Archive for January, 2015

A Surfeit of Awards

Posted: January 29, 2015 in Culture, Education, Idle Nonsense, Tacky, Taste
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/rant on

I get alumni magazines from two colleges/universities I attended. These institutional organs are unapologetic boosters of the accomplishments of alumni, faculty, and students. They also trumpet never-ending capital campaigns, improvements to facilities, and new and refurbished buildings. The latest round of news from my two schools feature significant new and rebuilt structures, accompanied by the naming of these structures after the foundations, contributors, and faculty/administrators associated with their execution. Well and good, you might surmise, but I always have mixed feelings. No doubt there are certain thresholds that must be met for programs to function and excel: stadia and gyms, locker rooms, concert halls and theaters, practice and rehearsal spaces, equipment, computer labs, libraries and their holdings, etc. Visiting smaller schools having inadequate facilities always brought that point home. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why anyone chooses a school: for the facilities.

Since the late sixties or so, I have witnessed one school after another (not just in higher education) becoming what I think of as lifestyle schools. Facilities are not merely sufficient or superior; they range into the lap of luxury and excess. It’s frankly embarrassing that the quality and furnishings of dormitories now exceed what most students will enjoy for decades post-graduation. In my college years, no one found it the slightest bit embarrassing to have meager accommodations. That’s not why one was there. Now the expectation is to luxuriate. Schools clearly compete to attract students using a variety of enticements, but delivering the best lifestyle while in attendance was formerly not one of them. But the façades and accoutrements are much easier to evaluate than the academic programs, which have moved in the opposite direction. Both are now fraudulent at many schools; it’s a game of dress-up.

That rant, however, may only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I cannot escape the sense that we celebrate ourselves and our spurious accomplishments with amazing disregard for their irrelevance. Unlike many, who dream of achieving immortality through proxy, the desire to see one’s name on the side of a building, in a hall of fame, on an endowed chair, etched in a record book, or otherwise gouged into posterity confounds me. Yet I can’t go anywhere without finding another new feature named after someone, usually posthumously but not always, whose memory must purportedly be preserved. (E.g., Chicago recently renamed the Circle Interchange after its first and only female mayor, Jane Byrne, causing some confusion due to inadequate signage.) The alumni magazines were all about newly named buildings, chairs, scholarships, halls, bricks, and waste cans. It got to be sickening. The reflex is now established: someone gives a pile of money or teaches (or administers) for a time, name something after him or her. And as we enter championship and awards season in sports and cinema, the surfeit of awards doled out, often just for showing up and doing one’s job, is breathtaking.

Truly memorable work and achievement need no effusive praise. They are perpetuated through subscription. Yet even they, as Shelley reminds us, pass from memory eventually. Such is the way of the world in the long stretches of time (human history) we have inhabited it. Readers of this blog will know that, in fairly awful terms, that time is rapidly drawing to a close due to a variety of factors, but primarily because of our own prominence. So one might wonder, why all this striving and achieving and luxuriating and self-celebrating when its end is our own destruction?

/rant off

Dave Pollard, who blogs at How to Save the World, published an article in Shift Magazine called “See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse.” The subtitle in particular intrigued me because devising ways to respond to collapse is more realistic than forestalling it or attempting to fix things. Pollard often organizes his thinking in terms of infographics and offers the doomer taxonomy shown below. He admits considerable overlap between categories and migration between them as individuals confront the issues and learn more about what is either possible or desirable. The categories divide nearly in half (by type, not population) into collapsniks and salvationists, with two additional categories of fence-sitters at opposite ends of the vertical axis, which represents hope or optimism as one ascends to the top. (more…)

Difficult Pleasures

Posted: January 14, 2015 in Consumerism, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Taste

Everyone has acquaintance with what I call the menu problem. One goes to an unfamiliar restaurant and studies the menu to make a selection from among a broad range of options. Those options may change (or not) based on seasonal availability of quality ingredients or some chef/menu designer at the home office in Columbus, Ohio, changing things up to create buzz in a bid to attract greater market share. (McDonald’s rolls out or resurrects moribund sandwiches with surprising regularity.) No matter, one must content oneself with the eventual decision or else suffer buyer’s remorse.

But the problem lies not so much in the grass-is-greener syndrome of food choices not elected but in the presumption that an optimal choice is possible from myriad options. Put another way, if one can make a poor choice (say, something not to taste), then it’s implicit that one can make a superior choice, maybe even one leading to a peak experience — all this simply by showing up and paying (or overpaying) the bill. A similar quandary lies behind the problem of brand competition and fragmentation, where available options for the right (or wrong) toothpaste, cola, cell phone and plan, credit card, TV show, movie, etc. multiply and create bewilderment if one deliberates too much. Even for someone with effectively unlimited funds, time limitations result in the inability to evaluate even a majority of slated offerings.

And therein lies the rub: conspicuous consumption is too easy and carries with it the suggestion of ecstasy if only one chooses well. Little may be done to earn the enjoyment or reward, and without some struggle, getting what one wants often feels hollow. In contrast, honest gratification over even meager portions, quality, or results often follows on hardship and extended effort. For example, those who have roughed it out in the wilderness know that doing without for a spell can transform something as pedestrian as granola into an unexpectedly superlative experience. Or in the classroom, an easy A is unappreciated precisely because students know intuitively that it isn’t really evidence of learning or achievement, whereas a hard-won B– might be the source of considerable pride. Under the right conditions, one might even feel some justifiable righteousness, though in my experience, hardships endured tend to produce humility.

One of the sure-fire ways I discovered of triggering euphoria is endurance racing. When the finish line finally swings into view, I recognize that in a few more moments, I will have accomplished the distance and be able to stop pushing. My time and place relative to my age group are irrelevant. I also know that I can’t have that rush if I don’t first sacrifice and suffer for it. Further, contentment and euphoria cannot be sustained for long. Rather, they typically come at the end of something, inviting a nostalgic glow that fades as normalcy reasserts itself.

I’m writing about this because I have rubbed elbows with some folks for whom the most perfect, exquisite pleasure is their expectation for everything all the time because they use their wealth to procure only the best at every turn. Maybe they subscribe to some form of lifestyle service, such as this one, and have others pampering and praising them round the clock. I contend that they don’t actually know how to be happy or to enjoy themselves because, when something goes awry or falls short, the fits and conniptions would embarrass a three-year-old. See, for example, this. Such shameful behavior also puzzles me because the current marketplace is a veritable cornucopia (not yet the notorious deathtrap from The Hunger Games). Improved distribution and delivery make stuff available cheaply and easily to nearly everyone with a computer and a credit card. Yet many take it all for granted, grind away miserably at service providers who fail their standards, and fail to recognize that most of it is poised to go away. The current Age of Abundance is shifting toward an epoch-making contraction, but in the meantime, some feel only discontentment because their appetites can never be sated. They don’t understand that difficult pleasures and cessation of suffering are far more gratifying than the lap of luxury.

Nafeez Ahmed has published a two-part article at Motherboard entitled “The End of Endless Growth” (see part 1 and part 2). Commentary there is, as usual, pretty nasty, so I only skimmed and won’t discuss it. Ahmed’s first part says that things are coming to their useful ends after an already extended period of decline, but the second argues instead that we’re already in the midst of a phase shift as (nothing less than) civilization transforms itself, presumably into something better. Ahmed can apparently already see the end of the end (at the start of a new year, natch). In part 1, he highlights primarily the work of one economist, Mauro Bonaiuti of the University of Turin (Italy), despite Bonaiuti standing on the shoulders of numerous scientists far better equipped to read the tea leaves, diagnose, and prognosticate. Ahmed (via Bonaiuti) acknowledges that crisis is upon us:

It’s the New Year, and the global economic crisis is still going strong. But while pundits cross words over whether 2015 holds greater likelihood of a recovery or a renewed recession, new research suggests they all may be missing the bigger picture: that the economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature.

“Civilization’s relationship with nature” is precisely what Ahmed misunderstands throughout the two articles. His discussion of declining EROEI and exponential increases in population, resource extraction and consumption, energy use and CO2 emissions, and species extinction are good starting points, but he connects the wrong dots. He cites Bonauiti’s conclusion that “endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and, relatedly, entropy.” Yet he fails to understand what that means beyond the forced opportunity to reset, adapt, and reorganize according to different social models.

At no point does Ahmed mention the rather obvious scenario where many billions of people die from lack of clean water, food, and shelter when industrial civilization grinds to a halt — all this before we have time to complete our phase shift. At no point does Ahmed mention the likelihood of widespread violence sparked by desperate populations facing immediate survival pressure. At no point does Ahmed mention the even worse likelihood of multiple nuclear disasters (hundreds!) when infrastructure fails and nuclear plants start popping like firecrackers.

What does Ahmed focus on instead? He promises “cheap, distributed clean energy” (going back up the EROEI slope) and a transition away from industrial agriculture toward relocalization and agroecology. However, these are means of extending population, consumption, and despoliation further into overshoot, not plans for sustainability at a far lower population. Even more worrisome, Ahmed also cites ongoing shifts in information, finance, and ethics, all of which are sociological constructs that have been reified in the modern world. These shifts are strikingly “same, only different” except perhaps the ethics revolution. Ahmed says we’re already witnessing a new ethics arising: “a value system associated with the emerging paradigm is … supremely commensurate with what most of us recognize as ‘good’: love, justice, compassion, generosity.” I just don’t see it yet. Rather, I see continued accumulation of power and wealth among oligarchs and plutocrats, partly through the use of institutionalized force (looking increasingly like mercenaries and henchmen).

Also missing from Ahmed’s salve for our worries is discussion of ecological collapse in the form of climate change and its host of associated causes and effects. At a fundamental level, the biophysical conditions for life on earth are changing from the relative steady state of the last 200,000 years or so that humans have existed, or more broadly, the 65 million years since the last major extinction event. The current rate of change is far too rapid for evolution and culture to adapt. New ways of managing information, economics, and human social structures simply cannot keep up.

All that said, well, sure, let’s get going and do what can be done. I just don’t want to pretend that we’re anywhere close to a new dawn.

This is a rant about review of Peter Jackson’s recently completed movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. My review of Tolkien’s novel is here.

Cinema and literature differ, the former being predominantly visual and the latter being textually descriptive. Oddly, the textual approach often yields better results when more is left to the reader’s imagination, sort of like simple darkness, the bogeyman in the closet, or the monster lurking under the bed but never seen. Tolkien’s Middle Earth inspired a rich tradition of illustration from the outset. Readers wanted to see what they imagined, and conceptual artists complied. I remember Middle Earth calendars from the 1970s featuring various characters, architectures, and landscapes, which now form the basis for the design aesthetic of Jackson’s endeavors. (Middle Earth calendars from the last decade often feature pictures of the actors, New Zealand, and/or the film sets, which are quite dissatisfying to me.)

Attempts to bring Middle Earth to life in cinema were exercises in failure before Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LoTR) trilogy appeared (2001–2003). Until then, appealing as Tolkien’s characters and stories are, they were considered unfilmable in a film era where casts of thousands no longer exist. Technological innovation (i.e., CGI, the acronym for Computer-Generated Imagery) enabled Jackson to overcome many limitations. Casts and costumes could be abbreviated and sets could be made out of foam or rendered digitally. Sadly, those same innovations have returned us to an era when Tolkien is unfilmable precisely because the unbelievable image now overwhelms the characters and story. I suspect that the combination of attributes (e.g., studio oversight of an untried director, fidelity to source material, superior conceptual design, and narrative solution-finding) that functioned so well to make LoTR successful is undercut in The Hobbit trilogy, which is another exercise in failure on a number of levels.

The essence of the narrative arc in LoTR is a cast of disparate characters, some resistant and recalcitrant, struggling in seemingly hopeless defiance of a unspeakably destructive rising power. The fullness of the conflict is revealed slowly, gathering weight and momentum, and action scenes punctuate rather than dominate the story. Comparatively, The Hobbit is a nonstop adventure romp, proceeding breathlessly from one action scene or set piece to another. Human (and elf, dwarf, goblin, orc, dragon, etc.) elements are relatively undeveloped (read: caricatured) and/or lost amid the fray. This is not quite as true of the books as the movies. However, Tolkien’s bitter commentary on grasping for wealth, power, and glory is still present in The Hobbit as exemplified in the culminating Battle of the Five Armies for control of the dragon’s hoard, though it loses relevance because it’s obvious audiences really come to see elaborately staged gore. So it’s with some unavoidable irony that many have been critical of the decision to blow the book into yet another movie trilogy, ostensibly to make more money than a single movie would. One may have to admit that, just as we are now in the CGI movie-making era, we are now also in the trilogy era. Endless franchise sequels are arguably an extension of the same effect, as will be quadrilogies/tetrologies (Hunger Games) when they become standard.