Tuesday, March 27, 2012

In like a lamb, out like a lion

What strange weather we've been having lately.

New comics, short story, EarthBound writeup, employment, reading, attempts at a social life. Busy. I hope I can't be blamed for not having a blog post prepared for this week.

So yeah: the project at the front of the queue is a short story. The idea has been incubating for a few months, and short fiction pieces are one of the more practical projects for a person who'd like to have a novel or two published legitimately during his lifetime. The gatekeepers of the publishing world are a lot more likely to respond to your supplications if you can point to other stuff of yours that's already been in print. Getting a novel published can be tricky (as we've discussed voluminously elsewhere), but there are plenty of respectable literary periodicals open to reading and publishing unsolicited short pieces. Good for résumés now; good for anthologies later. That's the hope, anyway.

One problem: I suck at writing short stories. Not once in my life have I completed one satisfactorily. I have attempted two in the past three years, and both turned into the initial drafts of novels. (One of which became The Zeroes.)

This one is different. I know exactly where it begins, where it ends, and what happens in the middle. It occurs in the span of a week rather than across months or years. I'm deliberately constraining its scope and focusing on accomplishing one or two "small" things instead of trying to pitching some billowing tent of a statement upheld by a few dozen smaller themes. Intentionally narrowing what a piece will say/do is hard enough; but the standard of efficiency demanded by a short story borders on unreasonable. (In light of this, I guess I can understand why auto company executives sweat and shift in their seats when legislators murmur about tightening fuel economy regulations. Trying to tweak an engine to do 15% more work with the same amount of fuel can't be much unlike building a story -- which is a kind of machine in itself -- capable of delivering and driving a psychic nail into a person's neocortex with only 7,000 words.)

The word count for the incomplete rough draft is somewhere around 7,500. I want to keep it below 8,000 -- but the absolute cap is 10,000 words. In any case, it won't be easy -- especially since I'm trying to write something with a happy ending. Would you be very surprised if I said I consistently have trouble with those? (For some reason I can never seem to paint them convincingly enough.)

Speaking of stories, my sister Beth messaged me a few days ago. "Hey bro," she said. "I designed a cover for your book."

She stressed that it's just a mockup and that I could get sued for using these flyers without permission. But holy shit. I am quite literally stopping the presses. I feel pretty comfortable putting off making the print version available for another week or two if I can have this (or something like it) on the cover.

In other news, April begins next week. You know what that means: NATIONAL POETRY MONTH! I hope you're as excited about it as I am. I've been scouring the library downstairs and rummaging through friends' bookshelves to find some groovy and penetrating verses to share with you all.

Postscript: I'm probably going to keep the ads just for their entertainment value. What relevance does Google think this post has to antidepressants and birth defects?

Don't answer that.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."

-- Abraham Kaplan

The media scintillates with stories about the (somewhat belated) backlash to Trayvon Martin's murder. Editorial cartoonists are taking this as another opportunity to point out that this is what happens when we have lax gun control laws and a cavalier "we mustn't let the bastard get away" attitude.

Even though the analogy in the last post might not be somewhat disproportionate, I find myself returning to it -- especially when we're hearing reports that both the CIA and Mossad agree that evidence of Iranian intent to build nuclear weapons is somewhat much less than conclusive.

Shoot and then justify. Bomb first and sift through the rubble for evidence of probable cause later.

Would it be in poor taste to suggest a thematic parallel between Trayvon Martin's pointless murder by a paranoid, gun-toting vigilante asshole and the hundred thousand-something Iraqi civilians killed since the United States invaded, citing WMD reports coming from unreliable intelligence? Both suggest a gross deficiency of character in the culture.

Keeping the neighborhood safe. That's all we was ever doing.

* * *

You'll notice I've put up some ads on the sidebar. I don't like looking at them either, but Paddy needs a new Wacom tablet. Realistically, they'll probably only amount to change, but as I've said before, I'm not in any position to pass up extra income, no matter how piddling. (Of course, there is a difference between piddling and nonexistent. We'll see if they stay up.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Iranian Nukes & American Guns

I read a lot of editorial cartoons; over the past few years they've become an essential part of my morning "news and comics" routine. While I do enjoy reading all the preach-to-the-choir strips by progressive and liberal cartoonists, I often find it just as informative and enriching reading cartoons by artist on the other side of the aisle, which provide a valuable glimpse into the mind of the modern American conservative. For the most part, they're a daily collection of straw men, disproportionate metaphors, and crass caricatures employed to explain and justify the politics of fear, prejudice, oligarchy, dogma, and willful ignorance. (Many of them can be found collected by patriot Philip Pangrac on a Tumblr page which he has aptly titled "Shittiest Editorial Cartoon of the Moment.")

Lately I've had the displeasure of watching conservative cartoonists' "IRAN HAS NUKES AND WE MUST ATTACK IRAN" strips practically develop into their own genre. (Mr. Pangrac is collecting these separately over here.) This stuff is bad for my nerves, and I suspect that's precisely the cartoonists' intent. (It's called "fearmongering.") But I'm much less afraid of Iran maybe perhaps trying to possibly build a nuclear bomb than I am of the prospect of the United States getting embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East because a bunch of right-wingers on either side of the Atlantic are afraid of everyone else in the world.

Actually, what strikes me as especially odd about these cartoons -- and the right-wing efforts to goad the United States into another foreign policy catastrophe -- is that those in this country who vociferate loudest about the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear program tend to be the same folks who think gun control laws are an abomination.

I wonder: Are these two stances logically consistent?

Whenever some nutjob walks into a public place and shoots a bunch of people, you can always expect Second Amendment partisans to posit that it might have been prevented if more armed citizens were on the scene. When they say this, they don't necessarily mean that the most plausible contingency would be a firefight in which the shooter got killed before he could squeeze off any more rounds; rather, they usually argue that someone would be much more reluctant to take out his divorce on the McDonald's breakfast line with a Glock if he could expect to find all his potential victims packing heat. Good sense, responsibility, and the threat of punishment regulate everybody's behavior, and there are fewer gun deaths despite there being more guns, runs their line of reasoning.

So how is demanding that Iran shouldn't be allowed to possess nuclear weapons reconcilable with this principle?

The world's a dangerous place, after all; plenty of nations are packing atom bombs. Why wouldn't Iran wish for the most powerful defense possible, especially when it's cultivated some seriously bad relationships with a pair of militaristic states with a history of aggression and intimidation? Putting aside geopolitical ramifications for a moment, isn't a nation entitled to protect itself with a deterrent proportional to the weapons with which its enemies might threaten it? How many ground wars, do you suppose, have been ruled out because of the threat of nuclear retaliation?

The Cold War mathematics of nuclear proliferation and M.A.D. bear a striking similarity to the arguments of the gun lobby, do they not?

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- but Iran is a crazy theocratic place run by crazy religious zealous who don't care if they all get burnt to cinders as long as Israel gets destroyed in the process. Somehow I don't think that's the case. If the Iranian regime was really that irrationally, obsessively, irresistibly compelled to attack Israel in spite of all consequences, one would think they'd be going at it already, nukes or no nukes. Why aren't they? Ah, right -- because they know their enemies would blow them back to the bronze age in retaliation. See? They're already demonstrating that they're not insane. (And as I understand it, that is the minimum requirement for gun ownership in the NRA's ideal America.)

Ad hominem: what members I've seen or met of America's most zealous Second Amendment proponents display an aberrance of behavior on par with your average crazy person or religious radical, and they unnerve me just as much.

If Glenn Beck is correct and the right to bear arms is endowed upon us by our capital-g God, doesn't that mean that the Iranians also have the right to build weapons to protect themselves from some very well-armed people down the lane who really don't like them? Couldn't we safely presume that if (and yes, it's still an "if") the Iranian regime is developing nuclear weapons, they would cite as their motivation the need for a defensive deterrent? (Well, part of their motivation, anyway -- the leverage that comes with being a nuclear-armed state has got to be pretty appealing. It could help explain why the United States built more warheads that it could ever conceivably use and why Israel built its bombs in secret, and doesn't seem that concerned with denying their existence.)

Again: for the moment I'm not interested in foreign policy particulars or solutions, but in consistency of principles. It's strange to assert a Creator-endowed right to bear arms in one breath, and then immediately stress the urgency of lobbing ordnance at a nation before it can arm itself with the same weapons we have. Do we really believe the freedom to arm ourselves is somehow exclusive to us (and our friends) because of a backwards sense of national exceptionalism or the belief that we're the favorite people of our favorite deity?

And why do claims like these only sound offensive and unreasonable to Americans when it's someone from another nation making them? 

*Comic at top by Sakai. Further citation details unavailable.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Profile of the Artist a'la B.F. Skinner

Been in a funk this last week or so. Moving slower, thinking slower, sleeping more. Reading B.F. Skinner's About Behaviorism as a reference for a novel-length manuscript I'm going to be touching up and completing sometime during the next couple of months, but my continuing travails with the previous novel make me wonder if it's even worthwhile.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I had the finished manuscript of The Zeroes on my hands in 2010, I set about trying to turn it into a distributed book. Publishers don't want to deal with writers directly (I can't wholly blame them), so they turn to independent literary agents to sift through the heaps of incoming submissions and pull out manuscripts that might prove valuable to them. (It is not a given that "good" and "valuable" have any correlation.)

The publishing world is a rigorously-guarded community protected by procedural moats, walls, and a kind of xenophobia. Literary agents are its gatekeepers, and they're averse to admitting anyone who's not already on the guest list. In order to keep out the riffraff, many agents employ the same confoundingly circular requirements as those employers who demand three years of experience for an entry-level position: they are uninterested in dealing with anybody who hasn't already been published, and a person can only get published by first dealing with a literary agent. The system undoubtedly saves a lot of time and prevents a lot of bad books from being published, but it also means that it's frequently the case that only celebrities and authors who were famous beforehand have any chance of seeing publication.

So I attempted to bypass them by doing it DIY, and now I've got a self-published book -- but no distribution or publicity. Literature isn't like visual art: a consumer can't just glance at it and immediately decide it's something he likes or wants to support. A 300-page book is a commitment that an author must convince his potential customers to take on, and people are (understandably) reluctant to indenture their time to somebody's story unless they have it on good authority that the expense will pay off.

A friend of mine who's in the business of public outreach suggested I send out a bunch of printed advance copies to reviewers in order to drum up interest among literate consumers. Unfortunately, my experience thus far has been just as disheartening as the summer-long ordeal with the literary agents. The consistent response from the lit mags and review blogs has been that they don't want to touch anyone's book unless it's being sent to them by a publisher. No exceptions.

I don't think it would be especially paranoid or inaccurate of me to observe that there's a vast, wide-spanning conspiracy trying to prevent me from accomplishing my goals. Nevermind that it's indeliberate and that they don't have it out for me as an individual (to them I am a nonentity), but these fuckers are all in league with one another, and they're all in the business of keeping me from getting through the gate.

I'm beginning to wonder why I bother. At any rate, I don't see any reason not to accelerate the book's forthcoming print release to the end of March/beginning of April as previously planned.

There are sometimes instances of an uncanny sense of alignment in one's experience. A work-related acquaintance to whom I lent the original review proof recently took exception to a line about nostalgia (and how it's a false joy) in an early chapter. Meanwhile, my own hapless adventures in trying to get this book published and read are coming to closely resemble the tribulations of its luckless, worn-down characters; and concurrent with these two circumstances is my sitting around and reading About Behaviorism to take my mind off things (though Skinner would eschew such an idiom) and ponder some of the details of this new manuscript.

Then I come across this passage:

The probability that a person will respond in a given way because of a history of operant reinforcement changes as the contingencies change. Associated bodily conditions can be felt or observed introspectively, and they are often cited as the causes of the states or changes in probability.

When a given act is almost always reinforced, a person is said to have a feeling of confidence. A tennis player reports that he practices a particular shot "until he feels confident"; the basic fact is that he practices until a certain proportion of his shots are good. Frequent reinforcement also builds faith. A person feels sure, or certain, that he will be successful. He enjoys a sense of mastery, power, or potency. The infant is said to acquire a sense of infantile omnipotence. Frequent reinforcement also builds and maintains an interest in what a person is doing. In all this the behavior is erroneously attributed to the feelings rather than to the contingencies responsible for what is felt.

When reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, behavior undergoes "extinction" and appears rarely, if at all. A person is then said to suffer a loss of confidence, certainty, or sense of power. Instead, his feelings range from a lack of interest through disappointment, discouragement, and a sense of impotence to a possibly deep depression, and then these feelings are said erroneously to explain the absence of the behavior. For example, a person is said to be unable to go to work because he is discouraged or depressed, although his not going, together with what he feels, is due to a lack of reinforcement either in his work or in some other part of his life.

Frustration is a different condition, which includes a tendency, often characteristic of a failure to be reinforced, to attack the system. Thus, a person who kicks the vending machine which has failed to deliver cigarettes or bawls out his wife who has forgotten to buy them is said to do so because of frustration. The expression "frustrated expectations" refers specifically to a condition produced by the termination of accustomed reinforcement.

A different kind of feeling is associated with the lack of an appropriate occasion for behavior, the archetypal pattern of which is homesickness. When a person has left home for the first time, much of the behavior appropriate to that environment can no longer be emitted. The condition felt may be similar to depression, which is said to be common in people who have moved from one city to another. It is called "nostalgia" literally, the pain generated by a strong tendency to return home when return is impossible. A similar condition prevails when one is simply lost, and the word then is "forlorn." A "lovelorn" person is unable to emit behavior directed toward the person he loves. A person who is alone may feel lonesome; the essential condition is that there is no one with whom he can talk or behave in other ways. The behavior of the homesick, forlorn, lovelorn, or lonely is commonly attributed to the feelings experienced rather than to the absence of a familiar environment.

Most reinforcements occur intermittently, and the schedules on which they are programmed generate conditions which are described with a wide range of terms. The so-called ratios schedules supply many good examples. When the ratio of responses to reinforcements is favorable, the behavior is commonly attributed to (1) diligence, industry, or ambition, (2) determination, stubbornness, staying power, or perseverance (continuing to respond over long periods of time without results), (3) excitement or enthusiasm, or (4) dedication or compulsion.

The ratio of response to reinforcements may be "stretched" until it becomes quite unfavorable. This has happened in many incentive systems, such as the piece-rate pay of home industries in the nineteenth century. The schedule generations a dangerously high level of activity, and those interested in the welfare of workers usually oppose it. It is not unknown, however, in daily life. A writer who makes his living by writing one article or story after another is on a kind of fixed-ratio schedule, and he is often aware of one result: the completion of one article is followed by a period resembling extinction during which he is unable to start a new one. The condition is sometimes called "abulia," defined as a lack of will power, or a neurotic inability to act, and this is often cited as the source of the trouble, in spite of the fact that this schedule produces a similar effect in a wide range of species.

Extrapolate from this what you will.

Went out around three last night to smoke a cigarette. Skies were clear. Orion had sank below the the western horizon. Arcturus was overhead; Vega was approaching from the east. Season's changing. We're on the up and up.

*Image up top lifted from Zack Henkel. Original source unknown.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Misinformation Age

Some lateral supplements to the last post:

1.) A friend of mine used to edit Wikipedia articles in order to win bets. He and a buddy would be out drinking somewhere, and they'd get into an argument about the veracity of some factoid or other.

"If you're so certain you're right," my friend would say, "why don't you put twenty bucks on it?" So they'd shake on it, each convinced the other would be handing him a twenty the next time they met.

My friend would make sure he got home (or at least to a computer) first, and then immediately open up the Wikipedia page pertaining to the contentious topic. Discovering that he was actually in the wrong and stood to lose twenty bucks, he'd click "edit" and alter the article to verify his argument.

A couple of hours later, he'd give his buddy a ring and refer to their wager.

"Yeah, I looked it up. Guess you were right," his buddy would grudgingly admit.

My friend has done this more than once.

I'm not condemning him -- a twenty dollar bill is a lot to lose for being wrong about a trivia question, after all. But instances like these are an unavoidable collateral of the open-sourcing of knowledge, and they are worth considering -- especially as Wikipedia settles into its elected role as the source of information.

As a nonprofit institution, Wikipedia has to employ its editors on a volunteer basis, and these dedicated sifters of the knowledge vat take their duties quite seriously. My friend's changes were doubtlessly spotted and reversed. But when a prankster or vandal pulls something like this, how many trusting readers see and accept the false information before somebody notices and corrects it? In the case of a particularly obscure topic, how long is it before a knowledgeable reader or editor removes the false information, and how many people see and believe it before then?

Who remembers the term Wikiality, coined by Stephen Colbert?

But back to my friend's bamboozled drinking buddy. "He's an idiot," you might say. "He should have checked other sources."

But does anyone check other sources anymore? Do we expect ourselves to? I'd be interested in seeing the numbers: what's the percentage of Internet users who consult Wikipedia as their go-to instant reference, and then just leave it at that? Of the people who use Wikipedia on a daily basis, how many of them regularly check an article's sources and revision history?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm a joyless buzzkill of a Luddite who reads the worst in everyone and everything and can take a wonderful creation like Wikipedia and treat it like it's a problem. But is it better to just ignore stuff like this?

2.) Part of my job at the Quaker retreat requires me to compile a weekly events bulletin. Early on, I got in the habit of including a quotation from one of my favorite authors and thinkers at the top. Some weeks I'll sit down with something specific in mind. Some mornings I'll sit down an hour before the thing needs to go out, and I'll cheat -- pick a famous thinker, activist, leader, etc. on a whim, and just punch "[name of person] quotes" into Google. Topping the list of results is almost always BrainyQuote.

At least Wikipedia strongly insists on the citation of its contributors' sources. BrainyQuote apparently has no such policy. If a famous person is reputed to have said something -- such as Freud's "sometimes as cigar is just a cigar" -- it gets slapped up on BrainyQuote. (If there is a Freud text actually containing this quote, there are some Freud scholars who would be very interested in knowing about it.)

But the quote I found one morning was another supposedly attributed to Freud:

Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.

If there was ever a sentiment espoused by a German psychoanalyst that would resonate with Quakers, this would definitely be it. But when I copied the quote and pasted it into Google, all of the results that popped up were from similar "things famous people said plus advertisements" sites, none with any citations. But eventually I found this on the FAQ page of a Freud museum in London:

Where did Freud say that mental health meant the ability "to love and to work"?

This formula was cited by Erik Erikson but it is not to be found in Freud's works, although the sentiment is sometimes implied. During his long engagement Freud stated that his own ambition in life was to have Martha as his wife and to be able to work (e.g. "Couldn't I for once have you and the work at the same time?" Freud-Martha Bernays 21 Oct. 1885). Freud also referred to Eros and Ananke [Love and Necessity] as the foundations of society. In 'Civilization and Its Discontents' (1930) he wrote: "The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love... "

So yeah: the first (and therefore more authoritative) Google result for pithy Freud aphorisms attributes to Freud two things of which there is no record of the man ever actually saying or writing. It would be difficult to argue why this frightens me -- in even such a minor instance -- without getting into a cumbrous philosophical argument, so we'll skip that.

I have unfortunately lent out my copy of 1984, so I can't quote Mr. Orwell directly; but if you've read the book, you understand the Party's conviction that the past only exists insofar as what people know about it (i.e. what they're told about it) in the present. We can put whatever words into whomever's mouths we wish, provided enough people believe the words were actually said by this person. The apocrypha becomes the reality. (The Founding Fathers all held beliefs identical to those of today's evangelical Christians; Oceania is at war with Eastasia and has always been; Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well; it says in the Bible that if we're good, we go to heaven as soon as we die.)

But what we're observing today actually isn't as Orwellian as it is Huxleyian. (Huxlian?) In this case, the past is not distorted or reinvented because the records have been altered, lost, or destroyed -- but because nobody bothers to read them.

(Postscript: Mr. Pangrac suggests "Huxley-esque." That's a big derp on my part.)

3.) Speaking of misinformation, here are twenty-five people who think Barack Obama killed Andrew Breitbart. And these are likely just a handful of the whole pack.

Why do I doubt we've heard the last of this? If a baffling cultural bugbear like birtherism could hatch, grow, and slouch around for so long without dying, I doubt we should count this new one as a freak flash in the pan just yet.

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen: between now and November, will any well-known public figures (the equivalent of a Donald Trump) go on television and say something to the degree of "hey, I'm not SAYING Obama had Breitbart whacked, I'm just wondering -- isn't it just SUSPICIOUS is all?"

Now, on to some Other Stuff.

A.) The print version of my novel should be available by early April, inshallah.

B.) I'm considering putting up Google ads on this thing. Yeah, yeah -- I'm not thrilled about the idea either, and I don't expect it to amount to anything more than nickels in a change jar. But my financial circumstances are such that even some extra coinage isn't something I'd turn down.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Us, the Web Kids

A few days ago, Mr. Hulcher -- an old acquaintance with whom I have shared many steamy late night conversations (all most assuredly heterosexual) over the years -- brought to my attention a manifesto of sorts titled "We, the Web Kids."

Composed by one Piotr Czerski, it hails the web-nurtured youth of the modern age as something like a generation of real-world Newtypes and the Internet itself as an epochal engine of transformation that's changing society and humanity in a wholly and unquestionably positive way.

It's a bold statement -- and like most bold statements, it comes from a proclaimer who probably didn't think things completely through. As I am (1) of the opinion the the truth and/or essence of any matter lies between pairs of contraries (2) sometimes accused of being some kind of joyless, elitist Luddite, I feel compelled to offer a contrarian's two cents on Mr. Czerski's credo.

What Mr. Hulcher first brought to my attention was this excerpt from the piece:

To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others. Should we need the details, we can look them up within seconds. Similarly, we do not have to be experts in everything, because we know where to find people who specialise in what we ourselves do not know, and whom we can trust. People who will share their expertise with us not for profit, but because of our shared belief that information exists in motion, that it wants to be free, that we all benefit from the exchange of information. Every day: studying, working, solving everyday issues, pursuing interests. We know how to compete and we like to do it, but our competition, our desire to be different, is built on knowledge, on the ability to interpret and process information, and not on monopolising it.

This is not the first time I've seen this thought expressed (nor will it be the last), and it never fails to raise a lump in my throat.

My stock response to this is that there's a tremendous gap between possessing access to knowledge and possessing knowledge. What worries me is the thought that people are becoming unable to differentiate between the two, and more inclined to feel that the latter is as good as the former. There's a proportionately wide distance between understanding something and getting the gist of it, which is usually all you acquire from punching a question into Google or skimming a Wikipedia page.

Yes, yes -- Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information and I use it as a reference all the time. Not everyone can afford of stack of hardcover encyclopedias. Not all of us are fortunate to have a well-funded and maintained library in the vicinity of our residences. But the suggestion that being able to look something up on Wikipedia is just as good as learning something is absurd. Introspection will tell us that most of the time, we don't retain what we read when we browse Wikipedia, hopping from article from article at arbitrary points.

Knowledge (and the process of acquiring and internalizing it) changes people, and I would like to think -- perhaps naively -- that it's usually for the better.

I recently read a John Muir quote printed on a woman's tote bag: When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.

Naturally, the knowledge corresponds to the physical facts. You don't have to be a tech devout to perceive that there's no Wikipedia article that's not connected to another. Deepening and refining your understanding of one aspect of existence tends to affect your perspective on the rest of the world's contents, changing how you think and act (again, I would hope for the better) during the intervals between glances at your computer monitor or smartphone.

If we permit ourselves to internalize and actually possess only generalized notecard versions of the facts and place all the rest into some external knowledge vat, we're cheating ourselves, denying ourselves the opportunity to let all of this information actually affect us -- to ferment from data into knowledge and make us a smarter and better people. I'm reminded of those middle-aged men who spend tens of thousands of dollars on exercise equipment and show off their personal gyms to visitors, but then only use the free weights or treadmill once every week or two -- or of those college classmates I knew who'd download 100 gigs of music on Soulseek and Limewire and then only really listen to 5% of it. Both parties might as well have not even bothered. (I have dozens of these metaphors. How about a person who spends all his time in the library and only ever reads the the dust jackets?)

Long story short: I would admit the Internet is a promethean milestone in the development of humanity if it made more people more knowledgeable rather than more capable of accessing tidbits of information on the fly, parroting them, and shortly forgetting about them.

As it stands, my overall inclination is to suspect that the Internet is better at giving people fewer reasons to learn anything than actually helping to make them more intelligent. Referencing something gets you a quick answer; learning something brings you understanding. One is quick, the other is slow. When you don't take the time to learn, you're not actually learning -- says the joyless elitist Luddite.

[W]e feel that culture is becoming simultaneously global and individual. This is why we need free access to it.

This does not mean that we demand that all products of culture be available to us without charge, although when we create something, we usually just give it back for circulation. We understand that, despite the increasing accessibility of technologies which make the quality of movie or sound files so far reserved for professionals available to everyone, creativity requires effort and investment. We are prepared to pay, but the giant commission that distributors ask for seems to us to be obviously overestimated. Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.

Although Mr. Czerski does not repeat the DigiMao "information wants to be free" chorus word for word, he arrives just short of it and ignores the fact (like most web cenobites) that not all information is equal. Given his jab toward journalism at the end of the piece, let's focus on that for a moment.

We already know that many of our most venerated newspapers as having trouble adapting to the 21st century because, thanks to the web, people don't want to pay for news anymore. They're as unwilling to pay for print subscriptions as digital pay-per-view articles. We might attribute this behavior to (1) the fact that free access has become the standard (2) bloggers and news aggregators have a tendency to comment on paraphrased versions of the newspapers' stories, essentially giving the product away for free. The newspapers' web revenue dries up because the leeched traffic makes their pages less valuable to advertisers. (That's one prevailing of the story in a nutshell; doubtless you wish to correct me.)

As someone shooting his thoughts at you from his own "web-log," I sure can't say I'm opposed to blogging. And since some of you are probably arriving here from the Twitter, you know I can't say I wholly despise microblogging. Nor can I say that social media, under the right circumstances, doesn't provide a valuable service that traditional journalism has a hard time matching; particularly in spontaneous, chaotic scenarios that erupt in places where journalists are not present. For instance, we would probably know next to nothing about the NYPD's abuses during the Occupy Wall Street crackdown if it weren't for web-savvy activists at Liberty Park; before that, most of the information we got from the Tehran and Tahrir Square protests came from youngsters armed with mobile phones and Twitter accounts.

Some feel that this demonstrates that traditional newspaper-style journalism is outmoded and not long for this world. Soon it will be replaced largely by the bloggers and twitterati, and we will lose nothing in the exchange except for the pesky notion that information on current events should come with a price tag.

Blogging and tweeting work best as a supplement to traditional reporting. They are no replacement for investigative journalism -- the kind where a reporter goes beyond the event itself and presents why it's happening, what precisely is happening (because there is more than one angle to any event, and the version that's reported immediately as it happens is often inaccurate), and to place in in the context of other events, both local and global, short term and long term. This is not as easy a thing as it sounds.

Journalistic organizations (or "corporations," to use the pejorative) complain about the Internet eating all of their money because they run a business with a high overhead. Stuff that's not already in the external information vat takes time and resources to gather, check, correlate, and present. Thus, newspapers -- especially those with reporters and bureaus spread across the globe -- might take it personally when the public decides they don't want to pay for news.

Bloggers, tweeters, and news aggregators are very good at commenting on and disseminating information that's already in the vat, but most of the time they're not contributing anything new. Even in our shiny happy brave new wired world, traditional investigative journalists are still the ones doing the most arduous work toward putting breaking information and extensively-researched analyses of current events into the vat.

I recently read a great piece in The New Yorker about Obama's transformation from post-partisan idealist to cynical Washington pragmatist over the last three years, which the reporter (Ryan Lizza) constructs from internal White House memos and details from the Obama administration timeline. This is very good, very useful information about our elected head of state that does much to contextualize his behavior in office. A part time blogger would not have been able to write this. He wouldn't have the time, the resources, nor the access. It was likely the only thing Mr. Lizza worked on for at least a month. (In the for-profit blogosphere, going a month without updating is suicidal.)

Contributing new and meaty information to the external knowledge vat requires time and toil of a degree that somebody unable to dedicate the better part of his waking life to said information's acquisition would be unable to put forth. Journalists, like the rest of us, require food and housing; and serious investigative reporting (unlike blogging) is not the sort of thing one can do well when he has a day job and can only do his research and writing on evenings and weekends.

When the public decides that it deserves to have the fruits of a professional journalist's labor for free, what is a professional journalist to do?

Hey! Why doesn't he start a blog, slap up some Google ads, and sell coffee mugs and T-shirts?

If he's Perez Hilton, that might work. But if he's the sort of reporter interested in filing long, dry, information-rich reports on complicated, unglamorous things and old and unphotogenic policymakers whose names the public probably doesn't recognize, he's probably not going to have much luck breaking even. (Especially when he's not able to update every other day.)

Why don't we tell him to stop whining and fund his work via Kickstarter?

Between journalists, which do you think would be more likely to get enough cash to get his project off the ground: the one who wants to write an investigative profile of video game designer Tim Schafer or the one who wants to write an investigative profile of Hussein Tantawi (Egypt's "interim" head of state)? Yes, we both know which probably contributes more toward ensuring a well-informed voting public (which is absolutely necessary if the citizens of continent-spanning economic and military powerhouse with a plethora of international interests and commitments are being trusted to choose their own statesmen), but why do I get the feeling that most netizens would throw their five bucks toward the former and ignore the latter?

History will probably show that the decline of investigative journalism coincided with a sharp uptick in the number of YTP vids and dissertations about silly video games. I wonder if this constitutes Mr. Czerki's "we take for free but we give something back" web kid ethos? Sure -- we'll drive you and your medium out of business by getting your contributed information elsewhere for free (while telling you it's your fault); and in return, we add to the vat 843,316,629 pointless Rage Comics and nine-minute monologues about the post-broadcast editing of Derpy Hooves's My Little Pony debut and what it means for civilization. To me it seems this doesn't quite constitute a balanced account, but remember that this opinion comes from a joyless elitist Luddite. Don't take it to heart.

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form, we do not believe in their axiomatic role, as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and by themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities....

Perhaps we have not yet given it a name, perhaps we are not yet fully aware of it, but I guess what we want is real, genuine democracy.

Tell me what democracy looks like!

Actually, it often doesn't look so good.

While we regard ancient Athens as the birthplace of Western democracy, it's worth remembering that the city's most accomplished thinkers thought democracy was a really bad idea.

I often hear people claim that the Internet is democracy incarnate, and civilization could/should/will evolve into a libertarian direct democracy as it integrates the Internet more deeply into its nervous system. This, they say, is a thing to be greatly desired.

I think that the idea that a democracy is the best society -- and the more direct the democracy, the better -- is an idea in need of reexamination.

In its purest form, the democratic principle is one whose logical endpoint can be summed up as:

What is most popular is what is best.

By the standards of democracy, the best food is McDonald's, the most worthwhile human pursuit is watching television, and World of Warcraft is the second most important thing in the universe, exceeded only by everything else in the universe (if a subject's importance to humanity can be gauged by the amount of information humanity compiles about it). This is why it's important, I think, that people get smarts before they get suffrage. (Again, I would be a lot more optimistic about the potential of the Internet as a tool for broadening general knowledge and civic competence if I couldn't pick any report on CNN.com, scroll to the bottom, and read the viewer comments section without immediately craving liquor and sleeping pills.)

(Statement: I am not advocating a dictatorship or other authoritarian system as an alternative. I do not presume to prescribe anything. I am in favor of whatever system of government will sustainably benefit the most members of the public over the longest period of time. After watching half the American public cheerfully vote against their own interests every other year, I am not confident that democracy is that system.)

A friend suggested once that the elected legislators of our country could (I'm not sure if he also said "should") be entirely replaced by an Internet-enabled direct democracy. Basic idea: every measure is simply put up for a vote, every citizen with an I.P. address can cast an e-ballot, and the government proceeds based on the majority vote. Pure, direct, simple, good.

Your joyless elitist buzzkill of a Luddite would like to express a few reservations about this proposal.

I. Most members of the voting public haven't the time or interest to read every piece of national business going up for a vote. Remember when everyone was in an uproar about how long and complicated 2010's healthcare bill was? Imagine if you -- as a responsible citizen who is honor-bound to cast a knowledgeable and reasoned vote about the matter at hand -- had to go through pages and pages of legislative text every freaking time something was to be voted on. Most people frankly have better things to do, which is why we select and subsidize statesmen to do it for us (ostensibly on the basis of their diligence and competency).

II. If you hadn't noticed, the masses tend to make foolish and shortsighted decisions about -- well, just about everything. People tend to react to events with kneejerk responses and snap judgements rather than reason. If any research has been taken toward measuring what sort of effect the culture of the Like/Dislike Button has on this natural human tendency, I'd be interested in seeing its findings.

There are plenty of things we could do to fix, say, our carbon emissions problem. (It's been awfully warm for February, don't you think?) How about a gas tax that would funnel cash into public transportation, infrastructure, and alternative energy sources? It sure makes sense in the long term -- but it would be cumbrous and painful in the short term, and that's the sole object of most people's concerns. Again, this is a problem of human nature. I would hail the Internet if it could train people out of it, but something tells me it's doing more harm than good in this regard.

But back to the idea of web-enabled direct democracy: imagine if government was even more subject to the prevailing public mood on a given day in making its decisions. How effective is the House of Representatives? It's an intransigent, smoke-blowing clusterfuck precisely because its members are the most subject to public mood swings of all our statesmen. A direct democracy means everything becomes more like the House of Representatives.

III. People tend to be very easily swayed by demagogues. If you lean left, think about Glenn Beck mobilizing the loonies in the 2010 midterms. If you lean right, think about all those electrified kids who voted for rock star candidate Obama despite having only a vapid understanding of current events, domestic policy, etc. The more direct the democracy, the more power is granted to charismatic charlatans who are best at stoking and taking advantage of the basest instincts of the masses -- and one might guess that they can do it better with an extremely efficient, ubiquitous, and unregulated mass medium at their disposal. In the information age, misinformation travels and settles with more rapidity than ever before. (OBAMA IS A MOOSLIM might be an instance.)

Ancient Athens had a much more directly democratic system of government than our own, and they were extremely prone to demagogues who goaded the voting public into making very, very bad decisions. You can read all about it in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War -- and it looks like you might just have to take a look at the book instead reading the summary. Its Wikipedia article is pretty bare bones; the reason for this is because it's not as immediately interesting to the public as, say, Beyoncé, whose Wiki page adds up to 11,000 words to the History's 3,400.

(Once more: in a true democracy, what's most popular right now becomes what's most urgent and important.)

Hm. Speaking of the Greeks.

The impression I get from reading texts about and by the ancient Greeks is that the average educated Athenian citizen was, proportionately, much smarter than the average American citizen. (Yes, yes -- it's not totally fair to compare the educational institutions of an ancient city state and a modern nation state with very differently-constructed societies. I know) Greek education placed a superlative emphasis on memorization and the internalization of knowledge. They were famously able (and required) to memorize very, very long chunks of the Iliad and Odyssey -- assignments that would be decried as absolutely unreasonable by the students of today's public schools (and their whining parents). There is no reason to suspect their powers of retention were limited only to poetry.

Socrates -- a much wiser man than you or me --famously condemned the advent of the written word because he feared what might happen if human knowledge became externalized:

[T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

This quote exists within our cultural knowledge today because pupil of Socrates named Plato remembered it -- and then wrote it down. And you're reading it now because I was able to punch "socrates written word" into Google and copy/paste it here.


Again: I can't say that the Internet isn't tremendous; that it hasn't done a lot of neat things and won't continue to benefit and astound us. But I feel as though the notion of it as an unalloyed blessing to humanity is, to put it kindly, somewhat overstated. Or, to put it frankly, it's a fantasy. The reality is that, at best, the Internet is a tool that lets people do the same old shit people have always done since antiquity in a more rapid and less thorough way; and at worst, it's mostly serving to make people more scatterbrained, frivolous, demanding, and shallow: it's more a massive annexation of Newton Minow's vast wasteland than the bridge to a better future and a better humanity.

Either way, your joyless elitist Luddite acknowledges that he loses. The wheels turn with too much momentum for anyone to halt at this point. But before he stops typing and passes out for the evening, he'd like to share a few words from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts....

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigor of wild virtue.

As we go full steam ahead toward our digitized New World, I can only hope we'll consider what we're jettisoning in order to get there.

ON ANOTHER NOTE, you should totally buy my book, which is available for the Kindle and all like devices. It has no Luddite whining and is in fact about ska bands and sunrises. And it's not even eight bucks!