In An Imperfect World


So you don’t live in a utopian future. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed by there. Over eight percent fewer of us do than you’d imagined. There are many ways that the world is pretty good, despite everything we’ve been through. The world has capybaras, for example. And if that weren’t enough, we keep inventing new social media by which other people will send us pictures of capybaras. So that’s the baseline; as long as we have that, the world isn’t beyond hope.

But any of us can see ways the world might be better. It might be a little harder to spill things on shirts, for example. Or we might think of some quasi-verbal utterance other than “uh” and “uhm” to mark time while we’re speaking. For the variety. Maybe we could arrange for the first coffee mugs we drop and break to be the ugly ones with only-ever-funny-once jokes on them, instead of the souvenir ones from places that are gone. There are probably other things that would make life better, but those would see the most dramatic improvements.

It’s natural then to want to make the world a better place. It’s a dangerous pastime. You should think hard before you continue on in it. Consider: to make the world better, there has to be something wrong with it. If it would make the world better to have a more interesting variety of cupcakes available, that implies there aren’t enough interesting cupcakes already. Don’t go telling me there’s already plenty of interesting variety in vegan cookies, because while there may be, they’re still not cupcakes. And even if we have got the best imaginable state of one thing that doesn’t say anything about other things. Again, imagine we had our full complement of capybara photo access, but we never got to hear the theme to Secret Agent Man on the radio at the bagel shop ever again. Even happiness would be forever tainted by the thought of what was lost.

So fine if you figure something can be made better. The danger is there’s something already around that keeps it from being as good as it could be. Maybe that thing is already someone’s responsibility. Then trying to fix it means you’re telling that person they’ve screwed up so badly that someone has to come in and try fixing their mistakes. I don’t blame them wanting to slug you for that. How would you feel if someone pulled that on you? Exactly. Having to get within slugging range of someone to fix them has historically tempered the activity of people trying to fix up stuff, and made people think hard about what’s really worth improving. Advances in stick and other long-range poking and hitting technologies would have moved the balance of power to the status quo advocates. Or they would have, if the poking-and-hitting technologists didn’t see why they needed to make any advances in their product line, thank you. Internet activism makes it possible to try doing something about stuff that’s wholly outside of slugging range, which is why it’s so controversial and the results so mixed. On the one hand, people can be made instantly aware of what their state legislature is planning to do. On the other hand, what we mostly react to is a sassy put-down by the Instagram account of Jo-Ann’s Fabric.

And then there are things that could be better but that nobody’s actually responsible for. This is even more dangerous to try improving. If a particular person’s responsible for a thing, at least trying to improve it is only an attack on that person. If nobody’s responsible, then trying to improve it is an implicit declaration that everybody has failed to address the shortcoming. Everybody has reason to feel attacked by you. And you can’t stay outside of slugging range of everybody forever. They can catch you when you try to pick up your mail at least.

If you enjoy the life of danger, then, go ahead. It can be thrilling stuff and maybe you will make something better. But it’s going to cost you some happiness too. And this is the great thing about living in a non-utopian society. You can be sad about the thing that’s not right, or be sad about trying to make it right. It’s up to you how you break your heart.

Now that I’ve explained it, do I hope that’s made anything better?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose another ten points today as analysts missed that now there’s somehow two houses on the block throwing out sofas now and how do they get all these sofas to put out on the street? Whatever’s going on can’t be any good and yet somehow they’re not worried about this. Yet.

262

Advertisements

In A Perfect World


So you live in a utopian future. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed by there. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Maybe it wasn’t you that was embarrassed. Maybe it was someone who reminded me of you. It would help if we could get some name tags or distinctive ribbons or something. Anyway, even in a utopia there’s no getting away from some civic responsibilities. At any moment something like one-eighth of our population is busy introducing the place to an outsider. Are you ready?

Maybe you’re wondering where they come from. The answer is, all over. Some of them are people from before the utopia who got themselves caught in cave-ins, or were put into stasis until medical science found a cure for painting bricks. Some of them are from alternate timelines, like one where Belgian visionary Paul Otlet and his electric telescopes failed to manifest the Mundaneum in Lakewood, New Jersey in 1934. Maybe they’re dreaming, as far as they can tell, and there’s no sense waking them up before you figure out which of us is real. Ooh, maybe they’re aliens, so we can be their aliens, and add this neat little mirror-image chic to things.

Really it doesn’t matter. Any visitor to utopia has some things they just have to know. And they have some expectations. Meet them, and they’ll be happy with the experience. They’ll need to be told they are in a utopia, straight off. Hide that and they’ll never be happy. And they’ll need a couple rounds of origin-shaming so they appreciate how their homes made serious dog’s breakfasts of things. That’s an easy sell because people find it charming to hear “dog’s breakfast” as a metaphor.

They’ll want to have a tour, once they’ve been electro-taught the universal language or just happened to know it anyway. You’ll want to take this on foot. It makes stuff seem bigger. I recommend taking them to one of those middling-size buildings made with that brick cladding that somehow looks like fake bricks even though they’re real bricks. Try to approach from the side that’s the least architectury. Then go into something about how it’s the administrative district’s largest facility for producing psychoneutral brick or self-motivated gelatin or fully interactive quadrophonic squirrels or whatever. To make a convincing presentation remember the important two elements:

  • A bunch of statistics delivered in obscure units. Try saying something like `modules over 20.38 centipoise per millikatal hectosievert’ or `response metrics as sensitive as 12.10 decatur-centidays’ until it sounds kind of normal-ish. `400,000 mease of herring each compline’. `0.2 adrianople-ceston-centiMcClintocks.’ Something like that.
  • A moving sidewalk. You can find some at most airports, many train stations, and the occasional shopping mall.

You’re going to get the occasional visitor who’s looking for social satire. By “social satire” people mean everyone talking about how their enemies were fools and their heroes visionaries. This is tricky to do before you know who their enemies and their heroes were. You can make some wild guesses and if they react with horror say that you were just testing to see if they were ready for the true order of things. You’ll want to practice that with friends before doing it live. Also bring some gift certificates for ice cream or something so you can act like you’re giving a special award for their figuring it out. Some weird flavor, something hard to like. They’re not coming all the way to utopia just to get fudge ripple. They’re looking for something with a bit of freaky to it. In fact, don’t just do this for ice cream. Every day try to find two or three little things to freak up a bit. It’s surprisingly fun once you get the hang of it and it makes their experience so much better. It’s kind of an important rule for life.

If you still can’t get a handle on them, try some patter about how gold and silver make the throw pillows of utopia all the more throw-pillow-ish. Your guests will make what they want out of this, and if they ask you to expand on it pull the old “what does that tell you about us?” routine. You’re not going to believe how well this works.

Sometimes you’re going to get the visitor who’s decided utopia is actually a dystopia. There’s no arguing them out of it. They’re going to figure they’re the only ones who see it, and they have a responsibility to destroy society, which is supposed to somehow help. So you’ll want to have contacts with some local theater group. They should have a bunch of costumes and a couple people who can do improv work as an underground movement. Set them up with something harmless like bubble wands. Tell your visitor these are futuristic pacification weapons so that nobody’ll get unnecessarily hurt while they’re busy destroying society.

Now you’ll need to set up a story where the organizing impulse for all society comes from, oh, whatever. That closed psychoneutral brick factory nobody’s got around to tearing down yet. Send them off to attack it and after all the foam has evaporated — well, you know joy? Not really. Not the kind of joy you’ll see after they figure they’ve gone and obliterated society. It’s pretty sweet, really. After you do go along with this you’re going to have to listen to them blathering a while about how they’ve opened everyone’s eyes and how society is really and truly going to work this time. And some of them can go on forever like this. But whoever said life in utopia was perfect?

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose eleven points on word that if everybody was good we might just go to an amusement park for the Fourth of July. Skeptics protest that major holidays are the worst time to go to amusement parks because everybody goes to them then, but they were shut down by that time on the 4th of July that we went to Great Adventure and literally got to walk on to the front row of Kingda Ka, and when does that ever happen?

273

Primrose and Proper Society


So I’m thinking about the society of mannequins that comes to life when the department store closes for the night as documented in easily like four weird plotless cartoons from 1936 through 1938. Is it more prestigious there to be a more nearly fully human body? So that, like, mannequins with whole torsos and legs have an advantage, but not so much as those which also have faceless heads and hands spread out in no particular pattern? Or does it go the other way, in that maladaptive-glory way that like peacocks are prestigious because their tails are just such a big waste of energy that it shows they’re healthy they can carry on? So that, like, one of those jewelry-counter figures that’s just a bust and head would be able to lord it over the mere full-body figures showing off they can wear shorts and a T-shirt? And then maybe the whole of society would be ruled by the figure that’s locked under the glass counter and is just a hand showing off a ring? But! Would that just be the figurehead mannequin-society ruler, with most of the simulapeople never suspecting the real power behind the throne is the fabric-covered fake dog showing off those vest harnesses that let your dog be walked with less choking? In short, this is the sort of nonsense you should expect if you’re going to leave me alone with my thoughts like this.

The Things You Can’t Tell Your LLC


I bought a car. This was back in 2009, so applause isn’t necessary. The purchase wasn’t recent, by which I mean there were episodes of Parks and Recreation that first aired before I bought it. But ever since, the maker, Scion, has been asking me to participate in surveys. Sometimes I remember to before they’ve expired. They promise everyone who finishes the survey has a chance to win a $500 gift card to somewhere. I don’t believe them, but that’s all right. They know nobody believes them anyway. It’s just fun to be part of the ritual.

One of these surveys claimed the Scion division of Toyota was interested in my values. It asked me to rate how important in guiding my life I placed, for example, “an exciting life”, “protecting the environment”, “curiosity”, and “a world at peace”. I don’t want to say anything against “a world at peace”, which they explained as “(free of war and conflict)”. But I’ve seen more than one Twilight Zone episode with wish-granting. Still, what does all this have to do with me buying a car in 2009?

A not-at-all to supremely-important ratings scale for items like 'An exciting life', 'National security', 'A spiritual life', 'Devout', 'Duty', 'Altriusm', and so on.
A survey from Scion asking how important I find duty, a spiritual life, and social justice, among other objectives phrased in ways that do not quite read as parallel questions.

I don’t know what Scion’s values are. I bought the car because it met my requirements of “having a moon roof” and “not costing more than $20,000” even though somehow it did cost more than that. Is the Scion corporation going through a crisis of conscience and looking for the advice of its friends? Then why does it think we’re friends? They made a car I bought, that’s all we ever did together.

It’s not just Scion begging for my approval. Every company except the bagel shop in the strip mall wants an evaluation of their performance, and they’re willing to promise they’ll pay someone for their opinions. It’s a superficially weird need for approval. And it comes just as finance capitalism manages to almost crush people out of the economy altogether.

I get what’s going on here. Some well-meaning soul hoping to hasten capitalism’s demise has convinced companies they need to have relationships with their customers. That sounds good if you’re stupid, which your basic corporation is. It misses the entire point of the modern economy, which is to not have to have relationships with people. If we wanted a relationship with the people who do stuff for us, we wouldn’t have invented money.

If you want me to help you move you could call on me as your friend. But befriending me takes time, since I’m not very good at talking with people. And it takes emotional energy, because I’m all full of prickly edges and barbed comments delivered in a low voice. Plus I cough disturbingly often even when I don’t have a cold. And you only have till the 30th to get out of the place. Give me enough money that I’ll go along with it, though. We’ll get you to the new place whenever you want and you never have to see me again. It’s a nice arrangement and neither of us has to care what the other thinks of “respecting parents and elders”.

The thing is a corporation is already the imaginary friend of an adult who had money. And the adults don’t even consider using their imaginary friends for something useful, like setting up a teleportation network between the full-length mirrors in different places that share names, like from one Somerset to another. They just want to get their imaginary friends to accumulate more money. The current game for these imaginary friends is to get more money by making real people think the corporations are friends. And since we’re all connected in one big global village this’ll be easy. Just act interested in us and that’s as good as being friends.

Where this goes wrong is if you’re even a tiny little bit weird, then a village is the place you flee from. You go to a city, where if someone asks you questions you don’t feel like answering, you’re free to respond with a ten-minute stream of obscenities, to the approval and ultimate rousing applause of an amused crowd that will then disperse. If you want. Me, It’s hard enough to have the relationships I want to tend. The ones that spring up by accident — the cashier at Burger King recognizes me? — are terrifying — I’ll never go there again. I don’t want to be the friend to any imaginary friends I didn’t have a hand in imagining. If a corporation wants to buddy up, it’s just going to be disappointed in the circles it moves in.

Did you like this blog-reading experience? Would you stick around for a quick survey to give your impressions? There’s a free copy of a Marvel New Universe comic book in it for someone who answers. Restrictions apply, and it might be the comic book about a superhero football team.

What Causes People To Sometimes Read About Canada


Let me address the first question about my checking out Christopher Moore’s Three Weeks In Quebec City: The Meeting That Made Canada from the library. No, every other book was not checked out. However, it’s true the book I really wanted, a 288-page book about rust, isn’t due back until mid-October. I concede people might think 262 pages about the 1864 conference which laid down the principles for the British North America Act of 1867 would be a little dry. They’re mistaken. It was very rainy the whole first week. (I haven’t gotten to the second week yet.) And, hey, the meeting had not one but two people named John Hamilton Gray attending. They won’t be confused because John Hamilton Gray was from a completely different part of Maritime Canada than was John Hamilton Gray.

But it’s got me thinking about my reading. The kind way to look at it is I’m broad-minded. If someone’s gone to the trouble of writing a book about the modern pasta technology it’s only decent I read it, right? But I know deep down I go in skeptically, figuring, how could there be a book’s worth of material about this? It turned out well. I got to see baffling pictures of extruded pasta under a microscope, and got to see hundreds of uses of the word “extrude”. Is it a boring topic? Maybe, but at least I only borrowed the book from the university library. I own two books about the history of containerized cargo and have a distinct preference for one of them. And I’m a little sad that neither the city nor the university library have enough books about the sociology of bureaucracy for my tastes.

Am I a boring person? I don’t think so. Of course I have an interest in not thinking so. If I didn’t think I was interesting how could I bear to be with someone who’s sure there’s a snappy 4X video game to be made out of time zones? My love does it, so it can’t be just me. Well, 3X anyway. The best X’s.

But then is anything actually boring? Stare directly at the boring and you’ll find fascination staring back at you. You ever notice those big plastic signs stuck in the ground outside decaying strip malls, that tell you where to find prepaid cell phones? Those were manufactured. Someone made them. So someone either grew up wanting to make those, or else the twists and turns of that person’s life turned “making those things” into the sensible thing to do. Either way that’s a story.

More, someone invented that. Humanity was fine without those things for tens of thousands of years, then suddenly we weren’t. It’s easy to imagine making the first; someone had an odd impulse to make a nylon-or-something sign that would plunge easily into the ground. It needs no explanation to say why someone did that once. People will try all kinds of odd things and most of them don’t amount to worse than an explanation to the clerk at the emergency room admissions. But society was ready to pick up this idea and run with it. How did we get to that point? Again, this boring thing is fascinating.

But we shouldn’t mistake being bored with not finding stuff interesting. Boredom is the state where anything, anything at all, is interesting enough to pay attention to. A clock trudging clockwise? A squirrel berating a flower pot? A TV show about the making of how-to-make-stuff TV shows? That tuft of fur the pet rabbit can’t quite blow off his nose? That’s all it takes to hold your interest when you’re bored.

And bored is the natural state anymore. We aren’t busy on cell phones all day long because it’s all that interesting. We’re there because we’re in a boring room anyway, or bored waiting for the interesting thing to get started. Someone you kind of know who’s a friend of someone you kind of used to know sends around a page of philosophy quotes married to pictures of otters? A list of human tragedies immortalized as restaurant offerings? The surprisingly late date when car license plate sizes were standardized? Movies watched by Jimmy Carter while he was president? That’s as good as organizing the federal government of Canada.

Doubt me? Here’s a 6500-word essay about the history of disposable coffee cup lids. You can insist you’re ignoring it. (It’s got some jumbled text that looks like sidebars were poorly merged into the main.) But if you do, you’ll know there’s stuff someone wrote about the different eras in disposable lid design that you haven’t seen yet. The world may be boring us, but that doesn’t mean we can ever really look away.

Harold Lloyd in “Among Those Present”


For today I’d like to point to the 1921 Harold Lloyd comedy Among Those Present. It’s a piece about 35 minutes long and has what I think of as a distinctly 1920s setting: people ill-fit to uppertendom. It’s easy to imagine the Marx Brothers going crashing through things, but Harold Lloyd — who’s introduced here as the bellhop and gets woven into their lives for reasons that make sense within the genre. I doubt I could pass this off as naturalistic, although I like the idea of a world where Lloyd’s bellhop might say (as in one of the title cards) something like “Gee! If I only had the glad rags — I could act like any of those swells” without it being at least a bit of an affectation. Anyway, it’s Harold Lloyd; it’s outstanding comic acting and the occasional brilliant stroke of directing (as note when Lloyd’s character gets his first look at Mildred Davis’s, or the shadow on the stable door as shown about 31 minutes in), a bunch of animal stunts, and some pantslessness.

The title cards are a treat, at least to my tastes. They’re written by H M Walker, who’s got a slightly rococo style that I enjoy. If you aren’t amused a bit by, for example, “Evening — Twelve hours and a thousand yawns before the fox hunt. A wonderful and worthless gathering of 14-carat lounge lizards and re-painted wallflowers”, maybe the occasional illustration (on this card, of lizards) will spruce things up for you. And maybe imagining the text as read by the narrator from Rocky and Bullwinkle will sell you on it.

And I’m using this chance to reblog from the journal of Trav S D, an expert on vaudeville and comedy history. His book No Applause — Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, is outstanding in explaining vaudeville not just as a set of performances but also as an industry, a way of organizing performances which made compelling sense for its era and which doesn’t quite anymore, even if many of the acts would probably stand a good chance of going viral today. It’s very easy in reviews of older performers to focus on the performances; Trav S D’s book made me pay attention to how important the network of theaters and of booking agents and management were to making vaudeville.

A Standard Scheme


The easiest way to attract endless angry grumbling is to prepare your very own set of Usage Guidelines and insist on someone else following them. The United States is the world’s greatest exporter of Usage Guidelines, averaging over 48,660,000 new policies promulgated annually to cover everything from how many spaces to put after the period ending sentences to how many little paper cups of Horsey Sauce to take at Arby’s at one time. These policies are instantly resented by everyone they are applied against, and compliance rises to as high as nearly 0.296 people per year.

So I’m leaping into the Usage Guideline racket: there’s no better way to express my idealistic hopes that the world can be perfected by enacting a few trivially easy changes in the ways people do things, there’s no surer way of making myself embittered than watching everyone carry on in their un-enlightened fashion, and in the meanwhile I can sell nearly more than fourteen copies of books explaining the guidelines to members of the adoring public who thought they were buying sarcastic atlases instead.

Don’t worry. Before long I’ll have comment forms in place so you can suggest new standards for me to consider, provided you do submit them in the correct way.

Not Because They Were Eaten, That Would Be Silly


Why look at unimportant questions? Because it’s possible the reasons they’re unimportant might be important. So here are some.

  1. Why aren’t artichokes? Artichokes are, so the question is pointless.
  2. Are you enjoying sofa work? This question is irrelevant to everyone who is not furniture, and the task of being furniture has been almost completely automated thanks to the modern steam-powered couch. It thus lacks the general application or consequences needed to be important.
  3. Why aren’t there people with purple or green skin? The only role served by purple- or green-skinned people is to allow persons to insist they aren’t racist because of how eagerly they would hire or even, if absolutely unavoidable, befriend people who are like the people they don’t hire or befriend except for not existing. This role is sad and depressing, so we rule it out as an important question because we don’t like being saddened and depressed by questions.
  4. With hamsters upon the rock-rimmed ride? This isn’t even a question at all, despite a valiant effort to give it the shape of one. Thus, it can’t possibly be an important question. It’s barely even a sentence, although that alliterative r stuff at the end makes it enough fun to bother looking at.

Finley Peter Dunne: Casual Observations


I had enough fun flipping through Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr Dooley’s Philosophy, including a section of “Casual Observations” at the end, that I’ll bring a couple of them up as today’s entry.


Th’ nearest anny man comes to a con-ciption iv his own death is lyin’ back in a comfortable coffin with his ears cocked f’r th’ flatthrin’ remarks iv th’ mourners.


A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks th’ Lord wud do if He knew th’ facts iv th’ case.


It takes a sthrong man to be mean. A mean man is wan that has th’ courage not to be gin’rous. Whin I give a tip ’tis not because I want to but because I’m afraid iv what th’ waiter’ll think. Russell Sage is wan iv Nature’s noblemen.


The last particularly delights me since I attended graduate school in Troy, New York, just up the hill from Russell Sage College. According to campus lore passed around Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the things Russell Sage hated most in a life spent hating people and things were education, women, and educating women; and his widow, Margaret Olivia Sage, donated much of his fortune to schools, particularly schools for women. This is a good enough story I’ve never looked closely enough into Russell Sage’s biography to tell whether it’s true.

How To Be Likable


Many people, particularly introverts, haven’t got the knack of being liked. They try hard enough, by not particularly disliking anyone, and yet still find that people don’t show any signs of liking them, or disliking them, or being aware of their existence, resulting in many cases of shy, bookish people being mistaken for eighth-grade cafeteria tables. Fortunately, being liked doesn’t require special magic, just the steady following of a couple simple rules. Let’s review some.

Continue reading “How To Be Likable”