Archive for ‘Society’

December 16th, 2010

Public Fun

I woke up yesterday feeling intellectually under-caffeinated. When that didn’t change after a large cup of coffee, I decided something else needed to happen—and in the random and mysterious ways of the subconscious, I started thinking about some wordplay around letters of the alphabet. I started, of course, with “A,” and came up with almonds, alfalfa, and asparagus off the top of my head. As I wrote them down on a scrap of paper, next to my computer, my conscious mind took over, and I thought about Tweeting my three words. But … why?

Why indeed. My three words all happened to be foods, and I thought it might be fun to focus my brain teaser a bit further by requiring all the words for each letter to be foods. The alliteration was clear (if nonsensical—but then, the whole thing was nonsensical), so I thought of calling them “alliterative diets.” But who would do a diet of almonds, alfalfa, and asparagus? It seemed more fun expressly calling them fake diets. Alliterative fake diets. And so a Twitter hashtag was born.

If none of this sounds funny, well, you had to be there. It’s not funny the way that most humor isn’t once you start dissecting it–so I’ll stop, and just point out that you can see the (public) list of my Tweeted #AlliterativeFakeDiets by clicking on that link. Then I’ll move on to say that what you (most likely) cannot see is the way this took off on Facebook with a couple of friends. They responded to my silly idea precisely because it was silly, and because they like food, and by the time I’d gotten to “F,” the theme was fairly clear and they were off and running. All the letters not at the link above were covered by my friends, on Facebook, from their own inspiration.

And this, you might say, is why I love the internet—and have come to love social networking in particular. Not so much because I created a nonsensical brain teaser for myself and then others thought it was fun, but because it makes it possible to have fun with people, in near-real-time, over distances large or small. If I had just mentioned it to my wife, she would probably have brushed it off as early morning nonsense. My three year old might have enjoyed playing, but I couldn’t stick around all day to hear her come up with food words. My colleagues might have enjoyed this (at least some of them) but I didn’t want to forcibly interrupt—and, anyway, some of them follow me on Twitter and could join in there. Why share them over Twitter in the first place? Because my “alliterative fake diets” concept is exactly the sort of thing that works well on the internet generally and Twitter and Facebook in particular.

I got combinations for the first few letters fairly quickly, and popped them into Twitter, and it had served its original purpose for me: my word recall had improved, my brain was firing a bit faster, and the caffeine was now doing its neuron-connecting job more effectively. But the “conversation” around this with friends took it to a whole new level: it went from brain teaser to mood changer. How could it not be uplifting to see them coming up with combinations like “wasa, waterzoi, watermelon,” and then discussing whether there were rules about what could be included or why one combination worked better than the other? The internet was built for this. Maybe not purpose-built, but it serves the purpose nonetheless. And while it’s easy to laugh off as a means of wasting time, in this case I think the intellectual and emotional benefits were well worth it. We finished the alphabet, which felt good, and that’s a feeling I won’t dismiss easily.

July 23rd, 2010

“Inside Out” is Right Side Up

I do not identify much with the Kristols, either father or son; their blowhard brand of elitist neocon bullshit has never sat well, and their cheerleading for the war-mongering, anti-Constitutional presidency of George W. Bush only sealed their fate. (See my piece “Kristolize That Thought” as one sample.) In that context, it was particularly apropos (and amusing) to find this quote from Irving Kristol kicking off part three of Barry Eisler’s new book, “Inside Out”:

“‘There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,’ he [Kristol] says in an interview. ‘There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.’”

The quote comes from a 1997 Reason Magazine story about the renewed rejection of Darwin and various justifications (excuses, really) for the “intelligent design” movement, for which the senior Kristol is also an apologist. But it is just as appropriate in this spot in Eisler’s novel—a book about the intellectual corruption of our government, its terrifying commitment to torture, the degree to which most of the American citizenry are complicit, and the importance (implicitly) of independent journalism—as it was in its original context. (It’s on page 237.)

I have been reading Eisler’s novels for a few years, and writing about them periodically (here and there) as well. Like many authors in the thriller / espionage genre, he brings a particular political and worldview to his stories, though this aspect of his fiction has grown stronger since he branched out from writing about the assassin John Rain to the covert operative Ben Treven. Treven was introduced in the novel “Fault Line,” which was entertaining and useful for establishing a new set of characters, but less sharp and well-defined than the Rain series. “Inside Out” has Eisler coming back strongly, and picks up where “Fault Line” left off: exploring the political undercurrent and motivations, not to mention the pervasive distrust, that is so sadly central to our country’s failings over the last decade. The premise of the new book (about a hunt for secret torture tapes) only serves to underscore the point.

It is also why the Kristol quote fits in so perfectly and disturbingly well: because in order for our government and our political parties to sustain such levels of dishonesty, there must be an internal rational—and Kristol has clearly framed it. Whether we are talking about George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, or Nancy Pelosi, or John Boehner, or Henry Waxman, or Jeff Sessions, or Arlen Specter, or Sarah Palin, or…whoever you can think of in positions of power and “leadership,” this seems rather clear. Our country increasingly survives by drawing different levels of distinctions around the truths that citizens are allowed to know and understand. Even among the conservative (faux-)anti-elites, it functions as a clear form of elitism.

This is also why there is little significant discussion about the meaninglessness of healthcare reform (aside from misleading partisan talking points) or Social Security (ditto). It’s why we channel people through low-level state college systems that pretend to educate in ways that matter, but ultimately create false expectations for intellectual quality and credibility—instead of training people for jobs that serve our society and our lives. It is why President Obama can campaign on the idea of closing down the illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, and claim in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to have ordered the prison closed, and yet the prison remains open and the issues surrounding it largely unresolved. (If anything, the issues are now more fraught, as the Obama administration has picked up the mantle of executive supremacy and pushed back on what had been a growing sense that the prisoners there have rights under the U.S. Constitution and international law.)

“Inside Out” is a good, brisk, engaging read, with the usual bits that make such thrillers compelling. It surpasses many of its peers because of Eisler’s insights, and his ability to interweave these different issues—realtime issues, not just fictions—into the story. That he credits so many different journalists and critics at the end, has dedicated some appearances as fundraisers for independent journalism outlets, and includes a list of actual sources and stories, makes it even stronger. If you like these kinds of thrillers, you will certainly enjoy this book. If you are politically engaged, you can’t help but enjoy it and find it very disturbing, too.

June 20th, 2010

Mother-Father-Redux

I started today to write about my distaste for our national celebration of the “father’s day” faux-holiday.  I got about 100 words in, and it all started to feel very familiar, in the way things do when writers come back to old themes and wind up offering no new perspectives.  Ooops.  In this case, there’s good reason: I wrote about the mother’s day and father’s day holidays back in 2007:

I’ll admit it: I’ve hated Mother’s Day for as long as I can remember. And Father’s Day too.

According to the Wikipedia entry for Mother’s Day, the holiday “was copied from England by social activist Julia Ward Howe after the American Civil War with a call to unite women against war.” Of course, the entry then goes on to say that “According to the National Restaurant Association, Mother’s Day is now the most popular day of the year to dine out at a restaurant in the United States.

That might be my problem right there.

You can read the rest of this here: Mother’s Day.

Last week, I had a conversation with a very nice gentleman, a grandfather who seems to love his kids and grand-kids greatly.  He tried to rebut my anti-sentimental attitude by telling me about how great it is for him: his kids and grand-kids all come out to visit him (and his wife) for father’s day.  He then followed this up by telling me about his own childhood, when he was hauled (by his father) to three different homes, to see three different combinations of grandparents, to celebrate father’s day — while his own father, he later realized, acted more like a chauffeur.  To my mind, this just proved my point.

Back in May of 2007, people were telling me (then an impending father) that I might feel differently about all this, once I had my own children.  That hasn’t happened.  I love my two children, deeply.  I have tremendous love, admiration, and respect for my own father; that hasn’t changed, either.  And I still want to be loved and respected – and to love and respect my own father – in ways that go much deeper than the glancing, surface-level recognition that comes with holidays like this one.

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May 19th, 2010

The Fetish of Choice

I ordered a new vacuum cleaner last weekend. It’s taken several weeks of pondering and, on my part, about two hours of research combing through something like 100 different products to make the final choice. We almost bought one the weekend before, after a pop-in to our local hardware store, but I wasn’t sold on the bright red $69 “Dirt Devil” unit. Consumer Reports would bear me out on that: although it rates Dirt Devil products solidly for overall brand reliability and endurance, the vacuums themselves don’t always score well.

This process of searching, of combing through Consumer Reports and other online reviews, got me thinking about the way in which our culture fetishizes choice. This is a phenomenon that has exploded as a result of the internet: the incredible access to information, reviews, product details, and retail sources has made it possible for us all to become consumer connoisseurs, and often for items one never knew required such connoisseurship. Like vacuum cleaners. Or sheets.

If you have tried to shop for sheets lately, you know what I mean: the selection is no longer about fabric, color, pattern, and possibly brand name. It’s now also about thread count, trim style, and the origin of the fabric—nearly twice as many factors. I have bought sheets more than a few times in my life, but prior to the internet I do not recall debates over thread count entering into the equation, or of having such attention drawn to the grow spot for the cotton. Can any of us really tell the difference between sheets with a thread count of 500 versus 600, particularly after they’ve been through the wash a few times?

I’m not trying to do a Grumpy Old Man schtick here—I like the degree to which our choices have increased, and our ability to shop around for and price out products so effectively. But I think we have surpassed the mere offering of a wider selection of products at different prices, glorious though that is.

In researching the vacuum, much was made not only of HEPA filters (to catch dust particles) but also noise reduction. Silly me, I just assumed that vacuums were noisy! If the machine uses bags (as opposed to re-usable canisters), there are a variety of vacuum bag options: some do an extra-good job at trapping dust along with dirt—which seems to me the sort of bag you want want as standard, not as an add-on. For the model I purchased, there are actually two different kind of higher-quality bags, one of which is branded “Clinic,” as if to convey that its dirt-and-dust-trapping would pass muster in a hospital. And there’s even a vacuum (same brand, same model as the one I purchased) made from recycled plastic. It’s tagged as “Green,” though this misleadingly implies there’s something greener about how it works, as opposed to how it was made.

Again, this is not to say that choice is bad, or even to argue that the wide selection of products and services is overwhelming. Others have made—or skewered—this argument, and I tend to side with the (pardon the pun) pro-choice folks. I am not too concerned about the overwhelming options, or the diverse range of products one can choose from in different categories; I tend to think this should be celebrated, and the internet hailed as the liberator. If it sometimes requires more work, more time, and more thought for what might seem like a simple decision, we are still better off as individuals and as a society. At the same time, the internet has enabled us to fixate on standards that sometimes seem more illusory than real—the kind of standards that were once limited to the small segment of people who could afford to worry about such distinctions.

Often, it does not feel like a kind of Consumer Democracy, but rather just a Consumer Absurdistan: a place where we make choices based on factors that have a stronger psychological draw than a practical one, and where such decisions may not satisfy either our actual or our metaphysical needs.