It Was A Small World After All

I don’t know how you’re spending your airplane time lately — maybe you’ve arranged your life in some eminently sane manner that doesn’t require periodic four-hour stints spent breathing other peoples’ fecal particles and noroviruses in a 25-year-old metal tube indifferently steered by a recent graduate of low-cost simulator training — but I’m spending mine reading Godel, Escher Bach for the fourth and, I hope, final time. It’s not an entirely voluntary re-perusal. My son is crawling through The Turing Omnibus and “GEB” is the logical next step after that. He will want to discuss it. I will need to be prepared.

Much of this book concerns the mechanism by which we might construct “consciousness loops”, at least in a mathematical sense. As they currently exist, computers are awfully powerful but they have no ability to “step outside” their processing loop and examine themselves. We can nest levels within levels, and indeed that’s our current moronic H1-B-centric computing paradigm of Docker-inside-Kubernetes-inside-VMWare and so on, but none of these levels have the ability to “think” about themselves. That’s the beginning of consciousness. A computer (or a dog, or a monkey) can run a program and exhibit all sorts of fascinating behaviors, but at no point can it stop and ask itself “Why am I doing this?” To our knowledge, human beings are the only devices in the universe with the ability to consider themselves in the abstract. Dolphins, maybe. I wouldn’t bet on that.

It’s a neat trick, but only if we use it. Any time you find yourself explaining your past actions to an employer, spouse, or officer of the law with “I don’t know why I did that,” what you really mean is that you didn’t take a moment to be conscious, to examine your behaviors and motivations from a distance. In those unexamined moments, you were no better than a chimpanzee and considerably worse than, say, an array of Core i7 processors operating in parallel. It is never wasted time to pause what you are doing and use that uniquely human faculty of consciousness to evaluate your actions from a third-party perspective.

Perhaps that explains why I found myself wheedling a “FastPass+” for Space Mountain out of a bored foreign national with a journeyman’s command of the King’s English on Martin Luther King Day — or perhaps it does not. As you’ll see, however, applying a bit of human consciousness to Disneyworld raises more questions than it answers.

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Where The Boys Aren’t

When I die, it might be said of me that I was a bad uncle.

Not a creepy uncle, or a dangerous one, mind you. Just one who is occasionally derelict in his duty towards his niece. I like to make plans for my son and Bark’s son — plans for indoor karting, NERF(tm) guns, trips to South Carolina. Whenever I do this, Bark reminds me that he has two children. “You always forget about your niece,” he chides.

He’s wrong. I’m not forgetting about her; I simply think that she doesn’t need my help or involvement in any significant amount. She’s a talented young woman with a long list of accomplishments, outstanding bone structure, and a family history of staying thin. This is THE_CURRENT_YEAR and the deck is stacked in her favor.

I’m not so sure the same is true for our sons. Over the past decade I’ve gotten the impression that young American men are increasingly under fire, so to speak — that’s a metaphor, although it’s literally true for many of our least fortunate young men who see the armed forces as a way to escape what increasingly looks like a planned economic hollowing-out of our rural counties. The above chart, which has been circulating a bit on Twitter with no substantive refutation of its statistics, only serves to reinforce my concern. (You can see the original, and click through for references, here.)

This is what I want you to do.

0. Read the chart quickly;
1. Then consider your most immediate reaction to it.

Is that reaction some mixture of shame and annoyance? Do you feel a small (or significant) measure of contempt for the type of person who would even bother to create such a thing? When you hear the phrase “a war on boys”, is your first response to express your disappointment with, or contempt for, the sort of person who uses that phrase? If you’re like most of our male readers, I bet you have at least some of these reactions.

Would you like to know why? And would you like to know why it’s critical that you change your response?

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KidLit, Capeshit, America As A Private NYC Preschool, And The Boy Who Won’t Be The Best At Anything

It appears that each generation of vaguely literate upper-middle-class Americans must find a particular genre of writing and clutch that tightly to its collective breast. The Lost Generation had their dissipated tales of ennui from Hemingway and Mr. Zelda Fitzgerald, the Greatest loved their massive trash novels (think Thorn Birds). The Boomers read Updike and Jong with (mastur)bated breath, and their younger siblings luxuriated in the privileged sense of wokeness conferred by suffering through an entire rambling Novel Of Blackness by the likes of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker.

Generation X has something unique — the upscale-parenting screed. This is something genuinely new, and like “trap music” it was nowhere until the moment it was everywhere. It litters the pages of the Atlantic and New Yorker the same way Tom Wolfe used to bully his way through the fiction section of every respectable East Coast magazine. The alpha example of this is “When The Culture War Comes For Your Kids,” a recent Atlantic piece skewered by Steve Sailer at Unz Review. Written by a National Book Award winner, the article bemoans the misery of finding out that your child can’t make the cut for a private preschool because at the age of two, his sense of visual ideation was already far behind the curve of other, more promising, two-year-olds. Later on, the author realizes that it will cost $1.5M to send his child through a NYC private primary and secondary education, leading him to whine preciously about schools filled with the progeny of “finance people” rather than the children of “orchestra conductors”.

The alternative to playing this brutal, and brutally expensive, game? Why, it’s horrifying:

When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates—and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling.

This single sentence should obliterate any vestigial feel-good beliefs you might have that the elites give any kind of shit about heartland or heritage America. They know how bad it is down here on the ground: the opioids, the joblessness, the PTSD from our endless foreign adventures, the hollowing-out of everything beyond the city limits of twenty white-hot real-estate markets. They know how bad it is — and their primary concern is to ensure that their children never see or touch it.

Despite Packer’s undoubted competence as a writer, he is too close to this particular forest to see anything besides the privileged and individual trees. He accurately describes the hellscape of American meritocracy while failing, tactfully or otherwise, to mention the glaringly obvious reason for its creation, to wit: we now have an unlimited supply of rich people, successful people… scratch that. There is now an unlimited supply of people, period. And it will only get worse. Much worse.

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You Can’t Play With My (Weight-Related) Yo-Yo

For the past eight years, when it comes to exercise and health, I’ve only had two modes—all in, or all out. I have either worked out six days a week and watched my diet with the intensity of a thousand suns, or I’ve sat on the couch and consumed four Cokes a day. As a result, my weight has tended to have massive amounts of fluctuation. I scrape the bottom of 5’9″ on a good day, and when I’m super healthy, I weigh around 160. When I’m not, I weigh around 195.

Three months ago, I was right at that 195 number, literally fat and happy. I had a wonderful job, healthy and content children, finances under control. And then I lost my job. Having that life changing moment made me analyze a great many things about myself. I may have been fat, but I wasn’t happy at all. When I’m overweight, I don’t feel good about myself. I shy away from having my photo taken. I wear loose-fitting clothes. I make a ton of excuses about why I can’t be healthy, but I know that they’re all lies.

Thankfully, I landed on my feet, but I decided to use that massive change in my life to enact another massive change—I started another round of P90X3. New job, new life, new Bark, you know?

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Shiny Happy Prole People And YouTube As A One-Way Mirror

It’s the academic megatrend of our time: applying quasi-sophisticated analytical and rhetorical flourishes to trash culture. I couldn’t tell you how or where it started, although the “Shakespeare In Film” courses which popped up mushroom-like in English departments across the country during the Eighties and Nineties probably acted as some sort of gateway drug. Today’s universities have absorbed that rush and now provide the mainline hit of seriously discussing Anime As Global Popular Culture or getting a Harvard Law degree by thoroughly, ahem, “investigating” pornography.

These courses, which offer the sheen of intellectual discourse without the substance of cultural literacy, are so popular that they have begun to affect way we evaluate and criticize human endeavors outside the university. The best example of this is the webzine Pitchfork, which treats the latest productions by Arctic Monkeys, Fleet Foxes, or other musical animals with the same level of rhetorical rigor once reserved for Chaucer or Titian. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that Liz Phair’s spectacularly mis-conceived eponymous album did not, in fact, deserve an ass-beating just as pretentious as the album itself was vile, because it did. Nor am I going to make the claim that criticism has always restricted itself to the finer things in life. Chaucer wrote a whole story about analingus way before it became Gen-Z first-date protocol. As for Shakespeare, I have one thing to say: “Villain, I have done thy mother.” Yesterday’s pop culture is today’s middle-class amusement and tomorrow’s high art. Each generation pushes the boundaries of decency, only to see that boundary pushed again and again within their lifetimes. It is only through the effort of periodic social re-engineerings, such as the one that took place in the Victorian Era, that we have avoided becoming bonobos with airplanes. We’re probably due for another one of those moral resets, which perhaps explains the fascination some Westerners have with Islam at the moment.

Pitchfork’s reviews and thought pieces can be a guilty pleasure even to people who are not familiar with the source material — which is a very good illustration of the idea that criticism competes with the text on which it is based just as much as it reflects upon it. The format reaches its apex with Pitchfork’s commentary on Father John Misty and his work; the immovable-object-irresistible-force event of a critical coterie dedicated to extracting meaning from music and an artist determined to bury every last bit of his meaning beneath a princess-pea plethora of fluffy-mattress deceptions.

Sometimes, however, Pitchfork semi-accidentally deviates into matters of relevance beyond simple pop music, which brings us to the matter of Shiny Happy Prole People.

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Fopped Up: Ellison, Voltaire, Adam Ant, And The Grunge Depp

Sunday’s post about Fancy Men generated the usual excellent commentary, some of which discussed whether the Fancy Man of today was the “fop” of yesterday. At about the same time, I had a conversation about a fellow I know who, having been a massive and undoubted success in a very difficult field, decided that he wanted to be known instead as a leader in a completely different, and much less admirable, field. This seemed like a good excuse for a quick-ish romp through the idea of foppery and why it mirrors, but does not quite envelop, the idea of the Fancy Man. We’ll make this one quick, because I have an early day tomorrow. I promise.

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The Censorship Of Fahrenheit 451

Oh, this is awkward.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, once the darling of every small-town activist librarian aghast at the idea of not making Tropic Of Cancer and Fear Of Flying mandatory reading for nine-year-olds, turns out to have had a few, ahem, controversial aspects to it. In particular, the book railed against a society where abortion is encouraged and children are shuttled off to anonymous daycare.

Don’t remember that part? That’s because you probably read the censored version.

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I Was Unemployed For An Hour And It Sucked

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My Monday, March 4th, started off like pretty much every other Monday. I had flown into Miami the night before to meet with one of my largest clients. I was proposing an additional $460,000 of annual spend, which would have made them my second-largest client overall, so I had spent the entire morning reviewing the proposal with my local sales and management team. We felt very good about the prospects of the deal, so I dialed into my weekly team meeting at 12:30 PM with a rather genial mindset.

Until I saw who was on the call, that is. In addition to my boss and my colleagues, my boss’ boss and the VP of HR were dialed in. Text messages started flying immediately between all of us.

“Something’s going down.”

“Oh, shit.”

Unfortunately, we were right. Moments after the call started, my boss’ boss gave us the words every upper-middle class worker dreads:

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

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Light, Shade, And The F Word

I don’t think James Patrick Page was the first musician to understand the power of sharp contrast in a performance; anyone who has ever heard the entire violin section of a symphony start bowing at once, after a period of silence, has experienced and understood it himself. Page’s insight, rather, was that the recording studio and home reproduction equipment had evolved to a point where what he called “light and shade” could be expressed on vinyl. The early wax cylinders of Edison didn’t have enough dynamic range for “Ramble On”, nor did the average unamplified phonograph of the immediate postwar era. Certainly a single-speaker car radio couldn’t handle it. You need “hi-fi” for a Zep album to truly work.

Incidentally, this is why “Stairway to Heaven” loses much of its punch on the radio: it’s heavily compressed by specialized equipment designed to maintain volume and, consequently, the listener’s attention.

Mr. Page was also not the last artist to understand light and shade. The sophomoric mewlings of bands like Evanescence and Limp Bizkit prove that their long-suffering producers, at least, have a grip on the subject. Modern EDM relies on it as well, as a cursory listen to “Feel So Close” by Calvin Harris will demonstrate. In fact, one could make an argument that the intellectual value of music can probably be approximated by its compression level: a Telarc classical disk would score a 9.9 and Ariana Grande would get a 0.1. If you can listen to “squeezed” music at maximum volume for more than ten minutes at a time, I fear for your humanity.

Which brings us, however awkwardly, to the matter at hand.

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Gillette Will Teach You How To Bully

“Father,” he cries, “have I missed it? Have I missed the battle?”

“You have missed the war.”

Virtually any random scene chosen from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator could be the best part of another film, but I’m particularly partial to this one. The campaign against the savage Germanic tribes has been decided in a breathtakingly bloody and confusing final battle, mostly thanks to the intellectual and physical leadership of the general Maximus. As a dying Marcus Aurelius thanks Maximus for his service, the Emperor’s son, Commodus, rides up on a white charger. He’s been riding in a luxury wagon with his sister for virtually the entire trip up to the front, of course — he’s not some common soldier, doomed to cavalryman’s steed or shanks’ mare — but for his arrival he has switched to a battle horse and a set of shiny, completely undamaged armor.

And yes, he’s missed both the battle and the war, no doubt by design.

Aurelius chides him. Later on that evening, we see Commodus practicing his swordsmanship in a pre-planned demonstration with five of his slaves. “So much,” Aurelius notes with undisguised contempt, “for the glory of Rome.” The viewer is meant to see the contrast between the general Maximus, who fights for moral purposes and who longs to return home to his family, and the cowardly but arrogant Commodus, who play-acts at glory while avoiding danger. That contrast will inform the entire film, all the way to its conclusion in the Roman Colosseum where a weakened, poisoned Maximus fights a Commodus resplendent in blinding-white armor. The real Commodus, by the way, was notorious for fighting crippled animals in the arena, and for killing his sparring partners, but he was strangled in his tub, not beaten to death in the arena. Nor did his death restore the Roman Republic. The end of Gladiator is a complete fabrication, satisfying though it may be to watch.

You might say that Commodus is an extreme example of what is now called “toxic masculinity”, being both perverse and willfully cruel. He is almost a parody of Maximus, alternately executing senators with a smile on his face and crying helplessly in the cleavage of his own sister. He has the external appearance of masculinity without its true substance, all the vices and none of the virtues. He’s even a bit of a rapist, although that is given relatively little space in the film. There’s nothing particularly unusual about the Commodus role, other than its larger-than-life portrayal by Joaquin Phoenix; the “weak, cowardly schemer” has been a stock character since the Greeks wrote their first tragedies. We just have a new label for it now.

(A brief aside: A friend of mine from the street-racing days, a smooth-faced ex-military killer with a flat affect, blank eyes, and an unsettling catlike roll to his perambulation, worked for quite some time as a bodyguard for the elite. His happiest days were spent with Joaquin Phoenix: “Dude was a legit bad-ass and never hid behind me, never started anything he wouldn’t finish himself, never said an unkind word to anyone who didn’t deserve it.” No wonder Phoenix is never completely comfortable with Hollywood.)

This past weekend, the Gillette Corporation took some time off from mis-representing their Chinese junk as real American excellence to lecture American men on “toxic masculinity” via a YouTube video. It would be an understatement to call the video “poorly received”; although the “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” meter of the video has been repeatedly reset it has been at a consistently negative ratio. Tens of thousands of negative comments have been scrubbed by hard-working bugmen at Gillette and YouTube, but neither entity is able to control the fusillade of disdain sent Gillette’s way by entities as diverse as the Chateau Heartiste and the Detroit Free Press. I’d like to take a few minutes to discuss the live-action polemic here, but as with my Audi go-kart commercial piece I’m far more interested in the subtleties of the messaging than with the general Woke Capital stupidity of the stated message.

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