SciFutures offers “corporate visioning”

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Hoping to distract himself from the boredom of his day job as the president of a market-research company, Ari Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at UCLA:

“It was, like, the best ten weeks of my life,” Popper told me recently. “But I knew I wasn’t going to pay the bills as a science-fiction writer.” Still, the course gave him an idea: since businesses often spend money trying to predict how the world will change, and since speculative fiction already traffics in such predictions, perhaps one could be put in service of the other — corporate consulting through sci-fi narratives. Soon, Popper quit his job, moved to a smaller house, and launched his own firm, SciFutures. Today, his network of a hundred or so authors writes customized stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and nato. Popper calls their work “corporate visioning.”

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged. The authors’ stories, she added, which range in length from a few hundred to several thousand words, are “not just marketing pieces, but sometimes we have to pull back or adjust to accommodate a brand.” She and Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters.

[...]

One of SciFutures’s more prominent contributors is Ken Liu, a Hugo Award-winning author and the translator of the popular Chinese science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem.” Liu told me that he relishes the level of influence that the firm offers. “As a freelancing gig, it’s not much money,” he said; typically, stories pay a few hundred dollars. “But you have the chance to shape and impact the development of a technology that matters to you. At a minimum, you know that your story will be read by an executive, somebody who’s actually able to decide whether to invest money and develop a product.” Liu dismissed the notion that writing science fiction for corporate clients compromised something essential about the genre. “I’m not a big fan of this vision of the artist as some independent, amazing force for good,” he said. “Everybody writes in a context for an audience.”

The audience that gives SciFutures writers the most freedom to imagine negative outcomes is, not surprisingly, the military. “Those stories can be grittier,” Phillips said. “They already do a lot of worst-case-scenario planning.” Last year, she and her colleagues produced thirteen stories that were read and discussed in a workshop for forty senior officials from a range of nato member countries. One involves a “smart gun” that gets hacked, nearly causing a massacre of civilians. Another, told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl in Uruguay, describes a group of child soldiers around the world who shoot targets through an online gaming site without realizing that the game is real: they are operating drones and other remote weapons that kill enemies of the Russian government. (Readers familiar with Orson Scott Card’s novel “Ender’s Game,” from 1985, may notice some similarities.) A third story follows a member of a Chinese “Fear Battalion,” a group of soldiers who have been genetically modified to emit a pheromone that induces terror in anyone who smells it.

If parents really want to give their kids a movie night, they’ll pay

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

Virginia Postrel recently went to see Atomic BLonde, and someone brought two kids to the very R-rated movie:

Its fight scenes are lethal and bloody. “Character is choked with a garrote, very visible and intense, lasts for a :30-:60 seconds,” is one note from IMDB’s parents guide. The only respite from the mayhem is a lesbian love scene.

[...]

Like most U.S. theaters, AMC bars kids under 6 from R-rated movies after 6:00 p.m. “Since implementing this policy, guest complaints concerning noise in the theatres have decreased significantly,” a spokeswoman told me by email. Our 7:15 showing was covered by the rule — and demonstrated its flaws.

The first is that children under 6 don’t have driver’s licenses. If the parents say the kids qualify for admission, the theater has to take their word for it. Unless a child is so disruptive that the rest of the audience complains, it’s easy enough to break the rule. Maybe the kids near us were 6, maybe not.

The second is that the mere presence of children too young to understand a movie disturbs other audience members.

[...]

Instead of charging children $3.00 less than adults at R-rated movies, charge them $5.00 more. If parents really want to give their kids a movie night, they’ll pay. But if they just don’t want to pay a babysitter, they’ll stay home and let everyone else enjoy the show.

I still remember someone bringing little kids to the matinée of Gladiator years ago. Not cool.

Construction Time Again was an open rebellion to Jacques Derrida’s openly nihilistic and destructive deconstructionism

Monday, July 24th, 2017

Richard Wolstencroft examines Depeche Mode as an Alt-Right band:

The new CD is rather good, by the way, a true return to form after their last less-than-stellar Delta Machine effort. And—surprise, surprise—it’s filled to the brim with political and Alt-Rightish-type messages, memes, misanthropy, and mischief.

But first a little history and a somewhat outrageous statement: I think Depeche Mode are the Rolling Stones or Beatles of the 80s.

[...]

Now apropos the accusations of right-wing or fashy politics. First let’s consider the historical milieu from which they emerged—the New Romantic, New wave and Electro Revolution. In the late 70s/early 80s, fashy right-wing signalling was surprisingly common. It was even very hip to do so. Bands like Joy Division, Kraftwerk, NON, Death In June, Current 93, and Throbbing Gristle, to name just a few, openly embraced fascist and right-wing aesthetics—probably taking after Bowie and his Thin White Duke period. And the lyrics in many songs and publicity shots reflected the same.

Even more commercial bands like Ultravox, Human League, Gary Numan, Japan, Devo, Furniture, Visage, and Talk Talk embraced some fashy style imagery, as well as conservative ideas and lyrics. It was sort of a New Romantic and New Wave counter revolution against the destructive anarchy of punk and it’s aftermath. Funnily enough John Lydon recently said he backed Brexit and thought Trump was punk, so even he has come around and you can some early signs of this in his Flowers of Romance and PiL projects. “I could be Right, I could be wrong”—from Rise, etc.

[...]

After Ian Curtis of Joy Division, an open admirer of fascism, topped himself, the band looked across the channel to Portugal and Salazar’s regime and to Indonesia’s fashy Suharto to choose their new name, New Order. They went on to achieve global success, dominance, and importance, much like the subject of this essay, Depeche Mode.

The members of Mode all emerged from this fashy signalling New Romantic and avant grade electronic milieu. The band’s first album, mainly written by the synth pop guru and genius Vince Clarke of later Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S) and Erasure fame, launched the band with their first album Speak and Spell.

Politics was not so present on the first album, but was more reflected the band’s name a reference to Fast Fashion and New Romance—a pre-Bret-Easton-Ellis type notion that celebrated the decadent 80s love of surface, fast living, young love, good looks, and high times. But, as soon as Vince Clarke left the band and Martin Gore took over the songwriting slot, they began signalling political ideas of both the Left and Right.

This Left and Right synthesis was both progressive and forward-looking for the era, and really added to the band’s power level, intellectual weight, longevity, and the ability of their work to sound as relevant today as ever. Some may laugh at that, but there were recent articles in NME and elsewhere reporting the “findings” of some university boffins that Depeche Mode has the most intelligent lyrics of any band ever.

A Broken Frame, their second LP, featured a Neo-Realist folk type cover, reminiscent of both Nazi art and the Communist “Realism” that was favoured by the Stalin and subsequently China and North Korea. The follow up Construction Time Again was an open rebellion to Jacques Derrida’s openly nihilistic and destructive deconstructionism that was all the rage in the 80s intellectual scene. It also featured a fascistic cover of an Aryan man smashing down a hammer. From that image alone the Alt-Right could have been born. Again, the Left and Right symbolism were being mixed together.

So, “construction time again” it was with Mode, and many of our generation who despised deconstruction and relativist bullshit!

Mode went forward with leaps and bounds after Vince Clarke left, having smash hits like People are People and releasing dark, subversive dance masterpieces with an S&M flavour, like Master and Servant. That song gives off a Nazi vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on The Night Porter.

The album Music for the Masses featured a kind of overarching, fashy motif of a loudspeaker in the wilderness on the cover and an anthem and theme song on the record, Pimpf, given visual expression with the help of the wonderful Anton Corbijn.

This was quite openly the most fascist reference in their whole oeuvre. Pimpf was named after a Nazi Youth Movement, and at this time Martin Gore began making his most fashy statements in the media about politics. There is a side story here I might share.

Gore, the rumour goes, was getting into fascist aesthetics, fashion, and ideas from the mid to late 80s until the early 90s, until he discovered his real father was of mixed race, or something along those lines. Then he went silent on the issue. But he still continued to signal these ideas in his art, albeit in a slightly more diffused and subterranean way. But he was also signalling some left-wing Socialist ideas. With him, it seems, there’s always been a kind of dialectic at play.

They listen at chipmunk speed

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

The Wall Street Journal notes that “podcast nuts” find the time to listen to so much material by listening at chipmunk speed — which is a cute phrase, but one that doesn’t make sense in the digital age, since we can now speed up audio without shifting the pitch, too:

A fourfold speedup sounds entirely sane to Max Deutsch, 24, who says he has speed-listened to 69 audiobooks this year. The faster the speed, he found, the more engaged he was. “That’s when I asked myself: I wonder how fast I could actually listen?”

The San Francisco tech-product manager, unable to find apps with speeds over 3x, created Rightspeed, a $2.99 app that accelerates podcasts in nearly unnoticeable 0.1x increments every two minutes. A one-hour podcast that begins at 2x, ends at 5x and takes 17 minutes.

“It’s sort of like the Roger Bannister, four-minute-mile effect,” Mr. Deutsch says. “Until you’re told it’s possible for a human to listen at this speed, you just decide you can’t.”

My first thought was, “no thank you,” but then I accidentally set my podcast app to 1.5x and found it entirely listenable — but definitely not relaxing or pleasant.

Even books running hundreds of thousands of words reach your browser in a second or two

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Ron Unz has made 150 million words of books available through a new system that promises to be fast and responsive:

I’d think that the vast majority of all the serious writing ever produced exists in the form of books, yet currently there does not seem any fully satisfactory means of reading this huge accumulation of content material on the Internet.

Most of those books currently available are provided in PDF-type format, but this is inconvenient for sustained reading, especially on small-screen devices such as smartphones, and particular parts of PDFs also cannot easily be referenced elsewhere or shared. Meanwhile, closed-design Kindle-type books may not be externally linked, nor is their content generally visible to Google and other search engines. The pure HTML-type books found at Project Gutenberg and other websites either occupy inconveniently large webpages or must be split between numerous separate ones, representing chapters or sections.

Therefore, since the beginning of this year, I have been working on a project to produce a new software system aimed at avoiding these difficulties by presenting even very long books in the form of single HTML webpages, but with the individual chapters or sections hidden by default for reading convenience, but available for display at the click of a mouse. The underlying software technology represented an extension of what I had already developed for the UNZ.com website. As a consequence of my design architecture, the system is extremely fast and responsive, with even books running hundreds of thousands of words reaching your browser in just a second or two, and all subsequent operations usually being almost instantaneous. And unlike books displayed in PDF-type formats, the system should function quite well on smartphones and other mobile devices.

World War II films aren’t about World War II

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Many World War II films reveal at least as much about the times in which they are made as they do about the conflict itself:

“It’s possible that 20 years from now we’ll look back at ‘Dunkirk’ and say, ‘That movie was so 2017,’ and everyone will know exactly what that means,” said film historian Mark Harris, author of “Five Came Back,” a book about Hollywood and World War II that was also the subject of a recent Netflix documentary.

Around the beginning of the war, films served a practical purpose, rallying American solidarity behind the conflict. In 1940, Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” featured a reporter calling for action with guns and battleships in a scene of a radio broadcast: “It’s as if the lights were out everywhere except in America,” he says. Chaplin, who directed and played the lead speaking role in 1940’s “The Great Dictator” about an Adolf Hitler-like figure, delivers a final speech directly into the camera that includes the line: “Let us fight to free the world.”

During the war, filmmakers churned out movies in close to real time, going from script to screen in as few as six months, said Mr. Harris.

“Films made about World War II during the war are special because we don’t know we’re going to win,” said Thomas Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University who wrote “Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II.” “I’m always surprised when I look at World War II movies made during the war just how stern the lessons are. The guy you really like is often killed in the film.”

Soon, the anxieties of the atomic age begin to surface. “In Harm’s Way,” a 1965 film starring John Wayne as a naval officer in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, ends with a shot of the ocean that morphs into what looks like a mushroom cloud. Mixed feelings around the Vietnam War enter the picture with movies like 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen,” a subversive take on conflict told through the story of death-row convicts on a mission to kill Nazis.

Veterans of World War II and Vietnam and civilian Baby Boomers might have taken different messages from 1970’s “Patton,” at once a portrait of a victorious general and a man driven by ego and ambition. Douglas Cunningham, co-editor of “A Wiley Companion to the War Film” and a teacher of film history at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, recalled a scene where Patton slaps the helmet of a soldier suffering from shellshock. “By 1970, you would have had plenty of folks returning from Vietnam traumatized in ways that would have been familiar to some members of that audience,” he said.

In time the Holocaust became a central part of the screen version of World War II, with movies like 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice,” about an Auschwitz survivor, and Spielberg’s 1993 drama “Schindler’s List.”

Movies have furthered an idea that the Holocaust was known to most American soldiers during the war. A scene hinting at that connection occurs in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” when a Jewish soldier holds up the Star of David on his dog tag and repeats the German word for Jews—“Juden”—to captured enemy soldiers. “This is the way America sees World War II now—that it was all about the Holocaust and the Holocaust was the governing point,” said Robert Burgoyne, professor of film studies at the University of St Andrews and author of two books on U.S. history as told through the movies. “The Holocaust was not known to American culture generally. It is simply a kind of rewriting of World War II according to the contemporary generation’s perspective.”

In 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” presented the war to a new generation, starting with its harrowing opening of Allied troops storming Omaha Beach on D-Day. “In terms of stoking interest in World War II, these are the most important 20 minutes in cinema history,” said Rob Citino, senior historian at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Deep down, they really want a king or queen

Saturday, July 15th, 2017

Ross Douthat recently teased liberals that they really like Game of Thrones because, deep down, they really want a king or queen. He considers this response a strong misreading of what Martin’s story and the show are offering:

To say that Game of Thrones is attractive to liberals because of secret monarchical longings, you have to ignore…everything GoT is doing. GoT does not make being a Stark bannerman or a Daenerys retainer look fun! Those people get flayed and beheaded! GoT presents a vision of monarchy that is exaggeratedly dystopian even compared to most of the historical reality of monarchy. I think that dystopian exaggeration is in fact key to the show’s appeal to liberals in many ways. It lets you fantasize about the negation of your principles while simultaneously confirming their rightness. GoT presents a vision of a world in which illiberal instincts can be freely indulged, in which the id is constrained only by physical power. All the violent, nasty stuff liberal society (thankfully) won’t let us do, but that’s still seething in our lizard brains, gets acted out. And not just acted out — violence and brutality are the organizing principles on which the world is based.

But this is where the dystopianism comes in, because the show chides you for harboring the very fantasies it helps you gratify. It wallows in their destructive consequences — makes that wallowing, in fact, simultaneous with the fulfillment of the fantasies. Will to power leads to suffering and chaos, which lead to more opportunities for the will to power to be acted upon, etc. This is a vastly more complex and interesting emotional appeal than “people secretly want kings.” The liberal order is always being implicitly upheld by the accommodation of our base desire for its opposite. To me, this is the most interesting ongoing thing about GoT, a franchise I’m otherwise completely tired of. Everyone wants to move to Hogwarts; only a lunatic would actually want to LIVE in Westeros. In an escapist genre, that’s interesting. It’s not subliminal royalism; it’s dark escapism, an escape that ultimately tends toward reconciliation with the existing order.

And what do liberals secretly love more than an excuse to reconcile with the existing order? Westeros makes Prime Day look utopian!

It is “a very good description of what a lot of prestige television has done,” Douthat agrees, but Game of Thrones is different:

These shows [The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad] invite liberal viewers into various illiberal or pre-liberal or just, I suppose, red-state worlds, which are more violent and sexist and id-driven than polite prestige-TV-viewing liberal society, and which offer viewers the kind of escapism that Phillips describes … in which there is a temporary attraction to being a mobster or hanging out with glamorous chain-smoking ’50s admen or leaving your put-upon suburban life behind and becoming Heisenberg the drug lord. But then ultimately because these worlds are clearly wicked, dystopic or just reactionary white-male-bastions you can return in relief to the end of history, making Phillips’ “reconciliation with the existing order” after sojourning for a while in a more inegalitarian or will-to-power world.

[...]

“Game of Thrones,” however, is somewhat different. Yes, it makes the current situation in Westeros look hellish, by effectively condensing all of the horrors of a century of medieval history into a few short years of civil war. And yes, it’s much darker and bloodier and has a much higher, “wait, I thought he was a hero” body count than a lot of fantasy fiction, which lets people describe it as somehow Sopranos-esque.

But fundamentally “The Sopranos” was a story without any heroes, a tragedy in which the only moral compass (uncertain as Dr. Melfi’s arrow sometimes was) was supplied by an outsider to its main characters’ world. Whereas “Game of Thrones” is still working within the framework of its essentially romantic genre — critiquing it and complicating it, yes, but also giving us a set of heroes and heroines to root for whose destinies are set by bloodlines and prophecies, and who are likely in the end to save their world from darkness and chaos no less than Aragorn or Shea Ohmsford or Rand al’Thor.

Put another way: On “The Sopranos,” there is no right way to be a mafioso. But on “Game of Thrones” there is a right way to be a lord or king and knight, and there are characters who model the virtues of each office, who prove that chivalry and wise lordship need not be a myth. Sometimes they do so in unexpected ways — the lady knight who has more chivalry than the men who jeer at her, the dwarf who rules more justly than the family members who look down on him. But this sort of reversal is typical of the genre, which always has its hobbits and stable boys and shieldmaidens ready to surprise the proud and prejudiced. And it coexists throughout the story with an emphasis on the importance of legitimacy and noblesse oblige and dynastic continuity, which is often strikingly uncynical given the dark-and-gritty atmosphere.

Consider that the central family, the Starks, are wise rulers whose sway over the North has endured for an implausible number of generations — “there has always been a Stark in Winterfell,” etc. — and whose people seems to genuinely love them. Their patriarch is too noble for his own good but only because he leaves his native fiefdom for the corruption of the southern court, and his naivete is still presented as preferable to the cynicism of his Lannister antagonists, who win temporary victories but are on their way to destroying their dynasty through their amorality and singleminded self-interestedness.

The Joker leads a media war against Gotham’s elite

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

Marvel’s sales tanked, the Yawfle notes, when the writers decided to put ham-fisted political messages above good stories. Now it’s DC’s turn:

For Batman: White Knight, writer-illustrator Sean Murphy (The Wake, Punk Rock Jesus) created a version of Gotham with real, modern-day problems, and then let Batman solve them by making him the villain. How? In the comic mini-series’ alternate-reality, it’s the Joker — cured of his insanity — who sees that Bruce Wayne is just another part of the city’s vicious cycle of crime and sets out to stop him.

“My main goal was to undo the comic tropes while changing Gotham from a comic book city into a real city — a city dealing with everything from Black Lives Matter to the growing wage gap,” Murphy says. “[But] rather than write a comic about the wage gap, I gave those ideas to the Joker, who leads a kind of media war against Gotham’s elite by winning people over with his potent observations and rhetoric.”

I don’t think Murphy intended this to be a Rorschach test, but half his audience will probably see this new “heroic” Joker as perfectly villainous.

I attributed his craziness to the Zeitgeist

Monday, July 10th, 2017

E. Michael Jones talks about his writing mentor Bob Summers and how his behavior began to change in a dramatic way around 1970:

His actions became increasingly bizarre. He would withdraw all of his (and Joan’s) money from the bank, kidnap his son, fly to California, put himself up at expensive hotels until his money ran out, then end up back in Philadelphia after someone sent him a bus ticket. On one trip back, he got off the bus in Iowa on a hot day and had a stroke. Deprived of the ability to speak, he settled into a depression as deep as his former elation had been high. He tried to kill himself a number of times and finally succeeded. He was discovered dangling from a pipe in the basement of a house where one of his friends ran a Philadelphia version of Esalen, which is to say, a place where sensitivity sessions and sexual contact were supposed to lead to new levels of consciousness.

I used to think it was Bob’s ideas that drove him crazy. During the time I knew him, Bob had abandoned tradtional playwriting and had become a devotee of something he was calling psychodrama. I remember listening to him mention names like Moreno, Fritz Perls, and Julian Beck, whose troupe came to town and did Frankenstein, as the introduction to the concept he had for a new play. It was to be called “King of Tetch,” as in “tetched in the head,” and during the course of the play, Bob would go crazy on stage. In the end, he didn’t need a play to crazy. He as going crazy anyway.

Since Bob was a playwright, I suppose he planned make money off of the inevitable. I remember thinking it was a crazy idea at the time, but it was a time when crazy ideas were at a premium and, besides, I knew other people who were going crazy at that time too. So I attributed his craziness to the Zeitgeist, and, behind all of the other figures Bob mentioned, I attributed the ideas that drove him crazy to Wilhelm Reich, who was undergoing his New York Times documented (or promoted) revival at the time. Bob was an eastern European Jew, who shared ethnic sympathy with Reich and Reich’s project. South Street was a lot like Prague and Vienna immediately after World War I. Reich’s theories had driven Reich crazy. Why shouldn’t they have the same effect on Bob. Bob, I concluded as part of my education in the ’70s, had acted out Reich’s theories of sexual liberation and that had driven him crazy.

I still believe that. Deborah Hayden’s book Pox, however, leads me to believe that the connection between Bob Summers and Wilhelm Reich may have been more than simply ideas having consequences. Both of them, I now believe were suffering from the same disease. Both Reich and Bob Summers went crazy at the end of lives dedicated to sexual liberation. Both of them probably died of complications arising from syphilis. William Osler could have had both Bob Summers and Wilhelm Reich in mind when he described the syphilitic as manifesting “a change in character… which may astonish the friends and relatives” and warned to watch for “important indications of moral perversions manifested in offenses against decency.” Osler is talking about the final stages of syphilis, specifically paresis or general paralysis of the insane when the spirochetes which have been active all along since the period of initial infection finally succeed in destroying the brain. The most interesting aspect of the disease from a cultural point of view is the period “close to the onset of paresis,” when, in Hayden’s words, “mood shifts become more extreme as euphoria, electric excitement, bursts of creative energy, and grandiose self-reflections alternate with severe often suicidal depression. Delusions of grandeur, paranoia, exaltation, irritability, rages and irrational social behavior define the progression toward insanity. The patient may suddenly begin to gamble, go on absurd spending sprees, or imagine owning vast riches.”

Bob was around 25 years older than me. That means that he was born around 1923; that means that he was 20 years old when penicillin was invented. That means that he couldn’t have taken it as a cure until roughly four or five years later. By then, even if he had taken it, penicillin would have been too late to keep the disease from spreading to where it often did damage, namely, the brain. Because penicillin has all but eradicated the disease and most certainly has removed it as the central concern of whole cultures in the way that syphilis was at the beginning of the 20th century, the average doctor has lost his knowledge of the progression of the disease. This is a fortiori true of the man in the street. As a result, large areas of cultural history and biography are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to contemporary readers and thinkers.

Syphilis emerged into history at the birth of the modern era. It is most commonly described as having been brought back from the New World by Columbus. Hayden makes the case that Columbus, whose health never recovered after his first voyage and who heard angels speaking to him at the end, was himself infected with syphilis and died of paresis when the spirochete, the corkscrew shaped bacillus otherwise known as the pale treponema, destroyed his brain.

Tertiary neurosyphilis, he notes, is the most interesting form of the disease from a cultural point of view:

Just before the onset of paralysis, the sufferer is beset with delusions of grandeur, a sense of understanding everything, a sense that he is on the verge of some monumental discovery which will forever change the course of history, as well as a sense that some divine electricity is coursing through his veins. Since in this preliminary stage of tertiary syphilis, powers of expression are not impaired, a syphilitic who is also an artist may well produce a work of art that reflects this state of mind or, rather, this state of brain. Bob Summers felt that “King of Tetch” was just this kind of work. Wilhelm Reich felt that he had unlocked the secrets of the universe with the discovery of orgone energy, something that could now be accumulated in his orgone boxes, which would make power stations unnecessary. Hayden feels that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was composed under these circumstances, after syphilis had destroyed Beethoven’s hearing and was in the process of destroying his brain as well. “Seid umschlungen Millionen!” The grandiosity of Schiller’s poem is matched by the grandiosity of Beethoven’s musical score, which, at least in terms of the Ode to Joy chorus, is based on a moronic melody (melody was never Beethoven’s strong suit anyway), as the film Immortal Beloved makes clear. The brain of the syphilitic approaching general paralysis of the insane is like the light bulb that grows brighter just before it burns out completely. The syphilitic experiences, in Hayden’s words,

“episodes of creative euphoria, electrified, joyous energy when grandiosity led to a new vision. The heightened perception, dazzling insights, and almost mystical knowledge experienced during this time were expressed while precision of form of expression was still possible. At the end of the 19th century, it was believed that, in rare instances, syphilis could produce genius.”

During the period, preliminary to final decline,

“the syphilitic may be plagued by sensations of electric currents in the head,… and auditory hallucinations such as being serenaded by angels. This warning stage often has an explosive aspect, a sense of enormous contained energy, while the patient retains an ability to achieve the most rigorous control of expression. Syphilis is not suspected because of the extreme clarity of mind without dementia.”

In the period from 1881 to 1882, Nietzsche wrote to his friends about how “Each cloud contains some form of electric charge which suddenly takes hold of me, reducing me to utter misery.” The sense that some sort of divine electricity was running through his veins was so strong in Nietzsche’s mind that he felt that he ought to be displayed at an electricity exhibition in Paris. In August 1881 Nietzsche wrote to his friend Peter Gay that he felt like a human lightning bolt, “like a zig-zag doodle drawn on paper by a superior power wanting to try out a new pen.”

A feeling of boundless intellectual power accompanied the sense that electrical currents were flowing through his veins. On December 18, 1888 Nietzsche wrote to Carl Fuchs explaining that

“Never before have I known anything remotely like these months from the beginning of September until now. The most amazing tasks are as easy as a game; my health, like the weather, coming up every day with boundless brilliance and certainty. I cannot tell you how much has been finished-everything. The world will be standing on its head for the next few years: since the Old God has abdicated, I shall rule the world from now on.”

The onset of the tertiary syphilis or dementia paralytica in Nietzsche’s life is dated from January 3, 1889, when, upset at seeing a horse beaten in Turin, Italy, Nietzsche embraced the horse’s neck and collapsed into madness. His writing days over, Nietzsche spent the next 11 years of his life, up until his death in 1900, under medical care, in and out of asylums for the insane. All of his most significant writings, including those in which Christ was deposed and Dionysos/Zarathustra/Nietzsche put in his place, took place in the period of creative euphoria that lasted from 1881 to 1889, when he felt the divine electricity that is the sure sign of the onset of paresis coursing through his veins.

“I am one of those machines that could explode… Each time I had wept too much the previous day while I was walking, and not tears of sentimentality but jubilation. I sang and talked nonsense, possessed by a new attitude. I am the first man to arrive at it.”

The literary history of modern Europe, but most especially that of the 19th century, is littered with unacknowledged evidence of syphilis. The most famous example is Dracula. I am, as far as I know, the first one to argue that Dracula is about syphilis. Bram Stoker died of syphilis, something which his grandson acknowledges in at the end of his biography almost as an afterthought, as if it had no connection to Stoker’s work in general and his classic Dracula in particular. I make the argument in the second part of Monsters from the Id, my book on horror.

[...]

Hayden gives some explanation of why the suppression of syphilis happens so frequently in biography. Biographies — and Reich’s case is no exception in this regard — are generally written by devotees, people who are inspired by the subject’s work. If the work is a function of syphilis, the devotee has based his life on an illusion. “The reluctance to attribute a shameful disease like syphilis to a great person,” is understandable according to Hayden, because of “the danger that the work will in some way be linked to the disease,” and as a result “an oeuvre” would be “tainted and denigrated.” Fears like this “contribute to sparse references to syphilis” in biographies. Add to that the general ignorance about a disease no longer as threatening as it used to be and you end up with large biographical lacunae. Claude McKay, author of Home to Harlem and initiator of the Harlem Renaissance, contracted syphilis in Berlin in the early ’20s, but his biographer missed that fact, even though McKay wrote poems about it. There is no indication that the syphilis proceeded to McKay’s brain; however, the thought that it jeopardized his work is never far away.

Nietzsche is a good case proving the same point. For some inexplicable reason, there is still controversy over whether Nietzsche had syphilis, in spite of an unmistakable symptomology and accounts from people like his friend Peter Gast, who claimed that Nietzsche told him that he deliberately infected himself with syphilis by having sex with a prostitute. The reluctance to accept the fact is a reflexive defense of the ideas that Nietzsche promoted. Those who see Nietzsche as the prophet of man’s emancipation from a tyrannical God are not going to be receptive to Stoker’s idea that the delusions of grandeur necessary to any theory of rebellious atheism are really just a sign that the onset of paresis is near. Were Nietzsche’s ideas on the will and its relationship to the intellect the logical consequence of the Reformation’s denigration of reason? Perhaps. But the ideas were pushed into the form Nietzsche gave them by the grandiosity which neurosyphilis’ attack on the brain engendered in the mind.

If Nietzsche’s defenders can stall a case as obvious as his in the court of literary and historical opinion, imagine the uproar that would be generated by claiming 1) that Abraham Lincoln had syphilis and 2) that the disease affected his conduct of the Civil War. Hayden claims that Lincoln contracted syphilis as a young man and that he infected his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, causing the insanity that plagued her at the end of her life. Does that mean that the sacred cause of the Union was a function of tertiary syphilis?

[...]

Not surprisingly, the best test case for Hayden’s theory that syphilis changed the course of history is Adolf Hitler. The best indication that Hitler had syphilis is his own writing, namely, Mein Kampf.

[...]

If the internal evidence of an autobiographical text has any significance, then the obsessions which get expressed in Mein Kampf give a clear indication that Hitler had syphilis, that he probably contracted it from a Jewish prostitute, and that he extrapolated from that experience a theory of race hatred that would, in Hayden’s terms, change the course of history.

[...]

The story died, in other words, not so much because there was no evidence to support the theory, but because it would have been inconvenient to the two groups which were most interested in Hitler research: the Nazis and the Anti-Nazis. The Old Nazis, according to Wiesenthal, “bridled at the image of a syphilitic paranoiac as the greatest leader of all time” because “this would have besmirched their idol.” But the Anti-Nazis were just as opposed to the same sort of investigation because they were “afraid that an enormously complex pattern of events might suddenly be reduced to the pathological degeneration of a single individual instead of being seen as the sickness of a whole society.” Wiesenthal concludes by saying that he “can see no other reason why the question of whether or not Hitler had syphilis has received so little attention from serious historical researchers.”

The Yawfle stares and stares

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

The Yawfle stares, and stares, and stares — and aims to provide you, the discriminating and judgmental reader, with all the tech news you could possibly use:

But that’s not enough! We also provide this coverage without the cringe-worthy SJW stylings found on brand X tech news sites.

yawfle-utter-zoo-edward-gorey

Here at The Yawfle you can read about the latest software, superhero movies, and space launches and not be subjected to laborious discussion of the minority composition of the teams writing the software, making the movies, or launching the rockets. Here you can see an article about how we might not be about to all drown from rising sea levels by next Tuesday but rather, thoughtful pieces on how computer models actually work.

Disney’s biggest business is cable TV, for now

Friday, July 7th, 2017

Disney’s biggest business is cable TV, and kids are tuning out:

The troubles are twofold: a lack of hits and the broader move by audiences away from traditional television to digital alternatives. The shift to streaming services such Netflix Inc. and web-based platforms like Google’s YouTube is particularly pronounced among younger viewers targeted by these Disney networks.

[...]

Disney Channel programming is focused on children, while Freeform, which changed its name from ABC Family in January of 2016, is aimed at teenagers and young adults.

Cable TV has long been Disney’s biggest business, accounting for 30% of its revenue and 43% of profits last fiscal year. About 26% of cable revenue and profits come from entertainment networks like Disney Channel and Freeform, Morgan Stanley estimates, while the rest is generated by ESPN. (Disney doesn’t disclose the breakdown).

[...]

Also at stake for Disney is the exposure its TV channels offer for toys, clothes and other products that the company relies on for hundreds of millions of dollars annually in revenue.

As consumers “cut the cord,” Disney’s once fast-growing cable business has slowed down. Cable revenue is flat and operating income down 6% in the first half of the current fiscal year, which has alarmed Wall Street.

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger has said that strengthening online accessibility for television programs is a priority and that the company is preparing to offer its channels, in part or whole, directly to consumers online rather than just through costly cable packages.

[...]

For the first six months of this year, the commercial-free Disney Channel’s ratings among in its core 2-11 and 6-14 demographics fell 23% in prime time and 13% and 18%, respectively, during the full day, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen. Ratings are also down at the smaller Disney Jr. and Disney XD networks, which fall under Mr. Marsh’s Disney Channel umbrella.

Have parents caught on to how Disney’s “family friendly” programming consists largely of bullying followed by laughter?

If you want to learn about Korea, you should read this

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

Colin Marshall went looking for a book that could teach him something more about Korean culture, but all the Korean books at the used bookstore — this was in Los Angeles — were just Korean translations of Western literature. His Korean language exchange partner handed him a Korean-language edition of Hermann Hesse’s Demian. “If you want to learn about Korea, you should read this.”

Writing in the Korea Times, a college student by the name of Shin Seul-ki importunes the reader to “follow your heart,” opening with a “thought-provoking passage” from Demian, in fact the novel’s own opening sentences: “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” She answers that question with an accusatory finger pointed toward the Korean education system, which “requires students to spend nearly every waking hour figuring out not what they want to do but just studying for their college entrance exam. School doesn’t offer students a chance to find their true calling. School just pushes them into an ‘education arms race’ before finding their vision. Students study something hard for their bright future; however, paradoxically they don’t know what makes their futures brilliant.”

Korean education — along with Korean social hierarchies, Korean corporate culture, the Korean political sphere, and so on — has certainly stifled more than a few true selves, but under Shin’s argument lies a common Korean misperception: that Westerners somehow have the whole calling, vision, and future thing figured out, having long since cast off mere “routine” in favor of genuine “life.” She ends her article with a reference to Steve Jobs, the subject of a national obsession due to his vivid embodiment of the very creativity, nonconformism, effectiveness, and sheer wealth many Koreans still see their country as lacking. Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs must not rank far below Demian (maybe somewhere near the strange, much-abridged localization of the Talmud) as a holy Western text to which Koreans, frustrated and frightened by their lives for reasons they can’t quite pin down, have flocked for answers.

In response to a Quora thread entitled “What’s the deal with South Koreans and Herman Hesse?”, a longtime Korea-resident Westerner named Gord Sellar describes the novel as “about someone who (transgressively, but in a way celebrated by the novel) moves beyond the world of appearances towards the world of the self,” touching on the theme of people who bear a “Mark of Cain’ that prevents their fulfillment “by ‘normal’ social interactions.” And “for those having grown up in South Korea — a place where appearance and form are often conventionally prioritized over essence or content — this particular theme probably has a special appeal.” As does the kind of 19th-century European setting with “parents objecting to love marriages or forbidding relationships or marriages, women seeking out husbands on the basis of their career potential or income, and people (often women) ending up in desperate trouble or in penury because of a cruel parent or a tragic family accident.”

Any story of “old Europe struggling with modernity” will resonate with a Korea doing plenty of modernity-grappling of its own. Demian in particular, Sellar writes, also taps inadvertently into the particular Korean storytelling sensibility: “They are much more enamored of sad endings, and they tend to be much more patient with stories that unfold in such a way that the protagonists never had a real hope of changing the outcome.” This has introduced certain difficulties into the marketing of Korean literature to Westerners, who “have little patience for stories that feature characters who can’t take some hand in their fate” and “tend to be less patient with melodramatically sad turns of plot,” but it means certain strains of anguish-oriented German fiction, best exemplified by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (from the object of whose unrequited passion one of Korea’s biggest conglomerates took its name), have grown popular indeed here.

There was no plan

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

“The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan.” Actually, no, the Cylons never had a plan, Ronald D. Moore recently admitted:

Moore said this was, essentially, just something co-executive producer David Eick thought sounded cool, that audiences would love and that they could figure out later. They never did and, said Moore, “For the next 14 years of my life people have asked me ‘What was the plan?’” In short, “There was no… plan.”

Could a minister of bread do even half as well?

Sunday, June 4th, 2017

I just got around to watching It’s a wonderful loaf:

If you look down upon a city with the widest bird’s eye view
You might wonder how it functions, who takes care of me and you?
Who makes sure there’s food for vegans, and for carnivores as well?
It seems like there’s a wizard who has cast a magic spell

Just think of one small part — who makes sure there’s so much bread?
You want rye, she wants ciabatta, or make it sourdough instead
A baguette or a croissant, it doesn’t matter, don’t you see
You get yours and she gets hers, and I get mine, how can that be?

One’s buying a dozen bagels to grace an impromptu brunch
One’s using food stamps for a simple loaf to make her children lunch
No matter the amount we require, no matter the choices we make
An army of workers has mobilized to fashion the bread we partake

The farmer who grows the wheat, the miller that grinds the flour
The baker and all the others who work hour after hour
They’re all on their own, each one making independent decisions
But somehow their plans fit together with the greatest degree of precision

So there must be a czar of wheat and flour, of trucks and of bread and yeast
To allocate and oversee and plan at the very least
For the unexpected change. What if today’s not like yesterday?
It never is, though, is it? So who keeps chaos away?

Because there’s order all around us — things look as if they’re planned
Like the supply of bread in a city — enough to match up with demand
And though flour is used for more than just bread, we never have to fight
Over where it goes and who gets what. So why do we sleep so well at night

Knowing nobody’s in charge, it looks like all is left to chance
Yet in New York, or London as well as Paris, France
No one’s worried the shelves will be empty, we take supply for granted
But it’s a marvel, it’s a miracle, the world’s somehow enchanted

Of course the result’s never perfect, but the system’s organic, alive
Over time fewer people go hungry and more and more bread-lovers thrive
And if you’re allergic to gluten, there are sellers who work for you, too
Your choices expand and what you demand is created and waiting for you

I have my tastes and you have yours, we each have our own urges
Yet somehow there’s no conflict, a harmony emerges
Our dreams can fit together like a quilt that someone weaves us
But there isn’t a weaver of dreams, reality deceives us

And here’s the crazy thing, if someone really were in charge
To make sure that bread was plentiful, with the power to enlarge
The supply of flour, yeast and of bakers and ovens, too
Would that person with that power have any idea of what to do?

Could a minister of bread do even half as well?
Would there be enough of every kind of bread upon the shelves?
How could he know how much to make of each kind every day?
There’d be shortages and surpluses and waste and much dismay

You might think the job is easy — if the top seller’s rye
Then for every variety push production up that high
Then no one’s disappointed, bread eaters will rejoice
When they see that every bakery is filled with so much choice

Bread eaters, yes, but “Help!” the forgotten pizza lover cries
All the flour’s gone to baking bread there’s none left for the pies
Of pepperoni, deep dish, thin-crust and Sicilian
You’ve solved the bread challenge, yes, but created another million

Problems. No problem! We’ll just grow lots more wheat
But that means less of something else that people like to eat

Which only makes the puzzle of the harmony around us
Much more puzzling — this order, this peace has to astound us
So many things we count on, yet no one’s behind the curtain
No wizard, no controls, yet the supply of stuff — near certain

Every morning the bakers rise early to make sure your bread is fresh
And the world gets more complicated but the plans just continue to mesh
Every morning the bakers rise early, though not under anyone’s command
Where in the anatomy textbooks can I view an invisible hand?

The key to the process is prices and the freedom to shop where you want
Competition among all the bakers, makes sure that they rise before dawn
To make sure the bread’s near perfection, to make sure that the buyer’s content
You don’t have to know economics to know when your money’s well-spent

We know there’s order built into the fabric of the world
Of nature. Flocks of geese! Schools of fish! And every boy and girl
Delights in how the stars shine down in all their constellations
And the planets stay on track and keep the most sublime relations

With each other. Order’s everywhere. Yet we humans too create it
It emerges. No one intends it. No one has to orchestrate it.
It’s the product of our actions but no single mind’s designed it
There’s magic without wizards if you just know how to find it

Accelerationism is a political heresy

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

Andy Beckett introduces Guardian readers to the “fringe” philosophy of Accelerationism:

Half a century ago, in the great hippie year of 1967, an acclaimed young American science fiction writer, Roger Zelazny, published his third novel. In many ways, Lord of Light was of its time, shaggy with imported Hindu mythology and cosmic dialogue. Yet there were also glints of something more forward-looking and political. One plot strand concerned a group of revolutionaries who wanted to take their society “to a higher level” by suddenly transforming its attitude to technology. Zelazny called them the Accelerationists.

He and the book are largely forgotten now. But as the more enduring sci-fi novelist JG Ballard said in 1971, “what the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow”. Over the past five decades, and especially over the past few years, much of the world has got faster. Working patterns, political cycles, everyday technologies, communication habits and devices, the redevelopment of cities, the acquisition and disposal of possessions – all of these have accelerated. Meanwhile, over the same half century, almost entirely unnoticed by the media or mainstream academia, accelerationism has gradually solidified from a fictional device into an actual intellectual movement: a new way of thinking about the contemporary world and its potential.

In 1979 it was announced that Lord of Light would be made into a 50 million dollar film — back when $50 million was a lot of money:

It was planned that the sets for the movie would be made permanent and become the core of a science fiction theme park to be built in Aurora, Colorado. Famed comic-book artist Jack Kirby was even contracted to produce artwork for set design. However, due to legal problems the project was never completed.

Parts of the unmade film project — the script and Kirby’s set designs — were subsequently acquired by the CIA as cover for the “Canadian Caper“: the exfiltration of six US diplomatic staff trapped by the Iranian hostage crisis (in Tehran but outside the embassy compound). The rescue team pretended to be scouting a location in Iran for shooting a Hollywood film from the script, which they had renamed Argo.

The protagonist of Lord of Light is a renegade pseudo-god, who believes the technology of the god-like elite should be shared with the unenlightened masses and introduces Buddhism as a “culture jamming” tool against the established powers.

According to Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, who wrote “the only proper guide to the movement in existence,” #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, describe Accelerationism as a political heresy:

Accelerationism is the name of a contemporary political heresy: the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, critique, or détourne it, but to accelerate and exacerbate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.

#Accelerate presents a genealogy of accelerationism, tracking the impulse through 90s UK darkside cyberculture and the theory-fictions of Nick Land, Sadie Plant, Iain Grant, and CCRU, across the cultural underground of the 80s (rave, acid house, SF cinema) and back to its sources in delirious post-68 ferment, in texts whose searing nihilistic jouissance would later be disavowed by their authors and the marxist and academic establishment alike.