Thursday, December 31, 2009

Highlights; Decade # 4 on Earth

END OF A DECADE DEPT., DEC 31 - The third millennium is now 1% over. The tweens are nigh, and supermarket checkout stands bloom with tabloid year end reviews. Here are my own top five grand trends of the aughties. Coincidentally, it’s also my list of top five missed stories of the decade:

1. ROOKIE TIME

American anti-intellectualism is nothing new, and this decade’s incarnations – Glenn, Karl, Sarah, the teabagging lumpen – look pretty tame when stacked up next to Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy. But this last decade did contribute something fresh to the assault on public discourse; the creeping ideology that amateurs are more valuable than experts. In the 1990’s, America had municipal term limits. In the 00’s, it was viewer tweets on CNN.

Irony: within the grand intellectual triumph of Wikipedia is a monstrous strain of anti-intellectualism, the idea that “common folk” can write an encyclopedia just as well as the experts. It’s a sneaky bit of righty populism disguised as lefty “democratization of knowledge”, one made all the more insidious by a second deception; the lie that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. The site is governed by a de facto elite of community editors, and, as anyone who has tried to fix an entry knows, corrections are hard to make stick. You can join the de facto elite of community editors, but that’s no guarantee that your facts will make the cut.

I’ve never been concerned by the site’s inaccuracies. What burns me is the idea that some entries are worthy of inclusion and some are not, and that these distinctions can be resolved by consensus. It’s an anti-democratic principle dressed in hippie garb, the slow, soft push of mob rule without any checks or balances. Dozens of my friends have had their entries (biographical and otherwise) deleted as irrelevant, and just as many pals have had to fight to get private information scrubbed. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the sinister future applications of a universal reference site where information control is determined by unidentified and unaccountable committees.

Imagine how great Wikipedia could be if there were an entry for everything. That old bridge two miles outside your hometown? That band you never quite got off the ground? Your lucky pencil? Each gets a page in the book of life. The storage space certainly exists for an all-inclusive online reference work, so what I’m discussing wouldn't be beyond current technological capacity. And it's certainly not any more of a paradigm-shifting vision of an encyclopedia than one edited by rookies and cheesers. Seriously, why not?

2. THE DEATH OF HONOR

Throughout most of human history, assaults to one’s honor had remedy: dueling, litigation, Seppuku. That ceased in the aughties. It is now possible to insult anyone on Earth with airtight anonymity and impunity. Come up with a few hundred bucks for a spam mailing list and you can insult millions of people, entire nations, with one mouse click. Honor is no longer defendable. Anyone with a hint of an online presence can expect routine abuse in the course of their everyday transactions.

Earlier this year, I told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle that I dreaded reading online comments attached to my articles. He just laughed. “I stopped reading my comments years ago.” A few months later, several scalawags misread a review of an online interview I gave and called me a "hipster cunt". Even ten years ago, I might have attempted to defend my honor online, ala Courtney Love on AOL circa ‘95. Now I understand that honor itself has evaporated, like smallpox. One less thing for me to worry about.

3. RE-BLANDIFICATION

A nice thing happened this decade. Music got bad again. In the 1980’s, it was easy to dismiss pop music as a mere byproduct of a vast overhead cheese machine. Then there were a weird fifteen years where grunge and alternative and dirty southern rap kind of made FM radio OK to listen to in the car. It was confusing. Only in the last half decade have things slid back into their proper order; your (digitized) record collection is where you go to hear good songs, and the radio/MTV is where you go to get demoralized.

Strip away Lady Gaga’s desperate, why-be-normal blandness, and you’re left with reheated Air Supply. What could be more sleep-inducing than an endless roster of hip-hop odes limited to the emotional realms of nightclubs? Happily, Autotune makes it easier than ever to pretend that each new FM hit is nothing more than a rogue computer program.

4. VIRAL MYOPIA

Last month, New York Times columnist Judith Warner, writing of the House-passed Stupak-Pitts Amendment prohibiting federal funds from abortion coverage in a national health care plan, concluded;

Last night, I watched 'By The People', HBO's new documentary on the election of Barack Obama. 'We're gonna change our country. We're gonna change the world," I heard candidate Obama say. But we didn't. At this point, I sometimes wonder if we really wanted to.

This is a perfectly acceptable paragraph if you're writing a paper for fifth grade social studies class. It is maybe not so hot if you are a columnist in the planet’s leading newspaper. But a lot of this sentiment has made the rounds in the last few months. A growing number of grown adults seem quite comfortable expressing dismay that the president of the United States doesn’t agree with their every political belief.

It’s an old phenomenon – think of the countless eons of pundits and barflies complaining about “those idiots” in Washington – given fresh wings by smart people. Liberal dismay at this administration’s Afghanistan policy is a particular stumper. I understand disagreement, or outrage. But from whence springs the anguished shock? Obama’s campaign specifically posed Afghanistan as “the good war”. The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn recently wrote off this entire, well documented stance of candidate Obama as “a one-liner". How do otherwise smart people reach these conclusions? Is this childlike capacity for self-deception viral, like a fast-spreading Internet video? Or more like a bad STD?

5. PENDING HORROR

It’s strange to recall how much less horror was afoot just ten years ago. At this point in the 1990’s, terrorists were still generally regarded as holding their own lives as a self-interest. “Torture porn” didn’t exist, and there were no internet beheadings. There hasn’t been this vast a collective loss of first-world innocence since 1945.

Of several upcoming benchmarks - July 2011 for Afghanistan watchers, Dec 2012 for apocalypse watchers – one date has eluded note: March 27, 2010. As of that date, 3,119 days will have passed since 9/11. Meaning, more time will have passed since 9/11 than elapsed between the original, 1993 WTC bombing and 9/11. For the last eight years, I kept this date visible on my computer’s desktop as a reminder to keep my emergency supplies stocked. 2010 may just be the year I’ll finally get that squared away.

It’s been easy to convert fear into background noise these last eight years. Even now, last week’s Underwear Bomber has reprised the role of the comic, bumbling Al-Qaeda operative. Richard Reed was the last guy to fill this role. But the guy before him was Mohammad Salameh, the gagster who attempted to get his van deposit back after the 1993 WTC bombing. That joke was funny for exactly 3,119 days.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Quotes of 2009

"John Wilkes Booth was a stone cold fox."
- My wife


"What is that on the ground over there? Is that... a pile of hair?"
- Me


"I can't wait to schlop a beer down my hole."
- Neil Burke

Me: What kind of a madman would...
Joe Preston: Mad Lib? [laughs] Fruitfully.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

New: Dude, No

SHORT FICTION DEPT., DEC 14 - My new 4,090 word short story, "Dude, No", is now online at Vice.



Friday, December 11, 2009

Show Review (1990)

SIGNIFICANT DOCUMENTS, Dec 11 - My pal Adam made this years ago, and it has appeared on the walls of at least 8 different apartments and houses in the interim. I can't think of any other single piece of paper in my life that has lifted me out of so many mental depressions. So; thanks, Adam.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Misc: Disappointments

1. I tried to watch Flashforward - the new ABC sci-fi drama my wife calls "a giant BM" - for the first few episodes. It's really bad. My interest was piqued because the show's producers chose my 41st birthday as their metaphysical goalpost (at least for the first season). But they seemed entirely uninterested in using April 29, 2010 to showcase any real world scandals or politicians.

Imagine one character turning to another and casually discussing the car crash death of Senator Arlen Specter on January 9, 2010. Or discussing the failure of Obama's health care package in the senate. Or mentioning some sort of sex scandal involving Jake Gyllenhaal and / or one of the Williams sisters. There's a million ways you could run with a concept like this. ABC is already getting heat for the alleged anti-Obama overtones of their other SF BM serial drama, V. Why not go the full distance? (Likewise, it was deflatingly lame when last month's 2012 decided to give Schwarzenegger a third term, but replaced Obama with Danny Glover. Fred Armisen has already done the hard work of drastically lowering the bar on presidential impersonations; pretty much any of this nation's approximately 20 million African American men could have done a better job).

2. Our neighbor Eddie came over last weekend with his Wii. Eddie's a great guy that we don't see enough of, so this seemed like a nice excuse to hang out. What worried me was the addiction factor. I spent my 30's avoiding video games as diligently as I avoided drugs as a teenager. Now than I'm in a new decade, it feels like there is a real threat of my falling prey to the wonderful, endless universes of FPS's, RPG's, or Life Sims. When I dabbled in Second Life 2 years ago for a writing project, the excursion seemed fraught with the peril of dependence.

The Wii didn't seem to offer so much addiction. We played a few songs on Rockband, and I only managed to make the guitar warble a bit before the virtual audience booed me out of existence. It was demoralizing. We discussed loading up "Rebel Girl", which seemed weird, so I did a round of remedial drums on a Pixies song and then Tara belted out "Eye Of The Tiger". Later, we took turns making some blobby lego-men slalom and crash on virtual ski slopes.

Whence the fuss? How do millions of people devote all their free time to these things? Did I have the wrong games? This realization also seemed demoralizing. The boat I thought I'd missed maybe wasn't worth catching. It was that harshest of tokes: offered crack, but given Tang.

3. Related - I know I'm almost a half-decade behind on this one, but I'm still waiting for the metalcore group The Devil Wears Prada to spark a massive paradigm shift in band naming. What could be more post-everything than naming your group after a movie based on a book that directly references a high-visibility company name? Where are the new bands named 2003 Hyundai Santa Fe V6, or Save On Verizon High Speed Internet, or Barbie Wild Horse Rescue For Xbox 360? Also: Question: if you named your band The Devil Wears Prada Soundtrack, who would get to sue you?

4. Speaking of band names, Born Against 4.0 is in the mix now. Someone, not me, should probably inform B.A. 3.0. Kalamazoo, after all, is just 282 short miles from Columbus. Territories will need to be negotiated. Off the top of my head, here's one simple solution: the new Born Against can play shows anywhere east of I-75, while the new, new Born Against gets everything west of I-75. If that doesn't work, what about a battle of the band(s)??