Quote: On The End Of Trends

How about this: these days there are no scenes or genres, only “aesthetics.” A scene implies a physical community in physical architectures, and as such is a fatal slur against the URL everspace and its viral lungs. A genre implies limits, intentions, rules, fixity, and—as every itchy-fingered Facebook commenter knows—is a hateful thing. Nothing exists anyways, not really, only names, only hyperlinks, only patterns that work up to a point and then need an upgrade. Backspace your tearful emojis, hypocrites, it’s always been that way; it’s just more obvious now that code flows through our arteries rather than squeezes of blood and other smells. But it’s not homogenous out there and never will be, the online underground and the cultures tapping its magma are built on a vector field that ripples and clumps together, each blob too quick and continuous for your Dad’s rock collection. An aesthetic is not an object, it’s a way of looking, a way of finding beauty and sifting experiences, originating with process and behavior rather than product, or, indeed, a journalist with a butterfly net.

[…] “Aesthetic,” a word that doesn’t prioritize any one particular medium of art and even suggests them all together, is a much more suitable term than “trend” or “genre,” and highly applicable to previous online-underground-led movements like vaporwave and sea punk for which imagery and multimedia is a hugely significant and probably defining factor.

– Adam Harper writing in The Faderas quote in The Atlantic

I for one welcome the end of rigidly defined, strictly enforced subcultures — assuming such a thing really existed in the first place. One of the most defining and influential aspects of the Information Age is the widespread access to all sorts of aesthetics, ideas, fashions, styles, and other cultural and intellectual outputs. With so much to command our attention, how else could any individual simply stick to one narrative, idea, or aesthetic preference?

Why keep only to rock music, sports fandom, or comic books when you can have all of the above and then some? Why feel that you need to be part of some cohesive and internally conforming subculture — akin to membership in a formal club with strict rules and guidelines — when you can follow the patterns, practices, and preferences you want based solely on what you genuinely enjoy; social circles built around particular interests need not be mutually exclusive from other activities and interests. There is no reason why loving sports and fitness puts you at odds with nerdier pursuits like video games and science fiction (or why those things should even be the exclusive purview of nerds to begin with).

For that matter, highbrow and low-brow pursuits can sit perfectly comfortably with one another: the idea that one must be a high-class auteur to enjoy orchestral music and Broadway plays is at odds with observed reality. Yes, there are some correlations between one’s class and identity and what one tends to enjoy doing — though that has as much to do with economic barriers to certain activities more than anything — but that is not always the case when people have freer access to the sorts of trends and interests they genuinely would enjoy if they had the time, resources, exposure, etc.

Of course, as usual, it is more complicated than that. People like categories and labels, however much they try to convince others (and themselves) otherwise. By neatly organizing these things, as well as other people and ourselves, we make all the information and stimuli out there easier to manage and keep track of. This is especially salient in an age where we are bombarded by ideas, concepts, designs, and other data all the time.

It is perhaps understandable then that people are threatened by, or even resentful of, perceived outsiders encroaching on their traditional territory: their subculture was fundamental to their identity before the walls began breaking down and the lines blurred, allowing people who once lacked any stock or interest in these activities to take part more easily than before (again, the increasingly mainstream nature of nerd culture is the most recognizable example, but hardly the only one).

Moreover, in the social media context, wherein everyone feels the need to sell or present themselves to a wider network of contacts and friends, listing one’s preferred musical or film genres, political persuasion, or religious adherence is a way to stand out and feel validated. As a social species, we need our peers — from loved ones to even strangers — to have some sort of impression, reaction, or conception of us: as intellectuals, sports fans, artists, blue collar laborers, etc. How will we adjust to the ever-growing circle of social connections to worry about and be accountable to? How will we adapt to the fact that so many previously exclusive and inaccessible things are increasingly available to all?

At this point, I am just expressing a stream of consciousness, so I am sure I missed something. What are your thoughts guys?

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?

The Amazing Tree Shapers of India

I stumbled upon an ancient but fairly obscure practice that sounds right out of fantasy: “living bridges” created from the carefully directed roots of rubber trees. I credit this discovery and the following photos and details to the blog Root Bridges.

First, here is an example of what I am talking about:

Living Bridges of Cherrapunji, India I

Again, it looks like something out of a folktale or fantasy novel — very Tolkienesque. It is hard to believe that multiple bridges like this are done by hand without killing the trees involved.

This practice is not documented to occur anywhere outside of the town of Cherrapunji, which is located in the remote Meghalaya region of northeastern India. That is because this is the wettest place on Earth, which makes the building of bridges and other infrastructure extremely difficult. So to get across the many rivers of the region, the indigenous War-Khasis tribe turned to the native ficus elastica, also known as the rubber fig, which thrives in this humid environment.

The tribe long ago noticed the flexible yet sturdy nature of the tree, especially its secondary roots, which grow from higher up the trunk. But rather than harvest its wood, the tribe “shapes” these appendages roots into a makeshift bridge, using an ingenious but simple method.

First they obtain the thin but sturdy trunk of the plentiful areca palm, slicing it down the middle and hollowing it out like a pipe. Then they slide the roots of the rubber fig through it, creating a guidance system that prevents the root from fanning out, making it grow straight instead. Gradually, over a period of ten to fifteen years depending on the length, the roots will reach the other side of the river and be allowed to anchor in the soil.

Time is given to allow the roots to get sturdier and more secure, but once that happens, they remain incredibly resilient: some can reportedly support the weight of dozens of people at a time. And since they remain alive and growing, these living bridges continue to gain strength over time, with some bridges said to be five centuries old.

The one bridge featured prominently in this photo set is the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, the only known bridge of its kind. So even by the incredible standards of root bridges, it is unusual.

More photos below (click to enlarge).

This fascinating practice has actually spurred me to write a short fantasy story about mythical tree shapers. I love it when the beauty of the real world both captivates and inspires.

A Great Indie Game For Writer’s Block

Over at Big Think, Teodora Zareva looks at an interesting new game that puts a unique spin on storytelling — by making you tell your own narrative as you go!

Elegy for a Dead World … leaves the players with “no game to play,” but to explore three long-dead civilizations, observe, and make notes… or stories — or poems — or songs.

The three lost worlds feature beautiful scenery, moving music, and are inspired by Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, Lord Byron’s Darkness, and John Keats’ When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be. They create a strong, moody atmosphere that becomes the breeding ground for feelings and ideas.

Talk about a neat way to relate great literature to the average gamer. Of course, you do not have to be a fan of these poets, or be especially literary yourself, to appreciate the strange settings or enjoy the unique power to tell your own story.

The game eases you into the writing process with challenges, prompts, and fill-in-the-blank sentences. It has 27 writing challenges that might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war. In one challenge, you’re an archaeologist uncovering clues; in another, you’re a thief. In the more advanced levels, you’ll sometimes get new information halfway through the story, which casts a new light on things and forces you to explain or justify past actions. Once the game stirs your creativity, you can delete the prompts and use all the creative freedom in your writing you want.

When you’re done with the game, you can share your story with other players, read their works, post comments, and participate in discussions. You can also reproduce your writings in digital and print media.

Here is a trailer of the game, which has only piqued my interest further:

As Zareva notes, Elegy for the Dead presents an excellent way to get around writer’s block, teach people how to write, or to simply cultivate your creative side. As a writer by both trade and personal interest, I can definitely see the potential in this one.

 

Happy Chinese New Year!

Also known as the Spring Festival, this forty day event runs from New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, to the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 15th day of the first month. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar (taking into account moon phases as well as the solar year most Westerners are familiar with), and because this day is recognized as the New Year in other cultures (such as Tibet, Mongolia, and Korea), this day is also known as the Lunar New Year.

Chinese New Year celebrations are among the oldest, largest, and longest events in the world. The vast corpus of traditions, foods, rituals, and other practices it entails varies from region to region and even by individual communities (throughout both China and the world). An article in The Guardian captures the sheer scale of it:

3.6 billion passenger trips (slightly fewer than three trips for every Chinese citizen) will turn China’s roads, airports and train stations into congestion hotspots over the 40-day period, according to government predictions. The annual Chunyun, or “spring festival transport”, is the largest human migration in the world. Major cities empty, sleepy villages spring to life, and traffic jams on major roads stretch for miles.

In the context of a globalized economy, the impact of this event will be as wide reaching as ever, with factories shutting down, supply chains subsequently disrupted, and product markets booming in response to holiday related spending by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

See some wonderful photos of this colorful occasion here, here, and here. To learn more about the Chinese New Year, click here. To any celebrants out there, I wish you a safe and happy time!

 

Film of Interest: Taxi

I am very intrigued by the premise of the film, in which director Jafar Panahi poses as a taxi driver in Iran’s capital and largest city, Tehran, candidly recording the conversations his has with various passengers; the entire strata of Iranian society is represented, from the religious to secular, the modernizers and the traditionalists, and so on.

The is the third film to be done by Panahi since the Iranian government banned him from directing, screenwriting, giving interviews, and travelling abroad; his niece collected the Golden Bear Award it recently won at the Berlin International Film Festival. Unlike the previous two films, this one was fearlessly shot out in the open; Panahi has stated that he plans to continue his work despite the ban.

His first film since being placed under house arrest This Is Not a Film, was defiantly shot during his court appeal of the sentence, portraying his struggles and frustrations with expressing his creativity in an oppressive environment. It was smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival through a flash drive hidden in a cake.

Mary Edwards Walker — Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, and surgeon who became the only woman, and one of only eight civilians, to receive the Medal of Honor.

Mary Edwards Walker I

She worked as a teacher to pay her way through Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class. She married fellow medical school student Albert Miller set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. It failed to take off, largely because female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in 1860, until she was suspended after refusing to quit the all-male school debating society.

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America’s Muslim Heritage

Although widely seen as a new — and in some circles, invasive — presence in the United States, Islam has been a part of the nation’s history since colonial days, if not earlier. The New York Times highlights just a few of the known examples:

In 1528, a Moroccan slave called Estevanico was shipwrecked along with a band of Spanish explorers near the future city of Galveston, Tex. The city of Azemmour, in which he was raised, had been a Muslim stronghold against European invasion until it fell during his youth. While given a Christian name after his enslavement, he eventually escaped his Christian captors and set off on his own through much of the Southwest.

Two hundred years later, plantation owners in Louisiana made it a point to add enslaved Muslims to their labor force, relying on their experience with the cultivation of indigo and rice. Scholars have noted Muslim names and Islamic religious titles in the colony’s slave inventories and death records.

The best known Muslim to pass through the port at New Orleans was Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a prince in his homeland whose plight drew wide attention. As one newspaper account noted, he had read the Bible and admired its precepts, but added, “His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them.”

Among the enslaved Muslims in North Carolina was a religious teacher named Omar ibn Said. Recaptured in 1810 after running away from a cruel master he called a kafir (an infidel), he became known for inscribing the walls of his jail cell with Arabic script. He wrote an account of his life in 1831, describing how in freedom he had loved to read the Quran, but in slavery his owners had converted him to Christianity.

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The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold

When Will You Marry?, an 1892 oil painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, was recently sold for an estimated $300 million, the highest price ever paid for an artwork.

When Will You Marry (Paul Gaugin)

On loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland for nearly five decades, the painting was sold privately by the family of Rudolf Staechelin to an unknown buyer, possibly Qatar Museums, the Qatari government’s main cultural body (and the buyer of the previous record-holder, Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players”, which was purchased in 2011 for around $260 million).

The sale is all the more remarkable considering that Gauguin, like van Gogh, received little attention or acclaim for his artwork during his lifetime. His talent remained unrecognized until after his death, which came in 1903 at the age of 54 from a morphine overdose.

Gauguin’s legacy lives on not only through this valuable piece, but through his influence on great 20th century artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Henri Matisse.

Three Big Historical Anniversaries Today

In 1943, the Soviet Red Army won the Battle of Stalingrad, turning the tide of the Second World War. One of history’s bloodiest and most decisive battles, the five-month siege involved over 1 million troops on each side. The Axis suffered a total 850,000 casualties (wounded, killed, captured) and the Soviets over 1.1 million, of which over 478,000 were killed.

To understand the scale of the battle, the U.S. and U.K. suffered a total of 405,399 and 383,800 combat deaths respectively in the entire war. (Ultimately, by the end of the war, Soviet Russia lost 20-28 million people, of whom 7-12 million were civilians; nearly a quarter of its population had been killed, wounded, or directly affected by the conflict in some way).

Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943. 

You can read a quick rundown of the battle here.

In 1848, the Mexican–American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico was forced to give up 530,000 square miles of territory to the United States for $15 million. Along with the prior cession of Texas, this amounted to 55 percent of Mexico’s pre-war territory and today comprises about 15 percent of U.S. territory.

Cession includes all of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona, large chunks of Colorado and New Mexico, and some of Wyoming.

In 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk declared the official end of apartheid, a system of intense segregation and racial oppression, following mounting domestic and international opposition, which culminated in negotiations between the government and resistance groups (namely the African National Congress, from which Nelson Mandela emerged as the nation’s first freely-elected leader).

De Klerk and Mandela at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 1992; the latter would be elected president two years later.

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia.