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Aesthetics Internet Culture Politics

Day 1142 and Come See The Violence Inherent in the System

While parked in gridlock caused by the American state department delegation snarling traffic in Tirana, I shared a classic British comedic sketch from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail with a friend who resides part time in the Balkans.

King Arthur is riding through his lands and is asked to contemplate anarcho-syndicalism and the constitutional arrangement most equitable to an offended peasant named Dennis.

Help! Help! I’m being repressed

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Feeling moderately repressed ourselves by the various bureaucrats, politicians, and general institutional disarrays that was in our way, the joke hit home. No matter your station in life, we are all a repressed in someone else’s system.

We can make jokes about staying above the API layer all we like, but the nudging organizational state is finding ways to reduce us to variables. Many of us have become spreadsheet brained. Will it be a gradient descent into the madness of a jackbooted local minima?

Perhaps it better to become the disassociating trader acted by Paul Bettany in Margin Call who simply can’t stomach that level of hypocrisy. He knows we want to play innocent about the violence hidden underneath the abstractions.

“Listen, if you really wanna do this with your life you have to believe you’re necessary and you are. People wanna live like this in their cars and big fuckin’ houses they can’t even pay for, then you’re necessary. The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also wanna, you know, play innocent and pretend they have no idea where it came from. Well, thats more hypocrisy than I’m willing to swallow, so fuck em. Fuck normal peopl

Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) Margin Call

We are all experiencing some level of abstraction from the base layers of reality. Some of us are more academic about it. Some of us are simply more or less unwilling to accept the hypocrisy of it. None of us can opt out completely. Plenty of professions let you get closer to the visceral base reality and then you too can see the violent inherent in the system.

And so we argued over resources and raw power. How abstract can we get? The paleoconomists say “go back to the gold standard” but we can’t. Can we go forward though?

Most of us see that entirely detaching the exchange value of goods from material items and their underlying value is a huge struggle for most people. We wouldn’t have endless discussions about the cost of groceries if it was clear to folks how the market priced physical goods.

Financial markets are fictions where we negotiate material needs like food, shelter, clean water, bodily integrity, and property ownership claims. All need to be priced in. It isn’t fun when the exchange value mechanism completely detaches from that reality. It makes us uneasy. Shrinkflation makes humans feel gaslit.

Humans are physical beings who abstracted our physical needs into an elaborate market system of exchange values. And like that Monty Python sketch, sure it’s a fun joke, a meme if you prefer, but that meme is a reminder to see the violence inherent in the system.

Anyways, I hope Antony Blinken enjoyed his time in Albania and that everyone has a productive weekend in Munich for the neutral ground security conference. Our diplomats have never needed a neutral ground weekend more amirite? The financial engineers will concede that reality. Maybe.

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Travel

Day 1140 and Gridlock

I got myself stuck in downtown city gridlock today. Abs boy am I glad I rarely have to navigate the kind of bumper to bumper traffic of an overbuilt city without a grid. It is no picnic.

There is a category of city that has little in the way of urban planning. They may have legacy of a time with much fewer cars when only a small portion of the citizens could afford to drive.

As cosmopolitan creative classes become wealthier they too want to be able to drive in their city. The money pours in to invest in newer developments and more modern amenities get built. But they never really solve the lack of a grid or roads built for driving.

A lack of proper investment in public transportation only compounds the issue.

Attempting to criss-cross a mess of cars, motorbikes, scooters, and couriers all competing against each other with few clear routes is a slog. I hope I don’t have to repeat it again but I fear this is a permanent feature of some cities.

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Aesthetics Politics

Day 1052 and Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

My mother is a real free thinker hippie iconoclast type. I’ve written extensively about my hippie Whole Earth Catalog meets Silicon Valley progressive technologist upbringing if you’d like to get a taste.

Her generation’s history of counter culture and inevitable rise to power has many cautionary tales we’d do well to review. The limits of starry eyed optimism and the cold hard calculations of power play out in every generation, especially as they age.

I recall her support of Ross Perot in the 92 election only to find us swept up as a country in the Clinton victory. The Clinton repurposing of a 1977 Fleetwood Mac song as its campaign anthem remains a vivid aesthetic memory from my young childhood.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone

Fleetwood Mac “Don’t Stop”

The oddest element of this memory is that while the Clinton victory song may have won as core memory, the deeper aesthetics of the losers have a more visceral hold. My mother’s favorite song was actually used as Ross Perot’s campaign song.

The two must have shared some kind of fatalist streak about America as both chose Patsy Cline’s love ballad Crazy.

My mother can really belt out the pain and agony of Cline’s lyricscrazy for trying and crazy for crying and I’m crazy for loving you.” I can sing it too thanks to the mimicry of childhood.

Maybe I’m crazy too. Maybe we all are. Because Perot, Patsy and my mother got to the punch of the Clinton victory and America’s love affair with thinking about tomorrow.

I knew you’d love me as long as you wanted
And then someday you’d leave me for somebody new

“Crazy” Patsy Cline (written by Willie Nelson)

Categories
Aesthetics Finance

Day 1040 and Easier To Be First

I was telling a friend of mine, only somewhat hyperbolically, that I’d watched “Margin Call” forty times just this year. The actual number is probably half a dozen (my blog’s search function tells me I’ve mentioned it fifteen times) but it’s still a lot for what was a niche drama about the financial crisis.

There is a speech given by Jeremy Irons that sums up perfectly why finance and fashion are fundamentally in the same business.

What have I told you since the first day you stepped into my office? There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first; be smarter; or cheat. Now, I don’t cheat. And although I like to think we have some pretty smart people in this building, it sure is a hell of a lot easier to just be first.

Being first is my game. I’ve taken it from a career in luxury fashion to a career to a career in venture capital. It’s the same fucking job.

It means I often look stupid as I see emerging trends long before the rest of the market gets there. There is a basic math to this which involves status signaling. If you are the type who must do the math to understand how status works as it’s not intuitive to you I recommend this piece.

Just remember that being first is the key to both. And your ability to be first is almost entirely a function of cool. And being cool means not giving a fuck. And if you don’t give a fuck its generally for one of two reasons. Its either because you have the status to do and can get away with it or or you genuinely don’t care.

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

Janis Joplin

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Aesthetics Culture

Day 1028 and Mimicry In The Age of High Variance

Do you recall a time when you “looked up to someone?” I mean this in the genuine possibly naive sense of admiration, not the specific act of being shorter than someone and looking up to meet their gaze.

As 5’3” female I’m basically always looking up. Alas I’ve found that genuine admiration is in much shorter supply in my adulthood than I was led to believe it would be as a child.

I’m sure some of this is the cynicism of my old age, but it’s hard not to notice the impacts of institutional distrust and 24/7 social media on admiration.

We know too much and it’s become harder to forget that homo sapians are irrational hypocritical reactive mammals whose our biology & culture engages us in nearly constant status seeking social games.

Sure you can blame Instagram for making us shallow mimics of prestige and power, but I’d bet your average anthropologist would be happy to walk you through the evolution of simian social dynamics. We’ve always been this way.

The additional complication is that we’ve come to expect more social mobility even as the gap between plebian and aristocrat has seemingly widened. Not that those terms have any static meaning. We no longer have strict birthright nobility as power has become more intertwined with economic power.

Nevertheless it would seem we expect, through such cultural innovations as the American Dream and capitalism, to have a chance at becoming high status ourselves.

It’s no wonder we struggle to find admiration when we see even the least impressive among us are rewarded with baffling sums of wealth, power and prestige. The term influencer is loaded for a reason.

And so our youth are despondent and depressed and our elites venal and sinful. The variance in personal outcomes has never seemed less socially satisfying. What do you mimic if the outcomes on display on your algorithms are at once impossible to achieve and derived from seemingly meaningless actions? I honestly don’t fucking know. You will have to figure that out for yourself now.

Categories
Culture Politics

Day 1025 and Petit Aristocracy

A swirling milieu of discourse has brought a renewed focus in my inbox & timeline on what constitutes the pursuit of excellence; that old Socratic dichotomy of the individual human’s personal virtues and his role as citizen in the wider communal project of civilization. The tensions have never felt so taut to me.

Please forgive my focus on revanchist populism, but the good of the many versus the singular hero is a subject of fascination for both fascists and socialists alike. Costin Alamariu has set the warrior master return traditionalists on fire as he’s come out from under his nom de plume Bronze Age Pervert with a complex overview of the tyrannical Athenian philosopher kings and their cultivation (yes he means eugenics) of antiquity’s aristocracy.

The Marxists are just as loud. We’ve got authoritarian leaning proletarian sympathizers assessing a Marxist history of “progressive” American Wilsonian industrial fascism. And yes you will believe its philosophical impact on German National socialist ideology.

Everywhere I look, we are all debating whose rules matter, from Nature to God to man, and how we should use that authority to determine how we organize. It’s a bit surprising to see intelligentsia overcome with fervor for the proletariat and the aristocracy when you’d imagine both classes look back with disdain at the academic class.

It’s a ping ponging back and forth between the individual and his wider group responsibilities to his people from every ideological direction.

I see it in Luke Burgis and Freddie DeBoer’s concern with mimetic collapse and the recursive artistic malaise. If our system produces no truly novel art is it a failure of our elites to pursue excellence? Is it among our elites where genius and high culture produced? Or is it the opposite? Do we seek out frontiers when pushed from the boundaries of those who build and work?

Noah Smith weighed in on the extropian enthusiasm of our technical class for acceleration. The bourgeoise middle class of mercantilism has evolved to engineering and information technology to drive resource allocation.

As a post enlightenment matter, a petit aristocracy of the technical bourgeois is the most balanced of the positions between the masses yearning to be free and recognition of a desire for leadership earned through meritocracy lending a guiding hand.

As a journalist, Noah Smith is coming from a more intelligentsia orientation but the message of progressive futurism is coming from the patrician side as well. A venture capitalist like Marc Andreessen might not see himself as an elite aristocrat, coming as he did from humble beginnings, but he’s the standard barer for the titan class advocating for technological accelerationism.

I’ll fully admit to a personal bias for techno-optimism and effective accelerationism. But it could simply be self serving. Venkatash Rao thinks this mass discourse on individual versus collective responsibility is simply a whole new cope for an entangled world in disequilibrium.

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Aesthetics Culture Politics

Day 1023 and Automatic Doors

A friend of mine grew up in communist dictatorship. I have learned a lot listening to their stories about what it was like to come of age in a centrally planned economy only to have the country collapse into war and corruption.

They recently shared an insight that floored me. As I mentioned recently, I’ve been rewatching a science fiction show “Man in the High Castle” based on a Philip K. Dick novel about an alternate history in which the Nazis won WW2 and split control of America with the Japanese. My friend decided to watch the show based on my recommendation.

In discussing the show, my friend was most interested in the socioeconomic differences between the technologically superior Reich and the Japanese Empire. It is 1962 the alternative history for context.

Did you notice that in Japanese territory the doors are always opened by people but in the Reich they have automatic doors?

There are no doormen in richer Reich. I had not noticed this detail. They thought it was telling that the Japanese had so many of their people working as unskilled labor. Meanwhile those jobs had been entirely eliminated by automation because of the technological development of the Reich.

Their theory is that this one detail symbolizes precisely why the Nazis had developed the atomic bomb but the Japanese had not in this alternative history.

Perhaps if the soldier had his time freed up by having his technically unnecessary doorman job eliminated by automation their history would have turned out differently. Perhaps the doorman would have found work in a physics lab instead of doing make-work for bureaucrats. If the Japanese had invested more into their technology in this universe perhaps they would have nuclear power too.

They pointed out to me that in America we’ve had automatic doors for decades while in their communist country this very simple technology only arrived when the regime fell.

Being a doorman was a good job after all. The kind of job you can put almost anyone into with little training. Putting people out of work isn’t politically popular for a reason. Automation has a cost. The doormen must find new work.

My friend’s observation was simple. It was potent symbolism. A government can choose what advances are made and what technology is changed or throttled for the greater good. Whether it’s a luxury like automatic doors we shrug it off. The doorman has a job so that’s got to be good right? When the progress being stymied is nuclear energy or artificial intelligence it’s a little more complicated.

Categories
Emotional Work Politics

Day 1015 and Selfish

I think we are entering a selfish age. High trust societies are built from cooperation. When we get more through coordination than we do from conflict we have an incentive build more. Simple supply and demand can teach us a lot about improving the bargain of trusting each other.

Coordination suffers when trust goes down. But we can’t all maintain the same types of trust across all levels of our interactions. Some areas must remain high trust. Tight industries and clear lines of communication can help.

But we have to become intense skeptics to coordinate in otherwise hostile environments. Civilization has a thin veneer. To selfishly live your own life for your own good is often in conflict with others. The boundaries we tolerate are the rules for acceptable competition. This is how we civilize society. There are laws and then there is power.

Maintaining your own power in a crueler world is knowing when to be selfish to the benefit of other people’s coordination problems. Competition is good.

I am more careful in some interactions now because I see the fog of competing interests. Different rules apply to different people. Knowing when rules do and don’t apply can make you crazy. You’ve judged power and norms correctly when sympathy is with you.

Categories
Aesthetics

Day 1007 and Half A Decade Past Premium Mediocrity

I recall somewhat fondly the era of capitalism in which moving your business online was an innovation. The direct to consumer phase of retail and packaged goods is forever tightly tied to interest rates in my mind. Direct to consumer failed as an ethos and a movement for better goods for consumers.

Facebook, Google and Apple are engaged in brutal turf warfare over who owns customer data and let me tell you it isn’t the brands or you as the buyer that benefit.

What was once efficient in reaching ever wider and more specific audiences, the consumer internet has smoothed your identity into some brand’s extremely specific Pyschographic. You know what I mean when I was Lululemon girl and Black Rifle Coffee guy. Don’t worry you think, I’m not a sucker. While typing this on an iPhone.

There was a vague optimism that merely by doing something like bypassing superfluous luxuries like brands (which only served to bamboozle with flash and expense) you could provide a better quality product at a lower cost to your ultimate customer. How naive that seems at the speed of global derivatives based financial products.

How fondly I remember thinking someone could design the Platonic ideal of the tee shirt or provide some basic ultimate end good without confusing merchandising tactics. I’ve never once in my life wanted to decide if the X or ultra version of something was better. Just sell me the one good thing damn it.

But they can’t. Markets compete. The differentiation gets competed away eventually. It began with the “one essential good thing” in a category and ended as a mess of optimization for margin & enshitification and selling new versions of the same audience to whatever sucker can pay the CPM. Remember when we used to pretend you could pay for performance in advertising? Sheryl Sandberg got us good.

There’s a weird thing with scale, where the market can raise the threshold for crappiness and then a truly scaled company can positively exploit those dynamics to provide a genuinely superior good. Amazon can have pretty great basics in the same way gas station chains can have decent coffee. Costco’s hotdog will remain an icon if their standards hold up.

Rory Sutherland an advertising executor has a concept called the “threshold for crappiness” that suggested your local chain sometimes had to up its game to compete when a chain comes in. But markets push downwards as well as upwards.

Venkatash Rao first coined premium mediocrity. Private equity excels at this category. It’s global cosmopolitan striver megabrand. It’s the pretty decent but in a big packaged good sort of way item you get at Whole Foods. Imagine the dreaded diffusion line of a once great luxury brand. Or Michael Kors.

Rao put words to a phenomena that drove me a bit nuts during the height of premium mediocrity in 20117. That was the tipping point for me when the shrinkflation of frothy times body slammed the aesthetic soul of branding.

Now the most mass market experience that is still tasteful and good can compete globally. But sometimes you just long to discover where a local market is genuinely better.

My favorite aspect of being abroad is finding markets where it’s not yet occurred & enjoying a significantly better product for it. It’s my most toxic millennial trait.

Legacy local businesses in small towns or secondary markets simply set a different standard for themselves occasionally from the premium mediocrity of the global markets. But times change. Business models change. Now we have ghost kitchens. And you two have probably purchased a premium mediocre brand and been fine with it.

Categories
Aesthetics Culture

Day 993 and Service Expectations

We are in a weird moment for transactional goods and services. As more people draw inwards towards themselves, the social contract is less clear. What do we expect when we pay someone to do something for us? Do we make small talk? Do we smile? Do we reach for connection?

I went to a nail salon today. I’d called ahead looking for a specific nail technician. I was really relying on having her as I treat pedicures as more of a medical grooming need than a strictly aesthetic one.

I get pedicures mostly because the bending over required for clipping, filing, and cuticle trimming is hard on my Ankylosing Spondylitis. I prefer to have someone handle that grooming for me to avoid the unnecessary discomfort.

Especially because an ingrown nail can be a significant infection for someone like me as I take immune suppressants for my autoimmune condition. A little nick or cut gone wrong can get me quite sick.

I like to know I’m working with a careful nail technician. I went through cosmetology school and am familiar with what is in a safe aesthetician environment.

So I was surprised to find myself trying to communicate via non verbal cues with a gentleman who seemed unclear about what tools to use for what job. The woman is scheduled the appointment with was busy with someone else. I said I’d wait but it got lost in translation.

I got more anxious as an acrylic nail drill got involved. I don’t use acrylics. And I really started to panic when a razor came out. I definitely didn’t want that used on my cuticles.

And I found myself unsure in the moment. Do I just trust this gentleman who cannot understand a word I am saying with razors and drills? Or do I just get up and go?

I stayed for too long. The drill was used on my big toe and cut down too far. I finally after some shock extricated myself and left cash on the table and drove home feeling scared and unsettled without letting him finish.

If we can’t figure out how to communicate with each it’s complicates your social expectations. I didn’t want to ruin a service or not trust the person in front of me. But I also have expectations for the experience and safety from knowing something about the job and it’s safety requirements.

I found myself unsettled by the whole experience. That my expectations are high trust and I find myself simply not being able to make the transactional moment work. I’d failed. I paid in full for a service I didn’t get what I needed. I left.