Essay Jukebox: Playlist #1

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is currently Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Wendy, their two children Clara and Simon, and their cats Ron and Nancy. 

In this post I asked boingboing readers what mini-essays by me they would want to read, and now it's time to pay the piper. Here are the votes tallied from the first 103 comments, in descending order, followed by the goods. Since some interest was expressed in all of them, I'll hit them all with at least a line or two. The top vote-getter was "D) Guys need a coming-of-age ritual that has some teeth, like exist in other cultures," with 35 votes. I guess it's true! Anyway, for those interested, thank you for your interest!

D) Guys need a coming-of-age ritual that has some teeth, like exist in other cultures. (35 votes)
M) Styles of dress follow people's differing views of human perfectability (22 yes)
L) Laughter and crying serve to carve new cognitive pathways in a hurry. (20 yes)
H) Poetry will become popular again. (19 yes, 1 no)
B) My cynical Public Service Announcement campaign idea to get more people to major in Science and Engineering. (17 yes)
I) "Method" acting changed the role of celebrity in all cultural disciplines, starting in the late 1940's. (17 yes)
C) Was Jesus a comedian? (17 yes, 1 no)
J) The 6th-8th Century Iconoclast Controversy in Eastern Europe has fantastic dramatic potential. (16 yes)
F) Control vs. Love: breadth-first, top-down vs. depth-first, bottom up search strategies that work in opposition. (12 yes)
G) Some countries "get" rock 'n' roll better than others. (14 yes, 2 no)
K) Where there is vice, there is connoisseurship. (12 yes)
A) What is a crackpot? (7 yes, 1 no)
E) We need a communications language standard for networked devices, and why this is more of a social/political problem than a technical problem. (3 yes, 1 no)

Guys need a coming-of-age ritual that has some teeth, like exist in other cultures. 

If you wanted to design the perfect consumer, what would they be like? How about someone who thinks and acts like a "typical teenager" their whole life? Empathy, patience, and responsibility are hard to monetize, so there's huge commercial interest in keeping these out of our repertoires. (Sorry, together teens– you know the stereotype.) All the seductive advertising got to me, anyway, on some level, even though I don't consider myself a big consumer type.

A coming-of-age ritual would counter the industrial production of overgrown boy-men and girl-women. Speaking personally again, I think that if I had grown up knowing that I could screw around and count on people's indulgence until I was, say, 26, and then after a big public ritual everyone would expect more, I would have risen to the occasion, as would all of my pals. Other things we call rites-of-passage (moving out, supporting yourself, getting married, having kids) can certainly have the same effect, but you can do all of those things while still just always trying to see what you can get away with.

The bar mitzvah age of 13 is too young, as one example. I'm guessing that when people came up with that age, more was expected of 13-year-olds than is today. I'd push it out, to allow for things like college and some good years of sowing wild oats. As the ritual itself, what do you think? It's great that this question got the most votes, and I just wish I had some hard information to contribute. For those of us who, like me, haven't read our Joseph Campbell, let's hop to it, and we'll all try to figure something out. Meanwhile, I love the comment from the man who marked his change by cutting his hair, and also find it interesting that a couple of generations ago, men wore hats all the time. How did you get your first hat? Did your father and grandfather ceremoniously take you to a haberdasher?

Styles of dress follow people's differing views of human perfectability. 

Let's say you're an alien who comes to Earth and happens to land in the middle of an abortion rally. Both sides are there waving signs, which you can't read, but you notice differences in the way each side is dressed. On one, colors and patterns match more closely, fabrics are smoother and more uniform, hair is neater, there are more suits, and jewelry is finer. On the other side, patterns are louder, hair is looser, materials are rougher, there's more eclecticism and asymmetry, and more costume jewelry. You wonder, is this species fighting about what they should wear?

There are many flashpoint issues surrounding reproductive and drug policy, and I think they have to do with differing views of human weakness and what to do about it. If people should be guided by divine ideals, you don't want laws to assume (and reward) falling short, and you want to wear things that are as neat and coordinated as possible. If people are fascinating, flawed animals whose missteps should be expected and provided for, you're more liable to wear things that reflect the complex collage we all live.

Laughter and crying serve to carve new cognitive pathways in a hurry. 

One theory I remember from a psycholinguistics class ascribes humor and laughter to suddenly resolving a tension. Like "What has four wheels and flies? / A garbage truck" or seeing someone fall and then realizing they weren't hurt. They're all "aha!" moments that revise your model of what's true, and the brain gets extra juice in order to carve revised pathways, so the new understandings stay permanent.

When you lose someone you love, you also need to carve new pathways in order to remake your model of the world. But it takes much longer and requires much more juice.

Aside: What made the Anthony Perkins character in Psycho so creepy is that (spoiler alert!) he found a way around having to process his mother's death, and so he never learned what death means.

Poetry will become popular again. 


The heroes of the small screen, the humans,
Sharpen their points,
And pierce the media thicket with the power of concentration.

My cynical Public Service Announcement campaign idea to get more people to major in Science and Engineering. 

This is an idea for a series of 30-second promotional spots. They're totally dishonest because they imply that you can't do as much good for the world as a liberal arts major (for example), but if you see this as a war, then I guess all's fair!

In straight-ahead Errol Morris style, each spot would present a real person in mid- or late life who regrets not having pursued science or engineering, talking about the wrong turn they took. Formula: I was interested in and good at science/engineering, but for stupid reason A, I pursued/majored in B instead. 3) So now I'm doing unsatisfying-C while my scientist/engineer friends are doing meaningful-D. Examples:

"…I was also always great at BS-ing, so when the math started getting too hard, I decided to switch to B, and then I went into advertising. Now, if I reach the pinnacle of my profession, I can convince people to buy more cars and liquor. Meanwhile, my old friend Sam, who studied Civil Engineering, is bringing clean, safe water to poor people in India. Pursue BS, and that's what you get."

"…But I also noticed that there were more babes at the Art library than the Engineering library, so I majored in something else. Now I grub for grants to do minor variations on the one concept I'm quote-unquote 'known' for, while my college buddy Alex, who did Chemical Engineering, is figuring out how to stop the spread of brain cancer."

"I was intimidated by all the hot-shot guys in those classes, so I changed to B and wound up in Law school. Now I work 70 hours a week doing corporate law to pay off my debt while my college roommate Carol, who studied Biochem, is figuring out how proteins fold. I'm happy for her."

"My buddies were mostly liberal arts majors, so that was the easy path. Now I work for an investment bank, and if I do a really good job, it means some rich people get even richer. But my friend Keven, who studied Aeronautical Engineering, and now he's building autonomous robot aircraft for putting out fires and rescuing people."

And so on. The stories must be real, not acted, which is where some actual work would have to get done. But if the subjects wanted the video to obscure their identities, all the better– they would just look that much more pathetic. Possible tagline: Engineering – Make something of your life. It's in the grand tradition of sobering, cautionary, and presumably effective PSAs about V.D., drugs, etc.: Don't let this happen to you!

"Method" acting changed the role of celebrity in all cultural disciplines, starting in the late 1940's. 

When actors began stepping into their roles rather than viewing acting as a craft, it brought more attention to who they were personally. Audiences knew that Marlon Brando's "Stella!" was a window into his own emotions. As critic Richard Schickel recalls, "People who saw him as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1948 cannot forget the sense that they were seeing the beginning of something for which there was no precedent."

Maybe there's no cause-and-effect, but other fields soon shifted their focus the same way. Swing music's tight arrangements and orchestras gave way to Bebop's small-combo improvisation and personal signature styles. Abstract Expressionist paintings came entirely from what the artist dreamed up, with no observations the viewer could share. Beat writers rejected editing as separating the reader from their raw, original thoughts. In all cases it feeds celebrity– to appreciate their work, you think about the artist.

Kerouac's On The Road manuscript, written on a roll of teletype paper, is currently on a museum tour. Writing that way helped him avoid breaking his flow, and if he also more self-consciously thought it might become a precious relic some day, a quasi-religious object the way Pollock's paintings were valued records of his artistic trance at the time, he was right.

I learned this stuff from reading Richard Schickel's Intimate Strangers and Leo Braudy's Frenzy of Renown, both fascinating books about the phenomenon of celebrity.

Was Jesus a comedian? 

I'd seen numerous references to Lenny Bruce's notorious "Religions, Inc." routine, and when I finally read it, I didn't find it that funny. Sure, I appreciated that it was revolutionary at the time, but in the years since, so many of us have accepted Bruce's comparison between organized religions and corporations that it's no longer daring or funny to point it out.

Humor tends not to age well. If being "edgy" means testing the edge between taboo and acceptable, then each generation turns edgy into obvious or even doctrinal as it moves the line.

Jesus reportedly called out hypocrisy and put authority in its place, and his words resonated with people, but the accounts we read are filtered through subsequent generations. If the Sermon on the Mount (or the sermons it summarized) was so daring and dead-on that it had its audience howling in the aisles, and if the surrounding culture eventually came to accept the views it expressed, how would later generations describe the event in their accounts? To say that it provoked laughter would be unthinkable.

The 6th-8th Century Iconoclast Controversy in Eastern Europe has fantastic dramatic potential. 

Another great chapter from Frenzy of Renown describes the Iconoclast Controversy, which raged on and off from the sixth to the eighth centuries. Christian churches under the Byzantine Empire developed a tradition of icon painting, and the lay worshipers loved praying to these icons. But bands of iconoclasts, who saw this as un-Christian idol-worship, began storming into churches, ripping the icons off the walls, and smashing them.

Meanwhile, the top of the church hierarchy felt that the icons had too much power over people, and interfered with their authority. So a series of Byzantine emperors began to secretly support the iconoclasts in smashing icons. So the iconoclasts, zealots who justified their views with scripture, took payoffs from the Byzantine Empire to destroy the most precious possessions of the icon-worshipers, many of whom were mendicant monks. Wheels within wheels!

Towards the end of the controversy, one pro-icon author was captured by iconoclasts who branded his forehead with some of his pro-icon verses. After the Byzantine Empire withdrew its support for the iconoclasts, he obtained a high position in the church.

Control vs. Love: breadth-first, top-down vs. depth-first, bottom up search strategies that work in opposition. 

A great meta-recipe for systems that learn and adapt is to have opposing forces fighting each other. It's the basis for our legal system, and I see this dynamic everywhere.

One of my favorite pet pairings is Control vs Love. As I see it, Control uses a breadth-first, top-down search strategy, whereas Love is depth-first and bottom-up. Control without love causes large-scale death, destruction, and suffering in the service of generalizations and abstractions. Love without control gets pulled this way and that, universally sympathetic but unable to step back and build systems that are ultimately more helpful. Together, locked in eternal combat, they keep the excesses of the other in check.

Another requirement for the recipe is that the opposing motivations should prompt similar actions. This allows for infinite flexibility within a spectrum of motivation. When the rules of the game are set up like this, something clicks, and complexity grows.

And so, for example, the artist seeking connection and artist seeking fame search for the same cultural niches to occupy and grow from. The careerist who always wants to prove himself right follows the same course as the ethical professional who always wants to do a good job. The seducer follows the true lover's thought process when determining his next move.

I like the commenter's suggestion that "Love vs. Control" could be an album title!

Some countries "get" rock 'n' roll better than others. 

Some countries expect young people to move away from their childhood home and strike out on their own. In others, extended families are more close-knit, and young people tend to live close to their parents, grandparents, and other relatives. The wealthy English, who traditionally hired nannies and sent their children away to boarding schools at young ages, represent the first extreme. But in the U.S. as well, young people have more distance from their families than in other countries.

The rock 'n' roll that drives the genre comes from young people who want to connect with each other over something that they love but that their parents would hate. The first type of country breeds this type of rebellion, but in more family-oriented countries, the rock musicians are more liable to produce a derivative form, by applying rock-sounding style to melodies and music that the whole family can understand and enjoy.

Where there is vice, there is connoisseurship. 

Briefly, connoisseurship develops in part as a rationalization: alcohol, tobacco, etc.

What is a crackpot? 

Someone who produces non-disprovable, non-quantitative, descriptive generalizations. Whether it's Sigmund Freud or Lyndon LaRouche, it's all the same impulse.

We need a communications language standard for networked devices, and why this is more of a social/political problem than a technical problem. 

It should be a simple but complete language, not just a protocol. Then you could do anything you want in the communications layer, rather than applications themselves having to handle multiple protocols redundantly. You could write fancy cross-platform rules to control when and how to send or open all of your communications, and how to handle the ones directed to you. In the 1980's, Adobe got its start by doing the same thing with a page description language for printers, PostScript, and look what happened to them!