Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Persuaders, Cool-hunters and the Reptile Brain

I finished watching The Merchants of Cool. A few weeks ago, I had checked out The Persuaders, also narrated by Douglas Rushkoff and a Frontline documentary. Both of these are essential watching for anyone who's not much of a reader, and yet wants to step outside the consumer culture a bit and take a peek at those trying to pull the levers behind the curtain.

I was pleased as punch to see that Clotaire Rapaille made an appearance to talk about SUVs and the reptile brain in the Persuaders. He was the one who was quoted in High and Mighty, a scathing book about SUVs I enjoyed very much. What he says about Hummers is hilarious:

CLOTAIRE RAPAILLE: My experience is that most of the time, people have no idea why they're doing what they're doing. They have no idea. So they're going to try to make up something that makes sense. Why do you need a Hummer to go shopping? "Well, you know, in case I need to go off road." Well, you live in Manhattan. Why do you need a four-wheel drive in Manhattan? "Well, you know, sometime I go out and I go in"-- I mean, this is-- you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand that this is disconnected. This has nothing to do with what the real reason is for people to do what they do.

Merchants of Cool deals more with marketing to Generation Y, and talks about cool hunters and trying to market to kids who are (supposedly) resilient to mass marketing like never before. I say supposedly because although both Gen X and Gen Y may be cynical, I don't know. You see, I have what I think is a unique imprinting, as much of my childhood, I went WITHOUT television, yet lived in America, so I usually notice when I see the indoctrination of those who drink down culture, especially that which comes over the television. Ironic that I now work within the cable industry, but there you go.

For example, I went to see Shrek 3 this past weekend, and there were several Gen Y sitting behind us. I can actually remember when the part running up to a movie only had trailers. I remember being so pissed the first time I saw a commercial at a movie...I actually booed. So did others in the audience, so it must have been a first for them, too, or they were influenced by me, who knows. It was a Heinz commercial. Since then, it's progressed to where I think movies ought to be free now. Why? Consider all the product placement often WITHIN the movies these days, as well as static ads for local businesses intersprinkled with full motion ads running at the beginning - and the trailers often don't even start until after the scheduled time, one is getting just as much exposure to brands as one gets when flipping on cable or over-the-air stuff.

While I suffer through this crapola fest before the movie with a grin-and-bear it attitude (and later notice the sly product placement), the Gen Y'ers are actually actively engaged by it. They are talking about it, laughing at the little "plots" that these spots have, etc. I don't think marketing has to be as sneaky as all that, and I doubt that Gen Y is any less responsive to marketing in this way any more so than Gen X or sandwich or Baby Boomers or anyone else. Not as a group, anyway. And think of the superbowl - many actually ADMIT that they tune into it for the commercials. I'll never forget a moment in college when one of my housemates asked two of us why we muted the commercials. The other housemate and I just sort of froze and stared at him for a heartbeat or two, not really sure how to answer such an odd question. The other roommate actually WANTED to hear the commercials? Where to start with this guy? Both of us usually followed a pattern when watching television: watching a "main" program, then switching to a "secondary" one during the commercial break on the main program. If they had synchronized commercials, or there wasn't anything worthwhile, we'd bounce around other channels or mute commercials on the main one. This was pre-DVR days. I've had a Tivo since 2000, and I've found I like commercials even less as a result and almost never watch live television these days.

Anyway, the other housemate just answered the question like this - ", commercials are annoying! They are louder than the show, and they are all lies, to boot." To which we got an eye-roll and a head-shake from the other housemate - he thought *we* were the crazy ones - he wanted to hear the commercials, and that was that. I guess he didn't want to miss out on that "water-cooler talk" that people seem to find so important.

I wish Frontline would do some more similar documentaries, and delve into why people of all generations fall for so much stuff without asking WHY they do it. The SUV thing was touched on, but it really could go for a full show's treatment. It could be expanded into the selling of the "outdoor culture" - even for those that never set foot outside? I notice lots and lots of yuppies carrying around say, Nalgene bottles, (I call these Yuppie baby bottles) and wearing things like hiking boots and hopping into an SUV for their drive through suburbia to get home when most of these people don't do much outdoors.

Anyway enough rambling from me, I saw that Douglas Rushkoff (obviously another fan of Robert Anton Wilson) is offering a course on this sort of stuff (persuasion in media) at this fall, maybe I'll check it out and ask him some of this stuff then...

Sunday, May 27, 2007


This looks to be very promising - I soooo want to stop using my creaky and barely-working W2K box that I use to sync my iPod and that's one of the last things keeping me from shutting that box down. I was looking for something that would import playlists as Banshee doesn't seem to do it. For listening to podcasts on a Gen 2 Nano, you just about are FORCED to create a smart playlist, as IMHO, Apple broke the podcast functionality otherwise...Apple gets all these usability brownie points from their fanboys and from themselves in their own commercials, but they can stumble like anyone else, apparently.

But on to Songbird: I've seen Songbird mentioned before, but I'm not sure they had a release at the time.

I downloaded the developer's release, and it seems to work well enough - at least it didn't crash. I haven't yet tried to sync the ipod (it looks like their FAQ needs updating as it says portable devices aren't supported yet, but there seems to be a plugin), but the demo is so cool that it's worth using it for those capabilities alone. I did try out the audioscrobbler stuff and it seems to work - at least if the music you are listening to is local. So far, nothing was scrobbled when it was listened to over the net, which is a bummer.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Serious Redneck Road Rage

I just recently finished Suburban Nation and it talks a lot about the pathology that comes with a car culture. One of the things mentioned by one of the authors, IIRC, was the way in which American suburbs are not only antagonistic toward walking BY DESIGN (see the book for why), but also that they have experienced antagonism from drivers. The author mentioned that they get someone (always male, usually driving a truck or SUV with dark tinting) shouting at them in anger while passing by.

Why anyone would do this is beyond me, but I've experienced the same thing while putting around on a mountain bike or a recumbent. And it's not always some high school punks - it's often guys at least in their 50's or 60's. I usually figure the guy is trying to overcompensate for something else - maybe getting a ridiculously big vehicle with darkly tinted windows isn't helping his low self-esteem enough, he has to shout at peds and bikers, too. Whatever.

Then I read this story on Boing Boing. Figures the guy was driving a Dodge Ram - that seems about right. I fervently hope they find the driver. He needs to spend 10-20 years in jail.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Another Way Democrats Drive Me Nuts

If you've read much of my comments here, you might come to the conclusion that I'm a Democrat. Well that isn't the case even if lately, they seem to be the least criminal of the two major parties.

Here is an example of how they drive me crazy. So a few months ago, there was a big campaign to write your representatives about impeaching Bush. I wrote about this previously. Well, a few weeks ago, I got a letter back from one of the representatives - and it was a form letter telling me that they were not interested in doing that, as that wasn't "on the Democratic agenda" (roughly paraphrasing).

Talk about needing a spinal transplant - stand up for principles, to hell with what the agenda is. All one needs to look at is the wiretapping. That's all you need. You don't even need to talk about things like the Downing Street memo and other issues with this administration. The case to impeach based on ignoring FISA law seems pretty cut and dried.

Bill Maher pointed out that this administration has turned what the U.S. was supposed to be about on its head, and he's absolutely right. Government is supposed to be as transparent as possible, while individual privacy is supposed to be as sacrosanct as possible. That's all backwards now. You have an administration that STILL refuses to let us know what went on for energy policy meetings in 2001 and then orders the NSA to do blanket wiretapping on all of us.

But what should I expect - barring a few outliers (I recently had a comment on this blog telling me to check out a new initiative some Dems are starting) most of the Dems have their eye on the 2008 presidential election. My point is that people obviously voted them in there as a reaction to the criminality and incompetence of this administration - now do something about it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Christopher Hitchens - What Can I Say?

Saw this mentioned on Pharyngula. I disagree with Hitchens quite a bit, although he's one of the few talking heads/pundits/writers who can make arguments that actually have some weight to them. Witness his defense of the Iraq war - I happen to totally disagree, but he doesn't make the silly and emotional arguments that the neocons and dittoheads do...

No, I applaud the man for having the balls to say what almost no one in the public will say - and have the wit to back it up. He'll defend Iraq when even when not popular, even giving the bird to Bill Maher's audience while actually on the show. He came on and faced the fire. He'll come out and say he's an atheist when that's HUGELY unpopular here. I don't agree with either of these positions, but I applaud him. On this Falwell love-fest - I totally agree with someone coming along and popping the bubble of lovey-doviness and pointing out the elephant in the room - that Falwell was a despicable, evil little man, even if he did hide behind the shield of religiousity and preaching the word of Jaysus.

Witness the flaying:


Kudos also to boing boing for cataloguing his most atrocious statements almost immediately after the announcement of his death:

* “AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals”

* "It appears that America's anti-Biblical feminist movement is at last dying, thank God, and is possibly being replaced by a Christ-centered men's movement which may become the foundation for a desperately needed national spiritual awakening."

* "If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being."

* After the September 11 attacks Falwell said, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen."

* “Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions”

* “[Homosexuals are] brute beasts...part of a vile and satanic system [that] will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven.”

I don't think it's appropriate to dance on anyone's grave, but when someone dies and they WERE NOT decent, it's not appropriate for the media to pretend as if they were.

Oh, and I love the fact that Freepers are all agog that Hitchens could say such things about Falwell AND Mother Theresa. I guess emotion will always rule most of that crowd...

Deeply Distorted Morality

There was a local story about a poor couple who got shafted - they apparently bought a house with concrete a few inches under their of those little human-interest type stories that are always in the "news" for some reason. Anyway, Tiffany was browsing 9news site and mentioned this to me. Here's the grabber, though:
The Hersheys also admit some of their neighbors didn't like the view.

"I was told I was a disgusting human being because my lawn looked like this," said Jennifer Hershey.

Check out that morality. All I can say is, "wow". No wonder some people have such disproportionate reactions against things like Xeriscaping.

Sigh. Oh well, I guess it's the imprinting. Probably 99% people born into a culture or a "way of life" are never going to question the "logic" of it all...

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Thoughts on Leadville

This Saturday we visited Leadville and saw the various tourist-y things. We did the tour of the Matchless Mine and got lots of info about Baby Doe and Tabor. At the peak of this silver mine, Baby Doe and Tabor were getting $10,000 worth of silver a least according to the guide. That is a lot by today's standard, but I used an inflation calculator, and that would equal $216,401.75 in 2006 dollars. But despite all this money, it didn't end well for either of them. He ended up working for the same amount his workers that worked for him went on strike for: $3 a day, doing back-breaking work. A lot of things went through my mind during this tour, as the topics raised during this tour and being in Leadville in generally seemed to constantly evoke parallels with things I've just recently been reading or listening to on podcasts.

1. Hubris. My god, the hubris. Neither of these people seemed to come from really poor backgrounds, yet they seemed to be spending what they earned like Anna Nicole Smith on steroids. How does one spend $10K a DAY and not save something for a rainy day? Okay, there are some who could do that pretty easily, but how about $216K?

2. The Wizard of Oz and the populist interpretation. This is one book I've got to read...I've heard (and probably most everyone has heard) about all the symbolism in this book about gold standards, etc. But just this past week, I was listening to the Occult of Personality, and he goes into it in some depth with a guest, even though they are more interested in the Theosophy behind it (Apparently Baum was a Theosophist). It made me think I should learn more about this dual metal standard that so many wanted. Also brought up thoughts again about the book "The Little Money Book" that talks about the very meaning of money and where it gets its value. Hint: it's more than just about gold.

3. Living structures. Here was this 80-some year old woman living in essentially a shack, and getting by, by herself. She could walk into town and wasn't shuttled off to some old home to live out her years. I've recently finished some books on suburban design vs. new urbanism or books that critique the suburban fiasco, and this really struck me - this woman who no longer had anything could live in this shack. I'd think today she'd either be put in an old folks' home, a mental institution (maybe before Reagan) or be homeless. One of the critiques of suburbia is that anyone unable to drive (under 16 set, the very old) are essentially stranded and quality of life suffers terribly.

4. Class warfare. And not the "class warfare" that the conservatives mean, either. I mean class warfare conducted by elites against everyone else. It seemed like sweet justice that here was the former owner being reduced to working at the same place for the same $3 a day after his fall from grace. But it didn't really change the situation for the better for anyone else, either.

5. Credit card debt. The Tabors essentially lost the mine because they were living on credit. Instead of paying down debt with their huge daily windfall, they kept mortgaging the mine. Eventually the bank took it over. There were chuckles about how silly those people could be in the past...and yet. The data as a NATION as far as credit card debt goes looks not much better.

6. What real work is like. The miner's job was (and I assume still is most places) an awful one. I had a great-grandfather who died from black lung he obtained by mining coal in Pennsylvania. I don't even get my hands dirty at work at all, and don't break a sweat. The biggest danger is repetitive motion injury and such a sedentary lifestyle. I basically live like a king compared to those that did/do real work, even though I'm maybe in the upper-middle class at best. No real deep thoughts there, it just really strikes home when you are reminded of what real work is like.

It's interesting how a short little trip can really get the gears spinning on some topics.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis And Functional Languages

So I've been trying to take seriously the writings of Paul Graham and ESR and give learning Lisp a go (again - learned a bit as a side-effect of some AI courses). And during that endeavor, my mind has been stewing over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The basic idea behind Sapir-Whorf (another recurring topic of RAW's, but I also noticed that it popped up in a book by Clifford Pickover I read recently) is that language determines thought.

It's just that something like this is so hard to measure, that I'll just say that to me, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems correct to me at least in particular instances. Lisp really bring this to the fore, but if you have been through various programming paradigms, you probably already have noticed something similar, if maybe on a smaller scale. I doubt it's just me who has noticed this, and if I remember correctly, the GoF Patterns book as well as Paul Graham made this explicit, but I wonder how many have tied this to Sapir-Whorf.

If you know Design Patterns, think about how this language of common ideas may have changed your thinking. If you went from non-structured programming to procedural (say, Basic or assembler to Pascal) or from procedural programming to OOP, you've probably noticed a change in your thinking.

The leap to really grokking Lisp has really wrapped my mind around the axle, though. I understand why, until Paul Graham started really championing it that it garnered very little interest except among a few anointed. For one, the term "macros" is inherently loaded and doesn't really explain what is possible in Lisp. I won't get into the whole "Lisp is slow" nonsense - anyone familiar with Java will be familiar with this canard which lingers even when Java has been proven to be as fast as, sometimes even faster than, C++.

However, this is a very special case of "languages" - programming languages aim to express thought in a way that is deterministic - unlike most natural languages, and so developers (well, I'll extrapolate my experience here to others) working in a particular language can often start thinking in a language, and so having a language that is designed to carry thoughts into action may have more likelihood of demonstrated Sapir-Whorf to be true...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bucky vs. Bernays - Two Big Thinkers, Two Different Paths

So in the past few weeks, I've finished up two biographies on two men who have a lasting impact on all of humanity, even if most of humanity has not a clue that they do...Edward L. Bernays (Father of Spin) and Buckminster Fuller (Buckminster Fuller's Universe).

The timing was mostly an accident of the Denver library hold system...both holds came through about the same time and so I read both in the same time period. It turns out that they have a lot in common: both believed in thinking really, really big ideas and then setting about trying to realize them.

Both men have huge, lasting impacts. Bernays often promoted himself as the father of PR, and while that's not entirely true, many still look to him for ideas/inspiration in PR. Chomsky constantly uses the phrase "manufacturing|engineering consent" in reference to Bernays. PR influences EVERYTHING in our daily lives - everything from the fatuous like celebrity spokespersons to hard science (see Big Tobacco and Big Energy, for example) to decisions to go to war - see Iraq War I and stories about throwing preemie babies off of ventilators, see Iraq War II for stories about Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch.

The idea of whether there is any "benefit" from PR is dubious at best. Then there's Bucky. Consider: the World Game, front-wheel drive, the geodesic domes and his inspiration for others to even name series of molecules such as fullerenes after him, and even further out, yet-to-be-implemented structures such as Cloud 9 - floating cities based on geodesic domes. Bucky's bio was really quite inspiring to read - it was basically what one man who decided to ignore the profit motive and instead focus on what he could do for humanity's benefit. Sure, almost every feel-good bio you care to pick up will read something like this, but usually it's a bio about something meaningless for humanity such as a celebrity or a sports star. Bucky actually set out to try to solve key issues like sheltering all of humanity cheaply. My thoughts on education mirrors his as well - I've written about this earlier, but I'll recap - I think education in institutions has a certain amount of value (I've done the bachelor's thing, and am considering an MBA), but it also has certain traps and one of the biggest is the tendency to stamp out like-minded individuals to serve institutions. Bucky was mostly self-taught, and virtually his entire life shows this.

On a much more personal note, while my father built the house my mother and my father still live in, my family lived in a yurt for a few years. The finished house also happens to be round as well. I'll have to ask him sometime if he was inspired at all by Bucky to do that, even if it's not a geodesic dome...I know at one point that he had Bucky's Nine Chains to the Moon on his bookshelf.

I've read various RAW books over the years, and obviously RAW admires Bucky very much. Being born after the 60's, I've seen geodesic domes everywhere - I even lived on a commune for a short while at a very young age that had a geodesic dome house. Our school, even in the heart of Pennsyltucky, had a playground that had a geodesic structure for climbing on. I even remember reading Slashdot stories on buckyballs. But until reading RAW constantly flogging just how great Bucky was, I never thought to figure out who was behind all this and read more about him. I'm glad I finally did, and it's yet another reason I continue to value RAW's contributions to humanity, as well. As for Bernays, as an individual, he seemed affable enough, but I think the world could use a few less people trying to manipulate public opinion for corporate profits and government's evil deeds. I could invoke Godwin's Law, and mention the Nazis were apparently fans of his work. But even without the Nazi consideration, ponder this: does this planet need more Eddie Bernays creating more "manufactured wants", or does it need more Buckys trying to actually solve real problems that face real people?

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