A Response to Paul Krugman on the Apple Watch

Reading Time: 9 minutes

This is a response, at the request of my friend Phil Mathews, to a blog entry in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, which appears here: http://hdin.in/1PAOPYk

First of all, I’m glad for the opportunity to opine about the Apple Watch publicly as it’s a solicitation rather than a personal impulse (the response to which, never mind the receptivity, is virtually impossible for me to gauge; as far as I can tell, I have about three fans, and those not consistently). I do have opinions about the device, which I’ve shared, in pure speculation, because it has not been available for viewing or handling by the hoi polloi, of which I am a decided fixture. But I’ve shared them privately. Just to give a context for whatever else I might have to say, I did agree with another friend here on Facebook that one of my first reactions to the announcement of an actual product, with photos and some cursory explanations as to functions and functionality, was, thank God, finally a gizmo from Apple I don’t want and, when you come down to it, I really don’t need.

I think it’s interesting that Krugman has a point of view about the Apple Watch, of course. However, I’m disappointed that he decides to take a personal perspective, instead of doing what he’s done so well in other regards so often—though not always—that is, to step to one side, figuratively speaking, and look at the phenonomenon of the Apple Watch and the category it represents as the trained scientist he is. More pointedly, it’s possible, in fact, that the Apple Watch will actually end up defining that category, as Apple is wont to do with emerging consumer product technology. They invent very little in that regard, the genre aready exists, i.e., a wearable multi-function computing device. In the same way the portable digital music player was defined by iPod, or a highly portable entertainment, consultative and reference device, with facilities for rudimentary record keeping, similar to both a laptop, for the size of the screen, and a smartphone, for its lightness and compactness by the iPad, of course, and so forth.

Rather he has taken a tack, perfectly legitimate in this world of media wherein anything goes, even in the name of news, analysis, and factual reporting of the truths derived from statistical data and double-blind experimentation on live subjects in actual conditions. If he wants to speak for himself, who’s to stop him? As he says, what the heck?

He does, in the process, break a cardinal rule, as I have always understood it, in market research and analysis, even of a speculative sort, and that is, never to assume that you are yourself representative of even a tiny valid statistical segment of prospective markets.

In the end, I beg to differ with Mr. Krugman (disclosure: I too wear a fitness band, though I gather a different brand than his, and I have always been a small-time aficionado of the art of the horologist, that is, I love watches, and own several; in the past 50 years I’d guess it’s rarely that a day has gone by that I have not been wearing a watch, and for most of the past 20 years or so, it’s been the same watch, the acquisition of which was a purely personal attainment, it had been an object of desire for me for some time and, as it was, at the time, costly (to me) required extra long deliberation about making the ultimate purchase… though once I did I never looked back, and I also never stopped looking at other fine specimens of the watchmaker’s art—none of which I indulged in acquiring).

I think of the Apple Watch, still sight unseen except in dazzling, augmented images mainly on the Web, in the same way I think of the iPhone, as well as of the iPad, and that is, one way or another, they are computers that have been designed to a particular set of applications, in the broadest sense, and in a form that makes them suitable and adaptable to a particular set of highly specific computer programs, or apps as they’ve come to be called.

The first unfortunate observation Mr. Krugman makes is the one he asserts at the very beginning, setting the tone, but more importantly defining a polarity that I think is not even factitious. I think he’s made it up in terms of his own highly circumscribed needs and the uses to which he himself puts these devices to meet those needs.

I’ve gone out of my way to describe the phones and the tablets and even the watches (as well as the music players, and a whole variety of hybrid devices: phablets, lapbook/tablets) as computers, because that is, ultimately, the genus of each of these species of cybernetic creature. Alan Turing, the fathering genius of the age in which we find ourselves, posited in what he called “the universal machine,” or in plain terms of today, a computer (a word which originally meant, when applied to a device designed to a specific task, a machine to do calculations). What Turing meant, and what the whole industry spawned by his idea has set about to make actual—even to defining the epoch in which we conduct our daily business—was that such a machine or computer could use a calculating engine to perform almost any task, including a universe of tasks (like talking in real time to another person over extreme distances in a simulacrum of voices that are unmistakably those of the speakers) that seemingly have nothing to do with calculating numbers. It’s because all tasks can be understood, using the legerdemain of converting physical changes, of even the most minute dimensions, into sequences of numbers that, reinterpreted by a reverse process of conversion back to something resembling the original physical changes, to be mere sequences of coded symbols, called programs. Even the stuff of life, in something of a misnomer—as the real stuff of what we call life remains a mystery—DNA and RNA are understood best as sequences of replicable codes of a deceptively minimal number of constituents.

What I’m getting at, with all this beating around the bush, is that Mr. Krugman can use his fitness band and presumably an Apple Watch, or a competitive product (and I predict he’ll own one, probably sooner than later) any way he likes. I use my fitness band differently, and I needn’t go into it as it’s irrelevant, and I do so mainly because I have a different set of personally important objectives to attain by doing so, than he does.

Further, and truly to get into the meat of the matter, he misses the boat entirely, in my opinion, because he fails to account for what is an indisputable set of phenonmena that have emerged as more and more people use more and more smart devices. Most people have a streak, wide or narrow, it’s there in most of us, wherein two seemingly very human impulses are served.

It is important, in increasingly complex ways, for us to stay in touch with increasingly larger circles of individuals with whom we either share an affinity—even if its only an affinity for staying in touch with increasingly larger numbers of people—or can at least pretend to have an affinity, again if only on the strength of having formed a connection in the first place. And what we share in the actualization of that continuous connection, is information, some of it, probably most of it, of a personal nature, and essentially trivial, banal, and, without using judgmental qualifiers such as these, most certainly quotidian. We tell one another, on a full-time basis, if not, indeed, 24/7, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, even so as to subsume all of our habits, including eating habits, sleeping habits, fitness habits, leisurely pursuits, passive entertainments, and game-playing. Many people, doubtless, share even more intimate details of their emotional states, their loves, their hates, their fears—or why would people keep doing it and yet express such outrage at the prospect of having all that information captured by the government?

Smart devices have made it easier and easier not only to track our own activities, but more importantly, or at least as importantly in a different context, we can not only share the record of those activities with others, but we can count on the computational and analytical capabilties of these really amazingly powerful computers that fit, now, on our wrists (and there has been talk for years, to varying degrees in response to the prospect of horror and wonder, of embedding computer chips into our bodies, with nary a lump or a shock) to allow us to compare our “performance” and achievements with those of our cyber-families.

If anything, because they are more literally more intimate, actually contacting on a continuous basis our skin, the largest organ of our bodies, and tap into the wealth of data obtainable via this means of connection, even to more deeply embedded organs, recording by ingenious means, respiration, perspiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and, if not now, then no doubt imminently, fat-to-body mass ratio, rate of caloric intake, rate of caloric consumption, etc., and I’m just listing somatic data (mainly because Krugman set the pace, so to speak). There’s also neurological and specific brain wave activity somewhere in the future…

And no doubt, there are many of us for whom, as for Krugman, this is of some level of vital personal significance to know, if only for the sake of knowing as a touchstone for maintaining honesty with oneself about how responsible one is being about keeping fit (as if that were all there to it). I have to wonder, do we even need a minimally 350 dollar aluminum watch, assuming we are desirous of the status of the Apple Watch (a status it has apparently already begun to accrue to itself, still two weeks before the first orders are fulfilled for the first customers) to help us be honest with ourselves?

Krugman mentions only monitoring his personal fitness stats once or twice a day. Sometimes for me, as long as it’s confession time, I rarely consult the gizmo at all. I did far more often when I first started using it, as it represented an indisputable, highly accurate frame of reference—a reality check. I don’t need a gadget to know I’ve pretty much done my duty by myself to get in some physical exercise sufficient to preserve whatever pitiful level of fitness I enjoy at the moment. Whatever it’s merits, or lack of them, to me, I share this information, about sleep habits, steps, exercise, etc. with no one, except my wife, who has a more avid involvement for her own legitimate reasons with her own activities, and a legitimate fond conjugal concern for my state of health. I don’t compare my “performance” with norms established and maintained by the manufacturer of my fitness band. The last thing I would do is share any of this information with my friends. My universal motto, in that regard, as regards all matters of social intercourse insofar as its constituted of the exchange of news about daily activities, physical or intellectual, is “It’s not a contest.” Even less than I am interested in the minutiae of my own behaviors, as measured by these devices and wondrous gizmos, I am not interested in how many steps my buddies have taken that day, or how long they spent on their rowers, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc.

However, unlike Krugman, by inference from what he says in the Times, I don’t suppose in any way that I am a typical specimen, subject, or consumer. Very much the contrary. I think, contrary to his conclusions “A smartphone is useful mainly because it lets you keep track of things; wearables will be useful mainly because they let things keep track of you,” that both are parts of some larger universal machine that allows the aggregation of data, instantly retrievable, automatically transmitted and shared, and rapidly analyzed for comparative, if not strictly competitive, purposes.

The chief complaint about the Apple Watch in preliminary reviews allowed by Apple to be conducted by a selected band of “power users” and professional industry watchers is that though the functions of the iPhone, especially by way of tracking and notification of one’s own agenda, schedule and itinerary (the framework of a busy life for a particular tribe of people engaged in a particular set of occupations) are no longer an annoyance as manifest on the phone, they are an immense annoyance on the watch, because it not only makes small annoying sounds. It actually buzzes, vibrates, tickles, pokes, and otherwise prods your epidermis in a way that is, by their almost universal account of it, distracting and, in the presence of others, invasive. I see all this not as a sign of a different function for these devices in the Krugmanian formulation: “they let things keep track of you.”

As I already said, I think this is an utterly shallow misreading of the actual gestalt of increasingly personal cybernetic extensions of our conscious preoccupations. And the initial complaints are merely a sign that the necessary adaptation of the always elastic set of protocols and behaviors (what used to be called manners and etiquette) are due for another revision, like a new release of a major operating system. The iPhone, with its beeps, whistles, vibrations and blinking and winking, was thought to be a distraction and rudeness personified. An individual’s attachment to their iPhone, even in public, even in social scenarios, involving as few as one other person, and as many as a conference room full of many others, has become the basis for a normative set of behaviors that people my age find at best amusing, and at worst painfully rude and offputting.

I predict in not too long a period of time (as the Apple Watch seems destined, indeed, to be the best next thing, and an expansion of the armamentarium of gadgetry with which large segments of the population will equip themselves) that wrist consulting, and various otherwise comically impolite sound effects and reflexive behaviors (haptics are a new set of phenomena to which people will have to become acclimated), will become the newly revised norm that in a couple of years we’ll all wonder was such a bother.

Krugman’s got it wrong, because, for once, he’s not looking at a big enough picture.

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Curt Schilling

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What disturbs me about the current Curt Schilling brouhaha that’s, as the au courant term puts it, “trending” is not that he took the bull by the horns and decided to leap… No great risk for him as he’s clearly of the John Wayne “Searchers” school of vigilantism. It’s not that he loves his daughter, is proud of her, laudatory, and, as is now obvious, protective just short of a fault. I hope it’s short. In fact, one way of looking at what I find disturbing is a kind of falling short in the protective department.

He is, by his own characterization (and it reads like a pre-emptive rationale, to those who might question the rigor with which he pursued his daughter’s tormentors), a public figure. To many people, especially Red Sox fans, and to the electorate of a more conservative persuasion politically who take any notice, he’s a hero. He is clearly outspoken, and possibly even brazen in his stated willingness to confront all comers mano a mano.

He has been using personal computers, he says, since 1981 (quite possible; the IBM PC was introduced that year. Of course, he was 15 in 1981, and possibly it was with some hobbyist version of the PC that he became acquainted with the technology. No matter. I know it was possible even to have begun to have some acquaintance with connectivity, as there were communication networks for the public, accessible using personal computers, that predate the Internet going back at least as far as 1981. Whatever the case, he portrays himself as a man well versed in the ways of the social media.

He makes a great case for being a man, now mature and responsible for his actions, taken prudently and thoughtfully, and before that, a fairly typical teenager, reckless and daring, and more than willing to do regrettable stupid things. He says he understands the impulses of men in groups, having been one for most of his professional career in sports, certainly in the Major Leagues of baseball and in other leagues as prelude to that. He knows the braggadocio, the manly preening, the boasts and the longings and the lusts.

After congratulating his 17 year old daughter, whom he names in the post, on Twitter, for having been accepted at Salve Regina College, both as a freshman and as a member of their varsity softball team, he was, he claims, non-plussed by the less than kindly well-wishes of what grew to be a mob of scurrilous cyber-bullies, and would-be sexual predators, stating explicit sexual assaults intended for Mr. Schilling’s teenage daughter.

I have no quarrel with his vehement and aggressive stand against such behavior. I have what may or may not be a quarrel with his tactics (though not his motives—which are understandable; even not being a father, one can understand his sense of protectiveness) in outing and setting up her would-be assailants and threat-mongers for retribution through perfectly legal channels. By bringing their behavior to the attention of their managers, bosses, coaches, et al., Mr. Schilling instigated the dismissal, firing, and expulsion of many of these transgressors from their appointments to college and professional athletic teams, from their jobs, and so forth. In the end, I guess—again my feelings are not sorted out, and hence are kind of equivocal, if not ambivalent altogether—justice has been meted out, and, in addition to the immediate punishment inherent in their loss of status, or even of a livelihood, they face the possibly life-long prospect of having been branded as offenders as one of the most reviled sort in this country.

But for all that, here’s what’s bothering me. Mr. Schilling, by all accounts, but especially his own, a responsible adult, taking very seriously his role as provider and protector of his family and, in particular, any female offspring, was not sufficiently mindful from the start, or not, in my book, as he might have considered being. I don’t mean with his original proud innocuous “tweet” congratulating his daughter. But before that, when he took it upon himself to have a public presence, presumably for his fans, as well as actual personal friends and family, on the most visible of social media. On Twitter, in particular, which has become a vetted conduit for fast-breaking news, among whatever other more frivolous uses to which it is put, he has 122,000 followers. We can’t expect that he knows all these people personally. We can’t imagine, when it comes down to cases, that he would consider it a comfortable proposition that they be privy to all matters concerning his personal life, not to mention those of his family, and greatest of all those of his children.

Many other public figures go to great lengths to preserve their privacy and shield their loved ones, despite the exertions and no-expense-spared tactics employed by the world at large, not only the media, but all self-styled media, including commentators, hangers-on, and those, in the case of celebrities, who consider themselves somehow colleagues, if not peers, because they are engaged in the same business (other athletes in the case of Mr. Schilling, from junior high on up through college; in the case of the performing arts, all those who are studying those arts, or performing them, even at the amateur and community level). People do want to feel that kinship with those who have proven themselves, especially if they have received accolades and the world’s recognition. In practice, people still have to earn trust though, one-by-one and on a personal level.

Some public figures go to unusual lengths, expatriating themselves, or living behind ultra-secured gates, and enrolling their children in private institutions that have been dedicated to do everything possible to protect their privacy. Perhaps the parents are fair game—that’s the way of the world for public figures of global recognition and stature—but I have yet to hear an argument, except from people who are clearly tainted with perverse interpretations of appropriate ethical and moral standards by which to live, that the family and children of public figures are equally fair game.

Many public figures also go to great lengths not to make other members of their families, especially those under legal age, also a member of the professional act, so to speak. I’m not talking about the “stars” of reality media, who are largely famous for being famous, and being famous and making as many blood relatives, or those tied by marriage, famous in the bargain.

Curt Schilling, I don’t believe, is part of this latter category. He is, nevertheless, a genuine sports hero and icon to many.

If anything, I would argue, he has a greater responsibility to be mindful of what he shares about himself and his life—but in particular his personal life—with the world outside of what amounts to a small circle of friends and family, as is true for anyone. Anyone. He is entitled to be as proud as he can stand to feel about the accomplishments of his children. He is entitled to feel all the positive feelings any normal person has regarding loved ones, and those held dear, by blood or friendship.

I am not sure he is entitled to expose them, if he can help it, to the attention of the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, to the wanton, lurid and often perverse, sick and criminal curiosities and fantasies of some small portion of a public as large as theirs is likely to be, and as large as Curt Schilling’s demonstrably is.

I don’t think he owes one word of apology to anyone who, through his or her actions directed at Mr. Schilling’s daughter, jeopardized their participation in a normative way with the rest of society. They have made themselves pariahs, and they must find their own strategies for extricating themselves from that status, if that’s even possible.

What I do think Mr. Schilling is obligated to do, is to think, or to think again (assuming he gave thought to these matters in the past; he is clearly outspoken, and just as clearly an intelligent thinking man who arrives at his point of view only after due consideration), about the repercussions of offering up what should be private communications intended for the bosom of his group of nearest and dearest, and keeping those offers of his, of praise, or whatever else, out of the eyesight and earshot of the rest of his world of admirers. They are simply bright flames to countless moths who never stop coming.

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Memento Historia

Reading Time: 11 minutes

2015 3 5 blurred

I’ve reached an age, in my 60s, when every memory is a spur to thinking about what has passed before, what no longer is the reigning shared truth, what is no more the common wisdom.

The way people are talking today on the latter day Rialto, our virtual agora meeting place not just daily but around the clock, I mean Facebook of course, those of a dependably like mind to my own are shuddering at the prospect of, say, a Jeb Bush-Hillary Clinton contest in 2016. They go through the bench gathering of would be Republican prospects, the Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rand Paul motley band of rookies and wannabes and shudder. They look behind Hillary’s back, and see no prospects.

What I am reminded of is a similar time just eight years ago. Eight years. It used to be that whole generations would pass before someone or other, usually a self-appointed sage, would remind us of the history already forgotten and clearly about to be re-lived and dedicated to the commission of the same mistakes. It’s happening now, in a conventional way, though with a more perverse cast to it. Ted Cruz compares Iran to Hitler’s Germany of the late 1930s and Obama and his staff of negotiators to Neville Chamberlain. Cruz is, of course, too stupid as well as too young even to recall the time immediately after World War II, a likely unavoidable consequence of any position the British Prime Minister might have taken at the time, and it’s likely excusable—Cruz’s resonant solecism—because it all happened what is now nearly 77 years ago. However, as I started to point out, we are now only eight years out from our anticipation of the then upcoming Presidential nomination and election cycle that would offer the chance of true regime change, or so it seemed, after eight years of Bush and his administration (an administration that, along with their leader, have, only today, been charged by the German government with war crimes—which I note to color the context of these observations, and to help readers recall why exactly it was certain of us desperately sought relief from the burden of living in a country run by such individuals).

At that time as well, back in the early days of 2007, Hillary Clinton seemed a sure thing. Feminists preened over the prospects of seeing the first realistic possibility of electing the country’s first woman President. Common liberals, not wanting or for some reason or other not being disposed to take too close a look, rejoiced at a return to the former triumphs, or so they had so quickly come to be perceived, of the previous Clinton incumbency, riven as it was with the quizzical and inappropriate behavior of a world leader who otherwise seemed entirely to be master of his influence and power, not only in the United States, but in the world. All those looking forward to a new dynasty, with the fresh frisson of not only a passing of the baton to abler and smarter hands than someone named Bush, but of a gender never before seen wielding such influence and power. It was only seven or eight years, but many had already forgotten the extent to which the Clintons, male and female, were held in contempt by such a large segment of the public, and of course by a Congress, control of which Clinton the First had managed to help the Democrats lose through his wanton personal mischief.

Perhaps our propensity to forget sooner, and not to want to think about the consequences of what seemed already foregone if merely accepted passively, had already set in. Frankly, and I write this with an ironic smile on my face, it’s hard to recall exactly in early 2007 what the mood was, and what the disposition of mind, as evident in the outpourings of the concerned. For one, of course, we didn’t yet have Facebook. It was introduced to the public only in the Fall of the preceding year (does anyone remember that Microsoft bought a piece of Facebook in 2007, only a year after everyone who was 13 and with a valid email address could sign up, a very tiny piece, for $240 million, which validated the company and gave it a preposterous market value on paper?). But in 2007 it was still mainly teenagers who belonged, teens who have since spurned it, in part because it has become a repository among other things for the detritus of memories and recollections of at least three generations prior to theirs—generations with what I am saying are clearing failing capacities for remembering the substance of occurrences of only eight years previous.

The half-assed historian in me (the one that’s in so many of us) finds it a shame to have to work so much harder to recapture common sentiments among ordinary citizens, who mainly had email to talk amongst themselves (texting existed, but it was the iPhone and its stream of competitors that made it a standard mode of communication, and the iPhone was introduced in June of 2007, still, at this writing, three months shy of eight years ago). Putting aside the undeniable fact that Facebook is a medium for a self-selecting set of users, a fact that is mitigated by the nature of the way they use it, which is to talk to friends and those of like mind, not to have arguments with any heat or rancor (though these do occur, as it’s an open forum and anyone can tangle with anyone they choose to whom they have access), we now have a daily record of how at least some of us share sentiments and exactly what those sentiments are.

One of the members in the screen shot above opines “2016 the race where America can’t win,” or so liberals and progressives of a more advanced persuasion think. What I recall about 2007 is that Democrat voters and others sought a redress of the wrongs of the Bush administration and the Republican Party in general (another small spur to recollection is called for here: the Tea Party movement, now anathema to a majority of Americans, but with a stranglehold on the Republican Party was founded only in 2007, with Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate for 2008, one of its earliest proponents, but if you hated the Republican Party in 2007, it wasn’t likely because of its extreme members). All Republican hopefuls, from Ron Paul (another Tea Party darling, for no less a reason than that he helped get it going), to John McCain, the eventual candidate, to Mitt Romney, to Rick Perry were anathema, the “worst choices ever” (to quote another of the commentators in my screen shot of a thread, but he’s referring to the current crop, right now, in 2015), not imagining that any party could do worse than the party that produced Warren G. Harding (among others; and I won’t but barely mention some of the other candidates that project themselves for such distinction, like the criminal RIchard Nixon, and the hapless Herbert Hoover). But I also recall that, in March of 2007, just a month after announcing his candidacy, Barack Obama was a very long shot, and automatically the target of revulsion simply on the basis of the color of his skin. Hillary Clinton was simply unacceptable to a great many thoughtful voters (disclosure: myself included, opening myself to a series of non-winnable debates among my circle, mainly with women friends, simply by pronouncing my aversion to Mrs. Clinton’s politics and her cozy connections with big money and its sources), being only a classic pol, in tailored suits and flattering hairdos, much like all of her male predecessors—have we also forgotten her husband Bill Clinton, leaving Air Force One sitting on the tarmac at LA International Airport for hours, forcing the closure of two out of four runways at one of the country’s busiest airports, while he got a haircut? Where and however Mr. Clinton got his silvery locks shorn notwithstanding, without any quarter and certainly no opportunity given to clarify my position it was assumed by those feisty women friends of mine that my opposition had to derive simply out of a knee-jerk revulsion to gender, that, like all men under the skin, I was anti-women and anti-feminist. I quickly learned to give up—even feigning incredulity and indignant anger was no solution; women need no longer lead with their empathy and sensitivity, and no one gives a shit if a man, any man, is misunderstood, not after an epoch-long siege of one gender being misunderstood, and kept with their necks under someone’s boot. I hated Hillary (I didn’t; I just repudiated her politics, always did) because I hated the idea of a woman in charge (I didn’t; nothing’s better than leaving the decisions to someone else qualified and brave enough to accept the responsibility, no matter what endowment they were born with between their legs).

To many Democrats Hillary Clinton is an anomalous creature, the subject of great ambivalence. She has all the trappings, the air, of an ideal liberal candidate, but none of the solidity, none of the stuff. All veneer and no essence. She is expedient and opportunistic. Her husband, long since recognized for some of the same qualities and with undeniable charisma, with no specific facets to his character in which to anchor this elusive incorporeal quality. He has been taken to task, and by association, if not mere implication, as has Hillary, for the slippery strategy of triangulation, which, in application, seems always more tactical than the engine of a goal-driven mission. The results of triangulation seem always, in the end to be political, to achieve an actionable compromise, in order to keep the political machine moving forward. Taking any such action, the abandonment of the foundation and structure of welfare as the country had come to know it over 35 years, for example, seemed in the end, in fact, to realize the objectives of adversarial political players and an abandonment of Democrat principles. It is always adroitly papered over with the elation of a perceived victory, rather than the satisfaction of a palpable advance in the welfare (in the strictly denotative sense) of the people it means to serve—the constituency whose needs drive any political process. The real beneficiaries are the engineers of the adroit act of triangulation, the Clintons themselves. This happens over and over again when politicians actually take the reins of power and forget that the job is now to lead the team of draft horses pulling the nation along, and think their objectives are still self-advancement before all else moves forward.

On the other hand, the Republicans have of late only offered a motley band, from the brazen to the sober, and even the more distinguished of the prospects—I’ll just offer Rand Paul as a possible example—the sense is always they must struggle to keep a straight face. Realizing some of them are smart enough to know the difference, it’s nevertheless appalling that the state of the electorate is such that even more judicious and thoughtful candidates are forced, because it’s politics after all, Western style at that, and American in particular, to kowtow to the crowd mentality. Which is all to say that, as a clinician might affirm, if someone is conscious and alert, these are sure signs of the presence of a mind actively engaged in mentation, but that’s no synonym for intelligence. It just means that generally, the average voter is sufficiently aware of the real world not to step into traffic that’s moving perpendicular to his or her intended path. Especially if the light is red (though there are those who would defy such control because, well, red is the
color of Communism isn’t it?, and the last thing we need are more reds telling us what to do).

It’s always startling to hear something reasonable coming from the lips of the likes of Mitch McConnell or even John Boehner, who are so much more readily and easily characterized as the grotesque caricatures that people who lean left like to make them out to be. This is what chronic lying will do to the perception of you by those who are not disposed to swallow the particular lies you have to peddle.

However, before giving in to the temptation of getting deep in the weeds of analyzing the shortcomings of most of the current crop of politicians, the point I wish to make remains. The current crop is also a representative crop, the yield of what politics has become a long time since. Politicians the stature and bearing even of Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy, two generations ago, long since proven by the revelations of history also to have had feet of clay one way or another, nevertheless can still stand for the quality of the words they uttered about values we all look back upon as worth embracing. The great tragedy is we have forgotten, if we’ve forgotten anything worth remembering, that the values inherent in the policies they espoused publicly were for the longest time the very same values we still invoke as the principles on which the country was founded.

The manifest irony is that, at least it is true with Republican politicians, there seem to have never been more and more frequent allusions to those values, the loss of which, according to whoever utters the accounting, explains all that is “wrong” with our country. The loss is always laid at the feet of the opposing party. The remedy is a return to those values, which seems to mean, modulating according to the branch of government espousing such a return, simplifying and reducing the government and its infrastructure, that is, the very apparatus that keeps us in motion as a functioning nation, however inefficiently we may manage to function. In a complementary way, the Democrats bemoan the shortsightedness of the opposition in failing to see that those principles still prevail, are still applicable, and have been denatured and deformed by the refusal of that opposition to act in a manner consistent with those principles. What Democrats have done repeatedly, when they have wrested control of the country back into their hands, at least at the executive level, is, from nowhere seemingly, found a champion who has offered the same redemptive call to action, reducible to a single word, I mean “hope” of course—the rallying cry of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns. As if merely hoping was tantamount to affirmative acts of commission.

My peers and compatriots, perhaps not unreasonably, and certainly out of great despair, a condition that seems to set in every eight years, as I suggest, in inverse proportion to the degree to which they have forgotten their despair in the last cycle, see no hope and no chance of a reasonable choice of a hero (or heroine) who can champion that evanescent quality of aspiration, calling out the name in a rallying clarion voice. Equally deflating is the prospect of some Republican leader who, at best, will hold out the warning of the doom inherent in such empty aspirations—a negative capability, if it represents any capability whatsoever, and resonant with the doomsaying tradition that colored our earliest history as religious pilgrims and asylum seekers first sought our shores as a new venue for the freedom to save themselves, and their leaders admonished them to seek the straitened path of righteousness.

The righteous path, I’m afraid, has been trampled by too much foot traffic, mainly those seeking the right way, obliterated to the point that we are no longer aware of where it came from, where it might lead us, and the sickening possibility that we are miles away from it with night coming on. Yet we can still wring our hands in the approaching darkness, hurling imprecations and damnation into the heavens, because of the poverty of our choice of candidates for leadership. However, quickly to bring this around to where I started, and put an end to this meditation on abbreviated recollections, and the attenuated quality of memory these days, I’ll remind you all, we’re exactly where we were just eight years ago, and there is no precedent to recall in the mind of any living citizen, because the precedent was set so long ago. Whoever it was that came up with the cliché of the condemnation we suffer to relive history clearly had no knowledge of the perfidy of our own recollections and the propensity for humans quickly to forget suffering. We have an inkling at times that what appears to be a prevalent tendency of recent vintage is, in reality, the perseverance of a condition from which we still have not learned to escape.

The best we can hope for is to make the most of what we’ve got, which always seems to offer up a champion, around whom we always seem to gather, only to allow ourselves to be disappointed, because, like adolescents, we’ve not yet learned to modulate our expectations, and really to scrutinize the dress of the would-be emperor parading himself before us before we find ourselves so willing—likely out of sheer desperation—to put the mantle of leadership on him whether it suits his mode of dress or even despite his absence of undergarments. It’s eight years since the last seeming crisis of universal inertia in the body politic, and it’s time for us to recognize, for good and all, this is not a singularity, or even a perverse culmination, a descent that has taken us truly to some nadir of despondency. It is, in fact, a pattern, a matrix with a dimension that measures eight years to each side and, if we could get far enough away, if we could somehow magically spirit ourselves to a height great enough we would see it takes the pattern of a maze. The question is whether we can get the distance required, that is, some critical number of us, to see if it is, in fact, one of those Minoan mazes, seemingly inescapable, but needing a true champion to lead the way out, if only we can contrive how to persuade him or her to do so.

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So long it’s been good to know ya’ — 11 February 2015

Reading Time: 1 minute

I stopped paying attention to television news reporting about 30 years ago, when it was the mainstay of information for a significant number of Americans, so whether Brian Williams deserves his current treatment is, among others, not for me to say. I do know I find it strange that this sequence of events, about fairly recent past occurrences easily verified, demonstrates, with no demur from any of Mr. Williams professional colleagues, who are being stone silent, that all concerned, the newsmakers, the news reporters, and the public have a bizarre relationship with the truth, which clearly is based more on questions of attitude and trust, as opposed to proof and credibility. Why is there so much shock and dismay? What Williams fabricated, for whatever reason, is small potatoes compared to the constant stream of mendacity, fantasy, and deliberate misdirection that make up the course of what we’re told about the world daily.

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Once Again Into the Björk

Reading Time: 3 minutes

With the intention of listening painstakingly (I mean this word as literally as possibly it has ever been used) to each cut on Vulnicura, which is Björk’s newest album released two days ago, and having made it so far through most of one song I have this much to observe.

She seems to speak English as the circumstances require. I don’t know what the circumstances of recording this album may have been, but she speaks it in the lyrics (which she wrote) as if it were, say, a 27th or 32nd language, after a great many more more important ones in front of it. I guess I should say she sings them, but the singing, hmmmm, how shall I say this?… Having been given to understand that she is admired by some musicians for the extraordinary range of her voice (I could only account for previous experiences attempting to listen to her music, and about which I recall mainly very high pitched keening, and very low pitched moaning—so I guess technically it is correct to say “range” and it is also, as far as I’m concerned, appropriate to say “extraordinary;” I don’t know that I’d use the two terms together, and I know that previously I had an extraordinary amount of trouble allowing myself to use the term “singing” with regard to whatever she is doing with her voice) I thought I’d give her performing another chance.

All I can say, beyond what I’ve said, at least with regard to that first song, “Stonemilker,” which I’m supposing has something to do, at least by some law of allowing variation at one or two removes, with the expression “you can’t get blood from a stone” and so maybe the song is about something impossible that occurred in spite of expectations to the contrary, and that this something has to do with emotions (disclosure: I looked at the booklet that accompanies the album and I see that the English word “emotional” does appear at least twice in the lyrics; I had to read it, because I couldn’t quite decipher it from the sounds emanating from my high fidelity loudspeakers). In all events, just to finish my very preliminary observations, and only about one song, what the English she is pronouncing sounds like is a rendition of what a person in the process of being strangled would sound like, as the English, by way of scientific linguistic description, is at best, strangulated, very highly accented, but with no discernible roots as to the native language of the speaker.

Having listened to that much, I realized that though there have been many forays on my part, boldly and intrepidly, to make my way through an entire album in the past (Biophilia, her last album, and a masterpiece by some accounts, was simply beyond my obviously far too fragile and undeveloped sensibilities), I have never heard any recordings or appearances wherein she had a conversation with another living human creature. So I repaired as we all do in such circumstances to Youtube, and found that she had appeared and been recorded as a guest on several talk shows. One of these was British, and the other was German, though the interview was conducted in English.

I was astonished to hear her speak with a perfect British accent in the former, almost an exact rendition of the accent of her interviewer, the host of the program. I was then further astonished, listening to the German TV show, that her accent had been transfigured entirely into a German inflected sort of English, again, an exact recapitulation of her host’s accent speaking his otherwise perfectly fluent English.

It was also in this latter interview that she responded to the host’s questions about her travel through Germany by train, and she explained, when he pointed out that it was certainly to be anticipated that a celebrity of her stature might be expected to travel by plane, as she could certainly afford it, that she didn’t like to fly because, as she put it in her minuscule soprano German-inflected little girl voice, “The air pressure forces the molecules to go tiny.”

What rushed back into my consciousness, more or less simultaneously, as a kind of aggregate wave of thoughts, essentially a tsunami of cognitive energy, billions of synapses firing simultaneously, was that every previous impression of Björk to which I had allowed myself to be subjected had been exactly the same, and that is, she is clearly the most famous, and possibly the largest, dingbat on the planet.

Stay tuned, as I subject myself to further cuts on this new album.

I will try to capture my impressions, if it’s possible.


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John Kerry’s Goofy Diplomacy

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The American literary critic and scholar, R.P. Blackmur, famously wrote of “Language as Gesture.” What I would suggest (and what I see borne out not only in extended conversations with French natives online in forums for precisely that purpose, but in my experience in general—among the general American public, and even in more selective environments, such as American academic centers) is that our European brethren, the French exhibiting a particular aptitude and finesse, are far more serious and analytical about gesture as language. There is, no doubt, meaning in actions, bodily postures, and yes, gestures, that sometimes belie even the words that issue from the lips of those making such motions.

In the United States, the study of these things take on the quality of parlor game or, at its most serious, perhaps the phenomenon of armchair psychiatry, wherein anyone can bestow upon himself the bona fides of accurate renditions of the meaning of “body language,” “sub-text,” and “non-verbal cues…” in short the entire apparatus of wholly ignorant speculation of the “hidden meaning” of what are mainly empty and unconscious actions. Americans, being the largely mindless, unthinking, spontaneous and effusive louts we are in the usual stereotype give no heed to the cultural norms of other collective civilized entities, be they other countries, other religions (than Protestantism), or merely other formalized and highly codified systems of behavior and communication, such as, in this case, diplomacy.

My exaggerated characterization of Americans aside, we generally are tone deaf, not only to the possibility that stepping to the right may mean something entirely different than stepping to the left, or that royalty calls for a curtsy and no direct modes of address. This doesn’t excuse our rudeness, cloddishness, or the kinds of mayhem we cause by our general ignorance of what others, in other parts of the world, take very seriously indeed. However, it also doesn’t negate our sincerity or our good will. We may fuck it up, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions or heart-felt feelings of empathy and distress over the misfortune of others. We seem to be much better at suffering misfortune ourselves and accepting the world’s sympathy, than we are at conveying similar feelings when the situations are reversed.

Our long tradition of lending aid, in many forms, both material, and spiritual, but as well in the time and compassion we direct towards the direct support of other peoples in the world who are under duress goes at least some way towards neutralizing what can sometimes be our ham-handed manner of visiting ourselves upon other soil. We’re still a young country, relatively speaking. We certainly have a lot to learn. We have some straightening out internally, in terms of getting everybody within our borders on board to the notion that we may be an exceptional entity in the community of nations, for the richness of our resources, for the depth of our resourcefulness, for our might, and for the sheer size of our country in its unique position of insulation from other areas of the world. Some of us think this reflects a kind of exceptional privilege as well, as if our destiny as humans is somehow on a higher plane than any other humans, purely by virtue of being American. This is, of course, not true. For all of our great attributes as a people and a nation, we still have far too many faults. But we’re getting there. France will survive John Kerry… It’s survived far far worse.

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Our Country: Redefining Hypocrisy as a Global Standard

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The View From Where I Sit

View from here-_DSC0006

Our government, representing us as a nation, is quick to chastise, sometimes menacingly, other countries against some strict moral standard. Occasionally the merest hint of an encroachment on the civil rights of citizens in some far-flung place and we speak out (though usually it’s not just a hint, but the latest in several rounds of continual flagrant violation—sometimes it takes us awhile to decide to rise up on our hind legs) expressing, often in sanctified tones, our indignation and disgruntlement. We are particularly disposed to do this with countries outside the sphere of de facto white majority nations and the ecosystem models of Western democracies. Moreover we are not timid about threatening or actually applying the sanctions of throttling the economies of these miscreant countries, quizzically, at times, our own trading partners or, more critically, the chief resource of cheap manufacturing labor for American branded goods. We exploit the citizenry while threatening that country’s government with measures that will, in fact, mainly cause harm to the same individuals whose labors we are exploiting to our profit. Leaders, except for their reputations internationally, go unscathed. Tyrants persist, not only staying in power, but often acquiring more. With an exquisite sense of where it will be most judiciously applied, as measured in self-interested vectors on the axes of geopolitical hegemony and financial leverage, we actually impose those sanctions, especially if we can inveigle our equally sanctimonious partners—the usual suspects, numbering seven very rich and powerful countries or, in a different grouping, 20, a mixed bag of very rich and not so much, depending on which economic cabal we call upon—in an exercise of the powers of democratic rectitude. Usually the worst sufferers of such economic strangulation—choking, but never quite killing, the victim—are the citizens of the miscreant nations. Yet these rogue governments stay in place, the world spins, and we move on to monitoring for the next outrage. And in the meantime, people die, one by one, or en masse, by degrees, or, in the language of Gilbert & Sullivan describing (comically) a beheading, with a “short sharp shock.”

As is typical of a world view borne of over three centuries of military and political domination of the entire planet, we white nations are contemptuous of the culture and mores of these countries we throttle—some of them far larger than us in geographic size, and certainly far more numerous. Some of them, of course, are the contemporary manifestation of civilizations that predate ours by millennia. We browbeat, lambaste, or outright bully countries as diverse and geographically widespread as Egypt, China, or Sudan, though the list is far longer. China is never far from being astray, by our measure, in navigating a world defined by our superior moral compass.

In the extreme we withdraw diplomatic representation to these countries, rendering any opportunity for diplomatic leverage impossible, while forcing continuing (and conveniently deniable) negotiations into the backrooms of clandestine contexts and venues. One other consequence often is to drive the offending individuals and their governments that represent threats to the moral stature of mankind further into the arms of opposing groups—alliances of the perverse—truly renegade and often stateless: our redoubtable enemies, upon whom we are disposed to anoint whole peoples with the morally charged titles of opprobrium speechwriters delight in fabricating, like Axis of Evil, who immediately demonstrate they are far less scrupulous than we in putting stakes in the ground of civilized nations. Indeed, if anything, there is a greater consistency in the behavior of those nations we brand as outcasts, or threaten to so brand, than in the company of the league of morally righteous countries we represent.

Far better to adhere to the tenets of our code, spelled out emphatically at the first sign of transgression, when the civil rights of a potentially rogue nation’s citizens are in peril. It matters not to us, smug in our uplifting prosperity, that theirs is a way of life—good or bad, by whatever standard—and their struggle often merely a recapitulation of a process that history has shown is not only repeated, over and over, as mankind seeks painfully to acquire the virtue of the imposition of civilization on its savage heart, but recursive. Sometimes nations now in the grip of misrule, chaos and violence were, in the past, the model of some now ancient world order of how civil societies should behave.

The United States is now the preeminent avatar of that elusive concept: the world’s best hope for imposing peace, order, tranquility, civility, and fairness (above all) as a doctrine the entire world can embrace. The land of the free and home of the brave being the rhetorical touchstones to which even well-meaning immigrants, or first- and second-generation children of immigrants, invoke, just before casting aspersions on the real life on the American streets that belie this shining dream: yes, on the one hand America is great, because it’s the land of the free, but, let me tell me how I’m actually treated in my (job, town, college…).

We are careful in broadcast messages—sometimes merely stern, sometimes homiletic—however, in holding up as a standard our own moral codes, not to draw any attention to the ways in which, almost on a daily basis, anyone following the news in what remnant there is of an organized free press, assisted by the growing ranks of ad hoc witnesses and reporters of injustice in our own country’s streets and byways and broadcast on a still free Internet of communications and information outlets, can see reported transgressions equal to, if not exceeding, the guidelines for behavior informed by such codes. It’s like a parade where huge banners with inspiring slogans are carried by platoons of authentic defenders of our principles, whether in uniform in the obscure and dangerous mountain passes and wadis of the unsettled Middle East, or on the streets of our major cities, in honest civil protests, while at the back of the march anti-protestors are beleaguering the ordinary common citizens demonstrating their sense of common cause, with hate speech, or possibly even bringing down fists and hard blunt instruments on their heads.

The metaphor does not address the alternative, and prevailing reality that it is as likely that a different uniformed, increasingly militarized force, I mean the police of our fair cities and towns of course, are dispatched to quell civil protest, which is otherwise perfectly lawful, but represents a menace to the larger order, the real world order of the tiny set of corporate interests and uber-rich individuals whose hegemony is in some inchoate way threatened. That the threat never gathers force in a concentrated way, or never confronts the powers that be with violence (unlike criminals, terrorists, and society’s alienated emotionally disturbed youth, who actually do act, and are barely contained) represents the anguished reality that any veteran of an Occupied action, as one example of many, can attest.

Other countries, after whatever form of what we call due process, indict, try, and convict perpetrators of crimes under their codes of justice. They often do so, even in this universally troubled world, in an entirely orderly way, holding court, swearing witnesses, prosecuting guilt, and dispensing justice, not by our lights, but theirs, for sure. Nevertheless they do it with order, and not in some summary way.

We don’t like the usually swift meting out of justice, sometimes Biblical in its severity, mercilessness, and inhumanity: worse than beheadings (which are the current benchmark for barbarism and perverse justice, the justice of evil intent; yet, a fact easily forgotten, the state means of ending a life in France until all forms of capital punishment were ended, as recently as 1981), worse than hanging, which, after all, was still the standard of execution in the United Kingdom, only 50 or 60 years ago, there is stoning, which horrifies even devout Christians, who daily read the manual, I speak of the Bible, for such a mode of punishment appropriate to the class of transgression congruent to its application.

We prefer to prolong the agony of prisoners—including growing numbers proving to have been wrongfully indicted, prosecuted and convicted—by drawing out the appeals process or delaying parole as we debate the moral niceties of the differences between punishment and rehabilitation (with no regard whatsoever for analyzing the incongruent nature of policies and methodologies, never mind facilities, for carrying out the one vs. the other) or allowing the lopsidedness of American justice (blind in theory, including the tenet of that particular form known as color-blind vs. the de facto condition that finds six times the number of African-Americans imprisoned against the number of whites, even though, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, whites outnumber African-Americans in the U.S. general population nearly by the inverse of that ratio). In plain language, there are just shy of six times as many whites as African-Americans, yet there are six times as many African-American men incarcerated in this country as there are whites incarcerated.

Clearly grand juries and juries are busy with the grim business of finding African-American men guilty of crimes calling for imprisonment, i.e., the most serious crimes in our criminal code of justice. They certainly are not, and never have been busy holding the police, from the precinct to the state level, accountable for their violence against civilians not actively engaged in criminal behavior, never mind already in custody, unarmed, or behaving obediently and in a civil and non-violent manner. Like our penal system, there is a lop-sided ratio of victims of police violence in terms of skin color. Rarely is a white-skinned individual murdered, or even merely injured, though there is no differentiation by skin color, ethnicity or race when it comes to quelling non-violent protests, especially those conducted en masse.

There is no apparent line of connection between the actions of our Federal executive branches and state or local law enforcement, between the Departments of State and Justice, and the lower echelon jurisdictions of prosecution and jurisprudence. Never mind conscious and interactive lines of communication between these entities; nor would I call for them. The lofty posturing of the one, like the dignity always accorded high office, whether in the Senate or the White House, is in marked contrast with some grittier reality. The police no doubt are the first to say, along with the demonstrators, their hands bound in temporary nylon ties that cut into their wrists, “you have no idea what it’s really like.” And surely, those who espouse, surely those who merely mouth, the pious platitudes that invoke, over and over, the high principles on which our country was founded, as the words condemn the actions of those far away and from another country, about whom we truly have no idea what it’s really like, are unconscious of the active hypocrisy of their words when weighed against the preponderant, no, the overwhelming, and mounting evidence of the injustices and disparities of actual life in our own streets, as it belies every syllable, every phrase and even the merest, most insignificant, mark of punctuation.

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Portland Doesn’t Cut it as One of America’s Ten Most Liberal Cities

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The 10 Most Conservative and Liberal Cities in America

“Ceci n’est pas Portland” http://media.salon.com/2014/02/san_francisco_clouds.jpg | Not so interestingly, this is a photo of San Francisco, of course, and not Portland, but then, the person who posted the original link is from Portland, and he was lamenting a lack of approbation he felt his home city deserved. I believe this is what’s called an abundance of negative capability. Also, I like that there’s a Margrittean quality about illustrating a blog post about Portland with a stock photo of San Francisco, a city, like Portland, I mainly admire from afar. Good for food and short visits, and seeing friends I love. But not much else.

Note to a Portlandian upset over Salon’s analysis:

It’s been clear to me since I began to learn in earnest about the greater than superficial (i.e., stereotypical—in short, Fred Armisen is NOT your friend) and more salient facts about the culture, ecosystem, and anthropological excrescences of Portland, because some of my dearest friends purely serendipitously (and hence appropriately to the PDX gestalt) moved there, that it is, in fact, a huge movie set, planned, designed and executed by Hollywood moguls, starting, likely, in the 1920s, as a kind of Truman Show on an urban scale and an ongoing experiment.

This magazine’s analysis (and I wouldn’t get my knickers in a twist because Salon doesn’t think you are liberal enough—their shtick these days is to froth at the mouth, and amusingly, they seem close to considering Henry Wallace a closet conservative; must be a new form of jaded NYC chic). Besides, a whole city full of hipsters, slackers, and very very very early retirees and proto-survivalists (or is that pseudo-?) could not possibly sustain a consistent political point of view so as to constitute a caucus, never mind a quorum.

You’ll just have to wait for the list of the ten most apolitical cities. Don’t worry, the delusion that you actually have a political stance, never mind a liberal one, will pass. If not, take two of your drug of choice, and forget about it. Otherwise, your only solution is to move to Vermont—a whole state that, for over 250 years, has been what Portland thinks it is.

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