Archive for March, 2016

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the opening of this blog. As a result, there is a pretty sizeable backblog should anyone decide to wade in. As mentioned in my first post, I only opened this blog to get posting privileges at a group blog I admired because it functioned more like a discussion than a broadcast. The group blog died of attrition years ago, yet here I am 10 years later still writing my personal blog (which isn’t really about me).

Social media lives and dies by the numbers, and mine are deplorable. Annual traffic has ranged from about 6,800 to about 12,500 hits, much of which I’m convinced is mere background noise and bot traffic. Cumulative hits number about 90,140, and unique visitors are about 19,350, neither of which is anything to crow about for a blog of this duration. My subscriber count continues to climb pointlessly, now resting at 745. However, I judge I might have only a half dozen regular readers and perhaps half again as many commentators. I’ve never earned a cent for my effort, nor am I likely to ever put up a Patreon link or similar goad for donations. All of which only demonstrate that almost no one cares what I have to write about. C’est la vie. I don’t write for that purpose and frankly wouldn’t know what to write about if I were trying to drive numbers.

So if you have read my blog, what are some of the thing you might have gathered from me? Here’s an incomplete synopsis:

  • Torture is unspeakably bad. History is full of devices, methodologies, and torturers, but we learned sometime in the course of two 20th-century world wars that nothing justifies it. Nevertheless, it continues to occur with surprising relish, and those who still torture (or want to) are criminally insane.
  • Skyscrapers are awesomely tall examples of technical brilliance, exuberance, audacity, and hubris. Better expressions of techno-utopian, look-mom-no-hands, self-defeating narcissism can scarcely be found. Yet they continue to be built at a feverish pace. The 2008 financial collapse stalled and/or doomed a few projects, but we’re back to game on.
  • Classical music, despite record budgets for performing ensembles, has lost its bid for anything resembling cultural and artistic relevance by turning itself into a museum (performing primarily works of long-dead composers) and abandoning emotional expression in favor of technical perfection, which is probably an accurate embodiment of the spirit of the times. There is arguably not a single living composer who has become a household name since Aaron Copland, who died in 1990 but was really well-known in the 1940s and 50s.
  • We’re doomed — not in any routine sense of the word having to do with individual mortality but in the sense of Near-Term (Human) Extinction (NTE). The idea is not widely accepted in the least, and the arguments are too lengthy to repeat (and unlikely to convince). However, for those few able to decipher it, the writing is on the wall.
  • American culture is a constantly moving target, difficult to define and describe, but its principal features are only getting uglier as time wears on. Resurgent racism, nationalism, and misogyny make clear that while some strides have been made, these attitudes were only driven underground for a while. Similarly, colonialism never really died but morphed into a new version (globalization) that escapes criticism from the masses, because, well, goodies.
  • Human consciousness — another moving target — is cratering (again) after 3,000–5,000 years. We have become hollow men, play actors, projecting false consciousness without core identity or meaning. This cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electronic media makes us tools. The gleaming attractions of sterile perfection and pseudo-sociability have hoodwinked most of the public into relinquishing privacy and intellectual autonomy in exchange for the equivalent of Huxley’s soma. This also cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electoral politics is a game played by the oligarchy for chumps. Although the end results are not always foreseeable (Jeb!), the narrow range of options voters are given (lesser of evils, the devil you know …) guarantees that fundamental change in our dysfunctional style of government will not occur without first burning the house down. After a long period of abstention, I voted in the last few elections, but my heart isn’t really in it.
  • Cinema’s infatuation with superheros and bankable franchises (large overlap there) signals that, like other institutions mentioned above, it has grown aged and sclerotic. Despite large budgets and impressive receipts (the former often over $100 million and the latter now in the billions for blockbusters) and considerable technical prowess, cinema has lost its ability to be anything more than popcorn entertainment for adolescent fanboys (of all ages).

This is admittedly a pretty sour list. Positive, worthwhile manifestations of the human experience are still out there, but they tend to be private, modest, and infrequent. I still enjoy a successful meal cooked in my own kitchen. I still train for and race in triathlons. I still perform music. I still make new friends. But each of these examples is also marred by corruptions that penetrate everything we do. Perhaps it’s always been so, and as I, too, age, I become increasingly aware of inescapable distortions that can no longer be overcome with innocence, ambition, energy, and doublethink. My plan is to continue writing the blog until it feels like a burden, at which point I’ll stop. But for now, there’s too much to think and write about, albeit at my own leisurely pace.

A long while back (8 years ago), I drew attention to a curious bit of rhyming taking place in the world of architecture: the construction of skyscrapers that twist from base to top (see also here). I even suggested that one per city was needed, which seems to be slowly manifesting. Back then, the newest installment was the Infinity Tower, now fully built and known as the Cayan Tower. The doomed planned Chicago Spire has yet to get off the ground. Another incarnation of the basic twisting design is the Evolution Tower in Moscow, completed in 2014 (though I only just learned about it):

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There are plenty more pics at the Skyscraper page devoted to this building.

News of this development comes to me by way of James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month feature at his website. I draw attention to Kunstler because he is far better qualified to evaluate and judge architecture than am I, even though most of his remarks are disparagement. Kunstler and I share both aesthetic and doomer perspectives on stunt architecture, and the twisting design seems to be one faddish way to avoid the boxy, straight-line approach to supertall buildings that dominated for some fifty years. Indeed, many buildings of smaller stature now seek that same avoidance, which used to be accomplished via ornamentation but is now structural. Such designs and construction are enabled by computers, thought it remains to be seen how long maintenance and repair can be sustained in an era of diminishing financial resources. (Material resources are a different but related matter, but these days, almost no one bothers with anything without financial incentive or reward.)

When the last financial collapse occurred in 2008 (extending into 2009 with recovery since then mostly faked), lots of projects were mothballed. I note, however, that Chicago has many new projects underway, and I can only surmise that other skylines are similarly full of cranes signalling the return of multibillion-dollar construction projects aimed at the well-off. Mention of crumbling infrastructure has been ongoing for decades now. Here’s one recent example. Yet attention and funding seems to flow in the direction of projects that really do not need doing. While it might be true that the discrepancy here lies with public vs. private funding, it appears to me another case of mismanaging our own affairs by focusing too much on marquee projects while allowing dated and perhaps less attractive existing structures to decay and crumble.

Sorry, there seems to be no end to the ink spilled over the presumptive winner of the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump. Everyone has a pet theory, and I’m no different. Actually, I have several competing theories, none of which are particularly exclusive from the others. My theory du jour is basically that Trump represents the schoolyard bully, though his sandbox is quite a lot bigger than those in grade school. His campaign came right out of the gate intimidating and bullying others in the most egregious way, so it was easy to believe for a long while that he would either undo himself or a bigger bully would come along to knock him down. Well, neither happened.

What seems to be more typical instead is that, in addition to indulgence in gladiatorial games and blood sport (i.e., the debates) that never lost their base appeal to the masses, a surprising number of supporters at all levels have fallen in behind the uberbully, happy to stand in his shadow lest his roving eye land upon them. So there are equal parts glee at witnessing others get bullied and relief that at least it’s not oneself on the receiving end. Before all is said and done, which could be years, I rather expect lots of people to seek refuge in Trump’s shadow, however temporary. The blood lust probably won’t wear off anytime soon, either. That’s who we’ve become, if indeed we were ever any other sort of people (which is arguable).

As an armchair social critic with neither audience nor influence, I can only wring my hands and offer a few pithy remarks. They amount to nothing. Likely, I’ll get sand kicked in my face (or worse), too, since I lack immunity. Further, I am not so willing to line up behind someone to save myself. I’ve had that experience before, though in small measure and less manifestly, and it was troubling to recognize in myself a failure of character. The troubling times coming will surely test all of us sorely. I can only hope that, when forced to decide, I demonstrate higher integrity than my own past. Others will make their own choices.

I found a curious blog post called “Stupid Things People Do When Their Society Breaks Down” at a website called alt-market.com, which has a subheading that reads “Sovereignty • Integrity • Prosperity.” I haven’t delved far at all into the site, but it appears to offer alternative news and advice for preppers. The blog post uses the terms liberty activists and preparedness-minded, the first of which I found a little self-congratulatory. Existence of anarchist movements, which include The Liberty Movement (mentioned in the comments at the site), have been known to me for some time, but my personal response to the prospect (indeed, inevitability) of collapse does not fit with theirs. Quoted below are the introductory paragraph, headings (seven stupid things referred to in the title), and truncated blurbs behind each (apologies for the long quote). My comments follow.

A frequent mistake that many people make when considering the concept of social or economic collapse is to imagine how people and groups will behave tomorrow based on how people behave today. It is, though, extremely difficult to predict human behavior in the face of terminal chaos. What we might expect, or what Hollywood fantasy might showcase for entertainment purposes, may not be what actually happens when society breaks down.

They Do Nothing. It’s sad to say, but the majority of people, regardless of the time or place in history, have a bad habit of ignoring the obvious.

They Sabotage Themselves With Paranoia. Even in the early stages of a social breakdown when infrastructure is still operational, paranoia among individuals and groups can spread like a poison.

They Become Shaky And Unreliable When The Going Gets Tough. This is why early organization is so important; it gives you time to learn the limitations and failings of the people around you before the SHTF.

They Become Hotheads And Tyrants. On the other side of the coin, there are those individuals who believe that if they can control everything and everyone in their vicinity then this will somehow mitigate the chaos of the world around them. They are people who secretly harbor fantasies of being kings during collapse.

They Become Political Extremists. Throughout most modern collapses, two politically extreme ideologies tend to bubble to the surface — communism and fascism. Both come from the same root psychosis, the psychosis of collectivism.

They Become Religious Zealots. Zealotry is essentially fanaticism to the point of complete moral ambiguity. Everyone who does not believe the way the zealot believes is the “other,” and the other is an enemy that must be annihilated.

They Abandon Their Moral Compass. Morally relative people when discovered are usually the first to be routed out or the first to die in survival situations because they cannot be trusted. No one wants to cooperate with them except perhaps other morally relative people.

Despite my basic disagreement that it’s possible to prepare effectively anymore for industrial collapse (or indeed that survival is necessarily a desirable thing in a collapse scenario), the advice seems to me pretty solid given the caveat that it’s “extremely difficult to predict human behavior in the face of terminal chaos.” However, they’re all negative lessons. One can certainly learn from the mistakes of history and attempt to avoid repeating them. (We have a predictably poor track record of learning from historical mistakes.) It may well be a case of hindsight bias that what looks perfectly clear from past examples can be used as a sort of template for best-laid-plans for both the process and aftermath of what may well be (by the article’s own admission) a protracted phase of social unrest and breakdown.

That said, let me argue just one thing, namely, why it may not be stupid (as the article opines rather flatly) after all to do nothing in preparation for rather foreseeable difficulties. Long answer short, it simply won’t matter. Whatever the precipitating event or process, the collapse of industrial civilization, unlike previous civilizational collapses, will be global. Moreover, it will be accompanied by ecological collapse and a global extinction event (process) on par with at least five previous mass extinctions. The world will thus be wrecked for human habitation on anything but the shortest additional term over those who perish at the outset. This is before one takes into account climate change (already underway but could become abrupt and nonlinear at any time) and the inevitable irradiation of the planet when 400+ nuclear sites go critical.

It’s not unusual for me to be accused of a convenient fatalism, of doing nothing because the alternative (doing something) is too difficult. That accusation sticks, of course; I won’t dispute it. However, my reading of trends guarantees the impossibility of stalling, much less reversing, our current trajectory and further suggests that the window of opportunity closed approximately forty years ago during the oil crisis and ecology movement of the 1970s. I would certainly throw my weight, influence, and effort (which are for all practical purposes nil) behind doing what is still possible to undo the worst instances of human corruption and despoliation. In addition, it seems to me worthwhile to map out what it would mean to meet our collective doom with grace, integrity, and yes, grim determination. That’s not doing nothing, but I’ve seen remarkably little discussion of those possible responses. What I see plenty of instead is a combination of bunker mentality and irrational desire for righteous punishment of perpetual enemies as we each cross death’s door. Both are desperate last hurrahs, final expressions of human frailty in the face of intractable and unfathomable loss. These, too, are the false promises of the last crop of presidential hopefuls, who ought to know quite well that presiding over collapse might just be worst possible vantage point, possessed of the full power of the state yet unable to overcome the force of momentum created by our own history.

As ever, I’m late getting to recent analyses about the unstoppable momentum of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. (A lot happens in just a few days, which causes the news cycle to churn feverishly and expires lots of news before it can be fully considered.) Primaries, caucuses, and polls keep telling us that, despite deplorable behavior and a remarkable dearth of policy or solutions to problems (beyond witless sloganeering, anyway), Trump’s reckless bluster continues to dominate what remains of the Republican field. The nominating convention promises to be something other than pointless pageantry this time round, with things shaping up to be a fight for the nomination between the successful winner of delegates (Trump, via the usual electoral processes) and whomever the party decides to back in a desperate bid to avoid the inevitable. The Republican party has already splintered badly; a fight on the convention floor may well send the GOP into the dustbin of history.

Matt Taibbi provides excellent analysis in The Rolling Stone of the beast created unwittingly by the GOP, which has now hijacked the party. I especially like the comparison to the fake fighting, indignation, and bullying of professional wrestlers. Taibbi offers lots of memorable quotes in the course of a fairly long article, which is worth the time to read. Here’s just one.

A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events — an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc. — this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised.

It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.

The prospect of a Trump presidency is enough to inspire some hideous fear among rational thinkers. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that part of his appeal is that he can be expected to disrupt everything once in office. In that respect, I can see how some are saying that it’s not even Trump so much as Americans who support and vote for him who are the true disruption. The unstated goal is to crash the ineffectual system of government we now have by electing an egregiously ego-maniacal anti-politician, but after that, no clear path forward is evident. Maybe we gotta break some eggs to make the omelet, but in the meantime, lots of mischief will sink us further into strife and discord. Some even predict a civil war, a coup, or a revolution.

In my view, fear of Trump supporters rather than the man himself is an exercise in inversion, missing the point entirely that power structures are extremely hierarchical. Claims of those in power that they derive their power ultimately from the vox populi masks the fact that, except for purposeless mob action that does little but mess things up, the proletariat desperately needs a figurehead around which to rally, even if the rallying point is misaligned with their wants or even arbitrary (e.g., What’s the Matter with Kansas?). Because Trump doesn’t profess to be born again, he doesn’t quite fit the bill for James Howard Kunstler’s oft-repeated prediction of the rise of a cornpone fascist in American politics as an antidote to the dynastic professional political class, but Trump may well set the stage for someone else who does fit the bill.

What sort of fear grips us might be worth consideration. This thoughtful comment at Gin and Tacos (reformatted to two paragraphs) caught my attention:

Talk to a “conservative” long enough and underneath all their bluster and tough talk, you’ll find that they are basically peeing in their pants. This is not an accident. It’s fairly well known that fear and uncertainty are processed in the brain by the amygdala. When the amygdala is overloaded, it overtakes the neocortex, which is responsible for rational thought. The conservative message, from Fox Noise on down, is fear, fear, and more fear. People who watch Fox non-stop, no matter what they tell you, are quaking in their boots and unable to think rationally. This has nothing to do with economic status, race, education, or anything else. Once you can hijack the amygdala, you own the person.

So, the current conservative message is to fear foreigners, fear ISIS, fear Al Qaeda (although they seem to have fallen out of favor as a fear factor), fear “thugs,” fear Mexicans, fear liberals, fear the gays, fear the government (Jade Helm anyone?), fear your neighbor (see something, say something), fear for your guns, fear for your religion. When people are subjected to this message non-stop, they lose all capacity to think rationally. This explains Trump or any other demagogue who says he will eliminate your fear.

We’ve come a long, long way from FDR’s famous quote recommending fortitude in the face of fear.