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  1. Mini Link-a-palooza
  2. Family Trees
  3. Yet More Blowhard "Art"
  4. More Blowhard "Art"
  5. Art Forms vs. Genre Forms
  6. Building Blocks
  7. Videogames and Learning
  8. Ripped from the pages of Friedrich’s sketchbooks…
  9. Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts Redux
  10. Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts

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Saturday, May 31, 2003

Mini Link-a-palooza
Friedrich -- Home with a stomach virus. Heroically, I struggled to the keyboard and, despite the occasional tummy gurgle, made a few happy discoveries. * Aaron Haspel has posted a new installment in his "How to Read a Poem" series, this one about "The Emperor of Ice Cream" (here). * Paul Mansour, who blogs too seldom, makes an inspired return here. He takes a swing first at the chic architecture world, then at a Robert Schiller op-ed piece about inequality. I also stumbled across the online presences of a couple of magazines, both of which offer much to be enjoyed. * The American Conservative (here) -- yep, the one edited by Patrick Buchanan and Taki -- runs articles and essays from the point of view of the paleo-right. Some are surprising (righties against the Iraq war; righties against free trade), and some are well-done. Not enough of what they print in the magazine is online -- I want it all, and I want it free! -- but I enjoyed wrestling with this piece by Robert Locke (here), in which he makes a distinction between globalism (in his view, an elite ideology akin to Marxism) and globalization (a simple acknowledgment of the fact that more trade is occurring between countries worldwide). Is he correct? I certainly wouldn't know, but I had a good time scratching my chin over his arguments. I can also recommend this piece here by Matthew Alexander, arguing that the English renaissance composer William Byrd ranks among the very greatest of composers. I'm a long way from being anyone whose classical-music tastes anyone else should pay attention to, but I can't resist noting that one of my favorite CDs is of Glenn Gould performing work by Byrd and two other standouts, Gibbons and Sweelinck. Heartbreakingly beautiful, and buyable here. * Why hadn't I run across the Australian magazine Policy before (here)? Free-market theory, evolution, the occasional look at culture ... Bliss. Even though I've only begun to scratch the surface of their vast online archive, I've already liked a lot of what they've published. Peter Saunders has a marvelous a q&a with the brilliant English prison doctor/essayist Theodore Dalyrmple here. Denis Dutton (of Arts & Letters Daily) and Wolfgang Kasper argue here that the Kyoto Treaty is less about doing the environment some good than it is a powergrab by Euro-bureaucrats. Marian Tupy makes a couldn't-be-more-clear-or-concise presentation (here) of the free-market view of foreign aid. In "Evolutionary Economics" (here), Jason Potts connects the dots between Darwin and Adam Smith. And a special treat for culturebuffs -- the terrific political-philosophy prof Jeremy Shearmur (who once worked with Popper and Hayek) visits the New-Urbanist Florida town of Celebration and comes back with mostly-positive things to say about it here. Having a computer and a cable modem makes being home sick a whole lot more fun than it'd otherwise be. Gurgle, gurgle, Michael... posted by Michael at May 31, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Family Trees
Michael: In the June edition of Scientific American, there is an interesting article by Charles H. Bennett, Ming Li and Bin Ma on a computer algorithm they devised to study the evolution of chain letters. And estimating the “relatedness” and evolutionary history of different organisms. And reconstructing the “family tree” of human languages. In short, this is one powerful algorithm. Apparently Mr. Bennett, an IBM fellow, owns a collection of 33 chain letters, all of which are “descendants” of the same aboriginal chain letter. All were acquired or received by Mr. Bennett over a 15-year period. Because this period was prior to the computer age, such documents were reproduced on typewriters and Xerox machines. Mr. Bennett mentioned his collection during a hike in the Hong Kong mountains with University of Waterloo (Ontario) bioinfomatics professor Li. It dawned on them that the chain letters had “evolved” through multiple generations as mutations (either deliberate or accidental) were introduced during the retyping of the letters. The problem of reconstructing the “family tree” of the chain letters was a very similar problem to figuring out from DNA evidence how closely related two different species are, a problem known as phylogeny. Morover, the chain letters could serve as a test of the methods currently used to estimate such interrelatedness. A Sample Phylogeny Finding that most existing methods didn’t work very well on the chain letter problem, Bennett, Li and Ma (a professor of computer science) devised their own algorithm of “relatedness.” This involves retyping the letters into computer files in lower case, while ignoring the division of the text into paragraphs. This procedure converted a letter into a string of characters. The various strings are tested for relatedness by a file compression method. That is, the length of each compressed string is first measured independently, and then compared to the compressed length of a file made up of both strings arranged one after the other. If the two original strings were completely independent, the compressed length of the “summed” string would end up as the sum of the compressed lengths of the two original strings. The degree to which the compressed “summed” string is shorter than the sum of its parts indicates the degree of interrelatedness of the two strings. This method works much better on the chain letters, and apparently quite well on DNA strings as well. That’s nice for biologists doing phylogenetics, but what I find more interesting is that it can be applied to a wider set of culturally evolving items. Apparently three professors from La Sapienza University in Rome developed a phylogeny of human languages by applying this method to translations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into 52 different languages (which were conveniently available from the U. N.) The resulting family tree that the algorithm developed from the translations turns out to be quite close to the “standard” model of the historical relationships between the translation languages. Of course, the standard model has been developed by an immense analysis... posted by Friedrich at May 31, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Friday, May 30, 2003

Yet More Blowhard "Art"
Friedrich -- I'm feelin' the power now! M. Blowhard: Thinking about Vaporware (2003) M. Blowhard: Jazz in St. Tropez (19whenever) Stop me before I post again. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 30, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

More Blowhard "Art"
Friedrich -- OK, you and Felicity have shamed me into it. Herewith a couple of Michael Blowhard doodlings. Both, fyi, done not in traditional media but in the computer using Painter, a software package that specializes in mimicking natural media. No muss, no fuss, no annoying the spouse with spills and smells. M. Blowhard: Beat Buddies (1999) M. Blowhard: Mr. Intensity (1998) Blush, shucks, etc. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 30, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

Art Forms vs. Genre Forms
Friedrich -- America and the arts. American art. America vs. the arts. The arts vs. America ... Hmm. The usual arts thing is to bemoan America. We don't really care about the arts. We're too damn materialistic and money-driven. The media crap up everything they touch. Why aren't we more like Europe? Etc., etc. Perhaps because I've lived in the arty/media part of the country for the last couple of decades (and thus am more fed up with it than I am with America per se), I have a different primary gripe. Mine is that the American arts (arts people and arts fans) make too damn much out of all this. There's too much breastbeating and not nearly enough art. Too much self-righteousness, too much politics, too much puffing up. And all of it unhealthy for the arts, I'm convinced. It's a mistake to consider the arts as anything near as urgent as such issues as curing cancer, providing healthy drinking water, or relieving poverty. When the importance of the arts is oversold, people will tend to turn on them. A little perspective would help, not hurt, the arts in this country. Such is my perhaps idiot conviction, anyway. But other questions arise too. Basic stuff: Why does this self-inflation happen? Where does it come from? It's neurotic, it's tedious, and it saps the arts themselves of energy and time. Yet it's also neverending. The fraught relationship between America and the arts is, and has long been, one of the major themes of American art. And as a consequence, the American arts often turn in circles. Art crumbles. Art fights the system. Art has to reinvent itself once again. Art is self-righteously self-important; art is bizarrely gloomy. Art in America is always convinced that it's fighting for its very existence. Am I alone in thinking, "Sheesh, enough with the manic-depressive mood swings. A little less heat and a little more light, please"? I think this kind of reaction helps explain why arty Americans sometimes look enviously to Europe, where countries have genuine and un-embattled fine-art traditions -- ongoing literary forms, ongoing paint-on-canvas forms, ongoing art-music forms. Arty Europeans can take so much more for granted than arty Amerians can, and partly as a consequence get to immerse themselves in the arts in ways we seldom can. Sigh. And then it's back to the usual America vs. the arts cycle, only this time with envy-of-Europe mixed in. We're so damn earnest. For one thing, we're forever making the mistake of taking Euro ways of thinking about the arts (deconstruction, structuralism, existentialism) far too seriously. During my brief time in France a hundred years ago, one of the few things I came to understand was that the French don't take the carryings-on of intellectuals nearly as seriously as Americans like to imagine they do. Sure, on the one hand, strange creatures known as "intellectuals" really do roam the French countryside. But on the other: what they say isn't taken as gospel, or... posted by Michael at May 30, 2003 | perma-link | (12) comments

Building Blocks
Michael: I didn’t eat breakfast today; I was too busy with the building blocks. The blocks in question belong, of course, to my son, who assumes (at the age of 2) that the only purpose of other people’s block structures is to provide him with an opportunity to play Godzilla. However, he slept in this morning (ha! you snooze, you lose) prompting his father to furiously assemble a miniature Greek temple structure. This, of course, raises two questions (entirely ignoring issues of my sanity or maturity): (1) why is playing with blocks fun? and (2) what accounts for the enduring appeal of the classical architectural style? I would offer that these two questions are very closely related. The appeal of playing with blocks is that they form a modular design system, a flexible yet predictable vocabulary of thought. The same, I would suggest, is true of the elements of classical architecture. Both building blocks and classical architecture are essentially visual languages, and have the central appeal of languages—to wit: they allow us to compose private thoughts in a code that enables these thoughts to be read by strangers. F. Geary, Guggenheim Museum, Balboa And this strongly suggests the difficulties of using architectural styles that are based on a design logic that does not derive from an underlying set of commonly understood formal modules (i.e., building blocks.) Something interesting can come out of such designs, but they will lack the obvious intent to speak comprehensibly to strangers that is implicit in classical architecture. Such designs reject open discourse in favor of private poetry, a stance which may be provocative or may be hostile, but in either case is somewhat antisocial. Or so it strikes me as I rush to put my block structure in place. Incidently, I left half the roof off because (1) it shows my deeply considered three dimensional design, and (2) because my son has hidden the blocks necessary to finish the roof. Dang. I guess I’ll have to buy him another set (heh, heh.) Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 30, 2003 | perma-link | (11) comments

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Videogames and Learning
Friedrich -- How are computers and videogames affecting brains, thought processes and tastes? Hard to imagine a more interesting culture question these days. Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal (not online) reports on the results of a University of Rochester study. The U. of R. group, led by Daphne Bavelier, a prof of cognitive studies, investigated the visual skills of a group of young people (18-23) who played videogames regularly -- and not just any old videogames, but action videogames -- and compared the results to the skills of a group of nonplayers. And the winner is ... ? Videogamers showed a pronounced improvement in their ability to pay attention to complex visual environments. They also "could keep better track of more objects simultaneously and process fast-changing visual information more efficiently." Good news! But hold on. Other studies, Begley notes, have suggested that playing videogames hurts the ability to "concentrate for prolonged periods on reading, writing or solving math problems. And a growing body of research suggests that the virtual behavior that violent games reward can encourage real violence and aggression ... Little provocations are more likely to be interpreted as hostile." Hmm. What to make of this? And how is it likely to affect the making and experiencing of culture? Infallible clairvoyant that I am, I predict more Whack, Thwam and Kerbloom. What's your guess? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 29, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Ripped from the pages of Friedrich’s sketchbooks…
Michael: The other day, I was glancing at my collection of sketchbooks from the past 15 years or so. As best as I can tell, sketchbooks have two main uses: for professional artists, a collection of visual motifs they can steal for their paintings or other finished work; for amateurs with day jobs—like me—they become a sort of visual journal. When you go back and look at them later, you can remember the whole complex of thoughts and feelings that went into each drawing and sometimes see patterns that you weren’t aware of at the time. Anyway, looking at this patient heap of paper sitting on a shelf (I have about one sketchbook per year for this period), I thought: I know, I’ll save all this effort from utter oblivion by posting some of the sketches. (There’s gotta be some advantages to being a Blowhard, after all.) This first effort dates from the first half of the 1990s, and started out when I was looking for something to draw one Sunday afternoon. At the time, my two girls were preschoolers and they kept a pretty good collection of stuffed animals lying around. I picked up three samples and made a little composition on the sofa in front of our TV, and started noodling away. This is one of those drawings that pretty much drew itself, technically speaking; by which I mean that when I look at it closely I notice that it’s neither a strict line drawing or a strict tonal drawing, but a hybrid effort that combines both techniques in a kind of logic that I’ve probably never used before or since. The best I can do to describe it is to say that the tone is used locally to tunnel cracks and crevasses into the picture plane, but not according to any strict light-and-shadow schema. While I had no realization of it at the time, the three stuffed animals clearly represent my older brother, my younger sister and I watching television as children some 40 years ago. My sister is the cute, attention-getting tiger; my brother is the large, self-satisfied and mischievous rabbit. I am, of course, the teddy bear, reticent in the corner and not even trying to catch the eye of the viewer. In short, the picture is a joke-y but caustic view of my situation as a middle child. (I have often found unexpected currents of what I can only describe as political satire when I make still-lives from the toys and games of children.) You must have a few drawings stashed away yourself. Don’t hold back: we Blowhards are notorious exhibitionists. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 29, 2003 | perma-link | (17) comments

Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts Redux
Michael: Thanks for recommending Joel Engel’s piece in your posting Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts. I take Mr. Engel's point to be that great intelligence is no substitute for either common sense or a firm moral compass, and that an intelligent person lacking those qualities is often positively dangerous. However, in your posting you seem to extend this logic in a way that I have a hard time following. Engel is saying that intelligence, common sense and sound morality sort independently—there is no particular correlation between these characteristics. Hear, hear, I shout. You go on to assert, however (if I understand you correctly) that there is a negative correlation between common sense and sound morality on the one hand and very high intelligence on the other. Our founding fathers were obviously a brainy lot and yet possessed sufficient common sense (and morality) to run a revolution and set up a stable government. Our very greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, was clearly a man of enormous intellectual gifts (you try writing the Gettysburg Address on less than a year of formal education) and yet also an extremely capable practical politician. A number of American military leaders have been, if not exactly intellectuals, clearly both of high intelligence and high practicality: Grant, Lee, Sherman, Marshall, etc. I also think you make a logical error by generalizing from your experiences with authority figures and members of “elites” that you’ve met, most or all of whom, I assume, were highly intelligent. I suspect your logic goes like this: these people are intelligent and pretty much to a man (or woman), they are scumbags. Ergo, high intelligence biases people towards being scumbags. What I suspect you were really running into is a different regularity I’ve noticed over the years: that all authority figures are scumbags (and I say this having been an authority figure in a small way myself.) However, if you had run into stupid authority figures, they wouldn’t have been any nicer--and possibly even less nice. I will grant you that in the last century society has evolved towards an extreme division of labor, and this has resulted in many elites who have labored almost exclusively on various narrow “reservations” (e.g., academia, media, high-tech industries, politics). This has allowed less balanced personalities to thrive in a way probably not possible in 18th or 19th century American life, and perhaps has prevented these people from becoming as well rounded as they might have been a hundred years ago. But I’m not sure that smart, practical and moral leaders aren’t still out there; you just need very good radar to distinguish them from the “chaff” of the dazzling scumbags. And I don’t think assuming you will find them only in the middle of intelligence distribution curve will help you much in such a search. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at May 29, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Free Reads -- Joel Engel on Leadership and Smarts
Friedrich I don't know what you encountered, but for one stretch during the 2000 election campaign, it seemed that I was surrounded by people announcing that they'd finally settled on the definitive, not-to-be-contested reason to vote for Gore. They were going to vote for Gore anyway, but now they could really strut; their rationale was bulletproof. What was it? That Gore is smart, and Bush is dumb. Conversation over, and voting lever pulled. I was aghast. Leaving aside the matter of how smart Gore actually is (debatable, apparently) and how intellectually-challenged Bush is, and leaving aside whether or not you're wild about GW Bush generally, it seemed, and still seems, to me like a ludicrous argument. To what extent can raw IQ be said to add much of anything to a person's leadership abilities? Based on my own modest experience, I'd say that adequate-to-modestly-bright is probably the best range for a leader's intelligence. I'd go so far as to say that IQ points beyond that range should be counted as a deficit -- or at the very least looked at warily. Should every organization be run by its brainiest member? (Should any organization be run by its brainiest member?) Many of the hyperbrainy people I've known, fond though I've been of some of them, have been flakes, whackos, and sleazebags. Intellectual vanity runs rampant among them, and horse sense is hard to find. It's not hard to understand why. All that extra brain wattage demands release and stimulation -- which often leads to a fascination with complexity for its own sake, as well as a tendency to complicate matters just for the intellectual thrill of it. And then there are the moral and human questions. It's been a fact of my life -- and not one that I was eager or pleased to discover -- that many of the members of the media and art elites I sometimes brush shoulders with have been some of the most reprehensible people I've known, while many of the smalltown Republicans I grew up with are decent, generous and trustworthy. Flashingly, dazzlingly facile? No. But solid? You bet. Who's the better choice to lead crowds into battle: a quick, self-regarding, self-righteous sleazeball, or a trustworthy, brave straightshooter? Plus, hey, leadership itself. Take an aircraft carrier. Would you really want the most intelligent person on it to be placed in command? And what if that person were -- as seems likely to me -- a pimply geek who hides out in the radar room and can't even bring himself to communicate adequately with his colleagues there? Thanks, but I'll place my vote instead (assuming such a choice exists) for someone who can see the big picture, and who has trustworthy gut feelings, a clear sense of what needs to be done, a solid moral footing, and a willingness to take responsibility and expose him/herself to personal risk. A little sophistication mixed in with all that? Sure, why not? But I'm not holding my breath. Joel... posted by Michael at May 28, 2003 | perma-link | (6) comments

The Arts Litany Redux
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Your recent posting, The Arts Litany, got me to thinking of two individuals I knew as teachers. Both were lifetime participants in the art world. One was Emerson Woelffer, a painter and a maker of Dada collages; the other I'll call Painter X. I knew both these men as teachers of life drawing. I ran into Emerson Wolfer at art school in the early 1980s, and encountered Painter X at a university extension course in the late 1980s. Both have now passed away: Emerson Woelffer only a few months ago, and Painter X nearly a decade ago. Emerson, who appeared to be in his 70s at the time I knew him, was very relaxed and low key kind of guy. Despite his personal adherence to High Modernist art-making approaches (in his own work at the time, he was tearing up colored paper and let pieces fall at random on another sheet, gluing them down where they fell), he was pretty much a traditionalist regarding life drawing. He expected a likeness, and would encourage you to work at getting one. He himself, if his stories were accurate, had received a pretty traditional art education at the Art Institute of Chicago many years before; and he clearly thought that the "up-to-date" curriculum of my art school, in which students were rotated (rapidly) through classes in color, sculpture, photography, video production, art theory, etc., etc., was far too fragmented. His own art education had apparently consisted of three hours of life drawing in charcoal every morning, and three hours of figure painting in oils every afternoon, producing five drawings and one painting per week, week after week, year after year. As he admitted, when he was a student (in the 1930s?) the only safe way to make a good living at fine art was to paint portraits, and you had to be able to render very professionally to pull that off. Perhaps it was the natural conservatism of age, but Emerson seemed to get a kick out of telling us stories of his days at Black Mountain College where Willem de Kooning had shocked his students (who were expecting an initiation into wild man action painting) by making them create the most meticulous kind of still-life drawings in his class. E. Woelffer, Rush Street, 1951 Whatever mischief Emerson could get up to, however (which I suspect in his youth was considerable), he was very gentlemanly and polite to everyone, and absolutely didn't ram his ideas down your throat; he simply offered his observations and let you accept them or not. And he seemed to have relatively little ego about his own work; when he discussed his own career -- which had been quite successful, placing pictures in many, many museum collections around the country -- he did so only to give us novices some slight clue as to how one builds a career so that it might last decades, and not months. (Remember, at the time,... posted by Friedrich at May 28, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Teaching Company Alert
Friedrich The Teaching Company, which markets recorded lecture series that you can buy on CD or audiotape, and of which I'm a semi-great fan, puts their courses on sale now and then, at which point they become amazingly good deals. They just announced that two courses I enjoyed a lot and can recommend enthusiastically have gone on sale: Timothy Taylor's Economics and Robert Sapolosky's Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality. Taylor's series is ideal for math dopes like me who nonetheless want to make some sense out of econ -- I can't imagine a better intro for mush-heads. An incredible steal: 35 bucks for 15 hours' worth of couldn't-be-more-clearly-organized-or-enthusiastically-delivered lectures. Sapolsky's course is a quick but brilliant romp through how the physical properties of the nervous system and what we experience as mind might interact -- it's a fab intro to neuroscience for, yes, mush-heads. Plus, hey, it kicked off fresher ideas in my head about the arts than any art criticism has in years. An equally good price: 16 bucks for 6 hours of lectures. The Teaching Company is here. Taylor's course is here. Sapolsky's is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at May 27, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Monday, May 26, 2003

Artchat Survival Guide -- "Postmodernism"
Friedrich -- Disagreements in the arts can be a source of humor and enlightenment. Misunderstandings generate little but wasted energy and busted friendships. If you're talking about art in the anthropological sense and your bud is talking about art in the high-art sense, and you never manage to uncross those signals, one of you is likely to wind up sore and furious. And the fun of gabbing about the arts won't have been had. The victim of innumerable artchat broken noses and skinned knees myself, I find that these days -- older and cannier, or maybe just numb and exhausted -- I can make it through most art conversations unscathed, and occasionally even get a little something out of them. Immensely pleased with myself, I occasionally put on my humanitarian hat -- or my pompous one, I can never be sure -- and try to pass along a few of the rules of thumb that help me get by. In previous postings (paid attention to by no one, but which I had a good time composing), I've presented my Artchat Survival Guide to the word "art" (here), and to the idea of "greatness" (here). Today: Postmodernism. First, a preemptive admission. This isn't an attempt at aesthetic philosophy, or at contributing to a for-the-ages dictionary. It's simply a presentation of one broken-down old coot's ideas, observations and definitions -- what I hope is a workable, rule-of-thumb-y guide to the various uses of the word "postmodernism." A partychat guide. A cafechat guide. You find some of this useful? Great! You don't? Well, why not pass along a few tips of your own? Why is it that the word "postmodernism" can be so damn annoying? Overuse, mostly. But I suspect it's also because it's often used at cross purposes with itself. For starters, I'm going to suggest viewing "postmodernism" as having four primary meanings. It goes without saying that it's always a good idea to ask yourself which one is being used. *Postmodernism as a condition. This is postmodernism as a fact of life -- a label to put to the kinds of lives many people lead these days. Globalization, increased migration, and new developments in technology mean that many of us are regularly dealing with different cultures, different times zones, different media. We're juggling different realities. An example: You might be eating some Chinese food while surfing a porn website devoted to interracial sex (and made in who knows which country) while talking on your cell phone to a friend who's on a sailboat off Australia. Things seem to overlap, collapse, interpenetrate, and dissolve. Your own focus seems to flit around and through things at the speed of light. *Postmodernism as an attitude. On the one hand, David Letterman, hosting a talk show while putting quote marks around what he's doing at the same time: "I'm a smart guy doing a dumb thing, and I know it, and don't you forget it." (Not a generous interpretation of his show, but then again... posted by Michael at May 26, 2003 | perma-link | (10) comments

Blog-a-palooza redux
Michael: Following a link in your recent posting, Blog-a-palooza, I read two of Tim Hulsey’s interesting posts on the political philosophy of “The Matrix Reloaded.” I don’t intend to beat a dead movie any further here, but Mr. Hulsey’s description of some postmodernist thought got me thinking about its underlying assumptions. Allow me to set up my tiny little conclusion with Mr. Hulsey’s highly lucid summary (you can read the entire post here): Now in postmodern radicalism, the American Revolution or the Magna Carta would exemplify a "top-down" revolution, while the French and Bolshevik Revolutions would be "bottom-up" models. All revolutions are ultimately controlled, to be sure, for they, too, are part of the Matrix. But a postmodern would argue that the controls get much tighter, and a lot more dishonest, when said revolution is implemented by the masters. Indeed a revolution implemented by the masters would be so insignificantly incremental that it would hardly be worthy of the name. Better to go big and ugly. You can guess where all this is going, gentle readers. According to postmodernist thought, the Matrix represents the state of life under not totalitarian despotism, but liberal democracy. In both cases tyranny is a fundamental, metaphysical fact of life, but pure totalitarian states are at least honest about it: You don't have a choice, and no one is going to try to convince you that you do. By contrast, in liberal democracy, you are granted the illusion of freedom, so that absolutely everything you do can be controlled. Fight back if you think you can. (This is the basic argument of Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, by the way.) Still, leave it to French theorist Michel Foucault to go one baby-step further, with his claim that classical liberalism is not equal to, but actually worse than outright dictatorship. The postmodernists were hardly the first thinkers along these lines—Nietzsche, for one, described homo sapiens as a herd animal. But there is a significant difference between Nietzsche’s view and those of the postmodern left, despite their attempt to co-opt so much of his thinking: herd animals don’t follow a leader because they’re coerced into following—they follow because they like following, because they’re comfortable following. I remember noticing, while still in college, that every human society and every organization I was personally aware of was hierarchical. I would occasionally ponder the gaping rift between what appeared to be an almost universal human preference for hierarchy (which, given the normal ratio between leaders and followers, means that most people are showing a preference for being an underling in a hierarchy) and what the radically egalitarian theorists of that era (the 1970s) were preaching. During my all-too-many years since in the working world, I’ve noticed that very few people are emotionally comfortable exercising what might be called the central task of business: figuring out a vision of the future and being willing to take the risk of committing resources now to meet the needs of that (possibly illusory) future when... posted by Friedrich at May 26, 2003 | perma-link | (21) comments

Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Matrix Demoted
Friedrich -- The Wife and I just got back from seeing the "Matrix" sequel. Good lord but it's awful. We went in with expectations duly suppressed (we'd heard), and even so were giving each other "shall we leave?" looks after only 15 minutes. We sat through the movie because, well, some pop culture things simply have to be sat through, but only because of that. Bigger, louder, dumber -- and endless It's hurried, joyless, and very loud. Plotwise, it's almost incomprehensible -- although the Wife tells me that I need to admit upfront that I have no gift for grasping the logic of video or computer game-esque plots. It's true. I stare at them thinking things like: I have to go where? And do what? Are you kidding? I found watching the movie like spending a couple of very long hours in a loud video-game arcade, none of whose games grabbed me. The film has none -- zero -- of the erotic/poetic/emotional tonal qualities of the first movie. Instead, it kept making me think of that meatball John Travolta action movie "Swordfish." Why? Why? Then it came to me: "Swordfish" was produced by Joel Silver, as have been the "Matrix" movies. That was it: this "Matrix" felt more like a Joel Silver movie (pushy, gloating, prancing around the endzone) than a Wachowski Brothers movie. To the extent you can talk about the movie having any "feel" at all, it's this: it felt like the Wachowski Brothers would have preferred to be doing anything but making this movie. Sad to say that, despite Keanu and Carrie-Anne, despite the leather and PVC, the movie didn't look seductive -- the cinematographer seemed to be amusing himself seeing how awful he could make everyone's facial and neck skin look. Even the divine Monica Bellucci (to whom I sing a hymn here), who's in all of about three scenes, looks terrible. She seems lumpy, even a bit disfigured, and she's trussed into an unamusing and unflattering outfit. That's all the mental energy I can bear to give the movie. A few free-floating quasi-reflections did occur to me, though. And I'm not going to resist the temptation to inflict them. I've been fumbling my way -- slowly and tediously, I'm afraid -- towards this particular thought for months, and now it's finally (ta-dah) come together. It's that, at the movies, traditional movie values have been overwhelmed by electronic media values. A balance has shifted. The "showbiz" used to be used (generally speaking) to help sell a movie's concept, story and performers. These days, as the showbiz has become more and more electronically based, everything is used to help keep the electronic media experience rolling along -- the strobing, the swooping, the kathumping. The swoosh-and-rumble is what's primary. The plots and performances serve that experience rather than vice versa. I can't be the only movie fan these days who's thinking "enough already with the Asian baloney," can I? I'm very fond of a lot of Asian art... posted by Michael at May 25, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments