Archive Page 2

What is money?

I was talking recently about the illusory reality of ideas, thoughts, beliefs… basically all non physical things. I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that paper money is a good example of this idea.

For example, think of a bag filled with hundreds of 20 dollar bills. People would lust for such a bag, in some cases people might kill for it. But in terms of the materials of such a pile of cash, it’s just some paper and ink – not much different from a pile of Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets. Why does money have this perception of value?

Well, obviously that’s a complex question… too complex to really get into here. We humans have agreed on the concept of money and that it can be used to purchase things and people’s efforts. But there’s something a little disquieting about providing a good or service and only getting some pieces of paper in return. Of course, in civilized society we are fairly confident that the value of our paper will be respected by others; we have faith that its value will be enforced by law.

Money is real in a material sense (the paper exists), but the value is unreal – it’s dependent on people agreeing on it. You could call it a cultural construct. To use my example from before, if everyone on earth died, the value of money would disappear.

Art is also a good example. When Picasso painted his first painting at a professional skill level it probably wasn’t worth much—he was an unknown loser (I think; I don’t know much about his history.) But somehow, 60+ years later that same painting is worth millions. Why? The materials (paper and dried paint) certainly didn’t change, they didn’t become any rarer in the world (probably the opposite happened.) What happened is everyone decided that Picasso was a genius and cubist paintings became a desired style etc. That value of paintings is in the ideas, not the material.

Weird.

Maybe salespeople are on to something

Freddie Deboer had a interesting post recently titled “Pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything.” His point—a rather obvious one—is that trying to convince people that they are wrong by talking down to them and treating them like shit will probably have the opposite effect. (This has been been affirmed in various studies that claim to measure such things.) As Deboer states…

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

It’s worth checking out the white privilege comic to get a feel for what Deboer is talking about.

I always had an embattled relationship with liberalism because of this sort of thing. While I agree with at least some of liberalism’s ideas, I find the attitude of so many of its proponents to be completely off-putting. This is partly because I came into political awareness while living in Olympia, Washington and Seattle—two enclaves I think even moderate liberals would agree are stifling in their progressive orthodoxy.

But what is it precisely that bugs me about this kind of “fucking educate yourselves” argumentation? I think one hears it and suspects that the person making the point is being disingenuous. Take the cartoonist described in DeBoer’s post. Is their point really that they want to make the world a better place by eliminating inequality, or is it that they want to buffer their self image and serve the needs of their ego by saying, “Look at me! Look how wonderfully progressive and right-minded I am!”?

Well, that’s really an impossible question to answer since I’m not a mind reader, and, frankly, I’m arguing that this cartoonist is not even themselves aware of their real intent. We really have no way of knowing another person’s intent (though I think we can take some reasonable guesses). But I will note this: there is a class of people who really are focused on getting people to do something. These people are called salespeople, and usually they are trying to get you to buy something. And they are almost never pedantic or assholes, if fact, they usually bend over backwards to be nice. They try to appear as your friend. (Sometimes they try to dissuade your dubiousness to the idea that they are your friend by explaining their self interest in what they are presenting as a win-win. “I’m not going to lie to you, Bob, I’ll get a healthy commission if you buy this car. But I honestly think you will look great driving off in it too.”)

Is my point that liberals (or anyone seeking to cause political change) should be a lot more like salespeople? Well, sort of. At least I think folks find people who don’t seem indentured to their own egos as more convincing than those who are.

Interestingly, I stumbled on a web post just the other day that touched on this point. It was titled, “You’re Wrong And I Can Help You.

The reason that I no longer want to act like I think I’m better/smarter than others is because I think it’s damaging my relationships. Previously, I’ve written about Power and Intimacy. I talk about how in relationships, power and intimacy are opposite: treating someone else (whether it’s a friendship, family, a partner, a colleague) as though you know better than them, distances you.

So even if you’re the smartest person you have met, or more insightful or more loving – whatever it is that makes you better than others – if you act on it while deep down thinking “you’re wrong and listening to me will help you,” think twice.

Rethinking The Fountainhead

A while back there was an interesting blog post on Andrew Sullivan’s site (written by a guest writer) tying Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead in to the issues surrounding the hacking of the Sony Corporation. Rand’s writing is, of course, often lauded by libertarian free market types. This post had a different take… (Warning: Major Spoiler Alert about The Fountainhead.)

The problem of willingly selling out to the Chinese reminded me of Ayn Rand, whose bracing moral lessons I’m sure Freddie had in the back of his mind. Rand’s finest novel,The Fountainhead, is an anti-capitalist screed about the spiritual and cultural evil of catering to market demand. Forget the problem of giving the commie censors what they want. It’s wrong to give the free market what it wants, when what it wants is aesthetically debased, which it always is. The architect hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is the ultimate in spine, the patron saint of never selling out. When one of his perfect, austere modernist buildings is bowdlerized the better to suit the public taste, he blows it up. That’s right, Howard Roark is a terrorist, a jihadi for artistic integrity.

This is the first time in writing I’ve ever seen someone wrestle with what I always found confounding about the novel. When I read the book, I was struck by how anti-libertarian Roark’s actions seems; he shows no respect for property rights when he blows up the building. I assumed it was a kind of glitch in the philosophy of the book but it could be that it is the philosophy of the book. It does, at least, present the trait I’ve always liked about Rand: love her or hate her she clearly did not give a shit what anyone else thought, so much so that she present a character who is essentially a terrorist as a hero. (I believe I’m correct that no one is actually killed when the building is destroyed as he does it late at night.)

Is the Internet not God’s gift to discourse?

Lately I’ve been musing on the the popular practice of promoting interesting online articles by offering a link and some select paragraph sized chunks. I have been as guilty of this as anyone.

The problem, I feel, is that it lets people just read the segmented chunks and not the whole piece and feel like they “got” the article. But that’s often not the case—many articles are a whole greater than the sum of their parts and you have to read the whole thing.

Anyway, I found this piece on the way the internet has fractured our culture to be quite worth reading. I’m going to offer nothing more than the link.

The return of the auteur?

As you probably already know: Sony Pulls the Plug on Dec. 25 Release of ‘The Interview’ After Threats

As major movie chains moved to pull “The Interview” from their holiday lineups after threats from the Sony Corp. hackers, Sony has decided to shelve the film.

“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film ‘The Interview,’ we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” the company said in a statement. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”

Freddie De Boer also notes:

There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax.

I’ve complained about the fact that much of modern cinema seems toothless and feels as if it was neutered by committee style writing. I also think it’s very hard to be an auteur style filmmaker (or musician or comic artist) because audiences are used to high production values. A filmmaker in the 1970s who had a great or at least provocative idea for a story (think Abel Ferrera or Doris Wishman) could collect a meager budget, make the film and earn some some small success, usually as a step towards a greater career. Viewers were more forgiving of cheap special effects because even the big players didn’t have particularly awesome effects. (Think about how fundamentally cheesy the creatures in Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins looked.) But once we entered the era of massive CGI it was hard to make a decent action or sci-fi orientated film without being compared to the Transformers or Planet of the Apes reboots (the latter of which I think have some great stories.)

I think this idea that blockbuster movie companies are running scared from internet terrorists and the Chinese censors may be a great thing for cheap, auteur storytelling. If the big players are too afraid to create stories that take chances, then poor (in money, not talent) writers, filmmakers and comic creators have a void they can fill. And there’s a hunger for that kind of storytelling.

Can quantity make up for lack of quality?

There’s an old Bill Hicks joke:

“It’s hard to have a relationship in this business…it’s gonna take a very special woman…or a bunch of average ones.”

I was reminded of this while I was reading through a book on ebook publishing. The book made the claim that even if the market was flooded with free ebooks, excellent ebooks would always sell because quality will always sell. Ten mediocre books do not equal a great book.

Is this true? It seems to make sense. Certainly I would like it to be true. But I also have a nagging sense that when I occasionally do hear about an exceptional product for, say 10 bucks, there’s a little voice that says, “eh, you’ve got plenty to read/listen to/eat etc. that’s free.” It’s not that uncommon, especially when you’re broke, to trade in the proverbial special woman for a bunch of average ones.

The Danny Kay/Kramer Connection

I watched “White Christmas” for the first time last night and was struck by how much Danny Kaye’s character reminded me of Michael Richard’s portray of Kramer on TV’s “Seinfeld.” I was so struck by the similarities I looked online to see if there was any discussion of this. In fact, it’s right there in the wiki article for Kramer which states…

It is interesting to note that many of his mannerisms resemble those of Danny Kaye’s character in “White Christmas” though it has never been mentioned as an inspiration for Richards’s characterization of Kramer.

But that’s not all. Over at this yahoo page an observer notes:

Danny Kaye died shortly after appearing on The Cosby Show, in 1986.
Kramer (Michael Richards) died horribly (career) after making racial comments at The Laugh Factory, on the, “Cosby Stage”, in 2006. Exactly 20 years to the day.

Coincidence?

It’s clear that the Danny Kaye/Kramer connection exposes the machinations of a secret society that has been controlling world governments since time immemorial!

And I like this gal’s spin on things.

It’s amazing how much Danny Kaye looks like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards. Perhaps Richards should star in a remake of “White Christmas”? After the “N” word incident, it would give the title a whole new meaning.

What if everyone died?

There’s a particular conundrum I’ve been musing over but it’s hard to capture it in words. I guess I would say it comes down to this question: what is real?

For example, I’m sitting here at Starbucks. Is this Starbucks real? Well, I think the physical materials of the Starbucks are real; I think the wood of the table I’m writing on breaks down to molecules that are real, and from there to atoms, and presumably from there to quantum particles etc. I think those are all real physical elements (though I think there are some schools of philosophy and quantum theory that might dicker with even that seemingly obvious point of view. Let’s ignore them for now.)

What about the idea of Starbucks? The concept of Starbucks as an enjoyable coffee bistro, a place that welcomes both happy hipsters and urban professionals, a place that plays eclectic but inoffensive music, a locale with great coffee and astoundingly bland food… is that real? Obviously when I say, “I’m going to Starbucks,” no one questions its reality, but this idea of Starbucks is not really real in the same sense of the physical materials that make up an individual Starbucks store.

So how do we define reality? Let me approach this a little differently. What if everyone on earth died? What would be left? I think the Starbucks I am at would still be around (for a while) but the idea of it would be gone. In fact, all ideas would be gone. There would be no more communism, sexuality, chaos theory, social justice, individual rights, copyright protection, evolution and on and on. All ideas would be gone. We would just have stuff and time.

(I haven’t really said whether or not all animals or even all life on earth are gone with humanity in this scenario so maybe some of these ideas would survive in the minds of animals but, again, let’s ignore those issues.)

This unreality of ideas seems pretty obvious. However, most of the joys and miseries throughout history and the modern world are derived from these unreal ideas. For example, I was a big fan of Spider-Man as a kid. The sight of his red and blue costume excited me. But Spider-Man is not real. The Spider-Man comics are real, in so much as they are created from real materials (paper, ink etc.) but the idea of Spider-Man is completely held within the minds of humans.

I love music but, Jesus, what could be less real… sound waves in the air that create certain psychological perceptions when experienced by the human brain?

In some sense, a weight lifts off your shoulders when you realize this. None of the bullshit people are constantly yammering about – politics, culture, art theory, sex games, gender wars etc. – really exists. These are simply the ideas mankind has constructed and agreed to bicker over. If we are all wiped out by a radioactive space comet, these ideas will fade away… well, that’s not really correct; they can’t fade away because they were never there in the first place. Let’s put it this way: their impermanence will be revealed.

And yet these things, these ideas, actually feel more real, or at least more meaningful, than what actually is real (materials and time.) Again, these ideas are what provide most peoples’ joys and pains.

Even the idea I’m touting here, that ideas are not real, is not really real.

Ain’t that a motherfucker?

On nudity

I’m the first to admit things are pretty slow around here, mainly as I am assaulted with the problems of life. I did want to note this amusing quote from Shelly Winters on the topic of onstage nudity.

“I think it is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were twenty-two with a great body it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive, religious experience.”

Can learning be fun?

I’ve longed complained about modern education and I’m far from alone. Most people look back on their years of institutionalized learning (in schools, universities, private lessons etc.) as being unpleasant.

But I’m a great fan of learning. I love reading books, consuming knowledge etc. This opens up an interesting question. Why is “education” so painful and “learning” so fun?

I stumbled across an interesting site on teaching guitar and the author has several articles on learning theory. In one he gets tackles this general issue.

It may seem odd then that in the mind of many individuals, the idea of learning has quite negative associations. This springs from two main sources: Parenting and Schooling.

The word ‘learn’ is often used in anger and frustration by parents:

“When will you ever learn / Why can’t you learn / You’d better start learning…
… to behave/ to do as you’re told/ to be sensible/ to sit still/ to be quiet”
…etc. etc. This introduces, from an early age, the idea that learning has an element of duress attached to it.

When your child comes home from school complaining of boredom – it is not learning that has bored him – remember: “Learning opens doors, widens horizons, adds colour to our experience, makes life more interesting.” Rather it is a lack of learning brought about by the less than ideal conditions that modern education systems attempt to operate under.

Although improvements are continually being made to education there remains the basic set of problems that spring from the financial and logistical restraints placed upon schools where typically, one teacher is charged with the task of causing learning to occur in as many as 30 children simultaneously, often in subjects they have little or no natural interest in.

Unfortunately it gets worse. The whole subject of teaching gets mixed in with the subject of control and, where teachers feel particularly vulnerable, outright subjugation.

Both points strike me as spot on. I think part of the problem with education is that it tries to invoke learning when it’s simply not desired. Some kid is digesting a big lunch while dreaming about the girl he has a crush on and he then walks into a class and is supposed to care about the table of elements. Not gonna happen.

Of course, one might argue that the solution is to give kids more control over when they learn. Don’t make them enter their biology class until they’re ready. But with kids being the impetuous and lazy bastards that they are, that method probably wouldn’t work either. Perhaps there’s some middle ground?