Citizen Consumer

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A friend posted something on Facebook the other day expressing frustration with the state of the country and its discourse. It concluded with the question “Are we REALLY so small-minded and selfish that debate is impossible and compromise is EVIL? What the hell is happening here?” There are versions of this question being asked on Facebook, in coffee shops, in bars, in living rooms, and around kitchen tables all over the country. How did we get to the place we are now? I don’t know if it was the emotion or the clarity of the question (or a combination of the two), but something snapped into place. It was one of those nucleation points I’ve talked about. Whatever the conditions, they were what they needed to be in order for an idea to form. This post is based on the comment I made there.

I think things started to fall apart when ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’ became interchangeable terms in the popular mind. I can’t point to a specific date when that happened, but I know there was a time in my lifetime they weren’t the same thing. I hear the Gorden Gecko “Greed is Good” speech from “Wall Street” much differently now than when I first experienced it in a theater.

It’s a much more recent phenomenon than you might think.  Calvin Coolidge famously stated to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925 that “… the chief business of the American people is business.” In a soundbite-driven world it may seem as if that puts an end to my thesis. In a world where that line has a context, it’s the exact opposite. Here’s an extended excerpt from the speech:

There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of Goldsmith which everybody repeats, but few really believe:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Excellent poetry, but not a good working philosophy. Goldsmith would have been right, if, in fact, the accumulation of wealth meant the decay of men. It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth. [Emphasis mine]

“Of course the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence?”  Who was this guy?  Bernie Sanders? Coolidge is saying this at the height of the Roaring Twenties. “The Great Gatsby” won’t be published for another four months. He’ll leave office just before its all falls apart four years later and he’ll be dead before these words are ten years old. He never sees the end of the Great Depression.  “So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.” Can anyone look me in the eye today and say with a straight face that wealth isn’t the end nowadays? What’s it the means to?  More wealth? When did that become OK? I’m not asking that for rhetorical effect.  I honestly don’t know the answer to that.

What I do know is that we lost something important when we created an environment where greed is good — as long as you’re the greedy one. The last thing you want to have to deal with at that point are people who consider themselves equal citizens. Citizenship requires active participation in a larger community with a voluntarily sense of duty to others, even when fulfilling that duty doesn’t have immediate and direct benefit to the self. It’s acting on the idea that a society is judged on the lives of the least of its members, not its greatest. Everyone counts the same. Some have more to give than others, but everyone has the same basic value. Coolidge wasn’t talking out of his butt, either.  Look at the infrastructure we rely on to this day that was built in that era. Where’s all the money going now?

For “greed is good” to work you need consumers. Consumerism is based on the immediate gratification of personal needs. Period. Nothing is more important than getting what you want for as little cost to yourself as possible. If someone else suffers, that’s just too bad for them. There is no problem that can’t be solved with the application of enough money. Your worth becomes a function of the amount of money you have to spend. There is no greater atrocity than a price being raised to benefit someone who has less than you. If they get more, you will have less. You may not know how much less. You may not have any idea to what use you’ll put that which you’ve “saved.” The point is you have it and they don’t.

Citizens say “we’re all in this together.” Consumers say “I’m buying a gun so no one takes my stuff. Stuff is important. It’s more important than you.” In a weird way I think this explains the recent outbreak of zombie movies and stories.1 That’s pretty much where we are nowadays.  We’re on our own. And there are all these things that aren’t us who want what we have.

I don’t know how you make citizens of consumers again. I don’t know if you can. All I know is that citizenship and consumerism are incompatible unless you’re willing to work at it. And I’m not seeing much evidence that anyone wants to work that hard at it. Yelling is apparently more satisfying.


1See what I did there?

 

Saying something nice about Answers in Genesis

The interior of the ark under construction by Answers in Genesis. Note the biblically-correct metal bolts. Photo from Ark Encounter press kit
The interior of the ark under construction by Answers in Genesis. Note the biblically-correct metal bolts.
Photo from Ark Encounter press kit
It’s fashionable nowadays to demonize things you don’t agree with. Nothing you oppose is allowed to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Civil discourse appears to be nearly dead. That’s a shame. There are lots of people I like who I don’t agree with politically. I was struck by the friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. Charles Koch wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about how he agrees with Bernie Sanders on one important issue. It’s possible for reasonable people to disagree. It’s rarely a good idea to assume someone who you don’t agree with isn’t reasonable.

So it is for me and Answers in Genesis. There is one thing that’s part of their core beliefs that I actually agree with whole-heartedly. In case you don’t know, Answers in Genesis is an international organization based in Boone County, KY (where I live) that runs a tourist trap attraction called The Creation Museum. It’s also building another one in Grant County that will feature what they’re claiming to be a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark. If your question is “What was the genesis of Charles Pierce’s wonderful book Idiot America?” you’ve come to the right place! The answer is Answers in Genesis! In the past I’ve referred to the Creation Museum as the Moron Museum, but I decided a while back that it’s wrong to do that. AIG is run by a guy named Ken Ham and they collect buckets of money from people who believe in the inerrancy of the Christian Bible, including the creation stories.

Now let me get this out of the way first: Anyone who knows me knows I have no time for “biblical creationism.” The Earth is not 6000 years old. It’s billions of years old. It was not created in seven days. More billions. Humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs. Missed that by millions. Noah’s Ark is a myth. It’s the original boat you’re going to need a bigger one of. These are not opinions. These are empirically provable facts. I no more want to “debate” this than debate that the Earth revolves around the sun. I’m not interested in talking to anyone about how “it’s just a theory.” Demonstrate to me that you have an understanding of the history of science and at least a passing knowledge of epistemology. Summarize Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions without using the word “paradigm,” for example. Then we can have a discussion worth having. Until then, never mind.

So what good can I possibly have to say about this group? To understand it you also have to know that Northern Kentucky has two Christian Identity churches and one Klan group listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. To say this isn’t the most racially progressive place on the planet is a bit of an understatement. Most of the time it stays below the surface, though. People around here seem to prefer their racism covert rather than overt. Except these two churches. I’m not going to link to either of them. Check out the SPLC site to get their names and you then you can find them yourselves. It turns out that both of these churches really hate Answers in Genesis. Why? Because they flat out call racism wrong. Full stop. No exceptions. No weasel words. 

I’m not going to lie. This surprised me when I first came across this. When I found out about these two churches a couple of years ago I threw in Ken Ham’s name as well as “Answers in Genesis” into their site searches just to see what came up. Here’s one particularly virulent recent example from one of the web sites:

The only people that are not of God are half breeds or mongrels, because God only created ‘kind after kind,’ never hybrids. If the melting pot synagogue of satan known as ‘Answers In Genesis’ wants a fast track evolution to explain the origin of the races or “people groups,” then they need not look any further than Jeremiah, which maps the movement of mongrelization. It is God Himself who will remove and move the wandering jew so that it will hurt them and harm others as well, forsaken by all of mankind. They have been purged and kicked out of just about every European nation throughout the last 2000 years, because they are evil… “the lusts of their father [god] they will do” (John 8:44). If Jesus Christ was one of these hereditary jews of mixed blood, then He was condemning and contradicting Himself. It is simply preposterous and disastrous to believe a parasitic people that worms their false religion into the sacred tenets of Christianity. [Emphasis added. Still not linking.]

Yeah, somehow I don’t get the idea that Ken Ham is getting a Christmas card from these folks in this or any other year. 

The object of these folk’s ire seems to be that Answers in Genesis publishes a book called One Race One Blood. OK, it blames racism on Darwin (because everything was peachy before then!) and then veers off to disliking gay people later (because isn’t it ironic that an omnipotent God has the same biases and hangups you do? What were the chances?) But it takes one of their core beliefs, that Adam and Eve were the first people, and takes it out to the conclusion that it’s wrong to hate someone merely for the color of their skin. Heck, apparently they’re not really too keen on the term “race” at all.

Maybe there’s something cynical about this. I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I don’t want there to be. I want to believe that, on this one thing, I can say “We agree on this.” I seriously doubt there’s much else, if anything, we agree on. But on this we do. And because of that I won’t — can’t — demonize them. Given the racial attitudes often (but not always) found in churches that describe themselves as fundamentalist, you have to figure it would be easier for Answers in Genesis if they just didn’t bring it up. But they do.

I’ve always had a grudging respect for Chik-Fil-A because they’ve left a ton of money on the table by being closed on Sunday. Because I said there’s only one thing I agree with the Answers in Genesis about, I have no problem pointing out that the Creation Museum is open on Sundays. So much for all that Sabbath crap. But at least all money is welcome.

Nucleation points

I’ve been thinking a lot about nucleation lately. It’s one of those things you have an intuitive sense about but don’t realize has a name. Once you do, and you have some understanding of how it works, you start to see it everywhere. Most people stop there, but I have a blog post to write every day so you get to hear about it too. Lucky you.

Photo by Anders Adermark
Photo by Anders Adermark.

Pour a glass of beer. Pour it down the side, pour it down the middle, it doesn’t matter. Assuming it’s clear enough, you’ll see tiny bubbles streaming up from the bottom. Ideally you’ll see strings of bubbles. You probably know that the bubbles are from CO2 being released from the beer. The process of that gas being released from the beer is called nucleation. A place that promotes the process is called a nucleation point. In the case of a beer glass the nucleation points are tiny imperfections along the bottom, horizontal surface. Sharp corners and lots of surface area, albeit at the microscopic scale, provide the escape path for the excess C02.

There are lots of other examples in the physical world. A dust particle provides a location for air supersaturated with water vapor to condense as it cools. A grain of sand gets lodged in the soft tissue of an oyster so it releases a substance that coats it to smooth the rough edges. Layer after layer adheres to itself and when it’s all done you have a pearl. Water pressure increases on the back of a dam and a small weak point finally gives way. That sets off a chain reaction which, at the microscopic level, is just the original failure repeated over and over. Nucleation is the process of something starting out one way and then turning into something else when conditions change. A nucleation point is a place where the conditions are favorable for that change to begin. For whatever reason, it takes less energy at that point to push the state of the system from one way of being organized to another.

I think this process has relevance in the social and political space as well. Let’s take Seth Godin’s “Guy #3” as an example. It’s a short video of what Godin calls a “dance tribe” forming at a music festival. He points out that the key person in the process is the third person to start dancing. The first guy sets it in motion. The second guy is another guy dancing. It could end right then and it’s just two goofballs dancing. The third guy is an inflection point. Now it’s a trend. People can choose to join in or not, but there’s no denying it’s a thing. Guys 1 – 3 form a nucleation point.

The Tunisian Revolution began with public reaction to the self-immolation of a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who was protesting that his merchandise had been confiscated. Unrest spread to other Arab countries. Then it hit Syria. And stopped. The conditions there were different. Its government was willing to crush the rebellion and had the means to do it. Not all that different from what happened in China in 1989.

It’s hard to form a social nucleation point on purpose. The folks who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge wanted to be one but they couldn’t pull it off. Maybe they didn’t bring enough snacks, but it’s more the fact that there aren’t that many people willing to get that bent about federal land management issues. Is there anything more painful than a company clueless about social media trying to get something to go viral? At best it goes nowhere. At worst it goes viral when people subvert the intent to spread the exact opposite message from the one intended. Political campaigns are really good at that one.

I thought of all of this when the news came down that Justice Scalia had died. I think we’re at a nucleation point. It’s supposed to be the branch of government most removed from the day-to-day of politics but, ironically, it’s the one most likely to put people into the streets. Like a ruling? Have a rally! Hate a ruling? Have a rally!

I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I do know there’s a lot of potential instability in our social fabric and now we have an emotionally-charged point for that conflict to be focused.

It scares the hell out of me, frankly.

Johnny Football is the NFL

football-brain-800pxI’ll watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. It’s what you do on the Sunday they play the Super Bowl. I’m slightly in favor of Denver because this is probably Peyton’s last year, but I won’t lose a moment’s sleep if Carolina wins. I’m amazed by the things Cam Newton can do. Assuming he stays healthy, the sky’s the limit for the number of records he could own when he hangs them up. He’s that good. I don’t get all the hate about how he celebrates. He’s among the best at doing what he does. He shows the joy in doing it. I don’t see what the problem is.

I’ll watch the game.  I don’t care who wins. I’ll drink good beer and eat food I’ve smoked on the Egg down on the patio. My day will be better than 95% of the world’s population because I’ll have had more than my share that day and my next days’s sustenance will not be in doubt. But my day will come at a price. One I’m not sure I want to pay anymore.

I’ll watch the NFL’s biggest day, but I won’t enjoy it all that much. I cannot see a hit without wondering if this is the one that ends a life. Will that player be the next Junior Seau? Chris Henry? Andre Waters? Or “just” the next Kenny Stabler who knows something is wrong but doesn’t end his own life? Is that going to be the hit that two, five, or ten years from now will be the one that starts the player down the road of not recognizing himself when he looks in the mirror?

Then there is Johnny Manziel. You want to say “oh, that kid’s just a head-case asshole.  It’s just a moral failure on his part.  His parents are probably at fault.” I’m not going to claim to be a scholar of the kid’s life, but from what I’ve read his parents are at their wit’s end. They fear for his life. Apparently, though, he’s managed to find enough people who aren’t worried enough about his life to support him in ending his destructive ways. They’re willing to ride him as far as he’ll go, then move on when he’s spent.

Those people are easy to condemn.  Are we, who watch these men bash their heads play after play, Sunday after Sunday, really any different? Do we wonder or care what happened to the second string cornerback from the team three years ago who isn’t playing anymore?  What happened to that short-yardage running back who was so tough when he ran up the middle. He could really take the abuse, couldn’t he?  He did.  Didn’t he? What’s he doing now?

I’ll watch the game Sunday. I don’t think I’m going to like myself much after.

A Marxist critique of social media

391px-Groucho_Marx_-_portrait

“PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”.
—Groucho Marx.  Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills as recounted in Groucho and Me (1959, ISBN 0-306-80666-5), p. 321

Back in another lifetime when I taught such things as Mass Media and Society I used to give the class a thought exercise. This would usually happen on the day I covered the classic source-message-receiver-channel-feedback “transmission” model of communication. I’d ask for examples of mass media and get the usual ‘Radio,’ ‘Television,’ ‘Newspaper’ and the like. Then I’d ask for examples of interpersonal communication and I’d be given a number of examples that all boiled down to conversations among one or more people. Then I’d ask the question I’d been heading for: when does interpersonal communication turn into mass communication? What makes them different? Is it the number of people involved? If so, what’s the magic number? If it’s not numbers, then what is it?

The Internet was past its infancy by then — it was the early 1990s, after all — but web browsers were still in the future so it was nothing like it is today. Most of the students couldn’t relate to stuff like USENET and the like the way that Twitter and Facebook would be understood now. As I recall, we’d usually start talking about class lectures as soon as I was done with the setup. I might be talking to 10-15 students and they’d generally agree this was more interpersonal than mass communication (though there were unspoken rules that were different from other interpersonal situations). And they’d agree that a theater performance or speech was closer to mass than interpersonal, though breaking the fourth wall was always a possibility. There wouldn’t be any real conclusion, which is a great way to piss off an undergrad by the way. Spend a whole class period exploring an idea and then don’t come to a conclusion that can be packaged to be on a test later. Does wonders for your teaching evaluations. There’s a reason I’m an ex-college professor. Anyway, I’d generally say that I didn’t know what the answer was, but I suspected it was someone in the feedback part of the cycle. When the source wasn’t able to receive immediate feedback from the receiver, you’d probably crossed the line from interpersonal to mass communication.

Nowadays it’s pretty hard not to argue that social media are what lie between interpersonal and mass media. “Social Media” gives a snappy name to the gray area, but it still doesn’t answer the question. When does interpersonal turn into mass communication? I think I have a better answer now because of what I see on social media. It’s not in the numbers of people involved. It’s not about the medium or the message, even. What it’s about is how the person doing the communicating understands who they’re communicating with.

Let me give you a concrete example. I’m writing this. You’re reading this. I don’t have the slightest idea who you are. I know my wife reads these posts every day. There are a few other people I have reason to think read these now and again. I don’t want the next thing I say to be misunderstood because I am very, very happy if you find what I write interesting or entertaining or in any other way worth the time you spend reading the words. But I don’t care who you are. I don’t write this stuff for anyone in particular. This is all an elaborate exercise on my part to practice writing things clearly. There’s a guy who used to live near us who liked to practice his bagpipes in the park next door. He was good, so I enjoyed hearing him. But the fact that I enjoyed it was just a happy accident. This is the essence of mass communication.

Now if I get a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter about what I write, interpersonal communication is likely to occur. My stats tell me about 20 people read this a day, so there’s a good chance I know you. Even with the asynchrony of leave a comment/respond to a comment, it’ll still be a conversation. Many people can join in and you can do the math from there. Even if I don’t know you personally, there are going to be social cues that will allow us to set up interpersonal interaction. But what’s happening right now as you read these words is not a conversation, no matter how conversational I’m being.

What I’m trying to say here is that interpersonal communication turns into mass communication the minute the communicator is unaware of who he or she is communicating with. We see this on social media all the time with “targeted” ads. Somebody tells you about a funny product on Amazon and you go look at it and suddenly you see the product pop up in ad blocks on websites you frequent. It gets a little more sinister when marketers selling politicians, instead of soap, construct messages designed to appeal to demographics and psychographics. They’re not talking to you. They’re not talking to anyone. They’re talking to a hypothetical idea they’ve constructed for themselves that may or may not correspond to any given person.

The first requirement of joining a group is to say “I’m a member of this group.” I know I’m in the audience for a comic because I’m sitting in the same room with other people. The only thing we all have in common for sure is that we’re all in the same room. The comic doesn’t know any of us personally, but a pro knows how to read a room. Adjustments will be made in the message when possible. A joke may get trashed. Another may be inserted. Sometimes there’s nowhere to go and the set bombs. If I’m laughing and getting into it, it’s interpersonal communication with a lot of other people there.

Marketers are really bad at mistaking the demographic and psychographic categories they use as analogs for audiences. I don’t think of myself in those terms. I may or may not identify with people who are comparable to me on those characteristics. There’s no “us.” I might as well not be there. Effectively I’m not.

What bugs me is that when all that people see and hear are commercial messages aimed at people who don’t actually exist, they start to identify themselves only with those things that randomly happen to appeal to them. I’ll be the first to admit that I live inside my head way too much. It’s not a good thing. It’s often dark and the echo is terrible. Someone should really tidy up around here. But what scares me about a world filled with nothing but commercial messages is that only certain parts of people’s self-identity are being appealed to. Things that get used a lot grow. Things that don’t get used a lot wither.

In a world where lots of people are talking to no one in particular, what are the people who are listening turning into?

Waiting for Mia

Miss Mia Milk Stout
Not amused by flash photography
The danger of writing a blog post a day is that you start to see everything as a metaphor for everything else. So it is with the arrival of our newest member of the family. Miss Mia Milk Stout came home late Thursday morning. That’s our perspective, anyway.  From her perspective she was taken from the warm comfortable home where she was very happy, thank you very much, and taken out into the cold and taken to a completely strange place. A strange place where there are two other cats and very, very few familiar things.  There were cats and dogs where she was before, but she knew them.  These are different cats. There have been many disruptions in her short life, and now there’s another one. We know this is the last one. We don’t know how to tell her that.

We are in a time of waiting. That picture over there is the only one we’ve managed to get since she came home. She’s in the space between the head of the bed and the wall in our guest room. It’s pretty much where she spent Thursday. We had the room prepped before she came home. Food. Water. Litter pan. She explored some when Carla was in the room. She hid when I was in the room. We kept the door closed to keep Porter and Dunkel out, but they were remarkably blasé. Normally shutting the guest room door is a crisis. Not this time.

Yesterday we pulled the mattress back to we could see her down in the gap. We could tell she’d used the litter pan and there was plenty of reason to think she’d explored in the night. Throughout the day Carla and I would go in and talk to her and pet her.  Carla picked her up and took her on a tour of the condo. She seemed to enjoy herself. While being very shy, she sure didn’t mind the attention. When I’d stop reaching down to pet her on my visits, she’d reach a paw up to attract my attention. Early in the afternoon we decided it was time to open the door and see what happened.

Porter and Dunkel have both seen her. They’ve seen us interacting with her, so they seem to know at some level that she’s OK.  Porter is a little skittish.  His tail will get all puffed up, but it really seems to be more an effort to figure out what’s going on. “Are we going to have problems here?” Her response is, well, nothing. So he eventually walks away looking not just a little confused.

If there’s any awareness on Dunkel’s part that Mia is his littermate, we’re not seeing it.  Then again, Dunkel isn’t exactly a complicated cat.

“Play with me!”

Um. Not right now.

“No, play with me!”

Can’t, dude.

“OK, then just pet me. A lot. I demand nothing of you other than your complete attention.”

Do I have another choice?

“No.”

What has been interesting is that Porter seems to be a bit protective of Mia, skittish as he is. Dunkel can play rough. When Dunkel got his first clear view of her, he didn’t charge at her, but he started approaching her cautiously. Porter hissed.  At Dunkel. And Dunkel backed off.

Last night I couldn’t sleep. This is the part where the metaphor comes in.  A couple of times I heard Mia crying, just a little. Her vocalizations are completely different from Porter and Dunkel.  There’s not a chance this wasn’t her.  She was exploring. At one point I’m pretty sure she came into our room. But I have no idea where she went.

I’m finishing this post about half an hour before it goes up.  As I write this I have no idea where Mia is.  We haven’t left the house since the last time we saw her, so we know she’s here somewhere. We haven’t heard a peep. She’s small and clearly likes tight places to hide.  None of our cats have been hiders.  

We clearly have one now.

I’ve done a bit of a search with no luck. Porter and Dunkel are showing no curiosity whatsoever. We’ve had cats long enough to assume there’s no place she can get into that will be much of a danger to her. Carla keeps telling me that she’ll come out when she’s ready.

So we wait. There’s a lot of waiting going on in my life right now. I can’t really talk about that. It’ll come out when it’s ready. But I can talk about the cats. I’m OK with that.

(I’ll update this post when there’s a sighting.)

UPDATED: Under our bed. Her camouflage is very good. 

Fractals in everyday life

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:  Winston Churchill is at a dinner party talking to a wealthy socialite. “Madam,” says Sir Winston, “would you consider sleeping with me for a million pounds?” “Why Mr. Prime Minister,” the surprised woman answers nervously, “I suppose I would.” Churchill quickly counters, “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?” Shocked, the proper lady huffs “Mr. Prime Minister, what type of woman do you take me for?” “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are,” counters Churchill, “Now we’re just haggling over the price.”1

What I like about that joke is the way it messes with scale. The act has one meaning when the monetary rewards are large, but have quite another when the rewards are small.  The act, however, remains the same. I’ve always cited this joke as the reason I oppose the death penalty. The reasoning that these are really bad people and deserve it doesn’t do anything for me. The issue isn’t what kind of people they are. They’ve demonstrated that. The issue is what kind of people we are. Once we, as a society, decide it’s OK to kill someone, the question of who we kill and why is just haggling.

This post isn’t about the death penalty or any other big hot button issue. What it’s about is fractals. A fractal is a self-similar repeating pattern that occurs over and over regardless of the scale at which you observe it. In mathematics a fractal is created by taking a relatively simple equation, providing some initial values and then solving the equation. Then the results of the first run are used as new values for another run. Those results are fed back into the equation, and so on.  It’s recursive. Graph the results and you can get intricate patterns that seem to repeat themselves no matter how far in you zoom in.

I’ve always thought that we humans don’t appreciate the fractal nature of behavior. In another lifetime I worked in the Astrodome Ticket Office. The guy who supervised the ticket sellers during events was a banker in his day job.  He’d come straight to the Dome from work and usually bring his dinner with him. He was kind of fun to mess with, I will admit. After a while some of the other part-timers started eating part of his dinner while he was busy getting the sellers out the door to their booths. He would blow up. One time, during a particularly choice rant, he declared for all to hear: “I know it’s just food.  But if someone is willing to steal food, they’re willing to steal money.” I think that was the last time anyone ever ate his dinner. It was kind of a point of pride that we handled obscene amounts of money on a daily basis. That you’d steal any of it was the worst thing you could be accused of. It violated the code.

During the Clinton impeachment I was always amused by the “Rule of law! Rule of law!” folks. Somehow the reverence for the rule of law only started after they were done breaking the speed limit driving into work. It runs the other way, too.  I’m not a corporation, so I can’t pick and choose what laws I get to follow based on closely held religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby, on the other hand …

One of my favorite sayings is that character is what you do when you’re stopped at a red light and there’s no one around. That’s who you are. What you do — or don’t do — in that situation will bubble up into other areas of your life. And affect the people around you.

Now enjoy Jonathan Coulton’s rendition of Mandelbrot Set. (Unfortunately time has caught up to the song. Dr. Mandelbrot died in October of 2010.)


1I’ve always heard this told about Churchill, but the invaluable Quote Investigator conclusively demonstrates it’s just an old joke.

Perspective

Painting from Gibson City Country Kettle
This painting adorns the entire south wall of the main dining room of the Country Kettle in Gibson City, IL. In a town like Gibson City, breakfast is a social meal. Even if all you get is a cup of coffee and maybe some toast, breakfast is where you find out what’s going on in town. The Kettle is literally at the crossroads, sitting in the southeastern corner of the junction of State Routes 47 & 9. There’a a McDonald’s and Casey’s convenience store across the street, as well as one of the town’s two bowling alleys. Maybe a hundred or so yards to the south is the Harvest Moon Drive-In Theater.

The Kettle itself shares a parking lot with one of the banks. Regulars know that if you want to get out onto Route 9 to go to the County Market or Big R without sitting at the light on 47, you can cut through the bank’s drive-in exit. You’re not supposed to come into the parking lot that way, but if you’re my father-in-law that’s more of a suggestion than a rule. There are a few places to get a good breakfast in town, but I never mind it when Dad says he wants to go “down to the corner place.” The French Toast is pretty good there. The biscuits are good, but it’s just a white gravy with a rumor that it’s spent time in the same room with some sausage. I’ve never seen actual evidence it’s true.

I like going to “The Corner” because it means seeing The Painting. I’m no art expert, but it’s my belief that this painting may be one of the largest attempted by someone lacking in any sense of perspective whatsoever.

I don’t remember when I first noticed what an incredible work this really is. Gibson City is a small town in central Illinois and seeing a rural scene on the wall of a restaurant isn’t unexpected. I think my obsession was triggered when we sat at a table under one end it and I noticed the road with no visible means of support

Um … What?
Um … What?

I was hooked.

kettle-wagon-detail
Let’s not eliminate the possibility that these are conjoined horses.

The more you look at this painting, the more you realize that it gets almost nothing correct. It challenges our assumptions. “There’s a wagon, a person and two horses. Of course the horses are pulling the wagon and the person is driving.”  But is that really true? It may be that the horses are merely strolling by. They’re certainly not in front of the wagon. Maybe the person on the wagon is just relaxing and trying to figure out which legs go with which horse.

kettle-cow-detail

Then there’s the barn with the disembodied levitating head. There’s certainly no room for a body in there. Perhaps the body was eaten by the freakishly large chickens that guard the front yard.

kettle-bridge-detail

I think the artist does capture an important characteristic of the town. It’s a friendly place. That’s why it was important to depict the tiny city limits sign made especially for the gnomes who work the local fields. Farm work is already dangerous, but to these wee folk the giant steam-powered tractor from 1870s that roams the fields is a real danger. Luckily the roads are paved with some sort of flexible fabric. The bridge and stream? No idea. I’ve never seen anything even slightly resembling this around here. But I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the gnomes.

kettle-tower-detail

By the time the artist got to the left side of the painting, space was apparently running short. Gibson City actually has a rather prosperous little downtown. There are very few empty storefronts. Rather than going to the trouble of painting several of those buildings, though, the artist took the bold choice of combining architectural elements from several buildings and invented a single building that doesn’t exist and has no obvious purpose. Might be a church. Might be a firehouse. Hard to say  The gazebo-looking thing actually does exist in a park, though to my knowledge there are no trees growing inside it. This is the only water tower M.C. Escher ever designed.

I love this painting. I wouldn’t change a brush stroke. There’s not much danger of the Kettle ever going out of business as long as the town is here, but I’d contribute generously to a fund to preserve the painting if anything did. For all my snark about the composition, the color palette is exactly right. I don’t know why the artist thought there was a brick-arched bridge over an indeterminate-sized stream, but the town is made of brick and those bricks are exactly that color. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but I actually mean it.  I think the way the colors hang together is part of why it took me so long to actually look at the painting. Come for the impressionism. Stay for the surrealism.

It’s easy to make fun of it. No, it’s a lot of fun to make fun of it. But I don’t love this painting for it’s innumerable faults. I love it because in its own weird, innocent, sweet way it does absolutely nothing it sets out to do. It presents a fantastical place where stereoscopic vision and Euclidean geometry are equally irrelevant.

You can call it bad. You can call it brilliant. You can order another cup of coffee.

It’s really just a matter of perspective.

POSTSCRIPT: I had a chance to talk to some longtime Gibson City residents about the painting. The artist was a woman, but they could ‘t remember her name. She was well-known in town for her paintings. I took that to mean in a good way. It turns out that building next to the water tower is a City Hall that burned down. The current city hall is a really neat art deco building, but it also features a tower. The water tower is gone, but it’s been replaced by a communication tower. Alas, it hews to things like geometry and gravity. Finally, the 1870s steam tractor depicted is actually on display in a small park within site of the Kettle. The consensus at the table was that it was unlikely that the artist is still alive, but if she is she should sign the piece. I’d go one step further and say that if she isn’t, there should be a plaque. This was clearly painted with love.

Mourn and honor

I had planned to let the death of David Bowie go by unmentioned. I liked his music and I try to wish everyone well, but I didn’t feel like I had much to say beyond what’s already been said. Now Alan Rickman has died. Cancer killed both of them.

Both of my parents died of cancer. The vast majority of my aunts and uncles died of cancer. I cannot count the number of friends and close acquaintances who’ve fallen to it. “Fuck Cancer” is a popular saying on the Internet, and I have no argument with that. The number of people I know right now for whom this is a daily burden is almost beyond comprehension.

Photo by Tom Streeter.

A death from cancer is no more or less heartrending than a death from any other cause. A death from cancer, however, seems to carry an element that reminds us that there is something bigger than ourselves. It makes distinctions, but not ones we choose, control or even understand. It’s not random, but we don’t understand much of how it works. Has there been progress?  Of course. But we still are greeted with it in the morning news or, as is more often the case, we receive the phone call that strikes so very close to home. You quickly see that what we know is far exceeded by what we don’t.

It is tempting to despair. It’s equally tempting to think that mourning is weakness, somehow “giving in.” Neither is true. Mourn those who have been taken from us. While they rest in peace, do what you can to encourage those who are fighting, comfort those who have fought all they can, and help those who shoulder the load of caregiving. That’s the best way to honor the memory of those we’ve lost.

It’s really the only way.

Life imitates reading list imitating life

Book coverI have very few rules concerning this writing effort. I post something every day. I limit my discussion to one thing. I say only what I have to say, then stop. And I’m only allowed to post about the cats once a week. That last rule is to keep them from turning into a crutch. I know no one will mind me talking about the cats, especially if there are pictures. Given how much time I spend with them, it would be an easy routine to fall into.

As of yet I actually haven’t posted about the cats. This is my 14th cat-free post, so I think I’ve earned a couple of bonus cat posts. This is not one of them, but there are some coming. There is good cat news in our near future. Stay tuned.

My purpose in bringing this up is that I’ve burned through my backup posts and I’m now getting these written late the night before they go up. I knew this would happen eventually. It’s happened a bit sooner than I thought because of some extra demands on my time because of Carla being with her dad. Since he’s doing well and she’s being such a big help to him, it’s a trivial problem for me to have. I’m not complaining.

What’s interesting about this is that even though there are a lot of things I could be writing about, I’ve found it hard to get started on new posts. When we were down in Florida last week I managed to get a little bit ahead. Most days I would decide on the next post topic even before I started on the one I planned to write that day. There were a couple of days I knocked out two in a day. I come home from Florida, I have a lot of distractions and suddenly I can’t come up with a topic. It’s not a matter of the time it takes to write the post. Once I get going the words come, but I have to know what I’m talking about first.

How can I have so many thing going on, yet not readily think of a topic? Remember it doesn’t matter what I write about. It doesn’t have to be long. It just has to be something. But when I hung up the phone with Carla this evening I had no idea what I’d write about.

I may know why this is happening, and it’s gloriously self-referential. I’m currently listening to a book called Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Broadly speaking, it’s a book by a sociologist and cognitive psychologist in the vein of Freakonomics in that it tries to tie a variety of seemingly disparate human behaviors back to a single, non-obvious, root circumstance. They argue that people who are dealing with the lack of something — time, money, companionship, calories — think quantitatively and qualitatively different than those who don’t perceive themselves lacking in these areas. They discuss a variety of studies that indicate that a mind, operating under conditions of scarcity in an area important to the person, does not work as well as one operating under less constrained circumstances.

This is by no means a review of the book because I’m not done with it yet. What’s interesting is that my predicament is exactly the sort of thing their theories would predict. This week I am short of time. I wasn’t able to go with Carla to be with her dad because I had important work responsibilities back here that required my physical presence. In addition, I covered her first two Intro to Craft Beer class sessions since this was the first week of the semester. My attention has been pulled in several directions that have required me to really focus on them. Coming up with topics for these posts have been pushed to the back. If I slow down and take a step back, there are plenty of things for me to write about. I’ve just written more than 650 words about not having anything to write about. I think about breaking the one-cat-post-a-week rule because they are right here in front of me (or crawling on me, walking on my keyboard or wanting me to play with them). (Still not a cat post.) There are plenty of things for me to write about. But I literally can’t think of them because all this other stuff is taking my attention. The point is that it’s not a “block” or anything. They’re arguing that under conditions such as I’m experiencing now, it’s almost physically impossible for me to form thoughts that aren’t related to the immediate goal of managing my current scarcity of time.

I’m not doing the book justice. I think the only reason my mind got spinning on this is because I’m listening to the book on Audible while I’m driving from place to place. I like to listen to books while driving, especially if I have a lot on my mind. It forces me to break the cycle of over-focusing and probably rear-ending another car. I know a lot of people use music that way. For whatever reason, I like books. This topic clicked into place, I think, because I’m feeling the scarcity of time. Since the book uses that type of scarcity as a constant example, I’ve had to expend almost no cognitive energy coming up with this topic. The connections have been made for me in the flow of my daily activities.

You know how people say that some things write themselves?  I think this is how that works.

I’m driving over to Illinois tomorrow to join Carla, her dad and the rest of the family. That will be about four hours of dead time. I’ll likely listen to the book some, but I’ll also spend a lot of time in silence. My next topic will come in those time. Maybe more than one. Time will not be scarce.  There will be room for things to cook and come together. And, as I said, there’s legitimate cat news coming.

But for now I’m over a thousand words about how hard it is to come up with a topic. I probably won’t be able to get away with it again, but it only has to work once.