Titans of Cultural Industry

I was reading this reddit thread about the creator of Spongebob Squarepants passing away. A lot of the commenters were mentioning the shared culture in the USA regarding the shared cultural references that the show provided, as millions of children in the US grew up watching the series. It reminded me of something I wanted to write about: the change in default culture in America.

Think about founding fathers America: what was the default culture? Probably the Church. It makes sense back when everyone was either a white farmer or a black slave, because the slaves were also basically pressed into spiritual chains along with literal chains. As everyone attended church and were mostly NOT Catholic, I’d guess the system of power in the culture was decentralized – sure, the churches all wielded power in their own communities, but they didn’t have to report back to the Archdiocese and the Pope. So each community would practice their own forms of Christianity with their little sprinkles thrown in to make them snowflakes. What does this mean? In the broad strokes, people in America could hold assumptions about their neighbors that would be broadly true: They believe in a hell. They believe our lord and Savior Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us all from eternal damnation and so forth, for the major tenets of Christianity. But because each church is left to their own devices, they can come up with weird, separate interpretations of the core tenets. Think of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons: radically different flavors of Christianity, but still beholden to Christianity nonetheless.  However, in modern times, this is no longer true.

Modern Americans are moving away from religion. Christianity, as the default religion in America, is also going into a decline in terms of membership rates. The Church is no longer the pillar of the community. Being Christian is no longer the default for America as a whole, though it is in many pockets of America. What does this mean? Churches don’t have as much sway in controlling culture in America. Instead of people hanging out and bonding in Church, they moved on to different things. For a period, it was watching TV. Which brings me to my starting point: people on the internet talking about Spongebob. TV was also a centralizing force: sure, there were tons of different channels, but in reality there was only a pocket full of channels aimed at specific demographics. If you were a 10 year old kid, you probably weren’t going to be watching Fox News – you’d generally watch Disney Channel, Nickolodeon, or Cartoon Network. (In my case, I also watched a lot of Iron Chef on Food Network. To this day, I believe the dub for IC remains one of the best localizations done for a show period. Super Canadian though.) If you were a kid in America during this certain period, you would therefore expect your fellow kids to watch television as well. Of course, the era of TV peaked a while ago, and now we’ve moved on to the next phase: The Internet.

Internet is different from the two previous eras in that watering holes are much more balkanized in comparison. There’s still an oligopoly – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, etc all control large swathes of the internet. But what’s different about the internet is there is no arbitrary restrictions on where people can go: there’s way more niches that exist inside and outside of these watering holes. Reddit, while being a centralizing force, also decentralizes interest groups into thousands of smaller subcommunities that pursue their own interests, while still being in unifying them with a larger default community. All the other social networks have their niches, but not as explicitly structured as Reddit.  These companies feel like juggernauts that will stick around for some time, but you have to think all the previous titans felt similarly. Now look at TV numbers: it’s like a damn that has started breaking through. It makes me think: What’s the next cultural titan on the horizon? My money is on Earth stewardship in the vein of Avatar, after the environment rises up and destroys large swathes of humanity. Or maybe Mad Max style “The strongest rules” enclaves sweep over the littered remains of humanity. As for what I’m hoping we get? The AI revolution, with Matrix cocoons for all. I’m egalitarian like that.

Devaluing Content – On the Internet of Shit

If you look at the current wave of the internet, the dominant financial force is the move to social media. Reddit, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s no longer the hot new thing, but a part of entrenched conglomerates coming after your time and attention. Here’s a hot button issue that’s increasingly talked about now: drinking from the internet firehose. Back in the 90’s, the internet was a small place. Now, everyone’s connected, and everyone’s consuming content. There’s a never ending stream of new content being produced relentlessly for people to consume, and huge incentives to keep producing more. Most of it ends up being shit. This is normal.

One interesting thing about the rise of social media is the decentralization of content production – instead of having curated sources for content, like broadcast television and movie theaters pre-internet, now anyone can make something and upload it to the internet. The part that’s been centralized is the distribution process, the part owned by these social networks. Now, I’m not going to say this decentralization is all inherently bad – that would be a broad and sweeping generalization. There’s some great stuff about opening the floodgates for people to make stuff; If I have an issue fixing my car/electronics/etc, the first thing I’d think of doing is hopping on youtube to see if someone has made a video detailing the repair process. A lot of niche subjects are routinely disseminated on youtube, to the benefit of the niche groups and to passive consumers. But as one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away.

One group that’s suffered tremendously from the advent of social media is the pre-internet content producers. I’m thinking of media conglomerates that own TV studios, newspapers, music production companies, and so forth. While I give approximately zero shits about the RIAA, I do feel like newspapers drawing the short stick is bad for everyone. While newspaper companies aren’t the sole source of investigative journalism, they are the source of like 90%* of investigative journalism in America. Therefore, financially ruining these institutions have a negative effect overall, assuming you believe journalism is a necessary service to the good of your country.

Discuss how constant media production devalues content in general. Link this to devaluation of journalism because content is expected to be free now, or supported solely by advertisements. Mention unavoidable costs of investigative journalism and come to conclusion that it’s unsustainable for man to live on ads alone. Talk about reverting back to patron model with patreon, and NYT asking for handouts.

Newspapers need to move to new model – but what is sustainable that includes hard costs of doing business? Needs to be reliable – thus subscription model. People aren’t paying for content, but expect it anyway and it should be cheap and plentiful. The meat and potatoes ends up being investigative journalism. People have to be incentivized to pay for it somehow. I’m optimistic that there’ll be a sustainable revenue stream for journalism in the future, when we hash out the economics of doing business on the internet. In the meantime, though, journalists are fucked.

*These numbers are sourced from the department of made up bullshit

Star Trek Thoughts

I’ve been watching some OG Trek recently and noticed some niggling issues that I wanted to address.

There’s too many references to current knowledge. For example, the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais” is all about the Greek pantheon of gods from ancient earth history. It’s a cultural touchstone for western culture, but I’d imagine that Trek time thousands of years into the future would have a different set of cultural touchstones, and therefore this would be a bit obscure. I’d prefer that Trek would keep to more evergreen topics instead of having callbacks like this.

In the episode “Mirror, Mirror”, Kirk and co. are warped to parallel universe Trek where the federation is an evil empire that enslaves other nations. Evil Spock is denoted by his goatee. Evil Kirk is also transplanted to OG Trek world, and is detained instantly by normal Spock, who realizes something’s off. Evil Kirk’s reaction? “Why are you imprisoning me? Where’s your beard?” At least Evil Kirk has his priorities in order. Also funny to me that despite being in a bizarro evil universe, Kirk is still bros with evil Spock and can spare some time to have heart to heart. The funniest part of the episode was how Jim still had all this time to seduce Marlena despite the time crunch and being in this environment where everyone wanted to kill him. Normal Kirk also has his priorities in order.

Amok Time:  wherein Spock is dying because he can’t bust a nut. But his symptoms magically go away after he believes he’s killed Jim. Very strange to contemplate overall: basic Vulcan biology requires them to either kill someone or fuck someone every ten years or they die, I guess. Also, for such a logical race, their explanations are a bit lacking: even though Jim had the right to deny the death match with Spock as an outsider, T’pau and co. never bothered to explain that he was accepting a fight to the death in the first place. What’s the point of trying to be fair if you’re not going to both ameliorating the information asymmetry?

Basically, Old Trek has some problems, but everything does, really.

Creation vs Consumption

The Pareto principle is the general idea that most things can be broken into an 80/20 split – that is, you can gain 80% of the benefits of doing something in 20% of the time and vice versa.  The actual percentages don’t matter – the general principle is what’s important: a small portion of the work takes up most of your time, but conversely, a large portion of the work is done can be done in a relatively small portion of time. This principle also holds for the producer/consumer divide, which is as follows: for communities, most of the work done to sustain the community is produced by a small portion of users, while the rest of the community passively receive the benefits of membership.

Here’s a more concrete example: Reddit power users. Power users are the producers taken to the next level: they generate new posts and report things to different subreddits to increase user engagement in the form of upvotes and comments. You also have reddit users who post, but only on occasion. Then you have users who only consume – people who only ever leave comments (I fall in this category) and lurkers who never even comment.

When I apply this distribution to my own life, I realize I spend most of my time as a passive consumer. In fact, it seems like modern society is pushing people in that direction further and further. It may not be an intentional broader strategy, but the influx of various media streams call on users to consume more and more, which naturally leaves less time to produce. Social media naturally provides easy paths for people to mindlessly consume – the endless loop of facebook posts harkens to the model, and the constant stream of new posts on reddit also can facilitate the content consumption cycle. Same goes for snapchat, instagram, etc. Then, there’s competing media companies like Netflix/every other streaming site that gives viewers an infinite stream of videos to spend your time. Netflix in particular is conducive to the consumption format, releasing shows in a way that facilitates binge watching by dropping all the episodes at once when a show is released. I don’t think this is a big deal, as the episodic nature of shows is a holdover from television days anyway, but Netflix is clearly aware of the binge watching facet of their distribution strategy and in fact encourages it.

Anyways, my point is, even though my only outlet of production is this blog, and I barely write as it is, I kind of realize how difficult it is to produce things. I can spend anywhere from 1-2 hours on a simple stream of consciousness blog post, but if I decide to carefully go over a topic and do some edits, a post can take me several hours. On the other hand, it only takes me like 5 minutes to read my post. Clearly, the work that goes into consuming is nowhere on the level of actually producing the work in question. When I think of all the books that have been written, TV shows made, movies produced, reddit posts created, etc. I think, “Damn, that shit must have taken forever.” Anyways, I’m going to try to start producing more.

All Or Nothing Review

All or Nothing is a TV series on Amazon Video that follows a sports team through one season of their respective sport. It originally started as a behind the scenes documentary of the NFL, focusing on the Arizona Cardinals. However, they’ve now expanded to rugby and soccer. I’ve only watched the football seasons, but in general the show is really compelling.

Elements I like:

  • The storytelling: you get to put faces to names. If you have no background in football, you’re now given context behind the players’ and the coaches’ motivations in the decisions. You get to see how the team develops throughout a season.
  • The behind the scenes stuff: similar to above, you see a lot more of the people building the team than you do normally. Talking to my brother (who actually follows football), he was surprised at how Bruce Arians (the head coach of the Cardinals) comes across. I guess his personality appeared completely different in broadcasts than portrayed in the documentary. Cursed a lot more, for one. You get to see players have prayer sessions about Donald Trump’s comments on racial inequality – pretty surreal.
  • The team building: Of course, coaching is a large part of building a good team, but you really get to see the nitty gritty of how these organizations construct teams and foster players to direct the team into the type of team they envision. Strategizing first/second/etc round draft picks to fill in the pieces they need, or targeting good value players, etc. The Cardinals picked up some  veteran players that had been written off as past their prime and integrated them into their game plan in their small areas of expertise to maintain high utility.
  • The inside culture and how the coaches and players build the team. In the second episode of the current season with the Dallas Cowboys, you see how the coaches explicitly build comraderie by having a meeting session once a week where players shake hands and hug it out. Constant physical contact and physical affection naturally helps build relationships over time even if the activity may seem contrived.

Of course, the show lives and dies by the quality of the team they follow, so it can be inconsistent. I thought the first season with the Cardinals was great. The second season with the Rams was a bit boring. The third season with the Cowboys is shaping up to be pretty good, so far. Overall, worth watching.

Internet White Whales

I’m writing about this to hopefully get it off my chest – I’m beginning to loose faith in ever finding one of my white whales. For those unfamiliar, a white whale is the concept of a highly sought after item that has long been out of reach of a person. The prototypical example being Ahab and Moby Dick, the namesake of the white whale. The operative concept being the desire for this item growing over time as it remains continuously out of reach.

Now, there’s a huge spectrum of white whales, and different categories. On the extreme end, it can be something akin to a person with a missing family member who’s held out hope for years, or decades, of reuniting with this person. On the opposite spectrum, you have more trivial things like foods or brands that remind people of their childhoods or of home. There was even a story on NPR about a guy who wanted to recreate a childhood brand of cookies that was very similar to an Oreo.

As for categories, this is a variation of the spectrum: like I said, food stuffs is a popular white whale category. The taste of home is a big one you see a lot in media. Think of the ending of Ratatouille. Another big one today is the internet. With the tremendously short-lived half life of web sites and internet links today, internet white whales abound. Due to the inherent instability and cost of web servers in the long run, it’s unlikely that any particular web site or piece of content will be accessible even a decade from now, unless that content makes someone money. Also, because of the constant information overload of new content being produced on daily basis, older data becomes harder to find as well. It becomes harder to find things as they age on the internet – that’s essentially a fact. Take a look at torrent sites – the number of sharers goes down proportionally to the age of the link. With these factors, it’s likely that most people browsing the web for extended periods of time probably have a few internet white whales of their own.

Which leads to my main point: my own internet white whale. Years ago, I viewed a pornographic video of a farmer or rancher’s daughter having mutual intercourse with her father’s employees, a group of farm hands. It was an interracial video, a mix of black and white farmhands. From what I recall, it was dated even when I watched it, quite possibly a retro porn video from the 90’s. While I didn’t think too much of the video at the time, I confess, it’s stayed in the back of my mind for quite a while now. I’ve spent more than a few hours fruitlessly searching on many a porn site. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate the video since.

One element that made it so memorable to me was the sense of single minded belonging in the group, all in the mutual goal of fucking this girl senseless. What crystallized as a white whale for me was the following moment: at one point in the video, two of the guys are changing positions – a white cowboy swaps out black cowboy can penetrate her. As they’re swapping, the white man utters: “Git ‘er, black snek”. The sense of camaraderie and cooperation emanating from this video astounded me. I could visualize the verisimilitude of the scenario: this is a group of coworkers who mesh so well together, that for them, they truly don’t see color. Not that it isn’t there – as the farmhand acknowledges his peer’s blackness – it’s that it’s nothing more than the color of the man’s skin. They had such a tight knit bond that they felt comfortable being naked and having an orgy together. It wasn’t as if it was something done in silent embarrassment, either – it was an environment where the group was in such harmony with their egos that this man could feel comfortable encouraging his coworker to fuck the shit out of this girl with all sincerity.

I feel as time has gone by, I’ve probably begun viewing this memory with rose tinted glasses. Unfortunately, as I’ve never encountered the video again, I’ll never know how close to reality my imagination captured the situation. Such is the case with all white whales, I suppose.

Interviewing: Hard as Balls?

The answer may surprise you!

 

I’m prepping to get a new developing gig. I heard of these interview services, where you’re matched up with another developer in search of a job to do technical interviews. I figured it’d be good practice before having to do the real thing. How was it? In the words of the immortal Egg Shen,

 

Totally bombed it. I’m glad it was only a practice interview, because I would have gotten an immediate rejection. What’s more, I realized how much I struggle not only with technical questions, but live interviewing. The difficulty of the question was magnified tenfold simply by virtue of the fact that there was another person on the end of my screen watching me while I worked.

It reminds me of martial arts – I’d been taking some kickboxing classes, and thought I was improving in terms of technique. I’m not going to lie, I felt like I was becoming more badass. Then, I tried sparring for the first time. We were doing kicks only, which made me feel better because at least I wouldn’t get my nose broken. I still couldn’t do shit, though. Keep in mind, the other guy was also an amateur, and we were going as light as possible – we weren’t trying to kill each other, but I realized how hard it is to actually fight a living being. Someone who’s moving and throwing is much harder than a heavy bag. I had the same revelation when going from practicing on a heavy bag to moving on mitts – form and technique go out the window straight away. You have to adapt to higher levels of stress that mock the real thing as close as possible. With that in mind, I feel like my shit interview today was a win in disguise – that was a bomb that didn’t go into production, if you will.

That leads me to my next point – not only is performing under pressure difficult, it’s also hard to accept criticism. You have to be vulnerable enough to open yourself up to accepting your flaws. That’s a lot to swallow to try to get a job. Having said that, I do think it’s helpful and necessary, so I’ll keep going at it. Hopefully, I can hit a point where I become merely mediocre and pass most average interviews.

Read by Learning

There’s this manga series I like to read, but for whatever reason, the translation group stopped releasing English scans of the series. I can’t read Japanese, but I did find Chinese translations. However, my Chinese ability is a bit rudimentary. To get around this, I use Google Translate to interpret phrases and characters I’m unfamiliar with.

Here’s my strategy: translate the whole phrase and see if it makes sense. Then, I’ll pick out words and translate it as is to see if it can be interpreted in other ways as well. Google Translate has to choose one interpretation for a sentence which might not be accurate, as it might not have the context for certain words.

If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese, there are several methods for keyboard input. I use two. The first is pinyin. Pinyin is a romanized typing system for Chinese. Once you learn the system, you can figure out the pronunciation and the tone of the word. This is great for learners because Chinese characters otherwise have no inherent way to distinguish the pronunciation method or intonation. If you’re following, then this question should come up: If I’m reading a comic with Chinese characters and I don’t understand the meaning, how do I look it up? I can’t type up words I don’t know, after all. That’s where the second input system comes in: handwriting.

When it comes to writing Chinese characters, the order of the strokes matter. There’s also some general guidelines for writing them – the best to remember is to start top down, left to right. There’s also categories of strokes, which leads to familiarity with patterns over time. Therefore, when writing characters on my phone, the general quality of my handwriting doesn’t matter too much as long as I follow the stroke order. This is great because I have shit writing. Now, for new words, you might wonder how I can figure out the stroke order if it really matters that much. As stated earlier, there are some general guidelines you can follow – starting top to bottom, left to right. This guideline isn’t true 100% of the time, but it is true about 80% of the times. You can generally remember the patterns for which this isn’t the case. Second, many characters are often composed of simpler characters, called radicals. Radicals are kinda like the building blocks for many other characters. They are words that have meaning, but when used in other characters, they can occasionally give you a hint on the new character. The included radical can imply either a similar meaning or pronunciation. Also, once you become more familiar with the most common radicals, you can decompose most characters (or large portions of the characters) into their constituent radicals. Learning vocabulary no longer becomes an exercise of remembering whole new characters, but combinations of old characters to form new ones.

Here’s the system as a whole: I don’t understand some words, I write it in Google Translate. Translate gives the meaning and also the pinyin meaning of the characters, which will allow me to incorporate new vocabulary in my speech as well. For phrases that come up often, I’ll learn it over time and get a better feel for colloquial language.

The biggest problem with this method is for comics like the one I’m reading now that uses a lot of domain specific jargon – the language I’m learning might not be that helpful for everyday use. This method might be pretty good for series that involve more mundane topics though. Slice of life, etc.

Mammon: Best Idol?

There’s a famous expression, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Which is a damn shame, because money fucking rules. I don’t just mean in the typical sense, in that money opens up a lot of doors and also lets you buy cool ass shit – I mean in the sense of its utility and the different abstractions money can represent. For example, there’s a pretty popular movement right now called FIRE, meaning financial independence / early retirement.

The goal of the movement is for its followers to break down their expenditures into a monthly/yearly spend, extrapolate the amount of money needed to live out their remaining lives, and save money to hit that financial goal and live in retirement. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean they have to quit their jobs – this financial independence opens up the door to them doing whatever they want. What’s interesting here is that money is transformed into essentially units of living time – that is, X amounts of dollars now represents Y number of days/months/years in which a person can subsist. As they say, time is money. But in this case, money is time.

Here’s another conversion: money to social status.  The more money you have, the more mobility you have in social status. This gets mixed up a bit with upbringing and social class, because it’s also possible to have a glass ceiling on social status despite your richness. How so? take a look at the concept of the nouveau riche – new money. Think of The Great Gatsby: Tom and Daisy can shit on Gatsby’s parties as ostentatious and flashy – while he may be in the same stratosphere of wealth, he’s still culturally inferior. His concept of displaying wealth is the poor man’s envisioning of how rich people live. Conversely, Tom’s form of wealth is how rich people envision the rich living. It’s another form of putting the poor in their place. “Sure, you seem wealthy, but you know you’re just playing at being rich. You still ain’t shit.”

There’s also the most obvious conversion – money to influence/power. You can see this in political lobbying and businesses. Businesses in particular is an interesting application of converting money into social influence. You take money and human capital and use it to solve a problem in the real world. If you think about it more abstractly, that’s essentially the core concept of a business: applied problem solving. The bigger the company, the bigger the problem. Or, as is the case with all multinationals, more problems getting solved. Its’ obviously good to diversify your business streams as you grow, because the problem you solve might not be a problem in the future. Look at any number of industries that’s been superseded by upgraded technology. You see it happening with television now – the problem of people spending their free time. Television is no longer the only game in town: there’s tons of other forms of media competing for people’s attentions, which lessens the amount of money television broadcasters can make as a whole. You see them resorting to bundling strategies and crippling new media companies (ISP throttling) to keep a competitive advantage, which leads to my next point: At a certain point, you start to see companies strategize around maximizing profit, instead of solving a problem.

Going back to the television example: the core problem that television broadcasters and ISPs solve are no longer the main priority – that is, delivering content. These companies want to maintain current systems and just extract more wealth from subscribers. Television is having a hard time because people are simply leaving the television packages altogether. However, ISPs have the advantage in that many areas are monopolies, so subscribers can’t leave to go to different broadcasters. Ideally, this is the point where government steps in and is like, “Hey, quit dicking around and do your damn job”. But then you get into regulatory capture, and, well… you can see the current state of broadband in the US. It kinda sucks.

Fix My Shit

I’ve been skimming my past blog posts, and it’s the damnedest thing – I noticed my editing is horrendous. Tons of typos, weird word omissions, and in one particular case, it felt like a whole paragraph was lopped off somewhere – I just stopped writing mid-sentence and moved on. I’ve got some ideas about why this happens:

One, I either don’t proofread or I skim. Makes sense why these errors would make it through.

Two, on the occasions that I do proofread, I still miss stuff. Sometimes, when I read sentences in my head, my mind will automatically do the mental mapping for the concepts – that is, I know where I’m going in my writing, so I naturally fill in the blanks. Even when there’s a glaring typo, it gets passed over. There’s a similar concept I read about where people can generally understand words within some degree of spelling error as long as the first and last letter is correct.

Three, even when I do catch errors, I mess up the editing. There’s various ways in which I edit:

  • Simple typographical errors
  • Sentence structure/grammatical errors
  • Rephrasing concepts

With the first, I can fix my errors easily. But with the second and third, I’ll add in new content, but also restructure existing content. What happens is I don’t do a second pass to see if the fixes integrate into the old stuff. Or even if I do make a second pass, I’ll then make some more edits that break the structure again. Basically, I don’t do enough concluding passes. Having said that, it’s kind of a hassle to go to each post and hunt for these errors, because I have to reread each post again to fix it, and then do another pass to confirm my fixes are right. I guess what I’m saying is, someone (not me) should invent a testing framework for writing.