Confessions of a Weekend Nerd

Apollo. Fifty years.

We landed on the moon. I look back on it now and I am amazed. I understand some of what went into it, how challenging it was, the amazing level of commitment and dedication, and how unlikely it all might have been. As my sense of history developed, long after high school, I began to see all the incredible things people do, especially here, as sort of willed accidents. By that I mean, someone or a group of someones come up with an idea of something to do, a big something, and put it out there. Others sign on and they all move in that direction. The fact of the matter is, any of a thousand things can derail it and the idea never gets off the ground. So many things have to come together to clear the way, to maintain support, to collect the resources, that the notion that anything actually happens becomes a kind of miracle. Often, it is just timing. The idea gets all the funding and commitment and talent collected before any of the myriad roadblocks effectively arise.

The space program is one of those. When you look back at everything we could and intended that did not happen, it becomes obvious that it was an unlikely thing. By the end of the Sixties, and into the Seventies, large groups had begun challenging the whole project as a pointless, expensive, wasteful vanity project. There were more important things to do here on the ground, why are we spending so much on this when there are hungry people, when there are infrastructure projects going begging, when this or that or the other thing are so much more important. And it mounted and finally, like the nibbling of ducks, dragged the behemoth down and nearly stopped it. Nixon made his fateful choice for a shuttle rather a Mars mission and we seemed to “settle” for a considerably more modest off-world presence. Then, of course, all the funding arguments about the shuttle reduced its range and capacity and while still a remarkable instrument it was far less than the dreams of the Kennedy-era enthusiast wanted.

Life and politics happened and NASA trudged on to do still amazing things, but at a much-reduced level of imaginative possibility. A lot of Americans lost interest.

Now the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing is upon us and many people over a certain age are indulging in the “where were you when” nostalgia, and probably rewriting a lot of personal history. By the enthusiastic remembrances on exhibit, one has to wonder, if that many people had been that thrilled at the time, how did the space program ever lose ground?

My friend and colleague Allen Steele is the only person I know close to my age who was at that level of enthusiasm back then. I have no doubt he stayed home from school to watch the reports on television. He saw things I never at the time even knew happened, exciting things which, if you weren’t paying close attention, you missed. My parents were excited. Some of my classmates were thrilled but they didn’t watch.

Where was I when Neil Armstrong stepped out of a very flimsy can to walk on another world? Home, because it was one of the rare times my parents decided to keep me out of school.+ Dad made me watch.

Yes, I said “made.” Because, to be perfectly honest, the whole thing by then bored me out of my skull. Tell me about it after it happened, thank you.

I felt guilty about that later, until I heard about Robert A. Heinlein’s testimony before Congress in which he chastised them for doing such a pitiful P.R. job with the space program. He saw what had happened, they had turned it into one of those incredibly lifeless, innocuous educational films we paid no attention to in school. Bad animation, endless hours of a cartoon capsule and “live” audio of back-and-forths between Gemini and Mission Control, and the oh-so-serious commentary of people like Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman, with the occasional guest commentator like Arthur C. Clarke.

The truth is, this was a difference between the “how do we do this” crowd and the “what are we gonna do when we get there” crowd. I suspect the latter outnumbered the former, and when the answer was “collect some rocks and take some pictures” it must have rippled like a soporific grade-school lecture through us. They might have done better had they done more of the “what are we going to do next” sort of thing that popped up far too seldom, although when it did was made to sound as exciting as someone describing how they would lay new carpet.

Even back then I knew people who believed it was all fake. Challenging them about it, I sensed that really they wanted it to be fake. They didn’t want it to be real, because then they would have to pay attention to it, if only to complain about it. And then there are others who don’t want great things done. Their opinion of human beings is low, that we are more scourge than anything, and great things only sustain a set of illusions we don’t deserve to have. This is nothing new. This is a modern version of an ongoing sense that all the great things have already been done, far in the past, and that the modern world (pick your period) is a shadow of former greatness or a corruption of what we might have been. An Eclessiastical View, if you will. Then someone comes along to propose a new great thing and the struggle begins between the will to do it and those who just can’t bring themselves to let it happen.

Hence my opinion that great things are willed accidents.

But they happen. Often enough to give the rest of us aspirations, a sense of potential.

Growing up, you learn—presumably—that your desires and aspirations rise or fall on what has gone before. Why was I bored by the space program? Because it wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I wanted to be on the moon already, with the space stations already built and the mission to Mars already underway or done, and the whole space-centered future I’d been reading about since I was old enough to choose my own books in place. I was impatient. This stuff, because I was not an engineering nerd, didn’t affect me. I was the kid who was more interested in how the new cars looked rather than how they ran. I was a weekend space nerd.

But this was true about most things in my life and I have to wonder how many others were the same. I was always more interested in the next thing than in the thing in front of me. I was in a hurry to get on down the road, because—

Well, the future for me was always better than the present.

Now a curious phenomena has overtaken me and possibly thousands if not millions of others. The next thing is actually in the past. The next thing we should have done in the wake of Apollo and didn’t is now the future I was more interested in then and has now picked up where it should have left off in 1974. So Apollo has been resurrected in my imagination as a seriously amazing cool thing.

So I’ve seen the movies, have been reading the new books, and kind of glorying in this great thing that happened when I was a kid. Belatedly, I’m a fan. And NASA is building a new rocket, on par with the old Saturn V, and we have plans to return to the moon (which makes sense only in terms of rebuilding the network and infrastructure to do and maybe as a way of rallying the national imagination, but we really should be going to Mars), and suddenly we have a kind of post-Columbian* enthusiasm for doing the thing we walked away from in the Seventies. I’m studying the period now with the adult interest that might have made a difference back then and caused me to pay attention despite the mind-numbingly boring coverage.

Because if asked, back then, I would never have said it was not a desirable thing to do. I would have been thrilled that we had done it. And the suggestions at the time that maybe we shouldn’t struck me as absurd. Come the weekend, I was there. I just didn’t want to pay attention to the doing. Which is a mistake. Willed accidents do happen, in spite of the kind of ambivalence to which I refer, but that ambivalence can rob them of their full potential and sometimes derail them completely.

Doing it now seems to be acquiring a new kind of enthusiasm. But it would never happen if it had not already been done.

For the record, then, I want that future. Always did. I want us in space. I want bases on the moon, colonies on Mars, ships going hither and yon, and a striving toward the outer edge. For many reasons I want that, but first and foremost I want it because that’s where my imagination finds replenishment. Because I see that as the cool thing to do. And the doing will make us better.

Happy anniversary, Apollo. Ad astra.

 

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*In the sense that it was fully half a century to a century after Columbus made his first voyage before nations really got behind the whole effort to cross the Atlantic and establish colonies.  There does seem to be a timelag connected to these sorts of enterprises. Mind you, I make no comment here on the desirability of what happened in the wake of Columbus, but the exploratory impulse on its own is, in my opinion, an essential and basically good part of human society and character.

+ Since posting this, I have been reminded that the landing was at around 10:00 PM ET, so I would not have been kept out of school to watch. It may have been the splashdown for which I was kept home. This just goes to show how disconnected I was at the time and the way in which memory plays tricks on us.

Random Bits

No plan here, just thoughts. It’s Sunday as I begin writing this, second day for me of a four-day weekend. Timing.

Lack of attention bedevils me. I have things to do, a wide variety, and I get befuddled by which I should pay most attention. It matters because I end up scattering my attention widely and so get little done in each endeavor. Some of my friends understand this, but not all.

This morning I got out of bed (I hesitate to say “awoke” because I wouldn’t classify my condition that way) and stumbled through my morning routines. Making coffee is so embedded in my brain that I think if I sleep-walked that is one of the things I would do. Donna was already up, tending to the dog. To be honest, I felt like going back to bed, but I intuited that it would only waste time. Another hour or two would not improve my ability to feel whole, just delay it. Further honesty requires me to admit that mornings like this frighten me a little, because I feel so “off” that I think something must be wrong.

I’m just tired, really. An hour or two after getting out of bed I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. Slow but present.

I’ve had a number of conversations of late about intelligence. Genius, even. I think a genius would be internally unaware of it. My father, I sometimes feel, was a genius. Is. (Yes, he’s still alive, but now so impaired by deafness and poor sight that interaction is virtually impossible.) He never believed so. He railed about how other people seemed so stupid, how they overlooked, missed, or never figured out things which seemed so obvious to him, and he blamed laziness or prejudice or ambivalence. How could they not see? When I pointed out to him that he himself was far from ordinary, he bridled. No, that couldn’t be it. He did not see himself as a particularly smart man. But he was dogged, possessed of a degree of focus and ability to concentrate I found unachievable. His own opinion would never allow recognition of his “gifts,” if gifts they were.

I’ve been accused—recently—of being “superior.” Not a compliment.

We live in a culture that prizes knowledge only when it’s somewhere else. It’s cool when it’s on tv or in a lecture hall or, most importantly, when it makes someone a lot of money. But when it lives next door to us we resent it. When we have to talk to it every day we hate it, because it feels like someone is showing off, trying to be better than everyone else, getting off on making others feel stupid. I’ve never understood that. It’s not like all the information isn’t there for everyone to access.

It’s a choice of what we find important. As far as I’m concerned, too many people are too invested in things that don’t matter. (Is that me being judgmental? Why, yes, it is. Unapologetically. You have to choose, you have to decide. Others, I realize, level their judgment at me to the same or greater degrees. What good is that novel you just read? Isn’t that a waste of time? Well, the same could said about the goal that player just made that you reacted to orgasmically. If you’re going to judge me for having no interest in your passion, I’m going to judge you for having none in mine. Let’s lay it out and compare worth some day and see how what stacks up.)

(I have noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to intellectual pursuits. I’ve been insulted in the past for being in good physical condition. I lift weights, it shows. I’ve been treated as somehow weird by people who…well, any deviation from an assumed norm will intimidate people who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do the work to achieve something they might actually want to do. It’s as if they think they should have been born with these characteristics and when it turns out they have to do some actual work, instead of embracing the opportunities, they turn to resentment of those who do.)

I didn’t intend to complain this morning. But I have some things on my mind. This is a free-flowing post. Read at your own peril.

I made myself go to the gym this morning. I halfway expected to be unable to finish a workout. Instead, as often happens, about half to two-thirds through, I felt better. Blood flowing, I came awake.

And on the drive home I started having conversations in my head.

Yes, I talk to myself. I always have. My interactions with my fellow creatures have often been frustrating to me. Things I miss, don’t get, say wrong, hear wrong, respond inappropriately. A good deal of what people see today is a carefully constructed façade designed to offer an interface that works in group settings. Not fake, no, but selective and practiced. At one time I did try putting a fake front up and it never worked. It took a long time for me to realize that, though, because part of the front was a very selective filter that kept useful interaction out.

(That annoying piece of advice, so often given, to just “be yourself” used to infuriate me. Firstly, how the hell does one do that? I mean, really. First it assumes you know who you are. Second it assumes that you have a choice about how you come across to other people. You do, as it turns out, but it rarely comes automatically. And thirdly, it fails to take into account whether or not you like who you may be as “yourself.” Don’t people realize that “being yourself” may well be the last thing you want to be because you find whatever that is to be…wanting? Of course they do, they’ve been having the same struggle, but probably don’t realize it. All those “popular” people, do we really believe that’s who they really are? If you could look inside to see, would it be what you see on the outside? No. So, stupid advice, well-meant, but as often as not self-defensive.)

I’m sitting here in my office, trying to rework a short story that has resisted conclusion for months. Like most of my short stories in the last several years, it seemed promising because I had a very cool idea. The idea remains cool. Getting it across as a compelling story is another matter. And, as usual, I am procrastinating by working on this post instead.

I’m listening to Walter Piston. He was an American composer, mid-20th Century. I stumbled on him during one of my periods of exploring obscure classical music. You can listen to him and hear a bit less experimental version of Barber and Copland and maybe Hanson. (Again, who? Yeah.) I’ve got a few CDs of his symphonies. They make excellent background for writing, but when you really listen to them you hear a familiar strain of anxiety that seems a part of most American neoclassical. You listen to Copland and the others and you can hear a boldness, a brashness that seems distinctly American. But along the way, especially in the symphonies, comes a stretch of uncertainty. I call it anxiety. The anxiety of not being so sure of yourself, perhaps, or the anxiety of knowing you have a lot of responsibility and can’t really carry it. (I sometimes think Ives, whom I cannot really stand, was about nothing but that uncertainty.)

The best science fiction carries that anxiety in its guts. We’re boldly going where we don’t belong and nervous about it, but eager. so eager to see the next neat thing.

So I get home, muscles still humming from a decent workout, brain filled with a silent conversation about an unresolved issue, and Donna is still doing landscaping in the back yard.  I help by moving some heavy stones, then retreat inside, eventually migrate down to the office, and start riffing on these stray thoughts.

Most days, lately, I write a few sentences, correct some errors, tweak. Then I scoot to the other computer and cruise. Yesterday I listened to a report on “downgrading” humans, which talked about how the information explosion has been coopted by the so-called Attention Economy to the detriment of actual intellection.

Downgrading Humans. According to the report, our brains are not equipped to deal with the information deluge constantly poured through them. We get overwhelmed, the tools we have to sort wheat from chaff are inadequate, we can’t tell noise from signal after a while, and soon we’re just clicking through from one bit to the next in a parody of research. The limitation offends, I’m sure. I’m resentful of my inabilities, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s an academic kind of resentment now that rarely obtrudes into the kind of seething animosity a teenager might feel when being told no. It’s more frustration now when I run against my own lack of information and ignorance when I’m in the middle of a project or a conversation.

The problem I imagine with what is being described as “downgrading” is that indulging the immersion in click-throughs can come to feel like genuine learning.

Plus, there’s something addictive about. The dazzle of bright, shiny objects.

There’s a big market for self-help books. A lot of them are practical, how to do things, but a lot of them are about changing your life, becoming a new or different or better person. Many border on genuine psychology, but most seem to be manuals for self-improvement that only glance off the deeper aspects of who we are. Years ago, groping toward some kind of self-knowledge, I read a lot of them. Fritz Perls, Leo Buscaglia, Eric Fromm, others. I gleaned useful things from them all, but it seemed as I grew older, less and less of what I read in these books offered anything truly useful. Reality never conforms to neat paragraphs of “if this, then do that.” But occasionally there was genuine insight. I stopped reading them after I shifted into philosophy. But there’s a huge market. You would think we live in a world of remarkably healthy self-actualized people. I have no idea, but I have come to believe that most of these books sell to people who believe that all they have to do is read them and that is sufficient. Acting on the advice? Well.

I’ve taken a hard look at my own habits. I’ve become craggier in some ways. The state of the world has a bit to do with this, but in general I’ve been dissatisfied with my own progress along various fronts. I wondered, after hearing about this phenomenon, if I were a victim of this. Turning to the very thing that is largely the source of the problem is an irony past stating, but it is true that even though an overwhelming amount of dross permeates the internet, there is much that is worthwhile. A degree of ordinary scepticism is required and some robust filters, but you can find out useful things. So I did a bit of research on internet trends and realized quickly that I am a weekend tourist at worst. This thing distracts me, but I spend far more time reading books than ever I spend online.

But the distraction is enough to derail my concentration. It’s worse when I’m not working on a specific project. The discipline of the project keeps me focused.

Of course, then there are the days when my hindbrain cries out for relaxation. For what Donna calls “vegging.” One of the things my parents, worrying all through my upbringing that they would fail to implant it, managed to instill is an ethic that demands I waste no time. So even the things I do for “relaxation” seem to require a practical reason, a purpose. I’ve invented a number of excuses to fool my subconscious so it will leave me alone when I’m indulging the “frivolous.” I wish I could just…

I listen to music to put me in moods. Moods to write, to read sometimes, to work out. Music is a deep pool of inspiration and replenishment for my soul. We live in an age where the available sounds are greater than at any time. The possibilities are amazing. I hear better performances, more intriguing compositions, wilder explorations today than ever before, in just about any genre of music you care to name. You would think we could find a common soundtrack with all this to choose from, but the click-through ethic renders too many too impatient to sit and truly listen.

Or does it? That same volume of data may just serve to lend cover to large groups of people who do exactly that—sit and listen. They don’t answer surveys, they don’t buy in predictable manners, they don’t feed the pop machinery. It may be that we’re about to hear from them in a Big Way. I have noticed a lot of young people buying more books, books you might not predict they would buy. And of course the books being published…I can’t say that they are “downgraded.” No more than they ever were. And the best is better than ever before.

I take my optimism where I can find it.

Among the things I want to do before I’m gone: publish a dozen more books, record and release an album of original music, mount a couple of exhibits and possibly publish a monograph of my photographs, and maybe start drawing and painting again. State like that it would seem I need another lifetime. One thing I’ve come to appreciate (though perhaps not experienced yet) is that a lifetime doesn’t have a specific time limit and you can have more than one, overlapping or contiguously.

We’ll see what can be done with that.

Thank you for indulging me.

The Absurdity of Unexamined Positions

Recently I had an exchange with someone over climate change. It was short and frustrating. The basis of the exchange was a report—recycled from 2007 and given a new lease on life because of the recent book and film—on Al Gore’s presumably exorbitant energy use in his home.  Depending on which non-news site you chose, he either uses 34 times more than the average American or 21 times.   The intent of the articles was to show Mr. Gore as a hypocrite, someone preaching the sermon but then balking at the walk.

It’s true, he lives large.  He has a ten thousand square foot home, which is more than five times the size of the average American home, and that doesn’t include the grounds.  But there was also no mention made of the carbon offsets he buys or the investments he makes in green energy or the money he spent upgrading a century old house to more modern energy efficiencies or the way he has specified the source of much of his energy so that a lot if not most comes from alternate sources.  This was a standard-issue bit of simple-minded criticism that says if you do not live in a hovel when preaching about certain things, you’re automatically a hypocrite.  It is not, I should point, about forcing Al Gore to reduce his lifestyle but to force him to shut up.  None of these people would care if he moved into a double-wide with solar panels and a hydrogen cell to live off the grid.  Their purpose is to get him to stop talking.

As I said, the exchange was short. This was with a climate change denier fully invested in the belief that it is all a hoax.  I was reminded of the mindset of occultists and alchemists, who at their base believed fervently that answers were unobtainable, that if you thought you had found the truth you were automatically wrong.  No, few if any ever stated it so baldly, but it’s obvious from the way they would avoid genuine experiment, deny all arguments that might contradict received wisdom, and generally evaded any conclusion that suggested they were in pursuit of the unattainable.  Science had to rid itself of this obdurate self-imposed blindness before it could flourish and it seems clear that we are burdened with some variation of it still.

But I wondered, just what drives this kind of selective self-censorship?

Well, obviously a lack of understanding.  The science is complex and people often have difficulty grasping causal concepts that seem to contradict personal experience. When your city is frozen in the grip of a record-breaking snow storm it’s difficult to reconcile the assertion that global temperatures are rising.  Difficult but not impossible, especially if the following summer comes with record-breaking heat, for perhaps the fourth or fifth consecutive year.  (Climate has changed in St. Louis.  When I was a kid, three feet of snow in December was not unusual, snow that lasted through February sometimes. Now?  People are stunned when we have a foot that lasts a week, if that. Summers are hotter. Certain insect patterns have shifted. Things have changed and when I look for explanations the only model that conforms to experience is global climate change.)  Lack of understanding can be corrected, though.  People can learn.  They may not want to but they can.

Sometimes, though, they go down a cul-d-sac and get stuck in a plausible dead-end. Staying there, though, depends on things having little to do with evidence or logic.

Consider: the rejection of climate change makes no sense. Addressing the problem of where we get our energy is a technical issue, a matter of engineering. There are several reasons, perfectly sound ones, to change the way we do this.  Pollution is the simplest one.  What kind of a world do you want to live in?  One with soot, particulates,  toxicity? The expense of defending against such things is high, depending where you live. Environmental degradation is another. Tearing up mountains to extract coal, leaving ugly holes, spilling the effluent into waterways, drilling—and fracking is worse.  Look at satellite images of fracking-intense areas and the clouds of waste gas.  And of course earthquakes where few if any had occurred before.  And the damage to water tables.

Jobs is the cry.  Displacing workers.  Well, building a whole new industry would seem to be a jobs-positive thing. The technology and industries to not only build solar and wind would expand the jobs market, but also the construction of the networks, distribution, and upgrading and maintaining the grid (which needs it anyway, regardless of the energy source), all these things mean jobs.

The expense!  The expense we currently shoulder in artificially maintaining obsolete systems should by now be common knowledge.  The expense on taxpayers subsidizing industries that are collapsing not to mention the downstream expense of cleaning up after the pollution.  The expense of people made sick.  The asthma rates in coal country are rising.  We pay an exorbitant amount to maintain the illusion that coal and oil are the only means to accomplish what we want to.

Someone like Al Gore comes along and starts pointing this out.  You might quibble with some of his details, but in essence he has a sound argument.  Instead of attacking the argument—which might lead to some edifying consequence, like all of us learning something useful—his character is attacked.  This is not an uncommon tactic.  Some people seem to feel a person has to be virtually a saint in order to hold and disseminate an opinion.  But if what he says is supported by the science, what difference does it make how he lives?  What is it about his lifestyle that invalidates the message?

He’s asking other people to change but, presumably, he won’t.

What exactly is he asking most people to change?  If tomorrow your electricity came from wind turbines instead of a coal-fired plant, what has changed for you?  Electricity is electricity. The costs? Costs aren’t rising anyway?  Your taxes aren’t going to subsidize the industry?  Or is this more akin to the fear of “death panels” presumably inevitable with universal health care?  We go along with this and next year someone from the government will take away your car or truck? Transportation is already changing, it will continue to do so, and in ten years you may find you don’t even want your car, but that’s beside the point.  Such a fear is a boogeyman used to keep us from addressing the problem.  My question stands: what exactly is he asking you to change?

The question of costs is not irrelevant, but as I say, they’re going up anyway.  Maybe in the long run there might be some relief if part of the cost is not in cleaning up so much detritus.  But that requires long term thinking outside your immediate sphere.  You have to consider the community, the country, the planet.  Most people find that difficult, if not to achieve then to sustain.

Lifestyle.  Your lifestyle will change.

That is almost unanswerable because it’s so nebulous.  As I suggest above, change is coming anyway, but probably not what you expect.  On the simple question of how you get your energy, what changes?  Still, not an irrelevant point.

There will, perhaps, be less available energy. To do what?  We’ve been undergoing a small (perhaps not so small) revolution in energy efficiency for lo these last few decades.  Our houses are full of devices that operate on far less electricity than their ancestors required.  That’s not likely to stop.  But we can look at Europe to see the numbers and discover that the very thing which will provide jobs will also suffice to power your lifestyle.

But I suspect the thing feared in terms of change has nothing to do with actual resource. What will change is some aspect of identity.

From what to what?

Basically, the changes in policy required to address climate change would be a net positive whether the science is flawed or not.  Breathing cleaner air, securing the potability of our water, lightening our touch on the ecologies are all desirable and come with economic benefits regardless.  If it turned out by some odd oversight that we got the climate change model wrong, so what?  We would have built a new energy grid based on cleaner models and generally improved the well-being of the commonwealth.  If we aren’t wrong about climate change, we can add saving the world for humanity as a bonus.

But like someone who doesn’t want to give up steak for dinner, we treat climate change like vegetarianism.  It doesn’t matter that the science may be correct about the health benefits, we still want our meat.  It’s a question of identity.

We burn oil and coal!  It’s American!  All this wind and solar is somehow…somehow…feeble.

Perhaps the deniers can’t imagine building with such tools.  Perhaps they can’t accept joining in a global cooperative effort not being invented or run by America.

Whatever the reason, short-term vested interests love you.  Because they are able to count on you as foot soldiers in the fight to forestall the imposition of regulations on them.  They do not want to be told what they can or cannot do and this is just another species of limitation on their personal vision of Who Counts.

But that’s understandable.  That’s greed and avarice.  What’s the denier’s excuse?  Being somehow joined with the mighty by association with the self-styled giants of industry?

I accept the science involved.  A cold snap here and there isn’t enough to convince me all the rest is a phantom.  But it doesn’t matter.  Accepting the need to change the way we use this planet means so many other things, including eventually taking the power to dictate from people who have no business having it in the first place.  Climate Change Denial costs so much more and fails to address everything else that goes to the need to change.

When Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House in a fit of thoughtless national pomposity, he empowered a mindset that we’re still having to put up with.  A mindset that won’t debate, won’t consider, won’t yield, and won’t change. not because the thing it rails against is wrong but because it cannot stand not being right.

A Chronic State of Nostaligic Disconnect

In the past few weeks, things have not gone well for political philosophies based in traditional formulations.  Right or Left (but more so on the self-identified Right) there is a kind of flailing, a death throe undulation that looks like grasping for anchors in something that feels historically relevant but in fact turns out to be sunk in air or sand and simply gets torn loose the moment any real strain is put on it. At its most discernable, there are a lot “I know what you mean” moments, but even these are more “I think I know what you mean, maybe” moments that later turn out to be coincidental brushes with familiar syntax and not much in the way of substantive connection.

Take healthcare.  Whatever your personal feelings about what we should do, nothing being done is what anyone seems to want.  Trump said “We’re gonna fix it!” the GOP nodded sagely, then wrote a bill that would not fix it, but would return the state of American healthcare to some rough semblance of how it was back in 2007, but isn’t, because now no one, not even the insurance industry, wants that.  They have redrafted the bill to do less damage, but that’s not what they want to do, nor is it what Trump promised, although he keeps cheering congress on as long as there is some kind of repudiation of the ACA, which is not what the voters want, either.  In their case, they never really knew what they wanted other than for things to not cost so much, but as to how to “fix” that, those who voted for the current administration have no idea and distrust every single attempt to do so.  In the meantime, the professionals who might have some insight into this are being ignored, congress is pretending it’s serving the People by doing something which can only drive up costs, and Trump is offering zero sense of direction other than “Change something!”

Meanwhile, he has modified his requirements of the propose border wall by asking that it be transparent “so no one on this side will be hit in the head by the packages of drugs being thrown over it.”  Which has so many layers of problematic misapprehension of the problems it’s intended to address as to qualify as some form of mystic pabulum handed down from an airless mountaintop.

(He also bragged in an interview how great the G20 meeting was because there were, like, 20 countries represented.  Ahem.  Two things about that–either he is ignorant enough to think that is useful information or his supporters didn’t know that was what the G20 is.  Or, well, he thinks his supporters wouldn’t know this, so….never mind.)

Meanwhile (again) at the state level, the Illinois legislature finally found the spine to tell the governor that they’ve had enough of his party fundamentalism, the state needs a budget, and for it to have even a prayer of being relevant, the state needs revenue, so yes, we’re raising taxes.  The fact that this is significant is reflective of the dissociation across the entire political spectrum with regard to taxes.  In Missouri we have a strong cadre of very wealthy people who do whatever they can to eliminate any tax that dares raise its head, like some manic game of economic whack-a-mole that serves none of the purposes it is purported to serve.  Along this line, our state legislature has decided to repudiate attempts at the city and county level to address minimum wage issues and bar St. Louis—or any other municipality—from raising local minimum wages above the state level, which is a joke.  Why? None of the excuses make any sense.  Basically there seems to be some attitude at work that poor people need the incentive to become middle class and if we pay them enough that they might be able to feed their families and possibly attend classes to try to better themselves, then they will have been handed an unfair advantage and not properly appreciate it.  If there were not evidence at hand that this is a bullshit argument it would still be laughable because it ignores the current economic realities and instead seems to assume the situation is no different than it was in 1964.

And again meanwhile the people who are supposed to understand such things are scratching their heads at the puzzling data that while productivity has been rising steadily for the last seven years, along with job growth, wages have stagnated.  The increased profitability of all these companies has not resulted in an increase share of the wealth with workers, as it would have (again) back in 1964, and they don’t understand what’s happening.  What’s not to understand?  Two things have changed since then that explain it quite well—one is that technology has become significantly more effective, which results in the need for fewer and fewer actual employees (I saw a resent example from, I believe, Kentucky about a steel mill that produces wire, which thirty years ago would have employed a thousand people, but which has been replaced by one which produces the same amount of product but employs fourteen, none of them on the shop floor) and we have seen a gutting of unions, which were always the most effective way to force management to pay an equitable share of profits.  But people at the top, charged with analyzing and interpreting this kind of data, are “confused.”

Everyone is confused when no one is willing to face the realities of our new present.

The normally natural affinity for a comforting past has been distorted by the manipulations of identity politics and the toxic overuse of pointless nitpicking combined with an endemic ignorance of context to create a situation in which constructive change is becoming less and less possible, at least on a national level.  If every suggestion for change is met with swords drawn and blood oaths taken to resist, all possibilities fail. (A sensible approach to healthcare would be a single payer system, but it requires people to back up, give it some breathing space, and a chance.  Instead the immediate response among too many is “No!  That will lead to—!” Fill in the blank.  Death panels? Rationing? A complete destruction of a healthcare system which is, at the level of public service, is already dysfunctional? None of this is rational, but we have frightened ourselves enough that unless it is something we are completely familiar with we see it as threat.  But in the case of health care, no one is familiar with its workings, only its results, and not even then do most people know why the results are as they are.)

In the meantime—once more—we have a widening disparity between rich and poor which has opened a chasm.  Such chasms have happened before and they always precede revolutions.  The question for us will be, how bloody this time?

All because those who might ordinarily be trusted to supply meaningful context and useful direction are either ignored or just as helplessly clinging to a nostalgic hope of “returning things to the way they used to be”—on both sides.

Which leaves the vast majority of people in an awkward kind of stasis.  Waiting.  Struggling.  Clinging.

Into this moves the impulse to control absolutely.  Travel bans, surveillance, behavioral rule-making that does nothing but hobble, identification requirements that do nothing but isolate and segregate, public events that end up defining in-groups and shutting others out, calls for a kind of public piety that serves only to make some people targets while reassuring no one.  These are the components of tyranny, the necessary elements of fascism.  Both those terms have of late been used too freely and consequently are losing some of their prognostic power.  When you have a combination of too much fear and too little sense of sanity, that’s when the power mongers—who never, ever have solutions—have the best chance of seizing power.

As we move forward, it might be a useful habit to start asking of every proposal, “Who does this serve?”  If it does not serve you and yet you are inclined to support it, ask why?  And if the answer is, “It makes me feel safe from Those People” then it’s a good bet it’s a bad proposal, especially if “those people” are your neighbors.  Get in the habit of seeing things this way. Like any rule, it won’t track a hundred percent every time, but we have gotten into the opposite habit of thinking that any proposal that seems to benefit someone we either don’t like at the expense of people we like to pretend are “our people” (the rich, the powerful, the right skin color) or we believe will limit our “rights” in some vague way (and usually rights we either don’t have to begin with or are not really rights but privileges) are automatically bad.  Again, sometimes this might be true, but it’s a horribly limiting, fearful way to see the world and will lead ultimately to exactly what we think we’re trying to prevent.

Habits of thought anchored to the sand of a past that no longer pertains. Praising a history more hagiographic and mythic than factual. Preserving symbols that don’t mean what we think they do and believing that by protecting all this we will solve the problems of tomorrow.  We’ve been indulging this kind of nostalgic political nonsense for decades now.

Do you like where it’s brought us?

Blind Mouthings

I suppose I should link to some of the news feeds about this, but I think it’s been sufficiently covered among those who give a damn that I don’t need to.

My people—what I used to think of as my people—have once more led with their chins and embarrassed the lot of us.  Recently a mini-catastrophe, relevant to the exalted standards and reputation in which certain folks would like to believe the SF community maintains, explode-a-pated all over everyone in the carnival reaction to Jonathan Ross, a person of some note on the BBC and in England, being selected to host the Hugo Awards at the next worldcon in London.  Seems Mr. Ross has a less than tarnishless reputation in popular circles as a comedic curmudgeon who likes to belittle people of various types, most notably women, and makes fun of everyone whom he considers targettable. I’m taking this on faith here as until this happened I had no clue who the man is.

He has withdrawn himself as host to the awards in the wake of what by all accounts has been a savage twitter attack on him and his family from, ahem, Certain Elements within the SFnal community.  Or maybe not.  It’s hard to tell with these things, since everyone can hide so neatly behind hashtags and handles and alternate personae.  For all anyone knows, the whole assault may have been two or three exceptionally small-concerned misanthropes in a basement somewhere with too much time, a live feed, and no clue what it means to live in a community.

Neil Gaiman has written rather well on the subject. (So, yeah, I guess I’m linking to some of it.)

A couple of things occur to me about this, one from some personal experience.  I’ve done time serving with an organization that had as part of its mandate the selection of Notables for certain public events.  I’ve been in the proverbial “back room” while such things have been deliberated.  My first reaction to this was “Didn’t the people who chose him have a clue what might happen?”  And I thought, “it’s possible for enthusiasm to overwhelm common sense in these things, the whole idea of Getting Someone Important to appear can seem so rarefied as to pump nitrous oxide into any discussion and lobotomize a committee.”  On that score, it seems to me, SF fans, even those in positions of authority, are often still just 12 years old.  Even so, when some one among them says “This is not a good idea” it is incumbent on the others to listen and at least have a damn good reason for going ahead anyway.  From what it looks like on the outside, this didn’t happen.  Someone threw what weight they had around and stamped their feet and got what they wanted…and reaped a minor whirlwind.

This is why such things take time, or should, and why we need to get over the whole Big Name Personality Syndrome that affects too many of us.  SF wants to be taken seriously, SF should grow up and take the world seriously.  None of this should ever have gotten out of that Back Room.  If Mr. Ross came with that kind of baggage, the issue should have died a quiet death long before invitations had been made and resignations proffered.  That is called professionalism.

Still, no one is psychic.  Mistakes get made.

But the second thing that occurred to me was what Neil said.  Whoever, whichever segment of My People, decided to take it upon themselves to tell Mr. Ross what they thought of him and his family—you have acted the Ass.

Before the internet, before FB and Twitter, people got exercised about this stuff, talked trash among themselves, and maybe a few would write letters.  Nasty fan mail has always been with us.  But our technology has enabled us to show our true selves faster and more publicly than ever before possible and it is, in instances like these, ugliness incarnate.

Just what difference do you think letting someone know you think he’s on your “never invite for cocktails” list makes to either him/her or to the world at large?  No, don’t overthink it, I’ll tell you.  None.  All it does is add a bit more vile to an already questionable brew. This is the snickering prankishness of chickenshit adolescents who think it’s cool to let everyone who already doesn’t know they exist know that they care very much about being ignored by making themselves even less pleasant than anyone realized before.

The ability to add your two-cents at a keystroke has enabled some of us to ramp up the ugly faster than their minds could possibly intervene with a cautionary “Maybe you should think this through before you Send.”  In this instance, they have let Mr. Ross know how much they dislike him by demonstrating how much worse they can be than he.

Or, even sadder, these are people who do this habitually, without any stake in the debate, simply because they’ve become intoxicated by the sound of their own ignorance flashed across the world.  “Oh, look!  An Issue!  Let me let let me, I can come up with a really cool insult, too!”

People who lead with their mouths and have nothing to say, who walk into any room, any party, often uninvited, with no clue how to behave or, apparently, even how to think.  There is an arcane term for them—boors.  They indulge boorishness.

It’s not just science fiction where this has been on display, its even worse in political fora.  We scratch our heads and wonder why such third-rate politicians are the only ones who run for office anymore.  It’s bad enough to be challenged by the marginally thoughtful, but to have to deal daily with sport pissers would drive anyone with any self-respect to question the value of running for office.

Finally,  though, it is the anonymity afforded by the technology that exacerbates.  The ignorant, the boorish, the cowardly can lob  this shit from the presumed comfort of no one knowing who they are.

It accomplishes nothing.

I think it’s sad what has happened to Mr. Ross.  There are ways of dealing with these sorts of things that spare feelings and have the benefit of not making everyone involved look like a fool.

I suppose we should be grateful that this is how it’s done, though.  Tarring and feathering used to be the preferred manner and it could actually kill.

Stats

I downloaded a new plug-in for my blog Wednesday, a little something called Jetpack from WordPress.  I’d seen other sites with a traffic bar showing visits, and I wanted one.  The urge to know, not necessarily who, but how many people are reading your stuff runs deep.

The first day of its existence was both gratifying and slightly disappointing.  So far this morning, no one has come to visit.  Oh, well.

But I ran almost immediately into a snag last night.  I received the notice on my task bar of an update for Jetpack, so I dutifully clicked it—

—and promptly lost the whole thing.  It informed me that the upgrade failed and the plug-in had been deactivated.  I couldn’t find it in my list of available plug-ins, so I tried to reinstall it.  Which it also would not let me do.  It kept informing me that the folder already existed.  But I couldn’t find the folder in order to expunge it, so I was locked out of downloading the new version of Jetpack.

Not to worry.  I found something else very much like it, but with fewer features—which is fine, I only wanted the stat function.

This has happened before.  With maybe two exceptions, every time I’ve changed my blog theme it has been because an upgrade has been offered and when I accepted it, it trashed my files and I lost my theme and had to go get a new one.  This is most annoying, because an inevitable consequence has been that attempts to reinstall the trashed theme result in the “you already have this” message, which bars me from having a theme I really like.

I have sworn off accepting upgrades.  The only ones that work (knock on particle board) have been the WordPress upgrades.

I wouldn’t mind so much except there’s this little reminder on my task bar when I have one of these pernicious thingies waiting and I feel annoyed and irritated because I can’t find a way to just say No to them and make the reminder go away.

If there is one thing about the computer age that is one of the most irritating and cost-inefficient—and hugely expensive for business, I might add—it is this continual upgrading.  I know progress is important, I know things get better with work, I know improvements are made all the time, but damn, give it a rest!  I wonder how many people not directly involved realize just how much systems upgrades and changeovers cost in terms of time and lost productivity.  Even a tiny, tiny enterprise like mine, one guy writing stories.  Hours have I wasted when finally forced to change a software system or configure a new machine or learn a new template.

The other day I complained about MicroSoft Word.  I dislike Word.  I’ve been using WordPerfect for almost 25 years and for my money, WordPerfect 5.1 is still the gold standard.  Simple, intuitive, did everything I wanted or needed.  Why fuck with it?  But I am now on Version 11.

The problem is, the publishing industry operates on Word, which is not nearly as easy to use or intuitive.  And there are translation problems converting WP to Word which annoys my agent.

Also, I am still using Windows XP, which seems to be a very stable platform.  (I still wonder what was so wrong with Windows 98—please, no litany of its sins, it was a rhetorical comment.)  I am told we are now up to Windows 8 and some day I will be forced to junk my current machines, buy all new, and learn a new system.

Give it a rest.  I mean, seriously.  I know we have to keep the economy going, but this is ridiculous.  It is not the same as the automobile industry.  You can still drive a ’38 DeSoto on today’s roads, and having learned to drive that you can, with one or two minor adjustments, drive a brand new car.  Your old model does not cease to function because the new upgrade won’t allow it to interface with other drivers.

Still.  I manage.  I’m just cranky.  This is not Luddism, do not for a minute think I am anti-cool tech.  But I also do not have a cell phone*.  What I resent is the overcomplications involved in getting “up to speed” with what it au courant.

I have to go back to work now.  At least English doesn’t go through upgrades that require us to learn, from the ground up, an entirely new language.

_________________________________________________

*Yes, it’s true, I have no cell phone.  Donna has one, but it was purchased exclusively for emergencies when she took a job in West Jericho.  I refuse.  When I’m not home, you don’t have to reach me.  This may sound selfish, and I agree to an extent, but we managed quite well being “disconnected” for significant parts of the day.  I realize eventually I will have to cave in, but for now I will not participate in the Tech For Tech’s Sake culture.  You want to talk to me, send me an email or leave a message on my answering machine, I’ll get back to you.

An Age of Wonder and Annoyance

I have two things to talk about that are related by the slenderest of threads. Bear with me.

First I’d like to say something about how marvelous is the age in which we live, at least from the perspective of someone who has now lived in a couple of “ages” since arriving on this planet in 1954.

A short while ago I had lunch. While having lunch I like to watch something, so I popped the DVD of The Right Stuff   into my player and settled back to my roast beef and movie.  While watching, it occurred to me how blase I’ve  become at this technology.

See, growing up, movies were a Big Deal.  My parents went every other week at least and took me.  Going To The Movies holds a special, nostalgic place in my memory.  It was a shared event, but more than that it was in fact An Event.  TV was there, sure, but it was crappy and even at age four I kind of recognized the difference.  Movies were Big, they were Special, they were Unique—and they went away.  Though it was dependable.  The first run theaters got the new films and ran them for a week, maybe two.  The next batch were due in and they swapped them out, so the films went to the cheaper neighborhood theaters, usually only for a week.  Plus, these were double features.  You sat in the theater for up to four and half hours to see two movies.  Before I was born, it would be two movies, plus—cartoons, a short subject, maybe a news reel.  Going to movies was a significant amount of time and a major outing.

We brought our own snacks.  Mom would make up some popcorn or put a brown bag of candy together, and we might—might—bring a bottle of soda to share.  The concession stand was more than we could afford usually.

And after the movies left the theaters, they were gone.  If you  hadn’t seen them when they came out, during the three or four weeks they were in town at one or another theater, you were s.o.l.  Some of the bigger hits might be rereleased a year or two later and a few films were perennially rereleased, but the vast majority did not come back.  You had to remember them.

Television changed that somewhat when networks started leasing movies to show at certain low-traffic times, and then in the late Sixites and early Seventies there were a variety of movie programs—Movie of the Week, Thursday Night At the Movies, A Picture For A Sunday Afternoon.  Suddenly all these old films started turning up again, and of course after ten P.M. local networks aired a lot of B pictures or films from the Thirties and Forties, but you had to stay up for them, and you never knew what you would get.  (Some of my favorite memories with my dad come from Friday nights, sitting up late, watching some of these movies, some of which were unintentional howlers at which we’d poke fun.)

A lot of people today probably don’t see the wonder in being able to go to a store or online and buy a film and watch it at home.  VCRs didn’t come in till the late Seventies (and the early models weren’t great), but it ushered in an age of comparative cultural wealth.  The idea, when I grew up, that I could actually own one of these movies, for myself, and watch it when I chose to…

You forget occasionally to sit back and appreciate what we now have.  It is amazing—the technology, yes, but the fact that I can drop a disc in a machine and watch The Maltese Falcon or  Gone With The Wind  or  The Right Stuff  whenever I please is…incredible.

That’s the good part.

The other amazing thing is this vast and complex online community—several communities, actually, some overlapping—that we have with more ease than it used to be to make a long distance phone call.  It’s amazing.  I can communicate with people I would never have known existed in one of those previous “ages” and talk about things only a rare handful of people I ever met face to face would even have been interested in before.  Like-minded, like-enthused, like-whatever people around the globe who can now “chat” online.

And with whom one can trip over an area of sensitivity so fast and so inexplicably that it makes your head spin.  I have recently had this shoved in my face just how easily some folks take offense and how impossible it can be to explain yourself or extricate yourself.  Unless you want to be an ass, it is often better to simply leave the group in question rather than see the crap continually stirred.

But because it is so easy to leave, not to mention remain anonymous, I think many people never learn the nuances of real interaction.  Distance used to serve a vital social function, namely keeping people apart by virtue of the difficulty of communicating.  Letter-writing requires thought—the trouble you have to go through to draft the letter, address it, go to the post office, etc. I think tends to make people more thoughtful and thorough.  It’s not like a casual conversation, which the ease of communication has sometimes turned the most serious conversations into because it is difficult to tell when it is time to stop cracking wise.

Further, though, once a foul has been made, it doesn’t go away.  It perpetuates, spreads, and suddenly people all over may know all about the reputation you have earned through misadventure.

Part of the problem—a big part, I think—is the fact of the words remaining behind after the conversation is over.  Spoken conversation has a half-life, very short, and events carry people past ill-considered phrasing or cliches, aided by the visuals, the body language and facial expression.  But when you write something down, it has weight, and online exchanges acquire significance never intended for a brief exchange.  You can consider the words, read them over again and again, and derive meaning and intent whether it’s there or not.

The wonderfulness of our enabling technologies render us lazy, allow us to take for granted things which in an earlier time, with less speed and availability, would not have been so poorly used.

So instead of a thoughtless sentence being immediately apologized for, brushed aside, and forgotten, the offending sentence lingers, a solid legacy that reminds and continues to irritate.  The down-side of modern ease.

Part of the pleasure of all these things should be from not taking them for granted, from a near conscious recognition of just how cool things are.  On the one hand, we maybe have to grow thicker skins—certainly we have to learn new interpretive skills—and on the other maybe let our skins thin a little so we can sense the amazing gift much of this world is.  Hard to know where to apply what and for a whole generation or two there is the perfectly understandable if annoying question, “What’s the big deal?”

Unfortunately, if you have to ask…

Steve Jobs: A Quality of Expectation

I do not own an Apple computer.  I do all my work on PCs because, well, it worked out that way.

I had an Apple.  First-generation MacIntosh, to be precise.  It didn’t last.

My partner, Donna, got interested in computers back in the early and mid-80s.  When I say “interested” I mean on the level of “hm, that looks cool, I wonder what it would be like to…”  and not on the level of “that way lies the future, we gotta have one!”  Being somewhat dense when it came to reading her enthusiasms (and separating hers from my own), by various strange avenues, she ended up getting a MacIntosh for Christmas.  Computer and printer.

Her enthusiasm lasted a month.  She’d gotten a job with a small tech company and worked on PCs all day and when she came home at night, the last thing she wanted to do was more work on a computer, even if it was hers.  Besides—and this may sound odd—the MacIntosh was too easy to use.  She was interested in the programming and the guts and the software.  The MacIntosh was plug-n-play before there was plug-n-play and the software available for it—because it was Apple, it was all proprietary—was expensive!  We acquired a math program and something else.

I was writing on my IBM Selectric.  The MacIntosh just sat there.

Then it broke down.

This is embarrassing.  The motherboard was flawed and one day it just went comatose.  However, because we had used it so little, we didn’t push it to failure until it was out of warranty.  We didn’t know it was the motherboard.

But before that we had run up against some of the annoying short-comings of the MacIntosh, one of which was file size.  I decided to try writing stories on it.  The rudimentary word processing program—MacWrite—was fine except I could never figure out how to put headers on it and the maximum file size was something like 8 or 9 pages.   That wasn’t the annoying part.  What was annoying was that it would let you get there and then lock up.  There wasn’t enough memory left to delete anything so you could, you know, save the file.  So if you didn’t take care—if, for instance, you got caught up in the story you were telling—you’d reach that limit and then lose the whole file.

(To be fair, this might have been an issue with that flawed motherboard, but we didn’t know, it was just maddening.)

It really was kind of a useless thing in our house.

But it was also kind of very cool.  I mean, I write science fiction.  I was looking at PCs and thinking “that’s not what computers are supposed to look like—the Mac is!”  And I really wanted it to work right, to be as cool as it looked.  There was something about it that prompted an “if only” sentiment.

Then I got accepted to Clarion.  We decided I could take the Mac for my writing instrument.  We got it fixed.  That’s when we found out it was the motherboard.  At the same time, we upgraded the memory (to ONE megabyte!) and bought an external floppy drive for it.

Because we had also discovered by then how difficult it was to translate Mac files to PC (to get a decent print out—-we had an AppleWriter dot matrix printer and I frankly never found a font that was usable; you have to recall that this was at a time when magazines and publishers were refusing to accept dot matrix manuscripts and I wanted to get clean laser printer copies, but the only laser printer we had access to was at Donna’s work, which was for PC…) we intended to trade it in on a PC when I got back, but it was just the right size for the trip.

I was the only one at Clarion with a Mac.  Everyone hated the printer fonts I used.

Also, there was a heatwave that year in Michigan and the Mac turned out to be very susceptible to overheating.  I had a small fan which I ended up training on the Mac.  I backed up often to the external drive.  It was a trial.

I was so glad to trade it off for a usable PC.

But I always had a soft spot for the idea of the Mac and later when they started coming out with better models and then the massive improvements after the whole Lisa thing made it the hardware to have, I wanted one.  But by then I was doing all my work on PC and I was online and publishing worked almost exclusively with PC and and and…

And Apple products were so damn expensive!

Aside from that first generation MacIntosh, we have only ever owned one brand new computer.  And now the PC products seem to be as cool as the Apple, so…

It’s fairly obvious that the coolness of newer PCs, the improvements in speed and reliability, the slick programs available, all that came about as a direct response to the challenge of Apple and Steve Jobs.  Jobs created something with growing gravitic force that has been bending the rest of the computer verse into orbit around it.

And Apples are science fiction computers.  I’m speaking aesthetically now.  What they do, how they look, the ease of interface—this is where it should be according to the scenarios playing in the heads of science fiction writers.

I would like to upgrade all my computers to Apples.  I’ve wanted to do that for years.  It’s like really wanting to drive a high end, state of the art car, wear Armani suits, play a Les Paul, and drink only the best wine.  It’s a Leica to everyone else’s Nikon, Luxman to Sony, Bose to a box with a speaker in it.

Steve Jobs made people want better.

Not everyone.  A lot of people wouldn’t know “better” if it walked up and introduced itself.  But many people.  And he made them feel they deserved it.

And that there is a reason for better.  This last may seem odd, but think about it.  Many people settle.  They get by.  They manage.  They accept what they think they have to and make do.

From time to time someone has to remind us that quality is not only justified but essential.  That life shouldn’t be shabby just because we don’t think we can have better.  For all the technical innovations Jobs spurred and enabled and midwived, it was this aesthetic for which he will long be remembered.  He never settled.  He didn’t think we should, either.

One of the years, I’ll own a Mac again.

Radio Markets and Discontent

Personal gripe time.  This is one of those instances where I believe The Market is a hydrocephalic moron and people who put their undying faith in get what they deserve.

Shortly after the 4th of July just past, a St. Louis radio station changed hands.  KFUO 99.1 FM had, for sixty-plus years, been our commercial classical station.  Before the first Gulf War, our local NPR affiliate, KWMU, was largely a classical music broadcaster, but after that first foray into Mid east adventurism they became pretty much All Talk All Day.  Mind you, I like some of what they offer—Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Diane Rheem—but I am a lover of music.  My youth, in regards to radio, was all about music.  I cannot tolerate most of Talk Radio, especially the right wing stuff, but I’m not overly fond of the left wing blatherings, either.  Give me a good solid news show twice a day and then fill the airwaves with music.

This has become a subject of nostalgia for me, because for the most part the music scene on radio has devolved into mind-numbing banality and repetition.  Catering to The Market has the net result of leavening out at the lowest common denominator, so instead of fascinating, new, or just first-rate music, we get the cuts that will appeal to the greatest number of whatever demographic a given station thinks it’s playing to.

After KWMU went All Talk, little by little I began listening to KFUO.  They did not do as good a job, overall, as KWMU—I am a firm believer in airing complete works, so when I am offered A Movement of a symphony or what have you I am turned off; I want the whole damn thing or don’t bother (this is also true of other genres as well: I once got into a shouting match with a DJ over his insistence of playing the three-minute version of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer track that, in its fullness, ran to twelve minutes, and he demanded to know who wanted to listen to all that synthesizer soloing, to which I replied “people who like ELP, you moron!”  Needless to say, I lost that one, but I resent the whole assumption that the attention span of people will never exceed five minutes—if you assume that and that’s all you give them, you train them to have short attention spans)—but it was classical music, and I find myself, aging that I am, more and more indulging in that genre (if genre it is) out of sheer boredom and impatience with most other forms.  At least, on the radio.

So KFUO became my car station.  (At home I listen to albums.  I would eliminate DJs and commercials if I could.  Playing my own discs, I can.)

Due to the demands of The Market, the impatience of shareholders, etc etc, management at KFUO—the Lutheran Church, basically—sold the station.  It is now Joy 99, playing contemporary Christian pop…stuff.

I’ve attempted to listen to some of it, but I find it unremittingly boring.  And I am pissed.  Where can I now go on the radio to get classical music?  Well, KWMU has taken advantage of the new high definition broadcast tech to split itself into multiple channels and has one dedicated to classical music.  But I can’t get that in the car.  Can’t get it at home on my stereo, either, unless I buy new equipment, which is a source of resentment as well.  We live in an age where if one does not have the latest, most up-to-date Thingie, at a cost of X hundred dollars per widget, one cannot partake of the goodies available—and the media changes often enough that buying new Thingies is now every couple, three years.

Pardon my expression—Fuck That!  This is the Microsoft model taken to extremes.  It is a form of class division, based on tech-savvy and money.  You don’t have to pass laws to keep the so-called Unwashed out of the Club, you just have to make sure they can’t afford the newest Thingie.

Ahem.  Excuse me, that was paranoid of me.  I have no reason to believe this is intentional.  This is The Market, in all its lobotomized asininity.

Back for a moment to the new KFUO.  It is boring.  (I am beginning to recognize a pattern.  Christian pop sounds somewhat-to-mainly Country.  The southern lilt to the vocals, the excessively forced emotional warbling, twisting notes through laryngeal gymnastics for no reason other than to make use of a single chord for a few moments longer.  Never mind the lyrics—I didn’t have a problem with groups like Creed, at least not initially: the music was interesting, the lyrics showed a modicum of ingenuity—just the American Idol approach to hyped emotionalism as substitute for actual content.  But I really cannot abide dull music.  Even when, initially, this stuff sounds like they’re getting down with some passion, it’s really just arrangement and playing with the compression.  The simplest chords, the over-reliance on melody—almost always in major keys—and the de-emphasizing of anything that might distract from the primary message of the lyric content.  Now, KFUO, having been a Lutheran station, played a great deal of sacred music.  Most of which was GLORIOUS.  Beautiful, sonorous, majestic, interesting!  Composed by musicians who saw no reason to muffle their strengths, but put what they had into such compositions because the music itself was a form of worship, an offering to what they believed, honest and unhampered passion.  Modern Christian rock seems to do everything it can to apologize for being rock.  Of course, there’s a reason for this, since a good deal of what these folks espouse is a typical American attitude that sensuality is an enemy to faith, and let’s face it, rock is all about sensuality.  So, too, is jazz, perhaps even more so, which may be why one hears almost no Christian jazz.)  Boring is inexcusable, I don’t care what cause it is in the name of.

Somehow some one or more “consultant” companies told the new owners that this will attract a larger market share than what KFUO had been doing.  For all I know, they’re right.  I have little faith in the taste of the masses, as a mass.  Most of the people I have ever known as casual acquaintances have exhibited appalling taste in the arts.  You have to be aware to be sensitive to nuance, to passion, to genuine merit, and it seems that most people move through life barely conscious of their surroundings.

(I once had the most frustrating interchange with a woman at a party who kept complaining that everything I was putting on the stereo was “depressing.”  Her word.  Depressing.  What was I playing?  Flim and the BBs, Grover Washington, McCoy Tyner, things like that.  I couldn’t figure it out until she demanded, somewhat drunkenly,”Where’s the singing?”  Unless there was singing, it was depressing.  Of course, by singing she didn’t mean opera, she meant anything she could sing along to.  This was more music as sport than art.)

So after a couple of weeks of listening the all this strained pseudo-music sung by earnest C & W types against the most singularly undifferentiated backgrounds, I am officially peeved.    I’d like my classical music back, please.  I don’t care about demographics.  There are dozens of other stations where one can hear similarly banal  excrescence, albeit possibly without the juvenile nonsense worship lyrics.  KFUO served an audience that is now not served at all, and I can’t help wondering if this is at least partly propagandistic.  That this is as much an effort to force a single voice onto the airwaves, driving out the specialist, minority voices, as it is to maximize returns on investment.

Of course, that would be a bit paranoid, wouldn’t it?

Except that over forty years of listening to radio I can’t help but notice that every instance of a station or a show that reached a bit higher, took a chance on quality, played the unexpected or occasionally controversial—all those stations were, one by one, taken over and dragged back down into the stew pot of “popular taste” at expense of anything genuinely challenging or interesting.  Regardless of genre.  Mediocrity is the hallmark of the largest market share.

Have a good weekend.