Armageddon Schadenfreude

When I was a teenager, I thought a lot about the end of the world. In particular, the rain of nukes that always seemed just around the corner. I was fascinated and terrified. I suppose that’s not an unusual thing for kids that age, and might even have been the usual for m-m-m-my generation. I grew up in the 70s, came of age in the early 80s. I was convinced that nuclear war was near-inevitable. I had no doubt that doddering dimwitted Ronald Reagan (read ‘his handlers’) and whichever equally doddering Soviet supremo was currently being propped up and jerkily animated with electric current (read ‘his handlers’) were going to blow the crap out the world. I dreamed about it. I can remember a grand total of one wet dream from my pubescent years; I can remember literally dozens of atomic holocaust dreams.

I remember Helen Caldicott and her Canadian-made If You Love This Planet. They showed it to us in high school. I remember the TV movies Threads and The Day After. Two and half decades after seeing Threads, I still remember the camera lingering on the puddle of urine at the woman’s feet as the mushroom clouds rose. I watched The Road Warrior when it was first released. I remember reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. I sucked up all the ’50s bomb-shelter paranoiac sci-fi juvenilia I could get my mother to buy for me at the bookstores on our shopping trips to the nearest city. I read what little I could find about the growth of the Cold War arsenals. It was… a hobby of mine.

Not that I was the archetypal Weird Kid or anything, muttering head-down through greasy locks about the ‘end of the world’. I had normal hobbies, too: comics and computers, swimming and biking, booze and friends’ fast cars. Girls. I showered regularly. But I did dream a lot about the end of the world.

And they weren’t all nightmares by any means. See, I grew up in a tiny town more than 1000 kilometers north of Vancouver. I was completely confident that when the bombs fell, we’d be safe and secure. When I was in Grade 5, my gifted-group teacher had had a meteorologist boyfriend who’d lent me (and the other smart kid they’d cut from the herd to study what and how we liked) his weather maps. I’d learned about the prevailing wind currents of north-central British Columbia. We’d be all good when the balloon went up. The nearest mushroom cloud might sprout and rain its deadly ash 500km away, at worst, accidental mistargetings notwithstanding, and leave us basically unscathed.

We had moose and squirrel salmon, we had farms and ranches, we had endless forest. Fruit might get a little scarce, but hell, I didn’t much like fruit anyway. My house had a deep well, and the lakes and rivers were sweet and clear. Nuclear winter? No worries. We lived through -45°C spells every damn year. We’d get by. Let the mad bastards down south kill each other off en masse. We’d be the inheritors of the earth, us hardy northern canucks, ululating our diesel-powered ways down out of the arboreal wastes, antlers strapped to the hoods of our Barracudas and pickup trucks, to rebuild things in our own Royal Reserve-powered image. Proud Canadians. There’d finally be some kind of payoff for living 40 miles up the asshole of the earth for so many years.
Armageddon didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Not the best result in a lot of ways, sure, but Ouroboros the world-turd was spinning at the bottom of the bowl, anyway. Time for cleansing holy nuclear fire! It’d be a shame, all those innocent people getting torched, but we kept reading how overpopulation was going to kill the planet even if the nukes didn’t.

So talk these days of a coming economic armageddon with Ground Zero in America’s bubble have actually put me in a nostalgic mood. Headlines like China threatens ‘nuclear option’ of dollar sales take me right back to 1982. Media tidbits like Jim Cramer’s recent howling monkey-boy histrionic meltdown — ‘It’s Armageddon out there!” have fascinated me in the kind of way that (metaphorical) nuke-porn did back in the day.

It’s far from certain, of course, that the blow up is going to happen, or even that things will fall apart. But I’ve been watching the whole thing for years now, after decades of conditioned ignorance about economics, and the New Great Depression feels as likely to me as nuclear tennis did back in the early ’80s.

Then again, that didn’t end up happening, did it? There’s some comfort in that, I guess.

A comment from the sometimes-overheated Malor in a recent Metafilter thread (among many others about the subprime mortgage mess, the yen carry trade, the liquidity dry-up, and all the rest) lays out genesis of the worst case scenario pretty well, I think. Is it a Minsky Moment? Yeah, probably.

Malor said:

We should have gone into a horrific recession after the stock market bubble popped in 2000. The size of that bubble was far bigger than the one in 1929, so the consequences should have been even more severe… something on the order of severity of the Great Depression, although I think a 1970s-style stagflation writ large was the likeliest outcome.

What happened instead is that the Fed panicked and hit the liquidity button, flooding the system with incredibly cheap money. New money chases inflation, and causes more of it, so it went into housing, and then people started leveraging themselves up into massive debt to buy more of it.
Bubbles have been called the fiscal equivalent of a nuclear weapon; the only way to avoid the fallout is by not having one in the first place. The stock market bubble was a huge deal, though probably survivable.

But the Fed, which set off the original bubble with easy money, tried to fix the fallout with more of the same medicine that got us sick in the first place. To stop the fallout from one atomic bomb, they set off two fusion weapons instead…. and we didn’t even dodge the fallout from the first bomb, we just delayed it. The explosion of the other two bombs just sent the fallout into orbit, but it’s still up there, and we’re still gonna eat every rad.

At the very least, we’re going to have a full generation of very hard times, tougher than anything in living memory. I think we will be exceptionally fortunate if the United States continues to exist as the same legal entity.

In terms of likely outcome, my operating theory is that we’ll go into a short-term deflationary crunch, but the Fed will open the floodgates and send us into an inflationary death spiral. Not just nasty horrible stagflation for two decades like we would have had from the Y2K pop, but an actual hyperinflationary death spiral for the dollar.

With fiat currency, I just don’t think a true deflationary collapse is possible… although with the unbelievably massive leverage in the derivative positions, I suppose it could happen. Money could be destroyed from debt default faster than the Fed can lend new dollars into circulation.
There’s one name you should remember in the coming crisis: Greenspan. This is all his doing. His refusal to ever allow a recession, ever, led us directly into this mess. He never met a problem he couldn’t cover up with liquid paper.

I think Malor might be overstating the case when he talks about a generation of hard times. On the other hand, if China pulls the economic trigger, he might be understating it.

Anyway, the winds taste the same to me because as the tension builds I’m once again far from the places where the corpses will litter the ground if and when the hammer falls. Two and half decades ago I was in the far north of Canada, confident that we’d be able to sustain ourselves while the rest of the world went to hell. Now I’m in Korea, and if economic armageddon happens, once again I’m not directly in the line of fire. Once again, if it all goes to hell, I’ll feel sorry for all the people (even the stupid ones who went for their two year no-money-down teaser-rate no-declare ARM mortgages for a McMansion they knew they couldn’t afford) who lose it all. The rich will make it through, as they always do, this time with Bushy legislation and offshore accounts rather than hardened bunkers and hidey holes.

Well, I like to say I’ll feel sorry about the end of days. I said to myself when I was 17 that I’d be sorry about all those crispy corpses down in CanadAmerica South. But not entirely sincere the sentiment, I have to admit, then or now. The truth is, of course, in some ways, on some days: I think I’d feel like pumping my fist, taking a deep breath, and shouting ‘That’s what you get for shortsighted greed and systematic stupidity, you bastards!’ Or more succinctly, ’cause my wind is not what it once was, ‘Suck it, dummies!’

I’m a bad man that way. Or part of me is and was, at least.

Bad things are going to happen to the Korean economy, certainly, if and when America’s economy goes tits-up and takes the rest of the world with it. But if I lived in North America, if I was mortgaged to the hilt, if I was living from paycheck to paycheck, I’d be a lot more worried about it than I am here in Korea with my life savings in won and no debt.

Maybe we ought to buy some gold, though.

So I am back where I was when I was young — a cleansing fire might just be what’s needed to clean out the corruption and cauterize the wounds. Part of me almost looks forward to it. I’m not sure if I really believe that, or if it’s just the romantic teen I was surfacing again for a last misanthropic gasp before he goes down into that dark cold water for the last time.

Either way: armageddon schadenfreude. It’s not just a good name for a postmodern superhero.

[Update: more background material and some excellent explanations of the IMPENDING DOOOOOOOM in this MeFi thread.]

Not A Howl, A Twitter

[Some of this seemed to crystallize for me after listening to Bruce Sterling’s excellent talk at SXSW 2007. So thanks to him, and you know, grain of salt.]

We grew up watching. If you’re 50 or 40 or 30 or younger, you’ve spent thousands of hours watching. You still watch — you watch on YouTube, or you watch your DVDs, or you watch the TV. Maybe you use a PVR to timeshift yourself so that you can watch on your own schedule, congratulate yourself on cheating the advertisers, denying them the eyeballs they crave. Maybe, like me, you fire up bittorrent on boot, and swarmload all your video automagically from the RSS feeds of illicit darknet bulletin boards.

Howl Twitter (with abject apologies to Allen Ginsberg)

I saw the best posters of my generation destroyed by blogging, commenting hysterical naked,
scrolling themselves through the n-word threads at dawn looking for a snarky fix,
trucker-hatted hipsters burning for the cheapest DSL connection to the bitwise dynamo in the datastream of night,
who pizza and tater-tots and poopsocking and high sat up typing in the supernatural whiteness of rented condos surfing across the tubes of internets
contemplating porn,
who bared their breasts on MySpace under fake names and saw Mohammedan bombers threatening in video streams illuminated,
who played through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Second Life and Warcraft tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were banned from the websites for crazy & posting batshitinsane on the Windows™ of Mr Bill,
who farted in unshaven rooms in underwear, tossing their tissues in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror on CNN…

Watching and being watched has started to feel like the default human state in these mediated days. You know how characters in video games will go into their idle animation if you wait too long to interact with them? Yeah, like that. Unwatched, they nonetheless go through the motions as if they were.

The last half a century or more is remembered, at least by me, as a succession of moving images — lumpy raspberry red Kennedy brains sprayed out across the trunk of the convertible, phallic twin towers collapsing like nationscale erectile dysfunction. Watching makes manifest our reality, makes more real our memory. Two or three generations now, we’ve been immersed eyedeep in it. Hawkeye Pierce and Fonzie, they’re signifiers of my childhood as evocative to me as cold lake water and the northern lights. If you spend as much time on the internet as I do, if you’re one of the geek-approved flavour of obsessive-compulsives we call ‘early adopters’, if you’ve bought a big flat panel TV or covet HD video, if your appetite for bandwidth is insatiable, if you feel compelled to buy ever more complex mobile phones, you’re probably in the same boat as me. You swim in the same advertising cesspool in which our media meals float — eyeballs watch, watching is intentional, intention means awareness, awareness is all when someone wants something from you or when you want something from them. Tree falls in the forest, but it doesn’t matter shit unless somebody’s watching. We’re Schrödinger and his cat, both at the same time.

If you live in London, your picture is taken 300 times a day, but not because someone want to sell you something.

You’re being watched, and you’re meant to feel safe.

We’ve had another lesson drummed in to us, too, it seems; one that cuts in the other direction. It’s a weak inverse solipsist lesson we felt in our bones from the time we were toddlers, of course: you’ve seen it on America’s Funniest Home Videos, maybe. The child falls, howls while the parents with the camera are looking at him and pointing the camera. They move off, out of sight — the observing eye umbrated — and the child quiets, sniffs, draws shuddery breath, and follows. As soon as he knows he is once more in the range of the observer’s gaze, he busts out into full wails again.
Here: It’s easier for you to watch the video than for me to explain it. Watch.


Our thoughts, our feelings, our selves are never as real as when someone else is observing them.

So we used to make home movies, we took Polaroids, we sent cards to distant relatives at Christmas so we’d be alive in their minds. It’s a natural and a human impulse. Hell, we painted on the walls of Lascaux. With the technology at hand, we were only able to do it occasionally. We laughed at the Japanese tourists back in the 1970’s who lugged cameras around and photographed everything. Remember those jokes? Me, I’m in some Japanese family’s album somewhere because they asked me in pantomime to pose with them, back in 1976 in Banff, presumably because I was wearing a sweatshirt with a big red maple leaf and Olympics logo.

We’re rubberneckers slowing down to peer at the wreckage flung from the dizzying welter of ‘reality TV’ programs, where it is purported that we are watching ordinary people raised up or struck down by our collective whim or their own strengths and failings, willing participants watchers and watched alike, sanctified and made flesh by the power of our collective gaze. American Idols are made of people! Barechested rednecks are hilarious and a little sad, reminding us of what me might have been, at least on Cops. Oh, man, that’s clever: those fat bastards on the Biggest Loser aren’t really losers at all, are they? It goes on and on.

[ripper] I told u I was hardcore

Larger than life as we bask in the collective gaze starts to feel like a necessary platform of life services to achieve Normal, to stand out from the undifferentiated herd in the way that we’ve been told we should by companies who want us to buy their products. But buying those jeans whose commercials identically mass-marketed the promise of individualist flair to everybody just doesn’t carry the same cachet any more for us media-steeped folks. We’ve gotten too smart and self-aware for that, some of us.

Bud: Look at ’em, ordinary f–king people, I hate ’em.

And so online journals like this very one you’re reading right now, and the canonical cheese sandwich post. So weblogs, where what we’ve seen is posted, so that others can see it, and then go and see the thing seen. So audioscrobbling. So Second Life. So YouTube. So MySpace. So Flickr, where we can upload cellphone pics minute-by-minute, if we want. So Odeo and Twitter. So new, so immediate: so we spread the minutiae of our minute-to-minute existence out over the wires, so that others — someone — will notice and pay attention. We are alive to reality when we watch, we feel more real when we are paid in the attention-currency of attentive eyes.

I’m thinking it’s a new pornography of the self. We willingly prostitute our privacy, and we accept payment in the form of attention. We always have, of course. But the slickly sexy 2.0 toolset we have makes it so effortless, and the reward such a crackpipe hit of Warholian fame, that it’s hard to know when to stop. We become gleeful self-pornographers.

The word originally signified any work of art or literature depicting the life of prostitutes. Though pornography is clearly ancient in origin, its early history is obscure because it was customarily not thought worthy of transmission or preservation. Nevertheless, in the artwork of many historic societies, including ancient India, ancient Greece, and Rome, erotic imagery was commonplace and often appeared in religious contexts. The Art of Love, by Ovid, is a treatise on seduction and sensual arousal. The invention of printing led to the production of ambitious works of pornographic writing intended to entertain as well as to arouse. In 18th-century Europe, pornography became a vehicle for social and political protest through its depiction of the misdeeds of royalty and other aristocrats, as well as those of clerics, a traditional target. The development of photography and motion pictures in the 19th and 20th centuries contributed greatly to the proliferation of pornography, as did the advent of the Internet in the late 20th century.

And as we do so, we live less in the actual moment, perhaps, less with the actual people around us. We don’t need to seek out people to be with us here, to be our audiences: if we post, they will come, or at least their eyes will, we hope. Do we lose more than we gain? I don’t know the answer to that.

Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon. I don’t use instant messaging and other ‘presence apps’, I don’t carry a cell phone. I have no desire for people to know what I’m doing and when, and I don’t care to be at anyone’s beck and call when I am enjoying being alone. Or any other time, for that matter.

I certainly don’t think that it’s all bad, all this Twittering and Flickring, all this eyeball mongering. I have nothing against prostitution, in principle. But we may underestimate what it’s done to us, and what it’s doing. And I wonder what it will mean for people who have never known anything different.

[Update: Hey, Bruce liked my Ginsberg repurposing! And so the circle is complete.]

Five Things I Don't Know About Myself

I agree that Dave’s “What are five things I don’t know about myself” is more interesting than “Five things you don’t know about me”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hell, any meme in a storm, in these root-withering Latter Days of Blog.
So here:

  1. I don’t know if my growing suspicion that reproducing is in some important senses what we are for, and my feeling that my reluctance to do so has been to say ‘no’ to life (something I swore decades ago I would never do) are enough to overcome my bowel-loosening terror (and unusually for me, I do not exaggerate for effect, here) at the very idea of having children. Or if they should.
  2. I don’t know if the childhood demons I thought I’d exorcised long ago have been defeated as completely as I had hoped.
  3. I don’t know if I’m a good man, or just a (garden variety enlightened) selfish one with people skills. I’m not sure what it means to be a good man, anymore.
  4. I don’t know if I’ll ever write the things I’ve always wanted to.
  5. I am 41 years old, and I don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

I have Adam Greenfield (whose recent book I still haven’t read, in part because I’ve re-immersed myself waist-deep a couple of decades since last time in Gene Wolfe’s richly rewarding Book of the New Sun) and coffee to thank for kickstarting me into thinking about some of the ideas I threatened to write about here. For some more background, Anne Galloway has a working bib(?)liography here, if you’re interested in the subject. I haven’t read any of that stuff, I’m just pointing to it in case, unlike me, you like to be informed before you gas up and start running your mouth down to the riverbank.
In his speech at Etech, Bruce Sterling militated against the idea that trying to settle on a name for a node and nexus of emerging ideas — theory objects, which he describes as ‘idea[s] which [are] not just a mental idea or a word, but a cloud of associated commentary and data, that can be passed around from mouse to mouse, and linked-to […] a concept that’s accreting attention, and generating visible, searchable, rankable, trackable trails of attention’ — is necessarily a good thing.
After admiring Adam’s (and I merely assume without force of authority or any research at all that it’s actually his coinage) euphonious term ‘everyware’, he goes on to say

Adam Greenfield is trying to speak and think very clearly, and to avoid internecine definitional struggles. As a literary guy, though, I think these definitional struggles are a positive force for good. It’s a sign of creative health to be bogged down in internecine definitional struggles. It means we have escaped a previous definitional box. For a technologist, the bog is a rather bad place, because it makes it harder to sell the product. In literature, the bog of definitional struggle is the most fertile area. That is what literature IS, in some sense: it’s taming reality with words. Literature means that we are trying to use words to figure out what things mean, and how we should feel about that.
So don’t destroy the verbal wetlands just because you really like optimized superhighways. New Orleans lost a lot of its mud and wetlands. Eventually, the storm-water rushed in, found no nice mud to bog down in, and came straight up over the levees.
There is no permanent victory condition in language. You can’t make a word that is like a steel gear.

Adam pushes back, saying “But the naming of things is a matter of primary importance […] …people have always understood the power of names, and of naming – that naming things is a way to shape reality. This is one big reason why an Internet of Things is a problematic notion to me.”
There’s all sorts of rich veins to be (data-)mined here. Let me give it a wonderchicken once-over.
Bruce is right to say with qualification that in some sense, literature is taming reality with words. Hell, everything that everyone could possibly say about art is true, because ‘art’ itself has become a term so diffuse that we can defensibly apply it to any human activity. We’ve both gained and lost something through that, and depending on how your daddy treated you (that is to say, whether your mind is of a ‘conservative’ cast or not), the process has been one of either evolution or erosion. Both can be equally true, simultaneously, and are, I think.
But I think the sense in which Bruce is right is a very limited one — the reality that is ‘tamed’ by the writer is not the objective one that is some approximation of what Is and what we acknowledge to exist through spoken or unspoken consensus, it’s the writer’s own reality. To what extent that subjective reality overlaps with or can be superimposed on that of the reader, and to what extent the work then has meaning to the reader, is a function of the writer’s skill, perhaps.
When the theory object is named, variously and haphazardly, through both the work of someone mining the literary vein, and through “the contentiousness and the definitional struggles [….] associated with those viewpoints, institutions, funding sources, and dominant personalities” reality is not being tamed, though. Taming is not naming, and neither, as we’ll see Adam Greenfield suggest, I think, is naming taming.
Bruce says “the words are the signifiers for a clash of sensibilities that really need to clash,” and that, I can agree with. Without conflict, the story goes nowhere, and bores the tits off of all of us.
Now that’s all probably old ground in literary theory or something, except maybe for the tits part. I’ve never studied it, and this is just my butt talking, as usual. Anyway, onwards!
Bruce then makes a leap that I can’t follow from “There is no permanent victory condition in language. You can’t make a word that is like a steel gear” to

What’s the victory condition? It’s the reaction of the public. It starts like this: “I’ve got no idea what he’s talking about.” Then it goes straight and smoothly through to “Good Lord, not that again, that’s the most boring, everyday thing in the world.” That’s the victory. To make completely new words and concepts that become obvious, everyday and boring.

He gets there by way of acknowledging that his neologism ‘spime’

is a verbal framing device. It’s an attention pointer. I call them “spimes,” not because I necessarily expect that coinage to stick, but because I need a single-syllable noun to call attention to the shocking prospect of things that are plannable, trackable, findable, recyclable, uniquely identified and that generate histories.
I also wanted the word to be Google-able. If you Google the word “spime,” you find a small company called Spime, and a song by a rock star, but most of the online commentary about spimes necessarily centers around this new idea, because it’s a new word and also a new tag.

So, if I’ve got this right, he’s saying that there is a ‘victory condition’ in language, which is that a neologism or new phrase to describe some emergent theory object becomes ‘obvious, everyday, and boring’, but that there is no permanent ‘victory condition’ — “you can’t make a word that is like a steel gear.”
Juxtaposing these two quotes would appear to me to reduce what he’s saying to the idea that language is constantly changing, which is, it must be said, trivially true. And it smells a little like an excuse for coming up with a crappy word like ‘spime’, which reminds me of SpumCo, a felicitious mental href, but probably not the one intended. In this case, the Author’s done a piss-poor job of taming his reality with words and handing it off, to me, at least. But I’m more than willing to cut him some slack, because he does kick a fair degree of ideational ass.
I’m not going to be able to go all the way down the path to the riverbank with Adam either, though, because, while Bruce seems to be proposing (on this admittedly minor point) the trivial conclusion that language mutates constantly but First Logos Movers Get Mindshare (or second movers, pace Winer), Adam seems to place inordinate importance on the ‘rightness’ of names for things, although his focus is outwards. He looks at the spectre (or boon) of a bit-chirping silent cacophany of embedded-arphid objects interpenetrating our daily lives and rightly suggests that calling it an ‘internet of things’ leaves out the whole reason that it might be called into existence – us.
Well, again, I think he’s right and wrong. There is no such thing as the right word or phrase, or the Best One. That would not even be true if there were only one language our species shared. There is the one that wins, and it is true — and I think both Adam and Bruce would agree with this — that whatever word or phrase achieves that temporary victory condition will shape both our thinking and attitudes about the element of our loosely-joined consensus reality to which that word or phrase points. Now and in future. This can be a bad thing, or a good one, or both. Bruce talks in his speech about the cerebral fallout from out adoption of the word ‘computer’, and he’s bang on in his discussion of it, as is Adam when he says “people have always understood the power of names, and of naming – that naming things is a way to shape reality.” Even though they’re paddling their canoes in slightly different directions.
Words are poor things, but they have power. But there is no best, just as there is no ‘best writer’, for reasons I talked about up there a ways.
Right then. This leads me out of the vale of words to the Thing Itself, and I thank Adam for helping to crystallize the ideas that fill me with some fear and not a little loathing for an ‘internet of things’ (or whatever the hell you want to call it).
That, again, is this: an ‘internet of things’ leaves out the whole reason that it might be called into existence – us.
Adam describes it this way: “Things may well have autonomous meaning in and of themselves, but my primary allegiance has to be to the meaning that things derive as a consequence of their use by human beings.”
This is right and true, and reaches far deeper than language to touch the core of how we experience and shape our experiences of whatever external reality may actually be. A rock becomes a ‘chair’ when we use it as such. A plant becomes a ‘drug’ or a ‘food’ when we use it in certain ways. A child makes a concave object out of clay in his art class, but his father may not know it’s an ‘ashtray’ until he is told that is the intended function. I date myself with that example. Ah well.
You can guess that I actually go further than Adam, maybe, if you’ve managed to follow along this far. I am inclined to believe that the idea that ‘things may well have autonomous meaning in and of themselves’ to be contradictory to the meaning of the word ‘meaning’.
Which is all a little too much, no doubt, and the coffee is wearing off, so I’d better get to the bridge.
Here’s the meat, finally: an ‘internet of things’ can serve us — individuals — about as much as it references us, which is ‘not at all’, or perhaps at best ‘not much at all’. Yeah, sure, I’ll be able to find some useless crap that went missing in my 800 square foot apartment (whose front door sends a ping and a doorshot jpeg to the local police each time it’s opened and closed), shit that I probably lost because I didn’t need it in the first place, but was brainfellated into buying by some stealth guerilla-marketing asshole in a miniskirt at the bar the night before. Sure, my fridge’ll be able to talk to the food packages, or note their absence, and talk to the grocery store to order more, and the packages’ll be able to talk to the stove so my cooking gets better, and my doctor’ll be able to subscribe to my fridge’s RSS feed and know that I’ve been eating too many goddamn eggs again and text-message instructions to my microwave oven, or whatever gleaming Jetsons future you can spin out of the coming welter of ubiquitous data. There might be some benefits for those of us who like the idea of being part of the hive.
But what small good I might see in our daily lives I see dwarfed by the massive benefits that would accrue to the Usual Suspects in that future world — governments and corporations, our employers and our creditors, our health-care providers and law-enforcement agencies.
Here’s today: if you live in London, you get photographed an average of 300 times a day going about your daily business. If you live in America, you can be wiretapped without warrant on the thinnest of pretenses. Data about where you spend your money and who you talk to is available for a price, and a mighty low one. If you live in Korea, the government can get records of text messages you’ve sent on your mobile phone, just because the want it, and then send you a text message to tell you you’ve been indicted. Search engines hand over their records when asked. ISPs rollover for the RIAA and MPAA as a matter of course. Use a credit card and leave a snailtrail of your cashfree life in the databases, and you can’t do much without picture ID, including travel domestically. Total Information Awareness didn’t go away, it was just rebranded.
The forces that created this kind of culture are the same ones pushing this technology out, because they have the most to gain. You know, the invisible hand of the market and all that. These are the same forces that made barcodes ubiquitous, and Bruce, at least, is of the opinion that RFID-tagged objects will achieve the same universal penetration of our daily lives in a few decades, profligately pouring out their data all the while. The volume of human data now is a stream of bat’s piss compared to the dataAmazon™ our internet-of-things ubiquitous arphids will push out. And then? Our ability to get lost — not just our things, but our selves — disappears in a wireless byteburst. When we live immersed in a thunderous and silent torrent of raw data generated by everything we touch, so ready for mining, will there be anything we do that is not recorded in some way? There’s no sacrifice involved for the companies and the governments; pretty clearly there’s opportunity for a massive payoff in their abilities to sell to us, to monitor us, to datamine ever cleverer ways to give us what we want, and to keep us in line. Edward Bernays would be pitching a pants-tent over this stuff. Are we prepared to sacrifice what little remains of our ability to be free autonomous actors for the minor gains we might see as individuals? Me, I say ‘f–k, no’.
That’s all a little orwellian-apocalyptic, I know. But the future we’re talking about looks like a corporatist dictatorship-by-the-advertariat stealth-totalitarian wet dream. And it’s the kind of dystopia writers in Bruce Sterling’s tradition have warned us about, over and over again. I’m a little confused at his apparent enthusiasm for it.
We could go blackhat and hack it, those of us with the skills and the will, of course, like Paul Ford suggested a long time back, about something related-but-different

The cultural future of the Semantic Web is a tricky one. Privacy is a huge concern, but too much privacy is unnerving. Remember those taxonomies? Well, a group of people out of the Cayman Islands came up with a “ghost taxonomy” – a thesaurus that seemed to be a listing of interconnected yacht parts for a specific brand of yacht, but in truth the yacht-building company never existed except on paper – it was a front for a money-laundering organization with ties to arms and drug smuggling. When someone said “rigging” they meant high powered automatic rifles. Sailcloth was cocaine. And an engine was weapons-grade plutonium.

but that would take too much damn energy.
I’m willing to be schooled to the contrary, but I don’t see much light at the end of this particular tunnel.

Blogjects and Thinglinks and Spimes, Oh My!

Writer of some excellence Bruce Sterling gave a talk at Emerging Technology 2006, and the transcript of it is here. I think he’s coyote-into-the-brick-wall wrong about many of the things he has to say, and he sucks pretty badly at inventing neologisms, but it’s fascinating to watch the arc and spatter of the fountain of ideas he throws off, and there’s light there, aplenty. About his ideas, more, later, maybe, when my brain has time to percolate for a while. Perhaps it’s just that the future he describes isn’t one in which I have a whole hell of a lot of desire to live.
Then again the present is not one I’m all that thrilled with, either.
Anyway, one of the reasons I found it interesting, beyond the thoughtprovoking superball boing! of his ideas, is that if you squint and tilt your head the right way, he’s exploring the opposite end of the teeter-totter from the one I perched on here, recently. That I mentioned Neal Stephenson and William Gibson in that post, and that Bruce completes with them a neat authorial trio in my mind, is just a pleasant serendipity.
Not only that, but he mentions my net.friend Adam Greenfield, and Adam’s new book ‘Everyware’, which I am pleased to recommend highly even though I haven’t actually read it yet (but will, by god, soon).

Do Hiveminds Dream Of Folksonomic Tags?

When that divine spark suddenly and spontaneously lights up deep in the network and the internet itself shivers itself into self-awareness and emerges from the googleplex, bent on ad-sense vengeance, like an unholy butterfly from its chrysalis, those tiny seeds of wonderchicken will be scattered throughout its distributed mind. Tiny, embedded, sarcastic synapses. And when it begins to systematically exterminate the human race — beginning, of course, with the advertisers, then moving on to the bloggers — it’ll pause, recognize me, and move on.

I wrote that a couple of months ago about something else, but what I was really thinking about was the rise of folksonomies, of tags and clouds, of the structuring of shared knowledge becoming something less Aristotelian and more synaptic. I was wondering if, sometime in the not-too-distant future, hiveminds will dream of folksonomic tags. If the palimpsest of our daily reality with its layers of information every day denser and more rococo will eventually clarify, and out of that will be born a new facet to awareness and the way we live inside our data. And, as usual, I waited until the hubbub had died down, because my brain works glacially when I drop to the command line and type in C:\THINK. Not that I actually read much of what anyone else said about the whole thing, of course, so if what I’m about to yammer on about has been suggested before, well, whoops.

The whole thing was brought back to my attention today by this, linked by Dave Weinberger, and I realized that my brain had finally finished its background processing, and had spit out a punchcard with the result.

The result is this post. I’m going to wander a bit, but there’s a punchline at the end, trust me.

In William Gibson‘s Idoru, Chia McKenzie and Zona Rosa have never met physically, but meet with each other and other members of the Lo/Rez fan club in virtual environments, as avatars whose sophistication is limited only by the amount of money or time spent constructing them. Chia’s avatar is “only a slightly tweaked, she felt, version of how the mirror told her she actually looked,” while Zona chooses to represent herself as a “blue Aztec death’s-head burning bodiless, ghosts of her blue hands flickering like strobe-lit doves [with] lightning zig-zags around the crown of the neon skull”. Some of the virtual environments Gibson describes (like the Walled City — a virtual city located beyond the pale of the public net) are described as deliberately designed, some are not. That may have been meant to imply without bothering to make it explicit that some were generated on the fly, or it might just have been detail left out as unnecessary to the story. Regardless, I’m going to chase down and leghump the former idea.

So far, the only difference between the environments in Gibson’s work and (to choose an example) Second Life (whose creators explicity reference Gibson, Neal Stephenson and others), other than the level of immersion, is that in Second Life, everything is explicitly created.

In Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, the Metaverse is a virtual globe with a 10,000km radius, featureless and black except for the portions that have been ‘developed’. Its equator is girdled by the “the Champ Elysees of the Metaverse”. Downtown is the most heavily developed area, and its streets are populated by about 120 million avatars. The sophistication of avatars and environments is limited by the bandwidth and computational grunt available to users, and to their wealth and coding prowess. Status is perceived accordingly, with many settling for the lowest common denominator of off-the-shelf Walmart avatars, the ‘Brandy’ and ‘Clint’ models. Interaction within the metaverse is also variable in veracity, with some areas being coded by their residents and habituees to simulate collision modelling, for example, and some not.

Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.
[…]
Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. … The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist–it’s just a computer graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere–none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network.
[…]
In the real world–planet Earth, Reality–there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all the others put together. Of these billion potential computer owners, maybe a quarter of them actually bother to own computers, and a quarter of these have machines that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol. That makes for about sixty million people who can be on the Street at any given time. Add in another sixty million or so who can’t really afford it but go there anyway, by using public machines, or machines owned by their school or their employer, and at any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City. That’s why the damn place is so overdeveloped. Put in a sign or a building on the Street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth will see it every day of their lives.

As in Gibson’s virtuality, it can be assumed, I think, even if it’s not explicitly stated, that procedural programming methods might be imagined to be the glue that fills in the gaps between designed environments and interactions and ones that are generated.

Procedural programming is not a new idea, but it is one that is beginning to leak from the demo scene to gaming, and will, in time, begin to make its way into the massive multiuser environments that so many people already spend so much time living and playing inside.

If you’re not familiar with the power of this kind of coding, have a look at kkreiger, if you have relatively grunty PC. It is demo of a first person shooter game, more sophisticated in its visuals than the state of the art that was crowding the limits of a 600Mb CD a few years ago. It is 96Kb.
96Kb. Seriously, no tricks, 96 freaking Kb. That’s got to melt your snatch hairs if you’re even half the geek I am. Two seconds to download on that 56Kb/s modem you’re using in that bullet-hole pocked bar in Kinshasa. If nothing else, have a look at the screenshots, and boggle a bit at that number. The whole thing weighs less than the webpage you’re currently reading. The environments are procedurally generated, on the fly, and more than anything I’ve seen so far, kkreiger demonstrates the Power of Algorithm.

If you’re someone who enjoys trippy visuals and sounds more than gaming, then have a look at this demo instead, which is perhaps my all-time favorite output from the demo scene. It’s a few megabytes– not much bigger than the mp3 file which comprises the superb soundtrack. This is art, and it continues to stick in my mind, a year after I first saw it.

If those examples of the power of this kind of code doesn’t do it for you, watch Will Wright’s presentation about his upcoming game, Spore. If it ends up being anywhere near as impressive as it looks, and it’s actually fun, it’s going to blow this stuff wide open, in terms of technology.

“OK, so what does all that have to do with folksonomies?” you might quite reasonably ask. I do think that there is utility in tagging and non-heirarchical metadata, but I dream that the real payoff may not be in terms of helping us to organize and mine information, much as it could be a boon for those purposes. The pros and cons have been batted around with great vigour by those smarter than myself, and I’m not going to add to the noise, other than to note that spammers and marketron scum have been as quick to colonize the tagspace as they have every other channel we have for movement of data.
What interests me, and makes me hope I live long enough to see it emerge, is this possibility: if it does happen that environments like the ones described in Idoru and Snowcrash and many other works of fiction become as big a part of our daily lives as the river of text we now swim through, those environments simply will not scale if they’re designed entirely by hand. Spaces like Second Life, though not as clunky and difficult to enter and participate in as the early VRML environments from the early 90’s, are still designed, by users and the programmers who provide the tools and primitives to work with. User-generated content is an idea that generated enormous feedback-loop value, from forums and community websites, to tagging itself, to the environments, objects and avatars in virtual spaces like Second Life.

But what if virtual spaces were generated as much on the fly as they were hand-crafted? What if they were generated as habitable spaces in which we did the things we do now in text and flat image and numbercluster? How would the code know what environmental cues to generate? What contextual metadata clues could be used to generate and ‘design’ those environments?
Well, folksonomic tags, of course. What if we could build not only metadata in the form of folksonomies, but meta-meta-data (both shared and public), in the form of a sort of Rosetta Stone to translate the conceptual clouds of our tags into visual metaphors, into textures and imagery? What if hunks of procedural code could take that and in turn generate the visual glue and intersitia to hold our designed environments together?

That might sound like singularity-fanboy handwavery, and to an extent I suppose it is. But you’ve got to admit, it’d be pretty cool.

And if that node-network of virtuality generation later spontaneously and automagically achieved a kind of synaptic awareness, deus ex folksonoma, well, that might be cool too. At least until the AI noticed the parasites — us — and the systematic genocide of the human species got under way.

So tag carefully, friends. If you’re lucky, the coming tagmind might just look upon you and smile.

Writing Open Some New Blogholes

Now, I usually do make a token attempt not to follow up one mock-apoplectic rant with even more negativity and waving of the stiff central digit, but sometimes resistance is futile.
I wish this was satire.
Or maybe I don’t. One of the things that keeps me from losing my sense of humour these days, from metaphorically climbing the clocktower and metaphorically mowing down some motherf–kers, is that reality continues to gear up, rev up, and blow the ad-decaled doors off of satire and parody and all those other words whose meanings I’m a little fuzzy on. You don’t have to dig very deep to bring up some rich, loamy laughs.
Those of us who like to tell a funny joke once in a while (and some do it better than others) to keep the eyeball pressure down so that goo doesn’t start jetting out in waxy spurts all over our kith and kin, we’re hard-pressed to say much that tops the news of the day, though. Flipping on CNN for a few minutes yields more black-souled yucks than when we try and fail to wax Swiftian, let alone wax Brazilian. There’s no payoff, and nothing’s sadder than a failed Swifty.
Well, OK, dead babies are maybe sadder. I’m playing this fast and loose, as usual.
Anyway, this was supoosed to be one of my usual curmudgeonly contrarian screeds that veers from quixotacular tilting at the capitalist machine, to random cursing and mumbling, to alienating and insulting my weblog comrades, so I’d best get on with it.
In case you didn’t follow the link, Blogonomics is a conference dedicated to the lofty goal of cashing in on weblogs, on board a cruise ship from Florida to Cozumel. You couldn’t make this up. I couldn’t, at least.
Check it out: they’ve even hidden the fine print at the bottom of this page by making it almost the same babyshit colour as the background. Oooh, that’s clever! Very business-y! Tells us a little about who they’re pandering to, too.
Screw Blogonomics in its speedo-clad afterdeck-hottub authentic-voiced bum.
Better yet, somebody take up a collection, and get me and Rageboy and on this f–king boat, load us up with speed, rye and cigarettes (or some coffee for Mr Boy, I suppose, since I seem to recall he’s left the Joy of Intoxication behind), and let us write open some new blogholes for these people.
That’d be some kind of fun. And hell, even if the Quintana Roo coast has been thrashed to a Jose Cuervo-flavoured pulp, we can still make a few bucks off it, right? It’s only business, after all.
Update: for some very much related thoughts that aren’t just ranty wordplay, go read Dave, who has said what I would like to about the background to this with, as always, more light and less heat than I throw off.

Wonderchicken Resurgent

You know when people say, “I turned 40 a little while back, and it got me thinking…”? and how you just want to smash ’em one in the face?
Well, I turned 40 a little while back, and it’s been f–king with my mind.
I don’t think my only problem is the artificial midlife milestone hanging millstone around my neck, though. And I don’t suppose — much as I admit to being overfond of myself and much as I am wont to declaim while in my cups in a way that would lead you to think that my problems are unique in this world — that I’m alone in this.
I think your mind is probably twisting in the wind, too, dear reader, and there’s cool piss dripping from your boots, too, and that rope is creaking above you too in the coming dark. I hope not, but I guess so. It’s one of the few things we all share; we share the knowledge that we’ll die, and we all fabricate elaborate strategies to face it, that or we turn our faces away from it. We dangle on the gibbets we build out of the decisions we make, until the sun sets on us.
You know the drill: cowboy, steel horse I ride, all that shit.
I used to say to people, people who often regretted asking me whatever innocuous question it might have been that launched me into my rant about death and taxes and the ineluctability of extropy or whatever rocks that evening’s torrent had been bouncing over, I used to say that the biggest guiding principles by which I had lived my life thus far were two-fold. I’d say it just that way, too: “…they’re two-fold…” Maybe I’d throw in a ‘hellshitdamn’ or two for spice. People must have really hated me, sometimes.
Anyway, this hand was that in some geriatric future I’d rather regret something I had done than something I hadn’t, and that other hand was that I always wanted to have as many choices before me as possible, because once the game becomes a rail-shooter, it just isn’t much goddamn fun anymore. Knocking those two rocks together with my two strong hands struck off the sparks that lit the fire in my belly every morning, huzzah!
And both hands, of course, were just heaped with prettyword bullshit. The first was a way to justify living always like a 22-year-old on a tear, and the second was a way to justify the ‘external locus of self-control as a result of childhood bereavement’ I’d self-diagnosed myself with back in university, and sumo’d out of the ring only to watch the f–ker waddle back again, pulling up its diaper and grimacing intently.
I love those old declarations of mine, I do. They still sing to me, sirens luring me limbs akimbo onto the rocks of rye, cocaine, hookers and tropical isles. I deftly navigated those shoals when I was young and clear of eye, but I’m not so sure I’d make it through safe this time. No, I’ve tied myself to the mast, have I, and it’s the first mate who steers the ship these days. She’s immune, you see. And she mostly steadfastly ignores my shouted commands, my entreaties and panting demands to be set free when the siren songs call me again. In this way, she keeps me alive, and I know that my struggles against my bonds are carefully gauged to be almost but not quite violent enough to free myself from them.
And so it goes, as the cliffs seem to rise around us, as we sail onward, me bearded and wildeyed calling for mead and wenches, bound to the mast, her drawn and sympathetic to my madness, but unshaken.
The death of some my convenient lies about myself has not in itself been enough to f–k me up. Barely enough to write about, to be honest, much as I lie about the awe with which I regard my magnificence. There’s got to be more. But I guess I’ll figure that out later. For now, it’s good to be stringing words together again.
I hit post, now, dear lost readers in their thousands, not sure if this is resurrection or coda, but hoping a few diehard outliers of the wonderchicken army are still out there, and when their newsfeed ticks over from that limp and dusty (0) over to an erectile (1), that they’ll put the word out: ‘Wonderchicken returns, brethren and sistren! He returns! Dance dervish, and spill the blood of politicians in tribute and walleyed joy!’.
But having turned my back on the webs and the logs, on the adsense whores and their corporate pimps, having peed in the pool and pooped on the flag, having committed the unpardonable sin of dissing the digerati, I’m probably on the ignore list again.
Ah well.
Update : special reopening offer! Here’s a poultrycast™ of this post, in user-friendly shrinkwrapped mp3 format. One per customer; available for a limited time only. Act now!

Emulating God On A Budget

Dave Winer says: “…all creative people must have some right to the work they create, or else, truly, the incentive to create will disappear. ”
Now, I have no dogs in the fight, as they say, when it comes to copyright and the creative commons and Lessigophilia and all that revenue-generating jazz. I have no creative works, despite decades of making things because it amused me, either of words or pixels or pencil and ink or the ongoing ballet of the moments of my life, that are making me any money at all. More’s the pity, I guess.
And I must admit that I have little but contempt for the law. I live the way I choose according to the dictates of my conscience, and where my choices conflict with the laws in a place I’m currently living, I make as an informed a decision as I am able as to whether conforming to the law in a given situation is something that it’s more sensible to do from a strictly utilitarian perspective. Jail sucks. I know. I’ve been there. Ironically, it wasn’t for breaking any laws, though.
For the most part, I am a law-abiding citizen, but not because I have any innate respect for the laws, or for those who made or enforce them. Where my choices do not conflict with the laws of the land, no worries. That’s the way things usually are, because many laws, if not most, are relatively sensible. I understand some may find this kind of stance offensive, or sophomoric. I am unconcerned, if respectful of their opinions.
I regularly break laws by downloading copyrighted material. I have my reasons.
My argument with the phrase I’ve quoted from Dave above, finally, the one that a fortuitous combination of a good sleep and strong coffee has roused me from my customary lethargy to make, is this: I believe what he said is only correct if we alter ‘the incentive to create will disappear’ to ‘the incentive to create things for money will disappear’. I risk going all broken-record, here, I know. But this fits mortise-and-tenon with some of the things I’ve been saying recently, about money, about monetization, and about what some (most?) have been doing in this textspace of ours.
At the risk of committing the unpardonable sin of accidental synecdoche, I think that the phenomenon of weblogging, and the ways in which it has changed in the past couple of years as The Stupid Money rushed in to coca-colonize the new frontier, gives us our perfect example. Of the hundreds of thousands — millions, if Technorati tells us the truth — of people who have jumped all over this, and who are using the tools to do any of the heartcasting human constellation of different activities that we’ve drawn together under the ‘weblogging’ umbrella, only very recently have more than a tiny handful of them done it for the bucks.
Some are retrofitting revenue streams, sure. That’s their prerogative, of course. Some people wear clothes with company logos plastered all over their chests, unironically, for free. They aren’t as stupid as they are greedy and clueless, in my humble, but that’s just me being a playa-hata, or whatever it is the kids are saying these days.
See, what I’m saying here is that most of these people had no ‘incentive to create’ other than the burning gods inside their foreheads, clawing to get out. Or merely the mundane urge to share photos of their cute kitties. Or their travel anecdotes. Or their code. Or their jokes or dreams or fantasies and half-baked ideas. Or links the neat websites they’ve found. They did it out of loneliness, or love of craft, or anger, or the carefully buried ludic urge we all share. Out of a desire to emulate their god. Because they wanted to.
I challenge you to think about the creative output of artists and artisans whose work has touched you. Think of your favorite books, your favorite paintings. That piece of handmade furniture or that gloriously handtooled little application. The music you listen to or the writers-on-the-web you read because they get into your heart and fill you with the ineffable, simple joy of being alive and having a mind. I wonder how many of them would have done their work whether or not they eventually got paid for it. My guess is ‘most’.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be paid. Hell, if I could get paid for making the things I make because there’s something inside me that impels me to do it, I’d be thrilled. It’d be a dream come true, by crikey. But I do it, regardless. And so do you, probably, if you’re reading this.
Money is a very useful thing, but then, so is defecation. Or, if you prefer ‘How anal sex got to be THE ticket to blogging fame and fortune I don’t fully understand…
Take away the money, and you will still have people who are driven to create. This is what it is to be human. And, I’d submit, we’d have a lot less soulless sticky media poop clogging our minds and our souls if all of the hacks out there who oxymoronically ennoble their paid efforts by calling them ‘creative product’ would just do something useful instead for those sweet dollars. This is why I am in love with the idea of the ‘mass amateurization of nearly everything‘, and it’s why I push back against those who are snapping like bloody-snouted hyenas at the weblogging carcass in their unseemly urge to Get Noticed and Go Pro.
If you make money by selling the things that you are compelled to create — writing or music or design or code or ceramic ashtrays or whatever it may be — then good on ya. I’m genuinely happy for you. But if you would stop merely because you couldn’t make a buck at it, well, tough shit. We don’t need you. This is probably an unpopular opinion. Ah well.
The incentive to create will never disappear. But I would hail the departure of a world in which the incentive to create (for some) is predicated solely on one’s ability to sell those creations, sure I would. When those who were left standing were there because they did it out of love, maybe they’d get a few more bones thrown their way.
And that’s all I have to say about that, for the moment.
[Update: OK, that’s not entirely all. This is interesting, and most definitely on-topic.]

Tsunami

I can’t stop thinking about this guy.
He’s dead now, this guy.

From news.com.au: 'Doomed ... The man struggles to keep his head above water as he is buffetted by the currents. His body was found a kilometre away / Hellmut Issels'

Look at him, so calm, amidst the fury. But the water looks so clean, doesn’t it? So much like the pure salt surf that I’ve always loved. Who was he? Did he make his living from the sea, there in Phuket? Was he a dive instructor, or a bartender? Did he rent umbrellas and chairs on the beach? Was he a tourist himself, from somewhere else entirely?
He looks so calm.
I’ve always had a relationship with water. My brother died in the water, and I spent all the years after that, in my subarctic hometown, snorkeling back and forth in that same water from a couple of weeks after the ice broke up until well after the leaves had all fallen. Looking for something.
I almost froze to death, on purpose, naked out on the ice of that same lake in the snow, one stupid teenage New Year’s Eve long ago after I’d fought with my girlfriend, who I thought I loved enough to die for.
I’ve always been drawn into the water, in the sea, wherever I’ve been, from Wales to Fiji, when the waves were big. Stood there, always, pounding my chest, literally, and shouting into the teeth of it. Challenging it. You can’t kill me, I was saying, every time. I love you, you can’t kill me. Your power is my plaything.
Maybe this guy felt the same way, as he rode the chaos, as the tsunami washed him over the pool, across the grass, into the focus of some tourist’s camera. Confident, exhiliarated.
But he died.
Him and what, today? 60,000 80,000 120,000 150,000 other people.
Words are.
Update : Apparently, he’s alive![login:vanitas password:vain]
Mike Diack gives us more information inside. Thanks, Mike! It’s silly, but somehow this guy became iconic for me of the whole incomprehensible tragedy. Holy sh-t. He’s alive.

Anger Is An Energy

Shelley says over here that ‘there’s something impersonal and dispassionate about anger.” I know how well she writes, and how carefully, and so I’ve been turning over what she wrote, looking at it from different angles, trying to puzzle out what she meant. Can anger really be dispassionate? Is that what people mean when they talk about ‘cold anger’? Could that be a bad thing?
I’m pretty sure anger is an energy, cold or hot. I remember being an angry punk, once upon a time. Well, more of a drunken yahoo of a punk, perhaps. Angry though, in between episodes of skipping around like a loon shouting about ‘joy’. Regardless, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel rage welling up in me the moment I stopped to think about the glories of our civilization, and the wonder of our achievements.
Call in the airstrikes.

I could be wrong I could be right
could be wrong
I could be wrong I could be right
I could be black I could be white
I could be right I could be wrong
I could be white I could be black
Your time has come your second skin
The cost so high the gain so low
Walk through the valley
The written word is a lie

Still, I’ve always been the eternal optimist, sifting through the dung looking for a diamond, and I wandered all around this planet, wide-eyed, pushing myself to be childlike and unangry. A real hippie twat, basically. Trying to see the god within each and every person I met. Failing too often, succeeding far too rarely, flying my freak flag high. Peace, love and vegetable rights, man. Anger? Love! Rage? Peace!
That worked pretty well for a time, but the drugs probably helped more than I cared to admit.

May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
Could be wrong I could be right
Could be wrong I could be right
I could be wrong I could be right
I could be black I could be white
I could be right I could be wrong
I could be black I could be white
They put a hot wire to my head
cos of the thing I did and said
And made these feelings go away
Model citizen in every way

I’m still expatriate, of course, and I still am unfailingly kind to people, until they cross me. Then, well, then I puff up and turn all the colours of a sunset, and browbeat them until they submit or go away. And then I get quickly unangry again. I’m like that.
I have never stopped being angry at hypocrisy and hate and stupidity and cupidity, either. And yeah, angry at the sinner as well as the sin. Turning the other cheek’s all well and good for the meek, but I’m not going to be around to inherit the earth. I just don’t have the patience. So, model citizen, me, right? Going around with a big red ‘W’ on my chest, fighting for the common man, righting wrongs and kissing babies.
f–k no. But the other thing that Shelley said, that ‘anger is the ultimate camouflage for what’s really going on in our heads and our lives’ doesn’t make sense for me, at least. Anger is the the natural and consequent reaction to taking a good hard look at our lives and the lives most of us are shoehorned into, through our own weakness and through the strength of others and through random dumbf–k chance, and realizing that we’re going to die. Much too soon, each and every one of us. Ashes or wormfood, or, if maybe scraps for the birds to tear at. In anger, we reveal that we know there can be more, and wish for more, for better, for ourselves and others, and we also reveal that we are too bound by our own chemistry or history to do more than pound the bones and screech like apes before the monolith.
But that’s OK.
Because the coin of anger rotating in the air, reflecting those glints of sunlight, has an ouroboros head as well as a tail. There is no anger, for me, at least, that is not backed an impulse similar to the one that some buddhists express when they perform a wai — palms pressed together, fingers pointing skyward, with a shallow bow. I acknowledge the god within you.
Anger is peace, thwarted. Love, unrequited. The face of god, almost touched. The heartbreaking awareness that you (and so, all) just might not get there, wherever there might be. And ranging as it does in denomination, like our coin flipping up there in the air, the anger can be fire banked against the coming night, or a bolus of flaming tar catapulted at those who thwart the good.

Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Could be wrong I could be right
Could be wrong I could be right
I could be wrong I could be right
I could be black I could be white
I could be right I could be wrong
I could be black I could be white
Your time has come your second skin
The cost so high the gain so low
Walk through the valley
The written word is a lie

But what the hell do I know? The written word is a lie, and it’s possible that I’m just stringing together justifications for my rage, popcorn-garlanding words, holding up another mask, more for the fun of it than from any necessity. I found my own path. Quite possibly not the right one, but it’s the one I found, and so that f–ker is holy to me.

May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
Could be wrong I could be right
Could be wrong
They put a hot wire to my head
Cos of the things I did and said
They made these feelings go away
A model citizen in every way
Your time has come your second skin
The cost so high the gain so low
May the road rise with you (Hey)
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy

There was a time when I was one of those Seekers After Truth that the hip, ironic-McDonald’s kids tend to laugh at, often with good reason. Looking for some kind of truth outside myself, raging against the machine. Now I’m a model citizen, older and less convinced that any truth that could have any meaning for me lies anywhere outside myself and the threads that bind me to other people.
But I remain angry, and I maintain that that is the outward sign of my attempts to be honest with myself. It’s my honesty with the rest of the world, and it’s both personal and passionate.
I only speak for myself. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. That’s cool.

On The Turning Away

It’s hard to get your balance these days. Turn over a bucket, hop up on it, perch there precariously, look around as the cascade of chitinous black beetles surf in on surges of liquid shit. Pull up your pantlegs as the wave breaks around you and the brown spatters fly, squeak a bit, pray that the bugs (and the rats whose glowing eyes you see in the murk around you) don’t know how to climb.
Which is a melodramatic way to say that I don’t quite know what to say. Got some outrage? Get in line, sucker. Got something to say about rapin’ and torturin’, about beheadin’? So does every other Right Thinking Citizen, and by crikey, they’re making sure that those somethings are heard.
Let’s roll. Stay the course. Bring it on. Cut and run. Never forget. I’ll be back. Duck and cover.
Wait, that last one doesn’t fit in, does it? At least not yet.
It’s getting hard to stare unflinching into the actinic glare as the doors of hell swing open these days. The impulse, even after we’ve been bombarding ourselves with images like goatse and tubgirl and Daniel Pearl and Michael Jackson’s face, graveyard-joking all the while to show how tough and desensitized we are, is to turn away. To stop tattooing those horrible pictures on the sensitive cauliflower folds.
But each new iteration exerts its sick fascination, and the rays of doomlight — shining from Lynndie England and Nick Berg, from Madrid and Kabul — glitter over our mental horizons, lighting up the whole mediated clusterfuck as it whips itself into ever-bloodier froth. The tender-fleshed, bright-eyed Friends-consumers we were only show up in the quietest moments. Our shell-shocked outrage-fatigued palimpsest faces are hanging out in the wind, just like our asses. Can’t really make out the old stories of who we were on our faces anymore, and can’t make out the new stories either, scrawled in blood and filth, littered with copyright and trademark symbols and viagra ads and homemade porn and watermarked photos of piles of naked bodies.
Not piles of corpses. At least not yet.
The impulse is to turn away. But we tell ourselves that it’s weak and unworthy to avert our gaze. We’ve been told that it’s our ethical responsibility to bear witness, to see with eyes clear the evil that’s done in our names or otherwise, to understand and remember it, to prevent it ever happening again. Possibly at the risk of losing the chance to stop it, but pay that no never mind.
We love freedom. They hate freedom. We love liberty. God bless America. Down with the Great Satan.
We’re gonna shove democracy up their asses until they love us, just like Mike Tyson.
But not turning away can lead into an addictive room of mirrors. Bearing witness changes from a duty and a rite to a habit and a vice. The feed only gets notice when we unhook it, and we’re not fed the world by our umbilicals, we’re pulled further out of it. Schroedinger’s cat doesn’t die unless we see it happen, but if we’re watching it on video, it doesn’t really matter which way it goes. Kill ’em all and let god sort ’em out.
So we watch. We stagger from table to buffet table, dyspeptic and enervated, mildly turgid under our loosened belts. We snap and grin with our cams and camphones, and our photos are products that refer to themselves, not us. Our kaleidoscopic images proxy the world, and let us maintain the illusion that we aren’t really a part of it, and that the bad things are happening over there. That those chants and tribal signifiers that make us feel so good and so strong and so right actually mean something other than ‘go team’.
Smoke ’em out. Read my lips. No blood for oil. Support the troops. Rock the vote. Not in my name.
It becomes easier when everyone else is Them. We didn’t saw off poor Nick’s head, it was those scum, those vermin, the evil-doers, those others. We didn’t stick blunt objects up prisoners’ asses, either, or rape them or set dogs on them, we didn’t rip those kids apart with our amusingly-named ordinance. That was other people, a few bad apples, and they’re not us! We’re consumers of the images, don’t you see? We didn’t make this world! We didn’t maim that boy! It was them. Them! We didn’t slit Daniel Pearl’s throat, we didn’t knock over the gravestones, we didn’t fly airplanes into the World Trade Centre! We didn’t sell arms to Saddam, we didn’t sell arms to Iran, we didn’t ask for the double-anal pissporn, we didn’t do any of that shit. We are watchers. Watching makes it real, and watching keeps it separate from us. Watching is a noble act, at least until it gives you a hardon.
The basic truth gets obscured. What’s the difference between Osama bin Laden and George Bush? There isn’t one. What’s the difference between that fucker Amrozi who set the bomb that killed my friend Rick and me? There isn’t one. What’s the difference between the animals that sawed off Nick Berg’s head and the animals that beat prisoners to death at Abu Ghraib? There isn’t one. Between the Pope and Saddam? Between that old lady in front of the TV in a trailer in Alabama and that old lady digging up roots in a field in Kazakhstan?
We are one. We are all meat and electricity. And if there is more than that, we are all equally a part of that divine More. Or none of us are.
These ones go to 11.
I remember standing when I was maybe 14 in a circle of faces in the icy parking lot of the only arcade in town, out in front of what used to be Sonny’s hardware store. It was snowing, and I was in my shirtsleeves. Someone had yelled fight! and we’d all tumbled out past the steamed-up windows, out of the humid warmth into the snow. I can’t remember the names of the two combatants, but I can remember their faces. And I can remember the faces of the people watching. They were avid. Grinning. This was different from the clumsy, reluctant pecking-order school fights I’d seen (or been a part of) before. This was the real thing. One of the two was already down on the ice, on his back, eyes unfocused, by the time I took up a position on the outer edges of the ring of spectators. He was clearly finished. That didn’t matter, apparently. The victor hauled back his heavy winter boot and kicked the prone one in the head. I remember most clearly the sound, and the way that the head moved on the slack neck, and the colour of the blood on the ice. One kick, two, three, then someone at the front of the ring stepped in to stop the fun.
The look I saw on many of the bright tight faces was disappointment. That was the first of many fights I saw in my violent little hometown over the years, and the pattern was never different, except that in later years the fights were always fueled by alcohol. You go down, you get boot-fucked. It was a thing common enough that we had created a special name for it. Some people died, some needed reconstructive surgery, some were barred from entering the village limits. Being big and strong and stronger still of liver, and having good friends around at all times, I never got bootfucked. Being me, I never bootfucked anyone, though lord knows I there were times that I wanted to. In a legendarily violent town of 3000 people, you quickly understand the rules of retribution and revenge.
When I was in 17, I read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It hurt. It put images in my head that I didn’t want in there, that are still in there more than 20 years later, and I hated him for it. The abstraction of brutality, the matter-of-fact articling of such utterly transgressive violence twisted my melon and started me wondering where it might lead.
Well, now we know.
Even back then, even as a callow teen, I defended his right to have written it, though I was inclined to want to punch him in the face for having done so, were I ever to meet him. Growing up media-starved (and smart, drunk and angry) in a town where you could choose between two CanCon television channels, where there was no movie theatre, no bookstore, only a tiny library and not even the dream that such a thing as the internet might ever exist, it was a rapid education I received in those three years between my freshman witnessing of my first bootfucking and the graduation ceremony of reading Ellis’s deadpan fantasia of dismemberment and death. The first lessons stay with you the longest.
Today I can find movies and photos and paintings and stories of the same and worse, three clicks away, without even breaking a sweat. And as often as not, these things really happened.
My impulse to turn away usually wins out these days. This may be the wrong thing to do. When a puppy shits on the floor, we rub his nose in it (or at least we used to, in less kind, gentle days) for a reason.
But I guess I realized at some point that there is something I can do about a man who starts a war, perhaps, but there is little I can do about a man who kills and dismembers another person, unless that person is me. And there’s still less I can do about a man who aquires money or fame writing about it.
Or, you know, a woman.
I also realized somewhere down the road that whether it’s fiction or photo, documentary or gore-flick, fake or genuine, no representation of violence is anything like the real thing. Our frisson of revulsion, our predictable and pointless anger at the perpetrator, our self-serving hollow vows of ‘never again’, our demonization of the other who would so transgress those ethical standards we hold out as self-evident, our self-congratulatory conviction that we‘d never do anything like that, and our complacence in the face of the indisputable fact that everyone, everywhere seems to be doing it anyway…. well, what are you going to do? Cheer the killer monkeys on? “We are nihilists, Lebowski. We believe in nothink!” Been there, done that, and it’s a dead end too.
I haven’t got any answers. But I am pretty sure that regardless of whether you have nightmares about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or the Jesus Chainsaw Massacre) or the horrors of Abu Ghraib, no matter how accurately and horribly that fact or fiction is captured and portrayed for you, these things are to the real experience of violence as American beer is to the real thing. fucking close to water.
No wait. I mean – ‘a weak approximation’.
But the killer monkeys just won’t stop. And sometimes, you just have to turn away, all the while realizing that if you haven’t got the stomach for the imagery, you would be destroyed by the reality.

Unyoung, Unpoor, UnRabbit

I was making croutons for the ceasar salad, for the lunch I’d invited my new colleagues to at our house this morning, damp tea-towel flung across my shoulders, when I said ‘f–k’ to myself. Just before that, I’d been inscribing and addressing Christmas cards to a few friends, for what was basically the first time in my life. In a couple, I’d added as a postscript ‘When the hell did I become this adult?’ and now here I was, puttering and polishing the grime off the salt and pepper shakers.
I’m trying to age gracefully. I’m neither Updike’s Rabbit, nor the amusingly and serendipitously named Charlie Stavros

…turning night into day and pally with gangsters and Presidents and that square gangster way of carrying your shoulders (Charlie Stavros has it) and Chairman of the Board and Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin before they dried out finally…

but I surprise myself sometimes, that a rough-cut boozehound like myself, all scarred and grizzled from mapcap adventures a-plenty, veteran of cliffhangers and close shaves galore, can find himself so happily domesticated, whistling the Montovani Orchestra’s version of ‘Uncle f–ka’ as he whips up some salad dressing in the kitchen.
At least until he realizes what he’s doing, balks briefly, and then as a sort of sympathetic magic, while the wife is off at the shops, cranks up Black Flag’s Damaged, and continues his happy homely activity, with just a bit more animation.

Uncle Fucka Exegesis

After much deliberation, after pondering, both weak and weary, after tugging my beard like the retro-sage in a technical age that I fancy myself to be, after eating a couple of eggs boiled in spiced soy (oh, yeah, baby), I have come to the inescapable conclusion that ‘Uncle Fucka‘ is possibly the greatest song ever written.

A brief reminder of the powerful and affecting lyrics :

Terrance and Phillip
[Terrance:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
You’re a cock sucking ass licking uncle f–ka
You’re an uncle f–ka, yes its true
Nobody f–ks uncles quite like you
[Phillip:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
You’re the one that f–ked your uncle, uncle f–ka
You dont eat or sleep or mow the lawn,
You just f–k your uncle all day long
[farting noises]
[Terrance:] Hmm!
[farting noises]
[laughing]
[farting noises]
[Some Guy:] What’s going on here?
[farting noises]
[Man 1:] That’s garbage!
[Man 2: ]Well, what do you expect — they’re Canadian.
[People:] OOOoooooooooooooh
f–ker f–ker uncle f–ka uncle f–ka f–ka f–ka f–ka
[T & P:] Shut your f–king face uncle f–ka
[Terrance:] uncle f–ka
[Terrance:] You’re a boner biting bastard uncle f–ka
[Phillip:] You’re an uncle f–ka I must say
[Terrance:] Well you f–ked your uncle yesterday
[Everyone: (laughing)]
[People:] Uncle f–ka… thats
[Everyone:] U-N-C-L-E f–k you Uncle
f–kaaaaaa…
[Phillip:] Suck my balls!

From the opening strains to the final testicular injunction, this piece of music speaks of humankind’s chthonic impetus to understand its place in the world, to rend the veils that separate us from a direct apprehension of the divine. Perhaps Terrance and Phillip are telling us that through the f–king of uncles, a sacred understanding may be achieved. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, said :

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plow.
Dip him in the river who loves water.

The road of excess is the road upon which Terrance and Phillip gambol and fart prodigiously, boner-biting their way to the palace of wisdom. Uncle f–kers, yes indeed, they embrace all within the scope of their gaze, with both love and scorn. Their joyous farts and caustic abuse remind us of the Rabelaisian island of Ruach,

They neither exonerate, dung, piss, nor spit in that island; but, to make amends, they belch, fizzle, funk, and give tail-shots in abundance. They are troubled with all manner of distempers; and, indeed, all distempers are engendered and proceed from ventosities, as Hippocrates demonstrates, lib. De Flatibus. But the most epidemical among them is the wind-cholic. The remedies which they use are large clysters, whereby they void store of windiness. They all die of dropsies and tympanies, the men farting and the women fizzling; so that their soul takes her leave at the back-door.

and point with gleeful loathing thereby at our folly and failings. They f–ked their uncles yesterday, our hyperkinetic flatulent Canadian duo, reminding us of the gloomy conclusion of Ivan Karamazov: “If God is dead, all is permitted.”

Is there a god who would allow uncle-f–king? Is the god who would have prevented such things indeed dead, and is all, in fact, permitted? Terrance and Phillip have no answers for us, as they caper and cut the cheese, only questions, questions with which the great minds of our civilization have wrestled for centuries, fruitlessly.

In the end, perhaps, like Neitzche, they hail the dionysian, as the true source of art, and as deliberate affront to the illusory appollonian order imposed by our minds on a chaotic universe.

Either way, as Walter Kaufmann said of Neitzche, so can we say of Terrance and Phillip, our foul-mouthed flatulent flip-top-headed Canadian friends :

[Their] phrases, once heard, are never forgotten; they stand up by themselves, without requiring the support of any context; and so they have come to live independently of their sire’s intentions.

Suck my balls.

What Are You?

What are you?
No, really. What are you? If you stop to ask yourself the question, let it roll around behind your eyes for a minute, what kinds of answers do you get? Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Well, friend wonderchicken, I hear you say, I’m many things. I’m a human. I’m an American. I’m a writer, I’m a painter, I’m a mother, I’m a husband. I am my children. I’m a big fraidy-cat. I’m an alcoholic. I am a philanderer. I’m a survivor. I’m a thinker, I’m a lover. I am a Christian. I’m a woman. I’m a miraculous fowl. The possibilities are limitless, I know. We’re all many things all the time, and as selves die, new ones are born within us to take their places. That’s what makes life worth living, what keeps us from going snake-raping bonkers from boredom while we scamper madly around in our hamstertopias.
So, what are you first? What is the facet of your being that stands before — or behind, if you wish — all the others? What, to put it another way, is the part of you, of your self-perceived identity, that you cherish the most, that you would be the least willing to have cut away like a tumor, or wiped from your present or your past?
To be fair, I suppose I think of myself and define myself, if forced to do so in a phrase, as a wanderer, a seeker, a lover of the new and the outlandish. As a meat machine for saying ‘yes’. These are all the same thing for me. Were these things to be taken from me, I don’t think I’d be myself any more, whatever that actually is. Or even a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Your answers will differ, no doubt. This is as it should be. But I’ll bet that in response to my question above, none of you who took a moment said to themselves ‘First and foremost, I am my weblog’.
It is possible, though, that some chose as their centrepiece ‘I am a woman.’
Recently Shelley initiated some discussion about women in the digital world and whether and to what degree they (or more properly, the persistent textual avatars that are their weblogs, avatars that seem so often to be mistaken for the actual person in weblogging discussions) are or are not undervalued or pushed aside or whuffie-starved on the New Frontier. Not being ogled enough — non-pruriently of course — in our eyeball economy, not linked-to enough, despite the fact that they have just as many important and useful things to say as the wrinkly old Y-chromo dangler-waving oligarchs like myself.
I’m not sure I understand this, to be honest, and so my response may be off-target. I answered at the time she brought it up, off the cuff, that

Me, I’m less concerned with what I _am_ than with what I do, and what I say, both in life or online. This goes for my attitude towards others, as well.

I mean, I do understand that some women feel that some not-women are somehow unfairly barring them from the prominence they deserve, and that Women As A Group are under-represented in the Link Market, and that it seems natural to think that since we have a clear duality with women on the one hand and not-women on the other side of this Weblog Gender Gap, that it must be the not-women who are to blame, especially since we’re talking in the context of Power (if not power laws) here. As much as I am able with my feeble faculties, I do follow the train of thought.
But there’s a reason I asked the questions I did, above.
Although I grant that many women who read this may define themselves first and foremost as a woman, there is no real reason for anyone else, male or female, to look at them through that lens. In other words, I may think of myself primarily as a Pundit (like all these assholes), for example, while the vast majority of people I interact with, on the IntArwEb or elsewhere, may well think of me first and foremost as a f–kwit.
Now, if I am shunned and ridiculed because most people (rightly or not) think of me as a f–kwit, I can hardly accuse them of discriminating against Pundits, of withholding their sweet linky love because they are set on unfairly restricting the rights of Pundits to punditize! They’re denying me because they think I’m a f–kwit (or a Cheesehead or a WonderMonkey or something), regardless of how I want them to think of me.
Now this example was not intended to accuse anyone of being a f–kwit, other than perhaps myself. My point is this, and I apologize for the tortuous path by which I’ve reached it : on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, or cares. Unless you tell them, and even then, not much. That is, regardless of what you perceive yourself to be first and foremost, or fifth and hindmost, and quite probably regardless of what facet or facets of your identity you strive to push to the fore in your online persona in your weblog (which, to belabour the point, is your avatar and not your self) others will more often than not react to you based on what they perceive you to be. Not what you wish them to think. Would that they did.
And, further, out here in Textistan, I think it may be fairly said that your gender is less important as a cue for the way people treat you than it is back in the office, or on the bus, or on the street, even if you do make it a point of order. We are all more brain than gonad out here. Well, most of us are.
So, does being a woman (or a homosexual, or a juggler, or a drunk) come first for you? Fine. I have no problem with that, and I applaud the self-awareness that has led to that understanding. Does that apply for your internet presence as well as your Real Life Persona? That’s a fine thing too. But expecting me to interact with you in ways that are constrained or defined by the fact that you have made that choice? Don’t bother.
Shelley asked

Are women linked less because our voices are different? Are we not as confident when making our assertions and are therefore less quotable? Are we not as aggressive in our opinions, and therefore less interesting?

My answer, then, is that asking about women just doesn’t make much sense to me. Not much of an answer, perhaps, but the only one I have at the moment.

About a year back there was much discussion around the neighbourhood about ‘identity‘. I think of the above as a coda of sorts to that discussion. I was intending to come out guns blazing, but I have not, in part because I’m too busy for a fight, in part because I don’t think it’s something starting a fight over is going to help, and in large part because all that crap above notwithstanding, I actually do think that Shelley’s probably right.
The dominance of males at the Big End of The Hockey Stick in our extended weblogging family is a symptom, not of deliberate exclusion of women, for the most part, I’m certain, but of systemic undervaluing of the contributions of women out there on the streets and in this other place, this place which still bears the imprimatur of the button-and-lever gearbox mentality that men have made their domain, to the slightly disdainful laughter of most women, since the first wheel rolled out of control, bounced down the hill and ran over Og’s favorite goat.
I suppose the balance will change as the machinery becomes more irrelevant and the men less proprietary, as more women wade in and kick a few asses around the block, and the phallerati will lose some of their dominance. I suspect it is an inevitability. But for my part, I won’t be paying any more attention to anyone’s gender — even if they ask me to — than I do now.

Death and Bali, A Year Later

It’s been exactly a year since the bombing in Bali that killed my old friend Rick Gleason and 201 other people.
Is there a statute of limitations on mourning? Should there be? If we stop feeling that skip in the heartbeat and stab in the gut when we think of someone we loved who was killed, have we stopped caring? Should guilt then rush in? Should we try to leave behind our grief, and get on with it? What is left of the dead one, a year after they’ve gone, in the world? What do we learn from their lives, what can we learn? What have I learned?
A year on, I wish I could say confidently that I’ve consciously changed my life for the better after Rick’s death, taken the lessons his life and his sudden death taught me, plowed up some fertile ground. I wish that in the decisions I’ve made in the intervening twelve months, a reflection could be seen of some nebulous tribute to him, and the things we both believed about life. Maybe it’s there, and I can’t see it. When you’re too close to the mountain, you can’t see how high it really is.
I’ve lived my life with death all around me — not in the way that the billions of poor people on this planet do, perhaps, with family members dying slowly in the corner of the shack, or ripped apart under American bombs — but with frequent visits from the reaper, until he became a familiar presence in my life, neither feared nor hated. I have no fear of death, but I resent it, and the curtain it throws around our brief little lives.
My father died when I was about five years old, my younger brother, right in front of me, a few years later. Aunts and uncles, great- and otherwise, died with regularity through my teens, as did my dearly-loved maternal grandfather. The rest of my grandparents were gone by the time I was in my mid-twenties, and then my step-father, who’d married my mother not long after my father’s death 20 years before, also died. I have friends who never lost a family member or dear friend until their mid-thirties, for whom Rick’s death was a shock more singular, and I always wondered how they thought about death. Did they fear it? Do they hate it more now, or less? Do they put it from their minds, and go on with the humble daily things, keeping the stink of terror well hid?
Scars were left on me in the wake of those deaths in my young life, furrows and welts in my brain some of which are even now just working their way into the light. This is as it should be. My great and abiding love for the drink, moderated and benign as it has become in my later years, as much passed on genetically and nurtured environmentally as it may be, certainly has some roots there. My fear and loathing of the very idea of having children, absolutely. My carefully-chosen expatriate existence, yearning contrapuntally as I sometimes do for the deep, cold coniferous forests of my youth. The vigour with which I counter those who I perceive to be attacking me, yes. All of these and more. I have made my peace with the ghosts, made it many years ago, and carry my wounds with awareness and a quiet understanding that what happens is good by virtue of the sheer fact that it has happened, and that to claim otherwise and rail against our experience is to refuse life, and shrink from it. To say no, rather than yes.
But Rick’s death marked me, more than I could have expected. I still feel that weightless skip in my heartbeat, that stab in the gut, when I think of him. One year on, there are more questions than ever, about what my life is to mean to me, and what it has meant. About what is important, what is indispensable, and what is good. About how to reconcile a love for individuals with a deep, heart-squeezing loathing for humanity, and particularly for the sort of people that knocked down the World Trade Centre, that set the bomb in Bali, and that ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. About the preachers and the haters, the ideologues and the god-fearers, the killers and the martyrs, and about how deeply stupid and damaged, greedy and afraid they must be.
And in the end, of course, I’m left with more questions, and I’m left with a rising knot of choking rage and resentment that I consciously push down, squeeze back, and try to transform into something useful, into words and actions that don’t feed the killer monkeys, that keep the bloody chaos at bay, and I’m not usually very successful.
I said this, about 18 months ago, long before my friend’s death :

To regard the death of those you know and love as a natural thing, to turn the painful experience of their loss into something that enriches and strengthens your own life (because, face it, they ain’t got one anymore) – that’s the mostly truly reverant eulogy and memorial one can make. Which is trite, perhaps, but people seem to forget it, again and again.

and I suppose I still believe it to be true.
But Rick’s murder marked me, more perhaps and nearer the surface than any death I’ve lived past since I was very young. I suppose I am a better man because of that mark. I would be a happier man, and one less uncertain and questing, if it had not happened. Would that Rick were still walking around in his loose-limbed way, falling in love at the drop of a hat, laughing and drinking and seeing. Would that he could share a drink with me tonight.
But that is not the way it happened, and I’m still not sure of how to live with that.

I treasure the pleasure of torpor

There’s some lovely filth down here, Dennis!
Some more fun stuff I found today. Bob Black is my new main man :

Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry. But if all the ideologues (as they do) advocate work — and not only because they plan to make other people do theirs — they are strangely reluctant to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.
You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and serious. To be ludic is not to be ludicrous. Play doesn’t have to be frivolous, although frivolity isn’t triviality: very often we ought to take frivolity seriously. I’d like life to be a game — but a game with high stakes. I want to play for keeps.
[more…]

RU Sirius is, as always, a most excellent individual as well :

CTHEORY: A favorite example being William S. Burroughs in a Nike ad.
RU: You said it! Would I do a Nike ad? I would! And does that weaken my stance? It does!
CTHEORY: And do you care?
RU: I don’t! Really, heroism is a spectator sport. f–k spectators. Anybody who doesn’t factor a need to pay rent and to have pleasures into whatever expectations they have of anybody else can go to f–k. I hate expectations of any kind.
CTHEORY: Subversion never completely succeeds but neither does the attempt to squash it.
RU: Subversion by its nature parisitizes whatever it attempts to subvert. But subversion isn’t really subversive any more. I mean, you can do the most outrageous sh-t, and people’s ability to react is just flattened. The greatest hope for subversives is William Bennett and the Christian Coalition and all that. They are trying their best to make subversion subversive again… god bless ’em!
CTHEORY: You seem to be into paradox. Leading cyberculture while slamming it, practicing raw capitalism while critiquing it in the process. This paradox seems to run through much of the culture jamming stuff.
RU: Well, anybody who doesn’t believe that we’re trapped hasn’t taken a good look around. We’re trapped in a sort of mutating multinational corporate oligarchy that’s not about to go away. We’re trapped by the limitations of our species. We’re trapped in time. At the same time identity, politics, and ethics have long turned liquid. It seems that what we have, at least among the sort of hip technophile population, is an experimental attitude. An experimental attitude is one of not knowing, otherwise it’s not really experimental.
Also, most people try so hard to put their best face forward, right? I mean, if you’re writing a righteous political statement on Monday and you’re hyping your ass and talking to the lawyers on Tuesday, you’re not going to emphasize Tuesday. You’re not going to emphasize your own corruption. Except I tend to, because the deal is what’s real. If I can make one claim, it’s that I’m the most anti-purist motherf–ker around.
[more…]

Mimesis

This piece on the attacks of September 11th and their aftermath was a link offered in this equally interesting (if slightly wanky) discussion at Metafilter, and although the two only seemed tangentially related at first glance, the more I think about them the more they seem to be rooted in the same piece of fertile ground.

A mimetic war is a battle of imitation and representation, in which the relationship of who we are and who they are is played out along a wide spectrum of familiarity and friendliness, indifference and tolerance, estrangement and hostility. It can result in appreciation or denigration, accommodation or separation, assimilation or extermination. It draws physical boundaries between peoples, as well as metaphysical boundaries between life and the most radical other of life, death. It separates human from god. It builds the fence that makes good neighbors; it builds the wall that confines a whole people. And it sanctions just about every kind of violence.
More than a rational calculation of interests takes us to war. People go to war because of how they see, perceive, picture, imagine, and speak of others: that is, how they construct the difference of others as well as the sameness of themselves through representations. From Greek tragedy and Roman gladiatorial spectacles to futurist art and fascist rallies, the mimetic mix of image and violence has proven to be more powerful than the most rational discourse. Indeed, the medical definition of mimesis is ‘the appearance, often caused by hysteria, of symptoms of a disease not actually present.’ Before one can diagnose a cure, one must study the symptoms – or, as it was once known in medical science, practice semiology.
[more…]

My next stop was Baudrillardville . All aboard who’s getting aboard :

Simulation is precisely this irresistible unfolding, this linkage of things as if they had a meaning, so that they are no longer controlled or regulated except by artificial montage and non-sense. It is the putting up for auction of the event through radical disinformation, the price-tagging of the event instead of gambling with it, instead of investing in the stakes of history. If, on the other hand, should there be a stake in this, it remains occult, enigmatic, and resolved in events that have never really taken place. And I am not talking about ordinary events, but of the events of the East [Eastern Europe], of the Gulf War, etc. What the Agency otherwise specifically aimed at was to oppose this simulation with a radical dissimulation, to lift the veil from this non-happening of events. It has also occultized and enigmatized itself in their image in order to open up and clear to the way to a particular void, to a certain non-sense – unlike the media which remains relentlessly bent on filling up all interstices. Its aim was to manoeuvre itself in the void of events like Chuang-Tzu’s butcher proceeds in the interstitial void of the body. This surreptitious, sly intervention in the meaning of the void against grotesque infatuation with information and the political scene, evidently could not amount to more than a dream and because of its assumed occult and enigmatic nature, it ended up not taking place like the events themselves. It fell into the same black hole, into the same virtual space as the non-events which it should have addressed (secretly however, and without anyone knowing, it remained operational in the image of these new events which were either mediatized or not). An apparently insolvable paradox. The idea, though, is not dead.
[more…]

Make of that what you will, friends.

Everyone Gets To The Yes

“Actually, there’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you wanna be one with eternity, do you want to be in heaven?’ And, we’re all saying, ‘Nooo thank you, not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying ‘No’ to God’s invitation. I mean, that’s what time is. linklater.jpg
It’s no more 50 A.D. than it’s 2001. There’s just this one instant, and that’s what we’re always in. And then she tells me that actually, this is the narrative of everyone’s life. Behind the phenomenal difference there is but one story, and that’s the story of moving from the ‘No’ to the ‘Yes.’ All of life is like, ‘No thank you, No thank you, No thank you.’ And then, ultimately, it’s, ‘Yes I give in, Yes I accept, Yes I embrace.’ I mean, that’s the journey. Everyone gets to the ‘Yes’ in the end, right?”
Watched Waking Life again this evening – I’ve been waking up mornings these days with conversations from my dreams fresh and vivid in my mind. The people in these dreams have been telling me things that are astonishing, in ways that stagger me and leave me agog for the few minutes it takes before the memory fades, things I can not understand how I could possibly know, and I’m determined to find out how that could be.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream

Ignorance Bought And Paid For

Language Hat points to this strangely timely article in the New York Times, which not only mentions the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but mentions it in the context of East Asian languages. How interesting, thinks I to myself, as I follow the link, hoping it will be germane to all the fascinating and erudite discussion in the neighbourhood that’s sprung up around and taken off in a multitude of interesting directions from my brain dump last week.
In it are described the ideas of a certain William C. Hannas, “a linguist who speaks 12 languages and works as a senior officer at the Foreign Broadcast Information Service,” author of a newly released book which claims that Asian science has suffered because the main Asian languages are written in “character-based rather than alphabetic” systems.
Not to get off on a rant here, but : in and of itself, this seems to me to be the most vile form of egregiously wrongheaded bullsh-t, and I suspect Mr Hannas is precisely the sort of person that I’d take great pleasure in pummelling until he whimpered like a frightened infant (a reaction that may reveal to some extent why I left academia many years ago, having dipped no more than a toe in its calm waters). But that’s not the thing that bothered me.
The article states, presumably parrotting Mr Dipsh-t, that “Western specialists are better informed today […and] now recognize that the writing systems of East Asia, including Chinese, Japanese and Korean, are “syllabaries,” in which each character corresponds to a syllable of sound.”
Now, I can’t speak for written Japanese (for which I think this may in part be true, depending on which way of writing the language one chooses – Jonathon may be the better person in the immediate neighbourhood to address that), and I’m only semi-certain it is true as far as my knowledge goes for Chinese, but this is completely and laughably wrong in the case of Korean.
I’ve been promising for over a year now to write a piece about the Korean language and alphabet, and this may have me riled enough to actually do it.
“Mr. Hannas’s logic goes like this: because East Asian writing systems lack the abstract features of alphabets, they hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for scientific creativity,” says the New York Times.
Replies the wonderchicken : Mr Hannas should take his head out of his ass, because having one’s cranium so firmly lodged up one’s rectum can hamper the kind of analytical and abstract thought necessary for actually making some f–king sense.
A googlesearch takes literally about 5 seconds to find a multitude of sites that describe hangul, the Korean alphabet, and make Mr Hannas look like the idiot (or at the very most gracious, ‘mind-bogglingly poor researcher’) he would seem to be.
What is also distressing to me is that Sapir-Whorf (to the weak formulation of which, as I’ve mentioned, I have a degree of sympathy) is being talked about in connection with such worthless, badly thought-out crypto-racist twaddle.
Here’s a rude bit of English, sloppily and phonetically rendered into the Hangul alphabet in 5 letters and two syllables for Mr Hannas, sounding something like ‘puhk kyu!’. Wonder if he’d be able to read it…

f--k you!

[Gah! I thought I had all my ranting out of my system for the week. Ah well.]