Geeks claim to know what it’s like to love art that’s been neglected or reviled by their culture. Well, this is the status of fans of traditional high culture now; those who like opera, jazz, experimental fiction, theater, and other types of traditional high culture are generally ignored in our mass media. When they are thought of at all, it is as snobby and irrelevant. Geeks now need to recognize their great fortune, enjoy it and extend a little sympathy in the direction of us sad few who prefer other things.
Yet I wonder if any such recognition is even possible at this point. My fear is not merely that the geeks will never come to acknowledge their triumph, as comfortable as they are in their self-professed victimhood. I fear too that we have come to so thoroughly associate fandom with grievance that the two are now inextricable. That, I suspect, is the long-term consequence of the rise of the geeks: that we no longer know how to enjoy art without enjoying it against others. That’s a bitter, juvenile way to approach art, and if it’s the real legacy of the rise of the geeks, it’s an ugly legacy indeed.
“In other words, the Christian alternative to the post-religious spirituality outlined earlier is not simply ‘religion’ as some sort of intellectual and moral system but the corporately experienced reality of the Kingdom, the space that has been cleared in human imagination and self-understanding by the revealing events of Jesus’ life. Standing in this place, I am made aware of what is fundamental and indestructible about my human identity: that I am the object of divine intention and commitment, a being freely created and never abandoned. Standing in this place, I am also challenged to examine every action or policy in my life in the light of what I am; and I am, through the common life of the ‘Assembly’, made able to change and to be healed, to feed and be fed in relations with others in the human city. Faced with the claims of non-dogmatic spirituality, the believer should not be insisting anxiously on the need for compliance with a set of definite propositions; he or she should be asking whether what happens when the Assembly meets to adore God and lay itself open to his action looks at all like a new and transforming environment, in which human beings are radically changed.”—The Spiritual and the Religious: Is the Territory Changing? - Rowan Williams. I can’t imagine a more important paragraph for today’s Christians to meditate on. Seriously, this whole address is absolutely vital.
“Instead of accepting a common opinion that Twitter is slowly replacing RSS readers, we should flip that around. What kind of changes could be made to RSS readers to embrace microblogging and make Twitter itself less important? Because once we do that, we get back control of our own short-form content and at the same time encourage open tools that will survive independent of whatever happens with Twitter and Facebook in the future.”—Microblog links | Manton Reece. EGG-ZACTLY.
Revolutionaries readily sacrifice living people to achieve the glorious future. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, they tell us, but while the eggs are surely broken, the omelet is never made. If people are sacrificed for an ever-receding goal, Herzen argues, then sacrifice is all there will ever be. The greatest tyranny results from the attempt to abolish it altogether. In the book’s most quoted passage, the skeptic asks:
If progress is the end, for whom are we working?… Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive today to the sad role of … wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows?… This alone should serve as a warning to people: An end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer — it ought to be, at the very least, the laborer’s wage, or pleasure in the work done.
Each present moment, and each human life, is precious in itself, not just as a means to some exalted goal. This is a lesson revolutionaries never seem to learn.
He said a day came at the hospital when his doctors summoned him down to a room, where he sat “like a monkey, hunched over on a stool,” while about 10 people looked at him. At this point, he was labor-camp thin. “Unshaved for weeks.”
One of them said, “You’re very sick, and you’re very psychotic, and we can take care of you.”
They told him they wanted him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He could take time to think about it. A nurse led him back into the hallway and down to his room.
The news destroyed him. Not because he didn’t believe them, that it was the best thing for him, nor even because he feared the procedure itself (though naturally it terrified him to face it), but because he believed it would mean the end of him as a writer. That his talent would be scattered. His brains scrambled. The mechanism disassembled. Not to write? A living death. What would it even mean to go about your day?
Also he felt that it was, he said, “a confirmation that I would never leave hospitals.”
He sat down on a chair. “Not 20 minutes later,” he said, “a patient called out, ‘Mr. Antrim, there’s a phone call for you.’ ” He shuffled down to the phones near the medication dispensary. He picked up.
“Donald,” a voice said, “this is Dave Wallace. I heard you were in bad shape.”
“Future shock is over. Apple Watch reveals that we suffer a new affliction: . The excitement of a novel technology (or anything, really) has been replaced—or at least dampened—by the anguish of knowing its future burden. This listlessness might yet prove even worse than blind boosterism or cynical naysaying. Where the trauma of future shock could at least light a fire under its sufferers, future ennui exudes the viscous languor of indifferent acceptance. It doesn’t really matter that the Apple Watch doesn’t seem necessary, no more than the iPhone once didn’t too. Increasingly, change is not revolutionary, to use a word Apple has made banal, but presaged.”—Future Ennui
“In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.”—Edward Mendelson, Early Auden
I wrote this for the Oxford American a long time ago (Issue 27/28). I’ve added YouTube links.
Forget about the marriage — his third, her first — to the thirteen-year-old cousin, Myra Gail Brown. (“I plumb married the girl, didnít I?” he asked, plaintively, not comprehending the outrage that almost ruined his career; to him, it wasn’t as though he had seduced and abandoned her.) Forget that both Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley are his cousins. Forget all the stories — for example, the one about how his career as a preacher-to-be ended when he was expelled from Bible college for turning the hymns he played into raucous roadhouse anthems. Forget the Lewis Ranch, in Nesbit, Mississippi, that scaled-down Graceland which occasionally gets attached by the IRS but currently features for its guests “The Killer’s Kar Kollection.” Forget the plain-faced bragging: “My only regret in life,” he said not long ago, “is that I’ve never sat in the audience and watched a Jerry Lee Lewis show.” There are many other things people claim he said, most of them being braggadocious too; forget all of them.
Of course, I’m asking too much. Long, long ago Jerry Lee Lewis became those stories, those reports, those scandals: taken together, they constitute The Killer. But every now and then I almost forget, and when that happens I hear the songs. Not “Great Balls of Fire,” not “Whole Lotta Shakiní Goin’ On.” I doubt I’ll ever be able to hear those again. But take another song, a relatively unknown one: when “Great Balls of Fire” came out in 1957, the B-side was a Hank Williams cover, “You Win Again.” When Hank Sr. did it, it was terrific, a classic guitar-based country blues. But Jerry Lee and his piano take it altogether elsewhere: the rolling boogie-woogie bass line in the left hand, sounding almost like Fats Waller at times, the gospel chords and blues licks with the right, the max-reverb vocal soaring above it all — it’s a masterpiece, nothing less, and though Hank wrote the song Jerry Lee makes it utterly his own. Listening to “You Win Again” you wonder, for a moment, why Elvis is Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis just another “legend of rock and roll.” You think, the momentum could have swung the other way.
But, largely because of the disastrous marriage to Myra in 1958, it didn’t. When the news got out, promoters canceled Lewis’s concert dates and record store managers swept his records off the shelves. It would be the better part of a decade before Jerry Lee could reassemble his career into something reasonably whole, and he achieved the reassembly, in large part, by preserving and even exaggerating every quirky trait that he had become famous for in those early days: the heavy-fisted glissandos, the constant thundering boogie rhythms, the vocal squeals and hiccups — and yes, stomping on the piano, that kind of thing too. But eventually Lewis extracted a kind of magnificence even from self-parody.
Twenty-three years after “You Win Again” he released his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in his hands a song completely without restraint or taste. “You Win Again” sounds demure in comparison. Someone once said that Casablanca is a great movie not because it avoids film clichés, but because it joyfully employs every possible cliché into its two hours; Jerry Lee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is like that. He simply wonít acknowledge the clash between his trademark mannerisms and the song’s style and structure: he takes the old classic and unhesitatingly filters it through his sensibility, making no compromises and taking no prisoners. It goes in Judy Garland and comes out the Killer. As I listen to the song, a part of me says that he’s simply crazy, laughably crazy; but I also recall that we sometimes have another name for this abject refusal to swerve or be sidetracked. That other part of me says: if this ain’t genius I don’t know what is.
That Confucius’s characterization of the [Zhou] period as a golden age may have been an idealization is irrelevant. Continuity with a “golden age” lent his vision greater authority and legitimacy, and such continuity validated the rites and practices he advocated. This desire for historical authority and legitimacy—during a period of disrupture and chaos—may help to explain Confucius’s eagerness to present himself as a mere transmitter, a lover of the ancients. Indeed, the Master’s insistence on mere transmission notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that from his study and reconstruction of the early Zhou period he forged an innovative—and enduring—sociopolitical vision. Still, in his presentation of himself as reliant on the past, nothing but a transmitter of what had been, Confucius established what would become something of a cultural template in China. Grand innovation that broke entirely with the past was not much prized in the pre-modern Chinese tradition. A Jackson Pollock who consciously and proudly rejected artistic precedent, for example, would not be acclaimed the creative genius in China that he was in the West. Great writers, great thinkers, and great artists were considered great precisely because they had mastered the tradition—the best ideas and techniques of the past. They learned to be great by linking themselves to past greats and by fully absorbing their styles and techniques. Of course, mere imitation was hardly sufficient; imitation could never be slavish. One had to add something creative, something entirely of one’s own, to mastery of the past.
Thus when you go into a museum gallery to view pre-modern Chinese landscapes, one hanging next to another, they appear at first blush to be quite similar. With closer inspection, however, you find that this artist developed a new sort of brush stroke, and that one a new use of ink-wash, and this one a new style of depicting trees and their vegetation. Now that your eye is becoming trained, more sensitive, it sees the subtle differences in the landscape paintings, with their range of masterful techniques an expression. But even as it sees the differences, it recognizes that the paintings evolved out of a common landscape tradition, in which artists built consciously on the achievements of past masters.
“[A] kimono is made from exactly one bolt of fabric. The way the pattern of a kimono is constructed, not one scrap of fabric remains after the garment is completed. Once the kimono showed signs of wear, it began a long line of transformations - from Sunday best to an everyday item of clothing. When it was further worn, the kimono would be used as a sleeping gown or shortened to make an outdoor jacket. When further worn, the jacket would be turned into a bag or an apron. Finally, layers of scraps were sashiko quilted together into dust cloths. But sashiko was also used to strengthen fabric and in the north, it was used to secure layers of fabric together for protection against the elements. What began as utilitarian stitching began to be used as a decorative element as well and patterns evolved from the daily lives of the quilters.”—Sashiko by Cortney Heimerl (via lizettegreco)
I don’t have any advice [for younger writers]. You are asking me to live in an era other than the one that formed me. But I will tell you this: An editor in New York told me the other day that, even as the reading audience for serious prose has diminished, the unsolicited manuscripts she receives are better than ever. Even while I think we are leaving the splendid Victorian age of serious popular literature—novels and poetry—we may be entering the Elizabethan Age, when few in London read, but there was an intensity of thought and beauty to the prose, and the poetry, and, of course, the plays.
Religion still reveres the book—just visit a yeshiva if you want to see devotion to the weight of the holy word. But in our secular lives the digital revolution seems to have eroded the great age of the middle-class reader. And without readers what are we? Half-writers whose sentences are never completed by the stranger’s eyes.
I tell young writers not to give a single sentence away. Charge for every noun! Beyond the matter of strategy, the question really is whether our society needs complicated thought or expressions of beauty that reveal themselves only slowly and with difficulty. The question is whether a civilization can forget the pleasure of difficult, beautiful writing so thoroughly as to ignore its loss.
If history matters – and I think it does just like sentiment and family matter – then whatever this place’s shortcomings and mistakes it’s worth recalling that it’s also the country of William Wilberforce and Alan Turing as well as Adam Smith and Thomas Paine. That should count for something. We are different but not separate. I think of it as being like the relationship between Boswell and Johnson. They complement one another. You may even think they complete one another. There’d be a smaller Johnson without Boswell but a lesser Boswell without Johnson. They improved each other.
Most of all, I like that when you get the train to Scotland from London or Peterborough or Newcastle north and you cross the border in the gloaming you feel your heart soar and you cry hurrah and yippee because you know you’re home now without having been abroad. I like that and think it matters. I don’t know if I know why it does or why it suddenly seems so valuable but I know I do. But that’s the Britain I know and like; a place in which I’m always Scottish but also, when it suits, British too. A country where you travel to very different places and still always come home without having been abroad.
“If Reddit wants to be thought of as a government, we’ll call it what it is: a failed state, unable to control what happens within its borders. At minimum, Reddit is a kleptocracy that speaks to lofty virtues while profiting from vice. It might be forgivable if we were talking about taxing cigarettes and booze, but we’re not talking about that. What we’re talking about is more like sexual assault, condoned by a state that earns revenue from it. “Reddit doesn’t have much of an interest in banning questionable content,” Wong wrote last year. “‘Family-friendly’ is out, ‘edgy’ is in.” Are those the words of a president, or a pimp?”—Reddit is a failed state | The Verge. Agreed — But it’s a failed state that thinks of itself as a model and pattern for all other states. That’s the scary part.
“There’s a current problem in biomedical research,” says American biochemist Robert Lefkowitz, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. “The emphasis is on doing things which are not risky. To have a grant proposal funded, you have to propose something and then present what is called preliminary data, which is basically evidence that you’ve already done what you’re proposing to do. If there’s any risk involved, then your proposal won’t be funded. So the entire system tends to encourage not particularly creative research, relatively descriptive and incremental changes which are incremental advances which you are certain to make but not change things very much.”—Is there a creativity deficit in science?
Is it uncharitable to want a book that achieves so much to do more? Perhaps. Taken on its own terms, “The Human Age” is a dazzling achievement: immensely readable, lively, polymathic, audacious. But as the Anthropocene becomes a defining paradigm of our time, it matters how we frame the challenges ahead. It’s easy to agree with Ackerman’s assessment that “a warmer world won’t be terrible for everyone, and it’s bound to inspire new technologies and good surprises, not just tragedy.” But her assertion deserves a follow-up question: Who is in line for the good surprises, and who is queuing up for tragedy? Hurricane Sandy brought precisely that question to the fore. Manhattan? Too valuable to lose. Bangladesh, even Far Rockaway, not so much.
The science writer Elizabeth Kolbert has tweeted, “Two words that probably should not be used in sequence: ‘good’ & ‘anthropocene.’ ” Ackerman’s Anthropocene, however, is decidedly sunny side up. Her instinct is to celebrate this new age: “We are dreamsmiths and wonderworkers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts.” That we are, but we also possess more sobering powers, a recklessness and greed that will be inscribed in the fossil record. Ackerman’s optimism can feel eerily unearned in the absence of a measured acknowledgment of the losses, the traumas, the scars that afflict human and nonhuman communities in this volatile new age. At least pause to ponder this: Is it ethical that as the superrich capture ever more resources, the poor, who have contributed least to our planet’s undoing, are forced to bear the brunt of the chaotic effects?
Until the late 19th century, according to historian Howard Chudacoff, age wasn’t such a defining fact about people’s lives. A professor at Brown University and the author of the book “How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture,” Chudacoff found that for most of the country’s history, people of different ages tended to mingle: Families were bigger, generations often worked side by side, and kids and adults got their entertainment at the same county fairs. Schoolchildren, meanwhile, were often assigned to classes based on how much they knew rather than when they were born.
All that changed with the Industrial Revolution. Child labor laws kept children out of dangerous factory jobs; older people were also deemed badly suited for new kinds of physically demanding work. Society began to divide people up into distinct stages. “Standardization spilled over into many different facets of life,” Chudacoff says, including the way people thought about the passage of time. Schools introduced so-called age-batching; birthdays became a bigger deal. In health care, pediatrics and gerontology broke off from the rest of medicine.
Today we divide people into generations and micro-generations almost obsessively, spending energy and marketing dollars trying to understand how millennials are constitutionally distinct from Gen-Xers. In dividing everybody into categories—tweens, thirtysomethings, senior citizens—our society implicitly treats age as a force that separates us.
“It’s not the sort of accomplishment that ESPN is likely to crow about, but Philadelphia Phillies center-fielder Ben Revere is on track to set an astonishing baseball record—a mark that says as much about the game today as Barry Bonds’s 73 home runs said about the swollen biceps that defined the early 21st century. Revere is currently batting just over .313, higher than any other player in the National League. That figure would match the lowest batting title in the NL’s 138-year history and the fourth lowest in baseball since 1900. Can’t anybody hit, these days?”—
The Simple Technology That Accidentally Ruined Baseball. I think Derek Thompson is absolutely right that the introduction of the Pitch f/x camera system has changed the way that umpires call balls and strikes, and that that has empowered pitchers and resulted in less offense. But I want to disagree with his essay in other ways.
First of all, throughout it Thompson equates offense and power, or home runs. But while home runs are the most efficient way to score runs, they aren’t the only way. In the history of baseball, there have been very high-scoring offenses with few power hitters. It’s true that we’re not likely to get another situation like, say, Busch Stadium in the 1980s, when Willie McGee could pound a ball onto a thinly-covered concrete infield and be at first base before the it made re-entry, but there are a good many things that hitters could do to improve their chances that virtually none of them are doing. And that would be something to worry about even if more accurate umpiring was their only problem — which it isn’t.
On defense, MLB teams today employ extreme defensive shifts for one simple reason: they know that hitters won’t adjust to them. It has been a long, long time since big-league hitters, or hitters on any other level for that matter, practiced real situational hitting. I suspect that very few current players even know that there was a time when striking out was so frowned upon that every hitter with the exception of Ted Williams was expected, when the count hit two strikes, to choke up on the bat and shorten his stroke.
No, those were not the Good Old Days, and the game wasn’t better then. I’m just wondering: Could the combination of a larger strike zone and pervasive defensive shifting mean that hitters need to become more resourceful, more adaptable, more situational? I think that that could increase the tactical complexity of the game. And somebody needs to try something, because hitters are losing ground pretty significantly. They’re the ones who need to react — unless, of course, they just want to keep on declining until MLB addresses the problem by changing the strike zone, as it has done so many times in the past. But I’d prefer to see hitters make that unnecessary.
“Inevitably, I looked around for help; I’ve done enough liturgical work to know that there are always riches from which to borrow. That said, the Humanist material I discovered surprised me – although on reflection the problem was predictable. Like most contemporary ‘humanism’, it all failed rather badly to be nonreligious. I looked at half-a-dozen or more published patterns for a humanist funeral; every one borrowed central Christian texts, deleted the obvious references to God, and then used the filleted remains to shape the service. (Even Scripture was not immune; Eccl. 3 was several times in evidence. John Donne’s Divine Meditation XVII was also referenced more than once.) This of course reflects the reality – and the tedious banality – of too much contemporary Western atheism: take a philosophically-rich account of things; delete surface references to the divine; and assume that what is left will be meaningful or coherent or interesting. Nietzsche, the world hath need of thee…”—Steve Holmes, responding to the task of organizing a non-religious funeral for his grandmother.
“I have been saying for a while that creativity has taken the place of salvation and divine grace, which have lost credibility with the wane of religious faith. It has become the secular equivalent of hope in the afterlife. And in the process the whole phenomenon of creativity has become mystified, as behooves a concept that people use to reassure themselves about the future.”—Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, quoted in “The Cult Of Creativity” (via austinkleon)
There’s a scene in the 1961 movie The Hustler in which Paul Newman, as a wild and talented young pool player called Fast Eddie Felson, gets his first chance to play against the legendary Minnesota Fats. They’re evenly matched. The games last through the night. At a certain point, Fats, who’s portrayed by Jackie Gleason, goes into the bathroom and puts himself back together — washes his face, reknots his tie, combs his hair. Fast Eddie stays out in the bar, cracking jokes and throwing down shots. Eventually, Eddie runs out of steam. Fats prevails. The point is that Fast Eddie needs to learn to pace himself, and eventually he does; when he meets Fats again, things go differently. What’s happened in the meantime is that Eddie has suffered. He’s grown up.
Against the calm, clearheaded veteran Robredo, Kyrgios sometimes looked like he was out there throwing down bourbon shots. He didn’t look grown up. Well, maybe one day the sports psychologists will get hold of him, teach him to self-regulate. Maybe he’ll live up to his potential and win a handful of majors. But I don’t know. It’s that first scene against Fats that stays with you from The Hustler. It’s the image of talent in its most raw, most unapologetic state. If you think winning is everything in sports, you may find that hard to celebrate. But it’s a joy to watch. It’s a joy even when it loses. It’s a joy even when it burns itself up.
“But some have suggested that companies like Twitter have more nefarious motivations for refusing to address Internet harassment than a simple lack of empathy for women. Video game developer Brendan Vance has suggested that Twitter “has far more to gain from permitting this sort of bullying” in terms of increasing user engagement “than it does from preventing it.” Twitter, Vance notes, postures as a “neutral third party” while simultaneously profiting both from its marginalized users and from the “thousands of people” who “enjoy harassing” them daily. By shifting the responsibility for ending harassment to its users by including a half-hearted block function, Twitter silently collects data and revenue from serial abusers of women and minorities while being able to claim that users can prevent harassment themselves. As games journalist Ben Kuchera puts it on Polygon, pointing toward Twitter’s “soaring stock price,” this is a “tacit statement that profit comes before people.” Jezebel’s editors too, had the impression that “Gawker’s leadership [was] prioritizing theoretical anonymous tipsters over a very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel’s staff and readers.””—Will the Internet Ever Be Safe for Women?
“COBOL, a language first introduced in 1959 by Grace Hopper (‘Grandma COBOL’), still processes 90 per cent of the planet’s financial transactions, and 75 per cent of all business data. You can make a comfortable living maintaining code in languages like COBOL, the computing equivalents of Mesopotamian cuneiform dialects. These ancient applications—too expensive to replace, sometimes too tangled to fix or improve—run on, serving up the data that appears on the chromed-up surface of your browser, which gives you the illusion that your bank and your local utility companies live on the technological cutting edge. But as always, the past lives on under the shiny surface of the present, and often, it is too densely tangled to comprehend.”—Most Code Is an Ugly Mess. Here’s How to Make It Beautiful
Create systems that are ambivalent about the open or closed web. If I create a tool that’s good at posting content to Facebook and Twitter, it should also post to RSS feeds, which exist outside the context of any corporation. Now other generous and innovative people can build systems that work differently from Facebook and Twitter, using these feeds as the basis, and the investors will have another pile of technology they can monetize.
If you don’t like the way the algorithms in Twitter and Facebook work, then this is how to counteract that. Re-create the level playing field we used to have. Stimulate the open web. Give us something new to play with. It isn’t “either/or” — it’s “and.”
The key point is this — in everything we do we must treat the open web as equal to the private networks. Maybe we don’t have to depend on the government to do this for us, maybe we can be a bit more systematic about encouraging the wild chaos of the open network, knowing that it leads to new tools and new opportunity to profit.