MonthNovember 2012

Life Without Irony

I was surprised at how much I liked this article on irony by Christy Wampole for the New York Times:

What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?

Opinionator: How To Live Without Irony

I’m not sure her antidotes to irony work though… what’s wrong with wearing clothing in a particular style? What’s wrong with liking things that are absurd? Can’t nostalgia be sincere? Why shouldn’t you draw influence from historical periods that you didn’t live through?

Still, analysis of contemporary irony is spot-on, and these self-examinations are good starting points, even if you decide that dressing like a 19th century dandy is the best way to sincerely express yourself. Or whatever. (I can’t help but loop this sort of analysis of one’s own speech back to the Buddhist notion of “right speech”.)

Tangent: Wampole mentions the films of Wes Anderson as examples of a “New Sincerity” movement. I find that interesting because they don’t come across to me as sincere at all — I’ve found his work to be quite hipster-ish. But I have no idea if it’s actually sincere or not — I guess that’s part of the problem. Also: is irony such an infection that even sincere things can be shot through with irony? For example, I don’t care much for Quentin Tarintino’s films, but they strike me as very sincere in their nostalgia. I recently saw The Man With Iron Fists, directed by RZA and produced by Tarintino and it came off as a very sincere attempt at making a kung-fu movie. But while Tarintino, Rodriguez, Roth and the rest of the neo-grindhouse movement are clearly sincere in their love for this stuff, these pastiches remain immune from criticism. Lift lines and scenes from another movie? Treat women like sex objects? Fixate on torture porn? Well, why not — it’s an homage, these are the tropes of the source material — we can’t be criticized for their mistakes.

Everybody Loves Buntain

(thanks Justin)

Evolution Of Fashion As A Signifier

Evolution of Men's Fashion

Numidas Prasarn wrote:

We have images of masculine attire through the ages as being playful at some points, and completely dour and boring at others, with it ultimately landing on the latter. English psychologist John Carl Flugel coined the term for this phenomenon as “The Great Masculine Renunciation”. He writes, “modern man’s clothing abounds in features which symbolize his devotion to the principles of duty, of renunciation, and of self control.”[2] Changes in political attitudes and values pinned masculinity into this mode of restraint starting with 17th century France. And not to beat a dead french horse, but the death of the aristocracy was just the first nail in the coffin. After the French Revolution, specific signs of nobility and class distinction were shunned and in some cases outright outlawed. Which isn’t to say that in their push for liberty and equality in the Napoleonic era class distinction and social hierarchy did NOT exist, only that showing specific signs of flamboyance or excess, characteristics of the bourgeoisie, was unacceptable. And so we reach a period of uniformity and reserve in masculine dress, as Flugel puts it “Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful.”

Interestingly Prasarn cites the emergence of the dandy as part of this trend away from “play” in men’s dress towards minimalism, though I’d always had the impression of the dandy as a rather fanciful figure:

On the flipside, in the English Regency, there are two major factors that contributed to this change – the Age of Enlightenment and the quintessential dandy, Beau Brummell. England at this point is engaged in constant war between Napoleon, its own efforts at expansion, and itself (Hey, America!) and the French Revolution along with the philosophical writings of the time jump start this trend of neoclassicism. For men, this means a “sleeker” silhouette, to highlight the male body and echo the idealized physique in greek sculpture. Suddenly elaborate trims and ornamentation is left out and the quality of tailoring and cut of cloth is emphasized in such a way that implied the fitness and virility of the wearer (important also in a growing military culture). Beau Brummell takes this silhouette and runs with it, becoming the poster boy for men’s fashion. He is so influential as a style icon that it is often credited to him that we see the modern suit form, the dark colors and precise tailoring, starched crisp collar and a well placed necktie all from his cue (which he took from the french idealization of working class aesthetics).

Full Story: Coilhouse: The Evolution of Fashion as a Signifier

Previously: Fashion Is A Feminist Issue

John McAfee’s Last Stand

John McAfee's Last Stand

If you’ve not heard, John McAfee, founder of McAfee Antivirus, is on the lam in Belize, wanted for murder wanted for questioning in a murder murder investigation (though Gizmodo previously quoted police in Belize saying McAfee is the prime suspect in the murder). Joshua Davis has been covering McAfee’s time Belize has published a short e-book about the fiasco:

McAfee picks a bullet off the floor and fixes me with a wide-eyed, manic intensity, his light blue eyes sparkling. “This is a bullet, right?” he says in the congenial Southern accent that has stuck with him since his boyhood in Virginia.

“Let’s put the gun down,” I tell him. I’d come here to investigate why the government of Belize was accusing him of assembling a private army and entering the drug trade. It seemed implausible that a wildly successful tech entrepreneur would disappear into the Central American jungle and become a narco-trafficker. Now I’m not so sure.

But he explains that the accusations are a fabrication. “Maybe what happened didn’t actually happen,” he says, staring hard at me. “Can I do a demonstration?”

He loads the bullet into the gleaming silver revolver and spins the cylinder.

“This scares you, right?” he says. Then he puts the gun to his head.

My heart rate kicks up; it takes me a second to respond. “Yeah, I’m scared,” I admit.

“We don’t have to do this.”

“I know we don’t,” he says, the muzzle pressed against his temple. And then he pulls the trigger.

Wired: John McAfee’s Last Stand Excerpt

Buy the e-book on Amazon.com

Update: McAfee has published a blog post claiming that was feeding Davis “as much nonsense as I could muster.” He has also posted what he claims are a recording of an ex-village councilman planning to kill him, and a letter threatening his life if he didn’t pay up $150,000.

Cult Favorite Magazine Arthur Coming Back To Print

Alan Moore Arthur Magazine cover

How many lives does counter culture tabloid Artur Magazine have? It suspended publication in 2007, but then came back a few months later. Then it was cancelled again, becoming an online-only publication before disappearing supposedly forever. It’s coming back again, this time as $5 an issue newspaper-format publication:

After a four-year sabbatical (faked death?), your beloved revolutionary sweetheart Arthur returns to print, renewed, refreshed, reinvigorated and in a bold new format: pages as tall and wide as a daily newspaper, printed in color and black and white on compostable newsprint, with ads only on the back cover(s). Amazing!

In partnership with Portland, Oregon’s Floating World Comics, Arthur’s gang of goofs, know-it-alls and village explainers are back, from Bull Tonguers Byron Coley and Thurston Moore to radical ecologist Nance Klehm to trickster activists Center for Tactical Magic to Defend Brooklyn‘s socio-political commentator Dave Reeves to a host of new, fresh-faced troublemakers, edited by ol’ fool Jay Babcock and art directed by Yasmin Khan. You want a peek at the contents? Sorry, compadre. That would be saying too much, too soon. Wait ’til Dec. 22, 2012: that’s right—THE DAY AFTER THE NON-END OF THE WORLD!

Please keep in mind… Arthur is no longer distributed for free anywhere. Those days are (sadly) long gone. Now you gotta buy Arthur or you won’t see it. Our price: Five bucks cheeeeeep!

You can pre-order the new issue here.

The Dark Side Of The Gamification Of Work

I wrote for Wired:

But some believe gamification may do more harm than good. Kathy Sierra, a game designer who has given talks on the dark side of gamification, tells Wired that game designers and scholars are almost universally against gamification.

As Sierra points out, gamification replaces an intrinsic reward with an extrinsic one. In other words, it shifts a participant’s motivation from doing something because it is inherently rewarding to doing it for some other reason that isn’t as meaningful. This, she says, is ultimately less motivating.

Sierra cites research from University of Rochester psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, which was popularized by Dan Pink’s book Drive. Deci and Ryan concluded that the most powerful motivators for employees are the mastery of the task at hand, autonomy, and something called relatedness, which might involve helping a customer with a meaningful problem. Gamification replaces these motivators with extrinsic motivators like points and badges.

The other problem is that gamified applications aren’t necessarily fun. Most of what is called gamification would be better described as pointsification, according to game designer Margaret Robertson. “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience,” she wrote in a 2010 blog post

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: How ‘Gamification’ Can Make Your Customer Service Worse

The Science Of Intuition

Maria Popova recently reviewed on Answers for Aristotle, a book on the science of intuition by Massimo Pigliucci. The snap summary: intuition is essentially subconscious pattern recognition. Here’s an excerpt Popova included:

One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.

Full Story: The Science of “Intuition”

See also:

Your Unconscious Brain Can Do Math, Process Language

U.S. Military Funding Research On “Spidey Sense”

The Politics Of Legitimacy

Futurist Jamais Cascio has over the past couple years been elaborating on an idea called Teratocracy, “the rule of monsters.” Specifically what he’s talking about, however, is the tendency for those who lose elections to question the legitimacy of the winning parties.

Here’s how he explains it:

Democracy is defined by how you lose, not (just) how you win.
The real test of whether a society that uses a plebiscite to determine leadership is really a democracy is whether the losing party accepts the loss and the legitimacy of their opponent’s victory. This is especially true for when the losing party previously held power. Do they give up power willingly, confident that they’ll have a chance to regain power again in the next election? Or do they take up arms against the winners, refuse to relinquish power, and/or do everything they can to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition’s rule? […]

Unfortunately, it appears that attacking the in-power opposition’s legitimacy may be an increasingly effective way to derail policy initiatives. When a substantial portion (at least 30%, perhaps up to 50%) of the Republican party, for example, believes that not only does Obama have bad policies, he has no legitimate right to be President, compromise and negotiation become difficult at best. Republican leaders willing to negotiate aren’t just compromising principles, they’re aiding and abetting a violation of the Constitution. And while this is currently a Republican problem, there’s nothing to say that Democrats — the political leaders, not just the activists — won’t learn the lesson that this is an effective way to fight once Republicans retake the Presidency.

Fear of Teratocracy

Teratocracy Rises

Teratocracy Triumphant?

Current discussions about a Texas succession are examples of this continuing to play out, as were Donald Trump’s tweets calling the election a sham and calling for a “revolution” to oust Obama.

Most of this is so much hot air, but as Cascio points out, it’s about the opposition party disrupting the winning party’s ability to govern. It’s about distraction.

The problem though is that our system is deeply broken — we have a two party duopoly, broken electoral processes designed to suppress the vote, etc. There were some on the left who questioned Bush’s legitimacy to lead as well, though I’m not sure these concerns were ever voiced as loudly as the Birthers’ claims.

The frightening thing is not that people are attacking the legitimacy of government, it’s a question of who is attacking it (ie, the very wealthy) and what sort of system we are likely to get in its place. Quoting Johnny Brainwash from my interview with him in 2010, which is worth a re-read:

The only way a movement could grow strong enough to take on the paramilitarized surveillance state backed up by an enormous and well-prepared military is if it recruits its own military power from the army and the police.

I don’t say this is unlikely- in fact, it’s a more valid concern than it has been in decades. But by drawing on the institutions of power, it guarantees that it will not be revolutionary in nature. Just a different set of goons on top, and no more hiding behind veils of democracy or what have you.

Occult Battles On The Streets Of London, 1993

The Neoist Alliance attempts to levitate the  Pavilion Theatre in protest of Ian Stuart's performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Harlequin

In 1993 the Neoist Alliance protested Ian Stuart’s performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Harlequin, promising to levitate the Pavilion Theatre 25 feet off the ground. Thee Temple Ov Psychic Youth (TOPY), however, lead a counter protest to stop the levitation, concerned that the levitation could create “a negative vortex would be created which could seriously damage the ozone layer.”

As the handful of individuals who’d decided to cross the picket line arrived for the concert, they were met with chants of ‘Boycott Stockhausen’ from our ranks, to which the TOPY activists replied with cries of ‘Stop The Levitation’. The counter-demonstrators pleaded with concert-goers to remain outside the building so that they could participate in a set of breathing and visualisation exercises designed to prevent the levitation. Once the concert began, the two sets of demonstrators prepared themselves for a psychic battle outside the theatre. These street actions drew a far larger crowd than the Ian Stuart recital inside the building. Passers-by were reluctant to step in front of the waves of psychic energy we were generating and soon much of the street was at a standstill. The Brighton and Hove Leader of 20/5/93 quoted one shaken concert-goer as saying, ‘I definitely felt my chair move. It shook for a minute and then stopped.’ The Neoist Alliance also received reports of toilets overflowing and electrical equipment short-circuiting, although these went unreported by the press.

While TOPY were adamant that their actions prevented the Pavilion Theatre being raised 25 feet into the air, the Neoist Alliance considers the protest to have been a complete success.

Full Story: The Stewart Home Society: OUR TACTICS AGAINST STOCKHAUSEN

(via Peter Bebergal)

Jonah Lehrer And The Poverty Of “Big Ideas”

Lehrer spent much of August writing about the affair, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong. He came to the conclusion that he’d stretched himself too thin. His excuses fall along those lines: He told Seife that his plagiarized blog post was a rough draft he’d posted by mistake. And his latest explanation for those fabricated Dylan quotes is that he had written them into his book proposal and forgotten to fix them later. Even by his own account, then, the writing wasn’t his top priority.

The lectures, though, were increasingly important. Lehrer gave between 30 and 40 talks in 2010, all while meeting constant deadlines, starting a family, and buying a home in the Hollywood Hills. It was more than just a time suck; it was a new way of orienting his work. Lehrer was the first of the Millennials to follow his elders into the dubious promised land of the convention hall, where the book, blog, TED talk, and article are merely delivery systems for a core commodity, the Insight.

The Insight is less of an idea than a conceit, a bit of alchemy that transforms minor studies into news, data into magic. Once the Insight is in place—Blink, Nudge, Free, The World Is Flat—the data becomes scaffolding. It can go in the book, along with any caveats, but it’s secondary. The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.

Full Story: New York Magazine: Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer

The next big idea? The end of big ideas. See:

The Atlantic: Let’s Cool It With The Big Ideas

(I could swear Wired had a similar column from the editor a couple months ago, but it doesn’t seem to be online and I toss my print editions out after I read them)

Evgeny Morozov: The Naked and the TED

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