transition to some new style of social organization when the time comes.

This brief argument avers that hope for a solution to global warming and climate change is futile, and worse, even harmful. Therefore, we should abandon hope and simply begin living now in a sustainable manner.

This is a more elaborate and scientific argument about our declining energy future suggesting that we give up our oil addiction sooner rather than later. I’ve heard it said that if you aren’t yet convinced of our inevitable decline/collapse resulting from environmental destruction, oil scarcity, climate change, etc., then you simply don’t understand the science. This article aims to provide a convincing explanation.

This article called Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence examines and elaborates on the old saw that one accomplishes nothing through the use of force.

Some of the superrich have gotten the memo that things are going south sometime soon and are quietly preparing to hunker down in fortified compounds whilst the rabble fend for themselves. The prerogatives of the rich have always been different from those of the masses, but I can’t shake the mental image of Nero fiddling as Rome burns and the highly questionable morality of insulating oneself from our collective fate.

Earlier this year, concerns about food security led many to buy seeds and start gardens. However, eventual scarcity may be a future created long ago by upsetting the intricate balance of the ecosystem and shifting agriculture to chemical- and oil-based production. In our technological cleverness, we may well have outwitted ourselves.

In perhaps the worst news of the last month, Obama says he won’t give up rendition as a tool of the state. I guess we’re supposed to trust that no further torture will occur. I don’t believe it for a moment.

Here is a heartbreaking discussion between George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth that amounts to fussing over the option of fighting the industrial apocalypse (not quite denying it, but strangely similar) or more gracefully accepting our collective fate. Maybe it’s not an either/or proposition, or maybe it’s just about arranging the proverbial deck chairs on the R.M.S. Titanic. Either way, it’s certainly odd to be entertaining such discussions.