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Posts Tagged ‘culture

“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose”*…

 

existentialism

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, June 1977

 

Existentialism has a reputation for being angst-ridden and gloomy mostly because of its emphasis on pondering the meaninglessness of existence, but two of the best-known existentialists knew how to have fun in the face of absurdity. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre spent a lot of time partying: talking, drinking, dancing, laughing, loving and listening to music with friends, and this was an aspect of their philosophical stance on life. They weren’t just philosophers who happened to enjoy parties, either – the parties were an expression of their philosophy of seizing life, and for them there were authentic and inauthentic ways to do this…

Skye C. Cleary celebrates “Being and drunkenness: how to party like an existentialist.”

* Jean-Paul Sartre

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As we raise a glass, we might send provocative birthday greetings to Jean Baudrillard; he was born on this date in 1929.  A sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer, he is best known for his analyses of media, contemporary culture, and technological communication, as well as his formulation of concepts such as simulation and hyperreality.  He wrote widely– touching subjects including consumerism, gender relations, economics, social history, art, Western foreign policy, and popular culture– and is perhaps best known for Simulacra and Simulation (1981).  Part of a generation of French thinkers that included Roland, Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, with all of whom Baudrillard shared an interest in semiotics, he is often seen as a central to the post-structuralist philosophical school… which offered a response to nihilism complementary to that offered by the existentialists.

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“Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality”*…

 

People walk past the Egyptian Theatre along Main Street before the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City

 

It is often said that art feeds the soul. But culture and the arts also fuel the economy directly: The arts contribute more than $800 billion a year to U.S. economic output, amounting to more than 4 percent of GDP.

That figure is based on detailed data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the Department of Commerce) and the National Endowment for the Arts, summarized in a report released earlier this month.The report tracks the aggregate performance of 35 key arts-and-culture fields, including broadcasting, movies, streaming, publishing, the performing arts, arts-related retail, and more…

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The contribution of culture and art to the U.S. economy is bigger than the economic output of Sweden or Switzerland; learn more at “The Economic Power of American Arts and Culture.”

* John Ruskin

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As we see to our souls, we might spare a pining thought for Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca); it was on this date in 1327, after he’d given up his vocation as a priest, that he first set eyes on “Laura” in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon– an encounter that awoke in him a passion that spawned the 366 poems in Il Canzoniere (“Song Book”).

Considered by many to have been “the Father of Humanism,” and reputed to have coined the term “Renaissance,” Petrarch was most famous in his time for his paeans to his idealized lover (who was, many scholars believe, Laura de Noves, the wife of Hugues de Sade).  But Petrarch’s more fundamental and lasting contribution to culture came via Pietro Bembo who created the model for the modern Italian language in the 16th century largely based on the works of Petrarch (and to a lesser degree, those of Dante and Boccaccio).

Laura de Noves died on this date in 1348.

Lura de Noves

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Petrarch

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Written by LW

April 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“ALLIGATOR, n. The crocodile of America, superior in every detail to the crocodile of the effete monarchies of the Old World”*…

 

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Lunch at the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles

 

Judging by the popularity of the Jurassic Park franchise—five feature films, with a sixth blockbuster scheduled for 2021, three “Lego” Jurassic Park shorts, various theme-park attractions, some forty-six theme-related video games, even a Jurassic Park Crunch Yogurt—dinosaurs (once the province of paleontologists and children) have had a stranglehold on our collective imagination for more than a quarter century. Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel sold more than nine million copies; three years later, the first mega-film, directed by Steven Spielberg, became the second highest-grossing film of all time, earning over $1 billion worldwide.

Though less enormous, less voracious, and lacking dramatic soundtracks to pave their entrances and exits, formidable flesh-and-blood, non-animatronic prehistorics do actually walk among us.

Alligators have been around for some 200 million years, which is 135 million years longer than their dino contemporaries. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that that extraordinary longevity was threatened. Pretty impressive, given all the environmental changes that have ensued in the interim, and the fact that their brains are about the size of a walnut…

Biologically, Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, caimans, gharials) are closer to birds, dinosaurs to snakes and lizards, but they share a common ancestry. Fossils reveal that back in the day, some alligators grew to nearly forty feet in length, weighing in at 8.5 tons. Simply put, Crocodilia are the closest living examples of the Jurassic’s ancient denizens.

“Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together,” notes Jeff Goldblum’s character, Alan Grant, in the 1993 film. “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

In the case of their alligator cousins, it wasn’t just suddenly. Throughout the American south, they’ve always been pretty much unavoidable.

On the big screen, our relationship to Crichton’s creatures is set and predictable. We enjoy the terror they inspire from the dark safety of our upholstered seats. Alligators, in cinema, have always been as dependable in their villainy as Nazis. What better way to dispose of pesky early Christians or enemy Russian spies?

In the real world, the relationship of humans to ancient apex predators is far more complex

Hermes handbags, roadside attractions, carwash poachers, mail-order pets, “The Florida Smile”– B. Alexandra Szerlip on the contradictory dance between gators and men: “21st Century Prehistoric.”

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ruminate on the reptilian, we might spare a thought for Warder Clyde Allee; he died on this date in 1955.  A zoologist and ecologist who researched the social behavior, aggregations, and distribution of both land and sea animals, he discovered that cooperation is both beneficial and essential in nature. The “Allee effect,” as it came to be known, describes the positive correlation between population density and individual fitness of a population or species.  While his findings are in tension with those of another  another ecologist, George C. Williams who stressed the importance of individual selection, Allee’s emphasis on groups and cooperation remains influential.

90px-Warder_Clyde_Allee source

 

Written by LW

March 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Status is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world”*…

 

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of little fortune, must be in want of more social capital.”

So wrote Jane Austen, or she would have, I think, if she were chronicling our current age (instead we have Taylor Lorenz, and thank goodness for that).

Let’s begin with two principles:

  • People are status-seeking monkeys*
  • People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them, yet I seldom see social networks, some of the largest and fastest-growing companies in the history of the world, analyzed on the dimension of status or social capital.

It’s in part a measurement issue. Numbers lend an air of legitimacy and credibility. We have longstanding ways to denominate and measure financial capital and its flows. Entire websites, sections of newspapers, and a ton of institutions report with precision on the prices and movements of money.

We have no such methods for measuring the values and movement of social capital, at least not with anywhere near the accuracy or precision. The body of research feels both broad and yet meager. If we had better measures besides user counts, this piece and many others would be full of charts and graphs that added a sense of intellectual heft to the analysis. There would be some annual presentation called the State of Social akin to Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, or perhaps it would be a fifty page sub-section of her annual report.

Despite this, most of the social media networks we study generate much more social capital than actual financial capital, especially in their early stages; almost all such companies have internalized one of the popular truisms of Silicon Valley, that in the early days, companies should postpone revenue generation in favor of rapid network scaling. Social capital has much to say about why social networks lose heat, stall out, and sometimes disappear altogether. And, while we may not be able to quantify social capital, as highly attuned social creatures, we can feel it.

Social capital is, in many ways, a leading indicator of financial capital, and so its nature bears greater scrutiny. Not only is it good investment or business practice, but analyzing social capital dynamics can help to explain all sorts of online behavior that would otherwise seem irrational.

In the past few years, much progress has been made analyzing Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Not as much has been made on social networks. Analysis of social networks still strikes me as being like economic growth theory long before Paul Romer’s paper on endogenous technological change. However, we can start to demystify social networks if we also think of them as SaaS businesses, but instead of software, they provide status. This post is a deep dive into what I refer to as Status as a Service (StaaS) businesses…

Eugene Wei (of Amazon, Hulu, and Flipboard, among other tech successes) on the implications of our hunger for recognition and rank: “Status as a Service (StaaS).”

Pair with: “Understanding Tradeoffs (pt. 2): Breaking the Altruism vs. Capitalism Dichotomy.”

[Image above: source]

* Buddha [Ittha Sutta, AN 5.43]

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As we contemplate our craving, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that a method for manufacturing elastic (rubber) bands was patented in Britain by Stephen Perry and and Thomas Barnabas Daft of London (G.B. No. 13880/1845).

In the early 19th century, sailors had brought home items made by Central and South American natives from the sap of rubber trees, including footwear, garments and bottles.  Around 1820, a Londoner named Thomas Hancock sliced up one of the bottles to create garters and waistbands. By 1843, he had secured patent rights from Charles Macintosh for vulcanized India rubber.  (Vulcanization made rubber stable and retain its elasticity.)  Stephen Perry, owner of Messrs Perry and Co,. patented the use of India rubber for use as springs in bands, belts, etc., and (with Daft) also the manufacture of elastic bands by slicing suitable sizes of vulcanized India rubber tube.  The bands were lightly scented to mask the smell of the treated rubber.

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Written by LW

March 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We communicate through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture”*…

 

consistent-doodles

 

While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them…

A painstaking investigation of Europe’s cave art has revealed 32 shapes and lines that crop up again and again and could be the world’s oldest code– its ur-language: “Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System.”

* Richard Clar

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As we honor ancestral accomplishment, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae; he was born on this date in 1821.  An archaeologist and historian, and the second director of the National Museum of Denmark, he played a key role in the foundation of scientific archaeology.

Worsaae was the first to excavate and use stratigraphy to prove C. J. Thomsen’s sequence of the Three-age system: Stone, Bronze, Iron.  He was a pioneer in the development of paleobotany through his excavation work in the peat bogs of Jutland. And he contributed to the discussion of the origins of human populations around the world.  He proposed a route by which prehistoric people spread from Africa, through Asia, across the Bering Strait to the Americas, and from South America to Australia and the South Sea islands.  (Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition a century later [see here and here] proved the latter voyage to be possible.)  He suggested that Europe was populated later, with Scandinavia one of the last areas to be reached by humankind.

220px-Jens_Jacob_Asmussen_Worsaae_from_Familj-Journalen1885 source

 

Written by LW

March 14, 2019 at 12:01 am

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit”*…

 

Barnum

 

“Business is the ordinary means of living for nearly all of us,” P.T. Barnum wrote in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages. “ ‘There’s cheating in all trades but ours,’ is the prompt reply from the bootmaker with his brown paper soles, the grocer with his floury sugar and chicoried coffee…the newspaper man with his ‘immense circulation,’ the publisher with his ‘Great American Novel,’ the city auctioneer with his ‘Pictures by the Old Masters’—all and everyone protest each his own innocence, and warn you against the deceits of the rest.”

But…

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body—sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, shortsighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others—it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible—let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule—leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness—it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as a turkey buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually slanders his father and dishonors his mother, and defiles the sanctities of home, and the glory of patriotism, and the merchant’s honor, and the martyr’s grave, and the saint’s crown—who does not even know that every sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue—I pronounce him—no, I do not pronounce him a humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool…

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, “The Great American Humbug.”

* Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit

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As we honor honesty, we might send licentious birthday greetings to Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac; he was born on this date in 1619.  While he was a bold and innovative author in the 17th century libertine literary tradition, he is better remembered as the title character he inspired in Edmond Rostand’s noted drama Cyrano de Bergerac, which, although it includes elements of the real Cyrano’s life, is larded with invention and myth.

Cyrano was possessed of a prodigious proboscis, over which he is said to have fought more than 1,000 duels.  Surely as importantly, his writings, which mixed science and romance, influenced Jonathan Swift, Edgar Alan Poe, Voltaire– and Moliere, who “borrowed freely” from Cyrano’s 1654 comedy Le Pédant joué (The Pedant Tricked).

220px-Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac source

 

Written by LW

March 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Social rank has always been one of the pricier commodities sold in the great American department store”*…

 

Gilded Age Ball

As the Gilded Age began, a new social format was being created that would give shape and structure to the fashionable world for the next few decades — and launch those daughters of the newly rich, the real-life ‘buccaneers’, across the Atlantic. At the heart of the stratagem designed to create what would become known variously as ‘Society’ and the ‘Four Hun­dred’ was one man, a Southerner named Ward McAllister. … Even in an age of social striving, he was known as a snob.

Connected by birth to some of the old New York families, in 1852 he had married an heiress and a few years later had settled in Newport, where his style of entertaining soon began to be copied. … He had … travelled extensively in Europe, where he soaked up everything he could about court and aristocratic customs. On his return to America he determined to become the self-appointed arbiter of its society and the customs it should follow.

He had already been successful in shaping the society of New­port. Now, he decided, it was time to tackle the one city in America pre-eminent in wealth, drawing power, sophistication and general glitter: New York. A man might have made a fortune by planting a Midwest prairie with wheat — but it was to New York that his wife, avid to spend this new wealth, now insisted they move.

“McAllister’s cleverness lay in realising that the newly rich were there to stay; more and more millionaires appeared each year and the relentless tide of wealth would soon flood the passive Knickerbockers completely — unless something were done about it (not for nothing were these newcomers known as ‘the Bounc­ers’). He also recognised that any society had to have a leader, whom everyone would accept without question — if not, it would degenerate into a formless mass riven by bitter internal struggles.

There was only one person fit for this position and she, al­though beleaguered by the strivings of ‘Bouncer money’, as parvenu wealth was called, already occupied it. Caroline Astor would continue to be the queen.

He decided to use the most desirable members of both old and new as the foundation stones of the new order. To select these, he formed a small committee (‘there is one rule in life I invariably carry out — never to rely wholly on my own judgment’); a little band that met every day for a month or two at McAllister’s house, making lists, adding, whittling down, forming judgements.

Eventually, twenty-five men, all wealthy, some from old fam­ilies, some from the new rich but all considered to be men of integrity, were chosen and invited to become ‘Patriarchs’, as they would in future be known. They would give two and sometimes three balls a season, as exquisite as possible, with each Patri­arch in return for his subscription of $125 having the right to invite to each ball four ladies and five gentlemen, this number to include himself and his family; all distinguished strangers (up to the number of fifty) would also be asked, their names to be run past McAllister. Everyone asked to be a Patriarch accepted immediately.

As McAllister had rightly foreseen, the exclusiveness of these balls was what gave them their magnetic power. ‘We knew … that the whole secret of the success of these Patriarch Balls lay in making them select … in making it extremely difficult to obtain an invitation to them, and to make such invitations of great value [so that] one might be sure that anyone repeatedly invited to them had a secure social position.’

“The first of the balls was given in the winter of 1872. With them, McAllister achieved absolute social power.

Applications to be made a Patriarch poured in, the great ma­jority turned down but often with the door left tantalizingly ajar.

The invention of the “Four Hundred,” the preeminent members of New York society in the Gilded Age: via Delanceyplace.com, an excerpt from Anne de Courcy’s The Husband Hunters.

[image above: source]

* “Social rank has always been one of the pricier commodities sold in the great American department store, and the ceaseless revision of what constitutes society gives rise to the great American comedy that has been playing continuous performances since the beginning of the Republic. As one generation of parvenu rich acquires the means to buy the patents of nobility, it looks down upon the next generation of arrivistes as clubfooted upstarts.” — Lewis Lapham

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As we recall that there have been lots of ways to “come out” over the years, we might spare a thought for three women whose public introduction to society was about as horrific as can be imagined: it was on this date in 1692 that  Sarah GoodSarah Osborne, and Tituba are brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts, beginning what would become known as the Salem witch trials.

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Written by LW

March 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

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