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Sunday, Feb 12, 2006

Sorry but I just couldn’t resist yet another Grammy scrap, this coming from the veritable Andy Schwartz.


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Saturday, Feb 11, 2006

I guess I am increasingly in the minority on this, but I like food. I like thinking about what I am eating, and about what I am going to eat. I like preparing meals for myself and the people I care about. I like that food tastes like stuff. I like that sometimes it surprises you by tasting slightly different than you expected. It even isn’t the worst thing that it sometimes downright sucks, because that serves as a sort of karmic guarantee that sometimes it would be much better than you expected (as with my souvlaki from Ditmars Gyro Place yesterday.) But if the “food scientists” in pursuit of “snackability” and “mindless munching have their way” all eating will become as thoughtless and perfunctory as breathing, and that whole eating thing will be one more nuisance mastered by technology and obliterated.


That’s the view of eating—the most vital and basic kind of consumption there is—on display in this New York Times Magazine article about presliced apples. The problem with unsliced apples is that you know when you’ve finished one, and you don’t keep right on eating. And apples have the unfortunate tendency to taste different, which invites people to use their judgment when considering them—always a bad thing, people thinking and judging and evaluating. That means they are thinking and not buying automatically. That means they are developing a tatse for exercising a critical faculty, which our culture goes to great lengths to prevent—it’s more convenient for people that way and is really what they want, not to think.


Apples don’t always have the same consistency or sweetness; they reek of the spontaneity of life itself, and therefore don’t suit the soul-sucking consumer economy too well. The genius of snacking from a food manufacturer’s point of view is that you eat regardless of whether you are hungry with a hypnotic shoveling motion—that is unfortunately disrupted by things like biting and chewing or thinking. Processed foods, which boost the profit margins astronomically for agribusiness, thrive on the basis of capitalizing on a populace’s desire for convenience. As is generally true, what purports to be a consumer benefit is really a boon to a producer. Convenience is how companies make money, taking advantage of a lazy consumer’s dream of a universe that exists only for them, where everything is already done for them, down to the slicing of apples off the core. Convenience is what crack cocaine would be if it were an abstract concept.


Sometimes on-the-go snack food is pitched as the answer for a time-squeezed society who needs food to be less of a hassle. But convenience food is part of the problem it purports to solve; it’s a self-reinforcing process that sets one on a treadmill of always pursuing more and more timesaving stratagems. According to Jon Mooallem, who wrote the article, “once the minor hassles of a given food are eliminated, its original version can feel positively insufferable.” Once you stop scheduling time to eat, once you stop treating eating as a kind of daily sacrament, you can never do it fast enough. And (to trot out a metaphor I’ve probably abused by this point) adding convenience to one’s life is like when cities add roads to a congested traffic system. The result is more congestion. By adding convenience, we adapt to a new, faster pace, and then need even more convenience. Soon it will be too much trouble for Americans to shove liquified goop into our pieholes from a tube, and we’ll need something we can snort, or recieve intravenously through a food patch. Maybe we can take in food through our fat asses on specially designed couches and car seats that have transdermal nutrition built into them.


The people behind the pre-sliced apple think they are giving people what they want, “a guilt-free snack food.” But anyone who eats one should be ashamed of himself. Until people start feeling guilty about convenience, a sense of shame about accelerating their lives with no other reason than to accelerate it further, nothing about the direction consumer society is moving will change. It may be inherhent to capitalism to produce exactly this kind of compliant consumer, who values his time as money and seeks to hoard it and waste it via convenience, which makes us always aware of time and how it is always slipping away from us.


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Saturday, Feb 11, 2006

You have a right to worried that the huge telecomm companies want to stick it to you online (and offline) as well as “leeches” like Google: Verizon Executive Calls for End to Google’s ‘Free Lunch’.


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Friday, Feb 10, 2006

I’m not sure I have anything fresh to add to discussions of the sudoku craze. Rob Walker, I think, had a column about it in The New York Times Magazine a while ago, and these ideas are likely derived from that: Its universal appeal probably stems first and foremost from the media feedback loop that has been created about it, affirming it as some aspect of the zeitgeist one should be aware of and assuring everyone that it really is fun and addictive and so on. Beyond that, it transcends language barriers; it liberates users from needing to have verbal skills (like punning, thinking of secondary definitions, etc.) or have a wide base of learning (no trivia or familiarity with history, culture, entertainment, or the past in general is necessary); and it can be made by machine at various levels of difficulty and is thus endlessly reproducible for a wide spread of people, regardless of skill.


The purity of the logic to solving the puzzle has its appeal—no tricks or guesswork, just sheer deduction. There are no layers of meaning to it; just a pure discharge of mental energy in something elegantly useless. It’s the kind of intellect our culture celebrates—the useless noncritical kind—and it epitomizes how Americans often view smart people, as having the ability to perform pointless tasks with expediency, as having this cranial power that is not directed toward anything relevent to anything else. Other cultures seem to have public intellectuals, and a concept of such a person as engaged with social reality, analyzing culture and politics. (America has vapid pundits whose primary function is to “entertain” rather than instruct, staging an ideological stalemate to convey the sense that having an ideological perspective is either pointless or as basically irrelevent as rooting for a sports team. You won’t find a single moment of intelligent discourse on commercial TV in America. Maybe this is true everywhere.) Sudoku is a good way to render intellect harmless. (So it’s fitting that it’s being rolled out for that other brain-zapping device, the cell phone, according to a trendpiece—that prompted my own trendpiece— in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.) That alone may account psychologically for its addictive qualities—it’s enjoyable to burn mental energy and the restlessness that comes with it, the feeling that one should be doing something productive. By producing the right numbers in the right places we can control and master that need to produce without confronting any of the difficulties that come from making something useful or social.


The WSJ article concludes with a quote from a woman who is trying to control her habit around her boyfriend, so that she can “pay more attention to him.” Sudoku not only dissipates intellectual energy, but it also exhausts our need to focus—it forces one to concentrate intensely on something private and hermetically sealed off from reality, and then you can return to reality afterward with the attention deficit that’s expected of all of us to function in our media-oversaturated lives.


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Friday, Feb 10, 2006

I know, I know… I said I’d quit it but… two articles worth noting.


1) ‘American Idol’ Crushes Grammys in Ratings: the title pretty much says it all and you get the idea of the cultural import here.


2) Academy in a funk: Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times is one of my favorite writers: he’s always insightful and clever with his work and he’s been at it for decades now.  In articles like this, he’s not afraid to speak his mind outright and say that the Grammy electorate are a bunch of idiots for not honoring Kanye’s genius.  I agree but I don’t think he should be so surprised about their conservative bend. 


One thing occurs to me though: even though U2 won, we have no idea if it was by a lot or a little.  We don’t even know if most of the 13,000 people who were eligible participants even voted for them (same goes for the Oscars) . Why not make this more transparent and let people know more than just who won?  It would tell us a lot more about the process and where artists really stand rather than just knowing if they’re winners or losers.


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