Frozen in Time

Rodins Thinker

Statues are not history. They are not for the dead. They are for the living. They are memories cut in stone and bronze. Those memories are no more impartial and disinterested than any of our own. We don’t build statues to gravity any more than we think of gravity as a thing apart from our everyday reality. Those things just are and there’s no need to think about it, much less carve and cast it. They are there whether we think about them or not.

Statues are not like that. They are objects that tell us what to think about and how to think about them. They tell a story. Given enough time, those stories are told by the dead to the living. Often those stories are about what the dead thought about people who were already dead. Statues are the dead telling us how to remember other dead.

The dead do not speak ill of the dead. There are no statues of Osama Bin Laden in lower Manhattan, Arlington, VA, or Shanksville, PA and I expect there never will be. And rightly so, I suppose. For such a statue to exist we’d have to relegate the objects to mere historical record and we have many other ways to do that. Such an object in those places could never be merely neutral. There would be a message to those who would come after. The dead don’t like their stories to be that complicated.

Statues are stories told by one set of dead people about another set of dead people. Their existence is a fact of history, but they themselves are not history. They are selective memories. They are the stories our ancestors told themselves. They are our ancestors pointing to their past and saying “this is what you should think about when you think about us.” We don’t commemorate the Shoah. We commemorate and honor the memories of those who perished in it. That’s not everyone. We don’t commemorate the guards and the orderlies and secretaries and the train engineers who made it all possible. And we should not. We can’t change the fact they existed. We can only punish them by making them anonymous. Not forgetting what they did. Forgetting them.

Statues do not spring from the earth fully formed, and they do not pass through our generation to the next without our consent. When we pass a statue along to those who will follow us, we say “Yes, this is how we think of this as well.” We, who will be dead, add our voices to those who already are.

It was not for Ozymandias to decide to find himself in that desert. Someone apparently did look upon his work and despair. And decided it was time to stop.

You’re Next

I believe life is hard. The Buddha said all existence is suffering and any Bengals fan can attest to that. I don’t know if everyone is basically good or basically bad, but I do know everyone is just trying to get through the day. Get up and try to make it to night. Try to be better off if you can, but try like hell to keep from slipping backwards. Rinse and repeat. You’re just trying to get through the day. Just like everyone else. It’s never easy. For anyone.

To me the greatest sin I can commit is to make someone else’s life harder. I can’t always make it easier, though I should if I can, but I should never make it harder. What other people do to me is up to them. My actions are not contingent on theirs. I have no obligation to allow someone to make my life harder, by the way, just as I can’t try to make my life better by making yours worse. Make someone else’s life better if you can, but never, ever make it worse.

I do not write the name of the short-fingered vulgarian in the White House. He values it more than anything, so it’s the thing I’ll always deny him. It’s symbolic, petty, and utterly ineffective. That’s my wheelhouse. If clear writing demands the use of a name, I use Don Palmturd (anagram!). Comic Colin Mocherie is a strong proponent of Lord Dampnut and it’s hard to beat. The juxtaposition of mocking nobility with incontinence and impotence is hard to pass up. Mine starts off with a double entendre. It’s a casual nickname sure to annoy someone who uses his full name and middle initial to refer to himself, but also a title of respect — among criminals. The surname juxtaposes shit in the tropics. Like Mar-a-Lago.

They aren’t mutually exclusive names, of course. I like the image of a shabbily-dressed Englishman doorman announcing “The Lord Dampnut, Don Palmturd” and the two-bit Il Douche strutting into the room, jaw-jutting with the smirk on his face. He thinks everyone is applauding him, but they’re really applauding the doorman behind him air-wanking and rolling his eyes.

Don Palmturd doesn’t believe what I believe. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can’t look into the hearts of others and all that, but come on. This guy enjoys making people’s lives harder. He gets off on it. Many of his supporters do too. You ask them how they’re buying any of this crap and they tell you “Ha, ha, ha libtard, we won and you lost.” (Even though they’re speaking aloud they’ll still manage to misspell three words, but that’s beside the point.) It’s an entire political philosophy built around “neener, neener, neener.” They didn’t win. You lost. That makes them happy. That’s all that matters. They believe their lives are better if someone else’s is worse. That’s winning. That’s making America great again.

Nope. It’s not politics, it’s potty training. I can’t fix it. I won’t accept it. I don’t have to.

I actually don’t care who they hate. I don’t care who you hate. Your hatred doesn’t give you the right to make other folks have a harder time getting through the day than they would have had otherwise. Remember, you don’t have to make anyone’s life easier, you just don’t have a right to make it harder. If I consent to let someone else make your life harder, then it’s as if I did it myself. No one gets a free pass. Making someone’s life harder is always a choice. You make that choice and you’re giving everyone permission to do the same to you.

Make no mistake. They will get to you eventually. There are people who currently reside outside the top 1% of wealth-horders who think they’re safe from all this stuff. They tsk, tsk, tsk about everyone freaking out about losing their health insurance, for example, because they get theirs through their employer. As if somehow providing health insurance is something employers will always be required to do no matter what, forever and ever, Amen.

Let’s try a thought experiment. If you have employer-provided healthcare, what would happen if your company decided they didn’t want to offer it anymore? How easily could you change jobs? Remember, you’ll likely be competing with every single other person at your company who does what you do. You that good? What if you’re wrong? And it’s only going to be an “issue” if your company is the first. All someone has to do is be the first. By the second or third it will be the new normal. If you complain you’ll be an entitled whiner-loser-millennial. There will be Wall Street Journal features on the titans of business who disrupted human decency and made the stock market soar. And after all, isn’t that all that really matters?

Of course, it can’t happen. It’s ridiculous. It’d be like an airline started charging you for carry-on luggage! No one would stand for it! Until the FAA becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Airlines and standing-room-only flights are approved, of course. Then flight attendants crews will have to be issued cattle prods, if only for appearances sake.

Yesterday the Senate of the United States of America voted to make a few people more wealthy without having the slightest idea how many people’s lives they’ll make worse. Much effort has gone into not knowing because it doesn’t matter. If you think anyone will hesitate to make your life worse if they think there’s even a chance they can gain from it, you’re delusional. You represent nothing they can’t find in a million other places. You are a commodity. Raw material from which wealth can be extracted. Then you’re slag. To be discarded.

So go ahead and say nothing when you see other people’s lives being made worse. They’ll get to you eventually. And you’ve already given the folks who could say something about it permission to say nothing. Good job!

Your time is coming. Get your hating in now. You’ll be too busy later.

Or dead.

Hip-hop News (or Newsies Delight)

What’s the difference between what we’re calling “news” nowadays and popular music? Sample. Remix. Mashup. Grab a little from here, grab a little of that. Throw it on Twitter. Throw it on Facebook. Put it on a blog. Rinse. Repeat.

This came up from a comment that was made on a Facebook group I’m a part of:

They have a Twitter post in there. Let me double check though. Sheesh I miss the days when a story was a story.

“…when a story was a story.”  My first reaction?  “Sheesh I miss the days when the medium was the message.”

Has the internet finally killed McLuhan?  Besides the fact that he’s been dead for quite a while, I mean. We got hung up on “global villages” and extending our senses without noticing that “medium” doesn’t mean much anymore.

I have absolutely no business talking about popular music. I will look like the complete idiot I am because I know very, very little about it. It’s not a point of pride.  It’s not something I apologize for. It’s not that I don’t like music. I love music. I just don’t follow it much. I hear stuff I like all the time. I just don’t care enough about it to nerd out on it. I’m probably missing out, but I’m OK with it. I’m glad other people do.  I do know the process of making music is digital, though. Deciding to “be analog” is an artistic choice that comes with its own baggage. It used to just be the way things were. Sampling started pre-digital, but it got a lot easier to scale when digital came along. Anybody could do it. And they did.

I look forward to the day we have to explain a dual-“turntable” digital DJ mixer to a space alien. It’ll be a good warmup for explaining Twitter.

I’ve been thinking for a while that the processes described in Joshua Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place have been accelerated and magnified through social media. He describes in his book how broadcast television broke the connection between physical and social spaces. Simply put, television showed everyone how the other half lived. Or at least it purported to, anyway. The effect was disruptive. The Civil Rights movement and the other social upheavals of the the 1960s and 1970s tracked right along with the rise of television as a dominant force in American society.  People saw how other people lived and said “holy crap, we’re getting screwed.” And they went out and did something about it.

I’ve been OK with this idea, but it hasn’t quite clicked for me yet. What’s happening now is similar to what Meyrowitz described, but I’m not sure it’s just that there’s more of it happening faster. I think it’s the matter of resolution.  Just like analog-to-digital processing can sample at rates far above human perception,¹ social media allows us to drill down below the level of broad group-level descriptions. We knew that what we saw on television back in the day wasn’t real representation of anyone’s specific life, but it was probably some sort of average. Now?  We can see down to the pixel or the sample. Facebook and Twitter shows us the trees and now we realize don’t really understand forests anymore.

My students are in the process of writing final projects for the semester and one of the things I keep urging them to do is revise, revise, revise. Write and then go back and fix it. You’re not going to write a finished product in a first draft. You’re used to reading final drafts. They didn’t start out looking that way.

We used to live in a world where we based what we knew off final drafts. Now we’re just waiting for the next remix.

Still not done with this.  Have to think about it more…


¹And I don’t give a fuck that you think you can tell the difference between a sampled file and an analog one. Compression?  Sure. Not all perceptual compression is going to fit everyone’s specific sensitivities. But not mere sampling. Your ego is exceeding your hardware.

Doing What’s Right

simple-candle-800pxIt’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that Mike Pence took the deal John Kasich was offered. The Grifter doesn’t want to be President. He just wants to be in charge. He wants to be the top of the food chain. As long as he’s El Jefé Anaranjado¹ who gets his cut from whatever money’s being made, he’s going to be happy. He’s going to reward those who helped him and punish those who hurt him. He’s not worried about the details. That’s what he has Pence for. Oh, and how Pence has taken the opportunity! Want to be in the Cabinet? Be white. Be rich. Be opposed to anything that wouldn’t fly in an Indiana town that has more churches than liquor stores. I have this picture in my head of Pence Interviews: The Musical where a chorus of interviewers sing (to the tune of The Spice Girls Wannabe): “Tell me that you’re white, that you’re really, really white…If you wannabe in my cabinet, you really gotta hate the gays…”

We’re going to start hearing a lot about rights soon, especially religious “rights.”  I have a complicated relationship with religion. My first and foremost belief is that my religion is none of your business. The second is like unto it:  I don’t want to hear about yours. I’m interested in what you do. I couldn’t care less why you think you do it. You have a justification? Yay you! Want a cookie? Regardless of what you do or don’t believe about life, the universe, and everything, the authority of your belief system ends where your skin meets the air. Your moral code has an intended population of one:  you. What you do to me matters to me. What I do to you matters to you. Everything else is rationalization.

Here’s what I’ve decided is going to be my standard going forward: No one has the right to make anyone else’s life harder. It’s a good thing to try to make people’s lives easier if you can, but it’s not always possible. It’s never OK to make someone’s life harder,

Life is hard all by its own self. You can do everything you’re supposed to do and try to be good to people and still get slapped upside the head with a metaphorical frozen fish. Make the circumstances weird enough, it becomes a real one. If something can go wrong it probably will. If there’s a bad time for someone to lose hope, that’s when it will most likely happen. If there’s a really bad time to become overconfident, someone’s going to ask you to hold their beer. If there’s any evidence it doesn’t work that way, I’ve yet to see it. Given that the essence of human nature is to screw thing up, the least we can do is not make anything worse for anyone else. When we rise above our natures we might actually make things better.  Hippocrates got it right, though.  First, do no harm.

If the news from the past couple of years is to be believed, the biggest threat to religious liberty are selling wedding cakes to people who you don’t think ought to get married and signing the legal documents necessary for the same. Forget the fact that refusing to sell the cake doesn’t stop anyone from getting married or that the state gets to tell you what forms you need to sign if you’re an elected official. What you think is going to happen to your soul is your business, not mine, but what you’re doing is making someone else’s life harder just because you want to. That’s not OK. Your life doesn’t get any worse if you sell that cake or sign that document. It goes on just like it did before.

“OK,” you say, “so I want to rob a bank. That guard at the door is making my life harder.” Yes, but you’re planning to make other people’s lives harder. The people in the bank. The people you’re stealing from. That guard is preventing you from making other people’s lives harder.

“Oh, OK, then,” you say, “so what about abortion? You’re making the fetus’s life worse, aren’t you?” Not so fast, Skippy. The fetus doesn’t exist separately from the mother. That fetus is entirely dependent on every decision the mother makes no matter what. Sounds like to me the only one qualified to make any decisions vis a vis the fetus is the mother. Someone does have to decide. It’s just not you. Unless you’re the mother. Otherwise all you’re doing is getting mixed up in something where you’re more likely to make someone’s life worse than better.

So as we enter these dark days ahead — and make no mistake, dark days are coming — hold on to simple truths. Evil isn’t complicated. “Fuck you” is a pretty simple concept. It pays to have simple truths for yourself to hold onto. The simplest truth is this: no one has the right to make someone else’s life harder.

Anyone who tells you otherwise will be happy to make yours harder.


¹The Orange Chief

Breaking Faith

This is not normal.

He has no proof this happened, of course. He can point to nothing because there’s nothing there. It’s not on me to “prove” millions of people didn’t vote illegally. It’s on him to prove they did. And he can’t do it. Because it didn’t happen. The only reason you write something like this is to delegitimize your opposition in the minds of your supporters. He won the election because of a loophole in the electoral system that was put in place to block the direct popular election of the President. As with most things having to do with the Yam-Colored One, this has been floating around for a little while.

alex-jones-trump-vote
The fever swamp from which the new national discourse emerges.

This, in turn, apparently has its roots in a series of tweets from some guy with a Twitter account named Gregg Phillips who claims to have a database of 180,000 registered voters “tagged with non-citizens.” Whatever the hell that means. Other than blustering statements about how the evidence is solid, he’s so far refused to let anyone see it. It doesn’t matter of course. It’s “out there.” It’s already been accepted as truth by the base. Like all stories having to do with the person who I’ve privately started calling The Last President of the United States, the details of this particular train wreck are mostly irrelevant. I’ll only throw out that the “story” begins emerging around the time it became clear Clinton was going to win the popular vote by a large margin. The fact that people keep harping on that and the margin keeps growing and Jill Stein decides to ask for a recounts before she returns to whatever cicada nest she sleeps in until Presidential election season rolls around again has really harshed the mellow of The Hairpiece that Roared. Forget the fact that the rules for being elected President of the United States don’t require you to win the overall popular vote.  It’s a wrinkle that’s been in the rules from the beginning. It’s happened before. The popular vote?  Sure, it’s nice to have.  It’s not required. Them’s the rules. Say what you will about Shrub back in the day. He’d just shrug and say “I won.”

So why is it such a big deal to Herr Twitler? It’s part of a pattern that makes perfect sense if you don’t mind being utterly terrified.

So a couple of the classes I’ve been teaching this semester deal with games.  In the process of the crash course I’ve had to subject myself to on game theory, I’ve had the great fortune of being introduced to a delightful book called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits. It’s a deceptively simple book written (partly) in the style of a Socratic dialog using the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants as its basis. The Grasshopper isn’t an irresponsible slacker here. He’s actually a subtle thinker who develops a philosophy of life that sees Utopia in a life of all play and no work — even when that life leads to his inevitable death. It sounds depressing, but it’s really a book that attempts to refute Ludwig’s Wittgenstein’s assertion that games can’t be formally defined. Suits didn’t care for this position and wrote this book. The centerpiece of the book is his formal definition of a game:

“My conclusion is that to play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity.”

Later he sums it up even more succinctly:

“…playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Compare this to anthropologist Mary Douglas’s description of an institution in her masterpiece How Institutions Think:

“Minimally an institution is only a convention. David Lewis’ definition is helpful: a convention arises when all parties have a common interest in there being a rule to insure coordination, none have a conflicting interest, and none will deviate lest the desired coordination is lost.”

Games, conventions and institutions all require willing participation, what Suits called the “lusory attitude.” Lusory is a term that’s pretty common in Game Studies.  It more or less means “playful,” but sounds better when talking to colleagues from other departments at faculty gatherings and you don’t want to keep saying ‘playful’ all the time.  Most everyone but the physicists will let it slide and who cares about physicists anyway? Screw those guys.

Willing participation. I’ve mentioned it before in another context, but I can’t think of this without thinking about this George Carlin routine:

“‘Cause that’s what they taught us; it’s what’s in your mind that counts; your intentions, that’s how we’ll judge you. What you want to do. Mortal sin had to be a grievous offense, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. Ya had’ta WANNA! In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. “Thou Shalt Not WANNA”. If you woke up in the morning and said, “I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!” Save your car fare; you did it, man!”

Can anyone point out anything the Yam-Man has done that could reasonably be interpreted as wanting to hold the country together more than getting his way? The fainting-couch crowd will gleefully point out that I’m being rude to him.  That I’m not showing any respect to the duly-elected Grifter-in-Chief. And you’d be right.  I’m not.  I won’t.  I don’t have to. That’s one of those unnecessary obstacles that’s built into the game. It’s not a bug.  It’s a feature. I, as a citizen of the United States of America, have the right to believe that the man elected to be President of These Here United States is a simpering bag of pus with tastes that would make a bordello owner say “Jeez, that’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?”  The fact is, my opposition only matters if you favor the less efficient means of putting up with it over the more efficient means of lining me up against a wall and shooting me. He’s not allowed to have me shot yet.  Yet.

The most dangerous time for him is right now — before the reins of power are handed over to him. This is not a man who handles pressure well.  We have to keep it up. Don’t let the bastard breathe. We don’t have to give him hell.  All we have to do is tell the truth and he’ll think it’s hell. But also remember we’re all asked one question every single day:  is this country worth it? What are you willing to give up and set aside in order to keep the country together?

Then ask what is he willing to give up to keep the country together?

That’s really the biggest question of all.

Power Rearrangers

It’s really all about power, isn’t it? All this stuff that’s going on in the world. It’s about power. The power to make your little part of the world the way you want it. The power to decide what little part of the world is your little part of the world. Call it control. Call it agency. It’s power. It’s the ability to affect — and effect — how things turn out for you, short-term and long-term. And it’s also about frustration. What you do when you realize you don’t have power or agency or control.

This hit me as I was commiserating with a friend on Facebook. I don’t want to say too much out of concern for privacy, but sufficed to say neither of us are having an especially good time right now. I was trying to explain my philosophy of “fuck it.” Basically it boils down to me doing this re-evaluation of the things I like to do and the things other people seem to expect of me. Those things I like I keep.  Everything else gets stuck onto the “fuck it” pile. This is still a work in progress and I don’t recommend tossing everything and making it your life plan, but my thinking is that I’m not going to get to the point of suckering people for money earning an honest day’s wages until I know what the rubes will pay for what I have to offer my fellow passengers on this trip though the cosmos.

I’ve been re-reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. It’s such a good book. It was written in the 1950’s so it’s a nightmare in terms of gender-inclusive language, but it’s clear the guy had it together and he’d have written it differently if he were doing it today. Anyway, it’s about how individuals decide to join new mass movements. His examples come from the rise of Christianity, the Protestant Schism, the Bolshevik Revolution and, because it’s written just after World War II, Hitler and the Nazis. An Andrew Sullivan piece that was otherwise a nightmare reminded me of Hoffer’s book. I’ve been thinking about nucleation points — places where conditions are right for a system to start to change from one thing to another — and it hit me that Hoffer’s book is a taxonomy of how that works. He’s not polluted or distracted by the present day because it hadn’t happened yet. All he had to go off of was a past that was less distant to him than us. And there was that whole “being a freaking genius thing.” He had that going for him.

Anyway, he talks a lot about frustration. He’s careful not to use the term clinically. Hell, he’s careful with all the words he uses, but especially that one. A good chunk of the book is a compendium of how different life circumstances can lead to frustration. He then illustrates how a new mass movement can give people the hope that their frustrations can be relieved. It’s been a long time since I read it and I’m not all the way through it yet, but one thing that’s becoming clear is that it’s not a good idea for a new mass movement to be too specific with details. People are happy to fill in the blanks.

It reminds of of something I’ve encountered a millions times when sitting down to talk to someone about me writing or making a new thing (video, educational piece, whatever). They generally have a pretty good idea about how they want to feel when the whole thing is done. What’s going to make them feel that way is pretty much a mystery to them. Experience has taught me that whatever they think is the answer is probably wrong (or so hopelessly incomplete it amounts to the same thing).  It’s not their fault. If they knew what they needed or wanted they’d have already done it for themselves. They’re not stupid, after all. They spend their days happily doing stuff I can’t — or don’t want to — do. Part of my job is getting them trust me that it’s OK they weren’t born knowing how to do whatever it is that needs to be done. And trusting me to do it. My job is figuring out how to make the thing that’s going to make them feel the way they want at the end. And then get them to pay me that sweet, sweet money for it. People: good at knowing how they want to feel.  People: pretty sucky at figuring out how to get there. Me: just like everyone else.

I think I “get” Trump now. And guns. And abortion. And how you can repeat all this crap about Obama that just doesn’t hold up to even cursory examination. The thing itself is not that important. It’s the ability to believe in the thing. You get to control that. You can own it, literally and metaphorically. Sure you’re more likely to shoot yourself or a loved one than you are a crook trying to rob you, but you own that gun.  You can have that. You can make that happen. And before you start feeling all that damned superior yourself, you might want to be aware that you’ve got just as many blind spots. Think about that stereotypical person on Facebook that really pisses you off.  What are their characteristics? Congratulations. You’ve just listed the things in your life you are frustrated about. You’ve done a chemical analysis of the soil that will list in great detail what will sprout and grow in you. You want to control, those things. You want to affect how those things turn out. And you’ll overlook things and gloss over things and do everything the person you despise does to prop up the hope that you will some day. “If people would only just…” So don’t get too full of yourself, Spanky. You’re just someone else’s garden.

A couple loose ends:  None of this is new. Or original. People have been frustrated for as long as there have been people. It’s one of our defining characteristics as things that exist in three-dimensional space and fart. The new twist is we have a much wider assortment of things to be frustrated about because we have such visibility into the lives and thoughts of others. We simultaneously know way to much about other people and way too little about ourselves. That’s not a particularly good recipe for happiness. Then there’s the whole thing where somehow we’ve decided that “stuff” is what it’s all about. Whoever controls our ability to get stuff controls us. That’s kind of weird.

Waiting for the punch line?  Waiting for the solution? Sorry. Not going to find any answers here. For my part I’ve been looking around a lot lately saying “What the fuck?” I’ve been seeing a lot of other people doing the same thing. I think I get it now. It’s about power, or the lack thereof. It’s people working out frustrations the only way they can.

I don’t know what to do about any of it (if, indeed, there’s anything to be “done”). But at least I know what I’m looking at.

It’s a start.

Trust me. You can't see my face.
Trust me. You can’t see my face and I dress funny. I’m clearly the answer.

Three reasons I dislike most video on the Internet.

lcd-test-pattern-pro-18a423-h900It’s sort of odd, but I’ve gotten to the point I really hate seeing video on the Internet. It’s funny because I love video. I’ve been shooting it since I was in middle school. I think my first gig was recording a training seminar for teachers. That would have been in either 1976 or 1977. In high school I had access to this weird-ass Akai VT-400 camera/ recorder combo that I used to record whatever I could talk anyone into letting me record. I spent a lot of time with the basketball team.  Up until five or six years ago my professional life revolved around making video in one way or the other. Back in 2008 Streaming Media Magazine named me a Streaming Media All-Star. As best I’ve been able to determine, my team at UC was the first ever to stream a high school graduation live on the Internet back in 2001. That’s a footnote-to-a-footnote kind of accomplishment, but it illustrates the point that I’ve been at this for a while. I still care about video a lot. I’m enjoying this writing thing, but I’d kill to direct a multi-camera shoot just one more time.1,2. But I do hate seeing video pop up on social media.

It’s not the production values (or lack thereof) that bother me. I can’t tell you how many “Intro to TV Production” courses I’ve taught. When you see some of the stuff students do intentionally for a grade when you warned them not to, you’re not terribly overwrought when you see people with no training fall into the same traps. It’s definitely not vertical video. I feel the same way about people who get all holier-than-thou about that issue as I do about people who turn up their noses at a well-made lager because, well, it’s a lager. The phrase “douche canoe comes up almost immediately.

After putting milliseconds of thought into it while making a Facebook comment on this topic, I came up with three reasons I dislike most video on the Internet:

  1. Environmental Demands. Few videos are silent. Most have sound. I’m not always in a place where it’s appropriate for sounds to be playing. I keep my phone muted a lot of the time. When I was in cubicle-land I had headphones, but a lot of time I wore them just to muffle outside sounds. Sounds are intrusive. The Internet may be a dark, seething morass of overdeveloped outrage and underdeveloped potty-training skills, but at least it’s usually quiet.
  2. Cognitive Throttling. I read fast. Like everyone, I read differently depending on the circumstance. If I’m trying to immerse myself in the piece I read every word and am happy to go back and re-read a passage again. If I’m in a hurry or looking for a specific thing I’ll scan until I locate what I’m looking for. Everyone does this to one degree or another. The brain is an amazing thing. The amount of information you can take in at a glance is quite remarkable if you think about it. Of course you don’t have to think about it. That’s kind of the point. Until it’s video. Now you’re getting locked into a single speed. Whatever’s in there you’re looking for, you get to wait for it with everyone else, damnit. It’s going to drip, drip, drip and you can’t do anything about it. That five-minute video is going to take five minutes to watch. Plus anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds extra because there’s probably going to be a pre-roll ad.
  3. Cognitive Hijacking. When you watch a video, you’re outsourcing your cognition to whomever made it. You’re only going to see what the person who made it wants you to see. You’re only going to hear what you’re given. The camera is never passive. It draws attention to itself in varying degrees depending on the technique being used, but you’re not the one who’s deciding what you’re looking at. That’s been done for you. Saying “I’m going to watch TV” or “I’m going to a movie” pretty much means you’re signing up for this voluntarily. I like how Steven Spielberg manipulates my cognition. Uwe Boll?  Not so much. But that’s just me. My main objection to most video on the Internet is that I’m usually doing something else and I can’t really afford to sign over my consciousness to this other person who might or might not share my cognitive goals right then. One of the hoary chestnuts of the Internet is that videos have to be short because no one will watch long videos. Bullshit. People will hang in exactly as long as they need in order to get out of it what they want. You just can’t shove 50 unrelated things into a long video and expect people to wade through all of them to find that one nugget they really want.3

If you have a video of your cat doing something adorable and you label it as such, I have all the information I need in order to decide whether or not to watch it.  And let’s be real. I probably will. Because cats. On the other hand, I have no interest in watching a recipe. Some of the best recipes in the world have been passed down through generations on 3×5 index cards. How is making a video supposed to improve on that? Some particular technique in some step? That’s fair, but then just show me that. You can just write out the rest and I’ll be very happy.

Video is good at showing complex spatial relationships among multiple objects. That could be anything from a baseball game to a gymnastics meet to a video on how to remove a car stereo from a car. Video is good at showing parasocial cues like smiling and body language. Video is good for demonstrating complex techniques. We’ve all seen the line drawings of how to tie a tie or assemble some piece of furniture. Most of the time there’s this one key step that video is perfect for. You look at the drawing on the instructions and you wonder if Screw 2B goes into hole 3C or whether you’re supposed to invade France by way of Belgium4. There are certain things video is good for. It’s not good for everything.

I always liked to tell my students that it’s nearly as hard to make a really crappy video as it is to make a good one. The amount of effort that goes into something has absolutely nothing to do with how good or appropriate it is. The flip side to that is that just because it’s easy to shoot a video and put it up, it doesn’t mean you ought to. I could go on for at least another thousand words about the crime against humanity that is the “video user guide” for most software. Just admit it. You were too lazy to write out the text for what each menu item does. That’s all I want to know. I don’t have to see you do it.

To get my point across do I need anything more than words?  No?  Then stop. Can a picture help show a two-dimensional relationship? Yes? Add that sucker in. Is there something we absolutely have to see in motion  and hear in order to understand? Yes? Then video is a good idea. Otherwise it’s not. It’s not that complicated.


1OK, maybe not kill. I’d be willing to kick you. Call me?
2I did order one of these things way back. It was supposed to ship this month but it’s been delayed to July. Not perfect, but it could be fun.
3As an aside, I think 360-degree video is a cool and interesting technology, but I’m betting people are really going to struggle to find a good use for it in a story-telling setting. How do you direct attention when you just opened up the world by a whole lot? I’m definitely not saying it can’t be done, but I sure don’t know what it looks like. Then again, that’s the fun part, right?
4I’d like to apologize again to the governments of Belgium and France for that misunderstanding when I was assembling my Weber grill.

Media theory

·I’m better but still not back. This morning a local journalist I know a little shared this article on Facebook. I had one of those rare moments that the words just flowed out in response. The thrust of the article was that a lot of journalists have s low regard for their audiences. Once upon a time I wanted to study audience behavior for a living. Then, like the seminarian who becomes an atheist on the eve of ordination, I quit believing in audiences.

The following is what I wrote in my comment:

“The disconnect comes from the use of the word ‘audience’ as if it were a good analogy for the actual relationship between parties. If we’re in a theater or classroom or concert hall the audience is easy to pick out. It is useful to think of them as a group because they are linked through physical proximity and all the usual social psychologies of the mob apply. Laughter, anger, applause, boos, and standing ovations are ad-hoc conventions tacitly agreed upon by people who have formed a group, at least for the duration of the performance. Ever had a stranger you were in a theater with want to keep applauding the movie once you’re outside? You run. The group bonds no longer exist.

The first requirement of a group? A collection of people who say to themselves “I am a member of this group.”

Media doesn’t have that. When I consume media it’s a solitary act. I have my own reasons for doing it and it seldom has anything to do with anyone else. You get people who bond over TV shows at work and book clubs form up but it’s the exception not the rule. It’s ephemeral.

If modern media has a motto it’s “don’t read the comments.” That’s the opposite of an “audience.”

It’s not that there aren’t people actually watching and reading and listening. There are. It’s just that they aren’t doing it as part of a larger social process. Social groupings may form over particular content, but filling a bucket with content doesn’t mean the people who show up are a herd. They all just showed up. You can call them an audience, but they aren’t one. No matter how badly you want them to be one.

Back in my grad school days, one of the big research programs came under the heading of “Uses & Gratifications of Media.” Ask someone why they’re watching or reading or listening to whatever and I’ll lay serious cash on the chances the answer will be “I’m bored and had nothing better to do.” I once suggested we start a publication called “Studies of People with Nothing Better to Do.” Another colleague suggested forming the Center for Frivolity Research.

Here’s the dirty little secret: communication among large groups of people will continue to happen. It always has. What’s not required is that someone makes buckets of money doing it. That’s the historical anomaly.”

This is how media sees itself:

  
This is how it really works:

  

Sunday musings about syphillis and politics

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about Ludwig Fleck. You’ve probably never heard of him. If you have, we need to find a designated driver and have an epic night at a bar somewhere. As I said, though, you probably never heard of him. It’s not a character flaw. I only learned about him because I had to read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn in grad school and I wanted to understand it beyond being able to use ‘paradigm’ as a buzzword like everyone else in grad school. Kuhn talks about  Fleck’s 1935 book The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact and I decided to read it.  It never really left me and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot lately.

Flecks’ book is a monograph describing the history of how Western societies understood syphillis from ancient times to the development of the Wasserman test. That test, for those of you who don’t remember your history of syphillis1, only became possible when it became commonly accepted that it was possible that syphillis was a blood-borne pathogen. His contribution to the philosophy of science is the notion of the Denkkollektiv, the “thought collective” or “thought community.” In a nutshell, Fleck argued that facts only exist usefully in the context of a kind of collective or common understanding of how the world works. Phenomena that don’t fit these notions are either ignored or, more often, not detected because no one thinks to look for it. It’s important here to say that I’m probably butchering his argument. Implicit in everything he argued is that phenomena have a reality independent of human perception. The point of his work was to try to illustrate the mental gymnastics that we, as a species, are willing to go through to try to understand things we don’t have the language to express or the mental constructs to use as a lens.

Ludwig Fleck. It’s probably best if you don’t think too hard about what’s in those jars.

It’s been decades since I’ve thought about Fleck. He only made an appearance on my list of things I think about when I’m staring into space when we were at the Ales Through The Ages conference over in Willuamsburg a couple of weeks ago. It came up in the context of yeast. We know now that beer (and bread and wine) ferments because of yeast. We know ridiculous numbers of things about yeast now, but much of what we can explain only dates from the 1870s or so. Beer’s been around for more than 3000 years. Clearly people knew that there was something going on and that it was similar to what went on with bread, but the details were pretty fuzzy. I thought (and still do) think it would be interesting to look at the understanding of yeast through the same sort of lens that Fleck used to look at syphillis. It’s on my to do list.

One of the problems with my brain, though, is that it makes a nail out of everything once I’m given a hammer. And my current hammer is the Denkkollektiv. What a great way to describe the supporters of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. Systems of thought, largely internally consistent, that allow for certain things to be “facts” and others to be “false” or “irrelevant.” Of course the what counts as a fact and what’s irrelevant are quite different depending which thought community you belong to. Politics becomes an exercise in convincing folks that your thought collective does a better job of explaining the world you care about than others. I guess that’d be true of religion, too. Or maybe it’s in the realm of the thought collective that politics, religion, and science really are different names for the same thing.

I really don’t know where I’m trying to go with this. I need to keep at it. Maybe something will come of it. But hey, it’s not another damned haiku, right?


1Well, not your history per se. Not that I’m judging you if you have one.  I’d rather not know, though.

Opening Day

image

I’ve lived a lot of places. I’ve liked all of them for what they were, but the sheer number of places I’ve lived always makes me a bit of an outsider. I see things that natives take for granted that are special and see things they claim as unique that are really quite mundane.

There are good things and bad things about Cincinnati. I don’t have the feelings for this place that natives have.  I never will. There are things people go nuts over that I just don’t get. That’s not unique to here. It’s been the case everywhere I’ve lived.

There’s something unique about today in Cincinnati that’s unique both for what it is and the fact that people here understand how unusual it us. Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds is a civic holiday. There’s a parade that takes about three hours to complete. Every bar in the city is crowded. I’m sure there are smaller businesses that actually close, but even the big Fortune 500s don’t expect to get much done. A lot of people just take the day off and even more knock off at 2 or 3 PM if they can. The game is always a sellout.

The Reds are going to have a tough year this year. Today it didn’t matter. I hate that MLB has taken away the tradition of letting Cincinnati be the first team to start the season (even if only by minutes) since it’s the oldest professional team still playing. I don’t consider myself a Reds fan in any useful way, but Baseball is making a mistake not honoring the commitment this city has to its team. No other city celebrates Opening Day like Cincinnati. It’s not something that can be described. It’s something I’m glad I’ve experienced.

It only happens one place.

Play ball!