Friday, May 30, 2014

The Squirrel Bomb (For Posterity)

Approximate location.
In 2002 -- this is now twelve years ago (!?) -- I had thrown at me what I affectionately refer to as a "squirrel bomb". 

I was walking past a garbage receptacle on the busy patio of my liberal-arts college, when some unknown scholar stopped in his tracks ahead of me, he turned to face me. I slowed my gait as his focus in my direction seemed fairly intentional. He pulled back his right arm which held a mostly-full water bottle as if to telegraph a pass in my direction. Is he about to throw a heavy water-bottle at me? Is this one of those college things? Was I about to be recruited by some esoteric fraternal guild?

Well actually, he pitched a fastball at the garbage receptacle which was located a mere arm's length to my right. The disposable bottle--full of momentum-generating H2O--slammed against the hollow, squared cylinder with thunderous resound. As no fewer than nine (9) squirrels jettisoned out on all sides and in all directions, I reflexively shrieked like a little girl. 

I had never up to that moment had ANY squirrels nearly that close to me, and now I had a nearly double-digit flock (or whatever the hell their dumb group is called) moving quickly around me in in wildly unpredictable trajectories. I continued to shriek like some 6 year old who just watched her favorite doll be decapitated by wolves, and after the shock wore off, I giggled foolishly at the unprecedented spectacle of having been made into some weird Buster Keaton sight-gag. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Review of Christopher Hitchens' Memoir, Hitch 22

There's an old saying, probably accredited to Winston Churchill.

"If you're not a liberal when you're young, you have no heart. If you're still a liberal when you're old, you have no brain."

I first heard this from my dad, who I know for a fact was not trying to be condescending. That said, I imagine it's hard not to feel belittled when you hear this at any point during college.

Even when I saw it coming true during my late 20's, I always hated the phrase--despite (or maybe because of) its accuracy.

That all changed after Hitch 22.

The title itself refers to Hitchens' conundra as a proud left-winger and former communist revolutionary, being forced by his morals--and simply having seen too much--to endorse a war nearly unanimously condemned by people who aren't wealthy old war profiteers or other types of Republican Party line-toeers.


If you're going to get involved with Hitch 22, do yourself a favor and make it an audiobook. I'm not sure I would have finished it were it not read aloud to me by a mahogany British croon of the most stylish intellectual of the last century.1 This is almost a prohibitively intelligent text. You have to be much smarter than me to follow the entire thing, and--for certain stretches--twice as smart to care.

Like an after-last-call sunrise session with an old-timer who's had a legendary "paper route" (so to speak) it meanders and over-presumes the working knowledge of its readers with regards to Iraq and other clusterfucks. Hitch doesn't delve into his war stories with the self-aggrandizing history-nerd-porn he could stylishly and justifiably wield. In a painfully gentlemanly manner, he smudges over the bad-assery of his travels and seems only to mention--as if reluctantly--those expeditions into the shit which help him reiterate his various assertions and their rationale.

With the notable exception of helping hide Salman Rushdie in his basement and a few literary feuds with Noam Chomsky, there wasn't a glut of rote name-dropping towards tabloid intellectuals for Cliff Notes philosophy students like myself. Critics might disagree, but with every historical name tangentially dropped, you're left wanting a lot more. Bill Clinton eating pot brownies at a party at Cambridge? What's the rest of THAT story? 

It's really impressive, though, that a man obviously trying to protect his legacy is more interested in proving his moral and intellectual cogitations--or, in a few scarce cases, recanting them--than immortalizing his larger-than-life take-downs of Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, God, and totalitarianism in all its forms.

If there was one take-away that really stuck with me, and which I suspect will stick with you, it was in a section towards the end in which he talks about the effect he had on the life and death of a young American soldier named Mark Jennings Daily. Daily had been inspired to enlist in the armed services by one of Hitchens' published articles in support of the war. (I was getting ready to "rip" the audio and post it with a "please do not sue" plea on YouTube, but much to my delight, someone had beaten me to it.)

Here it is. The pertinent selection is the first fifteen minutes or so. If you've been looking for a good cry or haven't felt particularly patriotic in a while (I mean genuine, authentic love of homeland, not that flag-wavy sports-arena bullshit) (no offense) then plug in some ear-buds and check this out.

For whatever it's worth, I followed up this memoir with a hefty scouring of the internet for Hitchens debates pertinent to the two gulf wars, and as much as this violates my previous worldview--and as badly as the situation was mismanaged--I can no longer say it was an unjustified war.

Hitch 22 has been a stumble off the wagon for my unsustainable catharsis addiction. But even when it's too smart for me to follow entirely, it's a huge refresher that there's so much more out there than I can even imagine.

1 Research pending.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Game-Changer

If that worked for you, this one's more subtle but there's definitely a trumpet/drum swell in the middle that really lets you feel your sodium-potassium gates opening, if you have good enough headphones or stereo.1


Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Gawker's "On Smarm"

First, read this. It's very well written. It's important thinking about our time and how we relate to each other. I disagree with most of it, but Tom Scocca makes at least one valid argument for the infusion of public discourse with backbone and substance. Which is more than enough.

Every statement of opinion has two phenotypes. It is either Positive or Negative and Critical or Superficial.

(We'll ignore the statistically irrelevant examples that are qualitatively neutral and exactly half over-generalizing).

People frequently mistake "critical" to mean "negative". It's this very type of connotative thinking that tempts us to skip details and use "Michael Bay" and "Nickelback" as shorthand for "shit".

("But what if I like far-fetched action movies with lots of explosions or throaty, four-chord cock-rock?") (Fuck you.)

"Critical" means important, or at least--for the purpose of this discussion--exploratory, cartographic, examining of contexts or simply attempting to explain. "Critical" can't have a positive or negative connotation because it is diagnostic by definition. A building inspector took an hour or so to look at the new house I'm buying, and he gave me a twenty-five page report of things that need improvements. At no point did he roll his eyes and say the furnace was garbage. (For the record, he actually said the house is in fairly good shape, and then handed me a warren commission on how I could really fix it up properly if I want to invest ten years and half a mil.)

"Superficial" attempts to summarize critical content and translate. It usually has to be shorter than a critical message and it's either negative or positive because it translates a given item to a perceived qualitative value. (I.E. the part where my building inspector said the house was in fairly good shape). Naturally, subtle deviations in peoples' values can create qualitative disconnects, unless of course you're talking to members of your cult.

As for "positive" and "negative", you already understand. Positive = I like it. / Good. Negative = I don't like it. / Bad.


In politics, the most important phenotype is Negative & Critical. Because politics are very important. Peoples freedoms and livelihoods are potentially at stake. Policy must be an architecture. Any element that doesn't help it, hurts it. Positive & Critical is a less important message; it's simply reinforcement of a preexisting condition. But it's still sorta important so that people know why to proceed in a certain direction. Positive & Superficial and Negative & Superficial are tied for last place. Generalizing has no place in public policy. The law is simply too important for self-evident truths.

Art is wildly different. Art is an experience, designed with all sorts of intentions. In art criticism, the most important message is Positive & Critical, because this message will accurately direct people towards the things that will make their lives better. Positive & Superficial is the second most important because even in a crap shoot, seeing a random movie, at worst wastes two hours, at best changes your life. The cure for bad speech is more speech and even a boring/annoying/offensive artistic experience will increase your reservoir of worldview, and widen your tapestry of experience. An under-specified endorsement still helps, even if you end up disagreeing. It helps you navigate future endorsements.

Art is not architecture, it's a canvas. Noisy color is still data; it has characteristics.

Negative & Critical is not particularly important, even if it's fun to write and read. Unless we're discussing seizure-anime, subliminal assassination orders, one-act "how to build a weapon" videos, or Two Girls One Cup... These all have non-subjective negative effects on society (with the obvious exception, unfortunately, of TG1C, although I admit I'm profoundly grateful to have been warned against it). These types of example are almost too rare to include in the conversation--and basically over-lap into politics so let's look at a common, poorly reviewed piece of entertainment.

The movie The Internship, mentioned in the article as a priori garbage, may have a review which discusses the elements of the movie thoroughly but with a disapproving interpretation. Even though it could be a really enjoyable flick for me--I may laugh heartily at lowest common denominator humor (which is to say, humor that everybody gets). But the critic doesn't like the way the movies fails to reflect modern values and drive our culture forward, he doesn't like that he finds the jokes tired and the acting forced so he drops a turd on it. Now I may end up skipping something that was gonna help me laugh away the remnants of my day-job but instead I end up seeing The Master, which I didn't get.

In defence of Negative & Critical, I'm not a movie-going machine, and time is money. I, hopefully, have the ability to receive critical information in a meaningful way, so this critical review with a negative summary might help whittle away my less exciting options and help steer me towards a better experience.

Finally, we get to Negative & Superficial, which is truly what nauseates participants in the movement against negativity--at which Scocca rolls his literary eyes. The Negative & Superficial is so vilified because, in such a functionally nihilistic world devoid of a priori values, the spirit of DIY authority has embodied the spirit of cynicism, as if cynicism itself is authority's fuel. Certain members of the left wing--seemingly Scocca, but I can't speak on his spiritual beliefs--wish to kill god but keep his objectivism. The two are inseparable.

In lieu of critical thinking, Negative thinking feels surefooted. Who sounds more stupid to you: someone who thinks There Will Be Blood is really over-rated or someone who thinks Fran Drescher's Beautician and the Beast is a misunderstood masterpiece?

They're both film students. They both got a B-.

(Neither one of them is myself, but I'll guarantee you've never watched Beautician and the Beast.)


I was going to go off on a bunch of specifics that I disagreed with from Scocca's column, but there's really no need for that. (It would be the second-least important kind of criticism.) He's right about politics. Where the law in concerned, politeness is unimportant. But he needs to separate the world of the important with the world of the unimportant. In the world of the important, any false steps fuck people over. But art can't ruin your life. It can only improve it. In the world of art, beautiful mistakes lead to Bob Dylan records. Led Zeppelin's ripped-off blues riffs didn't rob the original musicians of billions they otherwise would have had.  Eight unlistenable Phish records are more than worth it for three great jazz-fusion tracks on Junta and (my favorite rock album of all time) Billy Breathes.

The problem with hipsters is that they're overly pre-occupied with justice and equity. Nobody would shit on Nickelback if nobody liked them. Pop-culture isn't a fair trial.


The lone item for which I will lash out at Scoccia, mostly because tons of bloggers do this and it's probably the single rotting seed at the core of snark's apple:

Scocca discusses the hypocrisy of Dave Eggers, who went on anti-critical rants to students...
And now here is Dave Eggers 13 years later, talking to the New York Times about his new novel, The Circle, a dystopian warning about the toxic effects of social media and the sinister companies that produce it:

"I've never visited any tech campus, and I don't know anything in particular about how any given company is run. I really didn't want to."

Someone has come a long way from "do not dismiss a book until you have written one." But Eggers was never laying down rules for himself. He was laying down rules for other people.

The level at which ad hominem dictates peoples' thoughts and emotions is simply out of control. Hypocricy is a red herring. If a priest touches kids inappropriately and tells his congregation not to touch kids inappropriately... Is he wrong about what he has said? His actions and his words were opposites. THEY CAN'T BOTH BE WRONG.

Being a hypocrite isn't the end of the world, we all do it from time to time and I wish people would learn that this is just part of the human condition. If we can eventually eradicate it, great. If not, let's focus on the ideas instead of the distracting fucking people. When my nephews ask if it's okay to have two deserts before dinner, and I say "no", does that mean I'm full of shit just because I had three deserts yesterday? We're all unfortunate bags of friction and decay, the only way to transcend this status is through ideas and, yes, ideals.


As for snark vs smarm, Scocca will have you think that smarm is The Empire and snark is The Rebel Alliance. But what they both have in common is a dearth of critical thinking, and a leaning-upon of a given aesthetic as-though it were substance. Bitchiness and fighting are unpleasant: Necessary in politics, bullshit in arts and entertainment. Politics don't belong on Twitter, not enough characters. Assholes don't belong on youtube comments, we're not twelve anymore. Next time you have something to say, make meaningful connections, and back yourself up with examples. Do the work. I apologize for the thirty times later today that I'll forget this, and blurt out something lazy, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Be critical, and if nobody's life is at stake, be fucking positive.