Gathering the Eggs Back Into the Basket

As of this weekend, for the first time in a very long time, all of my blog posts going back to 2001 are collected in one place. This has been a project of several weeks, as I had well over 800 old posts to bring into WordPress. Most came from a SQL dump from the previous iteration of my blog which I built in Drupal. Many of the posts therein were from a previous version which I built in TextPattern. Many of the posts therein were from a previous version I built by hand using XML and XSLT. Many of the posts therein were from a previous version I built by hand using static HTML.

Each time I imported or copied or retyped the previous blog’s content into the new blog there were various errors. Either encoding caused some characters to display as gibberish, or extraneous HTML tags caused spacing and flow issues, or embedded CSS caused random fonts and colors to appear. Thus I had to go over each post by hand to ensure that the content of that post was clean and would fit the new software.

The whole exercise has come with a sustained sense of nostalgia. With each post I remembered where I lived, where I was working at the time, what my social life was like, who I was dating (if anyone), and my general opinion of the world. I found I was much more aware of new and upcoming technologies. I reference Wikipedia back when it had only 150,000 articles. And Pandora, when it was still in a sort of beta mode, when the songs it played were cached on the user’s hard drive and could be saved (illegally-ish) for personal use.

Of course the world and the internet (as if those are different things anymore) are vastly different places than they were in 2003 and 2005. New technologies are by and large re-skinnings of current technologies with slightly updated user interactions and tens of millions of dollars spent on marketing. There are still edge cases but they don’t become mainstream until the energy has been sucked from the innovation and inspiration and the corpse of the original idea is turned into a marionette for the pleasure of venture capitalists.

Anyway.

I am still going through and re-linking a couple hundred old photos. Since many of those photos were hosted on old sites I no longer have access to them other than the occasional lucky strike when looking at old versions of eccesignum.com and eccesignum.org using the Internet Archive. I don’t expect I will fix every broken image until sometime around the holidays, unless I find myself unemployed in the next couple of months.

Another problem is that I had well over a hundred Flash experiments on this site. Even if I find all of the .swf files, Flash as a technology is dead dead dead, and my only recourse is to re-create these experiments, toys and games using HTML/JS/CSS. Again, all do-able, just not any time soon. At least for many of the more complex experiments I have the ActionScript files, which translate easily enough to Javascript, even if I will need to re-create by hand many of the things Flash did automatically or with proprietary libraries.

There were years when I wrote two hundred posts, and there were years when I wrote five posts. The productive years were almost all before the advent and ascendance of social media, and many of the posts I ported over were two or three words long, saying, basically, to click here to see something funny or cute or cool.

But I can see this blog coming full circle back to something like that, as social media is a tremendous shitshow even though it is indispensable for anyone whose livelihood depends of attention; for instance, any and all artists. Since I am trying to complete a book, and have written many poems, essays and short stories over the years, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the best ways to lure people to interact with my creative works.

I have a routine of a single blog post a week which discusses the literary part of my life – book collecting, reading, writing, that sort of thing. Adding to this to discuss the various interesting articles, videos, songs and so on which are part of my weekly media consumption would be trivial. It could be one post or many. And once it is here I can share the post on the various social media outlets, thus centralizing my output, regaining control over my digital life, and picking and choosing when and where I share things. I will own the things I write.

Having over a thousand posts going back twenty years is energizing, and though there are many bloggers who have blogs even older, and with tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of posts, the simple fact that I have a blog which is almost old enough to legally drink, feels good. It feels like an accomplishment, even if the number of regular readers can be counted on part of one hand.

As I complete the bits and pieces of this rebuilt I will probably post more about the process, highlighting old posts which I find particularly interesting or timely for their time. I will also scour the Internet Archive for any old content from the many versions of my website I built back in 1999 and 2000, to see if there is anything worth porting over. In the meantime, I will bask in the much-earned sense of accomplishment.

Issues: Preamble

Before I dive into the mosh pit of American and worldwide events I feel it is important to state my starting position. This will provide context for my positions on topics like politics, religion, economics, environmentalism, and so on.

I am a straight Caucasian male. I was born in June of 1969, which makes me a member of Generation X. Politically, I am a hodge-podge of liberal, socialist, anarchist and Green. Religiously I am predominantly Buddhist, with a strong dash of Taoism and sprinklings of Eastern Orthodox mysticism. I have a college degree and a good job as a programmer. My life is stable enough for me to occasionally feel genuinely bored.

As a straight white dude I am overwhelmingly on the side of hegemony in the United States. Every benefit it is possible to accrue simply by being born white and straight and a dude, I have accrued. In the past twenty years and eight jobs I have only *really* had to fill out a resume once. The only way I could more closely hew to the current odious version of the American Dream would be for me to be conservative and Christian.

Those last two points? Never gonna happen.

I recognize how privileged my life is, and how little I have had to work, comparatively, to make it so. The system is set up specifically for people like me, and specifically against people who are not like me. And that fact nauseates me.

As a nerdy kid in a small farm town I was bullied regularly. Not badly, compared to the suicide-inducing standards of today, but consistently. That led directly to my lifelong practice of martial arts, and to my lifelong–and steadily increasing–hatred of bullies and bullying. For the purpose of any discussion along those lines, I will define bullying simply as punching down from a position of strength. And since this is my blog, I will be the sole determiner in these discussions as to what constitutes punching down.

To go along with that definition, I also have three general rules or guidelines or aphorisms that I try to keep front-and-center:

  1. There is no such thing as an over-reaction to being bullied.
  2. In any particular situation, if you take the side of hegemony, the only direction you can punch is down.
  3. When in doubt, err on the side of compassion.

I agree that the third point is incongruous with the first two. So be it. I contain multitudes. And sometimes pie.

Drowning 2016 in the Bathtub

Events good and bad happen all the time and follow no particular cosmic order, but the calendar allows us to group them into convenient clusters around which we can allow narrative to congeal. A great many influential artists of all genres passed away during 2016. They were perhaps particularly influential for people my age because the artists were at the height of their power when we fans were at our most receptive ages. I became a fan of David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Jim Harrison, Elie Wiesel, Carrie Fisher, Harper Lee and Leonard Cohen all in about a ten year period.

This is a small sampling of the “notable deaths” of 2016. These were the ones who had the greatest emotion impact for me. Though the circumstances of their deaths varied, none of them were young, and none of them died in any unusual fashion. The world was better for their contributions, and though I never met any of them–though Jim Harrison glared at me briefly at a book signing in 2009–I miss their presence in the world.

That being said:

2016 sucked, and I am glad it is over. Politically it marked a gigantic step backward as bigots and bullies and dominionists convinced foolish people to vote for a fool. And the fool will be president for the next four years, or until he is impeached or otherwise loses his office. I would cheer wholeheartedly at the prospect of Trump losing the office before his term is up, were it not for the fact that Pence is markedly worse. All possible forms of Christian dominionist rule of this country are no different from fascism.

It is pure coincidence that all of these notable people died in the same year that Donald Trump was elected. But they did all happen in a single calendar year, and the narrative that has built around 2016 is that it sucked. Hardcore. If our calendar went from, say, November 1 to October 31, we could say that 2016 sucked and then 2017 got worse in its first week. It would not change the level of suckage. And since one of the first notable planned events for 2017 is Trump’s inauguration, we can safely assume that 2017 is going to totally blow chunks.

Pinning the bad mojo on 2016 is voodoo of a sort. When 2016 recedes into the past it will take its load of shit with it, and leave the slate clear for a fresh start in 2017. We are human beings. Going with the flow of narrative is what gives us meaning in our day to day lives. If 2016 ending means things will get better, then so be it. There’s a reason placebos work so well. That they are placebos does not diminish their importance or their potency.

With about six hours remaining in 2016 (EST) and the positive feedback loop of zeitgeist in full effect, now would be an excellent time to make some New Year’s resolutions. For me, it will be a pledge–to the best of my ability I will protect those who are being punched down upon. And if you are on the side of hegemony on any particular issue, and are punching down on those not, I will do my level best to make sure you have a very bad time of it.

Selah.

All Media is Mainstream Media

The title of this post sums up everything which is to follow.

All media sources which have internet access are mainstream. Full stop. Any story which appears virally on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram or any of the other click-bait aggregators, even if the original outlet was created only an hour earlier, is at that moment mainstream.

Post 2016 election, much hay has been made of “fake news” and how to distinguish the real from the unreal. Without falling into the rabbit hole of implicit vs. explicit bias–which is about as useful in this context as debating free will vs. determinism–let us agree that there is news which is deliberately false in its entirety, and news which is true from a certain point of view.

The news which is deliberately false is that in which the headline serves as click-bait, ESPECIALLY when the headline in question imparts no information about the content of the story. These are headlines which are in the form of a question, or are followed by a listicle. These are headlines meant to drive traffic rather than impart information. With this filter in place approximately 75% of all social media noise can immediately be ignored. For the rest, the next filter requires a little more thought.

Deliberately false news also includes everything which falls under the category of “opinion” or “editorial”. Here we can safely dismiss everything from Fox News and Breitbart, and all right-wing hatriot hives like World Net Daily, InfoWars, The Blaze, Focus on the Family, StormFront, Red State, and so forth.

This is not to say the left-leaning news and information sites don’t have similar problems, but “the liberal media”, to the extent that it ever existed, is responsible for only a tiny fraction of all noise generated by American outlets.

Oh: Fair warning–my political sensibilities fall fairly far to the left by American standards, which by rational world standards would make me ever so slightly to the left of center on most issues.

The entirety of mainstream American political though is skewed severely to the right side of the global political spectrum. Our Democrats are, in the main, to the right of where Reagan stood when we were engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with the USSR. Our Republicans are somewhere far down a slope along which lies plutocracy, corporatocracy, neo-feudalism, Dominionism and straight up reactionary sensibilities. And the Democrats are fast on their heels. Thus the center of American political conversation is substantially to the right of center. And thus any “compromise” between political parties moves the entire local spectrum farther to the right.

All of which is to say, any American media outlet which deliberately brands itself as “conservative” can be dismissed out of hand. The output of these outlets can be ignored for the same reason that fish have no words for “water.”

With these filters in place, recognize that whatever news media remains is driven first and foremost by the profit motive, and (distantly) second by journalistic integrity. This is a subtle form of regulatory capture which has always existed, but came to prominence when the Fairness Doctrine was revoked during the Reagan presidency.

So when someone on social media posts a story which includes a headline hinting of some grand conspiracy of silence, it can be safely assumed that the originator of the underlying story or meme is simply looking for attention. Or a quick buck. Not that there is much difference between the two.

Sometime soon, I’ll discuss the difference between “media” and “journalism.”

Implicit and Explicit Boundaries

We now live, as some of the snarkier pundits would have it, it a post-truth world. Given the sorting of world views which led to the recent election results I can’t find a specific argument to counter that statement. However, I would call it incomplete. The world isn’t so much post-truth as post-narrative, or even post-objectivity.

All of the dominant narratives are collapsing under the weight of the democratization of information. No new visions of the future have yet sprung up. Or rather, too many visions of the future have sprung up, and no one or few of these has asserted itself sufficiently to allow the random disconnected threads of attention coalesce.

This is an oversimplified view of an extremely complex process which has been ongoing since the mobile phone – which is in reality a pocket computer – became the dominant means by which humans access information and communicate with each other. Free access to information untethers people from the narratives into which they were born and allows a new kind of tribalism based on common beliefs or aesthetics. A tribe need lo longer be bound to proximity in a three-dimensional or even a four-dimensional space. Family roles need no longer be predicated on blood relations.

What we are seeing now, and have been seeing for the past two decades, is the exploration of boundaries which we did not even know existed at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And we are discovering exactly how arbitrary were the tacit boundaries which have guided and constrained the evolution of civilizations and societies over the past ten thousand years.

On Narrative, and the Threading Thereof

Many years ago I read Interface by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George. It was a decent techno-thriller, most notable for being written in part by Neal Stephenson. In it was a brief passage explaining how the substrate of American politics had evolved over the years:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam…We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond.

A few years after reading the book I had the good fortune to attend a signing event for Stephenson’s book Anathem. At that signing I attempted to ask him about this quote, and what he felt would be the next Age after Scrutiny. Of course I was struck dumb by fanboy nerves and couldn’t get the question out, so I never got my answer.

But, in the process of exploration and research and simply living my life here in modern America, I think I am sneaking up on an answer.

We are now in the Age of Narrative. Scrutiny became fractured fractal panopticon empowered by the extreme density of global information systems. The signal has become so ubiquitous and strong that the structure of stories breaks down under the weight of ten million self-referential and cross-connected media sources. Within this undifferentiated mass swim the billion threads of narratives, no one of any intrinsically greater value than any other. We are no longer bound to the stories into which we are born. We can choose to align ourselves to any narrative, or invent new narratives out of the pseudo-random bits of information in which we are immersed in every waking moment of our lives.

We are in the age of narrative because there is no objective overriding story by which we are compelled to live our lives. Both prediction and reminiscence have become democratized and made subjective, and if one story line proves inadequate we can easily align ourselves with another.

But thanks to the proliferation of both signal and noise, we are already nearing the end of the Age of Narrative and are seeing the first glimpses of a new tribalism, where the non-physical borders and boundaries of the last five thousand years become increasingly tenuous, and all allegiances will be by consent instead of by tradition.

And won’t that be an interesting time to be alive?

 

Spore

A couple of days ago I came across the teaser site for Spore, the next game by Will Wright, the fella who brought us Sim City.

In Spore, you are responsible for evolving the life on your planet, from the level of denizen-of-the-primordial-soup all the way up to galactic overlord.

Gamespy has a long article about/interview with Wright about Spore, among other things. One paragraph struck me as particularly intertesting:

Clicking on the egg brought up a creature editor, and allowed the player to “evolve” with a new generation of critters. The editor was amazingly flexible. Wright could give his creature extra vertebrae, he could give it fins or tails to move faster, he could add claws or extra mouths, whatever he wanted. More importantly, all the creature animations weren’t hard-coded; they were dynamic. If he put six tails on his creature, the game would figure out how a six-tailed creature would move. The critter was completely his.

I immediately thought of two artificial life-ish experiments: Sodaplay and Framsticks, both of which involve creating (and with Framsticks evolving) creatures to test for survivability and fitness.

Supposedly the game will be out in 2006.