Friday, December 31, 2010

Paying Attention to TV

In my former life, which I now inhabit temporarily, I'm a holdout for plain-old over-the-air pre-HD TV. Which means I petty much don't watch TV, except for rented movies. But when I do watch, I'm struck with the ads for upgrading your viewing experience. It's not just the 3D, which I witnessed over at Sears and which actually works about as well as at the movies, but it's the various ways to stream the Internet directly to your big screen, or to have the show follow you from room to room, or device to device even onto the diminutive screens we hold in our hands. 

Some of the ads show happy people chasing fight scenes room to room, or waiting in the doctor's office delighted by some romance in ones hand, or maybe waiting for the little woman to finish shopping and cheering for his favorite sports team. You can even leverage your purchase of copyrighted shows and have them boosted out across the Internet for your watching from somewhere else.

In among this noise, I'm reminded yet again of my uncle's memorial service up at SUNY Oneonta, where they now have an annual media summit named for him. I was at the first so-named summit, and remember the earnest pleas from panelists to students to please don't steal this content. There was almost a panic that once the genie was out of the bottle there would be no way to contain and charge for it. And that without pay, there would be no more good stuff to watch or read or listen to. 

Which might be true for all I know, but one does have to question how good any of it really is. And anyhow, the price for entry keeps going up and up, doesn't it? These big flat screens, especially the ones with 3D, aren't exactly free. We still pay for Internet. It doesn't seem a matter of protecting content so much as it does a matter of distribution of the profits. As always, it's not the authors getting the lion's share. Anyhow, the schlockier it is the more likely the distributor will pay you to watch it somehow, either by providing feeds free to the distribution channel, or by ads or whatnot, or just by making the content as lurid as Jerry Springer or Maury Povitch, who are just really really gross.

This all does a pretty decent job of burying the good stuff beneath the noise of commercial distribution. How many really good bands you might catch at a bar get known? How much good writing makes it beyond the Harry Potterish drivel (and they are so greedy they won't even let you read it on your Kindle!)? How many good TV shows? 

Well, I wouldn't know since I don't watch it. I guess there is some really really good TV out there. Mostly, it has a subversive theme, like living off pot sales, or maybe making fun of undertakers. I've heard of such things, but every time I try to watch it I get bored out of my skull since I might have written it myself. 

I like to watch stuff like Mongolian Ping-Pong, which is nothing like anything I could ever imagine all on my own. I don't really like to watch people like me anymore, or sports where you pretty much already know someone's going to win. It isn't that thrilling to laugh at someone who makes jokes like I would make if I could make jokes. Anyhow, being famous seems to make one rich just in and of itself, vis Kardashian (I've heard), and so I really don't see what all the fuss about copyright is. People should just want their stuff all out there all the time. And then they'd be famous and then they'd be rich. 

Well, what do I know?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No Brainer

I tend to be contrarian, which is perhaps another way to say I'm jealous of people who get credit for saying things I've wanted to say. I find the ways that they are just a little bit wrong. Take this guy, for instance, who talks about how books will disappear beneath reading as a social activity. He goes way further than those who worry that electronic publishing will ruin the book culture by undermining the economics of it, just as has already happened to news media.

I own a Kindle now, and even gave one to my daughter who also didn't want to like it. Even at her tender age, she worries about nice things going away. But the thing I differ with Bob Stein about is that what will change will not be the nature of reading. It will be the economics of reading, along with everything else.

Words worth reading, after all, represent the intense investment not just of time, but of one's self and cumulative learning. They are by their nature static and permanent, and in most ways represent the better part of oneself. The part that is edited and better than sincere and rendered up with care that others might enjoy it. Well, except for narcissistic blogging, which is just plain uncivilized. Sorry, but it's true.

If I were a true blogger, I'd write about stuff I was already known for, or knew enough about that I would be worth reading on a given topic. Then I'd be moving in the direction of social reading, building up my cred and becoming noteworthy enough to be able to make a living on my persona. I could give talks or publish books or get appointed to a nice college, or get paid by a periodical. Instead I'm just another narcissist.

Social reading is so much like conversation - it's here and now and current. Its promise on the positive side is that it might take away the copyright privileges of bogus institutions like the Ivy Leagues, say, which reserve such outrageous right to predetermine who is worthy of attention. People can become known as worthy of attention even without credentials. Which, of course, has its bad side too.

I was taken a bit aback the other day when a young fellow of my acquaintance announced that he would be getting his textbooks at some grey-market site whose name I can't remember, quipping something which amounts to "copyright is theft." Or maybe that's just the way that I would put it. Surely in the case of college textbook publishing, it sometimes seems the case. I'd love to know if his position is well thought out, or just some sort of street-smarts credo. The trouble is that lots of young people don't seem really to enjoy the kind of heavy conversation I'm still into. Even talk is social now to the point of shorthanding predetermined responses.

But imagine if, as Bob Stein predicts, the value of text actually does decrease to zero. What will be the harm? We will move in the direction where China remains and always has been. Those who take the trouble to reproduce texts make a little bit of money on the product, whatever form it takes. Readers pay attention to authoritative sources. Authors get nil, other than position in society, which has been a function of literacy for as long as there has been China. Prove yourself in writing, and we'll give you position. Not bad, actually.

Wouldn't it be nice if we stopped rewarding beauty so extravagantly, or sports prowess, or even intelligence of the sort analogized by computers. Rewarding actual work wouldn't be so bad. Paying writers to write, based on their demonstrated ability might be a better model than to reward the popularity contest of the publishing market as currently construed. Do we really think that music is better by virtue of the recording labels? There are only a few bestsellers, and the rest of the writing world can just go pound salt. Really!

If the value of text reduces to zero, the value of actual writing may skyrocket in ways quite different from those in evidence right now. Which puts me in the mind to talk about healthcare, but I'll spare you that for now . . .

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Acting Out!

"Home" for the holidays, I have to turn on my legacy computer to redo my taxes, since who knows where the TurboTax CD went after my daughter used it, and I don't have a CD player on my more-often-used mini-laptop anyhow. It seems my daughter and I have both claimed her as a deduction, and monetary pain awaits one or both of us but far worse might be in store if one or both of us fails to face the music.

But I'm wise to pain. When I went to hear my nephew play - well OK scream - in a Clash tribute band, I wore my chainsaw earplugs, no matter how stupid they looked. I glanced around and saw quite a few more discreet earplugs among the throngs, but I never did care for cool all that much as you can see . . .

Well hell I also watched Joaquin Phoenix perpetrate a hoax on the whole word of who gives a shit anyhow, like this is authentic acting channeling a nutcakes version of himself that is all too believable and what makes it any less authentic than the version of himself who does Letterman more straight up. What the hell can straight up mean anyhow?

I think my nephew put a bit more into his act than Phoenix did. And he had to do this in front of his entire extended family, and so what can an actor do that a rock star hasn't already done. To abase himself. Although a tribute band is not quite the real thing, I guess. I guess genuinely mentally ill people get no credit for being themselves either. Just now I said the chaplet of divine mercy with my schizophrenic cousin, and neither of us was really acting, although I can't say I think reciting this does a damned thing good for anyone. Well, except for my cousin who is comforted by my recitation.

And as you can see in the previous post, I also helped my bro-in-law pare down a video of his recent Big Wall Climb at Yosemite which is fairly real, but not real in the sense that there's real danger other than to be caught out while having medical issues or something. Or miscalculating on the many layers of redundant protection. It doesn't look all that fun to me, but that's not for me to say. Fun and thrill and danger for me consist in tapping on this keyboard here and now.

So, I guess I have to go and bring my old legacy computer up to date. What a pain!! That must be what it would feel like if you could freeze yourself and then boot up in some future date when there is a cure for mortality. You'd have to update all the virus protection and patches before you could even get to work, not to mention the glitches in the tax code embodied by that version of Turbo Tax which apparently wasn't adequate to get you to do it right in the first place, which along with the notice that all the money I've paid out to keep my VW going beyond any reasonable lifetime is maybe reimbursable since the issues I had were issues that everyone was having but didn't catch in time like I did. I mean I don't exactly feel cheated or did I just cheat death which is what should have happened to everyone who was so victimized by something falling short of perfection and having to be paid attention to in order to remain viable????

Such a drone! But hey, at least I'm not a rock star.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Last Man: the Travesty of Attribution

No real surprise here, Mark Zuckerberg is Time's Person of the Year. Yes, sure, you could say that Facebook changed my life. In some technical sense, without it I wouldn't be on the West Coast and I wouldn't be "in a relationship."

Time magazine, again predictably, distinguishes the Man from the person depicted in the recent and very good film about Zuckerberg at Harvard. Many of us already know that even a documentary about someone's life is not that life. Even an article in Time, reported first person, is not reality in any sure sense of the term. But larger than Life is what the attribution is all about. A person, finally, who has no life apart from his public one. A person whose life is over, with nothing left inside.

More than anything else, Time's tradition is a recognition that we in the West want nothing more than to attribute things, ultimately to God, and perhaps along the way to folks who can drop out of things the rest of us would almost kill to be admitted to. It goes without saying that Zuckerberg is a "coding genius." I rather doubt it. But the narrative requires it. There's a clue in there as to veracity.

I once taught the History of  Science to a bunch of gifted kids. I was committing a form of abuse in that I was way too busy trying to run the school to pretend that I could devote any serious time to preparing and teaching an actual class. So most of the sessions were bull sessions, and the only one excited, really, was me.

Taking advantage of my privilege to approve whatever the hell I wanted to do, I also remember having a really hard time getting the students to risk any conjectural position for the sake of opening a discussion. They must have been utterly stymied by what it was I wanted from them. Well, that's my excuse for doing all the talking.

And surely no-one shared my intellectual excitement when I offered up the example of  'who invented firearms anyhow?' It's very hard for us Westerners to rid the world of our models for reality where "ideas" are born on some inner side of the boundary of our minds. And then we impose these ideas on the world around us. We express ourselves, and we manipulate the dull stuff of reality until it takes on some shape that couldn't and didn't ever appear in nature without us.

But you know, before there were firearms, there were fireworks in China. Bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder, and plugged on each end. It doesn't take too much imagination to picture one of those stoppers popping out before the bamboo bursts and changing a non-directional percussion into the launching of a deadly projectile. This would not be so much an idea made real as it would be the discovery among artifacts of a new design which might require tweaking if ones goal were to enhance the deadliness of the projectile.

Zuckerberg is no inventor either. He found himself, like some boy who pulls a sword from a stone, at a certain place and at a certain time and exercised coding skills which - contrary to Time's assertion - lots and lots of people could exercise far better than he could. But they weren't where he was - Harvard - and they didn't see the nature of student socializing.

Perhaps like a blind man hearing sounds that no-one else pays any attention to, Zuckerberg decided to embody, in the form of Internet-based code, a machine to facilitate the vectors for socializing that he saw being excercized all around him.

And suddenly we're all back in touch with people we once knew in high school, or in college, and we're pushing the limits of those 150 or so people we have room for in our hearts as friends. But you have to wonder if serendipity is enhanced, or if, once again, we've found a way to channel serendipity, to boost the odds and to make it easier to roll the dice of everyday life to get a kind of seeming serendipity. Blind again to the really strange stuff happening all around us beyond the circle of those who already know us, or once did.

I don't have any strong opinion on the goodness or rightness of what Zuckeberg gets credited with. I think he's a little bit young to be called "Person of the Year" without at least doing that mirror thing Time did a couple of years ago, and crediting the rest of us with needing to be provided with the insights he apparently had about us.

Hell, if we keep pushing the paradigm, Time will have to declare a Baby Person of the Year, and as always, it will be coming up on Christmas where the choice becomes politically mandated. But really now, a couple of thousand years ago it was also the time and not the Man alone which was right for the Crossroads of humans coming to consciousness.

Even artists talking about their work (I've taken an unscientific poll across the years of my entire life so far) can't resist using terms which can be translated back into something approximately identical to 'expressing an idea.' Ultimately, this is an ego move, designed so that we can take credit for the accident of our talent, and our lucky position among social capital which made it possible to manipulate our environment in ways that fellow travelers in these cushy environs will appreciate.

I always listen for the artist who gets the Taoist notion of the uncarved block. The one who recognizes that the "intentional fallacy" is the stumbling block of the entire Western experiment. Artist as expert about the artist's own work is as idiotic as finding in Palin, Stern or Beck some intelligence just because they happen to command an audience. There's nothing there. There's emptiness and a robotic habit to apply the same technique to everything until it doesn't work anymore.

And that won't mean that the person has lost her touch. It just means the world of mankind has grown beyond it. And in the case of the plastic artist, the work really is worth more than the person. It endures as something which always was beyond its creator.

One might easily suppose that if Zuckerberg hadn't coded Facebook, someone else would have. Those other fallen-by-the-wayside attempters can kick themselves for being just a bit off from what we the people really wanted, or they can do what most of us do and be glad that we're not quite the emptied vessel which the accomplishment of perfect expression would mandate that we'd become.

It's OK to be normal, I hope. Being gifted is generally a liability. I mean, if you're a talented violinist, that means you're almost certain to be a failure at being the one people pay money to hear. Should you stop playing?

So, it's not Zuckerberg who can or should be credited with changing the Face of civilization. That was already well underway. He gets to be the focal point, and in a build-up to what Baby Jesus did, he gets to be both more and less than what the rest of us are.

Money is getting ready for post-oil reality, flowing into personalities, flowing into machine embodiments of ideas which never could occur in nature. But it is the nature of Nature to prevail. It is the nature of man, as animal, to disappear with nary a trace left behind. It won't be the words we spread on Facebook which endure. It won't be ethereal friends which take us home.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Will the Real ID Please Identify Itself?!

Some days, I swear, I would just like to have an actual identity. Something I can hang my hat on and call me for the purposes of employment and getting on with getting on. Still, on those days I'm glad I don't have a really real identity like Julian Assange or Liu Xiaobo, whose lives were effectively over the moment they realized that they were in their moment of truth.

There are so many funny things going on all at once these days! You have the whole WikiLeaks travesty, the Nobel peace prize being taken as an indictment of the Chinese government, crooks wearing Hollywood fake identities, and Hollywood re-presenting actual spooks as speakers of truth to power.

It would seem that Assange has fallen into some kind of understandable paranoia in contrast to Xiaobo's serenity, but it's in that strange category of  'even the paranoid have real enemies.' He knows he's targeted and hated by many in power, and he remains in a state of wanting to survive, which must be relatable to wanting to get laid. He seems tormented, or maybe it's his fan-club which is concocting this poison pill fail-safe of the "thermonuclear" trove of still more embarrassing leaked documents that they were apparently too scrupulous to let loose previously. Or were they just preparing their arsenal?

But that still seems a contrast to Liu Xiaobo and you have to honor the Nobel committee for being able to tell the difference unless they're just cuing/queuing up Assange for next year's prize. Liu seems already to have decided, long since, that his life is over: had only one direction to be lived out and that would be the direction of rule of law and (western-style?) freedom for China. Then you have the Chinese government at odds with seemingly the entire Western World about what they think is good for we the people, and granting such vitality to at least one person who can feel that totally alive on his extended reverse-Procrustean death-bed.

On the one side, you have plain criminals who have figured out that they can dress in silicone parodies of stereotyped crooks, and thus automatically deflect attention from who they really are. But you also have this asylum seeker who wanted to look more innocent. You have vigilantes out to get Mr. Leaker, but you also have freedom fighters on his side demonstrating their power against the likes of MasterCard and PayPal, wanting to teach them a lesson about denial of service and having corporate opinions. Or about pandering to perceived patriotic principles when they still accept contributions to the KKK since maybe nobody makes a stink about that and hey, business is business.

I'm trying to sell a car on Craig's list and find that there are more people employed in the art of seducing me into falling for some Internet trap than there are earnest and legitimate buyers. Caveat Emptor becomes something more like sell at your own risk and the employed are now all organized bandits, or was Jerry Rubin always right?

Hell, step out into public and you might be targeted for things you've never even heard about. What would you do if you were to find yourself the one on the hot seat with a public choice between honor and survival? Or even between comfort and turmoil? What if your blog starts getting comments other than the kind which are transparently part of someone else's self-promotion? Or is all you've got to do is to say something everyone in the world wants to agree with or disagree with or gawk at like a train wreck?

I'm making a kind of valiant attempt to rehabilitate my lapsed career as a professional involved with China. Aging transcripts seem to mean as much as what I might know right now, which is not so much a function of current reading and scholarship as it is of  a life-long habit of paying attention to things in ways different because of my once deep and serious study of things classically Chinese.

What's really real in all of this? Sometimes people have to disguise themselves just to be treated fairly at all. One has to pass for whatever the norm is where one wants to be protected and it can be courageous just to dress in native garb when you're out of your element. Sometimes one has to trot out a paper reality to substantiate the real one. Sometimes one just wants, earnestly, to be taken as oneself without, paradoxially, the need to assert some selfness in the process. You tell me! How the hell do I know who I am????

Last night I watched that film about Valerie Plame which I thought was quite well done. Simple recitations of the facts can lead to interesting themes. This guy, Joe Wilson, an ambassador who oddly doesn't seem quite to have it made therefore, marries a quite evident babe who's adept at leading a secret life, the details of which aren't even known to her husband. I guess being an ambassador ain't what it used to be. Maybe it's just a living, the way that working for The Company apparently is. Maybe there just isn't any more natural aristocracy Jeffy.

And then in this film portrayal of something approaching reality you have the White House, the seat of global power, acting for all the world like a lowly grifter, putting forward an image so utterly at odds with the reality that you'd have to really really want to believe - like being in love maybe or thinking you can get rich quick - to go along with their bald-faced lying.

There's another film upcoming about the King of England having to learn to speak in public so that the people can be rallied in the face of unspeakable horror. He has to put on a good false front, and he, apparently from the reality trailers, hires a nobody to do the training. How does this happen in a reality which so trails the movies?

Evidently, I can't really write, right? I have all these brilliant little points of light floating around in the soup of words which passes for my mind, and somehow, for some reason, I lack the discipline or training or self-belief or inborn talent to order them in ways that mesh with something in the future to cause them to crystallize here in the present on what was once a blank space.

I re-read myself as a fool and tip over into a kind of despair at what it is I just can't do, quite. I read the writings of published and accomplished voices and I see myself falling so short. Of young and talented voices. Of natural voices, and I just wish I were the analog of Valerie Plame or King George to be believable on my face no matter what, of substance, was lacking in actual fact.

And yet, I soldier on. Knowing full well that the blank page is always all that's between oneself and ones future. That scientific induction is really just a matter of teasing out the actual connections from the merely metaphoric and that at its root this is a fool's game because, apart from machinery which we construct - and even that doesn't always work flawlessly - all connections are probabilistic at best. There's always room for insertion of intentionality and therefore room to fool oneself.

I look on the blank page as I fill it and find, I'm afraid, even a little less than you might. I look to the fringes of the knowable universe and find nothing there in the direction of certainty, nor even a mirror nor even something very much not me. I am a diminutive jot.

As if there were ever anything other to be. Dutiful like a good Chinaman who still might be jettisoned overboard on his way across the mighty Niagara. Earnest like someone who believes that his word must be kept. Authentic likes someone whose greatest care is to appear not like anyone else. I'll take my chances being me. It ain't always easy. Sometimes I just wish it would happen all by itself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Allergic to What?

Finally, the other shoe drops on the nuttiness (pun allowed) of certain tony private schools and some public ones in tony locations where no parent can bring in cupcakes anymore, and peanut butter is outlawed. Well, of course peanut butter should be outlawed. It's a known carcinogen! Just not in airplanes.

These are the places where falling short of perfection requires medical investigation, and where it's presumed healthy to hover eternally over your kids for their sake. Anything short of some earthly approximation of paradise for kids in these places is to be eradicated like a disease bug. And heaven forfend that they be warehoused in daycare while parents work.

Play dates might spread a different kind of competitive germ, though. Transmitted among parents and with no immunity in sight.

Oh please may my daughter get in to Yale. But there are crazies out there who actually think that immunizations cause autism. The same ones who believe that GWB and company brought down the trade towers? And just what does divide those of us who rely on scientifically validated medical advice, from those who mistrust everything coming from some sanctioned, as opposed to sanctified, authority?

Could this be it, then? A litmus test, a quasi-scientific way to determine what it is that makes those who love Sarah Palin also hate gay marriage, public schooling, evolution, and immunization? That makes wealthy liberal types certain that their little princeling could do so much better if peanuts were avoided. Look for the allergic reaction and you will find it. Or could we all be overgeneralizing?

Fussy allergies makes you a hard-headed realist about food, while conspiracy theories make you an extremist wacko. Ah, but certainly it is true that information proliferates like a virus and will soon overwhelm our ability to assimilate. We need machines to sort it all out; to predigest the stuff our brains will feed on.  And these machines are, of course, the very paragon of hard-headed neutrality of opinion. Maybe it's information we are overdosed with, and we need hookworms in our thinking to even take our first mental step away from indigestion and inflammation.

Or do we have entirely the wrong notion of what it is that constitutes intelligence? Perhaps there is no equation between man and machine and bits of information. Other than the fact that we relinquish so much of our prerogative to our tools. Perhaps you can't increase the number of words in common usage any more than you can over-elaborate the mind beyond its physical substrate.

Wouldn't it be funny if it turns out that the mind can shape and bring to our attention only so much signal from among the noise, and that the proliferation of so-called "information" is in fact driving us back down the ladder of civilization toward some kind of beastly dumbness?

Well, not so funny really. The proper response to being expected to be a superstar is to shut down and refuse any further input. To show an allergic reaction of the mind. Or perhaps to become like Sarah Palin or Paris Hilton or Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or any of the seeming hordes of well-placed attention-magnets who snap at certainties or claim the right of celebrity without any more foundation in their prominence than a lizard in the sun. Sitting on a rock. I'm just sayin'.