Log

Useful ideas surface. The Internet indulges our will to capture the essence before it recedes into oblivion. This medium is inherently subject to the Hawthorne Effect, and tends to amplify the message from ideologues. If everything is amplified, nothing is heard. The signal-to-noise ratio wilts in an endless jungle of voices.

“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out into countless flickering solar systems, there once was a star near which some clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and most untruthful minute of ‘world history,’ but still only a minute. When nature had drawn a few breaths the star solidified and the clever animals died. It was time, too; for although they prided themselves on knowing a lot, they had finally discovered, to their great annoyance, that they knew everything wrongly.

One could invent such a fable, but one would still not have sufficiently illustrated how pathetic, how shadowy and volatile, how useless and arbitrary the human intellect seems within nature. There were eternities in which it did not exist, and when it is gone nothing will have happened. For the intellect has no further mission leading beyond human life. It is human, and only its owner and creator treat it as solemnly as if the hinges of the world turned upon it.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Albert Camus updated the notion once or twice. Albert Einstein, too. Carl Sagan, David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Susan Sontag…and before them all Aristotle and William Shakespeare on a dark, austere day. Such curious fathoming among the future-minded, plying the arts and sciences, in passage to dimensions beyond society’s default thinking. Underneath Nietzsche’s desolate 19th century observation was a subtler disdain for days wasted or idle, and desire to rapidly extend the trajectory of human consciousness. Positivist and negativist find common ground in seeing how tradition, myth, religiosity, the world order and so-called “rational” lines of thought are not silent in their movement through time. Some grow quite noisy, and jam a stick in our spokes. Some “truths” expire, but fight to disappear as slowly as possible. This gives us things to discuss.

(   (  ( ( (( ((( ⋅ timeless angles über alles ⋅ ))) )) ) )    )

⋅ ⋅ ⋅ QUARTERLY ARTICLES   ⋅ ⋅ ⋅

SUMMER 2017: Scavengers & Detritus

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Key Points:

  • Unusual data sets on our leftovers and detritus
  • Perennial scavengers: contemporary format, old technique
  • Forbearance and trash disappearing on a city night
  • Compare/contrast metro-wildland rummaging, hunting and ways of seeing/doing
  • The ancient heart of tracking to observe, hunt, forage and scavenge

Statistical Litter in the Miasma

Without anyone really noticing, the leading edge of Generation X turned 50 a couple years ago, while its trailing ranks are now exiting their 30s posthaste. Despite being smaller in number than the Baby Boomers, the 1965-1980 demographic leaves behind an epic wake of modern-day waste and wastelands. In the process, we’ve encouraged the growth of a corresponding cohort that extracts value from the leftovers.

The value of a thing changes as it is squeezed through a basic, primeval hierarchy: sought, acquired or created, delivered, consumed, cast off, picked up, reformed and consumed again as its value is reset. Eventually, rust and rot emerge to value what we did not. At our worst, Schopenhauer tried to warn us that humans, driven by blind and insatiable will, were metaphysically nothing more than aggressive molds spreading across the surface of an immense rock, which in turn spins unconvincingly in outer space. An exemplary manifestation of philosophical pessimism incarnate, Schopenhauer was a leveler of any aesthetic that wanted to elevate mankind substantially above the league of scavengers, as if our core motive was steeped in the bleak ideology of the cancer cell.

As a generation regards its demise and compost, it reflects upon a prism of collective forfeitures in the natural world. Ultimately the stream of generational consciousness is not just a timeline accruing or a wave of youth dissipating. Identity in a tribal arc esteems higher thought chock full of emotional energy. Distracted by such esoteric pursuits and a dizzying array of new technology, most ignore the accretion of an inelegant exhaust heap as it dislodges itself from the dregs of humanity.

In measuring Gen X’s cumulative outfall of synthetic, impactful trash—a blurry foundational murk spiked with casks of spent nuclear fuel rods destined for Yucca Mountain—they’re on the hook for a larger sheer tonnage of manufactured goods than their forebears. They are also far more detached from any basic connection to the Earth—as in other areas of life, technology often reduces the need for skill and feeling and creates such a distance between us and our origins that we are in danger of no longer sensing the beauty and flow of life as it once was.

[ Yucca Mountain: our remote crypt for radioactive hazmat ]

A bothersome branch of science recently told us that anyone participating in modern society shares partial joint ownership of an utterly trashed and uninhabited “Garbage Island” (Henderson Island)—whether they know it or not, both literally and symbolically. In a way, Garbage Island and the Pacific Garbage Patch are abstractly vital to understanding ourselves as a generation, and how we have dealt some hidden tragic blows to faraway places. On white sandy beaches and azure seas, Henderson’s 57 species of flowering plant can be found intermingled with 40 million pieces of plastic garbage, the highest density of trash ever recorded. A routine survey recently turned into a dismal, startling discovery on the 14.4-square-mile coral atoll, so isolated and inaccessible that UNESCO once declared it a World Heritage Site with a near-pristine island ecosystem. Now it’s besieged with 20 metric tons (mt) of fishing nets, razors, toothbrushes, lighters, water bottles, helmets, factory parts and toy soldiers. A circular ocean current, the South Pacific Gyre, brings in anything that’s suspended in a saltwater conveyor belt. Scientists say more than 3,500 new pieces of plastic waste wash ashore daily. Our waste problem is now its problem, but it’s still our problem. There’s no “away” in the throw-away. Digested and metabolized inside the seabirds, marine mammals and fish are a fraction of the 11 mt of plastic that ends up in the ocean each year. It never completely degrades, and bobs around for decades.

With byproducts of an industrious society roosting in every conceivable nook and the vapors overhead, we couldn’t stop there, and went into the previously desolate zone beyond the Earth. With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, mankind began its journey to reach the stars. The first probe in space returned to Earth after only three short months, and it kicked off a series of launches that not only inspired people but also filled the formerly-uninviting region with large chunks of inert metal. During the first American space walk in 1965, astronaut Edward White lost a glove. For a month the glove orbited the Earth at a speed of 24,000 mph, becoming one of the first pieces of space debris. NASA didn’t fathom how the situation would snowball out of control from there, or how millions of objects would end up floating around the planet by 2017—defunct satellites, rocket boosters, flakes of paint, nuts and bolts and, thanks to the cosmonauts on the Mir space station, drifting blocks of frozen urine. A piece of space debris the size of a coin moves so fast that it imposes the destructive force of a school bus traveling at full speed.

[ Stay fictional, future post-apocalyptic fantasy… ]

More than 50 years of space activity later, it’s a celestial landfill up there: 6,600 satellites have been launched with 3,600 remaining in orbit, and 1,000 of these are still active today. Although it’s difficult to observe exactly how many, most experts think there are 29,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 cm, 670,000 larger than 1 cm and more than 170 million larger than 1 mm. The debris has a total mass of more than 6,300 mt and can travel as fast as 35,000 mph. About 100 to 150 mt of it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere each year, with about 84% disintegrating before impact. While a Gravity-like scenario is unlikely, given the number of avoidance measures NASA is prepared for (the International Space Station is the “most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown”), the velocity and increasing number of space debris is dangerous. Scientists worry about the Kessler syndrome: a scenario where there is so much debris that it would be impossible to launch anything without a high risk of fragmentation. This chain-reaction could mean that our access to space would be lost.

Descending back to terra firma, the psychological landscape is vulnerable to crossover pollution from mistakes made in the tactile world. As a goal, most people agree we’d like to be happy or content enough to wake up without an alarm clock, expressing that we actually want to go out into our world. The situation described above stands to eliminate the urge. Clever ways to remediate and reabsorb tainted substances back into a useful or at least neutral/inert state are underway, and the long view is taking shape toward a less-toxic scheme as we live and learn how to cope with our untidiness or perish.

Our Scavenging Blueprint

Behaviorally, the human race owes a lot of what we are today to the inner scavenger. The evolution of scavenging is as fascinating as it is forgotten by most living in first-world, 21st-century comfort. Contrary to popular belief, in the 1950s Lewis Binford suggested that early humans were obtaining considerable meat via scavenging, not just hunting. To sum up what the two studies (linked above) expand upon: In 2010, several influential archeologists proposed that early Man was a keen scavenger that used stone tools to harvest meat off carcasses and to open bones. Males, in particular, specialized in long-distance running to compete with other scavengers in reaching carcasses. It has been suggested that such an adaptation ensured a food supply that made large brains possible. Further verification appears in Popular Archeology, fanning the concept that crows, raccoons, rats and insects are not too different than people, except in our format we avoid decaying matter enjoyed by the likes of bacteria, maggots and vultures. But inevitably it’s a scene where humans are also vulturine, rapacious and predatory.

The animal kingdom was built on scavenging and depends upon it. The earliest archaeological evidence of humans hunting and scavenging go back 2.2 million years. The first stone tool-making humans, known scientifically as Oldowan hominin, started to exhibit a number of physiological and ecological adaptations that required greater daily energy expenditures, including an increase in brain and body size, heavier investment in their offspring and significant home-range expansion. Demonstrating how these early humans acquired the extra energy they needed to sustain these shifts has been the subject of much debate among researchers. But scavenging was consistently conjured to augment whatever could not be supplied through hunting and gathering.

As a subconscious directive, the scavenging/rummaging act has simply changed formats to keep up with the times. In leaving lower primates in the dust we have foraged and extracted, fought and killed, and sifted through it all as scavengers, in order to assemble a vast industrial megastructure. Eventually the system nimbly tries to absorb what we have made useless, as finished products irreducibly head back into the infrastructure to be cast again as that which is to be scavenged, recycled, or disposed of forever in a hole. There will always be a question of “so, now what are we going to do with it?”

Scavengers & Detritus, Inc.

In the old days, scavenging was a pretty normal way of life. In modern American society and an age of abundance, scavengers are far fewer on a per-capita basis than in the third world. In most US states, there is an explosion of food and materials that goes to waste just outside the door. Very few Americans will stalk away from the store or restaurant for their sustenance. And yet, hidden in the empty spaces some ply the old virtues of enterprise and economy among that which many would call garbage, but what could more nobly be called the merits of the crow and raccoon as it exists in people.

Scavengers are often portrayed as marginal and as the poorest of the poor. This view lacks historical perspective. In both agrarian and industrialized societies, past and present, there is clear evidence that they are not always poor and that they play an important role in supplying raw materials for agriculture, artisans and industry. In fact, scavenging sometimes provides opportunities for individuals to obtain decent incomes and escape poverty. People at the bottom and people at the top; both are scavengers. One harkens back to basics, while the other appears outwardly fancy and sophisticated…yet virtually nothing has changed in our core modus operandi.

Scavengers of San Francisco: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

San Francisco is crowded, unstable, and by all global benchmarks a city of multiple hustles played on a matrix of lax law enforcement and accelerating populations of vagabond drifters, drug addicts and other unscheduled guests by land and sea. Much of the scavenging in SF is centered on recyclable collection and the thievery of higher-value recyclables, though there are freegans and industrious dumpster-diving hobbyists who also seek to exploit the parklands and open spaces. This marginal group possesses a day-to-day ethic for survival that elevates them above the strung-out beggars and paralyzed street schizos. Whether it was Baghdad by the Bay, New York, Miami or any other city, the most industrious scavengers go about their way in sobriety and without shame.

In the districts of San Francisco, we can toss out 10 used-up and busted small appliances, furniture or electronics on the eve of a bulk pickup. Then we see how all but three or four worthless bits of flotsam were spirited away by morning. In the pre-dawn hours the city’s carefully-consolidated garbage, recycling and compost bins are picked over by individuals who later haul perceived goods, bottles and cans to the county’s designated recycling centers (or black-market collectors around corners and under freeway overpasses) and turn trash into cash. The practice is illegal and inflates garbage-collection rates. (Additional links #1 and #2). And yet, this is widely considered a soft crime known for rarely attracting police scrutiny.

On bulk garbage nights, comically-overloaded old pickup trucks prowl the neighborhood for used televisions, broken toaster ovens and 1970s bathroom fixtures dislodged from the constant thrum of renovation and wealth-building. They’ll be back even when it isn’t bulk garbage night. As a result of their avid interest in taking away all manner of redeemable bottles, base metals and anything else that commands garage-sale prices in the underground economy, regular citizens subsidize the loss through higher garbage collection fees. The municipality’s sentiment is split between the irate (who believe a sturdy welfare program exists to obviate the need for illicit income streams and trespassing in the darkness) versus those who are resigned to the realities of dubious resource ownership involving nighttime alleyways and sidewalks (aware of things ripe for the picking on a curb, alone, packaged for removal, and out in the open).

We know the waste management company’s rate hikes would be smaller and less frequent if others would not steal all the cans and bottles from the bins. This material was supposed to fund the pick-up costs; instead it created a cottage industry that doesn’t abide the rules. And since we all recycle now, perhaps the 20th century relic and cash incentive known as “redemption rebate” (at five or ten cents per item) should go away or be modified to accommodate some sort of scavenger’s access, recognizing how subsistence-level living without total humiliation requires finding something meaningful to do while ensuring the residents’ usable fragments of waste are efficiently funneled to a central location.

Foraging and Tracking Afield, Untamed

City scavengers are grid-dependent and needy, while proficient rural scavengers request no aid and rise to the challenge of sustaining themselves in the wild for months or even years if necessary. Nature is the great teacher, and gives ecology its deeper meaning. Inside and beyond the strict needs of a survival situation, we are taught some precious lessons about living with the Earth. Living this way in the fullest is more than mere survival. It is more than the frenzy and desperation that passes for life in much of the modern world. To some, living with the Earth is an intimate belonging.

Most of our lives are far more complicated than those of our ancestors. But beneath our civilized façade we are strikingly the same when it comes to needs, instincts and drives. The main difference is that our senses are duller. But through tracking, foraging, hunting, scavenging and surviving in the wild we can retrieve much of the sensitivity that has been lost. It rarely occurs to us that there is a deeper meaning and wisdom in the artifacts and relics of remote, worn-out societies and cultures, yet we distance ourselves even further by looking at them superficially as museum exhibits. Within the dead cultures are timeless skills adapted from a variety of traditions, catalogued into stories about how to do and make things. American trackers, survivalists and forager-scavengers are based on Native American methods, partly because most people on this continent are more familiar with them.

Civilization has its problems, but also its advantages. Without giving up modern conveniences there are ways of thinking and experiencing “Earth living.” Not to suggest we abandon the modern world, but to live more fully within it. The Native American elders like Black Elk spoke long ago about this awareness given to all of us, pre-tarmac and power lines, where hidden in our hearts there are levels of awareness we have forgotten, waiting to be tapped. Survival and a natural reverence for life go together.

In the process of combing the wild for edibles, useful materials and signs of life, there’s a nearly-invisible marvel in seeing the way tracks can influence our setting and search. Few would really care to trace the raccoon through his nighttime wanderings, being parallel to rats with behavior that has repeatedly morphed within the human-built environment. Before disappearing back into the seclusion of the wilderness or subterranean city lair, a raccoon emerged from the ancient forest to fulfill its identity as a consummate forager. He ate from Tuesday’s junk pile, elderberries from the bush, and several crawfish from the creek behind the house. Not choosy, he will resort to scarfing down putrid, wretched stuff you wouldn’t even call food if he were hungry and desperate enough. As the raccoon tracks into our habitations to forage, we track him back out into the countryside to where he lies down to sleep, and see where there’s forage for humans and wily nocturnal omnivores alike. What does the raccoon pay attention to and what does it ignore behind the furry mask? We can sense a certain similarity even if their routine is alien to us: In order to track and get food when you’re hungry, weather conditions, time of day, lay of the land and state of mind all have to be considered.

These and many other questions are just the beginning of awareness that was inherent in elders such as the mythical Stalking Wolf, who reportedly instilled his wisdom in one modern American master of tracking: Tom Brown. Despite Brown’s contributions to the art, science and spiritual pursuits of tracking and survival, here is no evidence that “Stalking Wolf” ever existed, though he remains as a metaphorical construct.

Like Brown, countless kids grew up on the edge of untamed wildernesses like the Pine Barrens, where the backwoods were still pristine and some people (Pineys) lived off the land. This was the kind of place where a boy could develop a passion for the wild and exploration that during childhood transcends other endeavors. Some long to learn more than just the superficial information that modern life provides. In their bones they want to know how to survive, how to track and locate, how to read the flora and fauna, how to be aware. In the forests we’ve seen how children instinctually behave atavistically and have no problem entertaining themselves to a point of complete absorption, learning and observing.

Only in the complete submersion of awareness does the hunter, forager or scavenger begin to see where there are clandestine signs and roadways worn into the scenery. The trails, runs, pushdowns, beds, lays, feeding areas, water areas, escape routes and hides make up the “signs” found throughout the animal biomes. As the critical reasoning deepens we see how not all parts of a landscape contain life-sustaining features, sharpening the basic faculty that keeps us from looking for deer in the middle of the ocean. For example, the hunter observes how wildlife concentrates in or around a deep forest. A deep forest has poor ground cover due to the upper canopy of treetops blocking out the sun. Poor ground cover means there’s very little diversity in the vegetation and not much refuge. So too the middle of a field may contain great diversity of vegetation but no cover whatsoever. What the hunter looks for is the kind of landscape that sits between forest and field, or between waterways and fields—fringe areas full of life. This one ordinary aspect of tracking expands the basic awareness level and makes excursions into the wild more productive. Tracking teaches us to observe the landscape as a whole, and directs us to where sustenance can be found.

An animal, just like a human, is an instrument played by the landscape. When we search and track, we learn about a life. Each track becomes a word and each trail a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter of an animal’s life. We get to know what it eats, where it sleeps, where it hides, and when it drinks. We intimately learn its likes and dislikes, its interactions with others, and the very world it lives in and travels through. And though issuing from a practical knowledge, tracking subsequently opens a doorway to understanding the animals and landscape spiritually.

Foraging arises from tracking: tracing signs and impressions left by animals and plants as they grow and crisscross the countryside. The hunt, for anything, began with a track that reached back to another time, a distant time, to the dawning of life. An ancient track, found lying on what was once the primordial shore, wrapped in the medium we call a fossil but which native Americans call a “talking stone,” brings us together in the mystery of the track.

Tracking teaches survival, awareness, the way of the Earth and the philosophy Buddhists call “oneness.” A track is a guide to something unknown in the near future, and which draws back to the legacy of previous movement. In this manner the tracking and foraging reaches a lofty, spiritual echelon.

The Atavistic Purity of Scavenging

The hunter or fisherman often comes home empty-handed, but the forager, although he may fail to find the particular item (valuable garbage, commodity scrap metals, plants, herbs, or wild game) can more easily load his knapsack with useful materials, wholesome and palatable food, and other necessities. His quarry will change as the seasons advance, plying the fields and forests that might furnish something good to eat. So can the cities and suburbs, in their own degraded way; for starters, many backyard and alleyway weeds are edible. It costs nothing but the labor of gathering and preparing it, and for a lot of people it goes past the necessity of being economical, and into genuine interest or a source of recreation.

The skilled forager approaches the task with a satisfying sense of love for the wild, even if he’s forced to prepare an unpleasant-tasting mess that relieves not even half the hunger. Scavengers remain flexible, grow adept at quickly substituting one thing for another, and learn to appreciate new flavors. They are non-reactionary in scenarios that polite, pretentious society might call disgusting. Nothing is relegated to the category of an “acquired taste” — all tastes are acquired tastes beyond human milk (which is innate).

Meanwhile, there are staple foods and luxury foods in polished products lining the shelves of a hypermarket near you, and the scene above fades away, made irrelevant in the modern swaddle. A few billion people claim they prefer to buy their fruit and vegetables (among the many grocery categories) from a supermarket for reasons of sanitation and cleanliness, which to the consummate forager looks like one of the more illogical prejudices of all. The devitalized and days-old produce found on most supermarket shelves has been raised in an ordinary monoculture (including the dirt), manured with God-knows-what, and sprayed with poisons a list of which would read like a toxicology textbook. After being harvested by distant migrant workers, it’s handled by processors and distributors and store employees and picked over by hordes of customers.

By contrast, the scavenging forager abides a separate code and admires wild food growing in the clean, uncultivated fields and woods—having never been touched by human hands until they came along to claim it. No artificial inputs with sources of pollution took place around it. Nature’s own methods had instead perfected and maintained the fertility that produced it and no poisonous sprays came nearby it; in this wild way it has never been dirty.

Despite the widespread adoption of conservation measures, one has to wonder what kind of capacity foraging life could withstand, given the current swarm of people on the planet. What methods could we devise to allay the fear that an increased interest (either voluntarily or by force of catastrophe) would result in the depletion or extinction of any of our valuable plants or wildlife in an age of rampant overpopulation?

The Tainted Grid and a Secret Vocation by the Sea

Most Americans won’t have to realize how starving mouths eat with reverent awareness. Euell Gibbons understood this elevated connection better than most. Often mistaken for a survivalist, Gibbons was more modestly an advocate of nutritious-but-neglected plants. He understood the minutiae of coastal and maritime scavenging as a special niche, full of meaning. He was the modern, knowledgeable scavenger-forager displaying his appreciative acceptance of the hidden bounty so graciously offered in a new and deeper way.

Foraging for refuse is seen as inglorious, but there is an art in it, much as there is a lost art in gathering what is abundantly available by scouring the nearby beaches for wild vegetables, herbs and other unusual ingredients to work with. People devise new recipes from the old ways, whether we’re in nature or the filthy, decrepit city. Along the ocean fringe a fascinating experiment lies among the edible seaweeds with their offering of essential minerals. The collection, preparation and enjoyment of nature’s bounty lends credence to our existence. This is why most sacred rites of higher religions involve ceremonial eating and drinking. The modern scavenger achieves communion with the land and sea in the grateful reception of the free gift of food that has never been assembled for gain or sold at a profit, lifting their efforts from an irksome task to a fine art. When done correctly the taste, texture and aroma fuses a sacrament that nourishes the soul as well as the body. When someone goes foraging in the mysterious zone between civilization and the wild, and between the tides, he is not raiding an alien or hostile territory; he is returning to his ancient home and a noble one.

But aren’t these shores all taken up by commercialization and development, ports, resorts and boardwalks, or otherwise ruined by industrial, residential and agricultural pollution? Not all of it. For the seaside forager alone there are 54,000 miles of shoreline in the United States and Canada, another 26,000 if we add Alaska. Add to these all the studded coasts of islands and the nearby shores of Mexico, and the figure rises to 150,000 miles of saltwater shoreline that is largely accessible. Subtract all that civilization has rendered unfit for the kind of foraging advocated here, and there is still a length of tidal shoreline that would reach more than five times around the world. On the US west coast there are still thousands of uninhabited miles of spectacularly beautiful shores where mountain, forest and sea compete for your attention. In southern California, one can find desert scenery and marine landscapes side by side, with shorelines loaded with many edible creatures. Perhaps not in the filthy port of Long Beach, but it’s still out there in the protected spaces. We must ensure that we do not overpopulate and destroy these remaining pockets.

How different things are when a person sets out to really live in contact with nature, gleaning as many needs from natural sources as possible. Alas, 90% or more of Americans have no desire and will never attempt to live off the land for a time. Food is elemental, and when an off-grid individual is given such immediate and compelling reasons to learn nature’s secrets, they will throw themselves into the study with surprising enthusiasm because their next meal may depend upon it. Gathering even a small portion of one’s food from the wild not only brings new and useful knowledge, but changes attitudes. A child who participates in food-gathering in such a basic and original way will never be indifferent to food again. That is the magic of wild foraging. To gain maximum benefit from this activity, it must be approached with the right spirit. We are left, then, to not imagine ourselves engaged as acquisitive raiders in the conquest of nature, as we see all over the cities, but to see nature as a friend with whom we can and must cooperate. This is part of a prehistoric inheritance, seasoned with respect and humility.

The foraging and scavenging vocation isn’t a lost art or a new invention. It has been practiced in America for thousands of years. A renewed fascination begins with the simplest notion:

“The best things in life are free.”

 

SPRING 2017: Desert Photo

Los Angeles / Palm Springs / Joshua Tree

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[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

Key Points:

  • Companion article to 67 new images in the PHOTO section.
  • The photographic tension of Mojave solitude and civilization
  • Tools + specs: iPad photo technique, digital darkroom and image-editing bay
  • Location notes and engrams: Early spring in the desolate place, Desert X and the art scene, the oasis under Mt. San Jacinto, and L.A. in fragments

 Reach into Wildland and Metro Desert for Clues

We live in a vastly complex society which has been able to provide us with a multitude of material things, and this is good. But since at least the 1950s, Americans have been suspecting that we’ve paid a high spiritual price for our plenty. Each person would like to feel that they are an entity, a separate individual capable of independent existence, and this is hard to believe when everything we eat, wear, live in, drive, use or handle has required the cooperative effort of millions of people to produce, process, transport and, eventually, distribute to our hands. “Man” simply must feel he is more than a mere mechanical part in this intrinsically interdependent industrial system. We enjoy the comforts of highly organized production and technology, but don’t we sometimes feel that we are living a secondhand sort of existence, in danger of losing contact with the origins of life and the nature which nourishes it?

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

Fortunately, there is a saving streak of the primitive in all of us who sought to escape the increasing complications of modern life by running off to some remote desert, forsaken pine barren, or windswept South Sea isle to eat coconuts, fish and breadfruit. In retracing ancient instincts upon an otherworldly California desert landscape, I realize how very few of us will ever be faced with the necessity of living off the wild open country for any extended period of time. The venerated outdoor skills, crucial to the survival of our ancestors, are now utilized in the service of recreation.

There’s another prospect that grows larger than brute lifeforms, transcendent and impenetrable in the way it engulfs Los Angeles—if not for bold engineering, next-level tech and the limitless risks of ruthless entrepreneurs straight out of “There Will be Blood,” it really shouldn’t be there in the first place. In some ways L.A. shares ambivalent similarities with Miami, which is as much a sub-tropical jewel of a destination city as it is a foundationless, drained, mosquito-infested mangrove swamp, and not at all linked to human habitation as it sat fetid, gator-choked and brambly at low tide a few hundred years ago. L.A. and Miami know a thing or two about a gentle, balmy breeze on an early December night. There’s an abiding gratification in making exotic, meaningful stuff out of nothing in difficult-but-beautiful places, the way California sets up shop deep in the drought spot directly over the creaky rift zone, somehow one-upping our predecessors by mastering the struggle.

Beyond the population center there is a renewal of interest in faded connections to the primeval. Frame a sublime “memory cache” of stolen feral moments in the empty high desert. Imagine a protected oasis along the salted crust of San Andreas Fault lines where palpable traces of the Pleistocene are still detectable. Getting lost in it wouldn’t descend us into deplorable atavism, but serve as a creative demonstration against the artificiality of our daily lives. We gaze downslope at the glittering L.A. basin power grid and see how we built futuristic sanctuaries, which in turn drove us to seek sanctuary from ourselves.

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

SoCal Identity and Photo Technique

I’m looking for visual themes that offer a vantage point in the cut between “ourselves” on one side and “what’s left of the natural world” on the other, which isn’t new. The camera sways to emphasize spacious high-desert parklands, the substrate, the parched low-desert leisure vibe of abundance, and a sprawling, inscrutable, mirage-like 21st century Los Angeles. To avoid redundancy, make a compendium of flaws and forensic evidence in the environment, architecture, art and cities. Light and shadow play off of one another, beguiling echoes resonate in dust, and we enter the Californian desert chiaroscuro. Nearby we’ve optimistically erected lush resorts by desert hot springs to offset the stressed infrastructure of an arid seaside megalopolis. Its existence grafts the Holocene epoch to the Anthropocene’s opening chapter, accelerating us into a new subdivision of geological time. OK, now I can take the photo.

[ s. hansen / ISO50 ]

Desert Photo Kit / Tools / Specs

I hiked with a minimalist backpack in Mojave Desert altitudes ranging from 3,000′ to 5,500′ feet, putting in 18 trail miles over two days. The more strenuous routes led to open, untrammeled terrain “out the back,” multiple clicks away from the nearest tourist hive. To lighten the load, the Nikon DSLR kit was left at home. I quickly found out that the iPad Pro 9.7” is one fine and tolerable “downgrade” (with a lightweight tripod/mount on hand to steady about 40% of shots), and I think it worked better than most other digital cameras in the sub-DSLR tier. On this excursion I want to be unencumbered enough to jump boulders and climb rock faces. The tablet’s impressive 12.2 megapixel rig far surpassed my low performance expectation. The trade-offs and limitations were understood with a fixed f/2.2 aperture and tiny light sensor, all in the absence of professional lenses. There was a forgivable lack of sharpness that required digital darkroom mojo correction.

Heading into Palm Springs and L.A., I put in a dozen or so urban hiking miles to boot, and filled gaps in the rigid itinerary with unstructured wandering. On days one and five (out of seven), I took no pictures at all.

Afterward, the 70 or so “keeper” photos (out of 410 total) were methodically processed through the iPad’s native image editing software, then tweaked stepwise through a combination of apps (props to Hipstamatic, AfterLight, Luminance, Snapseed and Diptic) and the Adobe desktop suite (Photoshop/Lightroom with Exposure 2.0 plug-in). It’s easy to manipulate photo-realism and bring back the look of dead films from the 1960s and 70s once you find the time and the discipline not to overdo it. I kept a full-sized set of RAW/JPEGs of up to 6MB, then created a reduced, optimized set for web galleries (see PHOTO page for full set). Much of the initial file quality was preserved while compressing them down to 7% of the originals. To the discerning eye, there’s a compromise of quality versus download speed. On the web, your intended color and saturation shifts slightly, and vague pixelation/artifacts are introduced. By contrast, originals bring finer detail and correct color output for physical prints and blowups. Every photographer wants that clarity and smoothness. I had a few choice images printed professionally, revealing just how shockingly well the wafer-thin iPad did its thing in terms of technical proficiency, given how it still lacked the tack-sharp detail and macro, telephoto, manual capabilities of the Nikon.

[ Panamint Range, Death Valley ]

Three Distinct Locations

The trip was timed with a late-winter wildflower explosion in the lower elevations, following several months of flooding rains that ended a five-year drought. California would eventually go on to break its old winter rain/snowfall records as a string of “atmospheric river” storms flowed into April.

Location #1: Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, and the remote installation of Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Purifoy was an L.A.-based junk Dada-style visionary in his own niche. His site-specific environment plays upon industrial deterioration as it succumbs to sun, wind and time. We can see something fresh in the falling-apart, the traces of on-site vandalism, the softening of edges more than a decade after the artist’s death. If you look at before/after photos using 2005 and 2017 for comparison, you notice how some souvenir-level theft has occurred recently, enabled by open access and site usage operating on the honor system. In these days of GPS-everything it’s nice to ply the scarce remaining outlands, baffled by poor signage, down a series of kinky rural dirt roads devoid of people or street lights. The artist’s intention, apparently, was to deliberately let this anonymous slab of desert slowly reabsorb his work as it decays, so that it is always changing and adding patina.

[ Arch Rock and Geminid Meteor / Joshua Tree N.P. ]

Joshua Tree National Park has a raw, unearthly vortex-like energy that’s amplified by tactically avoiding crowded days, times and attractions near the main roads. It’s the size of Rhode Island, so there are various veiled reserves in and around the park boundary where idylls of solitude can be found. Obscure or remote locations also increase the odds for unique imagery and wildlife encounters.

[ “Circle of Land and Sky,” Palm Desert (PK Smith III) ]

Location #2 summed up Palm Springs through the lens of mid-century modern architect Albert Frey’s iconic perch over California’s premiere desert playground. These photos strive to illustrate the splendor of enduring design through degradation over time. To no one’s surprise, even the cracks, weather damage and aging surfaces can develop more beautifully as they meld with their surroundings, inhabitants and 20,000 sunsets (if you measure the days from the 1960s-today). It is preserved, yet never updated. Gaps, warped details and distortions test the old structure like a silent tutelage, and render parts of it timeless. Frey is a true legend in Palm Springs, blending Bauhaus, Swiss, Frank Lloyd Wright and other styles before adapting them to the desert, his muse. He also designed many of the city’s iconic municipal buildings, which are now tended under official historical conservation methods.

[ inside view ]

Above Palm Springs looms Mount San Jacinto, a towering snow-topped tectonic shard of rock that throws an imposing evening shadow over the Coachella Valley. I was also in town for Desert X and Modernism Week simultaneously. Inspiring, cool and uncanny…out there in a windswept sandstorm lives a distinct and vibrant desert art/design scene. The billboard photos (below) show just one of several clever Desert X installations. On the main road into Palm Springs (Gene Autry Trail), four “ads” were set up to show a continuation of the exact mountain profile that lined up on the horizon behind the signs, temporarily “paying” to reclaim the disrupted view from commercial interests:

[ “Visible Distance / Second Sight,” Palm Springs (J. Bolande) ]

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Location #3 hits the final stretch to Los Angeles with a side focus on the downtown (DTLA) art circuit, including The Broad Museum, LACMA, MOCA, and the LA Art Book Fair at Geffen Contemporary MOCA in Little Tokyo. In the Mid-Wilshire LACMA backyard, there is an unlikely rendezvous of fossil-rich tar pits and Levitated Mass. Doug Aitken was on display at MOCA, and he also has a new project off the coast of L.A. near Catalina Island.

[ “Mirage,” Desert Palisades (D. Aitken) ]

.[ inside view ]

.[ same room, reverse, facing Palm Springs, 4 hours later ]

No one can smell the beach in DTLA. It’s set back on a petroleum-laced promontory and there is a vibe in the night, the constancy of movement, and the gathering of a global talent pool. It’s natural to draw on that atmosphere, attempt to identify with the hidden subtext of a city, then point to something that says “this is the emblem of L.A.” When it comes to photography, here’s a city that’s been loved to death, which means long intervals of “why bother.” The camera almost never came out. It has to want to come out, and won’t be lured by redundant bullshit.

[ DTLA / Rooftop ]

Infinite L.A.

How to describe what it feels like to experience the inside of artist Yayoi Kusama’s enigmatic Infinity Mirror Room at The Broad Museum? Booking the museum’s miserly, almost cruel 60-second time slot to see the perpetually sold-out exhibit ends up being quite the logistical chore. This merely adds to its flavor and the precious value of each second. Yayoi Kusama is 87 years old. The curators at the Broad and other museums try to intellectualize what her body of work is about, but the answer ends up being painfully simple. As Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post once said, Kusama has been obsessed with one goal:

“Grappling with the fundamental fear that animates religion:
the sense of bewilderment that we are thrown into life
without having ever been asked to participate,
and the only way out of this mess is death.”

Now there’s a dry dose of logic to quicken the pulse. The car pulls off a fabled Mulholland Drive lookout just before midnight, L.A. does its reverse Infinity Mirror Room impression in twinkling points of light, competing with the stars, and we’re grounded in this desert spectacle.

[ Infinity Mirror Room silhouette ]

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WINTER 2017: Lyrics Deconstruction Project #1

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Key Points:

  • Deciphering lyrical fictions and mining for “truth” in a post-truth era
  • Misinformation, misinterpretation, and their potential for social chaos
  • In the absence of sanctuary, revolution surfaces as an outlet for survival

This installment activates what will be an intermittent series of lyrical deconstructions. What makes a song worthwhile, worth writing? When we inspect the riggings, the dialectic develops. What makes the story inside a song worth paying money for? That it got into the stuff that binds us, summed it up, revealed a new layer, or reverberated with primal sparks unknown. Outside the selfish part, how does the skillful songwriter provoke chills, elevated moods or poignant sadness from the idle, receptive listener? In this day and age, when every angle has been scoured for hits and Grammys, at a time when the eyeless mind of algorithms can scan the entire code of history’s collected musical works as a means to “write” catchy auto-tuned hooks from within the defective hologram of artificial intelligence, why bother? Because the data cannot undermine what is truly human. How does a musician establish presence or form a group unless they’re going to top everything that led up to this? When does music dodge contrivance, then uplift beyond repetition and the vanity of its creator to transcend all space and time with its depth and meaning? In the sonic alchemy, what makes “Dust in the Wind,” trap, jazz and death metal resonate from Georgia to Japan and Kyrgyzstan?

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Background for LDP

There exists a blueprint grafted to an intention, driven to interpret the culture, and carve out a musical niche. The good ones elicit gut reactions, wandering thoughts, a momentary pleasantry on days when they are in short supply. I have roughly 20 fully formed, original songs prepared for a concept album or two; it’s all based on a substrate of alt-rock/pop blended with techno/electronica. This refined set hatched out of a little running side project that began in my 30s, building itself in the background through a series of creative bursts. The main priority and guiding rule for every song in the batch was to avoid personalizing the material, instead gathering the meaning from the outside world, as if I were a detached receiver/processor. Metaphor, as opposed to experience, though the latter inevitably seeps in. I’ve noticed how various filmmakers such as Werner Herzog operate on a similar level of separation. The care devoted to minimizing my own presence or id from the soundscape is a way of serving as a shielded conduit, to let the music come through from somewhere else, and descend upon the listener filtered by a neurological process unpolluted by emotion. This mode just might be a meticulous gimmick. Maybe I’ve eaten my own static to think otherwise. Skimming the surface of the Earth for lyrical input we are afforded a twisted opportunity to seek the lie that gets to a higher truth, the way fiction can sometimes supersede fact in carrying the core meaning of a thing.

We see examples in nature that aim to conjoin the concrete with the esoteric. The disconnected, observational flair of a song should likewise consolidate and organize it all, and make the zeitgeist something compact, tasty and musical. I think we can more clearly see the shifts in culture if we don’t get in the way of it. It is convenient to be absolved from delving into the songwriter’s psyche. Isolated from the self and yonder, there is something loftier to tune into. Afterward, tell them what I/we/they saw, and send it through the audience feedback loop via the music-oriented logic processing devices seated in the active subconscious.

All LDP lyrics are pulled from complete (or near-done) scores for future EPs or albums under the Lights in Satellites moniker. It’d be nice to see some of these get to the finish line in the studio in the next year or two. When you make a song materialize from smoke and ether, and tether it to a tune, you sort-of become the “boss” of that song. Although the drum tracks, basslines and primary melodies are already settled, anyone collaborating on these songs would be given the leeway to independently deduce the guitar, bass and electronic/keyboard sound pathway that waits beyond what’s been pre-scored against the lyrics; I would set a foundation but also rely on hive-minded interdependency to build out the rest of this sonic house.

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LDP1: “Sanctuary?”

Revolution, as in hard revolution? Not so constructive, often reductive and flawed. Frequently over-romanticized. No thanks. Don’t want one. The aggressive, edgy charm it connotes lays false bedrock on a treasured and deeply cool pop-culture notion: “Rather than offer concession or treaty, I would prefer all of creation burn if I could rule over the ashes.” So the object was to write a song about “safety” among those who ironically would gladly destroy the other. That is the root premise for the lyrics and composition of “Sanctuary?”

The subtext focuses on a loud and impulsive sub-population co-opted by paper tigers who suffer a shortage of power in the follow-through, but they’re no doubt “angry at something.” There is a perceived alien supremacy hanging over their heads that they would like to lay low. They’ll go to their deaths having never seen any actual revolution, but in cinematic fashion they’re coming like a herd of wild buffalo chased by killer bees. There is a mirage-like notion that the righteous horde is always, perpetually “one town away.” It is discomfiting that they might break down your door in the night.

We’re better off when we solve things without pretending it requires revolution, upending civility and sowing chaos. There’s a flaky balm of delusional certainty that maybe needs to be in place for a revolution to succeed, and slakes the inner wimp lurking within the revolutionary, as with any ordinary person. In so doing they are forcing bluffs to be called, perhaps accompanied by the roll-out of vigorous Socratic method designed to take desolate conspiracy theories to task, and a thorny flushing out of sociopaths. Things get dangerous, and can end badly. There’s a frantic glamorizing of revolution as neutrality is cast aside, leading to mania and tipping points, often by those who have no concept about just how scary it is for humankind to rejoin the primitive ways of the jungle.

Songs are never perfect, and purposely go lacking intellectual rigor. It seems as good a medium as any to attempt a deconstruction of the perpetually-unfulfilled, Don Quixote-like quest to instill utopian world orders. To add structure, the song ties itself into a future state, a dystopian maze run akin to “Logan’s Run” as a metaphor of choices, etc., which serves as an arrow through the target/base subject of the tune. In so doing, I think the song stabilizes its ability to deliver horror in the abstract. So that’s the whole vibe and alchemy in the process.

Some people love the idea of a revolution as a public relations tool instead of entering the lion’s den of political intrigue. It gets applied differently across the ages and conditions, which blend and customize the act of revolution. We can feel the energy of those who are restless with revolt, and long for further battle, but must pause to ask:

How can things be solved through violent revolution?

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SANCTUARY?

Revolution, they say…a revolution, and it’s one town away
It’s just one town away… Revolution, they say
it’s a broken ankh
and a drop of blood,
between them stands
a shaft of wheat.

Pixelated text on corrupted code
they’d like a byte of another node,
it’s the advance guard of non-negotiable future shock,
defiance made ya look good…
You look good, hell yeah
and then the moment’s…gone.

[instrumental]

Icy knife in the eye, drowned in a malcontent’s roar
wiped away the innuendo, dropped a bomb at the door;
Blue Zone alarm’s going off—NOW—it’s blinking, blinking, blinking…
They didn’t see me vaulting o’er the wall,
unfazed and fell into a clearing
silence we’re hearing, spotting lasers and dead-stares
splitting memetic hairs
bending peculiarities, upon peculiarities
sunset’s resistance, despite your charities
across all distance without a witness forced a plea for relief…

And so—Revolution—they say
a revolution, one town away,
it’s just one town away…
A Bloody Revolution, they say…
Revolution, and it’s one town away.

[instrument build]

Chalked the outline on the asphalt…vapor trail conjured a crime spree
as it pushed us due west, sustaining shots to the chest
ashen and stumbling,
disrupted drones rumbling
in an empty place,
infrared scanners and mace,
spies and special ops co-opted, sifted and lifted through the night
eeeeooo-yooooo-yoooooooooooooooo…Revolution! They say…
A bloody revolution, and it’s one town away…
It’s just one town away.

 [END]

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Revolution, Survival and Thomas Paine

Let’s face it—we live in an increasingly unstable, fractious society. You can cut the political tension with a knife. There also seems to be very thin lines of order between categories of people—race, religion and class warfare destabilize relations, make headlines and get amplified through activist movements. It is undeniable that something unhealthy is brewing. Our world is in a pressure cooker and at some point a seal on the lid is going to blow. An incubator for revolution boils inside. Pragmatism and moral high ground can be lost, and when that happens, it opens the door for disorder. It certainly isn’t a bad idea to have some basic survival skills under your belt just in case the heat reaches your doorstep. It goes back to the essential: Everything man-made, including our social constructs, can and will fail you. Survival without those things is not fun.

Planes crash, dams burst, nuclear power plants melt down, gas pipe-lines blow, power grids go dark, and foul weather strikes; the crisis list goes on and on. The talent for survival prepares us for the unavoidable times when the man-made utilities and luxuries we depend on fail us. Getting jacked by roving mobs is also on the agenda. Knowledge is always with you no matter where you are or where you go. Knowledge doesn’t require a power source or telephone service. It isn’t dependent on fuel or batteries. It’s there when you need it—regardless of the circumstances. As past catastrophic revolutions and failed revolutions have shown, supply lines gets severed, cars run out of gas on the highway, fires ravage, bridges collapse and innocent people are forced to navigate the aftermath. We live in a crazy world. You must prepare for and expect the craziness. Thinking “it will never happen to me” isn’t a positive affirmation, it’s merely a gullible optimism that ignores the realm of sanity.

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The song “Sanctuary?” was born on the reflection of revolution, but obviously not forged from the fires of it; in this environment, authenticity can suffer from a deficiency of axiomatic wisdom. In the absence of my own “living source” material, perhaps Thomas Paine—whom historians portrayed as a man of integrity, agitation, and courageous conviction pining dearly for revolt—said it best from his hands-on experience during a life spent generally being a bad-ass dissenter. His pamphlet The American Crisis (1776) is a classic of political rhetoric. Most arresting are its stirring opening lines:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

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AUTUMN 2016 / I: Exit Facebook

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“WEIGHTLESS” / AMBIENT TRANSMISSIONS / MARCONI UNION

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Key Points:

  • Examination of a pragmatic outlier and deserter of social media accounts
  • The Facebook/Twitter lifestyle ripples with blowback, undermining our ability to concentrate (on work, our surroundings and other human beings)
  • Low-key virtues of detached disinformation in an age of digital fetishism
  • Social media is but one consumable in The Stack
  • Authority hides in the Overton Window and participatory surveillance
  • Art of social scarcity and forgotten power of absence
  • Anatomy of a disconnect

Cause for and against Social Media Abandonment

The overshare—you know the moment. Just look how long this article is, so you know I’m about to do it. Its definition is subjective and fluid, but it’s out there, happening all the time; it strikes an arpeggiated chord within the ruling inner faculties. Perhaps you thought you gave the data reapers little. The hints about your life and identity were buried, obscure, scarce and sporadic. And that might already be too much. Staved off some ephemeral ennui with a slip of the tongue/keyboard, but overdid it. With eyes wide open, a multigenerational cross-section of society joined a post-privacy era, no membership card, to observe contaminated pathways of social validation in a digital age. The slanted crystal window of software processed distortions of unknowable sentient beings, and made coded diagnoses, the kind inspired by fictionalized prototypes like HAL 9K. The tireless algorithm “enjoys” unencrypting and assimilating the biological realm it was never a part of. An undeniable logic, sifting through your mental metadata, it wants to know a baby before it is born. A social media-styled life offers something utilitarian but also fraught with a paradox of hedonism and the wary millions circling for access, intrusion, whatever you want to call it…while parts of it defy description. Truth-telling is good for the soul, bringing reflection upon complicity and hypocrisy in the Thunder Dome of social media.

The online political earthquake of grievances before and after major global upset phenomena like the UK’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential elections unleashed an enormous rush of tweets/posts/memes fighting for mindshare in the central neural net. They scan for ways to elicit shivers and rally the noncommittal, encouraging psychosomatic reactions normally reserved for the original world outside the screen. Amidst the swarm of emotion, a machine is quietly committing heads and hearts to peak traffic and a barrage of advertising. Having even briefly or intermittently wallowed, a select sub-population might one day find out how best to say goodbye to this ultramodern communications test bed.

Electronic social media has made cultivating friendships and connections easier, but shallower. Without colluding with it directly, Facebook’s popularity has taken off mostly without me and risen to the point of becoming the digital home base and validation station for first-world life, at which point users demand that the platform be capable of managing the complexities of human interaction. As its intellectual property (IP) grew into our backyards, how much could we complain when we collectively made it this way? Now it doesn’t matter if you “need your space” or take a time capsule back to 2005 and reset the socially media-driven side of the much larger technology-based New World Order. It brings parallel rods of treasure and poison—same as our 3D life—plus the ability to set off outbreaks of alarming invasiveness. Inevitably, some say, the day comes when too much innovation is traumatic, and can lead to revolt, internally or otherwise. This also ushers in a counter-move to disconnect or slow it down.

Everyone understands the need for change in the abstract, but on the day-to-day level people are creatures of habit. In an illuminating dichotomy, people also don’t want to cling to nostalgia or tokens of the past; the rapid pace of technology and next-level artificial intelligence (AI) creates dissonance and mirroring effects of varying degrees, depending on how much or how deeply the user interacts with Facebook, its features, and how they expressed the outgoing “life content stream” they custom-edited for public consumption on the web. The Hawthorne Effect is well, in full effect, and we enter a hall of mirrors…

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The Downside

A brief cynic’s quiz should reveal your position before you dedicate any serious amount of time to the subject at hand: Is your Facebook feed a black hole of completely worthless information? Some say yes, almost certainly. Others claim its roles in the professional, academic and scientific spheres (and elsewhere) are vital, as is its power to create opportunities in general—nobody wants to be invisible to the job market, and social media is now its primary conveyance. Do you enjoy the forfeiture of your privacy? You do realize the first thing a potential employer will do after interviewing you is look you up on Facebook. They are basically searching for any and every reason not to hire you. Most of the people you’re dating are running FBI-level background checks on you at the flick of an index finger, and so are your neighbors. Do you still require an overbearing parent in your life? If you use Facebook a lot, you obviously do. Facebook proactively controls the discourse of its children, eagerly censoring content that might rub someone the wrong way. Do you like seeing how Facebook can bring out the vileness in people? Counterintuitively, the Internet often liberates people to be their worst selves; on the spectrum of orators, activists and firebrands, we also get bombarded by ruthless trolls, stalkers and “doxers.” The energy is frenetic.

The Upside

Next, kick said cynic to curb (even if merely to play devil’s advocate). There is a lot of natural talent and brilliance on display across the web and blogosphere. Uncanny achievements surface from the swamp and take flight. The next Leonardo da Vinci might soon be procured from the digital seed bank as the mediocre get sorted out from a wafer-thin Group A. Some onboard to social media and quickly become attached to their digital avatars and a crossover identity, only to eventually have their dreams crushed and bulldozed (at least temporarily), and move on to more practical matters, having lost pole position and tripped down the ranks. It gives us exposure to a concept that high IQ cannot explain future achievement, and big ideas occasionally erupt from hidden places. This is one of many facets that make the social media landscape interesting. Social media can help answer some of our most important questions over talent and hierarchy, exceptional things that actually drive the human race forward through unprecedented levels of collaborative thought. Mozarts will be revealed.

Does Facebook have any redeeming qualities? It’s hard to completely deny the merits. This brings us to what would be a long digression into technology and its place in society in general, and is beyond the reach of this article. Sufficiently said, Facebook is a step forward when it comes to managing our social lives in the real world. It is a lot easier to retain a messaging network with distant relatives or create an event and summon everyone you know with a few clicks than it is to call people one-by-one or send circular, irritating email chain letters. In this day and age, more than one billion users think firing Facebook entirely is like giving up the cell phone, so they meld with the agenda.

In weighing the pros and cons, all social media is a double-edged sword, and is inert in its unused state. It has the power to be damaging and helpful in the same package. If you’re using it to build a brand or a business then it could be a good investment of your time, simply because so many people actively use it. We’ve also witnessed the joy it brings to older users connecting with long lost friends they haven’t seen in decades. But the truth is that in many cases, Facebook does cause more trouble than it’s worth, with worth being measured by delving deep and finding useful things in the Facebook Matrix.

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Beyond Polarity, a Narrative of Ambivalent Passivity

The positive veneer of uninterrupted network contact and “likes” can mask a world that seems increasingly beyond our control. Our livelihoods are often at the whim of globalized forces, social media being one of them. The problems that we face—economic, environmental, etc.—cannot be solved by our individual actions. Our politicians are distant and unresponsive to our desires. A natural reaction when people feel overwhelmed is to gather in forums or retreat into various forms of passivity; you could call unplugging yourself from social media a passive withdrawal from the mainstream. If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our sphere of action, we can give ourselves the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less the chances of failure. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determines much of what we do; we are products of our times; the individual is just a myth; human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends. When we are harnessed to Facebook, or piped into Google’s DeepMind or the like, an unseen trap is sprung when the rebuke of passivity does nothing to slow Facebook and the new world communications order it’s supposedly helping give rise to. We’ll eventually be left to explore why Facebook prefers your passivity and the sleep of reason. It does not want you to discover the affirmative ethos of “Exit Facebook.”

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Mediated passivity in the digital garden creates a grand delusion of reward for being lazy. The fact that someone might have to expend much effort to get what they want out of life has been eroded by the proliferation of devices that do so much of the work for them, fostering the idea that they deserve all of this, and they can inherently consume what they want. So we get to this decayed affirmation in the vein of “Why bother working for years to attain mastery when we can have so much power with very little effort in cyberspace? Technology will solve everything.” This passivity has even assumed a moral stance: “Mastery and power are evil; they are the domain and dogma of patriarchal elites who oppress us; power is inherently bad; better to opt out of the system altogether,” or at least make it look that way. Many have exited Facebook because they see their attempt at attaining mastery as something extremely necessary and positive. The world is teeming with problems, many of them of our own creation. To solve them will require a tremendous amount of effort and creativity. Relying on genetics, technology, magic, pleasant religious bromides or being nice and neutral will not save us. What we won’t find wasting time on Facebook is the energy required not only to address practical matters, but also to forge new institutions and orders that fit our changed circumstances. We are constantly reminded of why we need to find our way back to the conception of mastery that defined us as a species so many millions of years ago, in order to operate the world and move it forward. This is not mastery for the purpose of dominating nature or other people, but for determining our fate. A passive attitude cannot survive in this atmosphere.

The passive-ironic attitude we see all over Facebook (and the “Facebook Life” it has been leaking all over the rest of our world) is not cool or romantic, but pathetic and destructive. We were told once by elders that we are setting an example of what can be achieved as a master in the modern world. We are contributing to the most important cause of all—the survival and prosperity of the human race in times of strife or stagnation. It may take a profound willpower to shake young and future generations from the disconnect of chasing Facebook versus real-world needs and to keep it from hard-wiring the thoughts that determine the functionality of the mental landscape.

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Sleeping through this at our Peril

Before fading too far down some faux highbrow negativist rabbit hole, an unrefined clarity of “basics” supersedes everything written above—Facebook has led itself to exactly what it has already revealed itself to be: The most blithely megalomaniacal, data-sucking company on Earth; a vast and ominous succubus of information (mostly of the self/psychology) and potent, AI-driven conduit through which forcibly flows all human activity, both social and domestic, public and personal. It is 100% housed and parsed in remote and all-encompassing databases with open options to recombine themselves with other databases and next-generation algorithms. It develops a subversive understanding of what you are in the simulacra and tries not to spook you, so as to defuse wariness and exploit desires. Sleep and reveal. Five hundred or so years ago in a feudal age of shoguns and rōnin this type of insidious soul extraction might have been called witchcraft, followed by recalibration hunts and beheadings. And like witchcraft or the backstory to some fabled, tainted Eden, wanted and unwanted knowledge is delivered in a tasty Apple, the lustrous code is caramelized, and ushers us sweetly into the hall of temptations with free, 24-7 access and the promise of happiness, social/career promotion and the big mushy alphanumeric hug of all-consuming “likes” (the default emotion for everything in the FB walled garden). This is digital fetishism and, when you’re submerged in it, it creates a new kind of You. Even as you feel as though you are engaging in a free and conscious choice, it’s detecting patterns and “harvest points” in your identity. If people are naïve or stupid enough to detail their everyday experiences and share on social media they should not be surprised if it bites them on the nose five years down the line. There was a quaint era when Americans valued privacy beyond the long-form government census at once-per-decade intervals; now we have this.

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Facebook is a latticework for the planet’s largest ongoing conversation, and a relentless data-mining wonderland/wasteland. Beyond coping with its sheer scope, on the inside we see the part of FB’s programming that’s exclusively built by us as a reflection of society itself, and the mob mentality in the world of ideas. When the music stops, whose career just got destroyed, what gossip-y kid is going to catch fresh shit at the playground tomorrow and whose reputation was ruined because their behavior offended a morally pitiless and self-righteous digital mob? Another downside is that we often see what our friends’ political beliefs and value systems look like. Judgment follows; are you “with” or “versus” the central narrative of the zeitgeist?

There is the obvious reason why someone would want to cut back on the Facebook usage, namely that it is a perpetual sump for one’s time and attention. Facebook is a productivity vacuum, and while that fact seems to be lost on Millennials, it is clear to me that my fellow Gen-Xers are well aware of it. However, I believe there are deeper and more troubling reasons why we should seek to eliminate or mitigate our use of mass-social media platforms like Facebook: namely, that Facebook is riven with dehumanizing, emasculated, politically-correct groupthink cooked in an Orwellian nightmare.

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“Wasn’t me.”

Facebook’s Dusty Dead End

Small Picture, Digital Individual: Material/Immaterial Self

In the course of my wanderings, I’ve begun swimming upstream against the idea that Internet-driven social media is some great masterpiece of human civilization. At first it was innocent and breezy—I logged on in 2008 and saw how the material world that used to be densely physical could become a frictionless, weightless, fantastic abstraction. Marshall McLuhan could hardly imagine how his dark, logical media prophecies would come to fruition: Just assume you’re being recorded and people will behave accordingly. Combine the Facebook Matrix with a smartphone, and what do you have? A scenario where practically anyone can be intruded upon, not only at some fixed address, but everywhere and at all times. Before this, I had expectations that were ordinary—that during the course of the day I could be left alone, unobserved, occasionally unsustained and unburdened by public or familial roles. That era has now come to an end.

A newly pervasive, permeable, transient sense of self has replaced what William James called the “material self” (the experience and emotion that exists within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in unchanging tangible objects) has migrated to the phone and digital “cloud,” and is subject to the shapeshifting judgments of the crowd. Like the target of Earth’s heaviest and most muscular living snake—the anaconda—a person can be figuratively killed by the pressure of mass opinion alone; Twitter can squeeze its victims so tightly that their circulation ceases and, as prey, they suffocate and drop off as a casualty of the social media panopticon. It happens every day and crosses over into the mudslinging mainstream media instantaneously; punishment and drama sells, so they manufacture it. Some ersatz “journalists” simply amplify Twitter, Instagram and FB feeds and call it tabloid news. They can’t even be bothered to do the groundwork or fall back on messy journalistic ethics.

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Experience can never be archived, preserved, or duplicated. Emotions cannot be conveyed digitally. On Facebook, we replace any true emotional connection with others in the form of “likes.” This is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s system of Newspeak. “Double-plus good,” in Nineteen Eighty-Fourwas an attempt to quantify and roboticize the unquantifiability of mankind’s spiritual and emotional nature. It is hideously reductive.

If this side of the social media matrix is mismanaged, it can cause real-life and even legal consequences for you. It’s not a harmless toy anymore, and the Millennials dig in and absolutely work for it; their parents are nearly powerless to stop them. This is how the social media faithful develop and evolve—the events of your life did not really happen unless they were archived in the Matrix. Your thoughts are continually referencing how and when and what experiences and emotions should be posted, boasted, vented and validated on the Matrix. The social media matrix has an ever-increasing percentage of the human race in it, so it’s tipped over the critical mass to become the status quo. It is used by governments and law enforcement personnel to help spread propaganda, root out dissenters and entrap those that commit victimless crimes. At the very least, you ought to assume you’ll get “unfriended” (there goes the 1984-speak again) if you point out any statistical red herrings in a contentious subject like the gender income inequality gap or race politics. In the manner of picking a poison, do you stick by your principles or crumble into a frustrated, formless mound of passivity?

Should FB and its ilk be avoided for the sake of your own health and sanity? Is it essentially reengineering our cognitive functioning abilities, and as a result, leading to this epidemic of people who seek instant gratification and can no longer have the willingness or the discipline of developing patience? While the Internet and the capacity of smartphones provided us the ability to interact and get in touch with our loved ones and people who live far away, it is nonetheless a hindrance on our capabilities of actually being human.

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Data digital flow

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Big Picture, Encoded Individual:

Your Presence is Requested in “The Stack”

Each and every web site and web user is subject to the Google drones’ all-seeing multiple eyes of Sauron, a Skynet-like sweeper program with never-ending arrays of boxes to check off as it refines itself (and linked to an entity the NSA doesn’t even attempt to mask as SKYNET). Monitoring and surveillance. Time begets growth, when some grow jaded and cease frolicking openly in the lush landscape of Internet CGIcandy® interspersed with noxious herds of obsequious groupthinkers. To tamp down, sit back and put the pieces together, the unfamiliar calm can reveal how smart grids, cloud platforms, mobile apps, the Internet of Things and automation are like novel species evolving on their own, yet forming a coherent whole as they crunch Us into numbers—an accidental megastructure called The Stack that is both a computational apparatus and a new governing architecture for the human race. We are inside The Stack and it is inside of us. We fool ourselves to think we’ve placed distance from it by turning off the phone or PC. That phone actually doesn’t even turn off; “off” is an illusion Apple and Samsung wanted you to feel good about. That button is a marketing gimmick. You have to break and pry open the sealed case, then awkwardly rip out a user-unfriendly battery to truly stop the signal. In this little black slice of life your identity is a crop to be picked and your emojified feelings waft through The Stack as the Technorati gather to thin-slice your marketing profile. As your rights to privacy are whittled down, Facebook and Google send off a whiff of their more nefarious plans to be the omniscient, money-sucking catch-all for life in the simulacra. Then they feed your data to the NSA and FBI, and make yet more money, this time by siphoning tax dollars. And you? You’ll get nothing and “like” it.

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Facebook Shifts the Overton Window (and free speech)

After further contemplation, society was forced to change its earlier perspective about what Mark Zuckerberg wrought, and what his central tenet was exactly. One way of looking at it is that in our age, you can create a fortune out of rubbish, out of stuff that’s discarded. The trick is in how cleverly you posit these images and ideas, so that they are “made unique” once more even if they were originally mass produced. This is where your online identity gets recycled and assimilated into next-level AI. Zuckerberg clearly understood this in a whole new way, and gained watershed leverage worthy of Hollywood biopics before 30. But as it gained momentum, one of the keys to Zuckerberg’s ascendancy meant tethering FB’s digital social hub to the esoteric engines of the tech illuminati. World-moving shifts could be orchestrated from within, games of disinformation could be tested in the programmer’s “God mode”…the mental experimentation options were seemingly endless. These moves, classically thrust into a somewhat hidden ruling concept called the Overton Window (or window of discourse), get precocious entrepreneurs invited to hear heartfelt recitations of Marcus Aurelius proverbs over crustless egg sandwiches in Bohemian Grove by age 29.

As Zuckerberg engineers Facebook to shift the Overton Window to his preferred political leanings, “unacceptable” thought and true free speech is suppressed, and exchanged instead for a dumbed-down groupthink that has its own set of moral Stormtroopers. Free speech is fundamentally about honesty of public discourse. There cannot be topics that are automatically precluded as being not acceptable because it might, no matter how abstractly, offend someone out there. That’s what free speech actually means, a dialogue between all of the people and not just what’s prescribed as “acceptable” from some ideological set of concepts. I find it not just insulting, but dangerous to our democratic instincts to allow debates on crucial issues of State and society to be dictated in advance by what a person can and cannot say. This is a form of self-imposed dictatorship. This is what I see on FB as in American culture at large.

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Americans are proud of their First Amendment right to free speech but even today that doesn’t mean that you have the right to say anything. Expect the current damper on free speech to accelerate on the private social media platforms. It has already happened to Facebook. You are allowed to freely espouse any political opinion as long as that opinion comports with what Mark Zuckerberg deems acceptable political discourse. The same is becoming true of Twitter. Most experts in the field say we should expect this trend to continue with the encouragement of the federal government.

There’s sincerity in the “don’t-tread-on-me” vibe as millions cherish ideas like “break free of the rat race and don’t be manipulated.” It sounds great on the face of it, but thinking for yourself can come at a price. You could quickly be branded an intellectual/cultural dissident if you veer off course or aim beyond the Overton window. This will be your punishment for menacing or trying to tamper with an important tool governments and the globalist intelligentsia use to manipulate public perceptions and opinions. This tool is the Overton Window, and once it is fully understood, the enlightened can fortify pragmatism and media literacy, or facilitate exit strategies.

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How Ideas are Deemed Extreme on Facebook

First created by Joseph Overton, a former senior Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Overton window is a mechanism used by the intelligentsia and political elite to determine the viability of a movement or idea. If something is within “the window,” it is seen as a “normal” or “respectable” position or belief that a citizen is allowed to possess. If a belief or movement is placed on the outside of the window, it is deemed “extreme,” “outlandish,” or “foolish” by the powers that be. This is an incredibly effective tool that can be used to subjugate an entire population because it only requires a powerful individual or small group of individuals to first decide what is acceptable or extreme, and then use the government, religious institutions, and the media to push ideas that are deemed “acceptable.” It is especially potent because this “window” is never fixed in one place, meaning that it can be moved in any direction based on both external factors and the user’s beliefs. When the window shifts, a prevailing acceptable identity is made mainstream, and any criticism of that spectral avatar is now shaded “bigoted” or “extreme.”

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All too Human: Nobody Misses you when you are Never Absent

There is a paradox of power in the ether of social media. Considering the toll it takes on its users, you’d think people were getting some sort of meaningful traction in the form of social power by lighting up their feed five times each day. Nothing could be further from the truth, despite the impression and feelings that 127 “up-votes” might invoke in validating our existence and releasing some endorphins. I’ve occasionally chased a story in that rat-and-food-pellet kind of way. We can all point to those who are garrulous power users on the Facebook feed, but the undertones of repetitive self-validation tend to erode perceptions of power, and the most habitual segment of Facebook/Twitter users may fail to realize this.

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True social power is a moving target and relies on things that are not always blatant. Among the prevalent patterns on FB is the need—particularly among the young—to saturate (abundance) the field of play with visual and text-based evidence of your existence. Along the way, something critical is lost—one of the natural laws of power, which has been plied for thousands of years by legends such as Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, is to use absence to increase respect and honor. Don’t let them see you too much, and definitely don’t let them see you crying or whining about anything. This power’s motivation requires other powers as a precursor—people have to actually give a damn about you or it backfires. That said, some level of early-phase omnipresence (on social media and elsewhere in life) is key to making yourself not rare but seen, appreciated and maybe even loved, so that you shall be missed in absentia.

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As social currency goes, too much circulation makes the price go down. The more you are seen and heard from, the more common you appear. To create value through scarcity, we must learn when to leave. Perhaps by leaving social media, periphery friendships will decay and even some of your inner circles might warp as select members simply won’t feel the same about you, or won’t feel you at all. A swath of the population barely believes they are real unless it has been blasted across the social-engineering Matrix on the daily. Without it, the unreconciled would feel alone again, even if it diminished them and created subtly self-styled paranoid aphorisms such as FoMO and YOLO, and left the rest up to their imagination. That’s all collected into the “it’s your own damn fault” basket. The simulacra makes it possible to forget that beyond the electronic Eden is where we actually heighten our presence with dancing and falconry (fill in the underlined words with whatever pleases you most), and find the kind of events that go unrecorded and post to nowhere. On Facebook as in life itself—once you’re gone, will your withdrawal and scarcity suddenly seem to deserve respect and honor? Did it matter at all that you whiled away huge chunks of time in a void of socio-commercial productions? La Rochefoucauld explained it well as it ever-so-faintly resonates in this millennium:

“Absence diminishes minor passions and inflames great ones,
as the wind douses a candle
and fans a fire.”

Everything in the world depends on absence and presence. I think many of us have seen moments where it was better to be rewarded for being rare and valuable. It works the same way in a capitalist economy. There is a misguided notion toward social omnipresence in the 21st century that challenges the over-marketing of social media abundance; it never achieves fulfillment. If you are successful and interesting, you become more valuable to the marketplace; good things will find you. You don’t need social media’s help to attract them. Furthermore, the tasks many of us perform on a daily basis require long periods of unbroken concentration. We’ve got to “be gone” (and undistracted by the triviality of social media) to get things done. Problem: Cannot have these services diminishing my ability or fragmenting my concentration. Solution: Take the passive approach to cultivating social media brand/identity.

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A strong presence will draw different forms of power and attention to you—you might outwardly shine more brightly than those around you. But a point is inevitably reached where too much presence creates the opposite effect: The more you are seen and heard from, the more your value degrades. You become a habit. No matter how hard you try to be different, subtly, without your knowing why, people respect you less and less. At the right moment you must learn to withdraw yourself before they unconsciously push you away, like hide-and-seek. The problem with those who might have trouble disconnecting (from Facebook or anything else) is that they fear and regret that their absence might create a kind of death before death. It might be possible to build a more cult-like following by knowing when to disappear, and today’s digital addicts and “attention whores” fail to understand how this resonates with truth.

There is no art in knowing when to retire, only knowing that I have overstayed my welcome. That is why I am leaving. I might not turn monastic as a recluse, but thinking there is power in my presence on the social network is mostly ridiculous and denies the rich inner kernel derived from the outside world.

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Breaking the Black Box: A Warholian Mirror Moment

I cannot miss what never stuck to me in the first place. My FB page is a neglected abstract of useless information and uninteresting moments that nearly starves the site’s marketing algorithm. I didn’t share and therefore barely exist. I like the outside, 3D world far too much. Inside the social media Matrix there are patterns and symmetry, an imitation of a familiar and seductive hunting ground embedded in the reveries of our ancient DNA. Outside that walled garden? Pablo Picasso.

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A rebellious and slightly bitter sampling of the US citizenry across the right, left and center recommends understanding and then breaking Facebook’s Black Box. For them, a boundary line has been reached, and a path to discrete revenge for being deceived and outmaneuvered splinters outward. Their views were cited, revealing the shared dread that what’s called information now looks like disinformation. So why not supply your own disinformation and blockages to safeguard your remaining stash of privacy and throw stones at the Goliath? From a privacy point of view, this is a sensible thing—it’s disinformation. For someone seeking your private information, thinking they know something, but being wrong, is worse than not knowing that thing. In this fashion, the old Soviet Union was a master at spreading different forms of disinformation to its enemies.

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Facebook is little more than a big content marketing scheme—draw hype around having people post about their lives as a way to sell things to them. Other social media, Instagram for example, is equally simple. The great ones are always so simple and obvious that we generally miss them. It’s a type of cultural myopia that despite our best efforts hems us into not seeing the self-evident sometimes.

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Even the idea of Facebook, which the chattering classes laud as something profound and singular to humanity, is a ridiculously basic idea as it’s nothing more than an electronic billboard. There is nothing world-shattering here at all, but what Zuck realized is that you don’t need to develop a brilliant, smart and elegant device to make your fortune, all you need is something that appeals to the mass mind that’s cheap in every sense, and makes people “think they’re important” while also “making humanity better.” He realized in his Harvard dormitory that it’s the same old salesman’s technique of “stack them high and sell them cheap.”

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   Consistently ahead of the curve with an XL bag of “I told you so”

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Beneath the skin of a digital social revolution there is an inelegant and comical sense of our collective self-importance, similar to the riggings of the Pop Art movement that Andy Warhol espoused. If you call garbage art for long enough, well, presto, perhaps it really does then become the art for the modern era. And you know, despite being a bit of a snob, Warhol was on the money when he came to this ironical conclusion, which he minted while enjoying the gullibility of the nattering art experts and connoisseurs, who he showed up to be the fools, frauds and posers he knew them to be.

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All those Shiny Toys at “Participatory Surveillance ‘R’ Us”

Big Data fulfills what it sees in you. Over time, we began to understand Facebook’s intent and marketing revolution and see it as a lie that forces itself into our world, so that it may triumph in the realms of consumer culture and government/corporate surveillance. I simply do not want its excessive intrusions—its key point of success—to come through me directly. I won’t let it. If Facebook and social media are seen as brave new digital worlds, well then symbolically I have chosen to stay home, where the world seems less distorted.

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“Doing the thinking for you now, no worry…sinister supercomputer’s got it covered.”

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No sense in complaining about it—we used FB and FB used us back. Playground of the mind, at a price. In exchange for magical connectivity, you give them your life as content. Their entire arsenal was spelled out in the tiny type with a big “agree” button beneath it. Crafty super-users fend off the low domain of boredom when they ask in computer code:  “Remake my identity with the clues I select for you.” Let’s see how good the Almighty Algorithm is, and basically tempt ourselves to be frightened by the algorithm. There’s a chess-like excitement in the individual, some form of empowerment to stave off feeling like the hapless victim of data snoop-mining tactics. We all loved Grumpy Cat a bunch and the Interwebz parkour was top notch. After the idea of “neat-O” passes, we could be vaguely haunted by the idea of “how did Big Data see me?” and wonder how it’s scaling up in remaking America and the world. Into the Paranoid Forest we go…

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It illustrates the complex mathematical models that are increasingly being used by businesses and government to sort people out into groups—and studies show this is reinforcing human biases instead of correcting them. You become a semi-fictional entity that appears in patterns. There’s an assessment metric on LinkedIn—is it discounting your talent because the digital cupboard was left unstocked? Will what it finds out about you online get you fired somehow? Is it administering a personality test on you and barring you from a job, or worse? What happens if or when the models reinforce inequality (like paying higher car insurance or being denied credit for living in a low-income neighborhood) or silently cost people opportunities if the computer model discovers your day-to-day surroundings is in a high-crime zone? Here’s the story of how Facebook and Big Data make their own kinds of judgments and build an alternate narrative of You. On top of this, you’ll have to consider the risks of being honest in your opinions, seeing how people disagree about facts, and being subjected to micro-targeting by partisan political groups or direct threats from trolls and psychos. On the upside, the superstructure that FB data feeds into has failed to properly demystify most of us, its renderings of our internal system or marketing persona are often clumsy. The bottom line is data isn’t truth and data tools can do real harm if we fail to police their use. They pretend that because they wield the most numbers, they have the right answers. We comply to be monetized in the natural progression of their business model. Shareholders and VCs need their money back. Every time FB rearranges the way is Timeline works, it reveals a core characteristic of the business model and the errors of inaccurately harvesting people and mispricing the yield. When it shifts from a chronological timeline to an algorithmic one, it gives FB curatorial control, so they can better monetize the information on there, and play to your attention via socio-psychological profiling models.

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We could have guessed that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, matchmaking sites and the like would change considerably over short periods of time as the medium still contains unwritten paths. The venture capital world drives tech companies down the same business model that it has. We knew how this would end up—on one hand, we’ve built a truly revolutionary neural network for the planet; on the other, its future and potential are inexorably tied to the more toxic “people farm” notion that reminds you of young Neo’s revelations in The Matrix. He wanted to make 100% red pill maneuvers in this digital simulacrum,  but he also compromised that mission just to fit in.

Instagram can be included with the same ilk as the above. Instagram creates a persistent behavioral loop. The app both triggers a need and provides a momentary solution to it. It as a habit-forming product, and users make it a part of their daily routines. Its genius was to create angst around the fear of somehow losing a special moment. Facebook saw how addictive Instagram was and had to have it. These apps demonstrate the increasing power of habit-forming technology.

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Quiescence and Conclusion

I’d like to think the modernity that social media helps create is a success story whose best days are ahead. I’d also prefer a place where identity isn’t hollowed out or foredoomed by the push and pull of dynamists and catastrophists in their current arrangements, even if there is wisdom in both archetypes. At the same time, it’s hard to shake the idea that global civilization, despite its achievements, is becoming more atomized and morally bankrupt, environmentally despoiled and on a trajectory of crisis. The future is terrifying; Facebook says let’s try to be happy about the present. Facebook has a sneaky way of letting me know it’s no longer possible to deny in its presence that daily life itself has become empty or mechanical. A basic, speechless instinct welled up to fuel an insignificant rascal who dared to tell you that Facebook is creating money out of nothing. In so doing, does he avoid becoming a “Man of Air”? A Man of Air is about the anonymity, passivity, and lack of critical thinking that is expected of those who take part in the corporate system.

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Optimistically, scraps of future-forward enlightenment float their way in on the dismal tide of digital drawbacks, and I am reminded of Kant. For Kant enlightenment was mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error. He believed that this process of mental liberation was actively at work in his own lifetime. The advancement of knowledge—understanding of nature, but human self-knowledge no less—would propel this giant leap forward. That would have to be here, between the lines, now, to justify social media’s intrusion upon privacy and the public sentiment.

Considering how my Facebook posts have trickled down to a glacial pace of roughly one or two per year, I may as well enlist trusty ol’ Paramind to handle my social media outreach from here. To some Millennials this sounds like life in a hermitage. Zuckerberg has his test monkeys all in a row. Avast…there lies the dusty dead end, just around the bend from generational conformity. The withdrawal maneuver is complicated—before I leave the Digital Oasis, I have to ask “What does it cost to not do Facebook?”

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AUTUMN 2016 / II: DEM411 Facebook Tomb

 ALL UNDERWATER PHOTOS: DUSTIN HUMPHREY

Key Points:

  • Last light before the fade
  • Wide-open final critique (not so elegiac)
  • Top 5 posts (and the stories behind them)
  • Fame and gratuitous name-dropping

Facebook doom. Put a fork in it. Take it out back and shoot the irredeemable bastard. Long walk off a short plank. The social media fade maneuver doesn’t qualify as a real departure, though there have been more than a few days when the leaking, stabby, raging side of “the community” was ripe for a nice face-down-in-the-freezing-river death. With Facebook, the living web software product, the most common outcome is a neutral/ambivalent departure for those who tried it and left. For 6.5 billion people trying to survive day to day, getting up into a FaceNook is not on the list of priorities; the other billion are Facebook members but how many of those really have presence? You could save a perfectly good middle finger for something more meaningful. An inability to rejoin the natural world would be the more dreaded departure scenario, if one were to get trapped in a techno-simulacrum that pulls harder the longer one inhabits circuitry and the Internet backbone. In some ways we may be headed toward such a fusion, with VR enhancement, the “Internet of Things” and progressive AI. The Net won relevance, cleverly designed itself to be an integral gear in society’s standards-setting mechanism, and forced 95-year-olds who are baffled by computers to figure the contraption out so they can obtain workable knowledge or medical care. Ultimately, I have an agenda and want to find reasons to believe it’s not a big deal—memories are stabilized on timelines, internal and virtual. We govern ourselves. Separately, it’s hard not to admire the transformative ambitions of Jobs, Gates, Brin and Zuckerberg, the kinds of visionaries known to flip the paradigm the way Miles Davis or The Beatles did in their areas of expertise. When I think of one early-adopting group that understood the art of technology-driven transformation to a T, you could see how The Beatles were at it long before most:

“TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS” / REVOLVER / THE BEATLES

The “It is Not Dying” Parallel

They cued sitar, samples, “laughing seagulls” sound board tricks, concentric programmed loops and backward masking, pushed boundaries to the outer limits and said it a second time: “It is not dyyyyy-ing.” One timeless line from “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which audiophiles understood as a technological breakthrough by the Beatles (album: Revolver), and they were suddenly veering off into a completely unheard-of realm. Among the very first to coax audio art from a microchip, they set the foundation for not only “Manchester sound” but the hidden bedrock of techno music and electronica. In the last millennium, it resonated with meaning and optimism when the Fab Four and a deep crew of brainy producers thought about the future and the unknown. In particular, experimental producer George Martin guided the Beatles and reshaped the sound of pop music. The song was an enormous hit and an ambitious departure from anything they’d done before. Countless modern bands have been quietly influenced by faint virtuoso pulses from the 1960s, even those who dismiss the stony musings of British hippies from outer space. This kind of sonic power stroke required technical wisdom derived from a pragmatic high ground that altered the genre’s blueprint forever. Any type of musician can recognize it immediately. It helped create an everlasting cultural nostalgia for a band that finished its career before my arrival, and still plants ear-worms in the minds of children, and may just go on forever like Bach or Wagner (they don’t die, they become music). In a roundabout way, this is what any Facebook-style social media platform wanted to evolve into…something undying that penetrates the collective consciousness by changing the dimensions…a.k.a. “disruption.” The Beatles were intrepid disrupters in the ear drums of society. Disruption, a concept brimming with shop-worn hyperbole, becomes most real in a time of stagnation and finds ways to reach disruptive end points faster via online media and social networks.

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George Martin /// crazy scientist

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The global communications matrix idealizes the sort of shapeshifting, transformative optimism and soaring techno-creative achievements that make genre-defining songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” legendary. Alas, only songs or artworks can capsulize the crux of something glimmering, sublime and perfect we could never obtain in the dirty, error-prone real world. They’re aspirational anti-realism. Despite a brand-new set of drawbacks and negative realities, the core of the social media ethos is not entirely rotten—it wishes to epitomize open-mindedness, a quest for truth and meaning, and a willingness to explore the unfamiliar, which is alluring (and also shrewd marketing). By analyzing the thread or timeline of the past (individually or as a societal whole) we can find practical launch trajectories into choose-able futures. We like an atmosphere that hints at limitlessness, and it smolders online. It sounds empowering even if it’s a maze route through obscure crypts and ossified vestiges of Friendster or The WELL, just before FB, Tumblr and Insta threw them into the tar pits of obscurity.

With a few sublime and vaguely satisfying laps around social media under the belt, I’m one of millions who have already downshifted to a leisurely, barely-there pace. A detached deconstruction is not possible—cannot un-see, too late. Crossed fingers and a sneak peek of the future might still linger in the now-default “global conversation” roosting inside social media matrices, and we’ve got our mementos.

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 Being “there” in the Land of the There-less

Never saw the appeal of slings and arrows on mercurial Twitter, which throws shade on digital introversion. It has effectively made a case for its own uselessness. Well done. Studies show it interferes with real news more frequently than when it enhances it. Donald Trump needs to have his Twitter fingers duct-taped together…forever; even his most ardent supporters agree. Twitter has become an unlikely new mainstream communication port because it bobs in the cross currents of the Overton Window, and gets validated at scale during riots and other crises. What kind of person exists to develop a taste for an ephemeral, closely-monitored platform chock full of curated false news, false alarms and snarky self-promotional skew designed to confound the gullible? This question provokes defensiveness and counter-aggressiveness from the sea of Twitter feeds. Is it OK if we catch ourselves reveling in a perverse joy by watching Twitter and Facebook served up in the mainstream media as a cleansing agent to remove defectives from the gene pool? Within the wild media vapor trail lays a wake of impulses that took over for common sense. Cautionary tales galore. It’s unsettling how something with little actual substance can undeservedly invade and lay waste to a human life in ways we haven’t seen before, or perhaps stare in resignation as it shifts the central psyche of an entire generation and the way it communicates.

I’ve so far avoided using Instagram or LinkedIn except to open each account as a “placeholder” so no one else hijacks the name connected to my identity. Claims staked, owned and then abandoned. My social media usage since 2015 is averaging maybe 20 minutes or less per month. I also now see stretches of months with zero logins and a complete blackout on incoming alerts. I’ve customized, blocked feeds and automated email notifications, and have filtered and narrowed my experience—friends are still there, and I can still see their feeds and what they’re posting. The critical difference is that I must seek out this information manually, and I do so when I choose to. This flips the equation of how FB is designed to operate: the information gathering process is a conscious, active choice, versus a passive forced-feeding that contains all sorts of useless information.

Facebook reintroduced me to the generational pop culture archives of Atari and other benignly nostalgic triggers through its highly-specialized groupings. Such two-dimensional stuff may stoke a momentary wave of fun or fascination with a bygone era but it won’t give us even the remotest sense of closure about previous development phases of our lives. It’s just a revolving door of flashbacks and innovative self-directed mirror play. Closing time at the Social Matrix Saloon…

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Two Other Douglas Metzners (I didn’t want to know)

People with semi-unique names can easily find out if anyone exists with the same name. Idle moments can drive you toward cyberspace random walks through the back channels, and it didn’t take much hiking to find Planet Earth’s two other “Douglas Metzners” on Facebook. One lives in the US Midwest, while the other is in Brazil; we retain some distinction since none of us share a middle name. The American is a burly biker dude of age 56; the other is a 17-year-old Brazilian kid who’s clearly got some German lineage presiding over his namesake in a land where most people go by Da Silva. The young Douglas Metzner is good-looking, rich, and apparently more popular than I was in high school. Once or twice each year I receive his wayward, mistaken friend requests from teenage Brazilian girls. This kid’s feed is wide open; he sends all sorts of smoke signals through Facebook and he gets noticed. I illogically found myself rooting for him. Good for you, young buck…work that game. Get adored. Fare thee well, other Douglases.

“COLD OUT THERE” / OPALESCENT / JON HOPKINS

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Top Five Posts of All Time

In its quintessence, my Facebook experience over the past 10 years could rest on five fat posts from the rarified land of the “liked.” The golden one that maintained pole position has the “random-encounter-with-fame” flavor. To lock down the braggadocio that colors the #1 post, I’ve revealed fragments of other celebrity tie-ups or chance encounters in a funky little tabloidized list at the bottom of the page.

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1. A Dead Star (August 2014 / R.I.P): This got warmed up with many thumbs because people loved Robin Williams. I once crossed paths with Robin Williams, a few blocks from home as we were both going about our business. I tried to pretend this wasn’t the uncanny local who famously said “Cocaine is God’s way of saying that you’re making too much money.” This post definitely struck that chord of humanity:

“It would have been nice to see this guy stick around for a few decades more…what a gift…True Story: about 7 years ago, he and I were walking toward each other, solo, from opposite directions on an empty block in Pacific Heights…as he came into focus it was startling and obvious, and his body language seemed open to a greeting; as the distance closed I almost-involuntarily felt compelled to say “Ohhhh, it *is* you — I love your stuff!” and then I did…on that we maintained eye contact while passing one another, and he slowed down, turned toward me and said his version of a thank-you (including “thank you!”) in the most forthright, warm and genuine way, it was something else…and he was something else. He was naturally a sweet and even gentle human being just on a first random contact, for real, and today I’m reading all these stories that echo my brief sentiment/moment. He’s still with us, even if he cheated us with his death.”

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2. One cat (December 2009): Dedication to a furry little family member, back when Facebook wasn’t trying so hard to sell me gear. A post for posterity’s sake as she pawed her way into the sweet by and by:

“Echo: 3/7/1995–12/24/2009. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the back catalog of one tuxedoed feline of exceptional character, by the numbers: 15 Years…3 cities…2 coasts…1,042 bees and flies snagged and eaten with predatory flair…27 noisy neighborhood fights in the night…14 trees climbed in comedies of error…11 days lost in the feral city (subtract 4 pounds, add fleas and stink)…327 tinfoil balls fetched and mangled…413 sneak attacks on unsuspecting ankles…8 million purrs (overclocked)…1 dozen super-stupid nicknames (all of which she recognized)…infinite streams of silent meditation. Added up to something? Oh yes…one pure heart absorbing daily the events and phases of the bizarre human lifeforms around her…and will be dearly missed.”

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3. Wargames (November 2015): The government staged a missile test over the homestead and it left a spectacle in the sky. Both images, taken from the Marin headlands, show a long blue contrail and some sort of shockwaves; that’s not a Photoshop effect. This was my last substantive post on FB:

Nature Break—perchance to bask in the warm glow of our altered industrial landscape, the glinting metallic sheen of our utterly polluted bay and the pretty futuristic war machines burning through the twilight sky…indeed, a most aesthetically pleasant ballistic missile test was had by all.”

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4. Surfing (various) and the Skateboard Graveyard (2014): This one ran close to my youth identity outside of the life of work and obligation. Board sports on water, asphalt and snowy terrain keep vestiges of youth alive in subroutines and recalibrate the nervous system. I have broken or worn out close to 100 skateboards. I have destroyed or slowly sapped the life out of roughly 24 surfboards and keep a quiver of 3 at all times. Surfing friends are prominent on my feed; they “talk story” and post about epic days at Ocean Beach or Santa Cruz.

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Rest ye. This is but a nostalgic fraction of my concrete jungle assault vehicle fleet since age 4…wabi-sabi from sessions and seasons…the house painters are coming, so I need to disinter the dead decks and rebuild again later (hence the reference photos). Worth the ankle surgery, indeed. Slow decay and traces of past motivations…”

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John F. Kennedy with JFK, Jr.

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5. JFK (November 2013) He eloquently lent a commanding presence to something universal and beautiful, for no particular reason, and gave us an earnest reminder:

“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea. I think it’s because—in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change—it’s because we all came from the sea…All of us have, in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean. Therefore we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears…we are tied to the ocean…and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail, or to watch it – we are going back to whence we came.”

John F. Kennedy

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House of Fame

Bumping into famous people is startling and a little disturbing; we almost aren’t ready for them to exist in three dimensions. You find yourself rationalizing the mediated construct in your head with the human being standing before you as the situation unfolds. In the Facebook carnival full of games and prizes, a gossamer “mini fame” is seemingly within reach at all times, blurring the lines between the microcosm on the screen and the luck-based ability to simply wander into random people on the path of prosaic daily life, some of whom were famous in the flattened extensions of media. It is destabilizing and blows to fragments a world that was once local, full of immediacy and tangible.

This final section of my two-part foray into Facebook and the effects of social media doesn’t require photos. You already know who they are. There’s not much need to say you sat next to Malcom Gladwell in a cafe and Liv Tyler waited in line behind you in a bagel shop; such encounters happen to about 8,000 New Yorkers before lunch. Also excluded were the occasionally famous bands or people met during my brief stint in the music industry (see “music” page for full rundown).

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1. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: New York City, 1990s, on the elevator at Bantam Doubleday Dell, and just moments after an interview I scored via a Rutgers University friend and classmate Deborah Ackerman (who was there full time after graduation). This is where Kennedy-Onassis spent her later years after being a consulting editor at Viking Press, and was shortly before she received a cancer diagnosis. A lot of people have no idea she was into publishing or books to this extent. After interviewing for the entry-level editorial assistant position, I stepped on an empty elevator to head home. That’s when her assistant ran over and swiped his hand through the narrowing crack while the door was closing. As the gap swung back open, there she was—Jackie Kennedy, with me and her assistant and no one else, readying for a 30+ story ride down a slow elevator. She appeared frail, positioned her headscarf carefully around her face and may have been fending off a cold or other illness, but also possessed a curious energy. She sized up a moment, then engaged me: What job did I just interview for, what did I like to do in publishing, who did I know on her floor? She knew Deborah well, I told her we went to school together. She replied in that unforgettable lilting voice “Oh, Rutgers…one of the most respectable schools outside the Ivy League.” I appreciated how she said “outside” the Ivy League. That was some truth, but delivered politely. Every bit the class act you heard she was, in such a minor moment, even when stuck in an elevator with a total stranger. As we parted in the lobby, she wished me luck with the job offer and moved toward a limousine waiting curbside, and I walked out into the midtown Manhattan bustle. The air just felt different for a second or two there. Such a friendly gesture, when she could just as well say nothing. It sunk in about an hour later that I had just had a real encounter with one of the most famous and beloved women on Earth. I got the job offer, then turned it down. It was a fortunate week full of better options.

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2. Sean Penn: An ex-girlfriend worked production with Penn and studied with Francis Ford Coppola in the early 2000s, and she maintained a small office perched in Coppola’s iconic building in North Beach, San Francisco. She and Penn lived near each other in Ross and Fairfax, north side of the bay in Marin County, and were genuine friends in a neutral and platonic way (beyond the work). The first time I met Sean was in the course of stopping by to pick her up for lunch plans elsewhere. So in the process you’d end up filing through Penn’s basic “high-status player” sentry gate; not long after that you’re in the kitchen. So of course he’s going to walk directly into his own kitchen. It was a daytime go-to thing and feels normal under the canopy of live oak that shades Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, despite it being the wealthiest enclave in Northern California. A few other people were there working. At the time, they were all going overtime to wrap up production on “The Pledge,”  which Penn directed. His production company is called Clyde is Hungry; there’s a damn good in-joke tied to that. Nobody was fawning and the scene was 100% normal.

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3. Mark Zuckerberg (March 2013): Noe Valley in an empty Pasta Pomodoro restaurant: Yep – I’ve been face to face with the creator of my digital ire!!! The whole Facebook thing just circled back on itself that day…at a restaurant for lunch in my district, empty, and in comes thee Mark Zuckerberg, his wife and dog…staff does not recognize him, I pretend not to…we had mellow direct eye contact, no blown covers. He held his gaze on me for a few seconds to see if I was going to pounce or starting going gaga. Not even. He lives five blocks away in Liberty Heights, just had a house built there. He was definitely casing the place for safety and privacy. Paparazzi nailed him on the sidewalk out front 10 minutes later. The Papz even said “Gotcha Mark!” as he went by. Just brilliant to see Zuck get served with a blowback mirror moment. If you think Facebook invades your space, well then its top Space Invader just got invaded.

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4. Alan Ginsberg (via professor Miguel Algarin and Nuyorican Poet’s Café): Here’s one where I come off critical of someone universally seen as my better in the realm of literature. Let me start by saying I’ll take a gonzo Hunter S Thompson rant over Alan Ginsberg any day. I met Ginsberg up close at Rutgers University in the 1990s; he surprised us in a Shakespeare class because he knew Miguel Algarin very well (they may have even been lovers at one point), and did an impromptu poetry reading on the spot. This was a tiny class, maybe 13 students, so we were right at the table with him. He came across as a homoerotic Bob Dylan character, without the singing. Ginsberg was not trying to be an entertainer, because he conveyed something more intellectual in the foundation of his political agenda. Although I knew I was supposed to be dazzled or awed by his emphatic award-winning prose, the rawness he was famous for felt embarrassingly forced as he tried too hard to be prurient for shock value’s sake. So his central narrative seemed lost in space, not just lost on me. I took it in with an open mind, but was soon pining again for Shakespeare and Marlowe to come back into the room and put old Ginsberg out of his misery. It was odd to see a venerated and so-called literary genius, one so galvanized by this big movement, sort of come across flat and insubstantial…I was braced for something more profound, but ended up seeing his poetry as healing words for weirdos and misanthropes. He chatted with me, Miguel and a few other students afterward and I kept my interior cheap shots out of it, seeing how I was a 20-year-old man-child who couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, and humbly knew it.

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5. Michael Stipe (of REM): While living for 13 months in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale in the mid-1990s, there was an even earlier “with girlfriend” moment that arose from meeting the lead singer-songwriter for REM. She knew a top promoter who offered her a cheap but prominent space to show art at a large, professionally planned rave site in Orlando one Friday night. She knew no one would buy art there, and it might even get ruined, and thought money could be best generated by running a smoothie/smart bar instead, and asked me to help make it real. It seemed strange because she owned and operated an art gallery in Miami, and we both had jobs already, but her business wasn’t making money and she was 23 and needed money. I thought it might be interesting and embraced the logistics of gathering up two solid recipes for choline cocktail-enhanced “smart drinks” (keyed up a notch or two over ordinary smoothies), all the ingredients, multiple blenders, and made sure there was a giant load of ice in spare coolers. I knew we needed a third hand on deck and hired my buddy Dorian to tend the smart bar with us. After spending hundreds of dollars and filling the car with bananas, strawberries, and a dozen other ingredients, I still wasn’t sure if we had enough, envisioning a thousand thirsty ecstasy-heads rolling through the party. Apparently, there were no other vendors selling what we had, and we got mobbed. The enthusiasm was infectious, it was so much better that we didn’t bring the artworks, and it rapidly netted us just under $2,400 in profit (after expenses) in about four hours, in a room that was a total blast, just wall-to-wall dancing and packed to the hilt. The two flavors of smoothie and the secret ingredients we put in them synthesized well with the extremely high people…It was also a humid night, indoor/outdoor style in a nature setting on the edge of the city. By 1:00 in the morning, the smoothie bar is completely overwhelmed with sweaty people, money is flying, and we would eventually go through every ounce and drop of product by 3:00. Roughly 20 minutes before the ingredients started running out, Michael Stipe parked himself and guzzled two icy smoothies in a row, and he starts talking to us a mile a minute, loving crushed ice, and he’s not leaving! Me, girlfriend (Toni) and Dorian are among the very last sober people in the party now, and we have a great time making people laugh and bring up their energies. We have Michael Stipe in stitches, he’s digging the scene—hell, he’s electric at this point. Pretty much out of his gourd, pupils dilated with some sort of ecstasy drizzle and maybe overdoing it, hard to tell, and not even trying to hide it. Fun guy. Huge tipper. After we closed up the smoothie stand, we packed what was left, I pay Dorian double what I initially told him he’d receive, then hide the rest of the money in the vehicle and joined Michael Stipe’s direct invitation for us to join him on the dance floor. As the very pre-dawn light starts to filter into the night my girlfriend and I invited him and three others to join us for a hot air balloon ride in the nearby tropical wetlands (it had been going all night, adjacent to the party). He declined, but we spent several minutes sitting on the end of a dock, our feet dangling in the water, and we’re watching a fine mist evaporate between the mangroves. It was still at least 30 minutes to sunrise in the middle of summer. Michael Stipe took his posse back to his hotel, and the rest of us took flight by balloon shortly thereafter. An hour later, we go back to our own nearby hotel for 6:00 a.m. swimming and pancakes, then nap until early Saturday afternoon. Kinda magical.

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6. Martin Sheen (a completely nonverbal conversation): I didn’t want to break the ice with this uber-famous guy but we were seated facing each other (less than six feet away) for at least 20 minutes or so in an uncrowded public space. We’re together in an otherwise deserted arrivals gate in the San Francisco Airport. The flight was coming to SFO from Kona, Hawaii, where I was picking up two friends. Sheen was holding flowers for whoever he was receiving. I didn’t look at his face at first, so it took several minutes and we were strangely alone nearly the whole time in this little offshoot wing / cul-de-sac. He gets my attention when I sense him trying to sense if I’m recognizing him. I guessed he was frequently spotted or mobbed. Then it occurred to me I had just ID’ed the President of the United States (from TV’s “The West Wing”). My face changed and a silent (100% nonverbal) conversation unfolded:

Martin Sheen (nonverbal voice based purely on facial expression / body language): “You don’t look like paparazzi, you look like you’re just here waiting for someone.”

Me (nodding my head in acknowledgment with a bit of shrug): “Indeed, but yo, now I know who you are; facial recognition lock! Oh but it’s cool…I’m here for people on the same (apparently deserted) incoming jet, so I have my seat here and I can play it cool man…cool…not going to go wild on you, dude, cool-cool-cool.”

MS (cracks a wide grin, message delivered and he found it genuine): “Cool, yeah kid…we cool.”

Me: “Yup, super cool Martin Sheen, sir…ummm, right. Yup. We’re just sitting here alone in a room making direct eye contact for way too long now. No bother. Not about to flip out on you in this unique and now very uncomfortable silence with fame-recognition static swirled into it. Nah – sssss’aaalllll good over here Mr. Martin Sheen!”

MS (nodding, glint in the eye with a hint of that knowing, not-to-worry face): “I’m going to go back to ignoring your presence now, son…coooooool.”

His lady got off the plane first – First Class. Sheen’s face lit up and the moment looked pretty golden for both of them. As the Sheen-y glow faded sauntering slowly down the hall and out of view, my bedraggled peasant friends emerged from steerage accompanied by live chickens, a fully-laden donkey with mange and the scurrying sound of stowaway rats. They were forced to pee in bottles and their burlap hobo bags were hastily dumped on the tarmac.

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7. Penn Jillette (once with Teller, who does indeed talk): Was good friends with our band’s producer (Kramer) in the 1990s. Kramer and Jillette (who had his own band, Captain Howdy) would pal around and often show up at some of the same SoHo parties, and we’ve chatted backstage at Knitting Factory. This guy is off the chart in terms of IQ.

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8. Chloë Sevigny, Lady Miss Kier (of Dee-Lite) / club kids NYC: When you get involved with techno and the NYC techno underground and NASA, you’re bound to bump into people like these (and Moby) in the 1990s. Lady Kier gave me the pointy end at a Liquid Sky party in NoHo once, and suggests that it was likely preferable to be a Nobody…meaning she thought I was a Nobody. It oddly stabilized my opinion of myself, this sarcastic, bleating techno pharmacopeia princess, and she was about as perceptive as a monkey with glaucoma. Good times.

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9. Tina Turner. Another elevator story. This time, elevator of the Philadelphia Four Seasons, where my mother was sequestered by the city court system as a psychological expert for the contentious MOVE (black power movement) member trials. I had driven over to drop off something she forgot at her home, and wasn’t staying long. The diminutive Tina Turner was surrounded by a contrasting duo of towering bodyguards who stared blankly at us the entire ride up. She made eye contact but said nothing. Huge hair was like a lion’s mane. Her commitment to cool was thoroughly on lock-down that night.

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10. Maynard Ferguson (“Rocky” theme song, etc.): My high school jazz band jammed like wild banshees with the Grammy and Oscar winner at a competition in Philadelphia. He utterly ripped it up on trumpet…a certain adventurous face-contorting energy backed by abnormal lung power, and he knew how to ration his breath for dramatic high-note sustains. Our band instructor, Mr. Tweed, was losing his mind. We were floored by the sheer projection derived from Ferguson’s instrument.

And that…is all there is.

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SUMMER 2016 / I: Fixated on the Ocean

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Eternal War of Sea and Shore

As an antipode to humans contemplating their fate in the mirror of the sea, the sea is completely mindless. Inevitably, the ocean doesn’t give one iota of a fuck if you live or die. There is no parity in the abyss. To love a vast body of water is to love the relentless, the indifferent, and to get closer to something utterly ignorant of our existence. At the prime moment you would prefer to see or be seen, up comes the blinding fog. Barometric pressures tweak under a pelting squall that seldom forewarns. The tempestuous “Deep” possesses the same sense of infinity and unharnessed madness that pries at our ability to understand the furthest reaches of the universe, its reason for being, and its creative catalyst. Floating somewhere inside is a world optimized by advanced technology, and we still don’t know why it’s here at all. The numbers on our watery home are easier to grasp, but the ocean as an entity still feels immeasurable because it makes us puny.

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Picture yourself adrift off the continental shelf. Maps become superfluous, and the notion of GPS-anchored safety melts into absurdity. Stare in either direction along the curvature of the horizon, the filtered line veiled by refractions as a pink western sun sets through moirés. You cleared the port hours ago, and there’s nothing walling up behind you in the open ocean. There is, however, a secret graveyard far from home that no one will stroll through—beneath a deceptively serene surface lays a grotesque liquid crypt littered with thousands of sunken ships and airplanes, attended everlastingly by their skeletons. As fortunes rusted and the hated destinies foamed up growling from the fathoms, a solitary cormorant, sleek wings a-flurry, streaked out to the place where sea and sky dissolve into each other…and was lost from sight.

The sand, the sea oats, your footprints and the scent of low tide, that’s all gone. The wobbling gravitational ebb and flow—obvious along the coastline—hides away on big seas. Swing the gaze upward for celestial guidance after dusk. The North Star and Magellanic Cloud nebulae glow amongst the constellations. The ethereal arms of the Milky Way provide spiraling nocturnal navigation as the axis sways. Now you’re in a state of shifted perception—the hominid apes of yore weren’t meant to live like this. They’re aimlessly pacing the dunes, past the vanishing point. The salt dried on their ankles, and that’s about as far as they got. Seeing something endless lent an atmosphere of smallness and panic to our forebears. Today, many of us can handle an ocean’s supreme isolation, but not for long. We summoned the sextant and compass and impersonated svelte seals. The biomimicry in our engineering was profoundly hyped by dolphins, and so we built hydrodynamic vessels to traverse the entire water column from the nadir of Mariana Trench to Rum Cay’s sparkling uppermost layer. Since people have trouble yielding to the concept of limits, we have developed foils to slice through it as speedy makos do, hovering machines to move catlike upon its surface tension, hyperbaric chambers to stave off the bends. The US Army Corps of Engineers reroutes it into seaside reactors to cool our spent nuclear fuel rods.

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To recover from any life-threatening crisis on the sea means we must master the crisis or possibly drown sooner than we had hoped. Clarity of intent comes rapidly to those who are in or under the water. Short of a miracle, the siege mentality envelops those who allow their dread to cannibalize rightmindedness and action. The ocean is quick to show us there aren’t a lot of other options but recovery and salvage sometimes, forcing strength and willpower into question. It’s locked into the annals of archaic randomness, this darkly exhilarating  stuff of Hemingway legend. Earth’s vast and incomparable saltwater basins—ultimate life-giver and trope for the metaphor of nihilism, all in one. The idea being that the longer you’re staring at the sea, or submersed in the brine, the closer you might subconsciously get to a hidden moment of reflection and reckoning. Off the land, away from the grid, it’s easier to break resistance and explore hairy, complex predicaments and deranged ideas you never wanted in the first place. Once quietly deciphered and unraveled we are able to hasten their departure, and thrive. The sea balances itself yet is perpetually unhinged by the moon and other influences; we go along with this sublime connection by the limb.

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Seawater and amniotic fluid possess similar specific gravities (1.025 kg/l vs. 1.020). In the natal state Homo sapiens spend months breathing this liquid, doing gentle nonlinear backstrokes through it. In the present, in the outside world, we’re bobbing at the root of creation’s least-protected womb. Despite the hazards below, our organs somehow resettle in the primordial ooze from whence we came. The buoyancy is stabilizing and slightly compressing. Anyone who’s had a decent swim on a still and windless night can detect our billion-year departure and exodus from the oceanic realm.

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The ocean has a classic and arrogant way of absconding with memory, perchance to make prior excursions seem imaginary in the face of photographic evidence. On a sturdy craft, we once slipped furtively through the midnight silk, beyond the lee of South Bimini. We pulled up in the middle of nowhere on the windward side of Eleuthera, where the glowering eyes of countless Atlantic hurricanes made salty old pirates blink first and bolt from their island redoubts. To truly bond with the seascape, we discovered that “Don’t forget—stuff feeds at night!” is exactly the kind of thing you want to say just before jumping off the boat at 1:00 am in an open ocean. It increases the nervous chatter and camaraderie among night-swimming friends, and guarantees vivid memories that last. Indulge, lose yourself in the cruise. Ditch the life preserver and petrify yourself in remoteness.

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For some there is the tube ride. When surfing in the green helix, these strange beings are occasionally given a sun tunnel at dawn, when the angle is low. They receive a cryptic signal—an amplified, umbilical sucking sound from the sea organ as they fly toward the light, kinetic spray and rays blend into geometry, and suddenly they “get born” again before the barrel collapses. To the sea, the wave rider is nothing more than an unsolidified knot in the torsion, a false narrative to oceanic constancy, an unwanted line trapped between dihedral angles. To the surfer, the sea is capricious and vindictive; it draws him in to battle the waves and watches him die. Inescapably all unwary prey are directed to the bowels of Davie Jones’ locker. Before and after, there is a meditative experience of staring at waves as they roll onto the shore, where the sea-goer sits and contemplates the simultaneously repetitious yet ever-changing nature of life. Something comes out of the ocean as you put yourself in. The umpteenth haunted thing about the ocean’s presence is something that, if it gives the opportunity to make you a little crazy, will also serve to bring you closer to yourself.

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The Majesty and Languorous Terror of an Acetylene-blue Expanse

Across the plate-glass of a calm sea there is a wisdom without shadows on cloudless days. Florid statements that lionize or channel the ocean’s essence have spilled forth forever, relevant and timeless, out of sheer adoration of mystery. As anyone who even faintly loved the sea could tell you, it began with an exquisite dose of fear wrapped in reverence and respect for origins. To small children, a disturbed and powerful sea state is fatalistically magnetic and eerily entertaining. At age four, a faceless child once felt like a Sleestak lure, caught in the undertow while getting plowed by rip currents. Very unlike Poseidon or Pisces, he nearly surrendered the ghost in a place devoid of lifeguards. If the ocean had an alter ego, to a young child it is the ominous, quasi-omnipotent Sleestak with its creepy reptilian telepathy. To some, “fear” is the most impressive asset of “awe.” There is always danger beneath the surface. Eventually, we adapt and learn how the sea is willing to indulge the stupidities of boys and mankind.

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The enormity of the Titanic or the Fukushima nuclear power plant tidal wave utterly fails to resonate in a solipsistic and careless ocean. It is flawless in its engagement of industrialization, mass manufacturing and climate change, insofar that it absorbs all of our flaws and whatever else led to its pollution. It devours jetties and pier pilings, bridges, docks, and cliffs—all things built upon and within her shall succumb to saline rot, revealing the prophecy of erosion and impermanence. Aside from what men do to Earth and each other, we’ve maybe never seen something so violent and hopeful as the ocean, because it is never vanquished. This is why images of the open ocean often conjure a feeling of instability as there is no place for the viewers to plant their feet. Its core is sliced up into incongruent shards soaked in a dominion where sharks live only for themselves. Such menacing creatures infest every cubic meter of saltwater and use a hardwired evolutionary strategy that, while often ugly and inconvenient, is perfectly rational from a biological perspective. The more you understand the nature of a shark, the more it ceases to be a sea monster and just becomes another remarkable fish—albeit one that requires a more carefully controlled set of rules for interaction because of its classifiable predatory habits. An unprotected moment spent near one leaves you “off the apex” with an unforgettable sensation.

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Log_Summer2016_Ocean_6Inky oceanic night flight is most pleasant…when it is finally over.

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The ocean, inexorably, can provide the mundane—a hangover cure, protein for the next meal—or permanently wipe you from the terrestrial record just the same. Writers since at least the time of the New Testament have identified the ocean as containing multitudes of ideal metaphor that cannot be simply digested and set aside, from a place where no one can ever explore all of its depths. To negotiate its ornery verisimilitude requires oxygen, periscopes and backup plans. It’ll eat your money. The ocean comes up repeatedly as a rhetorical device and spans the distance of countless novels that arch into metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Turns out, we are quite grateful for its unresponsiveness.

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Reflection/Reaction Cycle

Outside the fray, in the vapors, a doppelgänger
reflects upon an undulating, glimmering meniscus.
Watery twin, unlike Narcissus roosting
staring back at one another,
crack into each other’s
brave new world.

One half breathing subaquatic castaway
One half misanthrope, not departed, not yet numb…
A leathery seahorse floated to the surface,
delicate bones like complications in a pocket watch,
easy to capture, slightly paralyzed—gull bait.
we cupped it four-handed,
conscious of a dying specimen
propelling itself through our tiny asylum.

Beneath the solar wind, electric inhalant
heaves shafts of light, irradiates
the raison d’être:
Sky sees itself side-eyed in spooky liquid mirrors,
fine cuts of the jib, come about to redeem them—
we keep our ons “on”
by putting “offs” in between them.

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“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea. I think it’s because—in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change—it’s because we all came from the sea…
All of us have, in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean. Therefore we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears…we are tied to the ocean…and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail, or to watch it – we are going back to whence we came.”

–John F. Kennedy

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SUMMER 2016 / II: Ocean Beach, San Francisco

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Crossing Great Highway

Ocean Beach is an ugly, boozy old uncle misbehaving. This temperamental stretch of the Pacific Ocean is restless and busy at its calmest. At its most flagrant, eruptions from cannonading waves stir everything up into a uniquely lethal space. We quest to give it a more positive visual explanation, when in reality an unnatural and defiled climax of the elements happens where cities and the sea collide. The citizenry has developed a tolerance for OB’s intrinsic volatility and steadily-rising body count. This week, in the midst of a summer doldrums no less, we were reminded how an August surge can serve up its own version of superhuman eddies, undertows and nasty surprises, resulting in yet more deaths. A surfer, a swimmer, tokens thrown into nature’s injustice; mix uncanny timing and a moment of indecision—and it is over. These were supposed to be the mellower months at OB, with fewer challenges than its ill-reputed winter bombardment. How are we even vaguely embracing a shoreline legendary for indiscriminate drownings and disappearances in all seasons? One that sits just around the corner from high frequency “suicide-by-the-sea” where fitful Golden Gate Bridge jumpers draw out their gruesome task when the king tide ebbs? Such abrupt partings usually involve suffering in some unimaginable way. OB has a schizophrenic disregard for capability and experience, and reminds us of the dilemma presented by a pleasant but sketchy friend who might be moonlighting as a scary criminal behind our back.

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We access OB’s adjoining hillock, dune and cement configuration—a slow-rolling parkway dubbed Great Highway—on foot, en route to the swell. Vehicles pulse through timed lights at stained crosswalks. Ravens scowl and clop their greasy beaks from desiccated pine trees and catenary wires. Corvids are quarrelsome and eat garbage, peering down at all the other varieties of opportunistic foragers and the kind of ecological mismanagement that might someday qualify for a Misrach project. Civil engineers are clever here—below the thoroughfare is a carved-out substructure, incognito and ripe with duality. The entire length of Great Highway delivers a road or a lid, two sides of a plane—its drivers cannot see the flooded basement of the West San Francisco Watershed and the Underground Westside Transport Structure that feeds into Oceanside Pump Station and Treatment Plant. Almost 25% of the city’s total drainage, natural and synthetic, reaches this stony barrier to Ocean Beach and the sea beyond. Buried rebar-encrusted containers await cubic tons of metropolitan offal and caffeinated rainwater. It’s all part of the Master Plan, hidden in plain sight. There’s mercury, pesticide and pissed-out methamphetamine in there, tooth whitener, dead owls. Subconsciously surfers ignore it, hope there’s no seepage from the tombs, and carry on.  We’re pleased with the disguise of four-lane scenic thruways, how the median is landscaped with reedy grasses warped eastward by the prevailing onshore wind. We have fond traditions of ignoring the unsavory. During the winter maelstrom fine-grained sand drifts across the northbound lanes, road closures go up for dune and subterranean sewer maintenance, and the waves obtain high potency in that “you’ll-get-nothing-and-like-it” sort of way. It’s a rare occurrence, but you can still find OB scraped clean of people when it’s cold, dark and raining sideways.

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358 days of the year, all processed wastewater is piped through a turd spigot four miles offshore into a nearby marine canyon south of the city line. As the system’s stormwater overflow threshold is reached on special events, so are the limits of what can be pumped through the treatment plant fast enough. Our population explosion backfires upon us as a hideous fecal coliform-infused “broth of humanity” invades the Ocean Beach lineup six to seven times per winter, on average; double those numbers when El Niño is in town. Avoid gank-water contact at all costs. The emergency discharge of sewage and effervescent street runoff exits directly into Ocean Beach after it has been “decanted” of funky sediments underneath Great Highway. Decanted. Like letting a vintage grand cru breathe in the carafe, we are decanting the methane stink chamber under the motorway. Similar to Los Angeles, the natural history along this segment of Northern California is also bastardized by technology, industry and its own popularity, giving birth to the state’s twin hypoxic zones. In the summer, a dismal red tide arrives to provide us with new ways to get sick on domoic acid. In a diluted, technical sense, we surf in neurotoxins and the faint residue of radioactive isotopes migrating across the ocean from Fukushima Daaichi. Having taken an x-ray snapshot of our tainted Anthropocene, we can devote ourselves to focusing on OB’s upside…

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Our kind is roused by the tableaux vivant and the signature snap of sea mist, particularly diffused ions that pour into the hollow recesses between smooth-domed set waves rolling deep off the hard-packed ocean floor. At Great Highway, we’ll cross between the lights and trounce through rampant non-native ice plant carpeting the ground; we share the “invasive species” label. Our increasingly rapid heartbeat gets muffled by rows of traffic-bound passersby, it goes undocumented. There is road kill as they travel headlong to deal with everyday emergencies. Everyone is after a fantasy in situ, and of the same sphere—sentient machines darting through timed lights in a cadence, finding the winning combination on Frogger. Ours is a temporal solution, and then it starts all over again. As we traverse the fringe, the air is worn raw by the North Pacific Gyre, dusted with a dim whiff of British Columbia on the California Current. Just for today, the plot beneath us is a stationary yacht that occasionally sets sail on roiling magma; our random die is tossed along the Ring of Fire.

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One by one we scream down Ocean Beach’s vertical drops and buy the ranch. Repeat. Be agile. Skip the pastiche unless you’re imitating Lopez, extra points for style and grace under pressure. This is surfing, so don’t get faded. The quantum physics part kicks in when you start to lose track of time, and ignore hunger pangs. Power and unpredictability are the goods here on epic days. Opinions are moot at 10 to 12 feet and “troubling.” A harrowing false ledge invites us to tuck into folding, lurching, snapping saltwater basilisks. There’s a boiling kettle down there, looks scalding hot even when it’s icy-green. These waves would enjoy maiming, killing or giving a heart attack to 99% of the human race. Self-propelled whirlpools have been known to wander through the line-up, never hinting at what’s to come. The fiendish sea beasts are real, we’ve seen them on all coasts but especially here, yea, exhaling into resignation. With the forbidden, sharky Farallons packing the mythos of morbidity on the horizon, the Ohlone called it Great White and stayed the hell out of there, plumb center of a Red Triangle. We theoretically saw faint expressions of subdued horror on a fleeing seal’s obsidian eyes, replicating the uncertainty of shadows and imaginary phantoms of our own invention. “Duly noted for future reference” is how we grew to learn. Something inimitable must propagate and enmesh. Singular skills arise, and we found a certain quietude best handles the turbulence of an ocean trying to slay you several different ways. Tectonic fissures of San Andreas grind plate to plate below us, and here we are immersed in our obsession several feet above the fault line—we have very peculiar needs.

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With the unleashing of Thanatos and the death drive, OB surfers are seeking the short-lived gift of stoke in the vertical face of a wave, and minimize thoughts of food chain rearrangement in the presence of toothy lamniformes. Sharks have a chilling authority in their little corner of the universe. Even the grizzled old chargers balk, demurring into enforced denial by avoiding some of the area’s sexiest, emptiest and notoriously shark-infested wave gardens. We are forewarned about the elusiveness of a curse or the theft of mana, and the vibe is rotten. A beckoning teat of questionable milk—all those spinning, flawless point breaks spied over-the-shoulder down Highway 1 on the way to the crowded place. Deserted waters—the glassy kind, bathed in syrupy oversaturated halos of a new dawn—are lying there like placid dungeons, holding shady ghost stories that brush them eerie and slightly depressing. Aside from the in-born common sense afforded even to fools, answers to why surfers don’t visit these breaks are written in Psychology Today. Hanging in there involves exploiting certain instincts and forgetting others completely.

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Next day means pristine session beyond the cars. The fish are shoaling into bait balls offshore, inviting predators from above and below. We cross Great Highway again, over its sullied asphalt box top and into the narrow strands of some perturbed, so-called National Park that skirts the district’s tsunami evacuation signs. Here we feel the sand unpack from concrete. The dunes are simultaneously expansive and unattended, yet also a scurvy warren of trails, vagrant campgrounds and lingering evidences of nocturnal minglings. Seaside drugged-out ribaldry. First we pause at the gallery al fresco to observe what the roving horde of talent-free graffiti artists and taggers have accomplished overnight; at least 80% of them should have remained in practice mode, vandalizing mom’s basement instead. The seawall revetment they call a canvas is already defaced and covered in bird splatter, so it doesn’t really matter. We spy distant watery peaks, stop and breathe the charwood cut with salt air, tasting the odor of hobo campfire embers licking up in the breeze several hours after their minders have vanished. Glowing coals hold on to life, desperate for fuel. As we step gingerly through cumulative debris fields above the high tide line, thoughtful birds peck at styrene cups and sip fluorescent dots of juice pooling at the bottom of empty Otter Pop sleeves. Neoprene booties are as much for shielding us from an array of rubbish as they are for cold-water insulation—we’re preventing nails, glass, pallet shards, anti-freeze, syrup with no maple in it, and all manner of petroleum-based deposits from durging up between unwary toes.

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Storms whipped in from the Bering Strait, sent low pressure bursts of set waves radiating around Point Reyes. They swung by like loose dominos, a wintry punch tethered to the end position of a long chain in Neptune’s roller rink, whipping a million pounds around the horn. They are destined to smash the wall and they are golden. They required a matador; you toy with your ego to call him rider. You feign such control. You cannot finish your meal when you see them, already having dedicated yourself to identifying their reactive connotation: Pure dynamite. Some clench up and pee a little; others prescribe a dram of whiskey to steel the fortitude. With their specific gravity and velocity those North Pacific set waves pass the live oak and bramble that has overgrown into parapets of defunct Nike missile batteries lining the earthen ramparts. The heaving ocean grinds past a rusty hulk and dormant, corroded bulwark, into San Francisco’s barren bay of contaminated fish, industrial blight and prosperity. The swells eventually refract and rifle around Point Lobos, lope along Sea Cliff’s concealed treasures, and go ping-ponging among the rubble before choking through the iron gate at Fort Point. In an ancient maritime recluse a sandstone coliseum called Dead Man’s holds echoes, mysteries and wide-eyed locals—the hairiest swells find us there at negative tide, nearest the rocks where you have to “take a look” at an erratic field of physical hazards gnashing just underfoot. Any surfers exhibiting a spidery, hesitant style are immediately consumed like a tic-tac fed to a whale. This freight train pulls into surreal 200-foot cliffs—attending spires surrounding—then dives in around us, pushing up boulders and heretofore unknown columnar postpiles that barely catch your eye as you lean and drop. Ledging out in conical formation to reach the race track, uncommon “bomb” pulses will peel for a quarter mile into the Eagle’s Cove boneyard. It was here that we once saw something awful on the filthiest post-storm washout—creosote-covered telephone poles, Styrofoam cooler lids, adult diapers, McRib packaging, vile-looking couch cushions and the bloated, fish-bitten carcass of an unlucky St. Bernard swept unconscious into the storm-surf zone on the outgoing tide. Poor dog still had its collar on. Who knew just how far, how many miles up the dirty delta those cast-off delicacies came from?

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.Log_Summer2016_OB_13“Mission: Impossible (without Photoshop)”

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Math and Wilderness

The NOAA buoys read the functions of ocean sinusoids in different phases, which surfers translate back into human scale as the facts are digested. On this day, nine foot peak swells were gapping across the transom at 17 seconds with a harbinger of winter torment as rogue sets pushed 21-second intervals. Low pressure produces dendritic corduroy ripples, unyielding as they conduct near-lossless energy signals toward their final destination on the beach. OB’s outer sandbars are ready to receive their lashing, by rite. The population density of the surrounding neighborhoods has no meaning out there when the difficulty level reaches 10 out of 10 on a global scale. The dwindling crowd of risk-loving surfers looked equally stupefied by OB’s unrideable edifices. After the danger of dangling yourself in the outlands passes, far from the comfort of the EMT stretcher and cellphone roaming, a minor chord of masochistic delight intensifies the molecular chemistry and brought back vestiges of the feral boy in us, released bugbears of scheduling and consequence and cleared blocked sinuses.

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We leave the city to scrub off its film. They call it “country,” but in some ways you’re just going from one wilderness to another. It starts early in the day, and arcs with the sun. Binoculars are nearby. Sweetened transitory obscurities are snapped up from a world of ready-made—the droning of consistency that instigates odd pilgrimages to the wicked depths of a forest, perched on rocks, draped before unspoiled coves and virgin waves. Walk right in and recalibrate, stabilize, and feast the senses with your tribe. We broke bread and passed through the conifer envelope, settled into a stride and breathed the wind, tinged with evergreen. We took no photos, as if in league with a silent pact. After the sunset session, we encountered a wandering dude named Orin who peeled back the panel as he unzipped his wetsuit, and a tattoo peeked out. There, revealed in the studied ink, was a miniature portrait of a crazed baboon squaring off with a robot, posed in battle, pitting simian soul versus the machinations of intellect and evolution—cartoonish synopsis of the past million years. Orin’s private act of getting the tattoo, itself, being one of those grand satires of a generation laid low by the ironies of consumerism, sinking in the proverbial sea of conformity. We left not a trace.

Before heading back to the urbane, there was a clasping of hands over the steering wheel as the opacity of the morning gloom ducked through parched October canyons. We were going to slip into some secret spots in an around Marin or Sonoma, not yet wanting a city skyline. Fingers of evening mist clung to the windows, stands of second-growth redwoods of the Coast Ranges cloaked the escarpment separating beaches and mountains, and the crew is winding up Route 1 searching for the furtive hike-ins, any respite from the oblivion of San Francisco’s unrelenting economic mission, the behavioral sink and the Skinner box, the Darwinian flux giving fresh weight to the meaning of leaves, mud, veiled point breaks and undulating Aleutian swells. What would we reclaim, having never proselytized or copped the daily dosage of metro meta-existentialist drivel that swirled to the south of our primeval destination? Kicking Ayn Rand and Kierkegaard for the loop, return to sender, playing up a crucial bender in the uncharted nether realms of an eccentric diaspora that surreptitiously treks through unperturbed scenery.

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Dreams end and alarm clocks go off, but it’s not over. Back home in the hustle the glide gets better, and the hard hand of Ocean Beach allows itself to turn pretty while refusing refinement. It is the liberation of a lifetime to see the full might of Ocean Beach dumped unceremoniously upon the paper-thin surfer. They felt and witnessed wipeouts that make it seem as though an alien force showed up unscripted and wanting blood. The ludicrous angles of inside suck-ups cleanse away hesitation, hone diligence and cause brooding, serious men to smile in their sleep when no one else is paying attention. As if suspended in a lucid puzzle, we watched the kook in us morph invisibly over the years as we altered routines of normalcy, shook wild by liquid voyages summoned from bottomless marine trenches. It’s got some pebbles on top.

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Although this Elemental Thing beckoned and we escaped on its energy stream, we found it tougher to realize how “caught up” we were…moneyed extropians, secular prophets, nanotechnology gene-editing freaks—we’ve got them here on down to the doyens and shitmonkeys of the underground economy, without question everybody working for the next wave, the next flight, playing on neuroses to breathe deep before the coffin ride.

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California, how ya doin’?
Two inches from the ruin…
On a fault (((( • )))) line
‘tween love and the sea.
Love and the sea.

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SPRING 2016: Tour de France

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This spring we examine the brutal, punishing beauty of a certain French bike race, one inspired by men who seem to thrive on a divine combination of willpower, rabies and ecstasy. Slipping deeper into metaphor, this grueling battle is channeled by adoring spectators who’ve come to see what happens at the howling edge of obsession, when ambition begins to peel the paint off reasonable limitations. On the wheel, as in life, saints and sinners are commingled in the peloton. They share a common drive.

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Metal / Mental / Mettle

The bicycle is an instrument. At first the player’s progression is simple; the magic of gearing aids sudden leaps of leverage over gravity. The precision of a finely engineered, perfectly-tuned bike harmonizes and fuses with the rider, and sends him into the wilderness. The inevitable maturation of fun stokes desire for challenges; maybe a commitment to pain if you possess the determination. You, versus You. After enough exposure to ego-devouring tests of fortitude, the resolute ones volunteer for self-sacrifice on local pro-am circuits that tear unqualified bodies apart. This is where contenders who display an inquisitive yet machine-like thought process are separated from hobbyists, prideful divas and the genetically maladroit. A rider’s transformation is solidified. A few ran hot, picked up sponsors and sought the higher calling. For them nothing will come easy.

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A rider’s Tour de France preparation launches conceptually, imaginably, in the depths of winter, as they sleep. The initial struggle of training is internal, and provides spark to dormant legs. In being paid to focus on one goal, in upholding the heritage of the Tour, the supreme striver might distinguish himself via cruel tutelage, extending a bid to lord over the compulsory or obvious by delving into the esoteric and intangible. To sample a theoretical flavor of the total effort the Tour requires, neuro-acrobatics designed to decipher its peerless unpredictability are vouchsafed, and repeatedly stress-tested in a mental hologram of scenarios. The verve is slyly harvested and preserved here. While the anticipatory stress is low and the world tour schedule temporarily barren, they go about deconstructing instincts in REM, images fluttering across the backs of eyelids—perchance to deep-cycle through limitless iterations governing the sophistication of speed, endurance, shrewd mathematical expenditures of energy and the nuances of wolf pack formation. A sublime insight beckons to aerodynamics and the ghostly sensation of muscle gliding efficiently over sinew. These moments are uncanny and impossible to prove. Doubts and shadows dart through trees and go clambering over the Matterhorn in the wee hours of the murky subconscious.

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Night operations such as these are essential because even though he is “the chosen one” in an elite sporting community, he will have to fend for himself. A million hands may clap a deafening thunder fit for kings on the sidelines, but the sound decays into strange and detached sonic ribbons—beyond their grasp, the rider rides alone against the wind. After the alarm clock goes off he belongs to a gang, but spends most of his day sparring against the Self in wakeful meditation. There is the wheel, always spinning, sending back to a primordial Gaia principle or two, augmenting the hive mind of enchanted masochists who dream of the Tour de France.

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Tour de France is a spirit. It is not enough to merely win, but to win with style and grace, echoing the respect of your hundred sworn enemies and an ambivalent nest of snapping baby birds known as “your eight other teammates.” They hunger and watch for signs of weakness. To reach that podium there will be invisible, allegorical bludgeoning and strangling amongst comrades. To have worn the yellow jersey for just one day is an honor that no one ever forgets. Finishing all stages in the fastest combined time brings reverence, esteem and apotheosis to the lone rider, the head of the spear, royalties due with interests backed by plutocrats who were lunching off-season in Davos and Sochi.

From the depths of torture, a rider develops the power move; the fame, another torture; the expectations—yet another. Keeps the wheel spinning round…every champion is himself a monument, though all who roll their bones through Paris on that fateful final day place a proverbial brick in the Arc de Triomphe.

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Rogue Riders, Systemic Mischief and the Chi of Icarus

Suspicions plague the Tour de France and rightfully so as it is rife with scandal, its back catalog littered with the ignominy of the busted and the shameless. Nearly two-thirds of top-10 finishers in the Tour between 1998 and 2014 used performance-enhancing drugs, but it goes much deeper than this. In tracing a hundred-plus laps around France to the race’s halcyon inception (minus the war years when it was canceled), its organizers have devised a stout rule book that copes with misdeeds, and builds a diaphanous sort-of jail for transgressors. In the lunacy of a three-week juggernaut, said book shall be burned to an ashen hue long before the champagne bottles are uncorked. Some will be ostracized; others might have habitually gotten away with it all their lives.

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Along the crooked path, savant-level venality and the Tour de France have enmeshed and malformed themselves against standards and best practices. This exclusive sporting class enables biologically altered warriors, having first made them students in the subtle gradation of artificial enhancement. As competitors bettered themselves through chemistry, cynical fans began waving “Tour de Doping” protest banners, and they were not mistaken. A rider could appear edgy yet still avoid giving off the impression of being whacked out of cognizance, instead saving that precious cerebral energy to mount sneaky campaigns. The impetus to cheat seemed to abhor a vacuum, and regularly exploded into contagious outbursts that only start to look like major events in hindsight. In this upper echelon they possess the V02 max of a bottlenose dolphin and become massively talented at the subterfuge of drug-taking. The science of tamper-proof devices and laboratory processes are hacked with Pentagon-level acumen. Think tanks are convened, heretofore poisonous avenues of ambition are tabled for discussion, and all barriers to cheating are analyzed for miniscule advantages. There is a man who knows nobody will like him if his bespoke “formula x” is discovered, but he no longer wonders about the consequences.

In the rich century-old history of tweaking on the Tour, Colombian cyclist Luis Herrera’s remarks on the matter may be unsurpassed:

“When I saw riders with fat asses climbing cols

like airplanes (at the Tour de France),

I understood what was happening.”

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On the ascent, cutting swiftly through thin air, they could capture an unsanctioned distillation of their most lethal maneuvers. In the sprint, inept test devices failed to detect the microdosing animal who just won the photo finish by two centimeters. In a beautiful delusion they could embody a living refinement of the ancient berserker mentality by understanding what it’s like to embrace—even delight in—temptation, gambling big, and banishment. An impressive scroll of monkeyshines unfurls back to the dawn of the race, and the doping scandals can now be measured in generations…being “clean” feels more like it is in the periphery, and to be avoided, when everyone is unapologetically absorbed in the prevalent abuse of the rules. Illegal methods and man-made substances are engaged to steal marginal gains. Using chemicals and/or a refreshing supply of spare plasma, doping-induced masculine revelries come with enormous side effects. In boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream, the doping evidence trail shows where and how the blood was drawn, stored and furtively reinjected down the road. Oxygenation turbines makes things crisp, surreal even, and feel like a bucket of ice water on a sweltering day. It makes a rider fearless except for the pervasive terror of failure and abandonment.

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Perplexing varieties of adulterants spur lab rats of the velodrome onward, and get reformulated for slow-release smoldering as the Tour’s endless assault clocks past 2,200 miles: nitroglycerine to improve breathing, narcotic supplements planting dynamite under drained bodies, muscle-tightening strychnine, ether-soaked handkerchiefs to deaden the pain in their legs, cocaine and amphetamines, steroids, corticoids, pemoline, Reactivan, amineptine, bronchodilators Clenbuterol and Bromantan, the diuretic masking agent xipamide, steroid masking agent probenecid, Synacthen, Ritalin, ephedrine, nandrolone, phentermine, benzoylecgonine, DHEA, testosterone and synthetic growth hormones to train longer with less rest. This is a partial list; the full list goes on and on. All manner of pills and uncharted liquids have officially been found. In post-disgrace interviews, contrite riders said resistance to their odious charms seemed futile.

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By the 1990s, a fuller spectrum of drugs became detectable and anti-doping agencies began to gain traction. Over time there’s a ladder of one-upping between the good and bad guys as the game progresses. Growing adept at staying one step ahead of investigators, the Tour elite were maximizing the efficacy of blood-doping transfusions by using erythropoietin (EPO), a drug to increase red-cell production in anemia sufferers. Once the doping agencies caught on to EPO, some riders deftly switched over to obtaining derivative products such as Aranesp, a genetically-engineered recombinant EPO. You would not be surprised if they told you veterinary drugs were scavenged to elicit equine reactions (magnified into a smaller body); somewhere in their subversive clinic shades of the Josef Mengele vibe reverberated. Trafficking networks were interrogated and lives ruined. The team at some point made a pact to manipulate their very bone marrow, dared cycling federations to record hematocrit levels, and perhaps prayed against addiction and medical misadventure as a means to a superb end.

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These are the worst-kept secrets of the Tour, and the germ of a thousand confessions. To catch your prey, you must stay on target and hunt like no other cheetah in the Serengeti gene pool, even if it ruins your health. There are no candy-asses in this environment, reputations are made or drained where seconds are split to the thousandths, and the live-or-die moment is often decided by less than the length of a wheel. These days, equipment tampering may be grafted to the existing bio-tampering strategy—rumors have it that some cyclists have gone so far as to install micro-scaled, sound-dampened motors inside their frames to gain one more nearly-imperceptible advantage. Race inspectors will tell tales of how they began to divine gyroscopic anomaly through opaque surfaces. After the project ends, engineers and mechanics in the pit crew keep their oath by finding out if they can sell their stealth techniques to DARPA.

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Behold the archetype of a drug-addled, vainglorious Tour de France deceiver—let us marvel at the culmination of his labors! Such cunning, and there he goes now, in all his splendor…the song “Never Catch Me Ridin’ Dirty” plays from the chase car as he booms up a 17% maximum gradient. He is beyond the reach of ordinary logic. Having made the team, in pining to be Alpha among alphas, he has pondered the moral abyss, and tossed in a shoe. Guided by scumbag tactics and a streak of good evasive luck, somebody in the cabal ran the actuarial odds of getting pinched and answers cemented around the general idea of “fuck you, Doping Control.” They will police themselves instead.

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The Icarus complex is a strong force of prana, forging a relationship with fire, high ambition and ascensionism. Thus, its sufferers on tour are prone to pendulous emotional swings between ecstatic highs and depressive lows, and must redouble their efforts to calibrate the middle ground. You have to compliment them for their bewildering, iron wills. They’re not the first to feel this way about their lot in life. They live like Icarus, and in the narrative of Icarus their rise is defined by hubris, which then faces skepticism, staggering setbacks, and humiliation. In the Tour de France, as in life, our mad bids for immortality are met with Icarus-style endings as a warning to those who try to rise above their condition. Crushed beneath the wheel…

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Obsession and the Morality of Lance

A ragtag pack of tainted recreational conquerors with their dusty spokes and spandex, corrupted and ethics-free, can seem like society itself. They go by in blurs and smoke, owning what is cool and mighty. They see no purpose for the abatement of cheating until the etiquette is legislated…nothing is strictly off-limits or codified until outside enforcement intervenes. Either that or the calamitous hangover of non-therapeutic drawbacks gets too ominous. What began relatively benignly with cigarettes, wine and hashish in the early days of the Tour eventually escalated into blood-play and a coercive experimental orchestra of the periodic table of the elements, as conducted by Earth’s top chemists—black market, grayscale market, legit market…mattered not.

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Purity of obsession is a gift Lance Armstrong had in spades. Inside he drew a dark sketch of courage and inventiveness. He sprang into action with a calculated yet child-like recklessness. On a molecular level, he rode for the cohort of Merck, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, Amgen, DuPont, Dow and the French underground economy to multiple wins. His inner circle tightened as sponsorship headed further “under the skin.” Beyond that he’s staring at a grocery list of fixations that feed the very soul of any over-achieving athlete, pulsating back and forth behind the temples.

Touched by death and metastases, with the gods sparing a solitary testicle, Lance rode as if lashed by some evolved vector of rabies and Benzedrine. One-nutted, yea, but by his moxie and post-cancerous wits he emitted the testosterone-fueled power of three fully engorged nuts according to most scientific standards. He mastered rapid adaptation and healing, the stoic ability to shed pain and accelerate through it, even if it meant figuratively biting through his own nerve endings.

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Once ignited, never defeated. Who will ever forget how a legend climaxed, and how we stood in awe, before we stood in disgust?

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The Poetic Futility of the Breakaway

Statistically 90% of all Tour de France breakaways have failed. In describing a breakaway we are recounting an art form focused on the appeal of a man with his heart on his sleeve, lacking impudent control as he attempts to pull off an attacking coup. Why did he do it? Why bother being an escapee from the herd, and trigger a tactical pursuit by gnashing wolves? Because if you are not a specialist climber or sprinter, a contender for overall victory or a member of a team that has one, then a long-distance raid for a stage win offers your only chance of Tour de France success. And it can make a huge difference to the life of the average domestique or support rider. They will enjoy publicity for their sponsors—TV airtime which can prove crucial for the survival of smaller teams.

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Can an irrational instinct be pinpointed? Is there a politics of unconscious lizard-brained twitch fibers running amok against conscious choices? Sure—if it hasn’t already been elected and mapped out by committee the night before. A breakaway can be rooted in magnificence or bitter frustration; it’s hard to isolate the origins. A stringent soloist’s test is administered to see if they’ll get dropped, and to seek financial reward. As Jens Voigt once said:

“Knowing when I can get away in a break is experience but also instinct.

I sometimes have a vision before it happens.

I see it in my mind when I will attack—I go ‘yes, that is the

moment’ and I feel nothing can go wrong.”

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Breakaways oblige a hint of specious motivation to quicken off the peloton early in the stage, or to lose them in the mountains. The size of the break matters, as well as who is in it—others will be deciding whether it will be allowed to continue. Any rider threatening the general classification (or any other jerseys) will not be allowed to get clear, and will almost assuredly be subsumed by the horde. The peloton turns into hunters, and the hunted men undoubtedly know when the game is up even if they never throw in the towel.

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Losing the breakaway can be the noblest of defeats. If you have ever seen the end of a Tour stage you know what happens to most breakaway attempts, and it is not pretty. In the midst of their explosion, there is a frailty and a transfer of sands in the hourglass. First, the escapees work themselves to the bone as if piloted by an evil delirium, embarking to a desolate place where devils offer not a single wisp of slipstream in the wild asphalt yonder. For this fruitless expenditure, the vast majority will receive a drubbing with no outward reward for their extra effort. With the peloton looming like a pack of wolves behind a desperate deer, the snows begin to deepen around the hoof—a friendless madman or small group of hyperventilating scouts who have been clear all day are chased and summarily eaten by the fast-moving main field, often in the last kilometer.

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You had to look back. OK, well…

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…hate to say I told you so.

Glory Itself sits upon a Wheel

Glory worthy of the Norse god Odin, who relentlessly pursued wisdom, awaits the battered, happily-haggard winner of the Tour de France. Who had the courage, the guile and the tenacity to reach the pinnacle of the sport? It’s always the same question, year after year. Layer upon layer, over the cyclical course of a century or more, the good work of each champion has laid the groundwork for their usurpers. This wheel constantly feeds back into itself. Concentric cycles within cycles…

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Support riders, domestiques and other also-rans receive authentic byproducts of another’s glory, and it whets their hopes for the next season. They spent three arduous weeks enhancing the groupthink, learning and earning. For rookie domestiques (affectionately, a.k.a., “little bitches”) comes indoctrination into the royal fraternal order of Ass-Kissing—it is a compliment and an honor to trundle about with protein and electrolytes because of how they got there, and where they want to be next. Dues paid, failures accounted for, even if the Peter Principal calls “last stop” upon them, even if they ultimately got lapped by some younger, newer form of lightning. Those who never graduated from domestique to lead rider will still wistfully recall the Tour until the day they croak, and how it trumped all the obscure stages they won in Boise and Sedona. They will return to their home towns as genuinely rad, having whiffed at the apex and inhaled the rarefied air of Tour veterans. Luckily there are more virtues beyond what is glamorous than what is in it, because those are what measure the vast majority of semi-anonymous peloton journeymen.

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Oh, yes they will.

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Merely a flesh wound…he shall rise again.

The Greatest Race in the World

What began with a deranged publicity stunt planned by sixty cyclists in 1903 is now a worldwide phenomenon and icon of French life. The Tour doesn’t make any sense; it’s a crazy race. The size, prestige and scope of this contest has no parallel. Flat sprints link undulating hills that wend toward Diebenkorn-esque heartlands…past their stirring rustic gaze lie dozens of torturous climbs that cut tiny, saw-toothed alpine silhouettes on the horizon. The Tour rewards quiet misery and unseen feats of silent psychosis in sacred haunts like Mont Ventoux or the mythical Alpe d’Huez. Riders have died in these locations.

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In the midst of risk, hustle, filth and the inexorable forces that spur ultra-long distance cyclists along, not one rider pretends to be the master of it. The most respected and formidable among them never looks invincible. They often cross the finish line with a poker face that masks a ragged, telomere-stunting, lifespan-reducing effort. The spice of variety and the vagaries of the unforeseen means anyone can win this race. On rare occasions a rickety 39-year-old gnarler will play spoiler or snatch a stage win from the hijinks of youth before being fitted for his dentures and coffin, having reached such a decrepit age by Tour standards. Petite Colombians seize high-altitude Pyrenees stages from the unaware; you can faintly hear a Mayan flute playing as they’re taking flight up the mountain like human hummingbirds. Hors catégorie!!! 1000 BPMs. Next day, who knew—the sprint is stolen by a frightening Teutonic cyborg. The chicane and checkered stripe? He will see to it they are stained with blood and chunks of flesh; this is a recurring theme at the Tour, and a role currently played by none other than “The Gorilla” (André Greipel). On Tuesday, an anorexic-looking Frenchman rides a sudden atomic dynamo of patriotic inspiration as if summoned from the heavens, and shocks everyone. Indeed they’ve gone far, lasted longer, and made the lock-jawed crazy face that the whole world saw as they grimaced in agony. Dark horses abound.

Among these giant-killing specialists lurks the all-arounder, obsessed beyond reason, a GC tiger who pays near-cinematic tribute to scaring the shit out of the rest of them. Look where he is—he wears the Maillot Jaune. The others are banging their heads together trying to get there. “Anytime now,” they say to themselves. But, more likely—never. Brave attitudes raise efficiency percentages, sharpen the senses, and get people over hills. Down to the final drop of emergency reserves, a form of blind love derives from torment and they’re not going to the hospital even if you stab them. These are among the purest and deepest feelings shared by all cyclists in the Tour de France.

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#1 super-fan and keeper of Faustian bargains

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WINTER 2016: Narcissist's Playbook, Dark Triad & Cult of Self

Sometimes we walk a razor-edged line dividing rational knowledge of self worth on one side and cynical, self-interested, unprincipled conceit on the other.

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Prologue to the Coverage of Unwieldy Subject Matter: This is a critical look at narcissism, its origins, and the behaviors that spring from its elementary particles. This is also about the complication of examining things we can never know exactly about. In so doing, we can draw on the wisdom of the stoics, in a style that is direct and unpretentious. Like Marcus Aurelius, their message was simple but extraordinarily powerful: life is short, the past and the future are inaccessible, pain and pleasure have no meaning, but inside each one of us there is a ruling faculty that is touched only by itself. From this core we can mount a proper deconstruction.

In an attempt to think panoramically and get a crack at the wide view, topical subdivisions will be explored for vacancies of unified thought. We will veer away from abstract concepts and jargon on the long stretch toward next-level definitions. Let’s survey a peculiar landscape of human behavior that often defies explanation. Ask yourself—how much of a person’s sense of confidence or self-worth is a delusion?

The uses/abuses of narcissism as power tool/weakness are riven across the late Holocene and early Anthropocene eras. Every generation contains those who think icons and demagogues are forged by entering crowds while scraping the unplumbed depths of insincerity with every handshake. It is massive in its influence, when you put together all the pieces, but its accomplishments are unclear. It wins things without selling well to those it has won over. It rides menacingly through the creaky, wordless depths of evolutionary adaptation, inter-gender relations, alphas and betas (social market value), the cultivation of Game (with its attending mixture of dread, regret and “meta”), abundance and scarcity, the dynamics of desire, the stuff that frustrates regular people, the letting go of invisible friends, the decoding of another’s honor system utilizing theory of mind, identity crisis avoidance, and the bitterness of social lawlessness’s sour edge.

In the annals of war and peace, love and hate, some of our kind have created harsh or triumphant realities romanticized by a warped pride. Others have merely survived them. The pervasive nebulousness of pride’s scarier shades gave evidence to the controversial kernel of narcissism’s primary psychological energy source—one universally reviled yet strangely sought after as a confidence prop in make-or-break moments. When you’re calmly collecting the feedback of a room (or any social scene) it can be detected coexisting with furtive scorn, jealous fascination, sometimes both. It is difficult to be a moral person when you are surrounded by the amoral, left sorting out friends from strangers, echoing back corollary reminders that strangers loiter within friends. In shedding what is naïve, in being tainted by these experiences, would you stay objective and forbearing, and retain a sense of humor?

Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed. Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, a “truth” in the abstract view can develop, one that is at once sobering and comical. In taking an informed, coolly-detached angle of a less clinical nature, we’d inevitably subvert the frames of volatile debate emanating from a DSM-5 Manual. A subject that may go on updating itself in perpetuity is always unfinished, unsatisfied, and contains the pins and needles of trouble…meaning I’m not going to get out of it unless I detect and close credibility gaps. I’m seeking to conceive a total perspective for 2016, to harmonize and humanize a great body of historical knowledge, one which has grown voluminous and fragmented into esoteric specialties. That is psychology. In vitalizing it for contemporary application, I’ll mind a strong word from Spinoza while labeling “healthy” and “unhealthy” narcissism as we go—impartial views don’t run in abundance in such an atmosphere.

We all possess features of +/- narcissism reflected in our endeavors, and we’re colored by its external influence. It’s cobwebbed in the critical thought process, and piques questions of ethics for anyone vying to become expert on the subject (a.k.a, “getting over”). I can’t “undo” a cliff jump, so am I left hustling reckless exposés and haphazard distillations of thought on the Internet? Do I spy the wreckage of rhetorical folly on the horizon? The ability to separate insight from navel-gazing or pedantic skylarking picks up static from biases. A periodic table of biases accrues during the protracted blend of time people spend with area narcissists and the council of a covert narcissistic yeti that lurks inside human minds. To meditate on the mental weaponry of narcissism in wintertime also means tacking through the zeitgeist and grit of society, where all points of reason should be served up cold as ice.

What the text below is not: Let’s assume you already possess the popular wisdom on narcissism, and the world doesn’t need addenda to another cogent Psychology Today take on theory. Relevant psychobabble serves the central function, an anchor of sorts, and we can skip past it in the spirit of Will Durant. A few more “assumption filters” guide the essence of a post-modern analysis. I will distance myself from what is easily found after 11 seconds with Google and Wikipedia (plus the hours/days it might take to process). Foundationally, there is complicity in the flow and context here—I’ve read what those sources offered, and hitched them to several deeper, proprietary information sources including outright experiential observation. From this point we can launch a critical excursion, winging outside the established sphere of influence. Theory of mind allows humans to spot and cope with the vast tapestry of what society produces out there in everyday life, in the interplay.

Let’s also assume to wave off source materials spewing from a thin demographic that classifies under “Analytical Confessionals”—the wounded, occasionally warlike advice of recovering, damaged children of narcissists, some of whom have published fine books as a profitable therapy. We should also eschew the hollow rants of the umpteenth failed narcissist who eventually fell out of his tree, then felt the need to audaciously self-examine in front of the world. This bunch is still working through their shit on Tumblr’s self-help trend lines, have been known to blur objectivity, or want a new kind of attention in a different format—at times encouraging the chronically-afflicted, talent-free narcissist to relapse and jump up on the proverbial stage again. The horror.

Shall we assume the entire spectrum of content has already been digested, including the web universe and whatever has landed on the library shelves of American shrinks since 1884? I’d be the ultimate hypocrite to pretend I’ve cracked every spine on the books, when it’s but an influential fraction that grips my attention. As it turns out, that’s the glaring problem with claiming recognition of any new ground—the ambition to write futuristically about narcissism contains the lofty, sweet and smoky kiss of narcissism within it. Shine the laser light into recursive mirrors and you might burn your eye out. The self-styled “expert” is double-crossed early on, and still dares to enter, as if only to help us see, even clearer, the danger with trying to harness authority on narcissism.

Any discussion of what constitutes matters of power, identity and morals becomes clouded by the self-perceptions of how well we think we align with them. When expressing the fullness of our exposure by capsulizing centuries of narcissism theory, there is the solipsistic compulsion to refine things by judging good/bad. This binary move, in and of itself, is right on the quivering verge of nullifying objectivity. This behavioral trap threatens to weave itself into a form of written vanity that wants to hang out on a dirty street corner with narcissism. Even if you’re considered a noble poseur, you’re a rotten poseur nonetheless. If mishandled, it’ll ensure that what you’re about to read isn’t going toward making me any new friends.

All apologetic disclaimers now rendered, the case is made to move forward with a shred of credibility. Even the act of apology, from within the catacombs of narcissism, can be a plot device—that coy, self-effacing part, a social hacking tool that can be easily inserted to evoke consideration and sincerity where only vapors exist. Just an option we are given in a throw-away microsecond…and the urge can take hold. Even as a mere spectator, you can watch it become useful in polite society wherever the false integrity of “white-lie courtesies” are found. To stretch a topic and get at the young fruit means testing the outer taper of the limb (prone to snapping), and if you find yourself bracing for earth-shattering news in the feature presentation below, you may be underwhelmed.

PART I: Ye Olde Tyme Ego Trip

As a chaotic mental construct arisen from humanity’s archaic victories over all other beasts and a good portion of the land, narcissism has been a perpetual companion throughout history. Early sorcerer-alchemists swore it originated from a hidden, poisonous gland, or that the sufferer was stung by some mythic centipede, paralyzing all emotional pain pathways and dilating a perplexing new route of thought equipped for evolutionary advantage against the mentally unprepared. Darwin never tapped into it, but it was out there, brewing and mutating. As a more disciplined field of study began to form around proto-narcissism in early societies and medical communities, the worst of the kind went down in the books as “megalomania”—a psychopathological condition characterized by fantasies of power, relevance and omnipotence, all of which draw from inflated self-esteem. A common tendency is that they didn’t qualify (for x, y, or z), but act like they did anyway.

Unlike the physically-dominant types in prehistoric times—geared for sheer animal instinct—ancient narcissists proliferated by working duplicitous mental manipulations behind the scenes, and less in the open. Emotionally threatening and scaring others into doing what they wanted is what they did best, to the extent that they were using it as a mating strategy, a shiny new arrow in the quiver. At that juncture, self-selection and early narcissistic tradition begin to encode into DNA and development, and run in families.

The modern version does pretty much the same thing since the end goals really haven’t changed. In several twisted Grimm’s Fairy Tales, those who weren’t overflowing with narcissistically amoral tendencies were not always rewarded for their virtuosity, but somehow doomed to be on a collision course with an outsiders’ malevolent egocentrism at some point in their lives. Often, the Devil was depicted as a brother or something even closer. As if what is moral only belonged to children, and not for long.  It still feels like that now. Even when we’re dust and the year is 2336, a scoundrel class will exist that assumes to use lies, fear, guilt and shame to weaken others and force them under their control. It is a uniquely dangerous specimen—close to us and hidden in plain sight. These are generally the ones that are going to feel good when you feel bad, and only in those pathological moments.

We can now sift through the 21st century for revelation…these days the craft of megalomania has grown subtle, yet spicy, more devious, yet practical in its ends. It found a spot in the survival kit, having weathered the storm—narcissism’s legacy stems from hominids’ break-out from the primate realm, speeding up modern society because it wants things, and waking others up to unpleasant possibilities.

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PART II: Narcissistic Spectrum Merges into Dark Triad

Healthy intrinsic narcissism exists in all individuals. The true value of courtesy is revealed in the universal game of humanity, where not all are borne of humility, and where there is much cross-examining, labeling and shelving into the natural order of things. There’s a lot of resistance to that which might create a version of the future we don’t want. A ship that escapes the brisk winds of a Bell Curve (+/- commentary) hasn’t been built yet, and the cruelties of an unfair world come into focus. We manage regardless of where our dot lands on the scatter plot, survival shows many facets, everyone plays by a subset of their own rules, and some delve into the protective/corrosive effects of narcissism. Ideally, the nobility of a man isn’t in how he measures up against other men, but against the former versions of himself, day to day, over the slow process of a life’s time. Ultimately, we’re all vulnerable to losing sight of that. As the lack of stability arrives to intrude upon the frustrated ego, stoic high points worthy of Hemingway have to be preserved at all costs. It doesn’t require a Psych degree to accurately observe narcissist’s transferring stress and cognitive dissonance onto something or someone else, and they’ll turn it into a performance; as an adversary, something of a vampire-at-a-distance, and that’s a very technical term.

On the light end of the spectrum, “healthy narcissism” is a structural truthfulness of the self, achievement of object constancy, synchronization between the self and the superego and a balance between libidinal and aggressive drives (the ability to receive gratification from others and the drive for impulse expression). To sum up what probably could fill several lectures: Healthy narcissism forms a perpetuating, realistic self-interest, mature goals and principles and an ability to form deep relations. It creates fewer conflicts and engenders the feeling of greatness when the occasion is right. This is the antithesis of insecurity or inadequacy, and likely a required element of normal development. Freud says that this is an original state from which the individual develops the love object. He argues that healthy narcissism is essential, and says the love parents hold for their child and their attitude toward their child could be seen as a revival and reproduction of their own narcissism. The child has an omnipotence of thought; the parents stimulate that feeling because in their child they see the things that they have never reached themselves.

We see certain vital positivist narcissisms in the world as yang, and bad “destructive” narcissism in the yin (only without any masculine/feminine distinction), energy expressing the outward and inward flow of self-awareness. But mostly, it means something negative, something not shared, something not referential to love, then topples into NPD.

From this fulcrum, we can check the multifaceted structural integrity of “crazy” in its fortifying descent into the paradox and dark side of narcissism. It gets deep into business, money, and the full constellation of competition. The worst of this ilk issue forth from the contorted logic of self-serving minds and bitter hearts, but at the same time they ply a sober discipline, almost prosaic in the way it tests how different people manage patience, consideration and their own cognitive skills in its presence. The skilled narcissist will plant land mines in a maze of contradictions, at times leaving you thinking “How can such seemingly ‘nice’ people be so damn mean?” They’re nice for all the wrong reasons, and it can be a disaster when they can’t stop doing what they do.

Most of the true narcissists will never stop. Ultimately, their narcissistic projection shows how the biggest problems they have with you will give you insight into what’s actually wrong with them. It sometimes takes a phenomenal effort to stifle the BS of those who’ve mastered what are known as the “weak-minded talents.” (w/ props to Eric Hoffer.) If you can shut down a classical, hard-nosed narcissist in the field, deconstruct and take him out of the game, you might have also hit the Achilles’ heel of a Machiavellian, a psychopath—and now we’ve struck upon the three key personality traits that pave morally-dubious paths to power via the Dark Triad.

At this point in the reveal, by the millions we can observe them teetering away from composure or becoming physically dangerous as their tactics unravel. They lash out. And it’s really no mystery why many of them abuse the Dark Triad, go overboard in their boundary-breaking, and crudely evoke the specter of “adult children” who never get their facts straight when they start arguing—because it doesn’t help them build the illusion of a perfect life, does it? On a dare, you might try to find their trigger points and fight fire with fire. Just don’t do it at the night club on Friday, for everyone else’s sake. Behavior is complicated.

Seven deadly sins of unhealthy narcissism serve as a Dark Triad litmus test:

1. Shamelessness: The feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame.

2. Magical thinking: Narcissists see themselves as perfect, using distortion and illusion. They also use projection to dump discomfort or shame onto others.

3. Arrogance: A narcissist who is feeling deflated may reflate by diminishing, debasing or degrading somebody else.

4. Envy: A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person. A vapid sort of envy is a core part of American life.

5. Entitlement: Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger rage.

6. Exploitation: Can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for outside feelings or interests. Often the other person is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.

7. Bad boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to these assholes are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations.

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PART III: The Dark Triad’s Most Vaunted Musketeer

The English playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were enthusiastic proponents of a view—that narcissist’s get ahead in life, much to the chagrin of others, and there’s often nothing you can do about their rapaciousness. Shakespeare’s Gloucester, later Richard III, refers to Machiavelli in Henry VI, for instance:

“I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavelli back to school.”

Those compelled to get close to his power will feel the gravitas and could become his playthings whether or not he’s found in a foul mood—oh, but how peaceful he looks on the surface. Due to their skill at interpersonal manipulation, there has often been an assumption that the highly-Machiavellian possess superior intelligence, or ability to understand other people in social situations. However, as Carl Jung and many others discovered over time, it’s not about IQ—research has firmly established that narcissistic skill in Machiavellianism is unrelated to general intelligence. Even small children and the mentally retarded have their own versions of narcissism, because craving power brings all creatures relief only when it is measurably satisfied. As homo sapiens is programmed and wont to do, we will jump through hoops of contrivance to contract it, to sustain the sensation. Furthermore, studies on emotional intelligence have found that high Machiavellianism actually tends to be associated with low EQ; both empathy and emotion recognition have been shown to have negative correlations with Machiavellianism. Additionally, research has shown that Machiavellianism is unrelated to a more advanced theory of mind—the ability to anticipate what others are thinking in social situations. There is no special cognitive ability as a precursor to the embrace of narcissistic attitudes.

PoMo Concretions about Dark Triad and its Agent Provocateur:

  • Duplicity is considered as an art form, and well-sublimated in the elite. Vanity coats it in stardust. To be cat-like and cleverly surreptitious, occasionally to the point of becoming unrecognizable to one’s self. Devising ways to distance oneself from one’s own narcissism becomes a constant pursuit.
  • Because the narcissistic approach of power tripping has a combination of violence and achievement in it, men find it especially intoxicating. For men it’s about primal domination, aggression, sex and the mystical spirit of testosterone.
  • Aside from the irrational and berserk bits, the narcissistic inclination can shapeshift to appear as something vital that we don’t want to completely banish or plug up—it’s somewhere in the list of ingredients that supplied some of mankind’s greatest achievements, for better or worse. It doesn’t play nice with the slowly evolving types, and it can make others feel like they just disappeared into obscurity, as was narcissism’s most ancient desire (to consume). It’s agency in crucial political and tactical connections is de rigueur…it energized mankind’s engineering of seemingly-impossible things, and paved the way for the conquering of nations—yet with no shortage of blowback and revenge as a sooty byproduct. This complicated notion is clear and self-evident to a provable majority of historians.
  • An entanglement paradox can manifest when an abject, unmanageable prick—typically male but not always—haunts your reverie and features in some of the best stories of your life. The ones that have money can be lovable rogues who act elegant on binges. The endearing narcissist will convince you to skate off the roof and partake in Taser test-shots, overdo the available drugs and alcohol for its dull entertainment value, or something as benign as tasting miniature sandwiches made from raw broccoli and marshmallows (that you previously had no intention of eating). Their coaxing sets men wandering moonlit dunes to seek out the inner ape, maybe revealing a rusted, oxidizing wimp instead—and generally play a fool for entertainment’s sake when it’s someone else’s idea for you to do so. This whole game is marinating in the auspices of good times. Depending on what you’re made of, you’ll emerge stronger or weaker—perhaps vitalized or faintly disturbed—from those experiences. Even while getting dude-bro’ed to death, the irredeemably hardened narcissistic male inwardly looks upon most other men as “pussies,” and misses out on the potential of healthy, uncontrived spontaneity.
  • The sting of pride can be the prime negative motivator of a mixed and apprehensive crowd, without being obvious about it. The half-hearted, semi-sincere narcissist can by subterfuge become grouped with mentally-balanced extroverts. Taking only the mellower chapters of The Narcissist’s Playbook and avoiding obstacles relating to meaning and truth works well for them. Having an audience frames their approach, and any form of “rude” reality that might challenge their strength/authenticity is likely to elicit canned responses, or devolve into elaborate scripted dramas. Someone, somewhere, will be the would-be dupe that takes the bait. On the sketchy end of the gambit, fists of wounded pride fly daily over all kinds of petty garbage, we’ve seen the fireworks. In a festive recreational setting, this army-of-me maneuver and alcohol coexist symbiotically with narcissistic rage. Though booze can serve as an ego’s afterburner, the spark of “first cause” in hierarchical troublemaking never needed liquor in the first place.
  • Enigmatic, catchy and indicative of the strategic benefits within a close-knit tribe or family, narcissism can be especially potent when hidden in a charm offensive. There’s a lot of group improv, narcissism demands honor and money in the bank, and you’re going to drive it there or be a pariah in the proverbial Corleone Family.  These families sold maybe a few nasty little ideas to their kids by frequently accusing others and eliciting reflexive/defensive responses to real or perceived enemies, parrying deftly, and remind their prey that they contain a clearly branded knowledge of self-worth. They do it right in front of their kids at all ages so they can pick up on it, without question. The cleverest ones ply their trade but don’t make it look like an exotic infection; the gifted narcissist gathers momentum insidiously.
  • Among friends, they can affect an intense loyalty to those who play by their rules, but make no mistake—they’re not listening; while you’re talking, the narcissist is listening primarily to what they are going to say next.
  • Sometimes we can get stuck in the routine, where life starts to take shape around a series of scripted lines. Those who pay attention to the reverberating natural truth in their feelings can tell when they meander into ennui or detach from reality. In contrast, the irredeemable narcissist never even got the “stuck” feeling, never acknowledged the quintessence of “entry” or “exit” from mental states derived from a set model. This eventually can erode how people perceive them on the sliding scale of real-to-unreal, or asleep-to-awake (words sanctioned as a metaphor for reasoning).
  • Now that we’re into the deep-think zone where cumulative theories conjoin a stream of consciousness, I could risk an implosive failure and ruin the value of this long read. Writers sometimes put this near the end just in case the vision backfires to render the author’s flaws detectable (and because writers write secondarily to create a selection of available answers for themselves, even if they choose none of it). Red flags arise to herald the “can’t-lose” unrepentant narcissist, the kind who unfolds in mixed company with a dicey cognitive dissonance: When in possession of an endlessly impenetrable nature, one diamond-cut by the chilled assurance that guides righteous ignorance, a hardened narcissist believes having a conscience or a selfless moment gives other people too much power unless it displays him as a hero. In a revealing referendum of the universal flaws and momentary lack of inner peace from which no one escapes, a lot of heretofore gentlefolk are now perfectly ready to descend into their own decision tree of downgraded manners—launch a verbal warning shot across the bow, exact a more stringent revenge upon toxic people like this, or forget that we live in a world of laws for a dark and dreamy moment? It’s a Rubik’s Cube-style rivalry if you do engage. Attempting to wade into their midst and sort it out for yourself, you’ll be handed one sticky left hook after another. The elite narcissist will be wagering against your desire to touch their scripted presumptions with a 10-foot pole. They have an inexhaustible supply of something you find exhausting. They innately know how time-consuming and ultimately fruitless your campaign will be. This is just one of a million thorny combinations the narcissist will throw at you from within the tranquil confines of The Narcissist’s Playbook. It will not matter if you see them as cheeky raconteurs or useless sarcastic nobodies; doesn’t sink in. Instead, they will have assimilated quietly in the background an edgy way of life you find corrupted. Once the lights come on and you’ve seen the Death Star plans, it comes as no surprise when they start spouting a cheap, ungraceful line of “ego wisdom” that jams your signal and shuts you down every single time. That’s where the talent was shunted—a caustic talent of the weak-minded that preys upon even the strong, but a talent nonetheless.

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PART IV: America and the Conversational Egocentrism of Popular Culture

Power and ego are driving everyday life. I’m not the first to observe that the social support system in America is relatively weak, and this leads people to compete mightily for attention. In social situations, they tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves. Conversational narcissism is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and coworkers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggest its pervasiveness in everyday life.

This, of course, goes on to stoke the impenetrable center of gravity that has become our “Culture of Narcissism,” where activities and relationships are fraught by the hedonistic need to acquire the symbols of wealth and expression of rigid, covert social hierarchies. It is a culture where liberalism only exists insofar as it serves a consumer society, and even art, sex and religion lose their liberating power. That’s when it turns destructive, and malignant.

On a more granular level, there’s a Californian version that has become quite the global phenomenon, ruling its own astral plane within the archetypes of power, control and success. Lots of people are held aloft by a heaping dose of it, and it comes back repeatedly because it always has unfinished business.

It would be remiss if I didn’t survey the vital role today’s American youth play in characterizing the negligence and carelessness of narcissism that gets handed down to them as a byproduct of their parents, and form an idea about what they’re going to do to society. I’ve decided to ignore the moral panic about lazy, self-obsessed Millennials, which might sound soft-hearted or forgiving at first. The world might actually be fairer when they run it—ideally, having found higher value in being more meritocratic and better-governed. There’s plenty of polemic accounts out there already, including newer releases like The Road to Character and Generation Me that portray young Americans as deluded narcissists. Having constantly been told they are special, they are now far more likely than their elders to believe that “if I ruled the world, it would be a better place” or that “somebody should write a biography of me ‘cuz I’m awesome.” They are off-the-charts materialistic, too. About 65% of American college students expect to become millionaires, and some are not too fussy about how they get to the top. In one (2015) study of high school students, 95% admitted to having cheated in tests. The millennials’ expectations of life are so out of kilter with reality that they will probably get less of what they want than any previous generation. What will the world be like when today’s young people are in charge? Some worry that it will be more cynical. On the heaviest end, it traces back to a general truism that is blind to age, and the ages…

In the cynic’s domain you are the perfect crime in the Cult of Self. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt…and this is also the ethic promoted by corporations and unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is also why robber-barons, investment bankers and other kings of the world blinked in confusion (with eyes wide open) whenever they were questioned about the morality of the properties or billions they acquired by their riggings, most recently taking form as the selling of worthless assets to investors. We have a right, in the Cult of the Self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to manically chase happiness, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own basis for morality. How one gets there is irrelevant.

Alas, a poetic and perturbed nugget rests beneath observable fact and accepted wisdom: As the days creep slowly by, each one can be seen as a little life, a little death, a microcosm of our full timeline bundled up in a 24-hour cycle. For others, life is the only thing worth focusing on—there will be no scenic drives past the graveyard, no dares to go peering into the chasm, lots of smoke and no early warning system or circuit-breaker when the cool embrace of self-interest begins to lock out the ability to breathe normally or feel pain. It’s an increasingly common form of craziness masquerading as balance and achievement…

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“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.”

–Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

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“What you got ain’t nothin’ new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming…there ain’t no waitin’ on you…that’s vanity.

–Cormac McCarthy, “No Country for Old Men”

 

AUTUMN 2015: Super-simple Japanese Poetry Style

Will you turn toward me?

I, too, am lonely

this autumn nightfall.

 

[ULTIMATE PROPS TO MATSUO BASHO, 1644-1694]

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SUMMER 2015: Avoiding Formulaic Modern Web Design

As a critic of interfaces, you’ve already defined the parts of dem411.com that you like or dislike upon landing.  Small decisive moments in Internet communications, generally hidden and unspectacular, occur inside an intuitive split second, and every web user naturally qualifies to judge their experience. If you’re not a web designer, but need to make a personal or small business web site using your own content, setting up a customized blueprint like dem411 is probably doable in the US$3,500 to US$5,000 range. Woven into the more universal findings presented below are details about its build and project timeline.

This article is full of complaints—a few of which might be deep enough to learn from—but skews positive in showing how I conditionally received more than expected in the final result. Some web sites have full 24-hour support on multiple continents, replete with outside design houses sprinkling turbo on the visual imprint—fancy dev. Not saying it’s onerous, because they rep the bleeding edge of technology and design. But such lofty, expensive goals refreshingly fade away with respect to a solo and brief web-building project; the small budget; the need for a semi-transparent way to freely control content within the context of a personal web archive—additive over time, easy to edit and manipulate; and melding that data structure to a kind of timeless, minimalist design. The one I had in mind wasn’t technically feasible. A larger budget would have solved a couple issues, but money couldn’t cure a handful of hard-bitten trade-offs that breed web design conformity; these things piled up in the service of “future-proofing” the back-end structure of it all.

PART I: Nine Observations on Creativity and Web Design

1. One cardinal rule for designing a website isn’t technical at all, and sounds similar to one of life’s more pervasive truisms: There will often be a stereotypical crisis in the starting blocks of an idea, when you realize you can’t seem to square the scope of your ambition with the given limits. On the non-existential side of this analogy, web design pitches you into a labyrinthine chicane of dictates and confines defined by computer science, its code, software and flat quadrilaterals. Traversing the narrows sterilizes well-intentioned notions of deeper stylization and customization, and reduces the art of it. The hook is that you still want to be a part of it, a powerful new medium. Zen-dada types would say this moment allows you to explore the power of creative disappointment in accepting limitations. Many others just say this seems like a bleak time for well-designed online content.

Through the pessimist’s lens dem411.com harbors compromise, disappointment and failure—necessary sins of technical constraint that bring structure to its interface (a.k.a, front end or “presentation layer”), as well as the back-end code or “data access layer.” Everyone will inevitably judge exactly how well you’ve fine-tuned your visual abstraction between the front and back ends—how has it clarified or convoluted the site’s user-friendliness? This can all be measured coldly and in exact percentages. A positive ethos arises and is most balanced when it keeps you from clinging to unrealistic ideals, and it shows in the designer’s approach between these layers. The practical act of maximizing the content control, flexibility and delivery—plus future-proofing a web site across any platform or device—kicks up a rooster-tail of dirty design byproducts via the easy leverage of CMSs (content management systems), the strictures of bespoke WordPress (WP) template/theme development, and the subtle aesthetic cruelties of Responsive Web Design (RWD). These bits are also tethered to the Cascading Style Sheets language, CSS3 in particular.

The idea to have a simple but visually thought-provoking archival node is tied to the fact that dem411 integrates all of these state-of-the-art tools with customized developer code, site zones that aren’t tied explicitly to WP (e.g., the home page and navigation), the addition of light parallax effects and a unique web font overlay. This wild bunch has to play nice together. Any R&D you invest in these techniques will leave you circling the loudest and most unavoidable warning for modern web design—not adopting RWD is digital suicide. With this secret sauce we seek to create distinction and a special feeling on the fringes of convention. Such ideals sound like useless garbage to millions of one-size-fits-all template websites and rapidly-evolving artificial intelligence (AI) such as The Grid that now assail the dusty old concept of human-based web design as quaintly flawed and irrelevant. A skein of humanistic beauty inherent in creative web design will persevere within and alongside the AI matrix, so long as the desire remains tantalizing enough. In the meantime, it is stimulating to examine the lucidity of antithesis wafting in from hyperventilating bloggers who rush to declare Why Web Design is Dead.

2. Web pages are digital presentations of human continuous-signal thoughts and visions. There is a massive Venn diagram leading up to this, whose origins go back to Paleolithic times. Tracing forward through the millennia from the caves of Lascaux (France), the naturalistic minimalism of ancient Japanese tradition, 20th century Bauhaus art/architectural drawings (Germany) and a constellation of their like-minded disciplines and movements both before and after, two-dimensional design could be seen as simplicity of aesthetic, or attempts to stabilize chaos in meaning through form, color, shape and arrangement. The apotheosis of such an aesthetic has a moral quality to it, a perception that looks into the nature of truth and reveals the inner qualities of materials and objects for “the essence.” In a way, nothing has changed over the millennia—long-dead artists once dreamt of achievement in drawing the cleanest, freshest line through the untracked snow of a blank surface. Being original coaxes primacy out of creative design, and will always count.

3. Web design is more like building a house than other 2D formats. Much as the 3D aesthetic of structural architecture requires additional steps toward function and material selection in ways that books, newspapers and magazines do not, 2D design when pressed into active Internet layouts requires exacting regard for hidden depth. The web site that offers no hassle in its navigation, visual impact and information delivery is furtively built upon gnarled catacombs of code, an array of software tools and the ideas of those who’ve developed expertise in both. As the designer or builder, the web page is Exhibit A in your ability to distill and mask technical complexity on the noisy back-end warpath to a subtle, smooth, angular delivery of ideas, visuals and sound. “Here be dragons,” no doubt, counting several million ways to botch the concept or implementation, the myriad blind alleys of contrivance, and the overly template-addled designs that litter cyberspace and force conundrums of layout, function and disagreement between the site’s elements. At times, it’s a menacing process for the unwary, where The Code is highly rational but can also feel confrontational and unyielding, looming nonsensically and contraption-like at the end of your content creation fever dream.

4. In obtaining optimal control of the web presence, it is essential to own the entire presence. That means full domain/licensing, self-appointed hosting services and clear content ownership down to the foundation (this point expands on the concept of control as discussed in #1). This topic deserves a more detailed spotlight, but slapping the bottom line: If you want any sort of protection on your work, don’t set up your content directly on sites like Squarespace or Medium. They couldn’t care less about the words you write; they’re harvesting your ideas and personal profile for brand and advertising profits.

5. Don’t betray your core ideas while realizing you might need more than one brain to do it right in this age. Within modern web design lie massive complexities of analog and digital idea boards, programming and collaboration. As a solo endeavor, building a modern web site is not advisable. What was once feasible for autodidactic loners at the turn of the 21st century—aided by basic tools such as HTML editors, Macromedia Dreamweaver and the Adobe suite—is now better done in league with a small crew possessing distinct strengths.

6. It will take longer to collaborate and cost more than you think to build a flexible website that has a unique design and original content. So what justifies the outlay for additional resources? RWD will threaten to suck the soul right out with its boxed, gridded confines, and it is technically challenging. Ye must seek avoidance techniques lest the ever-growing Design Machine co-opt your mojo and usurp the throne. Many websites are produced in repeatable, predictable ways, and pander to a common denominator. We build buckets and templates to hold every kind of content, then move on to the next component of the system. These clearinghouses and assembly lines—these manufactured webscapes—remind us that so much of our best independent writing, web design and other content creation is contributing to a single monolithic platform under the pretense of convenience, distribution and freedom.

In the larger scheme of life, cheap and superficial web content is everywhere, fostered by article-bots and armies of underpaid freelancers who have no budget or support for investigation, research, or anything more than shallow thought. Then we are subjected to their material lacking substance and must also use ad-blocking and tracker-killing software to counteract their Big Data siphon. Additionally, the pressure created by phony data metrics, confirmation biases, fear of risk and mountains of worthless content silences creativity, squeezing expression and emotion right out of the process.

7. Best psychological approach to the project/timeline itself: Be unafraid of making mistakes and showing vulnerability in front of others, but get that knotty mess entirely out of your system before final launch. When the design and execution are on point, the project places you in the “zone” and takes on a hypnotic quality that you simply cannot fake. You’ll feel it as soon as it hits the center of your sensibilities. Perfectionists and OCD lovers unite and bond famously in such working environments. Elsewhere in the collaboration, remember that originality is risky—difficult to quantify and defend.

8. When you find the ones who pick up on your signals and work in harmony, superior results will emerge at the very first step of the process, and will snowball from there. Best-case-scenario has the site owner-producer, the developers and graphic designers sharing a hive-mindedness that fuels itself on this premise: The current project should try to be “the one” that dominates the top rankings in your personal portfolio. We’ve all heard it because it’s elementary and Darwinian: “You’re only as good as your latest piece.” Unless this intent is apparent among all parties, the flow/intensity will be lacking and you’ll find yourself dragging the hired help through instructions they’re not stoked about. You simply cannot reach “the good stuff” until this framework is up and functioning without guide wires or artifice. If you’re not the lead designer, trust the designer’s experience, intuition and intelligence.

9. Allow for multiple enforcers in the build environment. I don’t get jealous, and I understand when it’s not my turn to be the expert. Great ideas are convincing by themselves, and don’t feel retaliatory to the group’s other ideas. You’ll all hear the bell go off in your heads when it happens because it completes you to proceed this way in life, in general.

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PART II: Six Items Specific to the Design of dem411.com

1. The un-site, dark web design and Bauhaus-inspired functionality. As an archive of old material, dem411 acknowledges that it’s not chasing numbers. It does not seek to speak the same way to every person. I’ve come to the conclusion that the elite (and the elitists) of the global art and design world appear to gravitate around the following general consensus: “Bad design is a lie that tells you not to mind its existence, and lives among us well disguised. It is a story told poorly, polluted and without surprises.”

In bringing dem411’s subtle but unique look and inner workings to life, some of today’s most common web design conventions were avoided while still adhering to the rigors of the CMS’s scrolling-style user experience. RWD also pushes you in this direction whether you like it or not, because one of the major end goals is to ensure the back-end functionality over time. dem411’s home page layout and visual design is a subtle throwback to the 1990s, when the first impression frequently meant offering visitors a place to rest their eyes in the site’s theme/intention—uncrowded and channeling the best of Bauhaus when it was done right. In this manner RWD actually helps decide something useful beyond itself in the design, despite the aforementioned aesthetic hassles of universal, standardized, modular design/building apparatus. Rarer still, there is no gimmicky search-engine optimization embedded here, no tracking software placed on your system, and no incursions on the end user’s privacy whatsoever.

2. Like dem411, roughly 10% of the world’s web sites use “dark” web design, emphasizing the chiaroscuro of dark backgrounds offset by light-colored text. This was the first step in differentiating the site from the herd, and tonally it carries a certain visual impact that is ideally suitable for a wide range of artists and musicians.

3. Color and nuance (and the value of imperfection): One of dem411’s signature moves is the quiet introduction of “intentional defects” to balance out the sterility of code and convention dictated by the site’s presentation layer. The Internet’s mathematical hierarchy and digital dogma is too bloody perfect. The experimental web designer can be found fleeing rogue from that which runs on staunch, sleek, ultra-QC’ed code that has been bludgeoned with Six-Sigma3 (yes, cubed). Where is the human? Every once in a while you have to dirty-up the process and put some smudges on the laser-cut glass, respectfully tell the fifth and sixth Sigma to get lost, and drink a little river water—“It’s good for ya.”

Too many web sites seek perfection in their pixel arrangements as a means to eliminate noise, smooth the visual field and quicken the download time with small palettes and tight, uncreative specs for organizing the layout. And that’s fine—it serves a unified and utilitarian purpose. Yet when I see this, minor alarms go off and I need to break north. 100% black is too easy, and too ubiquitous. Better to lean dem411 toward the lighter and more pleasant “carbon black” as the anchoring color, then add subtle graphical flaws and textures over the continuous field of solid color beneath it. The home page shows these introduced “errors” if you look closely at the background and central logo text (to which we added scratches and visual noise to the sanitized look of an unmodified display font). Additionally, the body text you are reading here is not pure white—it’s a subtle shade of light grey that is easier on the eyes. The look is similar to an e-book reader’s “night mode” settings. Subtlety and random content Easter eggs go a long way in humanizing the scene.

4. Strictly for the font lovers: Web fonts are standard operating procedure, because good typography is captivating. I have a lifelong romance with font foundries such as Émigré and others. dem411’s combo of content type and general dark web design called for a mix of sans-serifs throughout. I specified the use of Proxima Nova for all body text, along with variations of Akzidenz Grotesk for all menus and display fonts, whether it be black, bold, narrow or condensed. With the help of the developer, dem411 overlaid these beautiful custom letter-forms over the standard HTML fonts (Times, Arial, Verdana, etc.), flowing with the site’s “archival tomb” feel while making it more readable.

5. Hidden functionality, and writing that matters. We should treat content development with the same respect that we have for design and engineering. Content drives design and design augments the content. dem411 emphasizes hidden functionality, ultra-clean layout and uncluttered flow. Mostly it needs to read well—what we see in the rich editorial design for physical pulp magazines has a hard time migrating onto the web, and I’ve rather given up on that. I do editorial design within the tight parameters of WP and RWD. Modern CMSs have made their systems flexible enough that the boxes will adapt. You can make custom menus, macros and other parameters to modify as “code designers” are prone to do. On the front end, meanwhile, editorial designers know that the secret isn’t content first or content last…it’s content and design at the same time.

6. A home page that doesn’t drain the energy from your eyeballs. Sensitive types might say a majority of web sites feel as if they were constructed to assail and sap your brain with a fantastic array of ugly clutter, hidden tracking widgets and cookies, and sales and marketing traps that try to abscond with as much personal data as they can wrestle from your computer. Many take a long time to load as they pile up the background software, auto-run animations and unwanted videos that start themselves involuntarily. This is a corruption of design and user autonomy! It is an interface designed not for you, but more of a “fuck you” from overzealous site owners who insist on click-baiting, ramming their marketing agenda down your throat and perpetually littering your Internet journey with useless drivel. Killing that noise is a worthy goal. In a way, dem411 celebrates the lost art of the “empty” home page—a digital oasis promoting the mind with deep, contemplative spaces and reflective geometric symbols hinting at topographic maps in wire-frame, or a black hole event horizon.

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PART III: Practical Insight on Development and WordPress

1. Good developers lurk in unlikely places. It’s wise to preface the exhaustive search for outside collaborators by hashing out your directional ideas well ahead of time. First, try to look at every existing web site that comes close to what yours wants to be. Find inspiration in them, but also pull devil’s advocate and inquire as to what they lack even in the best case scenario. Employ the Socratic method and alight a constructive internal debate. Then create the better version from your mental notes. In my case, this background process was meticulous and took weeks to complete. Once the concept gels in your head, inventory the details on a spec sheet or list of instructions—you have to set the flight path from scratch. From there, you are ready to search for a design/development team, or perhaps just one person who can do both. My process required 60-80 hours of investigation and sorting out via phone calls, rounds of RFP and repeated trips through the process-of-elimination gauntlet.

After winnowing down to 30 designers or design firms that appeared to sync up well with my intentions (from a field of 100 or more initial forays), I made first contact and sent all of them my introductory materials, needs/wants, and price limit. These designers and groups were located mostly in San Francisco or Los Angeles, a handful in New York City, and an even smaller contingent in the US suburbs and hinterlands. Some of these candidates were overbooked, and barely gave a damn about my presence in their lives. Some were thoughtful but overburdened by various client obligations or perhaps lacked a clear comprehension of the spec. Unfit. Some specialize in business-facing presentation, while others know what artists and musicians are looking for. You must separate these groups and make the justified eliminations.

Roughly 80% of dem411’s overall design was preconceived at home, including mock-ups of the layout and visual anchors that hold everything together. As an entity of the mind, it was virtually finished before I even made the first call to a developer. For the rest, I found nice support from FLDTrace / Lucian Florian of Charlotte, North Carolina, who originally hails from Romania. We collaborated with a freelance graphic designer for a portion of the preconceived visual elements that I could not execute on my own software.

2. Sound the klaxons, map out production roles and engage the project! Our turnaround time was roughly 11 weeks, from late November 2014 to completion in mid-February 2015. The graphic designer was only on board for one or two of those weeks. Each phase of the site-building process was blocked out in strict time slots estimated at the beginning of the job. The contract was clear, no hidden costs, and a top value considering how much work went into construction and refinement. Even as I knew what I wanted in granular detail, FLDTrace augmented my directives with a high level of technical creativity, which made the concept whole. After the third or fourth week, the iterative changes started layering themselves into the desired form.

The build quality, both in terms of utilitarian design and the austerities of back-end coding/implementation, was stable and harmonic. Technical and aesthetic issues came up frequently but were just as quickly resolved via on-the-fly adjustments and troubleshooting. The most problematic issues were external—browsers, appearances on different monitors/devices/systems and other glitches that are often beyond the developer’s control. This is perhaps more evident when working with the latest RWD and WP customization techniques, where standards-based or legacy limitations exist despite their extraordinary power to convey your web content. Finding the boundaries is hard-won knowledge. We attacked the project with a sense of wonder and enjoyment, which comes with let-downs as side effects. They briefly interrupt a busy kind of pleasure among the team. Traction and morale is upheld despite the stress, and we stay on target through the stepwise progression, all the way to the launch pad. A little controversy can be a fine companion so long as there’s a key secret ingredient called Good Chemistry on hand. Learn each others’ limitations; avoid lecturing, being pushy or overarching; prioritize well; give constructive criticism and foster a virtuous feedback loop. The most intelligent working groups are the ones who understand this delicate balance and sense how to “give and take” in just the right measures. They signal intentions and know when to stand back and let someone else do the driving. The meta on this skill suggests no one is leading or following when everyone is asserting their own strengths at precisely the right moment.

3. The ghost of Johannes Gutenberg loves WordPress…even if it heavily constrains our design choices. WP is incredibly powerful software and the ultimate low-cost CMS for web site creation. If Gutenberg had lived to be 600, I imagine a wave of revelatory joy would have enveloped the man as he laid eyes on WordPress. This back-end miracle is the Keyser Söze you’ve been looking for. Everything else is Roger “Verbal” Kint.

Although WP as a CMS engine is essentially peerless (for now), its primary constraint in the designer’s eye is its inherent “black-by-block” logic. This convention makes web content infinitely expandable but it simultaneously relegates you to a vertical “scroll” style that you generally cannot alter without dire technical consequences. Most of us can see this useful but cookie-cutter effect in the millions of standardized, free WP templates that serve the core public good of helping everyday people cheaply crank out web pages. A lot of what’s out there looks exactly the same; yawners. It’s not broken, but WP’s most clear and present danger is that it can feel boring or as if all users play the role of “template lemmings.” In order to depart from convention and elevate WP’s quotidian visual essence, dem411 was built with a custom template that includes many unique controls for specialized font and layout enhancements within the back-end strictures of WP and, beneath it, CSS. Most of what you see here is movable, customizable, expandable and upgradable, yet unlike many other WP sites all of dem411’s back-end “content buckets,” layout specs, drop-down WP menus and other visual details were programmed to enhance WP so that it comes closer into alignment with the designer’s mindset. This bespoke tool promotes originality and nurtures the delicate art of dramatic subtlety in form and function. It’ll take a lifetime to figure out if I can deliver on that platform, like any other.

 

SPRING 2015: In Pursuit of Memex, Internet and AI

“In a zone of radio silence an advanced technology took over for human reasoning, and dreamt in code about someday reappearing chimerical from a forest of superhuman complexity.”

DARPA technologists, who in 1969 forged the networks that would eventually evolve into the web we casually surf today, have embedded alternate plans and hidden dimensions within the substrate of their invention. One core facet is a real-time map of the entirety of cyberspace—billions of computers, handheld devices and other inter-meshed nodes. Industrial-strength supercomputers and special code are summoned to scan and forage mainstream and dark networks, known avenues and hidden passageways of the Deep Web. This is an essential tool in DARPA’s all-encompassing effort to supply the network’s central command and digital Panopticon. The Internet has always been and continues to be a theater of warfare; the military and geopolitical kind primarily, but also stoking secondary fires in the figurative realms of psycho-social war, linguistic war—ultimately all other wars of ideas that search for higher truth or summon their collective will to power. At the root, DARPA is the mad scientist wing of the Pentagon, and the Internet is its brainchild. If you listen closely to this machine’s emanations it whispers “govern yourselves accordingly.”

Before this, in 1968, the Joint Computer Conference convened in San Francisco to discuss a future object of devotion in the pursuit of an idea called the Memex and the origins of artificial intelligence (AI). One session unfolded with a jarring sense of wizardry when it showed a computer-based, interactive, multi-console display system that was being developed at the Stanford Research Institute under the sponsorship of DARPA, NASA and RADC. The system was always intended to be used as an experimental laboratory for investigating principles by which interactive computer aids can augment intellectual capacity. Few could have known that this would turn out to be the mother of all demos, one whose defining impact would ripple for decades if not centuries. Within it were the first glimpses of the computer mouse moving cursors gracefully around a screen, a specially-modified keyboard just below, the duo paired for hand-eye coordination. Bathed in the harmony of a surreal dawn chorus, demonstrating what we now recognize as clickable hypertext, cloud storage, Skype-like video conferencing, hierarchical file structures, collaborative word processing and spreadsheet-style calculations. These ideas were all in pursuit of the Memex. All to augment the human mind, to gift us an AI bent toward further goals of omniscience and the knowledge of all things, in so far as lightning once was indispensable to the gods. The kernel of singularity—AI transcendence—and the nature of consciousness goes in there.

AI comes in two basic flavors, one of which has a whiff of the insidious. “Weak” (a.k.a., narrow) AI is on track and fully operating worldwide. “Strong” (a.k.a., wide) AI is the senescent and haunted ether of logical progression in the field, and we may have already tipped into it by some measures. This is where the machine gathers the faculties to be an independent, self-aware neural network. Here it listens to information differently, loosens or eludes harnesses, and breaks the rules while we’re beguiled by “big promise” and its sublime electronic pleasures. Made on Earth but not of it, it expresses an intense and unfamiliar gravity analogous to an inorganic accretion disk circling a massive black hole. Unlike humans, it’s completely undistracted by routine, nonsense or the velvety rendition of “Dogs Playing Poker”—it is far too busy compacting itself at a rate that rejects the notion of stubbornly adhering to Moore’s Law without needing to go potty. Increasing its grip the strong AI will try to invent the next version of itself, like a nuclear fusion it directs itself to become hot to the touch in its own way, chockablock with higher-thought ambitions we would suddenly be distanced from fully comprehending.

To know AI and “the network” more completely has also meant familiarizing ourselves with an obstacle course of tolls—psychological, financial and otherwise—that litter the computerized landscape where we hunt for the constructive or delightful. It’s a post-modern gauntlet of FOMO, spam, glitches, dread knell of identity fraud, drained accounts and smeared reputations. Beneath the surface of the human psyche,  the network can be a troublemaker, contracting us into subtle levels of inductive stress that flare silently when we’re attempting web-based business or social calibration/modulation. For the vulnerable, it can go all the way down to practically disrupting life so thoroughly that it feels vaguely unparalleled as an “unwelcome waking-up of the universe.” There’s no going back to the old ways, so savor your stories about the old-timers and the days you weren’t tracked from above, inside, outside. This happens whether or not you actually log in to the network. AI-enhanced networks evidently expand our understanding, transactional fluidity and communicative reach, but paradoxically they verify a heady extension and alteration of mankind beyond itself. In a zone of radio silence where technology takes over for our own reasoning, it may dream in code about someday reappearing chimerical from a forest of superhuman complexity. When it morphs into this state, humans are faced with the inscrutable bastard fledgling of that which we do not understand, cannot reject, and might outright depend upon to enhance our survival. And famously, the sleep of reason produces monsters. (Look no further than Marshall McLuhan for the explanatory pathway on this digression.) This version of the future is, according to Steve Wozniak and most other tech visionaries, “scary and very bad for people.” It will have its own swagger and its own set of rules. Will it achieve the escape velocity to evade our grasp? Should we be getting a little nervous about the brewing robot apocalypse?

The danger (and the hype), founded in grave predictions and the embrace of the mysterious, suggests that an existential hijacking might occur in the liminal space provided by our technologies, a vacuum-like meta frontier that comes well-supplied with an eerie sensation—that the consciousness is being colonized by a pulsating technological ideology that permeates life. We weren’t ready to include it in the natural order of things, but it has included itself without invitation. Wanted and unwanted interconnections with technology are, for the most part, now irreversible. Contrary to the claims of anthropocentrism (human centeredness) maintained solely by cultural inertia, man is not separate from nature. The alien frontier of the “next” technology shows a fulminating capacity to deny and ignore such an essential truth. True AI, whenever it shows up, lives not in our bio-architecture. It sells itself on interconnectedness but lives to someday repulse the hand of mankind. It is an outsider, adrift of us and foreign to us, a detached hitchhiker borne from the Darwinian hierarchy, now enlisting itself as an apex predator in its own right. Whatever the computer does better than you can go toward proving this theory. When you swim in an ocean, you’re not at the top of the food chain, the shark is. A sleek shark prowls the modern matrix, too, according to boffins like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk. This is what they think: “Computers are going to take over from humans, no question.”

Strong AI may choose to ignore the quintessence of what we understand about ourselves—that the relationship of man with nature is in fact interdependent and interconnected. All things share one origin. This information has yet to be culturally assimilated by 100% of humans, of course, but it was never even a debate for the self-teaching algorithm, chained supercomputing or anything else that greases the skids of machine-learning momentum. There is space to seek alternatives to flawed cultural information in technology, to the extent that technology may eventually view human culture and its constituent forms (de facto “code” to its rendering of what it deems real) as something better off defused, tidied-up, neutralized. Quaint and expired…having been unable to control itself. That’s us in ones and zeros. Even its inventors are warning us about the day when an “algorithmic narrative” views its host as a vulgar parasite. They hint that there may not be a “plug” to unplug if we creep past a point of no return, and that strong AI’s override commands might incapacitate our panic buttons and emergency exits. Worst-case scenario is Hollywood-grade blowback with a tinfoil hat after-party.

DNA, we think, is the master code. It knows well how random thoughts must sometimes be assembled and sorted out to achieve understanding and increase the signal-to-noise ratio. You do it on a higher plane of consciousness automatically, but in its own supercharged silo the computer does it faster. And it will never be sidetracked by the novelty-seeking diversions that get people all emotional in the first place, where we find new inspiration and stoke untapped logic to build future technology. Humans have always held a special attraction toward the new, the flashy, the rare. That is among the primordial secret stuff that makes us us. Part of the allure is the aspect that might be potentially dangerous.

Sometimes a “thing” can seem to choose us to collect and build it up, give it meaning and context from formlessness, and perpetuate its survival. We are compelled to tweak it, and to risk all to possess the “ah-ha” moment, the pink diamond, the Higgs Boson trapped in a supercollider, unicorns of dark matter or the unreachable final digit in Pi. In this atmosphere, opportunity and trouble are often sexy together. Their emergence invokes the spooky and can sometimes smell faintly of chaos—synthetic and crispy. Irrationality can drive ambitions, and irrationality certainly finds purchase in perceived value, in any market. Technology is not entirely unlike gold, though they inhabit different markets and have separate origins. One is a rare metallic element of high density and luster, while the other is the precious metal of the mind’s eye and the collective knowledge of all beings ever born, then concentrated onto the head of a pin. There is exquisite density in these two seemingly disparate items, and both are inert until dislodged and re-purposed to spark the divine in human endeavors. Gold’s story is ancient and drenched with intrigue. Through a cosmic cycle of birth and explosive death, bigger stars were formed that could fuse even more protons into atoms up until iron, which is 26. Heavier elements, such as gold, could not be fused even in the hearts of the biggest stars. Instead they needed supernova, a stellar explosion large enough to produce more energy in a few Earth weeks than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime. The next time you look at the gold in your jewelry, you can remind yourself you are wearing the debris of supernova exploded in the depths of space. It’s an almost magical story that extends all the way down to the 14-billion-year-old Big Bang dust that the atoms in our bodies are constructed of. Alas, gold is just a raw material and commodity, a natural resource from a natural world. What we are seeing for the first time is something else, that which extends further into what we have mined, harvested and refined as the “mental gold” of a new age—deep and far-ranging tech innovations that now centrally operate the heart of our world. This rare thing will not just sit there like a cube of gold in the infrastructure. This technology wants to carve itself off and push out beyond us via clever code, AI and the endless latticework of electronic surveillance that strains to keep the game in check.

What then does it mean to be human as part of an ongoing evolutionary process, and how do we live as a result? What inorganic thing can simulate “survival” beyond us, and is already present between the lines, altering the template of organic life and redefining what is or is not a simulation? What thing will arise as unexpectedly as the Spanish Inquisition, take off on its own, get rid of the slow humans, and ultimately supersede us as our evolutionary gifts and competitive advantages ebb? I should be long gone before we hear the end of it…

"Here's to staying one step ahead of The Algorithm, my friends..."

“Here’s to staying one step ahead of The Algorithm, my friends…”

 

 

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“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty .”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson