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Posts Tagged ‘culture

“Time … thou ceaseless lackey to eternity”*…

 

600BC-chronus-deity

Source art: Chronos and His Child by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli

 

The human mind has long grappled with the elusive nature of time: what it is, how to record it, how it regulates life, and whether it exists as a fundamental building block of the universe…

Quanta‘s fascinating timeline traces our evolving understanding of time through a history of observations in culture, physics, timekeeping, and biology: “Arrows of Time

* Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

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As we try to Be Here Now, we might send amusingly insightful birthday greetings to Richard Philips Feynman; he was born on this date in 1918.  A theoretical physicist, Feynman was probably the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field in the post-WW II era.

Richard Feynman was a once-in-a-generation intellectual. He had no shortage of brains. (In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics.) He had charisma. (Witness this outtake [below] from his 1964 Cornell physics lectures [available in full here].) He knew how to make science and academic thought available, even entertaining, to a broader public. (We’ve highlighted two public TV programs hosted by Feynman here and here.) And he knew how to have fun. The clip above brings it all together.

– From Open Culture (where one can also find Feynman’s elegant and accessible 1.5 minute explanation of “The Key to Science.”)

 

Written by LW

May 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

 

high-cost-of-deferred-maintenance

 

The most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago. This shift in emphasis involves focusing on the constant processes of entropy and un-doing – which the media scholar Steven Jackson calls ‘broken world thinking’ – and the work we do to slow or halt them, rather than on the introduction of novel things…

We can think of labour that goes into maintenance and repair as the work of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things. Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep. This realisation has significant implications for gender relations in and around technology. Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track. Domestic labour has huge financial ramifications but largely falls outside economic accounting, like Gross Domestic Product. In her classic 1983 book, More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan examined home technologies – such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners – and how they fit into women’s ceaseless labour of domestic upkeep. One of her more famous findings was that new housekeeping technologies, which promised to save labour, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.

Nixon, wrong about so many things, also was wrong to point to household appliances as self-evident indicators of American progress. Ironically, Cowan’s work first met with scepticism among male scholars working in the history of technology, whose focus was a male pantheon of inventors: Bell, Morse, Edison, Tesla, Diesel, Shockley, and so on. A renewed focus on maintenance and repair also has implications beyond the gender politics that More Work for Mother brought to light. When they set innovation-obsession to the side, scholars can confront various kinds of low-wage labour performed by many African-Americans, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic minorities. From this perspective, recent struggles over increasing the minimum wage, including for fast food workers, can be seen as arguments for the dignity of being a maintainer…

Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer. Our increasingly unequal and fearful world would be grateful…

Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more: “Hail the maintainers.”

[image above: source]

* Kurt Vonnegut

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As we invest in infrastructure, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Jules Henri Poincaré; he was born on this date in 1854.  A mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and a philosopher of science, Poincaré is considered the “last Universalist” in math– the last mathematician to excel in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime.

Poincaré was a co-discoverer (with Einstein and Lorentz) of the special theory of relativity; he laid the foundations for the fields of topology and chaos theory; and he had a huge impact on cosmogony.  His famous “Conjecture” held that if any loop in a given three-dimensional space can be shrunk to a point, the space is equivalent to a sphere; it remained unsolved until Grigori Perelman completed a proof in 2003.

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And we might also send amusingly-phrased birthday greetings to Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein; the philospher of logic, math, language, and the mind was born on this date in 1889.

220px-35._Portrait_of_Wittgenstein source

 

 

 

“I’d ask, ‘Is this dish good enough to come downtown and wait in line for’ If not, it’s not what we’re after”*…

 

eggs

 

We’re in the middle of a global crisis of extraordinary proportions. This is a memo we started writing months ago. It was meant to be a sort of elegy to the economic and cultural cycle in which we were living, which was clearly coming to an end – the experience economy in particular. However, that cycle came to a rapid conclusion before we managed to hit publish. We’re publishing it now, knowing things are likely to get far worse in the coming days, making the reality during which it was conceived feel increasingly distant. Nonetheless, we hope it will be entertaining to you during quarantine….

We believe that umami has been both literally and figuratively the key commodity of the experience economy. Umami, as both a quality and effect of an experience, popped up primarily in settings that were on the verge of disintegration, and hinged on physical pilgrimages to evanescent meccas.

We also believe that the experience economy is dying, its key commodity (umami) has changed status, and nobody knows what’s coming next.

What do we mean by umami? Not only the meatiness of the French dip sandwich at that restaurant, but also the light as it refracted through the amber liquid of the cocktails, the reflection off the back bar, the quivering of the cake, and, most significantly, the way those elements read in a photo. Umami was the quality of the media mix or the moodboard that granted it cohesion-despite-heterogeneity…

Umami could have been anywhere, but we smacked our lips in the moment. It was liquid in the sense that it flowed from place to place, airy in the sense that it was ungrounded, and earthy in the sense that it might have been in your mouth.

“Advanced consumers” became obsessed with umami and then ran around trying to collect ever-more-intensifying experiences of it. Things were getting more and more delicious, more and more expensive, and all the while, more and more immaterial.

Umami is what you got when you didn’t get anything…

The recent historically long market expansion began with the recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis – and its inevitable end seems to have arrived via virus. Your impression of these high times might vary. You might remember the period for austerity, the Arab Spring, Trump, Brexit, Yellow Vests, the rise of the far right, rising costs of housing and health care, the student debt bubble, youth unemployment, and to top it all off, an accelerating climate crisis. But if you worked in finance, received tech compensation or VC money, or just happened to be rich in the first place, you’ve had a pretty sweet decade.

But now, amidst market turmoil and a public health crisis which much of the world – in particular the US – is fully unequipped to handle, it’s a flaming question mark whether any real growth occurred during this period, or if the high times were merely a fantasy created mainly by capital injections (or “money printing”) from central banks in the US, China, and Europe. What was actually happening was the enrichment of financial assets over the creation of any ‘real wealth’ along with corresponding illusions of progress.

As very little of this newly minted money has been invested into building new productive capacity, infrastructure, or actually new things, money has just been sloshing around in a frothy cesspool – from WeWork to Juicero to ill-advised real estate Ponzi to DTC insanity, creating a global everything-bubble.

With interest rates approaching zero, or even going negative, it simply means capital is having difficulties finding profitable places in which to invest itself. Or, to phrase it differently, those in charge of capitalist societies were failing to see worthwhile futures in which to invest. The market expansion of the past 12 years has felt like a very inappropriately timed self-congratulatory party, situated at the end of a much longer period of stagnation and decadence.

Value, in an economic sense, is theoretically created by new things based on new ideas. But when the material basis for these new things is missing or actively deteriorating and profits must be made, what is there to be done? Retreat to the immaterial and work with what already exists: meaning.

Meaning is always readily available to be repeated, remixed, and/or cannibalized in service of creating the sensation of the new.

How has this manifested? For example, by calling things that were actually old → new; mediocre → premium; bad → good; low value → high value etc. This was Premium Mediocrity. Or by taking existing meanings and mixing them into increasingly novel, bizarre and random combinations and calling them new. This was creative direction. Or by putting people into proximity with newly created meaning of dubious status, and selling it as an experience. This was festival season.

The essential mechanics are simple: it’s stating there’s a there-there when there isn’t one. And directing attention to a new “there” before anyone notices they were staring at a void. It’s the logic of gentrification, not only of the city, but also the self, culture and civilization itself.

What’s made us so gullible, and this whole process possible, was an inexhaustible appetite for umami…

Cultural umami is the vague sense that yes, for some reason, it is. ““This shouldn’t be good but it is” “this doesn’t seem like what it’s supposed to be” “I shouldn’t be here but i am” “this could be anywhere but it’s here” If you tried to unpack your intuition, the absence of the there-there would quickly become evident.

Yet in practice this didn’t matter, because few people were able to reach this kind of deep self-interrogation. The cycle was simply too fast. There was never time for these concoctions to congeal into actual new things (e.g. create the general category of K-Pop patrons for Central European arts institutions). We can’t be sure if they ever meant anything beyond seeming yummy at the time.

Let’s take an example. The luxury sector, fashion in particular, has increasingly become a key theater for umami. Throughout the history of human civilization, luxury was premised on being expensive, meaning it resulted from investing an unreasonable amount of work, material or other scarce resources into the making of a thing.

But today’s rich don’t generally wear the 2020 version of royal purple, something like parametrically fitted garments made of nanofibers embellished with synthetic mother of pearl (which might be the results of real growth). Instead, they wear $500 cotton t-shirts with inscrutable references and visual motifs pulled from a smörgås-moodboard that makes little “sense” in any generalizable way. The t-shirt’s price clearly isn’t a function of its material makeup, but rather a result of some form of manipulation of meaning associated with it. But because meaning (or its substrate information) is infinite, it can only become a luxury once it carries the illusion of scarcity.

Meanings that only a few have access to are secrets. In the absence of meaning, the illusion of a secret is created by imposing a subcultural barrier to entry where only through an opaque process of scene work can one ‘get’ it (or, if you’re unlucky: if you gotta ask you’ll never know…). Alternatively, they are wrapped in the veil of an elusive X-factor, to which only a privileged few, i.e. the creative director, have direct access.

The key referent of luxury brands used to be one thing they made really well at great cost. But today they have gentrified themselves by discarding any fixed material basis: the only referent that does any work is the price, and the wealth associated with it.

By combining the traditional symbols of wealth with a pool of meaning that was made to seem scarce but was in fact infinite, brands created the umami equivalent of free energy. Everyone wanted money and everyone wanted umami. And there was more money around than ever before. What could go wrong?…

Excerpts from a fascinating essay by Emily Segal (forecaster, writer, and former principal at the pioneering K-Hole) and Martti Kalliala (architect, musician, and designer), the partners in Nemesis; do read it in full: “The Umami Theory of Value: Autopsy of the Experience Economy.”

* chef David Chang (Momofuku, et al.) in his 2016 essay on umami

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As we contemplate consumption, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that police descended on a Clovis, NM middle school after a report of a concealed weapon (a student carrying something “long and wrapped” onto the premises).  The force posted armed shooters on nearby roof-tops and cordoned off the classrooms.

The lock-down was lifted when an eighth-grader realized that he was likely the source of alarm.  He approached the principal and explained that he was carrying a 30-inch, foil wrapped burrito, part of an extra-credit assignment to create commercial advertising. “We had to make up a product and it could have been anything. I made up a restaurant that specialized in oddly large burritos.”

20060827-School_huge_burrito_weapon_1 source

 

Written by LW

April 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I vant to eat your cereal!”*…

 

cereal-01-1320x880

Gabe Fonseca arranges some of the 200 cereal boxes, which are affixed by magnets to sheet metal and on display in his Los Angeles apartment

 

At the end of a week during which stock market meltdowns and a spreading global pandemic have most of us feeling queasier than the thought of a “cheesy mashed potato or pot roast cereal,” we could all do with an emotional palate-cleanser, a Proustian experience that takes us back to a sweeter time,  Herewith, the tale of cereal box collector Gabe Fonseca, who traveled all the way from Los Angeles to Minneapolis to visit the General Mills archives in search of his white whale, a box of Buñuelitos.  But as becomes clear, when the object of one’s obsession – breakfast cereal – has origins as a dubious cure for masturbation, things are destined to get a little odd…

The world’s most obsessive breakfast-food fans demonstrate just how far humans will go for the sweet taste of nostalgia: “Lifelong Quests! Lawsuits! Feuds! A Super-Serious Story About Cereal.”

Via Read This Thing.

* Count Chocula

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As we heap on the sugar, we might spare a thought for Robert C. Baker; he died on this date in 2006.  An inventor and professor at Cornell, he is credited with more than 40 poultry, turkey, and cold cut innovations, making him the “George Washington Carver of poultry.”  Surely the best known of his creations is what he originally called “Cornell Chicken” (though he developed it while a graduate student at Penn State); we know it as the “chicken nugget.”  He published it as unpatented academic work while at Cornell in the 1950; McDonald’s patented their formulation in 1979, threw the mighty weight of their marketing and retail machine behind it…  and the rest is (greasy) history.  For his contributions to the poultry sciences, Baker is a member of the American Poultry Hall of Fame.

bakerRobert_kiosk-banner source

 

Written by LW

March 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone’s different needs”*…

 

inequality

 

In 2014, the Pew Research Center asked Americans to rank the “greatest dangers in the world.” A plurality put inequality first, ahead of “religious and ethnic hatred,” nuclear weapons, and environmental degradation. And yet people don’t agree about what, exactly, “equality” means. In the past year, for example, New York City residents have found themselves in a debate over the city’s élite public high schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. Some ethnicities are vastly overrepresented at the schools, while others are dramatically underrepresented. What to do? One side argues that the city should guarantee procedural equality: it should insure that all students and families are equally informed about and encouraged to study for the entrance exam. The other side argues for a more direct, representation-based form of equality: it would jettison the exam, adopting a new admissions system designed to produce student bodies reflective of the city’s demography. Both groups pursue worthy egalitarian goals, but each approach runs against the other. Because people and their circumstances differ, there is, Dworkin writes, a trade-off between treating people equally and treating them “as equals.”

The complexities of egalitarianism are especially frustrating because inequalities are so easy to grasp. C.E.O.s, on average, make almost three hundred times what their employees make; billionaire donors shape our politics; automation favors owners over workers; urban economies grow while rural areas stagnate; the best health care goes to the richest. Across the political spectrum, we grieve the loss of what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “general equality of conditions,” which, with the grievous exception of slavery, once shaped American society. It’s not just about money. Tocqueville, writing in 1835, noted that our “ordinary practices of life” were egalitarian, too: we behaved as if there weren’t many differences among us. Today, there are “premiere” lines for popcorn at the movies and five tiers of Uber; we still struggle to address obvious inequalities of all kinds based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of identity. Inequality is everywhere, and unignorable. We’ve diagnosed the disease. Why can’t we agree on a cure?…

We all agree that inequality is bad.  But what kind of equality is good?  A thoughtful consideration:  “The Equality Conundrum.”

* one answer, from Terry Eagleton

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As we seek balance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960 that the Nashville Sit-ins began.  Part of a nonviolent direct action campaign to end racial segregation at lunch counters in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, they ran through May 10.  The sit-in campaign, coordinated by the Nashville Student Movement and Nashville Christian Leadership Council, was notable for its early success and emphasis on disciplined nonviolence.  It was part of a broader sit-in movement that spread across the southern United States in the wake of the Greensboro sit-ins in North Carolina.

300px-Rodney_Powell_Nashville_sit-ins_1960 source

 

Written by LW

February 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Total annihilation has a way of sharpening people’s minds”*…

 

War of the Worlds

 

HG Wells was the great modern prophet of apocalypse…

In five fecund years, from 1895 to 1900, he wrote 12 books, including the ‘scientific romances’ that made his name and laid the foundations of modern science fiction — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man. He paved the way for so much of what came after — the sci-fi of Huxley, Orwell, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, JG Ballard and Michael Crichton, and his books have inspired over 30 films, with The Invisible Man set for another remake this year…

His books — both fiction and non-fiction — are tales of apocalypse, which in the ancient Greek etymology means ‘the unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.

What you meet in Wells’ books, again and again, is the violent uncovering of the new, the ripping back of the lace curtain of Victorian customs. Like Ballard, Wells had a sense of how suddenly and utterly things can change, how long familiar and ingrained customs can disappear in a moment. Victorian England must have seemed like it would stay the same forever and ever. And then, suddenly, Queen Victoria is removed ‘like a great paperweight’, and everything is in flux.

Australians are learning that today — how everything we take for granted — homes, food supplies, electricity, water, clean air, even law and order — can be taken from one in an instant. Likewise, The War of the Worlds gave complacent imperial Victorians a sudden sense what it’s like to be conquered and humiliated, to be scrabbling for survival. ‘I felt a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel’…

What can he teach us about our present moment? How can we survive and endure the apocalyptic unravelling of hydrocarbon capitalism, which is what (I suggest) we vividly see happening today. The most important lessons he gave us are (1) take the Long View and (2) don’t turn away from technological innovation, however dangerous and unsettling it is…

Jules Evans (on a return visit, having supplied yesterday’s subject) explains: “What HG Wells can teach us about surviving apocalypse.”

* Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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As we batten down the hatches, we might recall that it was on this date in 749 that a devastating earthquake struck parts of Palestine and the Transjordan, epicentered in Galilee.  The cities of Tiberias, Beit She’an, Hippos, and Pella were largely destroyed, while many other cities across the Levant were heavily damaged; the casualties numbered in the tens of thousands.

earthquake

Scythopolis (Beit She’an) was one of the cities destroyed in the earthquake of 749

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“Hands have their own language”*…

 

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Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

 

Most body parts come alone or in pairs. We have one nose, one tongue, and one navel. We sport two eyes, two knees, two feet, and so on. Fingers are a glaring exception—we’ve got a party of five on each side. This presents difficulties. When we want to single one out from the group—to specify which finger we slammed in the door, for instance—what do we do? We name them, naturally. But how?

This is a uniquely human problem. Pentadactyly—the condition of having five fingers—is pervasive in the biological world, but we are the only species that has the capacity (or occasion) to talk about those fingers. The problem is not just that we have five of them, but that they are so vexingly similar: they differ slightly in size and dexterity, but all have that pucker-knuckled, nail-capped look. How have people in different times and places solved this problem? How have they named the members of this confusable quintet? Answering this question offers a tour of the inventiveness of the human mind…

Our names for our fingers show a surprising depth of cultural variation—and similarity: “Where Do Finger Names Come From?

* Simon Van Booy

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As we dub our digits, we might send carefully-timed birthday greetings to a man with very accomplished fingers, Abraham-Louis Breguet; he was born on this date in 1747.  The leading horologist of his day, he introduced a number of formative innovation into watch- and clock-making.  He built the first gong spring (which decreased the size of repeater watches) and the first anti-shock device or “pare-chute” (which improved the reliability of his watches while making them less fragile).  He sold the first modern carriage clock to Napoleon Bonaparte, and created the first “tact watch” by which time could be read by touch.  And finally– and most impactfully– he built the first tourbillon (the self-winding mechanism that introduced the “perpétuelle” watch), which he patented in 1801.

220px-Abraham_Louis_Breguet_02 source

 

 

Written by LW

January 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

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