Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Wire

I've been binge viewing what many people hail as the greatest TV series of all time, The Wire. It's as good as they say, but imagine my surprise at discovering that the entire enterprise is a 60 hour, phenomenally deep dramatization of Leff's First Law.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Stop Stop and Frisk

Want to end stop-and-frisk overnight, via massive public decree? Make them stop and frisk white people.

That's it. Do it on the Upper East Side and in Tribeca. Howls of piqued umbrage will fill the canyons of Manhattan, demonstrations will be staged, media will rage, heads will role, and the entire policy will be gone within one week.

I understand that "what if he was white" is a cliche of racial indignation. I realize it's often used to over-simplify nuanced situations. I'm not a big fan of the rhetorical device. But in this case, the switch would, beyond the shadow of a doubt, turn the situation topsy turvy.

If a cop arbitrarily and impolitely ran his hands over the body and through the belongings of a friend or coworker of mine without just cause, I'd be nearly ready to kill someone over it. I've always been uncomfortable with stop-and-frisk as a policy, but it's always been a distant issue. Bring it front and center for me, and there's no freaking way I wouldn't do everything in my power to see it reversed. Same for you, too, I'll bet.

Update: in this editorial, Mayor Bloomberg lays out the good intentions and indisputable data behind the program (and, for that matter, why the flipped perspective would, indeed, be strictly rhetorical). I don't think it's reasonable to accuse Bloomberg or Kelly of insincerity - i.e. using their line of argument to cloak a sinister agenda of racial suppression. But my point stands: this isn't something you or I would tolerate, even if it made our lives safer. It's a step too far.

Snobbery, Typography, and Trees

Butterick’s Practical Typography is a free web book from Matthew Butterick offering a concise, clear, interesting explanation of the subject. There's lots to learn. I highly recommend it.

On the other hand, it's also a typical example of arbitrary preference presented as unassailable righteousness. There's a long history of that sort of thing - where an expert pompously lists the stupid things stupid people do to embarrass themselves in the eyes of those in the know. Readers, flattered into feeling "in the know", bask in the contagious sense of superiority. And Butterick lays the flattery on thickly:
If you learn and follow these five typography rules, you will be a better typographer than 95% of professional writers and 70% of professional designers. (The rest of this book will raise you to the 99th percentile in both categories.) All it takes is ten minutes — five minutes to read these rules once, then five minutes to read them again.
If you've ever read HW Fowler's "Dictionary of Modern English Usage", you've run into this sort of thing. In 1926, Fowler gathered his preferences and prejudices and codified them into what he declared to be proper English usage. His followers duly carried the flame, never questioning what entitles a given human being (or group of human beings) to arbitrate correctness in a realm of free expression like language usage (or, similarly, typography).

There are still plenty of language cops out there, latter-day Fowlers demonstrating their superiority by decrying those who unaccountably choose to express themselves as they see fit. But professional lexicographers, once momentarily captivated by the arrogance of Fowler and his following, have come around to the recognition that no one "owns" language. And, given that language eternally evolves, any conventions and standards one might propose are intrinsically observational (descriptive rather than prescriptive) and hopelessly fleeting.

Snobbery, by itself, is repulsive. But it's worse when it's wielded to SELL you things. After pages of arbitrary preferences codified as immutable rules, Butterick makes his case for why most of the fonts people use are "bad". Did you know that the following font, Papyrus, is awful, and that you'd be revealing yourself as a boob for ever, ever using it?
"Papyrus is just such a poseur. Papyrus is meant to look his­toric and hand-drawn, but it is nei­ther. It’s an al­pha­bet from the ear­ly ’80s wear­ing a week’s stub­ble. Skip it."
Sheesh, doesn't look so awful to me. But, naturally, Butterick follows with a strong pitch to buy his own pricey fonts. And we readers - having, over the course of our ten minute edification, been transformed into self-satisfied experts, ourselves - have no choice but to do the right thing. Who wants to look like a Philistine?

One lesson to be learned from this free book is that nothing's ever really free. More importantly, fending off marketing manipulation requires awareness of the various PSYOPs. And this gambit is one to which educated, thoughtful people readily succumb.

A few years ago, I moved into a place with lots of trees around. Some branches needed cutting, so I had a tree guy stop by to give me an estimate. He had a look around, and his face distorted in disgust as he pointed to tree after tree, proclaiming them "garbage".

To me, these were perfectly fine trees. They were mostly vertical, with lots of green stuff toward the top, and they dependably offered both shade and oxygen. To him, they were weeds, and they needed to be cut down, immediately. Aesthetics demanded it. Due to their invasiveness, the environment demanded it.

I asked how much it would cost to remove all this sinful, evil flora, and he gave me a price in the high four figures. Thousands to remove most of the trees from my property, leaving behind a broiling, scrubby, post-apocalyptic landscape of stumps. So I told him that if my trees were truly offending him so badly, I would give him permission to cut them down, and plant new ones. I wouldn't object; I'd do my duty as a good citizen, and not charge him a dime. He, of course, looked at me like I was crazy.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Music Of My Youth

The music of one's youth is supposed to evaporate over time as part of the essential process of loosening one's grip on it all to make way for succeeding generations. But at age fifty, the music of my youth remains, for some unfathomable reason, omnipresent. I literally can't escape it.

It's not that this stuff was too good to discard. The late 60's and early 70's saw the crowning apotheosis of popular music, but my time was two waves after that - the post-disco lull when record executives had driven the final nail into the coffin of creativity. This period marked the genesis (and, for that matter, the Genesis) of a phrase which, alarmingly, no longer sounds ironic: "Corporate Rock". Wave after wave of musical movements and trends have followed, yet my generation's stuff never washes away. I hear it everywhere I go.

I'm ambivalent. On the downside, I feel like I've been cursed to carry this dreck to my grave. Atrocities like "Maneater" and "Hungry Like the Wolf" were never intended to be Forever Songs, yet in 2013, when I'm supposed to be flying around in rocket cars, everywhere I go I'm still plagued by Huey Lewis. On the upside, this aberration feeds the delusion that I'm not actually aging.

I guess everyone, to a certain extent, might observe something similar. After all, "Rock Around the Clock" never went away. "Mack the Knife" never went away. "Hey Jude" and "Purple Haze" never went away. Hell, royalties from "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" are likely still covering mortgage payments for descendants of Beth Slater Whitson, whoever that was. But those tunes come flavored with a certain nostalgia. They are genre, not omnipresent. By contrast, the aloof petulance of "Every Breath You Take" or the cheesiness of "Born to Run" or the crossover strivings of "What's Love Got to Do With It" seem to have struck a universal nerve. When I hear Al Jolson sing "Mammy", I'm certainly not feeling whatever it was my grandfather's generation felt. But whenever "My Sharona" comes on the radio, everyone, young and old alike, seems on the verge of executing a Beavis-like nostril scrunch and darting their heads spasmodically to and fro.

A latter-day variant of this same process is OS upgrades. Just as people in their late twenties find themselves losing touch with the latest bands, older folks - with their AOL disks and acqua iMacs - are famous for being too set in their computing ways to keep pace. Indeed, I myself remain two full major upgrades behind on the Mac operating system, at 10.6.8, and I cringe at the sound of my own voice insisting that the OS works damned well for me and I see no reason to change.

But here's the weird thing: 10.6.8 turns out to be one of the most defiantly held-onto operating systems ever. Vast numbers of people - of every age - are in my boat!

When I'm not hearing the music of my youth, I'm hearing jazz. And as I wrote here, "You have no idea how disorienting it is to spend your life plying an art form that's so extraordinarily marginalized - even ridiculed - when that same art form is the unanimous commercial choice for setting a tone of hip urbanity."

What's happening here? How on earth am I supposed to remain non-narcissistic if everything keeps revolving around me?

Because most of you don't click links, I'll share here the subsequent paragraph of that same rant about the ubiquity of jazz: "Imagine if you were all into Star Trek, and suffered the inevitable taunts, yet each time you walked into a smart restaurant or boutique, you found workers sporting pointy Vulcan ears and making "Live Long and Prosper" gestures."

Saturday, August 17, 2013


The Industrial Revolution dehumanized people by turning our most human activity - our work - into something entirely inhuman. Assembly lines and other forms of specialization transformed people into cogs. Individuals no longer experienced the pride of creating a finished product.

Perhaps in response, the Victorian era revered scholarship. Work having become grindingly inhuman, erudition became the ne plus ultra for humanity. Educators drilled facts into students, and the most respected scholars were walking encyclopedias of their subjects.

Nowadays, with everyone carrying supercomputers in their pockets, it seems silly to locally store in one's brain data that can be instantly looked up. Walking encyclopedias now strike us as eerily inhuman; more akin to hard drives than people.

So what's left? If erudition's redundant and work is prideless, where do we find our humanity? It is, as ever, in those realms where humans were always most deeply aglow: wisdom, beauty, art, kindness, and creativity. You know, the hippy-ish spheres many people sneer at.

My concern is for the sneerers. I'm not sure where they can turn. There's always religion, which periodically moistens into something palpably human, but that realm tends to mostly dry into dogma, tribalism, and sanctimony.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Upside and Downside of The Democratization of Creativity

They've announced the winners of the annual iPhone Photography Awards , so we're seeing all the usual peevish internet discussion about "the democratization of creativity". Can iPhone photos be art? (Duh, of course.) Are they "as good" as professional photos? ("Good"/"bad" don't apply. Neither medium supersedes the other.) Can professional photographers with pro equipment get richer, more varied results? (Duh.) Should there even be an award for iPhone photography? (Why the hell not?)

Smart questions are also being asked. With the rise of cheap but powerful creative tools designed to empower amateurs to fake arty results, accompanied by a (not unrelated) fall-off of public appreciation for deeper and more thoughtful creation, is real talent and creativity being smothered? The answer's yes. Try playing live music even in a cosmopolitan place like Manhattan. You will receive uncomprehending stares from many people under the age of 35. Why, they will wonder, has the wallpaper come to life? The artistic struggle - the discipline and hard work and human touch - seems awfully quaint when you can attain superficially similar results from a few minutes of dallying with GarageBand, iMovie, or Instagram. That route seems neat and clean. The old ways seem eccentric, messy and willfully obtuse.

That's not the whole story, though. While mounds of drek are indeed smothering out The Good Stuff, it's important to bear in mind that plenty of supposedly good stuff actually sucks. Loads of professional photographers, filmmakers, musicians and composers churn out worthless, uninspiring dross. What's more, I see no noble effort by old-school creative professionals to rise to the crisis, step up their game, and prove their value.

Most of the endangered "good stuff" isn't so good. (Related note: I shared the outrage when big box stores like Barnes & Noble, Staples, and Home Depot killed mom-and-pop stores, but, amid the hue and cry, no one ever noted that a great many mom-and-pop places were actually crappy, over-priced, and sullen.) But, also, some of "the bad stuff" - the fake artsy drek - isn't bad.

114,000,000 smartphones are in use in this country - all equipped with cameras. Among this enormous field of would-be photographers, the vast majority are dilettantes producing pretentious faux-artiness with Instagram toys. But 114 million photographers means 1 million genuinely creative photographers, 100,000 highly-talented photographers, and 10,000 brilliant photographers who otherwise might not have found this outlet (and who, given better equipment, would soon do work as beautiful as anyone). Also: 10 immortal geniuses.

So, yes, quality - in several art forms - is being smothered and devalued by the democratization of creativity. The combination of lowered standards and rising pretension is toxic. But putting any sort of creative tool into the hands of a vast number of people will also elicit greatness. A certain fraction of humanity will always make use of whatever tools they have to create something amazing. So it will all, as ever, churn....but it will all be okay.

Have a look back at this golden oldie about a brilliant iPhone painter.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Shoelace Tying Breakthrough

This is huge. I have completely changed the way I tie my shoes, migrating to the eminently superior "Ian Knot" technique.

This is a faster, better, easier knot. Unlike the standard way, this creates a symmetrical knot - and thus a more beautiful knot (no more peering down at one's feet with aesthetic revulsion!). And did you know that the asymmetry of standard shoe knots is what causes shoelaces to fray? Devotees of the Ian Knot report that their shoelaces, like, never ever need replacing!

It's clear enough if you carefully follow the diagram on the above-linked page. But three essential things to remember:

1. in the left hand, the lace end flows toward you; in the right hand, the lace end flows away from you

2. feed the rear lace through from your right hand; and the front lace through from your left hand

3. a certain amount of faith is required the first few times.

Here's a video:

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