Category Archives: Rant

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

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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Someone Thinks You’re Dumb

Remember that one time when you were driving down the road and you pointed at someone and said “look” to the person sitting next to you? Chances are, that has happened more than once, and your intent was to point out how silly/stupid/dumb that person looks doing/wearing/driving whatever they were at the moment. I have. I bet you have too.

No matter what you do, like, listen to, or wear; someone thinks you are an idiot for doing so. No matter what. Being one of peculiar tastes, I have been on the other end of this many times. I have also been surprised at how someone can laugh at me one moment and another someone else will compliment me for the same thing seconds later.

It is amazing how many different tastes there are. For instance, I cannot understand in the slightest people’s affinity for certain popular music. The same could be said for them regarding my favorite music I’m sure.

Something that I have realized is that most unique people who I see do not upset me in the slightest. I think that it is a human reflex to mock others to justify personal stance on whatever topic the mockery is based upon, but I have realized that if I suppress that urge, then it is okay to be “interested” by the person I am seeing. Let me give you an example.

Do you know what what Larping is? It is the word made up to describe those who enjoy “Live Action Role Play” (L.A.R.P.). This is a derivative of roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons and the video game World of Warcraft. In these games, people take on roles of mystical creatures and animals with special powers and combat their friends who also play these roles. Somewhere along the way, some people decided that they were tired of sitting around a table rolling dice, and wanted to dress up as their respective creatures, and run around acting out the games. This includes giant foam swords and spears being carried and sometimes with people wearing makeup playing monsters for enemies. Do I hear you snickering? Hold on.

What makes their hobby any more strange than yours? Smearing oil paint around a canvas to create representations of scenic vistas sounds just as crazy as Larping when you think about it. There is no “normal.” Only majorities, conventions, and societal norms. This just means many people participate in these things, not that they are “right.” People laughed at Galileo Galilei for supporting the heliocentric model.

The other day I saw a group of Larpers gathered together. They were wearing scabbards over their tights, and carried more leather accessories than most people do on a normal day. Do you know what I thought? Rock on. Enjoy your life. Do what you want to do. It made me excited to see someone smiling.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. I still hold violent malice towards Smart Car drivers. But with a little work, maybe I can learn to appreciate their passion too.

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Big Band Theory

I have been thinking lately on why  I am annoyed when a band or group that I like gets big. Here are a couple reasons why I think the whole experience changes. This is regarding the listener/fan experience after the band is signed to a major label, gets played on the radio, etc.

They change

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.

When given more cash, the bands change their act. This may include adding more unofficial members to play live (see Green Day), or large theatrical presentations during live shows. Adam Young, who is mainly a drummer, now holds a guitar (despite most of his songs being synth-based) during live shows now because it is more marketable and exciting than him standing (dancing) behind a keyboard like he used to do.

These amplified presentations are not the band, they are the people the band’s label hired to make a stage show. As much as I would like to imagine The Killers sitting down and talking about how the lighting will change during their hit song–it isn’t happening. It did at one time though, and that is why a show of theirs in the early days would’ve been so much neater than now. While their music is great, at a live show now you are seeing 5% Killers and 95% label fluff that has nothing to do with those 4 guys. They are just the monkeys, told to dance by their label.

Their music may change as well. The label will ask for hits, and so the artist (to survive) will write songs which feature pumping beats, repetitive chorus lines, and likely be compressed to high hell to play well on the radio (apparently some people still use this archaic device). Even the Beatles were subjected to performing on command, writing “I Want to Hold your Hand” at the command of their manager because it would appeal to American girls. It was no coincidence that they played this on the Ed Sullivan show in NY. They were even forced to record it in German! The Beatles still rock. But if I saw them in a tavern as the Quarrymen it would be sad to see them doing tricks for their label like singing “Komm, gib mir deine Hand.

But don’t they still make awesome music?

Likely, but there are other problems. I don’t know about you, but when I listen to an album, I latch on to it for about a month. During that time, my memories are fused to that time period. I can listen to any song and tell you exactly what month and year I digested the album. So when I hear a song which is linked with some time period being looped over a UPS commercial (Such Great Heights, Postal Service), I feel like part of my past is being cheapened. With that particular example, yes, I listened to them long before they hit it big. So you imagine my surprise when they exploded in 2004, taking all of those good times with them. It isn’t that it erased my memories, it is that instead of hearing “Such Great Heights” and thinking about driving to band practice  at Tanner’s house during the winter, I think about a bloody UPS commercial and a guy drawing with dry erase markers.

It isn’t about “coolness”

Any band you listen to has many other listeners. Unless your favorite band is a personal artist who comes over to your house and plays music on your couch, you aren’t the only one. It isn’t the amount of listeners but the kind of listeners. If you developed a kinship with a song, album or artist when they were small, you have a special place for them. You went to their shows when they needed your support. You bought a T-shirt at their merch booth because you knew they needed to eat. If you hear about a band after they’ve hit it big, you don’t give duck’s beak about them because they drive around in a giant luxury tour bus, never talking to their fans because they are just faceless money dispensers to them. They become jaded, it isn’t their fault. Their listeners don’t care either. By this point their music is likely written for popular appeal anyways, so it is unlikely that you would latch on to them personally at this point.

Conclusion

These are my reasons for being so protective of artists I love. I’m not trying to be cool. I don’t think I’m the only one listening to them. I am just remembering when I was close enough to the stage to be given the mic by the lead singer to sing a part of the song (with my $8 ticket), or the many times I have talked to bands after their show to tell them how their music has changed my life. If you disagree, I would imagine that it is likely that you have never had an experience like this.

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My Prediction

I have had a vision. In around 5 years time (the time it will take for everyone’s computer to slow to a crawl) everyone will have an iPad(like) device. This is my reasoning:

First of all, everyone knows that there are many complaints with the device. I am not going to rehash those here. They have been covered ad nauseam, and if you really would like to find them, search any gadget blog for a list of gripes.

The epiphany that I had was this: the iPad is for content consumption, while traditional computers are for content creation. You have heard the first part before. It is no secret that the iPad has a great form factor (like that of a magazine) for reading, browsing the web and watching movies/videos. The latter just occured to me. The things that I will not be able to use the iPad for that I use regularly: Photoshop, and Lightroom 2. To a lesser degree: Garageband, iMovie, Logic, Final Cut etc. Most people have no idea how to use these programs.

Within the tech community, photoshop skills are essential like a sidearm in the old West. Most people, however, use the jpegs straight from their camera, and think editing video requires godlike powers (just try showing an edited video to your mom, she will think you belong in Hollywood).

As I work in my computer dealer, people often tell me about how they have 250GB of RAM on their computer back home. They don’t know the difference between an iPhone and an iPod Touch. As soon as people start seeing them around, and watch people browse the web, read magazines and books, and use whatever apps are made specifically for it, it will become an object of desire. It already is. I have been walking around the school with a Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader for the past month, and have been asked literally 3 times a day if it is the iPad.

When people go to buy a computer, they will ask the prices (as they always do) and when they find out that the sexy slab-of-glass one is $500, they will buy it. Kids will sync it with their parent’s computers, even if they are away at college (yes, this is risky, but people do this. They don’t backup, they sync their iPods with friends they met in South America on study abroad, etc). There will be one computer in the home that can be used for content creation like Word docs (primarily, with some using the attachable keyboard with the iPad), photos, etc.

What about those people who do program, edit movies and music, blog heavily, design? They will have one too. Instead of heaving their MacBook Pros around on trips, to school, the plane, they will use their ____ (not necessarily an iPad) except for when they need to produce content.

Picture a Dell laptop. Why, are we so stuck on the idea that this is what a computer looks like? Browsers, applications and interfaces have all been molding and changing to become more ergonomic, why not explore a little? I absolutely love the way an iPhone is used. Why am a still using a computer that operates like a big Blackberry?

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Why CGI has Jumped the Shark

Prepare to abandon

In the 1970’s, the show Happy Days, which portrayed 1950’s american life, was a huge success. Originally following the Cunningham family, the show slowly shifted it’s focus towards “The Fonz,” (one of Richie Cunningham’s friends) due to his popularity among viewers. As the show progressed, the writers had to come up with more and more plots, and wacky situations for the Fonz to encounter. In 1977, in the show’s 5th season, Fonzie literally jumped over a shark on water skis. This scene is when many believe the show began to go downhill. Cast members left, spin offs were created, and the show was still technically a success… but something was missing. The term “jumping the shark” would later come to describe anything that has become a mockery of itself. The point in which something fizzles out, and ceases to glimmer as it once did. Tonight, for me at least,  computer generated imagery (CGI) has jumped the shark.

What brought on the demise of this wonderful technology, the same that showed us the Titanic sinking, fallen cities resurrected, and dinosaurs in the flesh? Michael Bay, like a child who has found his father’s gun,  has irresponsibly used this technology and squeezed out every last bit of dignity it had.

Film-making is about more than pretty moving pictures. Movies have dialogue, they tell stories. Someone didn’t tell Mr. Bay that people can speak without explosions in the background. In fact, in the beginning of his latest film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, during every scene where Shia Labeouf and Megan Fox were talking to one another, there was a generic guitar ballad playing for no reason, as if Bay couldn’t stand two characters conversing without yelling. You couldn’t show me a scene made using CGI that would impress me. It’s over. Sure it all looks real, yet in Quantum of Solace when they beat that Astin Martin to bits it was more impressive than Bay’s exploding CGI aircraft carrier.

I understand that expecting an action movie to do anything but entertain is pushing it, but it can be done. Look at The Dark Knight. In addition to fancy vehicles, violence and explosions, there was a psychologically intense element which made you think. The scene in which the two boats each had a detonator in their possesion was brilliantly laced with philosophical overtones without ruining the action.

Someone has given Bay an unlimited budget, and there is nothing to show for it. I went to the movie. I wanted to like it. What I saw when I got there was a camera rotating around rolling metal balls in a close up view to “increase the action” for 2 1/2 hours. Here is something that irks me: the movie was based off of the Hasbro action figures by the same name; it says it right in the credits. What made these toys a hit was that they looked like a truck or plane, then could change into a human or animal form using it’s existing parts. The movie versions simply seem to explode for a moment, with pieces moving every which way, finally coming to a much larger piece of machinery that has random wheels and gears placed in random places. There are no rules. Want to make all of the machines combine together? Why not! The lack of rules weakens the story, because the viewer is unable to deduce the next action along with the characters. Shia could very well just say “lets get some whale blubber and feed it to the Decepticons, and that will kill them!” and you would have to go along, because the story follows no logical line.

Michael Bay is not the only one to blame. Mr Spielberg, the most innovative director of all time, is slowly raping the motion picture industry as well. You need not look any further than the latest Indiana Jones film he was associated with creating.

I watched Seven Pounds about a week ago, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It was amazing. During the climax of Bay’s latest, however, I didn’t give a autobot’s trunk about what happened to the main characters. Simply saying “I won’t go without you” over and over again amidst danger does not qualify as drama. I imagine that if Bay had his way, the movie wouldn’t have had any dialogue at all.

I know Hollywood knows what they are doing. They think we are stupid. And I suppose we are for shoveling all of our money into their pockets. But know this: they think you are an idiot. And if you can watch 2 1/2 hours of explosions and not get sick of it, I’m not sure I disagree.

UPDATE*

Heres a parody “sneak peek” that pretty much summarizes the movie:

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