On the Occasion of My Birthday

Musings on the world at thirty-two in 2018.

Today I am turning thirty-two (or thirty-three by East Asian counting.) I have done and seen an incredible array of things and places in my life, and, fortunately, my memory remains robust and rich in detail. Growing up we did not have a lot of money, and I did not learn many of the social and networking skills that define the upper middle class skill sets that dominate a lot of “successful” people’s outcomes. I have nonetheless managed to get to the point where I am 100% free of debt (as of this paycheque), I have a good start on retirement savings in an index fund, reliable transportation, and a good network of personal and professional contacts that I think will allow me to manage any personal or small-scale crises that come my way in the future. I still write in overlong sentences, though.

One thing that I have observed over the years is the interconnectedness of human lives and events. It seems to be a natural, especially Western, mentality to compartmentalize and label things and to lock them into hierarchies and “stovepipes” of different disciplines and different schema of organization. By itself, this is not a bad impulse or civilizational habit to have – but I have noticed that the most successful ventures in business, charity, government, or military fields come from interconnectedness. Some people, especially academics, seem to take that life lesson and want to impose hierarchy, bureaucracy, and synthetic order onto complex issues. I have observed this approach and found it to be oftentimes the opposite of a successful strategy for accomplishing anything from providing social services to managing major military operations. Centralization may offer short-term gains, but it also plants the seeds of sclerosis, stagnation, future failure, and defeat.

Many writers far more erudite and perceptive than I have pointed out that the global order is in an inflection point. Assumptions about the track of human events are daily set on end and shaken about like a chew toy in the mouth of an energetic puppy. The forces of sclerotic decline are in control of most of the West’s institutions, if not, at present, the actual position as “leader of the free world” for what that means anymore. Their more violent, repressive fellow travelers control China and other significant civilizations in Asia and South America. Overall, however, I think it reasonable to be optimistic about the future.

So, from the strange and potentially dynamic and fruitful Middle East post-monopoly on global energy markets, I sign off on my thirty-second birthday.


On one of my favorite styles of music…

One genre of music that I have been hooked on for years now is post-rock.  I am not a true music enthusiast, so I will not attempt to make an exhaustive list of the best post-rock bands, or attempt informed commentary on the qualities of the genre, etc.  But post-rock is for me the ultimate music to drift away on my thoughts or to listen to on a neighborhood walk.

Post-rock developed out of shoegaze, and is, conventionally, without lyrics.  It features walls of guitars, rhythmic variations, LOTS of reverb, and most often conveys a sense of open spaces and isolation.  Some of my personal favorites as far as post-rock bands are Hammock, This Will Destroy You, Caspian, and Explosions in the Sky.  I have listened to many others, and many others are also fantastic to listen to.  Hammock is quite possibly my all-time favorite, and they may perfectly typify the genre with their long, flowery song titles, soaring riffs, and simple melodic motifs.

About eight or nine years ago my friend, at the time living in Seattle, introduced me to the genre, and I realized that this was a sound that I had always longed for.  To me, listening to post-rock is like hearing the soundtrack to a slice of life.  Complex, recursive guitars roll like waves of emotion over picked-out basslines that feel like the daily grind.  It is probably no coincidence that most post-rock bands come from the Midwest and Texas, with the premiere European examples coming from the plains of the former Warsaw Pact.  For example, Everything is Made in China… their song “after rock” has one of the most haunting uses of sampled dialogue I have ever heard.)

I recommend listening to post rock when you can give it your full attention, and yet also when you are in a position to let your mind wander and think about other things.  For me, the inspiration it gives is not so much about plots, or acute emotions, so much as a sensation of living a large amount of time in fast-forward, like a music video that makes the mundane into a work of art through montage, or a film sequence that shows the passage of time over a place impersonally and without a lot of cuts or camera movement.  There is a reason that post-rock has been used for soundtracks recently (one example being the indie Prince Sultan, which I have not seen, but has a phenomenal soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky.)

Hopefully this has been an enticing introduction to post-rock.  If you have gone through the Wikipedia article, it has lists of many other bands that represent the genre.  If you swing by this post, feel free to share any band names or songs in this style that you recommend or no, especially if I have not mentioned it here.

Victory Not Vengeance

On post-apocalyptic fantasies…

In college, I lived in Pittsburgh. You may know Pittsburgh from being the setting (or at least location) for such films as The Mothman PropheciesDogmaWonder BoysSmart PeopleDawn of the Dead, and The Road.  In the early 2000’s, the “zombie” fad was in full strength. Well before The Walking Dead captivated people’s TV screens and sometimes even their imaginations, my friends and I would always talk about what it would be like to survive in the “post-apocalypse.”  That theme remains immensely popular today, but the idea of it, to me, is very old indeed.

In tonight’s blog entry, I want to explore both the personal ways in which my friends and I would fantasize about that whole milieu, and about why such imagery is perennial in Western, especially American, culture.

Well before I actually arrived at college, it was always a motif in playing pretend while I was kid. My little sister and our friends would imagine that we were children taken from our families, forced to work as test subjects and researchers for big corporations, or a vaguely realized ‘government.’ It was a life and death situation, rife with melodramatic deaths and sneaking through pillow-forts and bed-sheet mazes in the basement to find freedom at the back door to the basement. But outside was not a return to home and family, so much as another game in which we had to survive on our own with no place particularly welcoming to hide.

Out in the woods, we would play as though we had to rebuild our own tiny society, scavenging for food, constructing shelters in trees, building retaining ponds for fish in creeks that barely even supported minnows.  From a mash-up of The Boxcar Children, the flashback scenes in The Pretender, Joan Aiken’s Is Underground, and a whole host of British literature about children in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. What all of our games had in common was either a lost family, a dead family, or a kind of childhood ex nihilo. You may make whatever judgments you wish as a reader, but I had a truly benign childhood compared to most, even in the United States. These were all the dark products of young imagination, not a manifestation of some greater trauma we were all trying to escape.

So moving forward through high school, where the games we played varied much more widely, until I got to college in a city that had declined from a roaring furnace of one million people to a sprawling masonry-and-metal maze hosting 250,000 remaining souls.  It is easy to imagine the world ending in a city like Pittsburgh in 2004.  The crowd of friends I found myself aggregated into was a raucous bunch. We deemed ourselves a tribe, and even self-consciously created rituals to welcome new people like wearing face paints to lunches and exploring the Cathedral of Learning from its cyclopean column bases to its openwork stone balconies and rooftops, attained by ducking under cracked-open windows.

One thing that we would talk about, a theme revisited like a tongue to a loose tooth, was the idea of our band of students surviving in a Pittsburgh truly devastated and without the niceties of free bus fare, electricity, or hot food. Sometimes it was a zombie apocalypse, sometimes it was aliens, sometimes the world just up and had ended leaving us behind as a remnant, having to do battle with other survivors and, again, found our own society out of the re-pounded rubble.  In every case, we imagined that not everyone we knew would have made it, and we would future-tense mourn our losses before moving on to deciding how to get clean water and which pocket valleys offered the best place to set up a bivouac that could eventually become a settlement.

I think what was most striking about all of these worlds after civilisational collapse was that we were not hoping to become barbarians, able to live like Lost Boys or Amazons, but rather an intense desire to develop order after a fashion – as much playing house as playing savages.  We talked about what knowledge we would have to preserve, and what music we would want to find some way of playing as the ‘soundtrack’ to our survival.

I think that is one of the conceits that underlies any fantasy of the world-after-the-end. It is not, in point of fact, the end of the world.  But rather than go into a long semantic digression about the finer points of the term “post-apocalypse” or “end of the world” I wil leave it as a general term that I think we can agree means nearly all of humanity have been wiped out, possibly even a great deal of our infrastructure as well.

Another critical factor is the idea that, despite statistics, our general nerdiness, and overall historical examples of the fall of civilizations, we would, naturally, have survived in a more or less intact group.  The fantasy was to essentially escape the larger constrictive world of post-industrial civilization by surviving its sudden and extensive demise. One of the things I find noteworthy about the whole idea is that in every single one of these games, imaginary discussions, or fantasies, we were all acutely aware of just how terrible things could very well become. There was not an idea that we would be plucky survivors who just happen across whatever we would need like characters in a scripted television show – the plans always included sometimes agonizingly detailed accounts of how we would have to hunt and preserve meat, purify water, and take up much of our days more or less functioning as highly-educated hunter-gatherers. The Fight Club idea that “when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

In scenarios where some of civilization survived, that was always the goal – to get back to the comfort zone, even if that “comfort zone” was more Book of Eli or Mad Max than the megacities of Judge Dredd or the glittering Shanghai of Code 46.  There was still, at least, an attempt at creating meaning for our lives that felt impenetrably purposeless in their ease.

You can see wider echoes of these specific examples in the United States. It makes sense for a society that was founded on the idea of a constant frontier to have sociocultural fantasies of having to yet again re-conquer “wilderness.” I am not writing here to hash out arguments about the ethics of Manifest Destiny or weep tears for the injustices of European colonialism, but rather want to explore the imagined and idealized concept of taming wilderness with few or no people to oppose.  European stories are ones of ancient nations pitted against each other with roots that can be measured back before there was a solid idea of just how far into the ground roots could extend, conceptually.  American stories, speaking generally, are about reaching for the unknown and mastering frontiers. I am not writing here for nuance, so humor this discussion.

Joseph Tainter, in his work The Collapse of Complex Societies, analyses how many cultures change rapidly in the face of existential challenges, some becoming more and more complex and others by atomizing into smaller, less intricate societal subgroupings.  It is not an all-encompassing theory of history, but it does provide a useful framing for considering “post-apocalyptic” fantasies.  In short, the fantasy is that being the members of the society to survive an external event that destroys the “system” beyond the control of your band of friends or family, you now are not mere puppets to a vast iterated chain of beings well beyond your Dunbar’s number, but instead can stop feeling outcast and uncertain how to fit in when you do not exactly conform to societal norms or expectations.  It is a more merciful fantasy than the murderous drive of a revolutionary or an activist who demands conformity to their ideal world, in that as a fantasy, you yourself are not the agent of mass deaths and destruction.

I will return to this idea at some later point in this blog, as it is a recurring theme in both my personal writing and in popular culture of the past fifty years, but I will close this entry with a word-picture.  We imagined ourselves striding along Fifth Avenue armed to the teeth, carrying what we needed to go take over and hold the potential fortresses of European-style churches and their walled yards around the city of Pittsburgh.  The tame trees of Forbes bolted, the Phipps Conservatory a riot of desperate hothouse flowers straining to make it through one more summer, and the architecture school at Carnegie Mellon a museum of lost technological construction engineering and futuristic imagination. But we were free.

Il Giornale

On branding and globalization..

Tonight I want to write about the power of branding. One of the greatest complaints about modern commerce is about the international monopolies that have formed controlling many consumer industries. I am not writing tonight to judge them, morally or aesthetically. Rather, what I find most interesting is about how they are able to meet their markets and then, subtly and slowly, change them towards a more homogenized cultural norm.

I have been reading The Coffee-House: A History by Markman Ellis, and also being present in Qatar, I can see firsthand how both during the Enlightenment era and the present day, branding can be the critical factor in getting people to consume commodities that are at first glance exotic or imposing.

For my final project towards my MA in World History, I looked at how coffee went from being an oddity of Yemen, adopted into the Islamic world in a brief window of moderation during the Ottoman Empire, and spread like wildfire between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become a global commodity traded in one of the most frenetic and demanding markets of the contemporary era. I will not rehash that paper here, but it suffices to say that the story is far more complex than any modern narrative of “appropriation” or post-modern angst over the subaltern, etc.

What Ellis examined was the English phenomenon of the coffee-house, from its origins in the Middle East up to the spread of Starbucks across Europe and the globe. What I think it says about the larger world is that franchising and establishing a comfort zone for people from incredibly varied backgrounds is a powerful force in modern commerce. To give a local example from Qatar, most fast-food franchises from the United States here in Qatar are administered by a chain called “Sterling Enterprises.” Not to be confused with the Starling corporation from the Tom and Jerry movie, this company uses the Pillsbury Dough Boy as its mascot, since it originated in a chain of bakeries, and controls properties from coffee shops to pizza joints, Burger King franchises to its own namesake sandwich shops.

The common thread is in the way that consumers want a “normalized” experience along the lines of what they “know” from air travel, studying abroad in the West, and spending their riches from petroleum and natural gas production in their home countries. It has, in effect, led to a situation in which the original Arabic/Turkish idea of the coffeehouse as a place to procure underage boys for entertainment and a place to discuss controversial topics of religion and politics has transformed into a locale familiar to anyone who has been in a Starbucks coffee from Tampa to Tokyo. Much like how firms successfully present American Chinese food in China to a receptive audience, coffeehouse culture takes a convoluted series of forms in Middle Eastern commerce based upon a long-disappeared historical model. Herein lies the seed of a much greater study of consumption, the psychology of modernity, and the logistical supply chains that allow nearly any substance to be commodified.

For the purposes of finishing this blog entry, I will leave off with a personal anecdote that branding, nowadays, is as much a badge of comprehensible qualities of food, drink, and atmosphere, as it is some greater conspiracy to adapt well-off nations to some sinister or corrosive ideological viewpoint. What used to be regional phenomena, even harkening back to wine-shops in the Roman Empire, now allows people to know what they will get for their money across thousands of miles and in places that, outside of the mediated franchise environment, may not even possess indoor plumbing or regular waste disposal. The title of this piece is tied to the fact that I was studying up on my Italian using a phone app version of Duolingo and realized that I wanted to make a journal entry about the erosion of barriers to communication and commerce that have enriched many lives, while bowdlerizing others.