An other order that ran the universe

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

The ESP or “psychic phenomena” movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere of the Me Decade:

ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy, déjà vu experiences, psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God). A former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who has a doctor-of-science degree from MIT, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an attempt to channel the work of all the ESP groups. “Noetic” is an adjective derived from the same root as that of “the Noosphere” — the name that Teilhard de Chardin gave his dream of a cosmic union of all souls. Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order: It was under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships. A physician named Andrija Puharich wrote a book (Uri) in which he published the name of the God of the UFO’s: Hoova. He said Hoova had a herald messenger named Spectra, and Hoova’s and Spectra’s agent on earth, the human connection, as it were, was Uri Geller, the famous Israeli psychic and showman. Geller’s powers were also of great interest to people in the ESP movement, and there were many who wished that Puharich and the UFO people would keep their hands off him.

Not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Outsiders, hearing about the new fad of encounter sessions, wondered what their appeal was:

Yet the appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: “Let’s talk about Me.” No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me.


The encounter session — although it was not called that — was also a staple practice in psychedelic communes and, for that matter, in New Left communes. In fact, the analysis of the self, and of one another, was unceasing. But in these groups and at Esalen and in movements such as Arica there were two common assumptions that distinguished them from the aristocratic lemon sessions and personality finishings of yore. The first was: I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me. Scientology uses the word “clear” to identify the state that one must strive for. But just what is that state? And what will the Real Me be like? It is at this point that the new movements tend to take on a religious or spiritual atmosphere. In one form or another they arrive at an axiom first propounded by the Gnostic Christians some 1,800 years ago: namely, that at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God. In most mortals that spark is “asleep” (the Gnostics’ word), all but smothered by the facades and general falseness of society. But those souls who are clear can find that spark within themselves and unite their souls with God’s. And with that conviction comes the second assumption: There is an other order that actually reigns supreme in the world. Like the light of God itself, this other order is invisible to most mortals. But he who has dug himself out from under the junk heap of civilization can discover it.

And with that… the Me movements were about to turn righteous.

By the early 1970s so many of the Me movements had reached this Gnostic religious stage, they now amounted to a new religious wave. Synanon, Arica, and the Scientology movement had become religions. The much-publicized psychedelic or hippie communes of the 1960s, although no longer big items in the press, were spreading widely and becoming more and more frankly religious. The huge Steve Gaskin commune in the Tennessee scrublands was a prime example. A New York Times survey concluded that there were at least two thousand communes in the United States by 1970, barely five years after the idea first caught on in California. Both the Esalen-style and Primal Therapy or Primal Scream encounter movements were becoming progressively less psychoanalytical and more mystical in their approach. The Oriental “meditation” religions — which had existed in the United States mainly in the form of rather intellectual and bohemian Zen and yoga circles — experienced a spectacular boom. Groups such as the Hare Krishna, the Sufi, and the Maharaj Ji communes began to discover that they could enroll thousands of new members and (in some cases) make small fortunes in real estate to finance the expansion. Many members of the New Left communes of the 1960s began to turn up in Me movements in the 1970s, including two of the celebrated “Chicago Seven.” Rennie Davis became a follower of the Maharaj Ji. Jerry Rubin enrolled in both est and Arica. Barbara Garson, who with the help of her husband, Marvin, wrote the great agitprop drama of the New Left, MacBird, would later observe, with considerable bitterness: “My husband Marvin forsook everything (me included) to find peace. For three years he wandered without shoes or money or glasses. Now he is in Israel with some glasses and possibly with some peace.” And not just him, she said, but so many other New Lefters as well: “Some follow a guru, some are into Primal Scream, some seek a rest from the diaspora — a home in Zion.” It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.

The new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

The saga of the Me Decade begins with one of those facts that is so big and so obvious that no one comments on it anymore:

Namely: the 30-year boom. Wartime spending in the United States in the 1940s touched off a boom that has continued for more than 30 years. It has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. True, nothing has solved the plight of those at the very bottom, the chronically unemployed of the slums. Nevertheless, in Compton, California, today it is possible for a family at the very lowest class level, which is known in America today as “on welfare,” to draw an income of $8,000 a year entirely from public sources. This is more than most British newspaper columnists and Italian factory foremen make, even allowing for differences in living costs. In America truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen, and garbagemen make so much money — $15,000 to $20,000 (or more) per year is not uncommon — that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face. So one now says lower middle class. One can’t even call workingmen blue collar any longer. They all have on collars like Joe Namath’s or Johnny Bench’s or Walt Frazier’s. They all have on $35 Superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940s Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes and Seashell designs all over them.

Well, my God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century — such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx — lived for the day of the liberated workingman. They foresaw a day when industrialism (Saint-Simon coined the word) would give the common man the things he needed in order to realize his potential as a human being: surplus (discretionary) income, political freedom, free time (leisure), and freedom from grinding drudgery. Some of them, notably Owen and Fourier, thought all this might come to pass first in the United States. So they set up communes here: Owen’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and 34 Fourier-style “phalanx” settlements — socialist communes, because the new freedom was supposed to be possible only under socialism. The old boys never dreamed that the new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom such as began in the United States in the 1940s. Nor would they have liked it if they had seen it. For one thing, the homo novus, the new man, the liberated man, the first common man in the history of the world with the much-dreamed-of combination of money, free time, and personal freedom—this American workingman didn’t look right. The Joe Namath-Johnny Bench — Walt Frazier-Superstar Qiana Wallpaper sport shirt, for a start.

He didn’t look right, and he wouldn’t… do right! I can remember what brave plans visionary architects at Yale and Harvard still had for the common man in the early 1950s. (They actually used the term “common man.”) They had brought the utopian socialist dream forward into the twentieth century. They had things figured out for the workingman down to truly minute details such as lamp switches. The new liberated workingman would live as the Cultivated Ascetic. He would be modeled on the B.A.-degree Greenwich Village bohemian of the late 1940s — dark wool Hudson Bay shirts, tweed jackets, flannel trousers, briarwood pipes, good books, sandals and simplicity — except that he would live in a Worker Housing project. All Yale and Harvard architects worshiped Bauhaus principles and had the Bauhaus vision of Worker Housing. The Bauhaus movement absolutely hypnotized American architects, once its leaders, such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Miës van der Rohe, came to the United States from Germany in the 1930s. Worker Housing in America would have pure beige rooms, stripped, freed, purged of all moldings, cornices, and overhangs — which Gropius regarded as symbolic “crowns” and therefore loathsome. Worker Housing would be liberated from all wallpaper, “drapes,” Wilton rugs with flowers on them, lamps with fringed shades and bases that looked like vases or Greek columns. It would be cleansed of all doilies, knickknacks, mantelpieces, headboards, and radiator covers. Radiator coils would be left bare as honest, abstract sculptural objects.

But somehow the workers, incurable slobs that they were, avoided Worker Housing, better known as “the projects,” as if it had a smell. They were heading out instead to the suburbs — the suburbs! — to places like Islip, Long Island, and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles — and buying houses with clapboard siding and a high-pitched roof and shingles and gaslight-style front-porch lamps and mailboxes set up on top of lengths of stiffened chain that seemed to defy gravity and all sorts of other unbelievably cute or antiquey touches, and they loaded these houses up with “drapes” such as baffled all description and wall-to-wall carpet you could lose a shoe in, and they put barbecue pits and fish ponds with concrete cherubs urinating into them on the lawn out back, and they parked 25-foot-long cars out front and Evinrude cruisers up on tow trailers in the carport just beyond the breezeway.

[Ignored or else held in contempt by working people, Bauhaus design eventually triumphed as a symbol of wealth and privilege, attuned chiefly to the tastes of businessmen’s wives. For example, Miës’s most famous piece of furniture design, the Barcelona chair, now sells for $1.680 and is available only through one’s decorator. The high price is due in no small part to the chair’s Worker Housing Honest Materials: stainless steel and leather. No chromed iron is allowed, and customers are refused if they want to have the chair upholstered in material of their own choice. Only leather is allowed, and only six shades of that: Seagram’s Building Lobby Palomino, Monsanto Company Lobby Antelope, Architectural Digest Pecan, Transamerica Building Ebony, Bank of America Building Walnut, and Embarcadero Center Mink.]

By the 1960s the common man was also getting quite interested in this business of “realizing his potential as a human being.” But once again he crossed everybody up! Once more he took his money and ran — determined to do-it-himself!

Satirized a quarter-century before it happened

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities preceded the real-life events it was supposedly based on, Steve Sailer reminds us:

We’ve seen the press and prosecutors on the prowl for the Great White Defendant numerous times before, such as the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn mania, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse hoax, and the 1987 Tawana Brawley scam—which was promoted, just like the Trayvon Martin story a quarter of a century later, by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The phrase “hunt for the Great White Defendant” comes from Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities , in which Sharpton is lampooned as Rev. Bacon. Indeed, if you want to understand the mechanics of how the Trayvon story was hyped in 2012, the best guide remains Bonfire.

It’s widely believed today that Bonfire was “ripped from the headlines” of the Brawley swindle, Michael Milken’s arrest, the O.J. Simpson case, and other notorious controversies in the manner of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order TV empire.

But in reality, Wolfe’s novel preceded not only Wolf’s L&O, but also almost all the real-life scandals it is now imagined to be based upon.

Thus in his 1995 book Overcoming Law , Judge Richard A. Posner retracted his initial dismissal of Wolfe’s novel:

The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to&nnbsp;Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system … at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities, even though the book was written before the intersection had come into view.”

The Trayvon Trayvesty should have crowned Bonfire’s reputation as The Great American Novel of the late 20th Century, and driven home that Wolfe has enjoyed the grandest career in American letters since Mark Twain.

Of course, being right doesn’t make you popular. The embarrassing realization that Trayvon Trayvesty had been satirized a quarter of a century before has only turned the MSM even more against Wolfe and his new Miami novel, Back To Blood, a hilarious self-parody of all things Tom Wolfe.

Tom Wolfe is dead, but the Me Decade lives on

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Nick Gillespie of Reason argues that Tom Wolfe’s enduring — and fundamentally libertarian — contribution to contemporary discourse is his 1976 New York essay that christened the ’70s the “Me Decade“:

Writing during a time when most wise men (and they were mostly men back then) were obsessed with inflation, unemployment, and other measures of macroeconomic malaise, Wolfe was nearly alone in underscoring that consumer goods and lifestyle options had been radically democratized in postwar America. Forget the soul-killing depredations of the Cold War, giant corporations, cheap money, rising taxes, and government’s expansion into every nook and cranny of life, he counseled. Wolfe focused on the pent-up psychic demand for freedom, individualism, and meaning in a country that had recently withstood a decade-plus of Great Depression and World War. The only thing worse than the impending apocalypse due to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, overpopulation, or the Second Coming was that the world wouldn’t end and we’d have spent our time on Earth punching the clock for a soul-killing job with great dental benefits. In the goddamn Bicentennial Year, Wolfe argued, Americans were done with building Maslow’s pyramid of needs for other people, especially their social betters. Who among us was going to follow slow-witted concussion-cases like Jerry Ford or lusting-only-in-his-heart Jimmy Carter into the twilight’s last gleaming? It was our time to shine, baby!

Tom Wolfe still had three weaknesses as a novelist

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Tom Wolfe succeeded in cutting a figure in American life comparable to another white-suited, big-spending writer, Mark Twain, according to Steve Sailer, but he still had three weaknesses as a novelist:

The first was that in his pursuit of machismo he’d lost the ability to write interesting female characters.

The second flaw was that his famously flashy prose style wasn’t as sentence for sentence well-crafted as that of his rival’s like Updike. Wolfe came up with brilliant phrases, some of which have entered the language, but he embedded them in fairly functional prose hepped up with Zap! Pow! typography. For his second novel, A Man in Full, he cranked up his prose style to impressive levels. But with about 100 pages left in the book, you can suddenly see where he suffered major open-heart surgery and the subsequent manic-depressive mood swings that are a common side effect.

The third was one he never overcame: although Wolfe picked fights with high brow prestige novelists like John Updike, his biggest weakness was at the lower brow blocking and tackling basic of coming up with an ending for his plots.

He hid in plain sight

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Max Boot knew Tom Wolfe — slightly:

Like many people, I regard The Bonfire of the Vanities, the definitive portrait of New York in the 1980s, as one of Wolfe’s two masterpieces. The other was The Right Stuff, which was made into a much better movie than Bonfire. Wolfe got inside the minds of test pilots and astronauts in a way that no other writer has done before or since. The opening chapter, focused on the anxiety of the pilots’ wives who don’t know if their husbands will come home from work, instantly transported the reader to a psychological reality far removed from the glossy news coverage of the space program. The narrative was utterly seamless — as befits the New Journalism that Wolfe helped create, it read like a novel — and yet no one ever claimed that he made it up. There was a sturdy skeleton of reporting, invisible to the reader, upon which Wolfe hung his peerless prose.

Having gotten to know Wolfe a bit, I saw something of his method. He hid in plain sight — his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly invisible. To the extent that anyone so flamboyantly attired can recede into the background, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he preferred to listen and to soak in the atmosphere. A quiet man, he did his talking in print. And now he has gone silent forever. American literature — and American life — will be the poorer without him.

I loved The Right Stuff — which includes his bit on the voice of the airline pilot — but I found Bonfire a bit over the top — like New York in the ’80s, I suppose.

Children in the snow

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Military sci-fi writer John Ringo grew up in 23 foreign countries, where his father worked as a civil engineer, including Iran before the fall of the Shah. He shared this story with an audience at LibertyCon in Chattanooga. It’s about Children in the Snow:

January of the first year I was there. I was ten years old. My father is working in Abadan, we were living in Teheran. He would work down there for three weeks, then come back to Teheran for a week, back and forth.

My mother decided that we were going to go down and visit my dad in Abadan. And we were going to take the train. It was winter, and Iran has more snow than you would expect. It’s a lot like Utah, actually. The weather was very, very cold. As a matter of fact, that year, right around Christmas, it had snowed so heavily that the roof of the airport collapsed from the snow. And I had to go upstairs and shovel the flat top of the building. Until I couldn’t move any more and we got an Ash Kali. And I’m not even going to explain what an Ash Kali is… just “day laborer.”

The train went down overnight. And, at one point, we were stopped on a siding and I woke up in the middle of the night, because the movement had stopped. And I kind of got out to look around, and we were in this upland valley in the Zagros Mountains. It was one of those nights that was so cold that you could see the trees cracking. There were these leafless poplar trees, and snow, and you kind of see a village off in the distance. The cold poured off the window.

While I was out there, I noticed some movement. And my mom had told me, and it was true, that they still had train robberies. So I was like “Cool! It’s bandits! What am I going to do?” I was an adventurous ten-year-old kid, right? Ooh, maybe bandits are going to be boarding.

But it wasn’t bandits. It was women and children in rags… who were going along the train track, picking up coal and rice and wheat that had fallen off the train… so they would have a little bit of heat, and a little bit of food, to make it through another day.

That image was, you can call it childhood trauma, if you like. And every time that I see certain directions, I realize that we’re heading in the direction… we are either headed towards children in the snow, or we are headed away from children in the snow. So at a certain level, everything that I do… is to try to make a world where the only reason that children go out into the snow is to play.

Heat management is crucial

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

If you’re not already familiar with “hard” science fiction from Atomic Rockets and Tough SF, this “Because Science” video on the truth about space war serves as a light introduction:

What they can’t see yet is that something happened

Monday, April 9th, 2018

Jeffro notes that contemporary science fiction and fantasy is godawful and discusses how to handle this fact with less-enlightened fans of the genre:

At this point you mention that they should really check out the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Whatever it is that they like or dislike, one of these stories is going to be a perfect fit for this person. Recommend one… talk about how you were surprised at how good they were and how they weren’t what you expected they would be. And then shut up.

(Note 2: On the internet, the argument never stops. In real life… you have to downshift to have an impact.)

A couple weeks later they should have more to talk about. They will be blown away by somethings, left cold by others. Cut them some slack: these sorts of people are taking their first steps into a larger literary world. And holy cow. Think about it. Nothing in this fantasy addict’s life is pointing this person towards the work of Robert E. Howard except you. Which means that you got to be the one to introduce them to Howard. That’s just crazy awesome in and of itself.

I think that’s weird, really. To get to be that guy to someone in this way. But here’s the thing: if you can do it once with an author as significant as Howard, you can do it a half dozen times.

Because here’s you two weeks later: “Oh, you thought Howard was good? Well you’re gonna love C. L. Moore!” But they’re going to tell you they’ve never heard of C. L. Moore. This is where you look baffled. “You never heard of C. L. Moore? How can you not have heard of C. L. Moore?!” Tell them to go read “Shambleau”… and they will come back later to thank you for it.

Wait a couple of weeks and you can run the exact same gag again. “You never heard of Leigh Brackett? That’s insane! She wrote the scripts for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and [the first draft of] The Empire Strikes Back. How can you not have heard of Leigh Brackett?!” Tell them to go read The Sword of Rhiannon.

There are other authors and stories you can drop on them depending on how they handle this. Heck, no matter what thing in fantasy or science fiction that they like best… they have no idea who it was that pioneered its original tropes or just how danged good the old authors were and how well their works stand the test of time.

But these sorts of people… they see nothing amiss in any of this at this point. They have no idea what has transpired within the critical space and the overall commentariat over the past few decades. Right now you are just some guy that has some positively stellar book recommendations which no one else in their lives seems to know about. They can intuit that they are looking at the fantasy and science fiction canon for the first time. They can see the astonishing literary quality of the old stuff. They can see that contemporary authors do not fare well in comparison. This is all self-evident.

What they can’t see yet is that something happened. But these people are in a very precarious position here. What does it take to push them over the edge? Just mention that these books and authors are routinely excluded from top 100 book lists and accounts of science fiction and fantasy history. Even watershed books like A Princess of Mars. What happens next is surprising. They won’t believe you. You can gently reiterate that it’s the case… but they will push back on this. This just doesn’t make sense. As far as they’re concerned… this CANNOT BE.

Fortunately, cell phones are ubiquitous enough now that someone can bring up the NPR list. Watch them as they go book by book mocking the more ludicrous entries. If they slogged through Patrick Rothfuss’s stuff, I’m sure they’ll have some choice words when they get to that one. Then watch the reaction when they get to the end and it sinks in that there’s not one mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs anywhere.

That’s right. In a couple of months they’ve gone from never having heard of the classic authors to being outraged that nobody else has.

Ask them to explain just what the heck happened? Or more importantly…. what is still happening.

Many firms don’t know their numbers

Saturday, April 7th, 2018

Alex Tabarrok has learned a lot about industrial organization by watching The Profit, a reality-TV show on CNBC featuring businessman Marcus Lemonis:

In each episode Lemonis buys into a failing small-to-medium-sized business and works to turn it around. Lemonis doesn’t invest in a random sample of businesses nor even in a random sample of failing businesses. Nevertheless, the lessons that The Profit teaches are consistent with the new literature on management which has increased my confidence both in the show and the literature.

In the perfectly competitive model, price is equal to average cost and firms operate efficiently at minimum cost. Yet, Syverson finds that in the typical US industry a firm at the 90th percentile of the productivity distribution makes almost twice as much output with the same inputs as a firm at the 10th percentile. It’s not easy to measure inputs or outputs, of course, but even firms producing very uniform products show big productivity differences.

How can firms that use inputs so inefficiently survive? In part, competition is imperfect which gives inefficient firms a cushion because they can charge a price higher than cost even as costs are higher than necessary. Another reason is that small firms eat their costs.

A typical firm on The Profit, for example, has decent revenues, sometimes millions of dollars of revenues, but it has costs that are as high or higher. What happened? Often the firm began with a competitive advantage — a product that took off unexpectedly and so for a time the firm was rolling in profits without having to pay much attention to costs. As competition slowly took hold, however, margins started to decline and the firm found itself bailing. But instead, of going out of business, the firm covers its losses with entrepreneurs and family members who work without pay, with loans which grow ever larger, and by an occasional demand shock which generates enough surplus revenue to just keep going.

The correct metaphor for competition isn’t a boxing match that knocks out the inefficient firm. The correct metaphor is a slow tide. Inefficient firms must scramble for a bit of high ground but as the tide ebbs and flows they can occasionally catch a breath when their head bobs above the profit line. An inefficient firm can survive for years before it inevitably sinks.

The second lesson from The Profit is that management matters and it matters in systematic and fairly easy to replicate ways. If mis-measurement explained productivity differences, Lemonis would not be able to successfully turn firms around. But he can and does. How?

One of the first things Lemonis does in almost every episode is get the numbers right so he can calculate which products are selling and which have the highest price-to-cost margin. Concentrate production on high-margin, big sellers. Drop the rest. Simple; but many firms don’t know their numbers.

Second, in episode after episode, Lemonis cleans up shop. Literally. He cleans the shop floor and gets rid of inventory that isn’t selling. He then arranges the floor to improve process flow (made easier by concentrating production on fewer products). He then creates an inventory system, tracks orders and the inputs needed to create those orders, and takes advantage of costs savings through economies of scale in input purchases.

Can it be so simple? To be sure, Lemonis is a smart guy but very little of what he does takes genius. We know this because we now have robust evidence from India and Mexico that better management increases profits and productivity and that such increases can be sustained over the long run. In the studies from India and Mexico, randomly selected firms were given access to a “management intervention” and their productivity and profits improved and stayed higher for years after the intervention ended.

Moreover, what were these management interventions? Did some bright Harvard grad recommend a complicated swap-options deal? A new chemical process? A new management form? No. By and large, the interventions were simple. Just like the Lemonis interventions.

Will any shows from the Golden Age of TV endure?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Will any shows from the Golden Age of TV endure?

If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of television out there — by the increasing number of shows being praised by your peers, by the cascade of critically acclaimed programming on the ever-enlarging expanse of channels and pay tiers and streaming services — you’re not alone. At the Television Critics Association’s winter meeting in January, John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, highlighted the ongoing explosion in scripted programming. According to a report on Landgraf’s speech in Variety, 2017 saw 487 scripted series air on networks, cable, pay cable, and streaming services — up from 455 in 2016, which was up from 422 in 2015. Only 153 of the 2017 series aired on network TV — ABC, NBC, etc. — while 175 were on basic cable. Streaming services are the biggest driver in the latest TV boom; outlets like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu accounted for another 117 series. HBO and the other premium cable channels made up the final 42.

“Overall, the total series output on television since 2002 has grown by 168 percent,” Variety reported. By way of comparison, America’s population is up about 13 percent in the same time. The number of hours in the day has remained static, at 24. Simply put: There’s vastly more content (to use a vulgarity that reduces art to a consumable but feels proper when describing the aforementioned torrent) than ever before — and that’s not including the ever-increasing number of feature films or video games that take hundreds of hours to play or YouTube channels making millionaires out of 6-year-old kids. The fragmented nature of our viewing habits means a TV show on a pay cable station can get by with a few hundred thousand viewers if critics like it and it pulls in awards; the biggest “hits” in the world of scripted entertainment are watched by less than 5 percent of the population, if we are to trust the ratings. Of course, with a plethora of viewing options — live airing, DVRed recording, streaming on TVs and laptops and iPhones — relying on something as prosaic as the Nielsen ratings to measure popularity is a mug’s game. We need to scan Google searches and Twitter trends and Facebook topics to see what’s really driving the conversation at any given time.


For several decades, the syndication model provided repetition that helped create a common cultural currency. That model has now weakened — syndication has become less appealing to audiences — as the marketplace has been flooded with new programs and as new technologies have created new viewing options. This will likely make the sitcom almost obsolete as anything other than a day-of laugh-delivery device. The Simpsons at the peak of its powers is a show rooted in its time, one that relies as heavily on pop-culture references as it does on repeated lines of clever dialogue becoming inside jokes among initiates. Strip the show from its moment — as future audiences will experience it — and take away the repetition needed to impress the cleverness of its wordplay on viewers, and what are you left with? Something that lasts? A masterpiece that rewards critical scrutiny for future generations? Or something that fades into the ether, a pleasant memory for those born between 1970 and 1990, and perhaps an artifact of interest to scholars studying the 1990s, but few others?

The culture will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself

Monday, March 12th, 2018

Amazon Studios recently announced plans to adapt the first novel of Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series, Consider Phlebas.

Philosophy professor Joseph Heath offers an appreciations of Banks’ Culture:

In this context, what distinguishes Banks’s work is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has also driven changes in the social structure, such that the social and political challenges people confront are new. Indeed, Banks distinguishes himself in having thought carefully about the social and political consequences of technological development. For example, once a society has semi-intelligent drones that can be assigned to supervise individuals at all times, what need is there for a criminal justice system? Thus in the Culture, an individual who commits a sufficiently serious crime is assigned — involuntarily — a “slap drone,” who simply prevents that person from committing any crime again. Not only does this reduce recidivism to zero, the prospect of being supervised by a drone for the rest of one’s life also serves as a powerful deterrent to crime.

This is an absolutely plausible extrapolation from current trends — even just looking at how ankle monitoring bracelets work today. But it also raises further questions. For instance, once there is no need for a criminal justice system, one of the central functions of the state has been eliminated. This is one of the social changes underlying the political anarchism that is a central feature of the Culture. There is, however, a more fundamental postulate. The core feature of Banks’s universe is that he imagines a scenario in which technological development has freed culture from all functional constraints — and thus, he imagines a situation in which culture has become purely memetic. This is perhaps the most important idea in his work, but it requires some unpacking.

The term “meme” was introduced by Richard Dawkins, in an attempt to articulate some cultural equivalent to the role that the “gene” plays in biological evolution.2 The basic building-block of life for Dawkins, one may recall, is “the replicator,” understood simply as “that which reproduces itself.” His key observation is that one can find replicators not just in the biological sphere, but in human social behaviour. In many cases, these “memes” produce obvious benefits to their host, so it is not difficult to see how they succeed in reproducing themselves — consider, for instance, the human practice of using fire to cook food, which is reproduced culturally. In other cases, however, cultural patterns get reproduced, not because they offer any particular benefits — in some cases they are even costly to the host — but because they have a particularly effective “trick,” when it comes to getting themselves reproduced.


Historically, in this process of competition among cultures, a dominant source of competitive advantage has been the ability to promote a desirable social structure, or an effective system of cooperation. Consider the enormous influence that Roman culture exercised in the West. The fact that, one thousand years after the fall of Rome, schoolboys were still memorizing Cicero, the Justinian code remained de facto law throughout vast regions, and Latin was still the written language of the learned classes of Europe, is an extraordinary legacy. The major reason for imitation of the Romans was simply that their culture is one that sustained the greatest, most long-lasting empire the West has ever seen.

Similarly, Han culture was able to spread throughout China in large part through the institutions that it promoted, not just the imperial system, but the vast bureaucracy that sustained it, along with the competitive examination system that promoted effective administration.

Societies with strong institutions become wealthier, more powerful militarily, or some combination of the two. These are the ones whose culture reproduces, either because it is imitated, or because it is imposed on others.4 And yet the dominant trend in human societies, over the past century, has been significant convergence with respect to institutional structure. Most importantly, there has been practically universal acceptance of the need for a market economy and a bureaucratic state as the only desirable social structure at the national level. One can think of this as the basic blueprint of a “successful” society. This has led to an incredible narrowing of cultural possibilities, as cultures that are functionally incompatible with capitalism or bureaucracy are slowly extinguished or transformed.

This winnowing down of cultural possibilities is what constitutes the trend that is often falsely described as “Westernization.” Much of it is actually just a process of adaptation that any society must undergo, in order to bring its culture into alignment with the functional requirements of capitalism and bureaucracy. It is not that other cultures are becoming more “Western,” it is that all cultures, including Western ones, are converging around a small number of variants.5

One interesting consequence of this process is that the competition between cultures is becoming defunctionalized. The institutions of modern bureaucratic capitalism solve many of the traditional problems of social integration in an almost mechanical way. As a result, when considering the modern “hypercultures” — e.g. American, Japanese, European — there is little to choose from a functional point of view. None are particularly better or worse, from the standpoint of constructing a successful society. And so what is there left to compete on? All that is left are the memetic properties of the culture, which is to say, the pure capacity to reproduce itself.


Now consider Banks’s scenario. Consider the process that is generating modern hypercultures, and imagine it continuing for another three or four hundred years. The first consequence is that the culture will become entirely defunctionalized. Banks imagines a scenario in which all of the endemic problems of human society have been given essentially technological solutions (in much the same way that drones have solved the problem of criminal justice). Most importantly, he imagines that the fundamental problem of scarcity has been solved, and so there is no longer any obligation for anyone to work (although, of course, people remain free to do so if they wish). All important decisions are made by a benevolent technocracy of AIs (or the “Minds”).

And so what is left for humanity (or, more accurately, humanoids)? At the individual level, Banks imagines a life very much like the one described by Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper — everything becomes a game, and thus at some level, non-serious. But where Banks went further than Suits was in thinking about the social consequences. What happens when culture becomes freed from all functional constraints? It seems clear that, in the interplanetary competition that develops, the culture that emerges will be the most virulent, or the most contagious. In other words, “the Culture” will simply be that which is best at reproducing itself, by appealing to the sensibilities and tastes of humanoid life-forms.

A fountain pen is not a screwdriver

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Willis McNelly’s interview with Frank Herbert had a number of interesting tidbits I thought I’d quote (or paraphrase):

  • Ecology is the science of understanding consequences.
  • The name of the game is power.
  • There is a law of supply and demand as long as you only have one form of exchange, but once you start getting other media of exchange, such as force, then the law of supply and demand gets different beats on it, different rhythms.
  • Western man has assumed that if you have enough power, there is no problem which won’t submit to this approach, even the problem of our own ignorance.
  • It’s my contention that feudalism is a natural condition of human beings…not that it is the only condition or not that it is the right condition…that it is just a way we have of falling into organisations. I like to use the example of the Berlin Museum Beavers. Before World War II there were a number of families of beaver in the Berlin Museum. They were European beaver. They had been there, raised in captivity for something on the order of seventy beaver generations, in cages. World War II came along and a bomb freed some of them into the countryside. What did they do? They went out and they started building dams.
  • Campbell turned down the sequel. Now his argument was that I had created an anti-hero in Paul in the sequel, and he has built his magazine on the hero. But Galaxy snapped it right up and paid Campbell’s rates.
  • Virginia Heinlein says that every time that Bob wanders away she says, “Cut to the chase.”
  • As my wife is fond of telling my children, a fountain pen is not a screwdriver.
  • So there was a light from back in there and so she could see the cards, and she said, see if you can predict the cards. And she had been shuffling them, so she picked up the first card, and I closed my eyes, and I saw that card. And so I told her…that was it. She put it down. That was the card. I swear to you, Will, I went through that entire deck, predicting every card that she was going to see, and there wasn’t a failure at all. I told her every card. I did it the same every time.
  • Well, one of the threads in the story is to trace a possible way a messiah is created in our society, and I hope I was successful in making it believable. Here we have the entire process, or at least the large and some of the subtle elements of the construction of this, both from the individual standpoint, and from the way society demands this of you. It’s the references in there, you know, that the man must recognize the myth he is living in, because the creation of an avatar is a myth-making process. We’ve done it in our…in recent times. Look at what’s happening to John F. Kennedy.

How Star Wars was saved in the edit

Saturday, February 24th, 2018

I wasn’t aware of how Star Wars was saved in the edit:

I actually like the idea of Luke looking up through his macrobinoculars (or theodolite) at the battle above Tatooine.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing.)