Introducing the iMortal Show – Episode 1: Ersatz Geek

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I’m proud to present the first episode of my new podcast, the iMortal Show. Like the iMortal the blog, this show will look at the intersection of culture and technology, an exploration of how we live our finite lives during the tech revolution.

For our first episode, I’ve brought on actor, singer, and science communicator Gia Mora and web designer Matt Licata to discuss what it means to be a geek today. We talk about how geekhood has evolved from something that was explictly non-conformist to a label that can apply to almost everyone.

I’m really delighted with how this turned out. I hope you like it too, and will help me spread the word about it. Give it a listen:

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Download the episode here.

Subscribe in iTunes or by RSS.


The iMortal Show, Episode 1: “Ersatz Geek”

Originally recorded August 28, 2014.

Produced and hosted by Paul Fidalgo.

Theme music by Smooth McGroove, used with permission.

Running time: 45 minutes.

Links from the show:

Gia Mora (the “ersatz geek”) on Twitter, her website, and her current show Einstein’s Girl.

Matt Licata (who “likes stuff”) on Twitter, and his websites MiraiMatt.com and Future World.

iMortal: Your Unique Amalgam: On the Fluidity of Geekhood

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The Waning Religious Experience of Apple Keynotes

When I first became an Apple fan about a decade ago, it took an inordinate amount of effort for me to actually see one of their keynote events or product announcements. They were rarely livestreamed, for one (though few things were back in 2005 or so), and even when they were made available online, I had crummy Internet connections or spotty wifi, and the stream would often come in pixellated and jittery.
Even as the stream quality and accessibility improved over the Steve Jobs era, it never seemed like Apple much cared whether you watched. These are technically press events (or developer events in the case of WWDC keynotes), and while it was fine if the general public watched them, that wasn’t really the point. Whatever the actual thinking behind them, it always seemed to me that Apple just didn’t really care whether fans could see these things. If anything, that only made me want to see them more. As a true believer, I would seek out their wisdom.

As someone who found little to be enthusiastic about in any medium, the Apple keynotes were a kind of religious mass for me, where I and a diffuse and relatively small collection of enthusiasts would go out of their way to see what our Dear Leader, The Steve (peace be upon him), would bless us with, and what lessons he would have to teach. I didn’t (and don’t) care about sports events, I didn’t (and don’t) care about entertainment industry award shows. Everyone else did, it seemed to me, but Apple keynotes, they were my thing.

When I first began watching these (and I use this term specifically) religiously, Apple was unveiling things like Macs, computer operating systems, and iPods. Thanks to the popularity of the iPod, these events did grow more popular, but I suspect they still remained mainly the purview of the zealots like myself.

I suppose something changed with the introduction of the iPhone, and later the iPad. The masterful presentation of both those devices, along with their imminent ubiquity, made something shift in the public hunger for the Big Apple Show. I suppose that even to the nominal Apple fan, the thinking went, something like, “that Steve Jobs keeps showing us amazing things every time he steps on stage – I want to watch it happen!” And the charisma of Jobs, even when he was visibly ill, was undeniable.

But even as the audience for these events grew, it didn’t seem like the flock of Apple devotees was necessarily growing at the same clip as the raw consumers. Yes, people were terriby excited about new iPhones and iPads, no doubt. But whatever religious feeling Jobs and Jony Ive instilled in so many of us, our particular devotion wasn’t shared by the masses who were merely buying cool gadgets. Apple was now dominant in the industry, and its place in the culture was no longer one of a scrappy upstart that knew better, but still couldn’t break through to the unwashed masses. Now everybody, washed and unwashed, wanted iThings.

And as we saw with this latest event unveiling the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus and Apple Watch, Apple has completely changed its outward attitude to the events themselves. No longer posting them as a bone-throws or afterthoughts, they positioned this one as a first-order mass media event, akin to the Oscars or the Superbowl, complete with a homepage-dominating countdown clock. (The fact that the livestream was a technical disaster is beside this immediate point.)

Part of this, I think, is because Tim Cook will never be Steve Jobs. Neither will Tim Cook + Phil Schiller + Bono + insert-name-here. Steve can no longer draw us in, so if Apple wants to keep up the mystique of the must-see product unveiling, they will have to fan some of the flames themselves.

I don’t know how many people saw (or tried to see) this latest Apple event. But I think it’s a safe bet to say that the vast majority, while excited about the new products, were not “Cult of Apple” zealots. We don’t get the same kind of sermons we used to from Steve, instead we get beautifully made opening videos, or narrations of a design process from Jony Ive. That’s all fine. It’s not the same, but it’s good, it’s fun.

And I still try and squeeze some religious feeling out of these things, difficult as it can be. I want to be bowled over, I want to be convinced of Apple’s ethos as they present it. At least for those couple of hours.

But just as the twinge of ecstasy some folks feel after church wears off after returning to their regular lives, so too can an Apple zealot like myself step back and then think more critically. It is just about, gadgets, right? They’re just a big, rich company, right?

Kind of. But for a while it was my thing.


 

Related: Three friends of mine joined me for a one-off podcast discussion about the Apple event. Check it out here.

The Brutalization of Women in Video Games, and its Apologists

Note: Comments are disabled on this post because life is too short for what I’ll have to sift through, and I don’t like comments sections anyway.

I so appreciate the work of Anita Sarkeesian, the media critic whose Feminist Frequency series of videos examining the portrayal of women in popular culture are always enlightening, eye-opening, and more often than not, troubling in what they say about how far we are have to go as a society. I hadn’t seen a new video in a while, but I had caught wind online that there was one recent episode that was creating quite the dust-up, so I tuned in.

“Women as Background Decoration (Part 1)” is deeply upsetting. It is upsetting because of what it tells me that I did not quite grasp before. I knew, of course, that hyper-macho violence was glorified in too many video games and that women are usually cast as mere prizes at best; purely sexual objects to be gawked at and won. But since I don’t play modern console games, particularly the subset of “gritty” or “mature” titles like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman, I had no idea how backward and ugly a place the world of gaming had become, especially in regards to the portrayal and utilization of women.

Sarkeesian’s video, briefly, is a careful, and remarkably cool and studious examination of the use of women non-player characters (NPCs) in games. Suffice it to say, there is a plethora of examples of women characters primarily appearing as prostitutes, slaves, and barely-sentient sex toys, all without personality beyond their desire or willingness to pleasure male characters, being beaten, stabbed, shot, thrown like projectiles, and even run over by a steam train. And that abuse, more often than not in these examples, is rewarded, with additional money, power-ups, or “achievements unlocked.” One example from a Grand Theft Auto title: Lure the prostitute, purchase the prostitute’s services with your money, gain a health bonus for the sexual act, and then shoot and kill the prostitute to win your money back.

I have not yet watched Part 2, because I don’t know if I have the stomach.

What I want to do here is tackle a few of the points that came up when I first expressed online my horror at what I had learned. The response was perhaps more troubling to me than what I saw from the games: the angry defense of this kind of content, and mostly-irrelevant sideswipe attacks on Sarkeesian to somehow invalidate her observations. For expressing my disgust at the content of these games and my appreciation for Sarkeesian’s work, I’ve been fairly relentlessly (and often obscenely) trolled on Twitter and attacked in other online outlets.

Issue: Sarkeesian’s Veracity

First is the assertion that Sarkeesian misrepresented the games, claims that she was being dishonest about what actually occurred in one or two titles, or that she didn’t give the full context of what could be done in a given game, and that this cast a pall over the entire project and its conclusions. A complaint was made that in a certain game where Sarkeesian shows player brutality against an NPC woman, it was not also noted that any object or person in the game could be treated the same way. In another, I was told that in the Hitman sequence, Sarkeesian had somehow “doctored” the scenario to allow for the brutal behavior of the player, and that it wasn’t a normal part of the game experience.

This seems an extremely flimsy thing to take issue with. Sarkeesian herself addresses this concern generally, saying that the mere ability to treat women (or anyone) in a violent manner, intentionally programmed by the developers (this isn’t in the game by accident, folks), is an implicit invitation to do those things, and that in the game world it’s acceptable behavior. Why defend the intentionally-added ability to brutalize women at all? Why not just call for the exclusion of such a capability? Why excuse it?

But let’s now for argument’s sake grant the more general complaint of inaccuracy, willful or not, by Sarkeesian. You’ll get no disagreement from me that the documentation of this kind of stuff should be as accurate as possible, with no lillies gilded. So if Sarkeesian did get some things wrong in her video, I hope she’ll correct them. But how many errors are too many so that the overall point of her video is no longer valid? If her video is, say, 90% accurate, don’t we still have a big problem? What if she’s really off-base, and is only getting half, 50%, of her claims correct. That still means that in the other 50% of the games she talks about, players of mainstream interactive games are being rewarded for some sick, awful, horrid, medieval shit.

Still a problem, wouldn’t you say?

So fine, take Sarkeesian to task for anything she got wrong, but I cannot state this strongly enough: It doesn’t change the fact of the problem at hand. Sarkeesian the Personality becomes a distraction to the real issue. But isn’t that always the way.

Issue: There is No Evidence That Video Games Have Any Effect on Behavior

First, that’s not the point. Even if it was true that there is zero connection between viewing or participating in virtual violent or abusive behavior and the actual real-life committing of that behavior, we as a culture should demand better of ourselves. We should reject it because it glorifies and rewards the worst of what our species is capable of. (This is not the same as banning it, by the way, which I oppose.) The fact that we don’t mimic it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to celebrate it.

But more to the point, there is plenty of evidence.

Here’s Barbara J. Wilson writing in journal of The Future of Children, a project of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, on the affect of electronic media on children, emphasis mine:

[Rowell Huesmann] argues that a child who is exposed to a great deal of violence, either in real life or through the media, will acquire scripts that promote aggression as a way of solving problems. Once learned, these scripts can be retrieved from memory at any time, especially when the situation at hand resembles features of the script. The more often an aggressive script is retrieved, the more it is reinforced and becomes applicable to a wider set of circumstances. Thus, children who are repeatedly exposed to media violence develop a stable set of aggressive scripts that are easily prompted and serve as a guide in responding to social situations. [ . . . ]

In support of social cognitive theory, numerous experiments show that children will imitate violent behaviors they see on television, particularly if the violence is rewarded.

Wilson notes that television’s effect “is larger than any other single factor that accounts for violent behavior in youth.” And that’s just TV, a passive medium. TV is not participatory like games are, where this behavior is explicitly rewarded, it’s often the whole point. More on that later.

Defenders of misogynistic game content will counter that these games are not aimed at children, and legal only for adults to purchase. Because of course kids never get their hands on these, and therefore we can all wash our hands of responsibility, right? Whew! Solved.

If you want a more cross-generational take, here’s forensic psychiatrists Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam and H. Eric Bender writing in the New York Timesalmost exactly one year ago:

There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. [ . . . ]

The weight of the studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children.

In fact the surgeon general, the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple professional organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — all consider media violence exposure a risk factor for actual violence.

My fellow skepto-atheists hang our hats on scientific consensus on hot-button issues like climate change. Funny how this same consensus does not seem to count when the ability to brutalize women in video games is critically examined by a real-life woman.

Issue: Men are Treated as Badly as Women in Games

Several folks told me that the issue of women’s treatment in these games was moot because men get treated much more violently overall, as of course the vast majority of the violence in games is done to male characters, player and non-player alike. But again, Sarkeesian addresses this (it can’t be that her critics haven’t actually watched her video, can it???). She notes, correctly, men have the chance to be anything and everything in game worlds: yes they are the targets of brutalization themselves, but not exclusively. They also get to be heroes, conquerors, geniuses, villains, all-powerful warriors, etcetera, etcetera. Women are mostly relegated to background, prizes, sex objects, and targets for abuse. There are a very, very few exceptions to this, but clearly making an equivalence over the portrayal of male and female characters is ridiculous.

Issue: Games Portray Life as it Really Is

One fellow defended in particular a sequence from the game Red Dead Redemption in which a wild-west gunslinger binds a prostitute, throws her on his horse, takes her to the train tracks, leaves her there, watches her get squashed by a passing locomotive, and unlocks a game achievement as a result. He’s rewarded. The defense of this was that we shouldn’t judge games for portraying life as it was really lived during different historical periods, when there were different norms, social structures, and ways of life.

Holy shit, I thought.

First, I’m pretty sure that tossing women in front of speeding trains was not something that was done in the normal course of everyday life at any time in human civilization, but hey, I’m not a historian of the 19th century American West, so maybe there’s something I’ve missed.

But more importantly, games like Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed and even Call of Dutyare not history courses. They are not academic presentations of Life as it Once Was for educational purposes. I’m pretty sure that if you complete one of these games, you can’t then transfer your achievements-unlocked as college credits. They are mass market, popular entertainment – interactive entertainment – aimed at young men and boys. I shouldn’t have to spell out the difference.

Issue: Critically Acclaimed Popular Entertainment Features This Same Content

I will definitely grant that many of our most beloved and well-regarded movies, books, and TV series portray women as badly as these games do. The apologist then says that if you take issue with the games, you have to take the same issue with The Sopranos and Game of Thrones and whatnot.

Well, for one thing, I do take a very similar issue with them. I can’t watch Game of Thrones because I think the show’s portrayal of women in abysmally bad. I’m not interested in whether the show is trying to portray some version of European history (and as far as I can tell, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, again, not a history course) or that it’s making a “comment.” I think the creators of popular entertainment, particularly in the form of a wholly made-up fantasy world, can make the affirmative choice to do better by  women. Game developers no less.

And just as I’m uneasy about the glorification of violence in games, I was uneasy about the glorification of violence in The Sopranos, which I stomached, barely, for the show’s other redeeming qualities.

But the real difference here is that TV shows and movies are passive entertainment. The viewer simply watches. In games, the viewer is a player, and the player is taking part in these activities. We watch women treated horrendously as a matter of course in The Sopranos, but we don’t cause it to happen. We don’t play the role of Tony Soprano and then by our own will beat the shit out of a women who’s bruised his ego. In a game, we can, and they do.

Issue: Sarkeesian Has an Agenda and Just Wants Attention

Who cares? I want attention too, and so does everyone else who publishes content online or anywhere else. Apologists for the games’ content have an agenda, and want attention paid to them. The people who expend enormous amounts of energy and time attacking her personally have an agenda. Spare me.

The Point

I got more blowback about my support of Sarkeesian than I have for almost anything I’ve ever said online. It’s upset me, caused me incredible stress, and made me question the moral moorings of some of the people I know. (I even took a day off from Twitter to cool off! Which is hard!) Considering that I, a straight white male, got some crap about my reaction, I am in a perpetual state of shuddering-to-think of what Sarkeesian herself must put up with, or what any other woman puts up with when they challenge the idea that they shouldn’t be portrayed so awfully, that violent misogyny should not be celebrated and rewarded.

Tonight, I learn that Anita Sarkeesian has gotten such a barrage of horrifying threats against her own life and that of her parents, that she’s fled her home.

Because she critically examines an ugly side of video games.

I equate my humanism with compassion. I think that humanism is really a way of trying to build a life-stance and worldview in which one aims to feel something for others’ plights, to have empathy for those different from oneself, and to behave accordingly. In the attacks, trolling, and defenses of the indefensible I received from an online community of self-professed humanists, I saw no compassion. Only an atavistic desire to shake compassion off, to deny any responsibility to it, and to maintain an ugly status quo that is comfortable for them.

Often it was done in the name of “skepticism” or “evidence.” I saw no evidence of compassion or humanism in these responses.

In modern civilization there is simply no excuse for manufacturing entertainment that holds up the brutalization of women as virtuous and worthy of reward. None. It’s not necessary even if the aim is to create the most suspensful, pulse-quickening adventure game. The only reason to do it is to titillate a certain demographic, and make them feel more powerful than the automata women placed in the games.

And I think it’s not worth it.

Special thanks to my friend Kristyne von Eerie for her help with this post.

You Can Be Jailed for Internet Blasphemy Before You’ve Even Committed It in India

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If you use the Internet in a particular state in India, you might be jailed for pre-crime.

I wish I was being overly dramatic, but it really does seem to be the case that a law amended earlier this month assumes authorities in the Indian state of Karnataka to have Minority Report-like precognitive powers, allowing them to arrest someone who they think might at some point violate their Information Technology laws.

Let me back up a bit. What first caught my attention was a bit of news hitting the tech blogosphere that Karnataka police were letting it be known that citizens would be violating the law by the mere act of “liking” something on Facebook that has “an intention of hurting religious sentiments knowingly or unknowingly,” and that folks should report any such activity they see to the police. (Never mind that it doesn’t make sense that something could have “an intention” of doing something “knowingly or unknowingly.”) This is reprehensible on its face, criminalizing not only “blasphemous” content, but even the appearance of approval of said content. It’s a human rights violation of the most obvious sort.

But following the links deeper into the originating reports, I find that this is just part of the problem. It seems that this is a way of enforcing what’s called, amazingly, the Karnataka Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Gamblers, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video or Audio Pirates Bill, or the “Goondas Act.” (A goonda is a hired thug.) And it’s the “prevention” part of that title that’s key, because it effectively takes any offenses under the auspices of the state’s Information Technology and Copyright acts under its own umbrella, and aims to stop them before they can actually be committed, according to the Bangalore Mirror:

Until now, people with a history of offences like bootlegging, drug offences and immoral trafficking could be taken into preventive custody. But the government, in its enthusiasm, while adding acid attackers and sexual predators to the law, has also added ‘digital offenders’. While it was thought to be against audio and video pirates, Bangalore Mirror has found it could be directed at all those who frequent [Facebook], Twitter and the online world, posting casual comments and reactions to events unfolding around them. [ … ]

Technically, if you are even planning to forward ‘lascivious’ memes and images to a WhatsApp group or forwarding a song or ‘copyrighted’ PDF book, you can be punished under the Goondas Act.

And once arrested, you can be held from 90 days to a full year before even seeing a judge to make your case. It’s horrifying. One section of the act even prohibits the “publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form,” which includes “any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest.” Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society provides the Mirror with a terrifying and yet totally plausible example of what could happen:

If I publish an image of a naked body as part of a scientific article about the human body, is it obscene or not? It will not be obscene and, if I am arrested under the [original Information Technology] Act, I will be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours and can explain it to him. But now, I will be arrested under the Goonda Act and need not be produced before a magistrate for 90 days. It can be extended to one year. So for one year, I will be in jail even if I have not committed any wrong.

So what for me began as more fuel for the fire against blasphemy laws around the world, the battle against which my employing organization the Center for Inquiry has taken on as one of its core missions, revealed itself to be a situation with a police and surveillance state run utterly amok, persecuting those who might at some point violate some arbitrary and undefinable religious or moral sensibility.

As Ye Live, So Shall Ye Google

Image by Shutterstock.
In American counties considered the easiest in which to live, cameras, iPad apps, and jogging are among the subjects that residents are googling for. In the hardest counties to live in, it’s diabetes, guns, and the Antichrist. This is according to an analysis by the New York Times which used its own metrics to determine what the easiest and hardest places to live were, and then partnered with Google to determine what search terms correlated most strongly. Some of the results as reported by David Leonhardt at the Times are surprising to say the least.

But first let’s get one aspect of this straight. What this report does not say is that in the hardest places to live the Antichrist is the thing most Googled for, nor are digital cameras the top search queries for Easy Street. It is saying that these search terms correlated most strongly to the counties in question. Common searches are common searches across the board, so at the moment I am typing this, things like “Little League World Series” and “Rick Perry” are among the terms dominating Google search at the national level, and we can assume that they are doing so even in the hardest and easiest-going counties alike.

There is little that can be inferred definitively from the Times report, but it’s very telling that when life is less stressful, one has more freedom to think about things like digital photography, and when life is a trial, one’s mind turns to weapons and eternal retribution for whatever one plans on doing with those weapons.

All this said, here are some things that struck me:

  • It is not merely that Easy Street dwellers are into digital cameras, but that they are interested in specific models, such as the Canon Elph and other point-and-shoots, which then makes me wonder how easy their lives can really be if they’re even considering Elphs and not just a decent smartphone with a decent camera. Have they not heard of these yet?
  • One may be tempted to tie a high rate of searches for the Antichrist and guns together as some sort of wish for the End Times infesting the culture, but also consider that “severe itching” is also on that list, which I think makes many of the other searches much more understandable.
  • “Dog Benadryl” is also on the list for the hardest places to live, which, despite the “severe itching,” raises more questions than it answers.
  • Among the search terms for the easiest places to live was the 2001 Ben Stiller film Zoolander, which frankly makes me question the veracity of this entire project. No one, whether their lives be easy or difficult, should be spending any time thinking about that.
  • The greatest tragedy to emerge from all of this? According to Leonhardt, “Searches on some topics, like Oprah Winfrey or the Super Bowl, are popular almost everywhere.”

We have so far to go.

The Apple Ethos is Bigger Than Apple Itself

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The idea of Apple as a “cult” or “religion” is often expressed somewhat derisively, but there’s no doubt that for many, many people the company represents something beyond the products it produces, particularly when referring to Steve Jobs’s Apple in particular. When Jobs died, I wrote about how the grieving wasn’t exclusively about the loss of a man, but of an ethos, a way of thinking and working. Here’s John Gruber explaining that ethos back when Jobs resigned in 2011, as his illness was overtaking him:

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like. The same thought, care, and painstaking attention to detail that Steve Jobs brought to questions like “How should a computer work?”, “How should a phone work?”, “How should we buy music and apps in the digital age?” he also brought to the most important question: “How should a company that creates such things function?”

And then Gruber ends with the refrain that was often heard during the transition from the Jobs era to that of Tim Cook:

Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Jobs himself probably knew this, that the ethos of Apple was the product, the one that would birth all others to come. And that’s why he established Apple University in 2008, an institution internal to Apple that would formalize the propagation of the company culture long after he’d be there to do it himself. Brian X. Chen at the New York Times got some rare glimpses into Apple University, which, like the rest of Apple, is kept under tight wraps.

Read the article if you’re curious about things like the individual classes, but this quote from analyst Ben Bajarin is a good idea of what the motivation behind it is:

When you do the case studies on Apple decades from now, the one thing that will keep coming out is this unique culture where people there believe they’re making the best products that change people’s lives. That’s all cultural stuff they’re trying to ingrain. That becomes very difficult the bigger you get.

And from Apple folks Chen spoke to:

[Employees] described a program that is an especially vivid reflection of Apple and the image it presents to the world. Like an Apple product, it is meticulously planned, with polished presentations and a gleaming veneer that masks a great deal of effort.

Most folks will hear about Apple University and the attempts to codify the Jobs ethos and presume this applies more or less exclusively to the goings-on in Cupertino. But I can tell you from my own experience as a blue-shirted retail drone that, university or no university, the culture and values of Jobs and the company are instilled across the corporation’s many manifestations.

Matthew Panzarino understood this when he wrote his own response to Jobs’s resignation:

This philosophy has been instilled in Apple employees from the Retail Stores to the executive staff. No other major technology company employs staff as convinced that they are producing some of the best products in the world. This is a result of Jobs’ ability to lead by example, infusing the corporate culture with that same passion and pride of a creator.

To the retail employees, the store was (and I assume is) as much an iconic product as any iThing, where even those of us at the bottom of the ladder felt a little drunk on the effects of Reality Distortion Field and googly-eyed from the glow of the logo. There’s a reason why a customer’s experience with employees at Apple Stores is so vastly different from anything else in the mall, and most anywhere else for that matter.

It seems to me, given that the Apple ethos is being instilled in a formalized way within the company, that it’s kind of a shame that it isn’t done outside the company as well. Not by Apple itself, of course, as that would be against its interests as a company; why teach competitors how to do what you do?

But go back to the retail example. Now that I know how things were done within Apple Retail, imperfect as it was, I’m now ruined for all retail experiences outside the metallic box of the Apple Store. From high to low-end, I leave most retail experiences sorely disappointed, shaking my head and thinking about how whatever I just went through would never fly at Apple. There would have been an extra mile not traveled, a question unasked, a consideration not made.

This is just one example. Imagine if more aspects of life – be they commercial, governmental, artistic…anything – were to take more of an intentional queue from the way Apple works, or at least strives to work. Maybe there’s something funny about the idea of the “Cult of Apple” and the messiah Steve Jobs (peace be upon him). But if someone truly qualified offered a course or a certification in this ethos, I’d sign up right quick.

Apple may have been Steve Jobs’s greatest product, but it’s the ethos that fuels it is an even better one. I certainly wouldn’t want a world of short-fused, megalomaniacal Steve Jobses, but I would like a culture that aspires more intentionally to the fractal Gruber described: “Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth.” That’s a church I could believe in.

Weird Al Offers Safe Passage to Pop Music

Photo by Kristine Slipson
“Weird Al” Yankovic was the first “popular music” I ever liked. Well, him and the Monkees, because I was a kid. From a young age I felt alienated from what I knew of pop music: Rock was aggressive and threatening (to me), and Top 40 pop was dopey. At the age of 8 or 9 or so, I really didn’t know much else (save for the Beatles, which were more like a cultural force of good than a “rock band,” revered in our house even if I was too young to appreciate them. They didn’t count).

Weird Al gave me an avenue into pop music by mocking it. With Weird Al, I could enjoy the tunes and arrangements and harmonies of songs like “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and still stay “above” them, at a distance, with the parodized lyrics. Thus, “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” which is brilliant. Rock and pop became safe, in disguise.

Apparently, I’m not entirely alone in this. Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker writes of how Weird Al makes pop music okay to like:

Anxiety starts early for pop audiences. For decades, I have had twenty-somethings tell me that they don’t know what’s on the charts, haven’t listened to any new artists since college, and don’t “know anything about music.” They feel confused by how quickly the value of their knowledge of what’s current fades. Weird Al’s songwriting process, almost without exception, is to confront that anxiety and to celebrate it. Yankovic will take a mysterious and masterful song and turn it into something mundane and universal.

These twenty-somethings are where I was when I was nine, except I of course didn’t feel like I had grown out of touch with age, but that I was already alienated from pop music from the start (I came around, FYI).

For those who feel ashamed to play a chart hit, or possibly even hate the chart hit, Yankovic offers an opportunity to have your cake and eat it.

Indeed part of my 9-year-old’s alienation was fueled by embarrassment. Not because the songs were necessarily “beneath” me and my refined tastes (I also played over and over the Transformers The Movie soundtrack), but because I felt out of my depth as a small kid even taking part in the more adult (or at least teenage) scenarios portrayed in popular music. What if someone saw me enjoying “Bad” or “Beat It”? I felt silly. Al was silly, which made it okay.

Here’s an important aspect to this, from Frere-Jones again:

None of these parodies would work with weak songs; he chooses ones with strong melodies and distinct personalities.

Right. The hits he parodies are hits for a reason. Even if their subject matter is vapid, the original songs themselves are often refined and crafted to within an inch of their lives to be pleasing and evocative. So even if you’re horrified by the words of “Blurred Lines” (as I am) you can indulge in its grooves and melodies with “Word Crimes,” and avoid the guilt over digging a song that reads like a rape threat.

This is also why his polka medleys work so well. Though not lyrical parodies, lots of popular, hook-filled songs mashed together and played at frenetically and joyously is often an enormous delight. It’s like a buffet of hits.

I have lost the obsession with all things Al that I had as a kid, and sometimes I see his work as kind of weak (his New Kids parody “The White Stuff” and Chili Peppers lampoon “Bedrock Anthem” spring to mind). But I’m so glad he’s still doing what he’s doing. I’m surprised frankly that someone else hasn’t sprung up to steal his shtick in all the time he’s been around.

Maybe it’s because so far he’s the only one who’s been able to own uncoolness so entirely, and so totally unironically. And come on, the last thing we need is some above-it-all hipster version of Weird Al.

Robin Williams and the False Promise of Success

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I have no idea why he did it. I have no special insight into whatever darkness weighed on the heart of Robin Williams. I haven’t even seen a Robin Williams movie since Man of the Year, which was terrible. But he’s someone I absolutely idolized as a young comedic performer, someone whose career I would have done anything to emulate. He was an early example for me of a performer who was utterly beloved entirely for his performances, for his talent and energy, for the laughs and pathos he was capable of bringing about, as opposed to his looks or some veneer of “cool.”

And while I can’t know what haunted him, I can relate to him both as a comic actor and as someone who struggles with depression. I think, in the immediate shock of the news of his apparent suicide, that Williams’ death gives the lie to the idea that I, and I’d suppose that millions of others who also live with depression, tell themselves: That if we can just reach a certain level of success, if we can just cross this undefinable threshold of validation, our hangups and sadness will be cured.

I know I think this. I don’t think it intellectually, of course, but it’s there. Something deep in my own mind, where I can’t yet correct it, believes this.

Robin Williams embodied a dream I once had of who I would become. He had reached the pinnacle of that ideal. But it didn’t cure him. Whatever his demons were (and again, I have no idea as to what they were beyond what is common public knowledge), they could not be erased by popularity, acclaim, awards, a guaranteed place in our cultural pantheon, or the laughter and tears of millions – billions? – of people.

I was in the audience for his Inside the Actors Studio appearance during my brief time at that school, and it was one of those evenings where he could do no wrong. He had this huge room of self-obsessed actors (many of whom probably already considered him yesterday’s news) howling with laughter, absolutely adoring him for his sharp and quick mind, and for his humanity. Because while he was cracking us up, between the frenetic barrages of wit and energy, he would pause, and he would reveal a little bit of his true self, showing us how vulnerable he really was.

Success won’t cure us by itself. That’s not what’s wrong. We have to find another way. I’m sure he tried. I wish he’d succeeded.

Of Muggles and Mutants: Sci-fi’s Concern for “Better” Humans

I’ve moments ago finished The Bone Season, a novel by Samantha Shannon that I quite enjoyed, about a near-future world in which “clairvoyants,” those born with an ability to interact with the spirit world, are considered riffraff at best and plague-carrying criminals at worst. The layers of the world are rather quickly shown to be numerous, with a number of possible answers to the question of who is really in control (and it does get complicated). For this post, I’m primarily interested in how an aspect of the book’s premise compares to that of some other fictional universes. So be warned, ahead be great spoilers.

(Not for nothin’, but I was very glad that the protagonist was an ass-kicking young woman, and not the standard “chosen one” male messiah we usually get. Paige Mahoney is powerful, but she’s not fulfilling any prophecies, just discovering, and struggling with, the extent of her considerable abilities.)

The idea of a special subgroup of humans being singled out by the less-special majority is not a new concept. The mind immediately jumps to X-Men, in which mutants with superpowers are mistrusted and feared, but there is still a semblance of struggle to integrate mutants with the rest of society. I think it’s safe to say that as the audience, though, we are generally expected to see the mutants as “better” than non-mutants. They are humans-plus.

Another version is the world of Harry Potter, where witches and wizards aren’t persecuted because they’re not known, other than to a handful of people. Magical folk, again, are presented as “better” than non-magical people who don’t get the benefit of amazing powers or insight into a universe beyond their graps. They even get a kid of abysmal name, “muggles.” Again, wizards and witches are humans-plus.

Unlike with X-Men or The Bone Season, we don’t get to see what might happen if the magical and muggle worlds were to try to integrate. But I think it’s not too hard to imagine that the non-magical world would be scared shitless to know that a race of superpowerful sorcerers who could defy the very laws of physics with magic wands were now part of society. Just as “normals” are afraid of mutants in X-Men, and afraid of clairvoyants in The Bone Season.

I don’t know enough about X-Men lore to say exactly how non-mutants are presented and treated generally, but Harry Potter’s good guys at least make a point of standing up for the right of muggles to live without the threat of Voldemort, and for the equality “half-bloods.” The wizards and witches are humans-plus, but they still care about us.

The characters of The Bone Season seem to care little for normals. Our only exposure to non-clairvoyants is negative, be they agents of the fascistic government or one of the few passerby characters who have little to say or do beyond being a threat. Once the main story gets moving, essentially all of the action takes place in the Rephaim’s cordoned-off city, so “muggles” become quickly irrelevant. Though treated like dirt by both pan-dimensional beings and regular old humans, the reader is expected to see the clairvoyants as, largely, superior to normals.

So why am I hung up on the presentation of normals in these worlds? Perhaps I have some kind of paranoia that the creators of these worlds see either themselves or some other group in the real world as being analogous to these humans-plus. There would be some subset of people in real society who have an ability or an insight that the masses do not possess, and are as a result either reviled and persecuted, or at least forced into total secrecy.

Who would that be? Intellectuals or academics? Certainly we have our “ivory tower” universities that are in a way analogous to the wizarding world, at least in as much that what goes on and is discussed in them seems weird and troubling to many on the outside. That almost makes it a good Harry Potter analogy, except that unlike Hogwarts, everyone knows that Harvard is there. This is more of akin to Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, in which an agreement is struck between the academic world and the rest of society that the academics should generally keep to themselves in their monasteries. So maybe it’s supposed to be artists and other creative types? Certainly the real world suffers through times and places in which academics and the arts are seen as too subversive and dangerous to be allowed to flourish.

People of particular religious worldviews could easily see themselves in the role of the humans-plus in these stories, for what is it to follow a religion but to suppose one has a special understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything that the rest of the heretics and infidels of the world do not? (Unless of course you’re a progressive religious believer, in which case you believe every faith is an equally valid path to God, etcetera, etcetera.)

Yes, atheists easily fit this mold, too, perhaps better than those of any supernatural worldview, for our stance – atheism itself – is based on the idea that everyone else is doing it wrong. (Which, it happens, is probably true.) And if my time as a professional skepto-atheist has shown me anything, it’s that our crowd is particularly adept at feeling superior to believers, so much so that we often have to turn that smugness on each other just to vent some of the excess pride.

But I honestly don’t know. If these stories were simply allegories to help us shed new light on how we treat those different from us, such as racial, religious, or other minorities, that would be one thing. But instead the persecuted (or secreted) minorities are born “better” than their persecutors. They are not just “different” by way of look or language or origin, but enhanced.

So the metaphor then becomes one focused on how society treats those who are in some form or other “superior” to the majority. That’s uncomfortable for me to say the least. And I’m frankly not too worried about how we might treat humans-plus. I think the way we treat “the least of these” is probably a more important story to tell.

I just don’t quite know how you make that into a compelling sci-fi adventure. But I’ll bet someone has.