Paranoia in Astoria


I’m walking down a dimly lit hallway. The carpet looks like bad art viewed through a kaleidoscope in a 1970s color scheme of various dark oranges accented by black. There is also a vague hint of flowers–orchids perhaps–that interrupt the orange swirls passing beneath my feet. The choice of carpeting, although repulsive, was likely born out of a desire to eschew any appearance of trying to match current interior decoration trends; like a New Yorker wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, but a far more violent and auspicious sample. The entire building is shrouded in similar fabric which, in not matching, actually creates a cohesive palette. Uniformity in contrived chaos. This makes sense, as the hallway down which I am walking is in a hotel, and at any moment any piece of furniture or upholstery could be damaged beyond repair, requiring sudden replacement. Rather than hunting down a perfect match, a suitable replacement is likely at hand in any nearby furniture store, and will be for the life of the hotel.

There is a deep and invasive BUZZ which permeates the air of the hallway. Although the parking lot is nearly full, I get the sense that the dozens of identical doors which are stretched before me are cold to the touch, bearing no life behind them; the three floors below me the same, empty yet filled with a palpable BUZZ, which now seems to be increasing in volume faster even than I am walking, ruling out the Doppler effect. It possesses enough insidious threat that I begin to imagine myself the unwitting protagonist in the beginning of a horror movie–the one who doesn’t understand the magnitude of evil which will fill the following 85 minutes of film – the first to die. The BUZZ being merely representative of the unseen threat, an aural clue added for the benefit of the audience to communicate that something, something, is coming. It accelerates to the point that I feel as if sleepy faces should start poking their heads out of the doors, wondering what is going on while rubbing their eyes.

POP! Click. Vroooom–the elevator engages and terminates the BUZZ, the relief of which is suddenly overshadowed by the imminent threat of the other, the thing represented by the BUZZ. I feel a slight hesitation in my step when suddenly I realize that I am making my way towards the vending machines in a Holiday Inn Expresshotel in Astoria, Oregon, and there is not going to be a murder here tonight. I arrive at the machines, filled to half-capacity, emitting their own, lower frequency HUM which is soothing after my near-death episode inspired by the accelerating BUZZ and its sudden stop. I am jolted from thought again as the elevator door opens one floor below. Perhaps I tricked it, I think, referring to the unseen threat which turned my midnight craving for potato chips into a Stephen King novel.

I return to my room, snack in hand, victorious yet humbled, as the simple errand served to emasculate me to the point of jumping at the sound of an elevator door. I think about my hotel, a Holiday Inn Express. Upon arrival I noted that it sits snugly beneath the Astoria-Megler bridge, one of the most iconic landmarks of the small city. How long has this been here? Were the residents upset about its construction? Do they have reason to be?

I fancy myself a student of the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who touted authenticity as a highly desirable goal or state of being. I see Astoria as an authentic city. It is comfortable with itself, bears a unique identity in the world, and is just plain charming. Not in the way a barbecue restaurant tries to be by hanging cowboy hats on the walls, but in a “the stores never seem to be open” kind of way. Their mysterious closing time isn’t an inconvenience either, since all they sell is home-made crafty knick-knacks, and I don’t need a candle holder made from part of bicycle frame. So wouldn’t this Holiday Inn Express, a national chain hotel, be a blemish on the city? Sure, every town has a McDonald’s restaurant, but they usually aren’t parked directly underneath the city’s most recognizable landmark.

I ponder this for a moment. Perhaps the suits (business casuals?) who run Holiday Inn should have considered more subtle branding than a fluorescent green sign bearing a revamped version of the familiar brand name. Or maybe they should have even adopted a pseudonym to be used locally, to pacify the rage which was surely bubbling in the hearts of long-time city folk. But wait, would not that be even less authentic than the hotel chain simply erecting yet another iteration of their well-known brand? It may be boring but it would be what it is. Standing across from the plush but crusty Victorian houses leftover from the boom years is this monolithic box of undecipherable architectural vomit, proudly sprawling its parking lot outward, advertising its nearness to the quaint shops and stores which choke in its shadow. Or do they?

The hotel seems busy enough. Cars filled the parking lot. Are the recently restored boutique hotels bearing historical plaques and protection sitting empty? Or were they insufficient before big Holiday moved in to pick up the slack? Perhaps the knick-knack stores are experiencing increased foot traffic and higher sales of their useless shit? This would please me as I like looking but feel guilty as I never buy anything. Yes, I am part of the problem, as I mentioned before I am a paying patron of this behemoth chain hotel, as poor planning led me to stumble in without a reservation after discovering that I had not ticked my personal to-do reading “Get hotel–Astoria” before arriving in the city in darkness. I didn’t have time to peruse the web for the poorly designed websites of local historic hotels, as my companion was dozing off in one of the lobby chairs.

A search would have been fruitful as Astoria has many such establishments, and nearly all of them sound delightful. A cafe in the lobby, original moldings – these all can be found here if one puts in a small amount of effort. I pondered this while sitting in my room on the upper floo,floor; looking out over the knick-knack shops I was either killing or supporting. I was experiencing some regret until I read that the hotel I had my eye on had “European-style” rooms that share two toilets and showers at the end of the hall. I have been to Europe and don’t remember experiencing this kind of inconvenience, so I imagine by “European” they meant “Dickensian” as I don’t think even Oliver Twist had to put up with sharing a shower with a stranger on vacation while paying $120 a night.

My charming fantasy was killed, and I was left sitting in my chain-hotel eating my greasy potato chips and listening to the new BUZZ which began emitting from my heater unit. This paired well with the pops from the back of the mini-fridge, which sounded like a tiny bongo drummer trapped inside. I am just as bad as any other patron of this hotel, I thought; flocking toward the brand-name like the many moths at the lamp outside my window.

My pseudo-ideals in tatters, I resigned myself to bed, where I listened to the loud sound of large trucks passing on the bridge overhead, which to me seemed to represent an unseen threat, an aural clue added for the benefit of the audience to communicate that something, something, is coming.


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Arbitrary Value Assignment

Today I would like to write about arbitrary value assignment and how it relates to adoption or rejection of technology and culture.

When I say technology I am not merely talking about iPads, apps and laptops; but all objects which have been developed in conjunction with application of knowledge of scientific principles. In other words, a broader definition.

First, lets talk about physical books. Printed, bound and inky books. These were developed through application of science and technology. Compared to an eReader they look downright shabby – possessing no batteries, LCD screen or even speakers. They are technology, however, and thus can be compared directly to an eReader in the same paradigm.

It is important to note that the word “book” simultaneously (and I would argue equally) describes both a physical bound and printed written work and the contents thereof. A good example is the books of the Bible. We are well aware that they are separate, individual works despite being bound together, and so we retain the designation, rather than lumping them all together. The medium is not the message. If the text of Moby Dick were written on a giant cave wall in charcoal, would people still call it a book? I think so. Regardless what people call it, would it be any less profound, thrilling or educational? Of course not.

“Stop!” a critic might exclaim, “the tedium of reading off a cave wall would distract the reader, and thus might make the story less effective!” That would be an astute observation, and it leads me to my first point. A medium or any “thing” for that matter, should be judged according to its merits, and not upon arbitrary value assignments.

How this applies to books is that many individuals feel it is important to champion paper books over eReaders beyond a pro/con analysis. They take the argument into a realm of ethereal ideas of quality based upon something, something that makes paper books more… well just better. That something is an arbitrary value assignment.

What is a value assignment, and what makes one arbitrary? A value assignment is labeling something as “good” or “bad.” This can be meant in a moralistic sense or a simply practical one, with “bad” being informally substituted in the place of “unsatisfactory.” People do this by collecting evidence and then making a decision. If evidence is not taken into account, then that judgement is arbitrary, or baseless. Assuming one wants to live a life guided by rational decisions (many don’t mind omitting logic from the source of their beliefs, hence the designation) then arbitrary value assignments are… well, bad.

How does this relate to technology and culture adoption? People commonly assign arbitrary value when evaluating new things. In my observation, the most common way this is accomplished is to view old or previously established things, ways of behaving, doing, etc, as better than the new way, thing, or idea. To put it differently, people are used to the way things have been, and thus push against the new. This is not a unique idea I am presenting here, but I do feel it is an original spin on what has previously been said. What I want to point out, however, is that this behavior, of automatically judging things in one lump established=good/unproven=bad is not rational, as it could prevent people from obtaining potential benefit.

People often scoff at new ideas only because they are new. Not because they have evaluated and judged them, but because they are unfamiliar. Sometimes people believe they are making a rational judgement, when in fact they are merely filtering ideas through their previous understanding of the thing. A good example is the argument of whether children should be given cell phones. Younger and younger children are being given cell phones because of decrease in prices for basic calling plans and the phones themselves. The parents do this for added child safety. Many people deride the parents of these children, like they are somehow soiling their youth because… well… um… it just seems like kids shouldn’t have cell phones. Kids didn’t use to have cell phones (actually no-one did, but that is beside the point), so why do they suddenly need them now? Despite the obvious flaw in this argument (we didn’t previously have antibiotics either) people defer to it in a vain attempt to express what they are feeling. It is my argument that the disdain they feel for this possibility of kids having cell phones is not based upon logic or reasoning, but simply because previously kids just didn’t have them, so that just seems right. 

It seems like kids should be reared having to call from a landline, memorizing phone numbers while being careful to plan departure and arrival times so as not to worry parents. But that is only because it is the way that adults today had to do it when they were young. Sure, certain skills may have been learned by doing it that way, but those specific skills, if not taught through the new way of owning a cell phone, probably aren’t needed anymore.

For instance, I can only imagine what kind of skills are developed through computer programming on punchcards. Make sure you don’t make a mistake because once those holes are in the paper, they will remain! However, that isn’t how computers are programmed anymore. So while there were probably a few graduating computer scientists who learned the punchcard method while their college updated the curriculum, the industry quickly moved on, forgetting the outdated method. There were, no doubt, old curmudgeonly programmers who scoffed at the new young programmers who hadn’t even seen a punchcard. They must have judged them as lacking an integral skill or important experience that, although unquantifiable, must be important because it was experienced by someone. 

It is this appeal to feeling that I believe is absolutely useless. If one is unable to articulate why something should or shouldn’t be used/adopted/completed/etc and are relying on a sort of instinctual gut feeling, it is likely that the underlying reasoning is based upon an irrational line of reasoning. This is not to be confused with split decision making and fight or flight response, wherein a person makes a “gut” decision and acts quickly.

It is important to identify our own internal reference material. In academic studies one is required to verify sources of information to ensure validity. So too should individuals when making decisions, since it is absolutely possible that the seed of any one particular bit of information began as a half-formed thought, based in bias or misinformation. To use a historical example, designers of the RMS Titanic believed the design to be unsinkable. They based other decisions, such as how many lifeboats to place on the ship, upon this flawed premise. How many other decisions were poisoned by the faulty reasoning on this principal portion of the design?

Again, I feel that one of the most common elemental erroneous judgements is that things that have been around for a while are better than those that are new. It is common to look back at past decades as simpler, happier times. Who hasn’t gazed at a 1950s marketing image for Coca-Cola and thought “It sure would have been nice to live back then”? What many fail to remember is that at this time blacks were marginalized in the United States to a significantly greater degree than today, as were women discriminated against in the workplace, while various diseases remained yet uncured. You won’t see that intentionally in an ad for dyed and carbonated sugar water.

In summation, it is important that we don’t confuse feelings of comfort with perceived merit. It is irrational to make value assignments based purely upon how established something already is. People should study their preconceived notions, and judge all incoming data upon valid information, and not merely an inclination or feeling.

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Filed under Books, Opinion, Random, Rant, Tech

The Solace Found in Dealing with Reality

Lately I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it last summer and I am thinking that I would like to read it every summer, or at least until I grow tired of it.

I have been pondering one passage in particular, which says, “A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of rationality itself.” Within this single declaration lies an entire nest of truths relating to life, happiness and logic.

The successful operation of a motorcycle is contingent upon cause and effect relationships. If the needs of the motorcycle are ignored, it will fail. Take the tires of the motorcycle, for instance. You can reasonably expect that if you keep them at the correct pressure, only use them while they have adequate tread, ensure they were properly installed, and use them on roads clear of debris such as glass or nails, that they will work the way they are supposed to. The tires do not think. They do not decide to fail or decide to work properly. They have no intent to punish their user or help them. This is a harsh truth, as people don’t like to acknowledge that the reason their car, computer, body, or career is not behaving the way they would like it to is not without potential explanation. It did not just happen.

Things fall apart if not maintained. This is an expression of entropy, which, in simple terms, is the inclination for things to deteriorate into disorder. This may on the surface seem unsettling, but in fact there is solace to be found within this universal law. It is predictable. If you are aware of something happening, you can prepare for its repercussions; expect them.

This is in contrast to exercising superstition. Believing that you are simply unlucky—that someone or something chose you to experience a flat tire as a trial or learning experience can lead to anxiety. Why were you chosen, not another? This leads to extreme apprehension, with the threat of yet another trial, seemingly dealt at random, being thrown your way.

If one understands, however, the cause and effect relationships at play, then a person may rest at ease completely aware of how much of their destiny is (or isn’t) in their own hands. Those who understand and can maintain computers understand that humans—not the computers themselves, are responsible for most computer related problems. Sometimes the problem stems from the user deleting a file vital to the computer’s operation. Other times the problem arises because the programmer left a mistake in the software code, leading to a hiccup in the computer’s processes. Never do computers spontaneously “decide” to quit working, only to spite their user in a fit of rage.

Humans have a great advantage in that we created computers, and thus understand them. Can you imagine if no-one fully understood them? What if they had been around since human history began? I imagine that then people may resort to superstition. In the event of a problem they may leave offerings in front of the computer, or mumble incantations to try and please the device in order for it to work correctly. Little would they know that the operation they are trying to run requires more random access memory or scratch disk allocation. This may sound silly, yet people resort to the same kind of thing despite our having created the computers ourselves, as a species. They believe that the device acts irrational, deciding to work one day and not the next. People do this with everything we don’t fully understand, be it incurable disease, death, or others.

So it goes with other aspects of human life. When large, life changing events occur, people are quick to assign superstitious origin to them. Deaths, unwanted pregnancy, tragic accidents, financial troubles: all of these are often attributed to some greater meaning or plan, divvied out by some greater force, be it a god, karma, or cosmic ethereal ness which governs human interaction. In reality, the source of all of these is quite traceable through cause and effect relationships. If people are honest with themselves they know exactly why these events occurred, be it a reckless lifestyle, poor planning, or failure to maintain some aspect of life. Even a car crash, which seems to happen at random, is a quite reasonably foreseeable result of traveling at high speed near others traveling at high speed in the opposite direction. It is easier to blame another when things like this happen, and perhaps even easier to assume that it is for a greater purpose. But what about the small things? Have you ever heard of someone blaming their god for a stubbed toe? It seems ridiculous, but where is the line drawn? Is there a threshold above which gods and luck begin intervening?

Rather than offer solace, this system of seemingly arbitrary intervention can lead to stress and anxiety. If a person believes that their computer could fail at any moment for no reason, they will not trust the device, and the benefit it could offer them would be severely limited. The inverse is true as well. If someone believes that good things only come when bestowed by a cosmic force, they may fail to act, waiting for the lottery of life to deal them a better card, failing to acknowledge the true source of their boon.

Again, there is solace to be found in understanding cause and effect relationships and acknowledging the role they play in our lives, eschewing illogical superstition. To ignore these relationships is to be deluded (a form of madness), and live in a world where everything is arbitrary. Humans may not have control over all the variables that affect them every day, but they can acknowledge their true source. If they do this then they, like a motorcycle, will operate entirely in accordance with the laws of reason.

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Many years ago, John Lennon was murdered in New York City. I appreciate his message and his music, and after thinking about the lyrics that he wrote, I recorded myself playing one of his songs. I did this yesterday, which was the 30th anniversary of his death.

If you would like, you can download it here.

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Big Band Theory: Part II

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about what happens when a band becomes popular. You can read the full post here, but what I basically said in a long diatribe was that their music suffers when more money becomes involved. I didn’t necessarily blame artists for accepting their ticket to cash city, but I did try to distinguish that ceasing to like a band once they hit the big-time can be initiated for reasons other than trying to be cool. I would like to drive the point home with something I observed recently.

I was browsing Vimeo today and came across a video which I would like to share.

Owl City “To The Sky” from Endeavor Media Group on Vimeo.

At this link you can find Adam Young, or Owl City, singing a song about flight, wings, and adventure while clips from a movie about owls, flight, wings and adventure play. This song is on the soundtrack for said movie. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened behind the scenes, though I am going to spell it out. First, I would like to present a small snippet from my last post:
“Yes, they are still the same band–in a way. When a band gets signed to a big label, they are required to do things that even they may object to. For instance, they may be required to allow their song to be featured on a blockbuster movie, or even write a song specifically for it (see Jack’s Mannequin, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday). Such a song will usually include lame lyrics contrived to somehow vaguely mention the plot or theme of the movie. When you hear the voice of your memories advertising the latest blockbuster, you can’t help but feel like the memories you created while listening to that music are cheapened a little.”

Sound familiar? Owl City was mentioned in my last post for changing his stage show to make it more marketable and exciting, holding a guitar instead of working a synth. The reason for this post is that I could not help but point out fulfillment of my prophecy as his market presence has grown.
Here is how I imagine the scenario played out; I have written it to be performed on stage:

(Three men sit at a large table in dark suits. A faint skyline is visible behind them out a large ornate window, illustrating their wealth)
Man #1: Well who can we get for the soundtrack? No-one will buy the actual music used in the movie. We need pop and we need it now! (Slams fist on table, takes a large gulp from a whisky glass)
Man #2: How about Owl City? His non-offensive synth-backed crooning is perfect for our target audience, plus the name has ‘owl’ in it. It’s perfect!
(The lights fade stage left, and stage right is illuminated where Adam Young sits, hunched over a table reading a large paper. A man in a suit stands behind him)
Suit: Buzz from last summer’s album is fading, and you need a hit! The fans on your tour with John Mayer weren’t as impressed with ‘Fireflies’ as they used to be!
Adam Young: But do I really have to make it so obvious I wrote the song for the movie? Aren’t all my other songs upbeat enough to include in the soundtrack?
(The lights fade as Owl City song ‘Record Contract Woes’ is played by the orchestra made up of 15 musicians all on Moog synthesizers set to ‘strings’.)

I don’t think that Adam Young is to blame. He has to make a buck just like everyone else. He also has to stay in the public eye because who knows how long his shelf life will be. I will say, however that his new song is not art, meaning not created for the sake of creation and expression. It is not the same as the songs he released before. I do not appreciate his new song. I’m sure he doesn’t mind. However, if he alienates his entire fan base by ceasing to write songs for self-expression, I bet he would start to mind when they stop buying his music.
I use the term ‘art’ loosely here. I bet some would argue that it isn’t real art anyways, so who cares. To these people I reply that it may not be fine or high art, but still fundamentally differentiated from his previous works in quality level. This is sufficient cause for someone to be justified in claiming that they don’t like his new song, while still enjoying previous songs. In addition, future songs may now be compromised, as it has been seen that the songs are now viewed by him as a commodity to be sold. Yes, songs have always sold, but there has always been a difference between those written to that end, and those created as art.

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The Payoff is a Lie

Maceration of Money

Creative Commons George Eastman House Photography Collection

Lately I have been thinking about why people do the things they do. Why do they sweep off the porch (or why not)? Why do they make sure that both shoelaces are the same length? Why do they go to college? I would guess that most people don’t really have answers to these questions. Sure, most could provide a quick answer, but would it stand up against questioning?

Let’s take the college question for example. Many students would say “To get a good job.” This is fair enough, but the word “good” requires definition. It is often used synonymously with “lucrative” or “well-paying.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Do these students like to acquire stuff like wave-runners and big houses with pretty furniture? Or do they want to make sure that their own Tiny Tim always gets the surgery instead of crutches? Is that why they need a good job? Never mind the fact that ideally college would be attended to stamp out personal ignorance like a flaming lunch bag left on a door step. It just seems like something one should do. If their goal is to acquire the wave-runners and house, it is likely they are on the right track. If they are seeking personal well-being, however, they may be kidding themselves.

I would like to declare one thing; there is no payoff. There is no reckoning in the sense that one day someone will come up and shake their hands and say “Congratulations, you passed life! Enjoy the rest of your stay here on Earth.” Most everything in the world is subjective. I learned this in Alaska. I would judge people who lived in a small self-built cabin, living off caught fish and personally cutting wood for warmth as poor or unsuccessful. Many of these people were unlearned in the academic sense, but once again, who decided that recognizing a reference to Kafka was essential to a well-lived life?

It may be the opposite, in fact. The quest for personal success can be detrimental to search for well-being. If someone earns a lot of money, it is likely that their children will ask for that much more compared to other children. Their spouse will not thank them for their tireless work, but ask why they’re never home. And the last of the terrible news: people with college degrees are not any happier than those without.

Anyone could fly a float plane for a living, spending all their days in the crisp Alaskan air soaring over grizzly bears catching fish in the rivers below. Would it matter to them that jobs are being outsourced and they don’t have their TPS reports done? No. They just fly their shiny yellow plane. They see Alaska. They are happy. No one could tell them that they are a failure because the concept of success is completely subjective. Those who some call genius business tycoons, others call money-grubbing crooks.

Many people spout-off the old maxim “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” I have always only half-agreed with this. It is true in a sense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help one focus on the things that do bring happiness. The trick is balancing the ratio between things that work against you in your quest for happiness, and the things that help. Money is just one of the factors which could be a trial, depending what side the dice of your life falls on.

I don’t care how much society values hard work ethic, etc; I will never be convinced that a life lived in a cubicle is well spent. No one really cares what anyone does with their life. Many think they do, and they may pretend to, but they really don’t. Not everyone can be rockstars and astronauts, but I believe that everyone has an equal chance at happiness.


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Ironic T-shirt Fails to Attract Attention

Wichita, KS- In what can only be described as a crushing blow to an already fragile ego, Wichita local Aaron Gartenberg’s ironic t-shirt failed to garner the positive reaction he expected.

“I thought that maybe people would laugh” Gartenberg explained, “or at least chuckle a little. Most people didn’t even seem to notice it, or even gave me a dirty look.”

The slim fitting t-shirt in question was purchased from an online retailer about 2 weeks ago, and was awaited with eager anticipation by the 21-year old student. Upon receipt of the item, Gartenberg strategically chose the day in which he would wear it, knowing that all novelty would be lost after the first wearing.

First reports about the shirt’s reception at the local State College reveal that while a few people noticed the garment’s silk-screened humorous message, most failed to recognize the irony in the improper usage of the first word. “I think that made wearing the t-shirt even funner [sic], but I guess it doesn’t matter now” Gartenberg remarked.

The apparel was last seen in a crumpled ball, right next to the hamper.

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Filed under Fake News, Satire