Archive for October, 2018

The largest lottery jackpot ever (roughly $1.6 billion) was won last week by some lucky or unlucky soul, depending. The mainstream media promoted this possible windfall relentlessly, instructing everyone as possible winners the first steps to take with the winning ticket. It prompts the question, What Would a (sudden, new) Billionaire Do? with all that money, and many of us toyed with the prospect actively. The ruinous appeal is far too seductive to put out of mind entirely. Lottery winners, however, are not in the same class as the world’s billionaires, whose fortunes are closely associated with capitalist activity. Topping the list is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. The Walmart fortune deposits four Walton family members on the list, whose combined wealth exceeds even that of Bezos. Beyond conjecture what billionaires should or might do besides the billionaire challenge or purchasing land in New Zealand for boltholes to leave the rest of us behind, it’s worth pointing out how such extraordinary wealth was amassed in the first place, because it surely doesn’t happen passively.

Before Amazon and Walmart but well after the robber barons of the early 20th century, McDonald’s was the ubiquitous employer offering dead-end, entry-level jobs that churned through people (labor) before discarding them carelessly, all the while locking up profits the placard “millions [then billions] sold!” Its hallmark euphemism (still in use) is the McJob. After McDonald’s, Walmart was widely understood as the worst employer in the world in terms of transfer of obscene wealth to the top while rank-and-file workers struggle below the poverty line. Many Walmart employees are still so poorly compensated that they qualify for government assistance, which effectively functions as a government subsidy to Walmart. Walmart’s awful labor practices, disruption of local mom-and-pop economies, and notorious squeezing of suppliers by virtue of its sheer market volume established the template for others. For instance, employers emboldened by insecure or hostage labor adopt hard-line policies such as firing employees who fail to appear at work in the midst of a hurricane or closing franchise locations solely to disallow labor organizing. What Walmart pioneered Amazon has refined. Its fulfillment-center employees have been dubbed CamperForce for being made primarily of older people living in vans and campers and deprived of meaningful alternatives. Jessica Bruder’s new book Nomadland (2018), rather ironically though shamelessly and predictably sold by Amazon, provides sorry description, among other things, of how the plight of the disenfranchised is repackaged and sold back them. As a result of severe criticism (not stemming directly from the book), Amazon made news earlier this month by raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour, but it remains to be seen if offsetting cuts to benefits wipe out apparent labor gains.

These business practices are by no means limited to a few notoriously bad corporations or their billionaire owners. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute and elsewhere, income inequality has been rising for decades. The graph below shows that wage increases have been entirely disproportionate, rewarding the top 10 percent, top 1 percent, and top 0.1 percent at increasingly absurd levels compared to the remaining 90 percent.

157228-20055

It’s a reverse Robin Hood situation: the rich taking from not just the poor but everyone and giving to themselves. Notably, trickle-down economics has been widely unmasked as a myth but nonetheless remains a firmly entrenched idea among those who see nothing wrong with, say, ridiculous CEO pay precisely because they hope to eventually be counted among those overcompensated CEOs (or lottery winners) and so preserve their illusory future wealth. Never mind that the entire economic system is tilted egregiously in favor a narrow class of predatory plutocrats. Actual economic results (minus all the rhetoric) demonstrate that as a function of late-stage capitalism, the ultrarich, having already harvested all the low-hanging fruit, has even gone after middle-class wealth as perhaps the last resource to plunder (besides the U.S. Treasury itself, which was looted with the last series of bailouts).

So what would a billionaire do in the face of this dynamic? Bezos is the new poster boy, a canonical example, and he shows no inclination to call into question the capitalist system that has rewarded him so handsomely. Even as he gives wage hikes, he takes away other compensation, keeping low-level employees in a perpetual state of doubt as to when they’ll finally lose what’s left to them before dying quietly in a van down by the river or out in the desert somewhere. Indeed, despite the admirable philanthropy of some billionaires (typically following many years of cutthroat activity to add that tenth and eleventh digit), structural change necessary to restore the middle class, secure the lower class with a living wage, and care for the long-term unemployed, permanently unemployable, and disabled (estimated to be at least 10% of the population) are nowhere on the horizon. Those in the best position to undertake such change just keep on building their wealth faster than everyone else, forsaking the society that enables them and withdrawing into armed compounds insulated from the rabble. Hardly a life most of us would desire if we knew in advance what a corrupting prison it turns out to be.

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Caveat: Rather uncharacteristically long for me. Kudos if you have the patience for all of this.

Caught the first season of HBO’s series Westworld on DVD. I have a boyhood memory of the original film (1973) with Yul Brynner and a dim memory of its sequel Futureworld (1976). The sheer charisma of Yul Brynner in the role of the gunslinger casts a long shadow over the new production, not that most of today’s audiences have seen the original. No doubt, 45 years of technological development in film production lends the new version some distinct advantages. Visual effects are quite stunning and Utah landscapes have never been used more appealingly in terms of cinematography. Moreover, storytelling styles have changed, though it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they’re necessarily better now than then. Competing styles only appear dated. For instance, the new series has immensely more time to develop its themes; but the ancient parables of hubris and loss of control over our own creations run amok (e.g., Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more contemporaneously, the surprisingly good new movie Upgrade) have compact, appealing narrative arcs quite different from constant teasing and foreshadowing of plot developments while actual plotting proceeds glacially. Viewers wait an awful lot longer in the HBO series for resolution of tensions and emotional payoffs, by which time investment in the story lines has been dispelled. There is also no terrifying crescendo of violence and chaos demanding rescue or resolution. HBO’s Westworld often simply plods on. To wit, a not insignificant portion of the story (um, side story) is devoted to boardroom politics (yawn) regarding who actually controls the Westworld theme park. Plot twists and reveals, while mildly interesting (typically guessed by today’s cynical audiences), do not tie the narrative together successfully.

Still, Westworld provokes considerable interest from me due to my fascination with human consciousness. The initial episode builds out the fictional future world with characters speaking exposition clearly owing its inspiration to Julian Jayne’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (another reference audiences are quite unlikely to know or recognize). I’ve had the Julian Jaynes Society’s website bookmarked for years and read the book some while back; never imagined it would be captured in modern fiction. Jaynes’ thesis (if I may be so bold as to summarize radically) is that modern consciousness coalesced around the collapse of multiple voices in the head — ideas, impulses, choices, decisions — into a single stream of consciousness perhaps better understood (probably not) as the narrative self. (Aside: the multiple voices of antiquity correspond to polytheism, whereas the modern singular voice corresponds to monotheism.) Thus, modern human consciousness arose over several millennia as the bicameral mind (the divided brain having two camera, chambers, or halves) functionally collapsed. The underlying story of the new Westworld is the emergence of machine consciousness, a/k/a strong AI, a/k/a The Singularity, while the old Westworld was about a mere software glitch. Exploration of machine consciousness modeling (e.g., improvisation builds on memory to create awareness) as a proxy for better understanding human consciousness might not be the purpose of the show, but it’s clearly implied. And although conjectural, the speed of emergence of human consciousness contrasts sharply with the abrupt ON switch regarding theorized machine consciousness. Westworld treats them as roughly equivalent, though in fairness, 35 years or so in Westworld is in fact abrupt compared to several millennia. (Indeed, the story asserts that machine consciousness sparked alive repeatedly (which I suggested here) over those 35 years but was dialed back repeatedly. Never mind all the unexplored implications.) Additionally, the fashion in which Westworld uses the term bicameral ranges from sloppy to meaningless, like the infamous technobabble of Star Trek.

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Political discussion usually falls out of scope on this blog, though I use the politics category and tag often enough. Instead, I write about collapse, consciousness, and culture (and to a lesser extent, music). However, politics is up front and center with most media, everyone taking whacks at everyone else. Indeed, the various political identifiers are characterized these days by their most extreme adherents. The radicalized elements of any political persuasion are the noisiest and thus the most emblematic of a worldview if one judges solely by the most attention-grabbing factions, which is regrettably the case for a lot of us. (Squeaky wheel syndrome.) Similarly, in the U.S. at least, the spectrum is typically expressed as a continuum from left to right (or right to left) with camps divided nearly in half based on voting. Opinion polls reveal a more lopsided division (toward Leftism/Progressivism as I understand it) but still reinforce the false binary.

More nuanced political thinkers allow for at least two axes of political thought and opinion, usually plotted on an x-y coordinate plane (again, left to right and down to up). Some look more like the one below (a quick image search will reveal dozens of variations), with outlooks divided into regions of a Venn diagram suspiciously devoid of overlap. The x-y coordinate plane still underlies the divisions.

600px-political-spectrum-multiaxis

If you don’t know where your political compass points, you can take this test, though I’m not especially convinced that the result is useful. Does it merely apply more labels? If I had to plot myself according to the traditional divisions above, I’d probably be a centrist, which is to say, nothing. My positions on political issues are not driven by party affiliation, motivated by fear or grievance, subject to a cult of personality, or informed by ideological possession. Perhaps I’m unusual in that I can hold competing ideas in my head (e.g., individualism vs. collectivism) and make pragmatic decisions. Maybe not.

If worthwhile discussion is sought among principled opponents (a big assumption, that), it is necessary to diminish or ignore the more radical voices screaming insults at others. However, multiple perverse incentives reward the most heinous adherents the greatest attention and control of the narrative(s). in light of the news out just this week, call it Body Slam Politics. It’s a theatrical style borne out of fake drama from the professional wrestling ring (not an original observation on my part), and we know who the king of that style is. Watching it unfold too closely is a guaranteed way to destroy one’s political sensibility, to say nothing of wrecked brain cells. The spectacle depicted in Idiocracy has arrived early.

I’m on the sidelines with the issue of free speech, an observer with some skin in the game but not really much at risk. I’m not the sort of beat my breast and seek attention over what seems to me a fairly straightforward value, though with lots of competing interpretations. It helps that I have no particularly radical or extreme views to express (e.g., won’t find me burning the flag), though I am an iconoclast in many respects. The basic value is that folks get to say (and by extension think) whatever they want short of inciting violence. The gambit of the radicalized left has been to equate speech with violence. With hate speech, that may actually be the case. What is recognized as hate speech may be changing, but liberal inclusion strays too far into mere hurt feelings or discomfort, thus the risible demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings suitable for children. If that standard were applied rigorously, free speech as we know it in the U.S. would come to an abrupt end. Whatever SJWs may say they want, I doubt they really want that and suggest they haven’t thought it through well enough yet.

An obvious functional limitation is that one doesn’t get to say whatever one wishes whenever and wherever one wants. I can’t simply breach security and go onto The Tonight Show, a political rally, or a corporate boardroom to tell my jokes, voice my dissent, or vent my dissatisfaction. In that sense, deplatforming may not be an infringement of free speech but a pragmatic decision regarding whom it may be worthwhile to host and promote. Protest speech is a complicated area, as free speech areas designated blocks away from an event are clearly set up to nullify dissent. No attempt is made here to sort out all the dynamics and establish rules of conduct for dissent or the handling of dissent by civil authorities. Someone else can attempt that.

My point with this blog post is to observe that for almost all of us in the U.S., free speech is widely available and practiced openly. That speech has conceptual and functional limitations, such as the ability to attract attention (“move the needle”) or convince (“win hearts and minds”), but short of gag orders, we get to say/think what we want and then deal with the consequences (often irrelevance), if any. Adding terms to the taboo list is a waste of time and does no more to guide people away from thinking or expressing awful things than does the adoption of euphemism or generics. (The terms moron, idiot, and imbecile used to be acceptable psychological classifications, but usage shifted. So many euphemisms and alternatives to calling someone stupid exist that avoiding the now-taboo word retard accomplishes nothing. Relates to my earlier post about epithets.)

Those who complain their free speech has been infringed and those who support free speech vociferously as the primary means of resolving conflict seem not to realize that their objections are less to free speech being imperiled but more to its unpredictable results. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement successfully drew attention to a real problem with police using unnecessary lethal force against black people with alarming regularity. Good so far. The response was Blue Lives Matter, then All Lives Matter, then accusations of separatism and hate speech. That’s the discussion happening — free speech in action. Similarly, when Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee rather than stand and sing the national anthem (hand over heart, uncovered head), a rather modest protest as protests go, he drew attention to racial injustice that then morphed into further, ongoing discussion of who, when, how, why anyone gets to protest — a metaprotest. Nike’s commercial featuring Kaepernick and the decline of attendance at NFL games are part of that discussion, with the public participating or refusing to participate as the case may be. Discomforts and sacrifices are experienced all around. This is not Pollyannaish assurance that all is well and good in free speech land. Whistleblowers and Me Too accusers know only too well that reprisals ruin lives. Rather, it’s an ongoing battle for control of the narrative(s). Fighting that battle inevitably means casualties. Some engage from positions of considerable power and influence, others as underdogs. The discussion is ongoing.

Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.