A Third Blog Reboot

So it’s been a bit of a hiatus here at This is Not a Dinner Party Marching Under Banners. I would like to say that I put the blog on hold because I was completely occupied by having started graduate school, but as I really stopped blogging in July of 2010 (with a few quick outliers in September and November), the explanation lies elsewhere. I suspect the real reason that I stopped was because twitter and FaceBook were fitting the personal expression bill. But I never really made an explicit decision and am not actually sure what the reason was.

Whatever the case, 140 characters sufficed for a while, but I am increasingly finding that the character counter block has turned a verbose-threat-level HIGH color long before I have completed my thought and even the usual cleaver pairing down doesn’t suffice to squeeze the idea into the allotted space. So maybe it’s time to resume the blog.

This will be the third iteration of my blog. The original blog, smarties, I developed myself in PHP in 2004 and it was pretty basic. In its second incarnation, it was an attempt at a group blog using an installation of b2evolution (also PHP) hosted by a friend. This time around, I’m giving up on the DIY thing and just going with a WordPress blog. An explanation for the new title and banner can be found on the About page.

I have ported over the July 2007-November 2010 This is Not a Dinner Party archives. The June 2004-July 2007 smarties archives are stuck on a currently deactivated RAID array or a tape backup somewhere. I hope to have them recovered soon enough because there are a number of currently dead links throughout this blog to those old posts and there’s a lot of important thinking and personal history there.

Oddly enough, in my first year as a graduate student, I didn’t write a single piece for any of my seminars with which I was adequately satisfied to make a post out of it. I hope that will change over the next few months and I this blog will serve as a place to do some thinking towards academic work — some background thinking, some preliminary studies, some finished work and so on.

Anyway, enough with the preliminaries: I’ve got a few things queued up already so back to the blog trenches.

Revolution Is No Tea Party

The Wall Street Journal decides to run its review of Ira Stoll’s new biography of forerunning American independence militant and brewmeister Samuel Adams under the title “Revolution Is No Tea Party” (3 November 2008, vol. CCLII, no. 106, p. A17). Not only is revolution no tea party, neither is it a dinner party.

My First Hate Mail

Awesome! A blogging milestone: my first hate mail. I’m a little tardy on this as I don’t check the e-mail address behind the blog all that often, but 17 April 2008 I prompted enough ire in a stranger to intrude on their schedule:

To: “Donald Taylor II”
Date: Thu, April 17, 2008 5:51 pm
Subject: Re: The Destruction of Barack Obama, Part III

I want to hear more about your cat, Mogli. Mostly because your views about Obama are sad.

Sad. You make me want to cry. Its unsatisfying to believe that America is screwed. Not that Obama is a the messiah or the savior, but that the system is broken beyond repair and America’s future is the same as that of an overgrown, syphilitic determined to drink themselves to death and all the while justifying their recklessness and self-destruction with cowardly simplifications.

Is that the future of America? An overburden social insurance system that demonizes those it means to uplift, a prison system that robs the youth and vigor from huge swathes of the population, a government that is purposefully inept, a political system that has no sense of the national interest, an economy built for and maintained by a global moneyed elite and a population so consumed by the immediate needs for survival that engaging in the necessarily ugly process for national rebirth (short of revolution) is met with irrelevance and cynicism?

Is that your America?

Tell us more about your cat and your crockpot. The rest is too sad.

Is that you, Chris Crocker?

This guy fell out of the chiché tree and hit every trope on the way down. It ought to go without saying in a fragmented, saturated media market — and one entirely public — that requests to desist are unnecessary and will not be respected. Simply turn your attention elsewhere.

This is some pretty weak tea, but I guess thankfully so. I need to toughen my hide for the real trolls.

Four Years

21 June 2008, Fourth anniversary as a blogger spent in Atlanta, Georgia workin for the man

Saturday, 21 June 2008 was my four year anniversary as a blogger. I made my Inaugural Post that Monday in 2004. I had intended to post on the day-of, but I spent the day in question in Atlanta, Georgia on a business trip, running myself ragged for someone else’s year-end bonus. Colorless bureaucrat by day, intrepid blogger by night. Here I am at the Atlanta Peachtree Westin conference room A “continuous refreshment service” helping prospective linguists fill out the SF-86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions. Oh MedWatch 3500 where hast thou gone?

I lead a life devoted to little boxes. Mostly to making sure that people have correctly and completely crammed a continuous record of the last ten years of their lives into a series of little boxes over eleven to thirteen pages. But also comparing in meticulous detail the boxes on the sheets of paper to the corresponding boxes on a computer screen. And then checking off a list of little boxes to record that all content-bearing boxes have been adequately verified. I hate to admit it, but I think it’s my calling. I know that my record of spelling on this site has done nothing to prove the case, but baring the spellings, I am nothing if not meticulous. I am a relentless machine of attention poured into little boxes. I am a tireless warrior against the omission and the oversight. My favorite admonition is that “you have to write N/A as the investigator cannot tell the difference between an omission and a negative response.”

Anyway, the murderously mundane, death of a salesman workaday aside, the blog is great. I really feel like I’m in my groove. The goals no longer seem burdensome and I frequently kick it in confidence that any lull now will be more than made up for in a burst of activity later. And it’s stimulating. I spent almost the whole of today in a state of heightened agitation over the ideas that were swirling around in my head. The only problem is time, stick-to-it-ivness and the adequate eloquence to the task.

Part of the anniversary is the annual review, with an emphasis on the analytical. I switched to a third party product this year and turned over admin rights to John, so I have a helpdesk ticket in with him to get the permissions and whatnot necessary to produce the stats. Hopefully I can produce a more full assessment of the last year in a couple of days. For now it’s off to Miami this weekend: more errands in service to the man. Maybe some mile-high blogging though.

Monkey Contributors

The purpose of switching to a group blog format was to upgrade from my existing two to five posts per week to the sort of high-volume blog that would reward regular refreshing the browser. But alas K. and J. are weak oarsmen. So I’m thinking of a strategy more like that of Mad Magazine:

April 2008 Mad Magazine, monkey editorialship

I would hardly be only in the company of Mad. The New Yorker obviously has had similar thoughts:

23 December 2002 New Yorker, the Fiction Issue, chimps on typewriters on the cover

And The New Yorker cover shows that the editorial staff at that magazine is actually thinking through the practicalities of the program. On the other hand, The New Yorker is just involved in a raw numbers game. Mad is trying a strategy of mixing it up.

Back when I worked in IT I actually used to fret that my employer would fire me in favor of a monkey. I’m sure that a chimp could have been at least twice as productive as me when it came to pulling new cables through the suspended ceiling. Perhaps the same would be true of blogging.

Blogger Karōshi

The New York Times has an article about blogging yourself to death (Richtel, Matt, “In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop,” 6 April 2008). The Japanese, for whom this is not a new phenomena, actually have a word for death by overwork: Karōshi.

Matthew Yglesias asks what’s the big deal? (“Death by Blog,” TheAtlantic.com, 6 April 2008). “…[T]o me the most draining times are really those times when I’ve undertaken substantial work on top of the blog.” I, on the other hand, have undertaken a blog on top of substantial work. I’m not a full-time blogger. I have a 40 — okay, more like 50 or 60 — hour a week job. I blog over my lunch break — when I take one — and in the evenings. Often times I feel like I have two jobs. Writing even a few posts is, for me, very time consuming. I get home in the evening and think, “Now it’s time to start my second job.” It frequently takes me a couple of late nights to finish a post and when the end is in sight, I often chase the mirage of finishing until dawn and the horror of birds chirping (Quoth the raven, “Time to get your ass to work”). Back in 2005 I ran a few queries and found that my average post was made between 10:00 at night and 6:00 in the morning (“Hundredth Post: Taking Stock,” smaties (first series), 18 January 2005). I would provide some current stats, but the new blog has a lot more complex a data model than what I developed.

I’m not griping — I’m just riffing. I do it to myself: I’m a wannabe intellectual with a boring day job. I wish I were a writer and I am desperate for a little intellectual exercise. The problem is that by depriving myself of as much sleep as I am, I am incurring as much brain damage as I am engaging in brain stimulation.

And Mom: I turned off comments not to thwart open thread on your concern for my health, but because of a recent rash of comment spam.

And Humble Too …

We’ve been down for two weeks because our admin’s internet provider, Clearwire, cut off inbound port 80 with no notice. New policy: no internal web hosting. Admin had to switch to Comcast, with all the headache that entails. In case your experience with Comcast has to date been without a hitch then it’s just dumb luck. I have had a number of run-ins with their customer service which is not merely bad, but more in the category of egregious or maddeningly bad or not the sort of thing that a conscionable company desirous of success would do to its customers. But I guess it’s the sort of thing you can get away with when you are a partial monopoly

Anyway, after merely the entry-level runaround, we are back up and hopelessly dated. We’re up a little ahead of anticipation owing to Admin’s genius. As he reports,

It appears that DNS is picking up pretty quickly. (I had proactively dropped the time-to-live for DNS, knowing there would be an IP address change–’cause I’m so fucking brilliant.)

The Dinner Party is a Mewling Homunculus of Plagiarism

[Annotation (3 September 2011): in a previous incarnation, this blog was titled “This is Not a Dinner Party”]

Via Andrew Sullivan, a particularly scathing review by A. A. Gill (“Put Not Your Faith in Comedians,” Times (London), 16 September 2007) of television show, The Dinner Party:

Finally, and most awe-inspiringly, that someone sat down at a keyboard, tapped away and made The Dinner Party — a crippling, dribbling, mewling homunculus of plagiarism. And, having done it, they didn’t turn white and book themselves into an ashram. They said: “This is cool. I’ll show it to the grown-ups”, and pressed Send. The next time this writer sees his or her name in print, I abjectly pray it’s under “Employee of the month” at Burger King.

One of the titles that we considered for this blog was homunculus. But I remind you, this is not a dinner party.

Smarties’s First Baby Steps

From: <administrator>
To: taylordw@goodleaf.net
Date: Fri, August 15, 2003 3:30 pm
Subject: yo


Sorry to have missed you when you were in Seattle. Thought you’d be interested to know that I have been browsing my apache logs. Checking out the attacks from the latest MS worm you know. Anyway, I found that someone hit your Stiglitz smarties article, and the referring link was from a google search. Your journey down the road to fame has begun.


httpd-access.log: — [15/Aug/2003:05:51:19 -0700] “GET /smarties/economics/stiglitz/stiglitz.html HTTP/1.1” 200 47128 “http://www.google.com/search?q=%22paul +krugman%22 +biography +council+of +economic +advisors +clinton&hl=en&lr=&ie=UTF-8&start=20&sa=N” “Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.0)”

William Gibson’s Idoru and Blogging

I want to add one more thought about blogging before I get started. In my Inaugural Post I asked, “Why join this societal wave of exhibitionism?” and mentioned the relation of technology to surveillance, voyeurism, privacy and exhibitionism. Every time I think about these issues, a character from William Gibson’s 1996 novel Idoru comes to mind.

Before I delve into the main point, I want to say that I think William Gibson is a genius. In his first novel, Neuromancer (1984), the hit that launched the cyberpunk genre, he came up with the term cyberspace. In case you passed over that parenthetical date too quickly, let me point out that he came up with the idea of cyberspace in 1984: before there was either the Internet or virtual reality.

Yes, I am aware that Tron came out in 1982, but Tron is about a man who is sucked into a little, tiny world inside of a computer were the programs are personified (e.g. the vilan, “Master Control”) and forced to fight high-tech gladiatorial games in sexy spandex body suits. This of course will never happen and is merely a technological variant of The Fantastic Voyage, The Wizard of Oz or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Yes, there are some silly parts of Neuromancer: the space Rastafarians are hardly the heady stuff of Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. However, a total emersion interface to a simulated world spread over a network of computers is freaking visionary. Unlike Tron, which set people’s understanding of computers back a decade, Neuromancer is the future.

What is most relevant to blogging is his vision of celebrity and media that make up the ideological backdrop of Idoru. The novel is set in the not-too-distant future where mass media has continued to throw its net wider and wider, where, as Andy Warhol said in what must be the most accurate prediction ever made, “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Murderers are famous, the parents of their victims are famous, college students fake kidnappings to get on television, unaccomplished debutantes are famous for nothing other than ostentation, people become famous when sex tapes “accidentally” find there way on to the Internet, people elbow their way onto television for opportunities to boast about things that previously one wouldn’t even want one’s neighbors to know. Actually, I am talking about the present, but imagine this trend married to the myriad of widely affordable media production and distribution technologies chased out twenty years into the future. With thousands of television channels to fill up and with everyone’s vanity site on the Internet and with no gatekeepers, fame will devolve to the masses. Gibson has one of his characters describe it thus:

“Nobody’s really famous anymore, Laney. Have you noticed that?…I mean really famous. There’s not much fame left, not in the old sense. Not enough to go around…We learned to print money off this stuff,” she said. “Coin of our realm. Now we’ve printed too much; even the audience knows. It shows in the ratings…Except,” she said… “when we decide to destroy one.” (6-7)

Gibson spends the opening chapters of the book describing how derelict protagonist Colin Laney lost his previous job as a “researcher” at a tabloid news show called Slitscan. In this future, like our present, an increasing proportion of people’s transactions are being passively recorded in corporate databases. And also as in our present, some companies exist solely to purchase information, correlate disparate pieces in useful ways and sell it to those who might put it to some (usually pernicious) use. In this novel, Slitscan had a questionable relationship with such a data agglomeration corporation called DatAmerica and Laney’s job was to troll through the data trails left by celebrities looking for the “nodal points” — the confluences of data — that indicated something gossip-worthy for the show to report.

Laney was not, he was careful to point out, a voyeur. He had a peculiar knack with data collection architectures, and a medically documented concentration deficit that he could toggle, under certain conditions, into a state of pathological hyperfocus…he was an intuitive fisher of patterns of information: of the sort of signature a particular individual inadvertently created in the net as he or she went about the mundane yet endlessly multiplex business of life in a digital society. (30-31)

Laney was fired when, while researching the mistress of a celebrity, it became clear to him from her data trail that she intended to commit suicide and he tried unsuccessfully to intervene. Here Laney checks back with his mark after returning from a vacation:

The nodal point was different now, though he had no language to describe the change. He sifted the countless fragments that had clustered around Alison Shires in his absence, feeling for the source of his earlier conviction. He called up the music that she’d accessed while he’d been in Mexico, playing each song in the order of her selection. He found her choices had grown more life-affirming; she’d moved to a new provider, Upful Groupvine, whose relentlessly positive product was the musical equivalent of the Good News Channel.

Cross-indexing her charges against the records of her credit-provider and its credit retailers, he produced a list of everything she’d purchased in the past week. Six-pack, blades, Tokkai carton opener. Did she own a Tokkai carton opener? But then he remembered Kathy’s advice, that this was the part of research most prone to produce serious transference, the point at which the researcher’s intimacy with the subject could lead to loss of perspective. “It’s often easiest for us to identify at the retail level, Laney. We are a shopping species. Find yourself buying a different brand of frozen peas because the subject, watch out.” (66-67)

Before excerpting a passage where Gibson describes the future of gossip journalism, let me remind you that this is Gibson’s view from 1996, when MTV’s The Real World was only in its 4th season, the O.J. Simpson trial was just over, Monica Lexinsky’s blue dress was stain-free and Survivor was still four years off:

Slitscan was descended from “reality” programming and the network tabloids of the late twentieth century, but it resembled them no more than some large, swift, bipedal carnivore resembled its sluggish, shallow-dwelling ancestors. Slitscan was the mature form, supporting fully global franchises. Slitscan’s revenues had paid for entire satellites and built the building he worked in in Burbank.

Slitscan was a show so popular that it had evolved into something akin to the old idea of a network. It was flanked and buffered by spinoffs and peripherals, each designed to shunt the viewer back to the crucial core, the familiar and reliably bloody alter that one of Laney’s Mexican co-workers called Smoking Mirror.

It was impossible to work at Slitscan without a sense of participating in history, or else what Kathy Torrance would argue had replaced history. Slitscan itself, Laney suspected, might be one of those larger nodal points he sometimes found himself trying to imagine, an informational peculiarity opening into some unthinkably deeper structure.

In his quest for lesser nodal points, the sort that Kathy sent him into DatAmerica to locate, Laney had already affected the course of municipal elections, the market in patent gene futures, abortion laws in the state of New Jersey, and the spin on an ecstatic pro-euthanasia movement (or suicide cult, depending) called Cease Upon the Midnight, not to mention the lives and careers of several dozen celebrities of various kinds.

Not always for the worst, either, in terms of what the show’s subjects might have wished for themselves. Kathy’s segment on the Dukes of Nuke ‘Em, exposing the band’s exclusive predilection for Iraqi fetal tissue, had sent their subsequent release instant platinum (and had resulted in show-trials and public hangings in Baghdad, but he supposed life was hard there to begin with). (50-52)

Of course, something like Slitscan — or the Jerry Springer Show, Cops, E True Hollywood Story, Average Joe or The Fifth Wheel in our time — could not exist were it not for the sadistic voyeurism of the masses. I select this passage as much to satisfying my own snickering elitism as to illustrate the lust for other people’s misery that comprises our current and future television viewing audience:

…Slitscan’s audience…is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections. (35-36)

Of course one can already see aspects of this world coming into being. Corporations are harvesting, agglomerating and correlating information at a frightening and increasing rate — but that is for another post. What I am thinking about here is the voyeuristic and micro-celebrity aspects of our quickening information age. I have a friend who reads several people’s blogs on an occasional basis, some of whom he has never even met. Of one that he hasn’t met, he maintains that this blogger is teetering on the brink of an infidelity with a coworker against his current girlfriend — an infidelity, the imminence of which he himself is not yet aware! My friend keeps returning to this blog awaiting the climactic post as if it were a soap opera.

There you have it: micro-celebrity, sadistic voyeurism, a readable data trail from which one might extrapolate future behavior with a minimal amount of theory. Admittedly, my friend is following an intentional data trail rather than a passive one, but the small difference between this situation and that of Gibson’s Laney anticipating the suicide is striking.

I don’t absolve myself of any of this. I loved the show Trauma: Real Life in the ER, which is about as sadistic of a voyeurism as you’ll find. I did say in the “Inaugural Post” that I consider this a “deeply improprietious endeavor.” I am, however, aware of the context in which I embark upon this effort.