11/11/12

The miracles of human creativity

One of the most amazing things about the digital age’s redistribution of the means of aesthetic production and distribution is that it reveals how much love and ambition remain connected to the work of making. Here you have, for free, a remaking of Star Wars entirely in ASCII. The hours it must have taken to do this are astonishing.

I dream of a world in which copyright, which has become a way for corporations to develop a stranglehold on innovation (and functions, as with Disney, in the manner of primitive accumulation), disappears in the wake of content freely produced for others out of this form of love, and the beauties that attend to it.

For that to happen we must, however, have leisure.

11/5/12

I’m so fucking tired

I am so fucking tired of people (mostly men) talking about banning abortion “except in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother” as if that were the compassionate stance. As if forcing women to carry through with pregnancies that they don’t want or can’t afford or are not ready for, for whatever reason, were a perfectly reasonable and ethical position to hold. As if the only way a woman could “deserve” to be a more worthy life than a clump of cells growing inside her were if she’s already been violated. As if there were some index of suffering against which such violations can be measured: If she wasn’t beaten up but good, then it wasn’t really rape. If she knew her rapist, then it doesn’t really count. If she wasn’t a virgin, then what’s the harm? And if she can’t prove that the pregnancy was a result of violence or could end in death, then violence will most certainly be visited on her, because god forbid she should enjoy having sex and not pay a price for it.

I’m pissed off that this veneer of reasonableness in the rhetoric of violence against women is the controlling discourse on abortion, that politicians can stand there and proudly spout their beliefs about the sanctity of life with no repercussions, and that even pro-choice groups treat the “rape, incest, and death” exception as an acceptable ideological difference. I find it bizarre that Nicholas Kristof  “respect[s] politicians like Paul Ryan who are consistently anti-abortion, even in cases of rape or incest” because such consistency, according to him, bespeaks a “heartfelt” position that could cost them votes, and therefore is “courageous” (no I’m not making that up!). If Ryan or Romney has a “heartfelt” belief that women who get pregnant but do not want a child must nonetheless be forced to continue the pregnancy and deliver, because anything else is murder, I guess they are free to hold that belief. But when they plan for the state to be in the business of forced pregnancy and delivery for the vast majority of women faced with an unintended pregnancy, then they need to be called out loud and often for the dangerous extremists that they are. Courageous? How about pathologically misogynist?

11/3/12

On Repeating the Experiment

"On Tuesday, be careful you don't set the country back 50 years."

via AMERICAblog

The quippy jpeg above has been circulating on Facebook and seems apropos. Our collective quadrennial alienation from one another can, I think, be safely judged to have reached new heights this year; certainly, I have never seen 4 year-olds driven to tears by overexposure to the political process before.

Some obvious contributing causes: the Citizens United decision, which has thrown open the floodgates to unlimited untraceable political donations and Super-PACs; the ensuing carpet-bombing of television, radio, and home telephones in swing and near-swing (swung?) states, including bonus collateral damage in cross-border markets; Fox News and the triumph of hyperpartisan right-wing media; increasing polarization of Congress; and the continuing agonies of the worst economic contraction in 70 years, and median income that has been stagnant for a decade, along with the resulting widespread shame, anger, and despair.

Employment recovery comparison of recessions

Employment recovery for all post-WWII recessions (2008 “great recession” in red), from Calculated Risk

For me personally, however, the single most alienating aspect of the election has been living with the knowledge that a persistent, and very determined, 48% to 50% of my fellow citizens want to engage in a repeat trial of the 8-year experiment in Republican economic and foreign policy orthodoxy that we completed less than four years ago.

After all, I understand that a minority of the population is on board with the scientific approach to economic policy taught in our Econ 101 classrooms. And the liberal approach to foreign policy has been in eclipse my entire lifetime. Moreover, public policy debates typically suffer from the severe handicap that the outcome of the counterhistorical scenario – the parallel universe where the alternative policy was put in place – can never be known.

Causes of increasing Federal debt under Bush vs. Obama, from Ezra Klein

But not in this case! In this election, we have as close to a controlled trial as any single nation is likely  to achieve in this world. 12 years ago we elected (well, sort of) a President whose policy prescriptions were identical in every way to the policies Romney proposes to implement in his administration – from taxes, healthcare, energy policy, and business deregulation to go-it-alone military adventurism abroad. Those policies were implemented, with drastic and obvious negative effects on almost every aspect of life in the United States. As a result of those policies, one can fairly say, we elected our current President four years ago. And now, having seen the alternative approach in action for four years, half of our citizens nonetheless wish to repeat the prior experiment.

No matter what the election results on Tuesday – and as far as that goes, in Nate I trust – I do not think I will ever get over this feeling of disconnect from our fellow citizens who feel either that the Bush policies were superior (in what way?), or that their reincarnation under Romney would lead to different results. In its own way, voting for Romney represents a rejection of the scientific thought process – a discipline I have devoted my life to – as complete and total as  the rants of the most extreme religious radicals.

Perhaps I should be less shocked. But let us hope that this time the rational way prevails.

10/29/12

The Late Bookstore

A couple of people have let me know that my piece on the demise of the former UCI Bookstore has readers in the outside world, something I never would have guessed from the comments section here. Their reaction has been, “This is terrible! I never knew about this! How do we get our UCI Bookstore back? Do we protest, boycott, Occupy? You tell us to ‘despair.’ That can’t be right.”

The short answer is that it’s simply too late. There was a period of so-called “public comment” about a year ago which had a small number of takers. I think that the people who commented were, like me, ignored and put off, but that would have been the right time to raise a hue and cry.

At this point, the store has sold off practically all of its extant book inventory — tens of thousands of books. (I think there may still be a few hundred book SKUs (items) in the system that aren’t textbooks.) Some titles were sold to customers at reduced prices, some more recent titles were returned to the publisher at their original cost, and everything else went to a jobber who paid pennies on the dollar. The store has doubtless taken a big loss on those books, but consigning them has meant the store can free up shelf space for more profitable inventory, like plush anteaters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Save The Bookstore movement coalesced, and had at the top of its list of demands: “Bring back our books!” From a business perspective, this cannot be done. You cannot liquidate inventory at pennies on the dollar and then bring back the exact same inventory in at the regular wholesale price of 25-40% off list. If I were the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, I would fire the Bookstore director who did such a thing. The only way out would be if a director could make a compelling case that the store could sell, say, at least three copies of each book every year. That is far in excess of the sales rate of the average trade book at the former Bookstore, which was .75 to 1 copy per year.

If the director were to commit to selling three copies of every title every year, the customers of the store would have to make a commitment to buy them. I could see a sort of Kickstarter-style campaign, where people would agree to reserve $25, $50, or $75 book gift certificates, good for one year and not redeemable for cash, in their names. If the inventory were funded up to or over a certain level, say, $75,000, the donors would be charged, the certificates issued, and the inventory purchased. Without such a setup… we know what that looks like already, where well-intentioned people loved the Bookstore so much, they bought all their books online. When I think about the Bookstore in this respect, I think of Abie Glassman, the Jewish peddler from John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain children’s books. Glassman came to stay and sell notions in Fitzgerald’s fictional Mormon community. He cared about his customers, and he was beloved. Nonetheless, he starved to death because nearly everyone went to the official Mormon ZCMI store; it was simply more expedient for them to do so.

The idea of a crowdsourcing campaign gets to the bottom of “how to get our store back.” The argument for the destruction of the Bookstore was economic; any counter-argument, at least in the current reality, will have to be economic as well. A university bookstore is a business. It brings money into the University. When that money dwindles, it means that there is less to support University programs, and, especially when State money keeps getting scarcer, administrators have to fill the gap, period. Anyone who wants to bring the UCI Bookstore back will have to come up with a realistic business plan of his or her own, one that fills that gap over the long term, or comes very close.

I said, “at least in the current reality.” In the world of principles, which is where many readers reside, things are — or, should be — different. Access to books, and the promotion of higher forms of literacy, should be parts of a university’s mission. Libraries, by their nature, go only so far with this mission; every book acquired must be argued for, and every book acquired must help develop a collection. A real university bookstore is not under these constraints; people are exposed to the streams of fiction and non-fiction in real time, and they can get what they want without contending with someone else’s loan period. What is that worth? Could a university bookstore be operated, not as a profit center, but as the part of the educational enterprise that encouraged reading? Those who play the zero-sum game would ask, “Which would you rather have: a real university bookstore or more students getting financial aid?” I invite you to think your way out of that question.

***

This is, perhaps, too harsh a place to end, so I will return to an earlier time. When I was a graduate student and entry-level worker at the Bookstore, there was a frequent customer from the English department named Professor Homer Obed Brown. He was known at the store both for his benevolence and amiability, and for his besottedness with books. When, in my capacity as a graduate student, I would go into his office, every horizontal surface would be piled four or five feet high with books, the library’s mingled with his own. When, in my capacity as a Bookstore worker, I would walk with him through the store, we would talk, and he would absentmindedly slip books into his basket, until at last he would present himself at the register with some twenty-odd books at a time. I would like to think that, if he were alive today and had known of the Bookstore’s problems, he would have solved them by buying up the literary criticism section outright.

10/27/12

And are also heirs

My first experience of really powerful and complex English prose came through Thomas Cranmer. Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Dick and Jane and Spot were all good in their way, but imagine the effect on the young mind of such sentences as this:

Immortal and ever-living God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy sacraments with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our savior Jesus Christ, and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness toward us, and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most blessed death and passion.

It’s a grammarian’s delight (and, on checking, I find that my memory made only two mistakes, neither breaking with the rhythm): a main clause to which are subordinated four “that…” clauses, each with its own attack and consequence (“for that thou dost vouchsafe… and [that thou] dost assure.. and [that thou dost assure us] that we are… and [dost assure us that we] are also heirs…”). Never a dull repetition; always a variant skewing back to the main point; the “members incorporate” of the long, ornate sentence admitting either an interpretation that would make them all equivalent, or one that would make them a series of differences fanning out from an initial act of grace (“we thank thee for that”).

We were off-and-on churchgoers in my family, to the point that friends, relatives and “the help” took us children to a variety of churches in our parents’ stead, but despite the lace and candles that I remember from the Catholic cathedral and the intense musical athleticism of the black churches, the language is what I remember from the Episcopal parish that we were supposed to call home– that and a smell of floor wax and a big brass cross whose nodal point was surrounded by a halo with a curious ring of wiggly flames. I remember a few hymn tunes from my childhood. Nothing about Sunday School. But those long, swerving, delaying and crosscutting sentences, absolutely. There was nothing else like it in my experience. Maybe those pieces my father liked to play on the piano, that started with a simple little tune and wound it up into so many layers of argument and chatter that you couldn’t keep up with them, that were called Bach.

James Wood, recently, wrote a birthday card in the New Yorker for the Book of Common Prayer (350 years old in its 1662 revision; 473 if you’re looking at Cranmer’s first attempt, which dates from 1539). He praises Cranmer’s ritual prose for its “simplicity and directness… ‘coziness’ or ‘comfortability.'” I wouldn’t think of simplicity first. Coziness? Well, anything that you’ve heard for decades tends to get cozy in your ear; that’s no explanation. “Comfortability” is a borrowing from Cranmer (the “comfortable words” are the exhortation to come forward to communion). What comes most to my mind is the slanted, scarred quality of Cranmer’s words, acknowledging and bewailing their impossible or insincere content under a perfect pastoral straight face. The words of administration of communion name the bread and wine as the body and blood, but in the next sentence specify that the congregant is to take and eat them “in remembrance.” To paraphrase a bit: “Yes, that’s what we would like to say about these mere material elements, but we can’t truthfully state that that’s what they are, so let’s follow up with this more commonsensical version of the presence doctrine which is all you’re going to get anyway.” Another fine bit of truthful and artful dodging is the way the officiant uses the subjunctive mood (a piece of old-fashioned English grammar one might have to learn from Cranmer, if growing up in Tennessee): the remission of sins is performed not by the priest, but (in hope and under conditions) by the Almighty who is invoked but not compelled. As with so many other grand churchly paragraphs left us by Archbishop Cranmer, the mustering of clauses and sonority might give one the impression that something wondrous has been done, but a closer inspection reveals that the operative clauses were shrewdly minimized: “Almighty God… have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, strengthen and confirm you in all goodness,” etc.: all in the subjunctive mood. The swinging of robed sleeves and censers, if any, is just decoration. The operative bit is no performative speech act, but a wish. It might happen, then again it might not.

And when burying someone, the Prayer Book says that it is done “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” Clever Cranmer again: what’s sure and certain is not the resurrection, but the hope of it, and perhaps our hope is sure and certain only because it’s one of those things that are “meet, right, and our bounden duty” to say. I always found this escape-clause comforting, in a grim way, when consigning people I loved to the ground.

As James Wood does not say (perhaps he is reporting on the state of things in England), the old Prayer Book, last revised for US Episcopal churches in 1928, is no longer in use. The 1970s substitute offers a modernized version of all the services and “traditional” versions for some of them (1928 with light revision). Comparison shows what subtleties are lost. Where Cranmer had written these lines for the congregation: “We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings,” the 1970s US Episcopalians go all touchy-feely: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” This is getting it backwards, according to the somewhat cynical psychology of the 1539 service book. You repent first and then you have the luxury of feeling sorry. In the 1970s, you are subjectively, emotionally sorry first and you describe that as humbly repenting. I don’t know what an omniscient, omnipotent being would feel about anything, but my impression is that the 1539 people are playing their cards a little more carefully, allowing for more distrust of their own motives, and the 1970s people are unable to tell the difference between a feeling and a state of affairs.

James Wood’s article ends with cases of “reverent irony” in citations of Prayer Book language by Woolf and Beckett. I rather think the reverent irony was there to start with; but you have to discover it. In my case, it took memorizing those labyrinthine sentences and uncoiling them in my mind, again and again, over decades, to see what a Cheshire Cat of a shaggy dog the cautious archbishop had perched on the tree branch.

10/22/12

Lost Vegas

I just spent three days in Las Vegas, to which I must reluctantly return in another three days for another conference. I have to say that it’s the most horrible place in the world.

People

This is, I recognize, a feeling profoundly mediated by social class. The word “vulgar” kept coming to mind. And of course it came to mind about other people (though not just people) who were clearly having the time of their lives in Vegas. It would be a mistake to confuse those people with America–to take all this as the felt symptom of a difference between me and them that would reinforce precisely the suspicious class structure of the word “vulgar.” Instead it would be good, with compassion, to figure out who exactly loves Vegas, and to ask ourselves what needs are being met by it–what forms of inadequacy in their own lives makes the forms of Vegas an adequation or a salve. A project for some other time.

Environment

Even the outside feels like it’s inside. It’s in this sense that it’s like Disneyland–the sense of a fully consistent experience, of living inside a Gesamntkunstwerk, is common to both. No escape, visually, spatially, aurally.

I have never been in a place that felt so contemptuous of its living environment. The absolute and total violence of the disregard for the living desert–which I can only imagine, since at this point it’s completely dead–is what allows someone to build up buildings that smash down and erase every trace of the land and its otherness. That done, of course, you need to build a new outside, which the hotels have done, in the form of interior gardens designed to approximate living spaces the builders do respect. These of course borrow their architecture and flora from southern Europe.

Adventure

We’re at a ridiculous and expensive steakhouse in the Bellagio. (We had made reservations at a Japanese place in the same hotel but somehow the reservation got switched.) Fifteen minutes in, we have drinks and are talking. A woman comes up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I take your picture to celebrate this occasion and these beautiful ladies [handwave at the XXs of the group]?” No, of course.

But for whom is the picture meaningful? For someone for whom this is a memorable occasion, someone for whom the memorialization of a once-in-a-lifetime meal turns it into an “experience.” I was reminded of the photographs that are automatically taken at the roller coasters in amusement parks, so that one gets off the thing and looks at the pictures, delighting in the expressions of fear, horror, and pleasure as they were recorded only minutes ago. Perhaps the Bellagio can move to such a system in the future, so that guests would leave the restaurant to spend minutes looking at photographs of themselves eating, drinking, talking, or, in some undreamt-of but surely plausible future, of themselves looking at photographs of themselves eating and drinking and talking, or of photographs of themselves looking at photographs, looking at photographs, looking at photographs.

10/18/12

Marks of Experience

Really interesting series of photos over at the Slate photo blog by Claire Felicie portraying Dutch Marines before, during, and after a tour in Afghanistan. Studying these faces, I tried to articulate for myself the differences among the before, during, and after (but especially the before and after). There’s a certain placidity in the before faces, even in the first one with the furrowed brow, a certain relaxed slackness around the mouth, even in those with pursed or slightly smiling lips, that disappears in the subsequent shots. Editing? Lighting? The framing and titling? I’m sure these all play a role in our perceptions — we’re primed to look for differences, to share in the photographer’s witnessing of changes wrought by war. However inaccessible the internal changes may be, though, the physical changes seem unmistakable.

The photos invite our scrutiny, demand it, even. But the faces, at once open and closed, only give us so much. In the midst of my looking, poring over the gazes, the wrinkles on the foreheads and around the eyes, the set of the jaws, the turns of the mouth, I started feeling a bit unsettled by my own interest in confirming the marks of war on them. I started to worry that perhaps these images, despite what Felicie may have wanted to do, end up romanticizing the experience of combat in the way Chris Hedges argues in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, assuring us that the necessary human sacrifices have been made so that we can keep believing in nobility and goodness.

10/10/12

Hey, I just met you, and this is kooky, but here’s my number! Tongue Labouti!

Top Ten Scandalous-Sounding Names For Fictional Intimate Acts Generated By Putting Chinese Transliterations Of Terms From A Fourteenth Century Collection of Mongolian Documents Through Google Translate This Afternoon:

10. Martha and The Black Mahama
9. The Fire of the Original Clean
8. Wipe Tuo
7. Scattered Jill Police
6. Tongue Assassination
5. The Black Dingban of Ghana
4. The Wood Answer
3. Satisfied Door
2. Satisfied Speed Children
1. Kazakhstan Tongue Labouti

10/10/12

The rise of the “Nones”

So here’s something interesting:

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.

The decline mainly occurred in the number of those surveyed identifying as white Protestants, whether evangelical or “mainline” (their term). Catholics, for their part, held roughly steady.

Damn. I thought it’d be easy to get a table for brunch after the Rapture.

Full Pew Study available here. (You might want to cross yourself or to place a wafer on your tongue before clicking.)

10/9/12

Natural History According To US Weekly (in which we suppose that aliens wipe out the entire planet except for the web archive of US Weekly and recreate human natural history from that archive)

“I felt like my vagina died,” she shared of her sex life with [former husband]. “Turned off. Lights out . . . you can lie to your relatives at Christmas dinner and tell them everything on the home front is just peachy. But you cannot lie to your vagina.” … “Sometimes your vagina dies,” she explained. “Then you know it’s time to go.” – from “Olivia Wilde: Jason Sudeikis and I Have ‘Sex Like Kenyan Marathon Runners’,”  Us Weekly 09.10.2012

 

Vagina: (n) Symbiotic organism connected to and communicatively linked with a human woman’s body. Has preternatural powers of lie-detection, especially during Christmas and in matters involving stone fruit. Illuminated when functional. Can proceed through repeated life-cycles with several successive births and deaths, each signaling a change in the locomotive pattern of host woman. Can be resurrected, especially by Kenyan marathon runners.

10/8/12

Religious News From All Over

Did you hear about the fundamentalist preacher in Florida who wanted to go on the attack against Zen Buddhism? He threatened to burn a stack of koans.

And the local Zen monks turned out to lend a hand.

10/7/12

Great moments in storytelling

From a piece on assholes in Slate:

One need only turn on the television to find oneself subject to the spectacle of an asshole condemning or defending another asshole, while yet a third asshole provides commentary on the assholishness of the previous two—a veritable Möbius strip of assholism.

I can’t tell if it’s because of my great love of the theorization of assholes, or because writing and thinking about assholes is inherently interesting (to everyone), but: the quality of prose, philosophy, and comedy regarding assholes truly does set it apart from the quality of those three things as they apply to every other topic in the universe.

10/6/12

My Bookstore

From the second year of graduate school until about five years after I left, I worked for my university’s bookstore. I did a variety of things, ranging from heaving medical textbooks onto the shelves for $6.15 an hour to working as the “Internet Projects Manager,” which basically meant that I was a one-man web development shop in direct competition with Amazon.

It was a wonderful place, with visionary people. We had a classical music CD department, an anime department, and about 100,000 books on the shelves in academic and non-academic subjects. We had an ongoing reading series with authors from our MFA program, like Maile Meloy, Glen David Gold, Aimee Bender, and Michael Chabon. My bosses turned me loose on web technology a couple of months after the final bits were dry on the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic. We were one of the first bookstores to try e-commerce, and my bosses and I wound up on the cover of the June, 1996 cover of American Bookseller and in the LA Times.

Amazon put an end to our nascent, at times Rube-Goldberg-like efforts, and I struggled with the limitations of being one person trying to fight an e-commerce battle I had no chance of winning. One boss left in frustration, then I left, and the second boss retired a couple of years after that.

After that, the focus of the store shifted away from strategy and towards operations. By the time a few years had passed, without anyone at the store completely realizing how quickly it was happening, Amazon had eaten our store’s lunch. Together with its competitors, it had peeled off too many of our textbook customers. It was because of a monopoly on textbooks and their profits that we’d been able to do all this great stuff; without that monopoly, the number of students coming through our doors started to dwindle and our margins started to thin.

The end of the store soon followed, brought from on high by administrators who were frustrated that the store was no longer a cash cow. There was a sham of “consultation” with the University community — my letters were met with form letters — but management consultants were brought in, and they made the brutal suggestions that you would expect. My friends there who cared about books and literary values were forced out, along with all the employees over 50. The store has now been emptied of books. It is now selling textbooks, plush animals, and sweatshirts. It has been, in a word, deconsecrated; the word “Bookstore” has been taken out of the name.

So here is a photograph of the shelves that used to hold literary criticism and philosophy, now filled with plush anteater mascots. Look upon it and despair.

Shelf of Anteaters

Shelves where the books used to be: UCI Bookstore, now “The Hill.”

 

NOTE: I’ve published a follow-up piece to this article at http://printculture.com/the-late-bookstore/.

10/4/12

Excerpts from my Private Presidential Debates Diary (2012 Edition)

9:37 pm

Ugh. Tomorrow entire Punditsphere will be calling BO “professorial”. Mitt “businesslike”/ “professional.”

9:38 pm

When exactly did ‘professorial’ become a pejorative* for both parties?
____________________
*Self sounding professorial with use of ‘pejorative’???**

**Definitely professorial with gratuitous use of footnotes. Embrace it, self; you are loved.

10:10 pm

5 ravioli really is a lot of ravioli.

 

[END EXCERPT]

10/2/12

Watch this if you can find it.

I will never see this show, because I’m not in the habit of going to the theatre (and don’t live in New York), but I was glad to read that a Broadway adaptation of the documentary film, “Hands on a Hard Body” is about to open. Maybe the film will find a new audience and be available for streaming somewhere (it’s currently not available for rental on Netflix or Amazon).

Short plot summary: a car dealership in Texas runs an endurance contest in which contestants must keep a hand on a brand new fully loaded pickup truck. The last person standing wins the truck.

I remember watching the film when it showed briefly in a theater in L.A. back in 1997. The audience laughed  derisively (“look at those hicks!”) when the interview subjects waxed philosophical about the meaning of the contest in their heavy Texas drawls. But the film itself never demeans its subjects. My sense was that the filmmakers went into the project with a certain ironic distance but then got pulled into the human dramas playing out in this manufactured microcosm. A real gem.

10/2/12

How blogging is like the mattress industry

So, reading around the internets today with the new PC 2.0 on the membrane, it occurred to me (as I passed through Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, Balloon Juice, and the other usual suspects) that to be a professional blogger today you basically have to be willing to say almost exactly the same thing as everyone else for some significant percentage of the time. And then for some of the time you have to say something different, or say something about different things. And the reason people read your blog is because, (a) they know they’re going to get comments on the big issues of the day (in politics, today, the Pennsylvania Voter ID decision), and (b) they will also get some other stuff that is unique to you, more or less.

I don’t think it was like this years ago. That is, I feel like there was much more differentiation among bloggers of a certain type (politics) than there is now, and that one of the effects of the professionalization of blogging has been to push everyone towards more similar content, with minor differences that in the long run don’t amount to too much.

On that same subject this Rohin Dahr piece on the mattress industry is getting a lot of play. Here’s the block quote featured by both Drum and Sullivan:

The top four companies (Sealy, Serta, Simmons, and Tempur-Pedic) make up 59% of the industry revenue. The top fifteen mattress companies make up a whopping 81% of the market. Low levels of competition lead to consumers paying obscenely high prices for mattresses.

As Drum points out, this structure doesn’t seem that surprising in a mature industry. Perhaps that’s why blogging is starting to look like it.

09/30/12

Reprint: a mission statement, of sorts

For PC 2.0 I thought it might be nice to repost a few things from the archive, a way of remembering where we came from. Today’s reprint is my first post for Printculture, dated Dec. 9, 2004:

I came across the following in a book of interviews with Michel Foucault this morning:

It is the task of philosophy to explain what today is and what we are today, but without breast-beating drama and theatricality and maintaining that this moment is the greatest damnation or daybreak of the rising sun. No, it is a day like every other, or much more, a day which is never like another.

What is today? What are we today, who live today as the central present of our lives, as that which makes our lives present to us? And how can we recognize–as a way of resisting a set of narratives that continue to tell us that this today is a day unlike any before, that we face a set of challenges that have changed “everything”–the ordinariness of today, including the ordinariness of its fear, its war, and its violence?

Whether it’s Sept. 11 or the recent presidential election [remember readers–this was December 2004!], I think the danger of imagining today as the one time (the greatest damnation, the new world world order) is that it gets in the way of thinking productively about an actionable relation to the future. The thing that changes “everything” always comes to us from an apparent outside (Al Qaida, red-state America) and because of that threatens to leave us feeling helpless.

09/30/12

The mysterious proximity of opposites

I wonder how you would explain to a recently arrived alien visitor to this planet that in cultural terms there is a great distance between the fraternity house culture that makes alcohol enemas possible (in the news as a result of this recent case at the University of Tennessee) and a man loving another man.

Most delightful datum from the Tennessee adventure: they were using (I almost wrote “drinking”) Franzia Sunset Blush. Like most of you I will be decanting a Zinfandel tonight to celebrate the miracles of human creativity.

p.s. NY Daily News headline: Bottoms Up?