There is a growing body of literature—if news reports, essays, blogposts (reflexivity duly noted), etc. constitutes such—concerning the contemporary phenomenon of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, an easy shorthand for technologically-optimized efficacy in modern warfare. (The epigram is from an article on college-level UAV training from a recent Times Education Supplement.)
But if UAV has the euphemistic ring of a state school or an STD, or a prophylactic measure obliquely related to the latter—the letters ‘U’ and ‘V’ tend to suggest as much—common parlance prefers the slangy alternative.1 Drones have increasingly made headlines not only as an indication of America’s purported Omega-level superiority in strategically targeted carnage but also as a threat to a justifiably paranoid citizenship. The semantic irony, of course, is that naturally occurring drones are precisely the hive or colony members who do not work, the small fraction of ants or bees whose sole duties are to feed and mate (as opposed to gathering sustenance).2
Yet insofar as its homonymous forms are polysemous—etymologically related despite their semantic divergence—the third meaning of “drone” has particularly relevant subtext for the hapless hoi polloi, an uncannily felicitous connotation for the masses who may be in denial about UAVs.
As a function of human agency, to drone denotes a dull, monotonous manner or tone, colloquially equivalent to ‘carrying on,’ for which alternate descriptors such as discursive, meandering, aimless, etc. vaguely suggest sense of purposeless motion; second-order associations such as ennui and banality evoke a contrary metaphor of inertia or stasis qua static. This twofold characterization ultimately represents a kind of nothingness, specifically a empty signification, vocalization without peaks or troughs, speech sans the variation or modulation that conveys passion, emotional investment, or, as it were, fallibility.
To drone implies background noise, a low-pitched hum that does not register consciously, rather more subtle than the liminal roar of an airplane engine; not stimulus but possibly its very opposite, a soporific or otherwise anesthetic blanket of white noise. A drone becomes part of the landscape, an ontological given of an environment: in a word, omnipresent—the auditory evidence of existence.
Thus, on one hand, a drone is essentially senseless or meaningless, that which goes unnoticed (albeit not necessarily by design); on the other, to drone connotes persistence, super- (or sub-) human degree of endurance that comes at the expense of intelligence or autonomy.
But if the English Language informs our concept of aerial technology as much as it betrays and elucidates our ambivalence towards a paranoid present, another now-quotidian acronym belies its equally bleak subtext. Almost exactly half a century after Turing’s eponymous test entered the lexicon of artificial intelligence, a team at CMU has turned the concept on its head with the CAPTCHA, an oblique insinuation that any upstanding netizen might just be a malicious machine.3 The inverted imperative defines us as that which we are not—bot until proven human—capturing, so to speak, the vague concession that the robots have already won.
Insofar as the current generation of UAVs in service are instruments of mortal hand and eye, these glorified (and lethal) remote-controlled vehicles are not yet autonomous. In fact, both cases underscore the shortcomings of artificial intelligence (cf. employing humans to crack CAPTCHAs), and I was curious to learn of a new service that ‘learns’ from one’s Twitter behavior in order to publish 140-character missives from beyond the grave. Contrary to the social-media-soteriological morbidity of its intended purpose, I can only assume that it would also be possible to use _LivesOnin vivo as well, such that particularly lazy or otherwise uncommitted Twitter users can train their bot-ghosts to emulate their musings for perpetuity.
But I digress: Like its digital analogue, airspace is (for all intents and purposes) infinite, and the point has less to do with whether robots are actually out there than the fact that they are a permanent possibility of our ever-new reality—hovering out of sight as opposed to merely blips on the horizon.
“I guess I am deeply embedded in the ‘myth-making’ process…” –Matthew Niederhauser
A long-delayed (if not long-awaited) follow-up to Part 1. I would also suggest (re)reading my first impressions of the Beijing indie rock scene, and I strongly advise you to listen to the following track while you read this post (and, hopefully, while you do other things in the future):
All photos by the amazing Matthew Niederhauser, who offers an insider’s perspective on the Chinese rock underground, specifically D-22/Maybe Mars:
Wired.com: As an indie rock fan in the United States, I don’t feel like a similar scene could exist here anymore without the bands being marginalized as posers and hipsters. But in your photos there seems to be an authenticity in the subjects that can’t be faked. Is this just my perception as a Westerner looking in, or do you think there’s something about really tough circumstances in China leading to more authentic rock and attitude?
Niederhauser: The socioeconomic circumstances of China cannot be divorced from the music scene.
[These musicians] are repelled by and don’t wish to participate in a largely vacuous and inherently unsustainable consumer culture taking hold of China. While they might not brazenly attack the government, their embrace of such a fringe lifestyle along with the music they produce is a powerful statement in and of itself. This choice comes with a social stigma that is hard to imagine outside of China.
During my second month in Beijing, I continued to explore the indie rock scene, to the extent that this lengthy postscript to my initial thoughts on ‘Beijing Rock City‘ is a felicitous introduction to this second look at the Fabled Chinese Hipster.
With no idea how to go about pirating music, I went out of my way to catch hyped bands such as ReTROS and Pet Conspiracy at their concerts. Meanwhile, I came to enjoy the likes of Carsick Cars and B6—probably my two favorite Chinese acts, at this point—by purchasing their albums (in retrospect, I should have gone pre-teen rock-virgin style and bought every CD I could get my hands on).
In fact, in many ways, it was like going back a decade in time, to those glorious teenage days when every five minutes on Napster yielded a new rock ‘n’ roll gem. In a particularly portentous coincidence, I happened to discover the likes of the Velvet Underground, early Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead in Chinese bootleg form on the relatively lawless streets of Beijing in the early days of cheap CD-burners—as did many of my fellow countrymen (the rebellious teens of my generation, at least), including Zhang Shouwang of Carsick Cars:
The generation before us didn’t have as many chances to get to know the rock music of Western countries, but nowadays we listen to music from many other countries. I believe that when my bands write songs, we might be influenced some elements of Western culture. I think the next generation of bands will be much different than ours.
Carsick Cars is China’s answer to New York’s (/NJ) holy trinity of feedback-drenched songcraft: Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo; in keeping with the fuzz aesthetic, a couple of their songs from the first album are deadringers for Jesus & Mary Chain. Say what you want about influences and imitation, it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll: guitar tones that are simultaneously warm and bright, backed by thick slabs of bass and unfussy drums—and Carsick Cars a damn good band for it.
I’ve been hooked on their hit single (for lack of a better term) “中南海” since I first heard it last fall, after buying their albums directly from Maybe Mars’ headquarters near where I was staying. It’s a fairly simple song: the lyrics consist mostly of one phrase (“中南海”; literally “Middle South Sea” [Zhōng nánhǎi; sounds vaguely like "drunk not high"]) repeated over a catchy riff; the album version disintegrates into a pleasantly noisy breakdown—just to prove that they can—where the song would normally be truncated for radio, before cutting back for one last uplifting refrain.
I meant to comment on J. David Goodman’s (of the Times‘ Spokes blog) Are There Really No Hipsters in China? when it was first posted on Slate three weeks ago, but (what I intended to be) a brief note has somehow mutated into yet another discursive piece on the ever-vilified subculture that I seem to have buried myself in.
Hence, a three-part discussion on a point I mentioned in passing in my previous open [read: incomplete] comment on hipsterdom: are Chinese hipsters more or less authentic than their Western counterparts? Well, it depends on your definition of hipster—which I glossed over in the aforementioned essay—and whether hip(ster)ness and authenticity are mutually exclusive.
The Chinese certainly have history on their side when it comes to bikes; whether or not this is counts as authenticity is less clear. Conversely, there is certainly some degree to which hipsters abuse irony to validate a contemporary subculture that is parasitic on, well, history.
Though there are examples of ironic style on display in China—Mao’s face, red stars, military regalia are today worn with something less than earnestness—there is also more at stake in young people’s fashion choices, making them “less likely to ‘play’ with their dress in a cynical or ironic manner,” Wu explained.
In some sense, the overarching pragmatism that permeates Chinese culture seems to preclude irony on principle. Irony, as a fashion statement, falls on deaf ears: it is, in a manner of speaking, like learning another language. Whereas the Western world is one where we (hipsters or otherwise) can afford to be impractical, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that 99% of the Chinese population would find it inconceivable to spend upwards of two months’ pay on an ostensibly outdated machine for transportation… especially when they are saving up for a car or, at very least, an electric bike (related video).
In other words, biking, in and of itself, simply is not subject to irony: it is a way of life, a symbol of tradition—or rather, the past.
A 20-year-old New York hipster can smoke a pipe or drink a really naff drink because it’s funny, but for someone in China, many of their equivalent peers don’t have the history and past knowledge of trends to understand what has been cool in the past.
To Fall’s point, I would assert that the very concept of the hipster is founded on a highly ‘evolved’ (for lack fo better term) pop/consumer culture, where irony qua hipness is at least one generation removed from brand saturation. (I also have issues with her implication that [New York] hipsters can do things “because it’s funny”; more on this later.) As far as I can tell, Chinese mass culture has just crossed the threshold of postmodernity, at least to the extent that an emerging middle class has recently discovered the joy of brand fetishism. Read the rest of this entry »
Leslie Buck passed away this week at the age of 87. Born in 1922 in what was then Czechloslovakia, he survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his parents were killed, and came to New York after the war. He started a paper goods company with his brother Eugene and in the 1960’s set out to corner the city’s hot cup market. Since so many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, he decided to design a cup using the colors of the Greek flag. He executed the design himself, and despite his lack of formal art training, it was an instant, and enduring, success.
While the Greek elements unironically evoke mythology and classicism, Buck’s “Anthora” has achieved NYC icon status through sheer ubiquity.
I Lego NY by Christoph Niemann for the New York Times
If Starbucks represents America’s corporate muscle and the likes of Stumptown, Blue Bottle et al find an audience among foodi-elitist connoisseurs, the Anthora is the mark of true blue everyman: Anthora’s richness lies in its cultural heritage, which at once captures the spirit of the country and its greatest city (that’s right, I said it).
As a recent transplant, I find that Buck’s design is iconic in a fundamentally different way: it is a relic of Old(e) Noo Yawk, a winsome vessel of unassuming kitsch. Major cities the world over have signature buildings, bridges, parks, landmarks, taxi cabs, subway iconography, but where else can you stake a claim to a local coffee cup?
Ke$ha made a minor PR spla$h in the blog ocean (a drop in the Photobucket?) with a mediocre-to-bad performance on $NL last week (I’ll spare you the clips, but you can find them here). Yet pop pundits from across the internets have come to her defen$e, speculating that the “not dumb” pop$tar/rapper will eventually command some kind long-term po$t-reinvention cult following. In other words, we can already fondly look back at the passable Uffie-meets-Gaga single “TiK ToK,” because $he’s charting a path back to Na$hville.
Fred Falke transforms the bubbly electro party jam into a disco-funk banger, which I like about as much as the original (i.e. I’ve heard worse):
Dery’s dissection of Lady Gaga and her (purportedly) apocryphal brilliance is worth reading, though I should caution that it’s on the heavy side: in a brief riposte from the pro-Gaga camp,* one commenter characterizes [Lord] Dery’s essay as “ridiculous long, very smart, [and] very namedroppy.” As far as I can tell, it comes down to a matter of whether fun and intelligence are mutually exclusive.
Last week, the NYC media was abuzz about New York Magazine‘s recent report on our great city’s most livable neighborhoods, a “quantitative index of the 50 most satisfying places to live,” complete with an interactive neighborhood ranking feature. Statistician Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight.com weighted and rated each neighborhood against a dozen criteria, from practical concerns like affordability, transit and schools to a full range of cultural factors (Silver explains in more detail on his own blog).
Semi-relevant humorous graphic via Very Small Array
Park Slope takes first, followed by the Lower East Side and (surprise?) Sunnyside, Queens. My own ‘hood, Fort Greene, is 18th, representing a purportedly objective improvement over my previous home in Williamsburg (20th), though adjacent neighborhoods such as Prospect Heights and Greenpoint (which apparently did not lose points for prevalent vinyl siding) place ninth and fifth, respectively. The fact that half of the top ten is within the two miles east of my current home is an obvious testament to the city’s density—a 30-minute walk (or 5-minute bike ride) in any direction takes me across up to five distinct neighborhoods—while the disparity in ranking suggests that even adjacent blocks may be worlds apart.
Conversely, I find that ethnographic data is perhaps more telling than the pseudo-scientific approach. While it’s hard to draw grand conclusions from a 5,000-person poll (conducted in conjunction with Silver’s number-crunching), I tend to think that these pithy gems constitute a more accurate snapshot of present-day New York than the algorithmic approach. (There are too many fun facts to list here; I recommend viewing it for yourself.)
In any case, the content and information design is well-executed, though I wish NYMag.com gave the option to view full articles as a single page (and, similarly, view all of the comments at once as well). Technical issues aside, I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the content: as a conscientious urbanite, I am fascinated by both the social and cultural dynamics of city life and the concept of conurbation.
Also, is it just me, or does the term “Ad Wall” sound like something out of a publication’s web media kit—as in, “Our placements include a banner, skyscraper, leaderboard, or a marquee… or if your budget allows, we’re piloting a new kind of ad that called the ‘AD WALL’…”
Core77 recently posted a couple of videos by Mike Figgis for the Tate Liverpool, in which an ‘average’ audience—presumably a demographically accurate cross-section of locals—shares their opinions about a canonical work of modern art. The first group of schoolkids is rather skeptical towards a Dan Flavin, which has been installed in their classroom for a day, and they’re equally baffled by Jeff Koons’ “Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank.” (More Koons below.)
Conversely, an older group seems to grasp the significance of Duchamp’s Fountain, as displayed in a public restroom, while remaining largely indifferent to the object itself, readily abstracting the idea from its physical manifestation.
I’m undecided as to whether their candid opinions are more or less authoritative than those of art historians or critics.
Hipster. Reject the label or embrace it, Sisyphus does not envy you though your path is clear: you like art (check), music (check), design (√), fashion (√), film (√), food (√) and biking around Brooklyn to jam with hipster friends or go to (i.e. be seen at) art happenings and step out for smokes (√√√√√). And you blog about it (√). There is no possibility that you have freely chosen to do these things: the hipster is a sheep, a cartoon, a robot, a target market—anything but a living, breathing human being. The hipster is Sartre’s waiter.*
[It would be too easy to populate this post with photos from LATFH, Vice, Cobrasnake, Last Night's Party, Lookbook.nu, etc. etc., so we're going with photos from Beijing's Ren Hang, via Neocha Edge. Are Chinese hipsters more or less authentic than their Western idols? Is Chinese anything more or less authentic than Western versions of the same? Meta-migraine...]
The New York Times recently ran a blurb on the (decline of the) hipster with a handful of decent and not-too-hateful comments. The piece cites Salon’s recent article on Hipsters+Food Stamps—which itself has elicited the usual anti-Trustafarian screeds and counterarguments in defense of food(ies), etc.—as the latest development in the ongoing culture war between “Young, Creative Urbanites” and regular people. Meanwhile, Adbusters is over it, which is probably for the best.
In any case, it’s worthy enough of an occasion to reflect on What Hipster Means to Me. (Ok so that’s probably an inappropriate, if pithy, exordium for what is intended to be a thoughtful, unironic and somewhat ambitious essay, but it was just too good to pass up.)
In other words, I’m not in denial about my hipster proclivities, so long as I might be granted the possibility of unironically self-identifying as a hipster. Similarly, Idolize Your Killers is (to borrow WordPress’s felicitous phrasing) “Just another hipster blog”—lest we forget that meta-commentary is the trademark of postmodernity and, by extension, hipsterdom and digital culture alike.
Yet “hipster” has been a pejorative term for nearly a decade now—a pigeonhole, a pariah, or worse: a Platonic “idea of Hipster.” This archetype finds infinite variations of empirical manifestations, though it is never fully realized; instead, an individual is reduced to his urban outfit, fixed-gear bike or love of Animal Collective, etc.
A brief overview on the case against hipsters: as the indie nation evolved alongside American Apparel*, so too did pent-up indignation at their smug, unleashed most memorably in Adbusters’ seminal July 2008 cover story “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” Time Out is known to dabble in hipster-bashing; Paste did its part last year; Gawker and Gothamist hit the hipster hot button when they want to pander for pageviews. (I’m sure I’ve omitted many a rant; those are just the media that come to mind.) Conversely, the proto-hip tastemakers at Vice have somewhat validated the hipster with VBS’s ongoing alt-journalism efforts, which are now featured on the likes of CNN and Huffington Post.
Since this Sunday marked Daylight Saving Time, I decided to put my philosophy degree to good use by pondering the psychology and metaphysics of this semi-annual ritual.
First of all, there is technically only one daylight to be saved: contrary to folk wisdom that might suggest otherwise, daylight is an indivisible entity. In a sense, daylight is like money—which is also grammatically singular but conceptually plural (insofar as one would hope to have more than one money)—such that daylight is quantifiable, at least in terms of daylight hours. In other words, official terminology denotes that summer is ‘Time to Save Daylight’—i.e., Time for Daylight-Saving—while the colloquial (if not altogether prevalent) shorthand “Daylight Savings” is a gerund, as per the nominal usage of “Savings” for that type of bank account. (Even the Wikipedia URL for the Daylight Saving Time entry is Daylight_savings.)
The monetary metaphor is useful in illustrating how DST’s pithy essence “spring forward, fall back” belies the curious phenomenon that either occasion—the turning of the clocks in spring or in fall—can be described as gaining or losing an hour. Common parlance suggests that we have indeed acquired a full 60 minutes, yet this increment simultaneously seems to have slipped through a mysterious temporal rift in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It appears that we have both gained and lost an hour on Sunday, a discrepancy that reveals two divergent systems of belief concerning time and how it is measured: absolute vs. relative. The two views correspond to a scientific picture of an independent physical world and a pragmatic ‘lived’ experience of time, respectively.
The former system holds that time marches forward of its own accord and that to push a clock forward—from 2AM to 3AM, say—disturbs the clockwork of the universe to the effect that humans have erased an hour from their day. Here the bank analogy must be modified: on Sunday, we withdrew an hour on credit, which we will pay back in October; for the next six months, we owe one hour to the universe, or nature, or whatever. We have lost it in the interest of practicality—we need to borrow the hour for the better half of the year—though we plan on restoring balance in six months or so. For the absolutist, the hour is deferred.
Those who abide by the second perspective, on the other hand, see time as more malleable, where chronology is purely pragmatic: we gained an hour on Sunday because we now have an extra hour of sunlight—and, ostensibly, productivity—to the effect that the days themselves grow longer. By springing forward, we stake a claim to the greater daylight afforded by the rotation of the Earth, silently folding one hour into the shroud of slumber in order to extend each and every day in those six months. For the relativist, it’s possible to save daylight like money albeit not in the interest of yielding a long-term dividend: everyone cashes out the same predetermined amount at the end of each day.
Of course, both schools of thought understand that the actual demarcation of time to be incidental (i.e. pragmatic in a broad sense)—otherwise we wouldn’t have license to give and take (or take and give) hours as we please. Nevertheless, I wonder if there is any correlation between the saving(s) locution and the gain/loss dichotomy: are relativists more predisposed to regarding DST as a savings account, as opposed to absolutists who treat the extra time as a line of credit?
Does that even make sense? Rather, does it even matter?
Now for the real news:
Advertising 2.0: This Time, It’s Personal. FaceBook is now crowdsourcing targeted advertising like social AdSense (=AdBook?). (NYT, Future Perfect) Also, Product Placement: Geolocation is so hot right now (NYT)
I’ve always been a stickler for free throws (i.e. I don’t understand why every player isn’t shooting 90+% from the line), so I was pleased to see that Wired has posted a guide on How to Nail a Free Throw.