“The Prince of Cringe”

I thought only I had this reaction — but it’s gratifying to know at least one other person feels this way.

From an article in The Compact:

The real meat of Harry & Meghan is vengeance, and lots of it. The Duke and Duchess attempt to settle scores against everyone on the planet the couple feels wronged by. The duo makes it clear that they are the Goodies and almost everyone else is Baddies, whether it’s the British royals, Meghan’s dad’s side of the family, the clickbaity media, or the gossip-loving public. Hell, even Twitter randos get dragged. By the time Harry has blamed his own family for his personal misery and voluntary exile, the press for his mother’s death and wife’s miscarriage, and Brexit on Meghan-hating British voters, well—I was ready for one of HBO’s fire-breathing CGI dragons to burst out of some secret chamber of the couple’s posh Los Angeles mansion and spare us from more.

Had to keep the headline, it seemed appropriate.

Zizek (presciently) on virtual reality

From all the way back in 2004 (!), in “Conversations with Zizek”, between Slavoj Zizek and Glyn Daly:

As a result, the taste of reality we get today comes from products, situations, or actions deprived of their substance: In today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties … as warfare without warfare … up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of Other deprived of its Otherness.

Virtual reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its sub­stance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real – in the same way that decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being the real thing, so virtual reality is experienced as reality without being real.

On Madness

From an article in the Tablet:

Entire nations can go insane. Here’s a way to test if we’re headed that way: Watch five minutes of TikTok—anything related to politics, beauty tips, or social justice. Follow that up with five minutes of MSNBC, then the same amount of Fox News. Next, read a chapter of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility—any chapter. Lastly, carefully scan some QAnon Reddit posts. Immediately after doing all this, take a shower and then ask yourself: Is American political culture not in the throes of degenerative madness? Might the seemingly stable present be attributable to the fact that we remain too rich, militarily impenetrable, and geographically insulated to face the full consequences of our psychological derangement?

The many nostalgias of Harry Potter

I had pre-ordered the illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which arrived this week (more on that later!) and made me think about the layers of feelings related to this … world.

First, there is the nostalgia of just being a series of books but one has read 20 years ago. That is, of a world that is different from the regular world, and which one has inhabited in detail through the books. The “wizarding world” is something familiar … and something left behind.

Second, there is the nostalgia of having the “normal“ word in the book be one that has itself been lost — in the sense of not being at all recognizable amid the world today. The way people act and relate to each other is … very much a “90s world”.

Third, there is the nostalgia of this world not only being “a long time ago“, but also being separated from the present by the huge gap in technology in human lives.

The magical people can be chuckled at for saying “fellytones” when they mean “telephones”, but wtf is a telephone today?

It isn’t just that the technology used is different, but that the modern current world is

a fundamental transformation office into a sort of cyborg individual call Ma which has changed utterly how we act, how we behave, but also what we believe in or aspire to.

Fourth, it is further nostalgic and that there is no point in imagining a separate parallel world of magic anymore, or at least not in the way of a group of people existing alongside us, as the book describes. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras would spot them, amateurs would find Hogwarts Castle on a map. And wait till the magical kids discover the legalized brain drugs of social media.

Finally, fifth, the forms of allusion and manipulation alluded to sound trivial or ridiculous, when compared to even “cheap consumer technology” in the present day. Moving pictures? Yawn.

So, what of it? Is there anything that could count as an equivalent today? Dunno yet.

There is no lack of yearning for a different world, just the inability to imagine one, which lends our current dystopia a desperate “there is no alternative“ tinge to it.

Yet, the “magical“ people in Rowling’s world are able to display a sense of camaraderie and ethics and just basic goodness. This essential human-ness is likely what still allowschildren to relate to the characters today, and … this might be a quality to aspire to when thinking of a similar counter-world, in the present day.

TIL (thanks to Ed West)

Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government in 1917, was born in 1881 and lived until 1970, having escaped Russia following the Bolshevik takeover. He died in New York where he held a chair in War, Peace and Revolution Studies and would see anti-Vietnam protests outside his office.

Obsolescence

My Powerbeats headphones broke apart today.

I wanted to get a replacement, but I found it isn’t made any more.

I looked for the closest equivalent and didn’t find one 1.

I found this comparison recent products, and while they are better in many ways (active noise cancellation, spatial audio, etc) they all have a lower battery life (the Powerbeats had a battery life of 15 hours!)

I will end up getting one of the new ones, but not without some grumbling.2


  1. The Beats Flex counts if you neglect the over-the-ears-ness and focus on the connecting-wire-ness of the Powerbeats ↩︎

  2. I remembered a talk I had heard many years ago, during a phase of watching everything by Neil Postman I could find, where he had described how, wanting to buy a new car, he had been unable to find one where he could simply roll the windows up and down (i.e. without “power windows”). I’d like to believe my case is different, but I’m aware I’m probably sounding like a grumpy old fella right now. ↩︎

What’s in a name

Three years ago, the New York Times published this article.

It was about “the fourth spy” at Los Alamos (in addition to the previously known ones, Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and David Greenglass)

What’s funky here is this line, right out of a movie:

In July 1945, the study reported, he was “part of a unit monitoring seismological effects” of the first detonation of the atomic device. His Soviet code name was Godsend, and he came to Los Alamos from a family of spies.

In case the “family of spies” bit seems far-fetched:

In 2012, Mr. Klehr obtained newly declassified F.B.I. files on informants who had successfully penetrated the Communist Party of the United States. Suddenly, he started seeing references to the Seborers, and major parts of the atomic puzzle fell into place: Oscar was Godsend, Stuart was Godfather and their older brother Max was Relative.

There you go. Like the Incredibles, just the … opposite, I guess.

Long 90s

While I was browsing the selection of streaming movies recently, and looking at the year each was made, I realized that in some subjective sense the kind of movies changed around 2011-13.

For example, there were these campy comedy movies with Jack Black that I cannot imagine being made today (and ditto for “simple story” movies, or “niche & interesting” movies).

Some of the changes are likely related to the “changed economics” of movies these days, some to the expectations to make money, and some to others.

It feels like there was a period that began with the end of the Cold War, and that ended with … perhaps the rise of ubiquitous social media and the present stage of big-budget mono-culture movies.

Of course, this might just be me over-thinking things.

On Citizenship, and the Republic

I was reflecting on a process which began fifteen odd years ago and recently came to a conclusion.

There is a mixture of feelings about what constitutes “America”.

On one hand, I feel a broad agreement with “values it historically represented” and with “the thoughts and works of Americans” in science and technology and literature, over the years.

On the other hand, I feel a broad disagreement with various bits of foreign policy, as well as a few “recent trends”.

It hasn’t been clear to me how I should resolve these conflicting sentiments.

Are they just intertwined parts of the same? Is it Like “the case of Jekyll and Hyde”, except writ large over a country?

It felt schizophrenic.

One way of reconciling this that occurred to me, and since then feels quite natural to me now, is to separate out two elements of America: Republic and Empire.

Of these, the “Empire” is what exists in a practical sense across the world, and then feeds back in various ways into policy and culture, national and domestic.

And of these, the “Republic” is what people (claim to) owe allegiance to, which “owns symbols” like the flag and the constitution, and which has formal (or, moral) claim in turn over institutions of government.

Both exist at varying levels of significance, at the same time, and with lesser or greater amount of symbiosis.

I will noodle about this over time, but this does seem to be a useful way of looking at “what America is“.

Hyper-tapping

There is a bewildering variety of niches in the world. Competitive Tetris play is one of them.

Reading through an article like this one makes me giddy.

Almost all players at the time maneuvered pieces into place by holding the directional keys down on the retro NES controllers. Instead of opting for this method, Saelee learned to “hypertap” from another player named Koji “Koryan” Nishio. 

… Saelee learned to flex his arm and manually press the directional buttons more quickly than the classic game would automatically shift the pieces, enabling him to react faster at the game’s highest speed …

And … I know we live in the Twitch era and even twenty years ago I came across Starcraft tournaments staged with fanfare, but who buys tickets to sit in a hall and watch two teenagers play Tetris? These guys do:

The 2019 Classic Tetris World Championship. Yes, there is such a thing.

Martinez told Saelee that he had something in the works. It was a new method of playing classic Tetris that he called “rolling.” Instead of hypertapping, which was rather difficult to learn and punishing on the body, Martinez’s new method of rolling involved drumming his fingers on the back of the NES controller, putting pressure on the buttons on the other side.

I’m telling you, this is an optimistic story right here.

If people can put this much effort into getting super-human at Tetris — Tetris! — there is no limit to human potential.

“This is how we roll