On Bigging, and Failing

Everyone loves an end-of-year top ten list, and we can pick from this Biggest Tech Lies of 2018 almost at random:

5. If we’re bigger, it will create more competition. – Everyone who runs a pseudo-monopoly

The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.

We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can become either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.

It’s practically every problem incarnate, joined as one: Giant companies. By existential ethos, they cannot care about workers, conditions or any negative externalities of the doing of their business. Even the construct ‘big problem’ is itself a kind exacerbated by terminology. In this way, the supposed empirical challenges of capitalism should have actually been understood as a roadmap, as they have been by some, no doubt. But these roads are a leading to a fundamental weakness, a dysfunction in the system itself. It could have been that this way of organizing an economy would work if and only if monopolies and all other rule violations were avoided and all participants observed the rules for the health of the system, if not for the board itself. But the entire endeavor has been predicated instead on getting away with as much transgression as possible. “Tie it up in court for years, damn the torpedoes.” There’s some corollary with ‘Ships being safer kept in the harbor,’ but, we’ll work on that.

Image: Battle of Mobile Bay, by Louis Prang

What does Gilets jaunes mean?

Rumblings on the hustings, the corporate global economic order has Always been predicated on sacrificing the working class. Always:

It’s obvious now, however, that the new model not only weakened the fringes of the proletariat but society as a whole.The paradox is this is not a result of the failure of the globalised economic model but of its success. In recent decades, the French economy, like the European and US economies, has continued to create wealth. We are thus, on average, richer. The problem is at the same time unemployment, insecurity and poverty have also increased. The central question, therefore, is not whether a globalised economy is efficient, but what to do with this model when it fails to create and nurture a coherent society?

In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.

The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.

Switch out France périphérique for the Rust Belt. They are interchangeable, except that the former has not, as yet, voted straight fascist and retains the habit of taking to the street – as well as tearing up parts of it to throw at the police. It’s how different cultures tackle the same problem: the left-behindness, debt, low pay, high taxes, inequality, and ignorance upon which the limited successes of late capitalism depend. It’s certainly not pleasant, but people have long-understood this and attempted to warn us from the dragons – Dr. K, Joe Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty – nor it is unrelated to the bizarre vortex we’ve been documenting here for ten(!) years. And the Gilets jaunes are not solving this problem. But they are making us look, and we’re not even used to that.

Image: Author photo of a different type of inundation, near Pont Neuf, 2016

Expensive solutions: having two drivetrains

While at first, this may appear to be an innocent discussion about plug-in hybrids versus straight electric vehicles, it turns out to be, you guessed it, a terrific metaphor:

Another challenge for automakers is that hybrids are relatively complicated, with widely varying ranges. Some can travel only on electrons, while others never do. Electric vehicles, meanwhile, can be measured on two simple metrics: miles per charge and price.

“It’s just a much more simple story,” said Tal at UC Davis. His team’s research has shown that people are far more ignorant about plug-in hybrids than fully electric vehicles. In general, he said, shoppers don’t spend much time deciding which car to buy—most effort goes into finding the best price for the model they’ve already set their mind on.

The death of the hybrid, while seemingly inevitable, may be a long and slow. A spike in gas prices in the next few years may even draw it out. “I can see them having a role until 2040,” Tal said. “But the problem will always be [that] it’s a more expensive solution having two drivetrains.”

We are absolutely lousy with other expensive-because-they-are-redundant solutions, and some (private schools, for-profit hospitals and health insurance) do triple the damage we can afford for the pain and pound of flesh they exact from the commonwealth. Reality shows seem cheap because [some]people think they don’t have/need writers. Roads and highways seem far more convenient that public transportation somehow, even at 0-miles-per-hour in rush hour that’s really two. Fb is free, see it doesn’t cost anything!

Hatred for irony remains an untapped and unfortunately renewable-into-infinity resource.

The meaning of ‘Tribalism’

Adam Serwer offers a corrective on a corrosive: the use of tribalism. You mean racism:

It’s fashionable in the Donald Trump era to decry political “tribalism,” especially if you’re a conservative attempting to criticize Trump without incurring the wrath of his supporters. House Speaker Paul Ryan has lamented the “tribalism” of American politics. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has said that “tribalism is ruining us.” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a book warning that “partisan tribalism is statistically higher than at any point since the Civil War.”

In the fallout from Tuesday’s midterm elections, many political analysts have concluded that blue America and red America are ever more divided, ever more at each other’s throats. But calling this “tribalism” is misleading, because only one side of this divide remotely resembles a coalition based on ethnic and religious lines, and only one side has committed itself to a political strategy that relies on stoking hatred and fear of the other. By diagnosing America’s problem as tribalism, chin-stroking pundits and their sorrowful semi-Trumpist counterparts in Congress have hidden the actual problem in American politics behind a weird euphemism.

Take Tuesday’s midterm elections. In New York’s Nineteenth Congressional District, the Democrat Antonio Delgado, a Harvard-educated, African American Rhodes scholar, defeated the incumbent Republican John Faso in a district that is 84 percent white, despite Faso caricaturing Delgado as a “big-city rapper.” In Georgia, the Republican Brian Kemp appears to have defeated the Democrat Stacey Abrams after using his position as secretary of state to weaken the power of the black vote in the state and tying his opponent to the New Black Panther Party. In Florida, the Republican Ron DeSantis defeated the Democrat Andrew Gillum after a campaign in which DeSantis’s supporters made racist remarks about Gillum. The Republican Duncan Hunter, who is under indictment, won after running a campaign falsely tying his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is of Latino and Arab descent, to terrorism. In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp lost reelection after Republicans adopted a voter-ID law designed to disenfranchise the Native American voters who powered her upset win in 2012. President Trump spent weeks claiming that a caravan of migrants in Latin America headed for the United States poses a grave threat to national security, an assessment the Pentagon disagrees with. In Illinois on Tuesday, thousands of Republicans voted for a longtime Nazi who now prefers to describe himself as a “white racialist”; in Virginia, more than a million cast ballots for a neo-Confederate running for Senate.

A large number of Republican candidates, led by the president, ran racist or bigoted campaigns against their opponents. But those opponents cannot be said to belong to a “tribe.” No common ethnic or religious ties bind Heitkamp, Campa-Najjar, Delgado, or the constituencies that elected them. It was their Republican opponents who turned to “tribalism,” painting them as scary or dangerous, and working to disenfranchise their supporters.

Nul ne peut soupçonner.

Image: tribal art of indigenous Warlis of the mountainous and coastal areas of Maharashtra/Gujarat border.

Changing the neighborhood

WITH all the courting, cajoling, promises of [decades of] tax breaks and free land and infrastructure upgrades that we see towns and localities using to persuade the tech giants to relocate in and resuscitate moribund burgs large, medium and small, it turns out we could all learn a thing or two from Berlin:

Campaigners in a bohemian district of Berlin are celebrating after the internet giant Google abandoned strongly opposed plans to open a large campus there. The US firm had planned to set up an incubator for startup companies in Kreuzberg, one of the older districts in the west of the capital.

But the company’s German spokesman Ralf Bremer announced on Wednesday that the 3,000 m2 (3,590 square-yard) space – planned to host offices, cafes and communal work areas – would instead go to two local humanitarian associations.

Bremer did not say if local resistance to the plans over the past two years had played a part in the change of heart, although he had told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that Google does not allow protests to dictate its actions.

“The struggle pays off,” tweeted GloReiche Nachbarschaft, one of the groups opposed to the Kreuzberg campus plan and part of the “Fuck off Google” campaign.

Some campaigners objected to what they described as Google’s “evil” corporate practices, such as tax evasion and the unethical use of personal data. Some opposed the gentrification of the district, which might price many people out of the area.

As we see everywhere, gentrification is a tricky thing to fight off. It helps if you can summon the power to think well and high of yourself, to defend your neighborhoods from a position of strength. An earlier article this past May lays out it pretty clearly:

“I’m not saying [Google] don’t have to come here, but they have to realise they are part of something that is really frightening people … If such a big enterprise wants to join the most cool, the most rebellious, the most creative neighbourhood in Berlin – perhaps in Europe – then there must be a way they can contribute to saving the neighbourhood,” Schmidt says.

Bravi, Kreuzberg!

Image: Author photo, Brandenburg Tor

It’s always still the Schoolyard

Trying to prove to the bully you are not what his taunts describe, on the presumption that he will finally admit, “You know, you’re right. I’m sorry. You’re really not a _____.”
Cornered by logic, the garbage person – receiving constant affirmation from otherwise ‘neutral’ observers and aficionados alike – finally relents? He wouldn’t know how, he would lose all credibility because the bullying is his only reliable trait. The challenge to not enjoy his taunts on the playground is especially difficult for people like us. We’re as depraved and morally listless as he, he just has no qualms or shame in providing us the rage we need to sustain him. Circle, and vicious as it gets.

Because we have some better idea of ourselves – standards, values, whatever words we use to signal we know and are better. We grow taller but we don’t grow up. Hatred and contempt are strong collective experiences, especially when the bully provides the cover. It’s as though he is ‘taking the bullet’ [which he would never], getting the flack, wearing his vileness like a badge instead of us. He’s the one, and we’d never do that, be like him, though it is the tacit support that bleeds us like a mortal wound.

And what of the focus of the harassment and intimidation that is so alluring, how to fight back?

The question is, are you ready to fight back? Addressing his smears head-on creates the potential for greater vulnerability; you’ve provided credence, confirmed the weakness to which the bully re-commits himself and his acolytes to torment and its enjoyment. Standing up and pushing back is a dirty, ugly business and you will get dirtied and come out at least a little uglier but the bully knows no other language. There is dignity in ignoring the taunts, but this also requires massive courage and stamina. Something is still going to be in your way. Was it always there? Mmm. I think that’s enough for today’s session.

Sects in the Afternoon

Caught but not certain. Laid low and silenced by the voices within, he withdrew from the room seriously, like he had a better reason than even a phone call to take. As though he would be relieved to be relieved of his colleague’s wife and his colleague for a moment, even of his own wife. She looked at her guests to see their reaction follow the silence created by the ringing but there came no obvious offense to the one face they seemed to share, looking in across the table. Green peas, everyone had green peas still on their plates, that’s what she noticed more. Maybe they had been no good, no good at all, and perhaps she wished that had been the reason her husband had left the room with a weak excuse. Perhaps.
All she knew now was that their conversation which had been so lively moments before had ceased, as if awaiting his return before it could more properly resume. This unnerved her. Was she so incapable of conversing that her guests needed him? Needed him more? Had she not attended _______ with him, earned better grades and knew more people, giver her own thoughts about a master’s in archeology a childish look back after it was decided, somehow fucking decided, that he would attend medical school as if in her stead, and indeed in the stead of many things? She had admired his boyish streak then, encouraged him and had witnessed how, in subscribing to some manly beliefs that would provide dark difficulties for the boy, he was seeding the luxury of a future utility. And thus was performed a type of acrobatics that made sense, even with gravity, even in medical school with her remembering school in all the same fall when they had been anything but slaves to the future and even their own commitment had more to do with love than anything beyond it. Another fall had rolled around, and she had grown painfully accustomed to waiting on him, now over cold peas and two frosty guests that she’d considered liking during the cold banana appetizer.
She could hear him talking in the next room and wondered why he had chosen a phone so close to where the guests waited, perhaps to let them overhear the muffled sound of his voice and further convey the seriousness his attention warranted. But she knew there was more, as he had stopped subscribing so closely to concerns of what others thought of him months before; it was reminiscent of giving up exercising for an injury. He nursed his injury, and let his wife answer the door, bake the ham and light the candles. He just breezed in looking fresh and nibbled, made excuses to leave whenever his hard-fought trappings became too much of themselves. Themselves in a painless light of caricature by which his accomplishments more resembled responsibilities. She hoped he might come back and say he had to leave, the phone call, ‘you know, they need me,’ he would say. She would then feel no further obligation in humoring the seriousness of her guests, no requirement to answer their questions about the old house or the painting in the hall like some multiple choice questions on a master’s exam she never took. She had her own calls to make.
But he didn’t. He returned and claimed his seat next to the wife of his colleague before his cold peas and across from his own sexy wife he hadn’t seen in years. He made a small joke about the presence of seamen at which his wife laughed out loud at exactly the wrong time so that she laughed alone and the other three just stared at her, and he could not even finish his joke then because all of a sudden, he was unsure what was so funny. He knew something was eating him alive, he even saw the teeth marks, but without the courage to stop it, so he could only blame her and claim as his evidence those times when she laughed out of place and embarrassed him. The colleague and his wife sat as one, unsure in movement and embarrassed themselves. But not as part of the fray; they refused to see what they could easily identify as a war on the cold pea horizon and were intent on remaining frozen, afraid even to look at the opposing forces. Silver clanged to china because now everyone, except the wife – who saw many things – everyone saw only one thing as the last recourse and the only thing to do until there was another opening like a beautiful phone call to be taken: eat the peas.
“Would anyone like more wine?” she watched him say with genuine curiosity in his voice. He rose at his place at the table as the colleague and his wife agreed certainly and without doubt that yes, they would love some more wine. “What about you, honey?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I want Scotch. Does anybody want Scotch?” she asked with a different curiosity. The husband began to sink where he stood, almost reaching his chair again. He had been stabbed by her once again, he thought. The guests watched them and looked at her with the assurance that they definitely did not care for, could not more fervently beg against – it was only Tuesday night – the very idea of Scotch. Their eyes squared with hers, emboldened by the clarity they had yet ever met; squinting, they tried to remember her but after a few seconds all they could do was look back at the husband, who had now reseated himself. “Okay, I guess wine sounds good.”
“Great!” he said and sprang from his seat again, making her smile somewhat in the old way, before medical school; perhaps she even let out a slight peep of a giggle. She had no course for intimidating him or turning their marriage into a true success or an actual failure, neither of which it could be classified at that moment. Things just happened. And as easily as both of them were bothered by his life and her especially of being the same small island off of it she had been when he had decided, it often passed as easily as the cork through the bottle’s top and not the needle’s eye, which it more properly resembled. He congratulated himself on what he considered small victories such as these, but his vision often failed him such that he was unable to see that she had only made a decision to call it off for a while. He proceeded to unconsciously gloat in his conversations about the hospital and the boy who would surely have died if not for the technique he had executed perfectly just that morning, which he recalled from an obscure journal article he had read and which had surrendered to his magnetic memory. Things that did not, could not, involve her, and these made up the blurred and windswept roadside she had been seeing all along. More he gloated, pushing his colleague into silence he mistook for respect and permission to continue the never-ending story of his worth. His duty was unclear, he thought and said in the same instant, and played tricks with his mind during the long days he spent at the hospital, at the humble service of a generic man. The wife sipped her wine and listened. Not to him, but to the voice inside her own thoughts, which she garnered without the need to verbalize immediately. She looked down on herself in the dining room among the three other people and imagined the scene just as it was, even with her husband talking. Except this time he was saying things which kept her interest and even flattered her; the colleague and his wife kept looking at her in amused adoration mixed with sensual envy as the husband shared brief tales not especially extraordinary except for the smile of believability through which he slipped them the words. She felt in love, not because she thought about it or was reminded of the fact by something he said to their guests, but simply in adjusting her eyes to where he sat. It aroused her, where he sat, the way he sat, and she knew the days and nights and places and unplaces where they had made love and loved each other almost as much as they did, sitting feet apart among two guests they had been obliged to entertain and nothing more. He made her feel the way only women at 24 or 28 know sex, just by the movements of his crossed leg, ever so perceptibly, back and forth. She could not wait, then, for the guests to complete their visit and bid an unacquainted farewell so she could take him by the trousers wherever she wanted as soon as the door slammed shut. It never took him long, she thought.
“Well, this has been wonderful,” the colleague began, interrupting more than he knew of the evening’s progress, of its host of events left incomplete, of its untold manners, of its ability to distract even itself. Things just happen, she considered as she re-entered the room consciously, slowly, reluctantly, with a pain immobile unless he would only, finally, press her into service.

© 2018 Alan Flurry

Into metaphors and back again

Most English speakers are familiar with the saying, “a rotten apple.” Employed as a sort of lame excuse for the bad behavior of some, it’s the end of the saying that makes it so much worse, “spoils the bunch.”
Do we develop metaphors to describe things/phenomena/feelings/people that otherwise elude description? It seems so. But do we then turn the metaphors back onto actual situations again? Less clear, but promising.

His only adaptation of a book from his favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Akira Kurasawa’s “The Idiot” turns the film into a larger metaphor for Postwar Japan, a nation traumatized, ashamed, destroyed and suffering a severe identity crisis. It also has a what-could-have been awfulness: the director originally intended the film to be nearly five hours long, and in two parts, but his backers, Shochiku, cut it to shreds, ending up a little shy of three hours.

No other work has been a better companion to Dostoyevsky’s unrelenting view of humanity than Akira Kurosawa’s much-maligned 1951 film Hakuchi. The original cut stood at 265 minutes, trimmed to 166 minutes by studio executives at Shochiku against the director’s wishes. “In that case, better to have it cut lengthwise,” he is said to have responded. Nobody knows what was left on the cutting room floor as Kurosawa was unable to locate the lost footage, leaving it impossible for audiences to follow the narrative of the film. Hakuchi was critically derided upon its initial release, finding only a handful of fans in Russia – among them Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hakuchi must have been a very special project to Kurosawa. It is one of his most important early works, and he refused to stray from a wholly faithful adaptation to the book unlike later on with his liberal interpretations of Shakespeare in Throne of Blood and Ran. And despite its obvious failings in narrative flow, no other Kurosawa film tells us more about Japan at the time or conveys as much intense emotional power as Hakuchi. His decision to transport the novel’s events from the glittering St Petersburg to wintry Sapporo on the northernmost island in Japan, is not a purely aesthetic one.

Perhaps a more obvious choice would have been Tokyo or Osaka, cities which are closer similar in spirit to St Petersburg. But then we would have been denied that remarkable scene at the beginning of the film. The thuggish merchant Akama (Rogozhin in the book, played by Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune) and Kameda (Masayuki Mori as Myshkin) stop before a portrait of the woman they will both destroy each other for, her gaze lit up by the blizzard. All around them, peasants struggle by with their carts and goods in the bitter cold. The darkness, both literal and metaphorical, is almost complete save for the faint falling snow, which makes the men’s faces flicker in the shop window. How difficult it is, Kurosawa seems to be saying, to bring light to a place where it is perpetually night.

An old stereotype valorises the purity of the “traditional way of life” in Japan, outside of the moral corruption of the big cities. This is epitomised in many classic novels including Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The Old Capital’ from 1962. But Kurosawa situates the showy greed and lust of The Idiot in the heart of Japan’s rural outposts, turning this assumption on its head. There is no foreign malice come to take away the innocence of the people; they have nobody to blame but themselves. Fittingly, although the film is set in post-war Japan, the endless snow negates all reference to the time period. The struggle to do good in the world and to eke out a redemptive humanity requires no specific cultural context.

I have a deep reverence for The Idiot (as well as Poor Folk), and its rendering into a different medium brings up some good questions about the utility of metaphors themselves. Refracted cultural explanations of real life that slap back onto actual things; this is [one of the reasons] why, as soon as I heard about it, I couldn’t wait for Postmodernism to be over.

A.I., A.I., captain!

Joseph Stiglitz, he of former World Bankiness, haver of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics who warned that globalization was taking place at the behest international conglomerates rather than “forces,” now comes to light his hair on fire present similar cautions about Artificial Intelligence:

“Artificial intelligence and robotisation have the potential to increase the productivity of the economy and, in principle, that could make everybody better off,” he says. “But only if they are well managed.”

Beyond the impact of AI on work, Stiglitz sees more insidious forces at play. Armed with AI, tech firms can extract meaning from the data we hand over when we search, buy and message our friends. It is used ostensibly to deliver a more personalised service. That is one perspective. Another is that our data is used against us.

“These new tech giants are raising very deep issues about privacy and the ability to exploit ordinary people that were never present in earlier eras of monopoly power,” says Stiglitz. “Beforehand, you could raise the price. Now you can target particular individuals by exploiting their information.”

It is the potential for datasets to be combined that most worries Stiglitz. For example, retailers can now track customers via their smartphones as they move around stores and can gather data on what catches their eye and which displays they walk straight past.

The data farming of which we are all willing seeds know no boundaries, recognizes no politics and sees only profits. Shaded with the camouflage of complexity, it is a winning hand. Are we up for the ‘boring overwhelming’ of taking on the Tech giants? Wait, let me come in again…

Image: Warehouse operated by Amazon, via The Guardian

The Bike works, except for the wheels

And the chain. And the pedals. And the handle bars. Oh but the stickers on the frame are okay? No, anonymous NYT Op-Ed writer, you don’t get to do that:

It is one thing to argue that professionals should be willing to serve a bad president in the interests of public service, and it is quite another to argue that the officials working for the president are entitled to disregard and override the president’s decisions because the president happens to be an ignorant buffoon.

Their only option is to come clean, resign in protest and protection of their own good conscience, ability to beg forgiveness and be trusted with an unpaid internship sorting recyclables at the landfill.

Use any other metaphor as needed – spouse abuser, drug addict, anyone known to be a danger to themselves and those around them. Only the context this time is global. You’re stopping them or you’re an enabler. The longer this goes on, the longer it goes on.
And the same goes for the Times op-ed page.