Monday, November 30, 2009

How I Met Your Iconoclast

Ruth Mowry, who runs the
best damned blog on Planet
, keeps insisting she
wants to know how people name their blogs. At one point, she was promising bags of Skittles or some such reward, but fell victim to the "all shall have prizes" syndrome. So what's my motivation? Being acknowledged by the Zen goddess who has something like 320 regular visitors, unlike this backwater. And she paid me such a nice compliment (no, I won't point it out, go and read her blog, for cryin' out loud! You might learn something!), that histories were the least I could share.

This blog's URL is impossible to spell, but its genesis should be obvious. Every possible combination of "iconoclast" has been taken, both within Blogger and WordPress, and also as an independent domain. That's because everyone claims to be an iconoclast, now that Prospect magazine has officially declared eclecticism the new cool (thanks John Voelcker).

Feh. Buncha poseurs. You don't know what eclecticism is, unless you've been grooving out to screeching vacuum cleaners and detuned accordions making a godforsaken racket, only to have a loved one say "You call that music?" Well, yeah. I save my mailing envelopes from Adris Hoyos, since she was the first to proudly offer brutal noise and ask, "What was music?" Now, that, my friends, is iconoclasm.

But how to differentiate? By being a grumpy old man! Calling oneself "iconoclastic curmudgeon" or "curmudgeonly iconoclast" doesn't cut it, it has to be Iconocurmudgeonclast. Thus was a blog born. Where's my cane? And better yet, Ruth, where's my Skittles?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Minor Seventh, the Major Ninth, and the Dying of the Light

Funny how hearing an old song can not only evoke those familiar emotions you thought you left behind, but helps you solve a contemporary puzzle at the same time. Hearing Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" over the Thanksgiving weekend helped me to understand the vague misgivings I was feeling when listening to Lady Gaga. Confused? Here's the punchline:

When Joe showed us how to Look Sharp! in 1979, he may have been stylin' punk, but he was legit Brit punk, fitting mid-way betwixt Magazine and Buzzcocks on the twee thug end, and The Specials and The Selecter in the world of ska. I had no problem with him exploring nightclub 1930s jazz in 1982 when Night and Day was released, and in fact had a bad relationship experience to "Always Something Breaking Us In Two" as did most teens and 2o-somethings in that decade. But then I remembered that the release of that album had a dark F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis underside. The tux and the evening gown were appropriately timed to step out, because this was the era of Reagan and Thatcher, when being a punk just wasn't fun any more. We all have to grow up, have our hearts broken, down some single-malt scotch, and sell our souls to the machine, right?

All of this has something to do with Jackson's use of the Major 9th and Minor 7th chords. These are subversive chords, scarcely happy like a major chord, but not explicitly mopey like a minor or minor ninth. There is a sense of wistful longing for another day and another possibility, a feeling of submission, and a pointed desire to turn something off, to just put the nose to the grindstone and celebrate good fortune. Before Jackson's 1982 album, Reagan's first year in office, corresponding with a major recession, had been unpopular. Jackson's Night and Day release coincided with the beginning of a boom-time that lasted, with a brief 2001 intermission, until the summer of 2008.

"Higher," said Mr. In. "Heaven," said Mr. Out. (Fitzgerald, 'May Day', Tales of the Jazz Age [the same source as 'Benjamin Button,' BTW]). And everyone got very rich and forgot the blood, and loved Ronald Reagan when he died. And that's what steppin' out is all about.

Which brings us to Ms. Stefani Gaga. My friend Denise is convinced that she has captured the essence of early Madonna better than Madonna herself - which may be partially true if we consider Madonna during her "Lucky Star" period of her debut album, which oddly enough coincides with the year that Jackson released Night and Day. Gaga is arguably a more accomplished musician, a damned fine pianist, and a sneakier publicist than Madonna. But a funny feeling of being haunted accompanied the release of The Fame Monster. When Gaga came out with The Fame, the shout-outs to mid-80s disco were all too obvious, between synth beats, vocoder, and sex-talk obsession. But songs like "Paparazzi" and "Poker Face" worked because they relied on major and minor chords.

The eight songs of The Fame Monster are rooted even more firmly in the mid-80s because they rely on pop music mainstream, while sneaking in those minor sevenths and major ninths. And isn't it interesting that this mini-album extension to The Fame, hits as we are allegedly emerging from a recession?

Of course, we can't extend the analogy too far. Barack Obama is neither Ronald Reagan nor George Bush. And he can't even preside over a boom like Reagan's because the morning in America is being eclipsed by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). It won't be easy to put that tuxedo back on, when sovereign wealth funds are controlling most of America's growing massive debt. Yet beware the minor seventh and major ninth. They could be an early harbinger of the dying of the light. Maybe when the light dies this time, everyone will just feel yucky and keep their formal wear at the dry cleaners. Or maybe this dying will represent another Fitzgerald jazz age, where the lucky stars can return to the days of milking the planet and having a lovely time. We certainly have a lot of experience at hiding the blood. Afghanistan, here we come, caught in a bad romance. Rage, rage. Don't forget the minor seventh.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Be Seeing You!

Pattern recognition is both the blessing and curse of sentience. Discerning patterns provides structure to our lives, and made possible the rise of the scientific method, the one reliable way of understanding that wolves and bears are bigger threats in the forest than witches and trolls. Still, an excess of patterning is what gives rise to paranoia and conviction that black helicopters are following you.

The conclusion of AMC's recent remake of The Prisoner reminded me of nothing so much as the fourth and final section of Thomas Pynchon's classic novel, Gravity's Rainbow. In both works, paranoia and plots build up relentlessly in the previous section, only to have no real denouement or answers in the conclusion. Plots are neither foiled nor victorious, but made irrelevant by the processes of entropy ripping everything asunder.

The difference in the two works is that in the final act of Pynchon's GR, "The Counterforce," said counterforce is not a coalition of resistance nor a band of outlaws. It is a rushing force of nature, the entropy that makes things fall apart, and the gravity that makes a rocket return to Earth. One can no more argue against Tyrone Slothrop turning into Rocketman than one could argue against the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In The Prisoner, a moral choice is made to become an agent of The Spectacle, to become the guardian of sleep. Michael (6) and Sarah (313) are not making poor moral choices by "serving the man," they are recognizing that the dreaming of building a spectacular world provides some broken people with necessary crutches. In both versions of The Prisoner, the forces at the top were posited as evil because they did not give the residents choices about coming to The Village, thus they played out the typical morality sagas regarding free will. In the newer version, Michael returns to the corporation to be CEO and to The Village to be (Number Two?), but it scarcely seems to be a surrender to fascism.

This all related in a way to my previous post regarding the supposed necessity of memory. If we dive into the river of experience (notice how the Web creatures at Defrag kept talking about "lifestreams"?), we may decide to abandon patterns and memory for the excitement of random events. Pynchon would tell us we are succumbing to nature. The authors and directors of The Prisoner would say we are recognizing the necessity of created worlds and created consciousness. And before someone brings up a protest about "playing God" with manufactured consciousness, it's useful to remember one of the most devious elements of Gravity's Rainbow - Pynchon's suggestion that the evil inherent in human culture may not be due to the depraved nature of the species, but might be a reflection of living in a universe created by a perverse higher power. How do you assign morality to entropy?

I'm not passing judgment on the conclusions of Gravity's Rainbow or The Prisoner. Like Heraclitus and Dylan, I'm just jumping into a different river every day and watching it flow around me. But it gives a clue for interpreting the wheel of reincarnation. Maybe the important thing is not remembering and cataloging the details of past lives. Maybe the important thing is to treat all lives as one, and immerse in the flow without worrying about memory, patterns, plots, or paranoia. Be seeing you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A New Quiescent Bardo State After a Synaptic Storm

Given the strange conscious states of the fall, amidst PHN attacks and pixelslips and whatnot, it was an odd experience to attend the Defrag conference in Denver in mid-November, dedicated to trying to find larger meaning and structure in the emergent social networks that have taken over most static web sites. I have identified two problem areas in posts on the Smartbook blog, here and here. I'll summarize those areas below, but first a word about the tie between true believers and marketing: Defrag and its cousin Glue are often given kudos for avoiding the marketing hype of conferences like Web 2.0. Nevertheless, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems warned us long ago, regarding nanotechnology, that even sober engineers and programmers can be drinkers-of-Kool-Aid if they speak of technological promises without probing negative social consequences. Defrag 2009 had a bit of that back-slapping feel. Twitter and real-time streams and Facebook and live-update aggregation were given a heavier dissection than in other venues, true, but there was a little too much self-congratulatory examination of the synaptic web without enough deep critique. Still, here's what I found interesting in what real-time web pundits had to say:

First, the notion of searching static web sites is becoming as archaic as an encyclopedia on a CD-ROM. Information arises in an emergent fashion through the sharing and discovery of information real-time across social media sites. This means that the interface of choice moves away from a Word or Excel document, or even an email inbox, and toward a real-time status update feed. What we see at the top of a Facebook page of Tweetdeck may be the interface of choice for many information sites in the future. How does any data-management system keep up with this torrential real-time feed and filter out relevant information without missing key nuggets? Good question.

In the second part of my Smartbook posts, I addressed a tougher topic that arose with Khris Loux's presentation on the synaptic web. If we really want to consider client nodes (human individuals, usually) in social networks to be the equivalent of a synapse, then all those rules about neural-network behavior - learning through back-propagation, finding a higher state of consciousness through simulated annealing, etc. - apply. There is also the issue of allowing the uber-brain of a global network to establish long-term memory through the different oscillatory pattern of a sleep cycle. Where does that exist in the constant chattery updates of Twitter or Facebook? The notion of an institutional memory gets shallower and shallower. Keynote speaker Stowe Boyd pointed out that Twitter "memory" now has decreased from two weeks to two days, and may be shrunk to minutes if Twitter's growth trend continues. A conscious, sentient entity without a working memory is reduced to sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Some people in the journalism community fret about how the replacement of real newsgathering by quick tweets will significantly harm people's understanding of the world around them. Others who study consciousness itself are concerned that social networks, particularly rapid-update systems like Twitter, will encourage superficiality more than the rapid channel-changing that was the source of so much hand-wringing in the 1980s. But that merely mentions two manifestations of a larger issue: The synaptic web that is emerging based on shared communities using real-time feeds, is a creature living in the present and lumbering forward of its own accord. On a certain level, we have lopped off large sections of the cortex and cerebellum in this global brain, and have reduced the global consciousness to its limbic level. The synaptic web needs to re-evolve a higher brain function, which can accommodate memory and analysis even as real-time streams grow exponentially. Short of a global crisis of some sort, we are not going to be stopping those constant tweetstorms and live-update feeds. We need to find a way to recapture remembering, to design an institutional memory, even in the midst of a synaptic storm.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Cities of the Plain

I'm with Cormac McCarthy - Those rare cities dispersed between the Mississippi and the Rockies have never gotten their due, and many of them hold a charm that will pull you into repeated visits back to Omaha, Lawrence, Fargo... Bruce Springsteen also caught the flavor of the long-distance Plains drive in his wonderful 1982 acoustic album Nebraska. I got invited to give a couple speeches at Creighton University and St. Mary's College in Omaha in early November, and decided to once again do a solo long drive down that I-76/I-80 corridor. In my first experience taking this road at age 17, heading to Colorado, the great transcendent expeirence was listening to King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black on an endless 8-track tape loop at 3 in the morning, after everyone else fell asleep. It was so moving, I went out immediately that year, and had a T-shirt made proclaiming "This Night Wounds Time."

So I drove the corridor once again, skipping a stop at the Archway Memorial to the Platte River Road pioneers, but stopping to visit Fort Kearny, named for Stephen Kearny, a key player for the struggle for California during the Mexican War of the 1840s. Stopped at the desolate area that had once been home to 'Dobytown,' the place where William Tecumseh Sherman met his match with a whiskey that was such an apostasy, Sherman named it 'tanglefoot.' (I should mention, the nearby town of Kearney, Neb. is where Richard Powers located his beautiful 2006 book, The Echo Maker, which won the National Book Award.) Since this was not sand hill crane season, there was little reason to see much of Kearney (yes, the town adds an "e" not present in fort or Stephen), where the quaint places Powers described are overridden with chain restaurants and corny steak houses.

The occasion of my visit was the Strategic Space Symposium in downtown Omaha, which brings out military contractors to talk about planetary dominance through orbital space. Nebraskans for Peace wanted to have speakers at the local colleges to challenge that concept, and a direct-action group, Midwest Catholic Workers, had the die-in shown above. Among those arrested were 92-year-old Peg Gallagher, and Catholic activists Louis Vitale, Frank Cordaro, and Jack MacCaslin. Below is an excerpt from a classroom talk I gave at Creighton (Part 2 of the same speech is at this link).

Every time I go to Omaha, my good friend Frances Mendenhall is always up to something new. She edits and publishes videos, including Democracy Now, for the local public-access channels, and is always agitating the local authorities on topics surrounding net neutrality, broadband access policies of common carriers, etc. She also has a community garden that grew enough squash this year to feed the multitudes, using the infamous "cardboard in the squash garden" growing method. This year, Frances had bought the house next to hers, gutted it, and was rebuilding it for both zero net energy and multiple broadband access. She was pulling coaxial and Ethernet cable simultaneously when I visited her.

No trips to Conor Oberst's Saddle Creek Records this time around. My next plains visit might have to be to Lawrence, where it's been far too long since I relived the days of "Bloody Kansas." But Omaha, Omaha, I'll always love my Omaha, as staid and Republican as it may be on the outside (I know, not one to talk living in Colorado Springs)....

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vigor, Valor, and Violence

It's probably only coincidence that I came across Josef Joffe's essay in Foreign Affairs, 'The Default Power,' just as I cruised past the central point in reading Shelby Foote's 3000-page Civil War history. Joffe makes a lot of legitimate points in predicting that the United States will remain a default hyperpower for decades to come, despite a financial collapse and the rise of Asia. Where I have a problem is when Joffe chides the European Union for losing its "warrior culture," which the U.S. and even the U.K. maintain in spades, according to Joffe. Of course, he's right. And of course, making the argument that the warrior culture should be purged by degrees seems to play right into the school of Cassandras who warn that an empire is doomed when it "goes soft" - it stops propping up its warriors and seeking the expansion of its own territory, in favor of those wimpy activities like diplomacy.

I was mulling just these sort of cultural images in absorbing Foote. His Civil War: A Narrative History is as much a classic as Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet it is troubling because of the baggage Foote brings to the table. I first became aware of said baggage when he was interviewed shortly after Ken Burns' TV series came out. Foote said that even knowing what he knew now, he would, as a Southerner, have to fight with the South because "these are my people." He made these comments just when the Serbia struggles were at their height. I thought, "How cowardly, to choose allegiance based on family, clan, race, or grouping. If you know your chosen clique is wrong, you should stand up and say so. Tribal loyalties mean nothing compared to the integrity of ideals."

Foote's trilogy is a definite throwback to a previous era, both in its use of inappropriate racial stereotypes that seem inexcusably quaint for the 1960s, when it was written, and also for its use of 19th-century words like "improvement" and "vigor." The last is maddening, as we do not see the word used in histories of warfare written in the last few decades. That's because vigor, in this context, is a synonym for machismo. And it maps into the warrior culture concept Joffe is defending.

I realize that classes at West Point/Citadel/AFA are still filled with tales of honor and the warrior mystique. I have no problem with people relying on personal honor and virtue. But a good part of personal violence is tied to ideas of clan-based honor and virtue, enhanced with the machismo that passes for "vigor." And once we purge people of those group-related concepts of honor, valor, virtue, and vigor, the personal violence in society goes way down.

Islamic culture isn't there yet, which is why honor killings are still prevalent outside the Judeo-Christian realm. But it was not so long ago when duels in the U.S. and Europe were fought over honor, and victory went to the "vigorous." We don't shoot each other in honor duels any more, just as Neanderthal clubs are no longer part of daily fashion statements. Face it, the 'v' words are all tied to violence, and they all represent a lower and somewhat moronic form of conflict resolution.

I've often spoken out against standoff warfare in this blog, due to its dehumanizing nature, and the fact that you rarely see the blood from a UAV strike. But if we can point to something positive from standoff warfare, it's the degree to which it has taken the dimension of honor and virtue out of war. There has not been a true ground-based hand-to-hand conflict between armies, involving the United States, since Korea, and there have been very few such wars worldwide in the past 50 years. Since Vietnam, it's all been guerilla skirmishes and robotic warfare. There is nothing virtuous or vigorous or valorous about such notions of war, which might just lead us to conclude there is little that is worthy about war itself. But before we can move beyond war, we have to purge ourselves of the notion that virtue and honor, at least as they apply to the group rather than the individual, are still worthy concepts that serve the warrior culture. In reality, they are outmoded ideals that increase the levels of violence in society.

UAV Primer from MacGregor Eddy

I'll be visiting Creighton University in Omaha Tuesday, speaking on standoff warfare and space. MacGregor Eddy passes on this basic primer on why we need to pay attention to UAVs. Just so you know.