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Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

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Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is the management  under the illusion that we’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

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Easter on Skopelos, the “Mamma Mia!” Island

In celebration of Greek Easter this weekend, I decided to post the following short chapter from my 2011 nonfiction book, “Aegean Dream.” This chapter describes the Easter we  were part of when we lived on the tiny island of Skopelos–the real “Mamma Mia!” island–in 2007. Χριστος Ανεστι!

Truly He is Risen!

Easter was rapidly approaching. Church steps were scrubbed and cleaned, and fresh coats of limewash applied. Bells pealed. Masses were crowded. The larger churches had been holding daily services during the week leading up to Good Friday. There was such a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air that at times both of us wished we were believers, so as to more directly experience the joy in the air.

Not wanting to miss the Easter celebrations as we had Carnival, we asked Sofía and Rita what the schedule was.

On the Thursday evening, they explained, each parish’s ceremonial bier would be garlanded with flowers by the girls and women of that parish, in preparation for Good Friday, when the Christ-effigy was taken down from the cross and placed within the coffin before being paraded through the streets.

Good Friday was a day of mourning. The very devout ate only sour foods, in memory of Christ’s being given vinegar to drink. The evening procession was the big event of the day.

“The next evening,” said Sofía, “at the Saturday night Mass, all the lights except one candle on the altar are put out. Then, one by one, everybody lights their candle from this one. It is incredible to see this. They carry the lit candle home, and make a cross with the smoke over their front door, to bring them blessings for the rest of the year.”

Linda asked if it was all right for foreigners to participate. “Yes, Yes!” said Sofía. “Come at seven-thirty. We will have aperitifs together, and then we go.”

Katerína, the Frenchwoman who worked at Gorgónes and who had hooted with laughter at my attempts to translate my website into Greek, had warned us about a language pitfall specific to the season. In Greece you grow used to replying to greetings with the word epísis, meaning ‘you too’, or ‘and you also’. But on Easter Sunday, and for days afterward, it was traditional to greet everyone with the words, Chrístos anésti, Christ has risen.

“So in my first year,” she said, “when somebody said to me, ‘Chrístos anésti!’, I would reply, ‘epísis,’ the normal answer to a greeting in Greece. People were shocked, even angry, because I was saying ‘You also are risen!’“

“So what’s the correct form?” said Linda, when we’d stopped laughing.

“You must say, ‘Álithos anésti’, which means, ‘truly He is risen’. Telling someone they too have risen from the dead is not considered polite!”

 #

We arrived at Sofía’s house a little before seven-thirty on Good Friday, had a Campari and soda, and strolled together to the church. The night was cool and clear.

Several dozen people were already gathered in small groups on the large terrace outside the building. Inside was a press of people, beyond which we glimpsed a mass of flowers covering the top of the bier. The moody owner of the pharmacy on the paralía (shoreline) was on the steps; Alexándra Tsoúmas was coming out as we entered the church.

Once inside, we discerned a distinct current among the crowd, a circulation toward the bier and then back toward the entrance. As we approached, I saw first Sofía, and then Rita, dip forward. They were kissing the brow of the Christ-effigy in the coffin.

Linda, who was ahead of me, didn’t miss a beat; I followed her example. I leaned into the cave of flowers, and for a second entered another world, a place of bright, sweet-scented blooms and the warm candlelight dancing on the olive-skinned face of the Savior.

We lit our candles and joined the growing crowd outside. The candles came with little plastic guards to keep the flame from blowing out in the breeze. Rita and Sofía met friends, some of whom they’d not seen in years. We chatted and watched the crowd.

A little before ten, the bier was brought out from our church as the head of the procession arrived. The procession had started at the parish farthest from the paralía. As the first bier and the priest of that church arrived, he was greeted by the priest from our church, litanies were exchanged, and the procession moved on. Ten minutes later, the next bloom-bedecked bier arrived, and the process was repeated.

The flowers, the incense, the liturgical chants by the light of hundreds of candles, the faces recognized as the entire village flowed steadily past like a great, slow river, the knowledge that we were witnessing a ritual unchanged over centuries: these were the invisible cables that bound this community together. Witnessing it, I felt a great peace, a comforting sense of security and permanence. It was beautiful.

When the final group had paused and moved on, the bearers of the bier from our church followed and we all folded in behind. An hour had passed since the first bier’s arrival. The night had become crisp, and we were glad of our leather jackets.

We flowed down the narrow streets toward the paralía, borne by the current of villagers carrying candles. Nearby was Lázaros Tsoúmas, CEO of the Próton grocery, walking solemn-faced with his children. The procession was hushed. It was, I remembered, a day of mourning.

As we arrived at the last small church before the paralía, the procession ahead began to dissolve as if by unspoken command, breaking into small groups that trickled away without fuss. “We can leave our candles here,” said Sofía, pointing to the interior of the little church. Other people were doing the same: the small space pulsed by the light of hundreds upon hundreds of half-consumed candles, its saints staring out of their icons among a sea of rich wood and glinting gold.

“Shall we go to Ánemos and get a drink?” said Rita. We were more than willing; it was eleven-thirty, and there was a general movement toward the paralía and its bars just one street down. Both of the big ferries that served the islandthe G&A Lines Jet Ferry and the Hellenic Seaways Skiáthos Expresswere moored alongside one another in the harbor, something I’d never seen in the off-season: the sons and daughters of the Spórades had returned to spend this most important of all holidays with their families. Above the giant, dark opening of the loading bays, the red digital banners that usually displayed the ferries’ sailing time and destination glowed with Easter greetings.

The bars were doing a roaring trade. Ánemos was packed, so we settled ourselves at a small outdoor table. I saw the owner of Omorfiá, one of two high-end craft stores on the island, a place where we both hoped to place our products, sitting with a group of friends. A few minutes later Kákos, our lawyer, walked by. Rita greeted him by his first name; he acknowledged her without stopping.

We sipped our drinks and took in the atmosphere. People kept stopping by to greet Rita and Sofía. There was merriment as friends and relatives who hadn’t seen one another since the previous year became reacquainted. The day may have been one of mourning but, as after any funeral, celebrations were now appropriate.

By one-thirty we’d begun to feel the cold. Rita, with her twenty-year advantage over her Mom and ourselves, was just starting to liven up and was ready to party. There were men out there, and the night was young. We gave her a farewell hug and accompanied Sofía to her door on our way home.

Greek Orthodoxy, Linda and I agreed, was a religion we could live with: big on ritual and eye candy, party- and alcohol-friendly: a faith wherein both Saturday night and Sunday morning could coexist.

 #

We’d arranged to join Rita and Sofía again the next evening for the Saturday night mass; but Linda, who is somewhat allergic to pollens, had broken out in an alarming rash and was feeling awful. We called to apologize and spent a quiet evening at home.

Next day, Easter Sunday, found Linda on the mend. This was fortunate, since Spýros and Mára had booked us several weeks earlier for the big Easter feast at the kalívi (country cottage). We’d had several other invitationsfrom Tákis, Vasílis, and Apostólos, the neighbor above our workshopall of whom were grilling lamb and hosting large gatherings. We assured them we’d at least stop by late in the day if we had the steam left.

But how to dress? It was sunny, and there was a good chance we’d be outdoors. But in the past we’d more than once found ourselves underdressed for an event, so clueless were we about the social protocols of this land. Given the importance of the day, we decided that casual-smartslacks and dress shoes for me, a crisp dress for Lindawould be appropriate. Best to err on the side of elegance.

Strátos and Anna picked us little before noon. We arrived to find several people already seated outdoors in the small meadow by the chicken coop. A long wooden table had been set out, flanked by two long benches and an assortment of chairs. A little distance away, Spýros was turning a spitted lamb over a fire, while Dimítris, Anna’s employer, likewise attended to a goat; on the same spit, a dark, sausage-like mass three feet long was sizzling away. Spýros had started the cooking a couple of hours earlier, and the meat was about halfway done.

We were hugged by all those we knew, and greeted with expressions of Chrístos anésti, which we countered with the requisite and traditional password álithos anésti. We were grateful we’d been coached in this beforehand.

Everyone, except for a small old gentleman and two black-garbed, elderly women we’d never met, was wearing jeans. We were seriously overdressed. And it was warm here on the southerly side of the island. Shorts would not have been inappropriate.

We were introduced to the older guests, who turned out to be Dimítris’s parents and aunt, and to his two sons. The sons could not have been more different. One was round and flabby, with long, frizzy hair tied back in a ponytail, and owlish eyes behind alarmingly thick glasses; the other was a small bull of a man, with hard, close-set eyes and a distinct aura of menace about him. Father and sons owned a car hire business as well as the ACS courier agency where Anna worked. Another couple, friends of Strátos’s, had come from Alónissos for the day.

Linda had baked chocolate chip cinnamon rolls for the occasion, and these, along with our bottle of premium red wine, were whisked off to the kitchen. I was handed a glass of the usual thin homebrew, and took a turn cranking Mr. Goat’s spit. Between the greasy smoke and the occasional spritz of goat fat, the smart clothing was a wasted nicety. But it was pleasant to sit in the spring sunshine, smelling wood smoke and crisping meat. Spýros and Mára had once more made us feel like family. We were very blessed.

The sausage-thing was first off the spit. By now everyone was hungry, and lightheaded from the wine and sun. “Koukourétsi,” announced Mára, with her usual enthusiasm, sliding three thick slices of the stuff onto our plates. A casual question confirmed my suspicions: we were being served the organs and innards of at least one of the spitted beasts, and were left in no doubt that this was considered a great delicacy by everyone present.

With the notable exception of foie gras, I’m not a fan of organ meats: haggis, brains, tripe, kidneys, tongue, blood puddingall deserve a polite but firm no, thank you in my book. And nowoh God!how was I going to get out of eating this stuff?

But with our dear hosts sitting so close, and Mára clearly eager to see our faces light up as we sampled this treat; and Linda encouraging me to ‘just try a bit;’ and the admittedly mouthwatering smell coming from my plate as, fork poised, I tried and failed to find a graceful exit from my predicament; and the undeniable fact that it looked pretty much like a dark and lumpy version of cotechíno, a variety of cooked salami served in northern Italy which was, face it, one of my favorite foods on Earth…

I cut off a piece and popped it in my mouth.

Bit down on it, ready for a quick swallow if the taste proved unmanageable.

To my great relief, it was rather like a salami of some sort, albeit a very complex, nuanced, and distinctly liver-flavored member of the family. But it wasn’t bad, and I was able to muster appropriate sighs and moans of delight without feeling too false about it. Mára and Spýros beamed.

Salads came, along with beans, slabs of féta, olives, and more sour, wine-flavored liquid. Before long, the lamb arrived. Spýros and Strátos set it down at the end of the table in front of Mára, and slid out the skewer. Mára made a couple of big incisions, plunged both hands into the steaming carcass, and began to tear off big hunks, piling them onto our plates as we handed them down the table to her. She was chuckling. We’d never seen meat served this way at a dinner party, but at least it must be tender.

They set the half-emptied lamb on the table not far from Linda, the ghastly remains of its face, complete with pointy teeth and cooked, milky eyeballs, facing us. We tried not to look that way.

The meat was excellent, at once more fatty and gamey than any lamb we’d eaten in the past, with the spiciness you’d expect from a flock whose diet included wild sage and oregano. Happily, Mr. Goat never even made it to table, so stuffed was everyone by the time it was even mentioned. This was a good thing, since neither Linda nor I are fond of goat.

The sun grew hot. Dimítris sat to our right, one of his sons beside him, one facing. He spoke some English, but insisted on making us work hard at our Greek. I liked the man: he was charismatic, with a gentleness that belied his dark, weather-beaten exterior. He liked to laugh, and it was clear he thought Linda a good sport as they bantered in Greek. I was proud of her: my wife had proved herself courageous, adaptable, and wonderfully crazy. Not for the first time, I could hardly believe we lived among these extraordinary people.

The chocolate chip cinnamon rolls came and went, along with coffee, and the party began to break up. The remaining few of us adjourned to sit at a table in the shade of the house. Linda and I excused ourselves and took a stroll up the lane and back, admiring the nearby kalívis and olive groves. Many of the houses still had working wells complete with iron bucket and crank, and I was unable to resist lifting the lid on one of these and peering in to see my head silhouetted against a perfect disk of deep blue in the blackness some twenty feet below.

We returned to find a neighbor had arrived, a loud, fat man who’d clearly drunk more than was good for him. In an aside, Mára let us know she wasn’t pleased at the man’s arrival, and it was easy to see why: he’d monopolized the conversation and showed every sign of going on for hours. Spýros saw me watching and did a surreptitious eye-roll to indicate his own feelings, but our hosts were too polite to interrupt their new guest.

By now it was evening, and when, a short while later, I asked Strátos if he could give us a ride home sometime soon, he and Anna seemed happy for an excuse to leave.

Mr. Goat, all wrapped up in yards of tinfoil but still on his spit, stood propped against the front door frame, ready to ride back to the Balabánises’ in the back of the pickup, where I imagined he would end up in the freezer.


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Why We CAN’T All Get Along

A couple of days ago, as the US Supreme Court prepared to visit the interminably vexed question of gay marriage, I had an interesting exchange of views with a Facebook friend I deeply respect, Michael Potts, Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C.  A Christian of a powerful intellectual bent, Michael expressed the view that “we can’t go on the way we’re going without the culture war turning into something more than a metaphor”, and that the eventual solution might be a move towards setting up semi-autonomous communities of like-minded individuals.

The same idea—taken a bit further—has been floated by a number of individuals, including some libertarian billionaires. Their proposals essentially envision de facto city-states with their own governments and laws, sometimes with the goal of creating tech hubs just outside US territorial waters so as to circumvent the US visa requirements which are increasingly threatening to put a brake on a strongly resurgent tech industry. Other groups driven more by ideals than business considerations just think it would be really cool to experiment with new types of social order, and I confess the idea holds great allure. Most of these ideas involve seasteading, the locating of these new communities on manmade islands or even simply recycled oil rig platforms.

There are strong arguments both ways. At the same time as I think our only hope as a society, even as a species, is to learn to compromise, reach accommodations, and work together with a shared vision, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this is a lost cause. It seems to me that conflict and struggle are so deeply hardwired into our primate psyche that there isn’t a hope in hell—absent forced external tampering or thought control, and none of us want that—of ever resolving our deepest differences. Not, at least, within a pluralist, democratic system, and least of all within a dog-eat-dog capitalist society with free speech and free media. And we know how well the alternatives worked.

I remember back in the early oughts talking to some fellow who was worried about the “black helicopters” and the UN’s “New World Order,” a popular right-wing meme about the Antichrist forcing free nations into a single world government. I pointed out that the maps of Eastern Europe were being redrawn every few months, it seemed, in the wake of the collapse of communism, and that the exact opposite was happening, with people everywhere who’d been welded together under strongmen like Tito wanting instead to secede and govern themselves.

The internet has of course added fuel to this particular fire, both directly and indirectly, with traditional media forced to ratchet up controversy and partisanship to compete for a shrinking audience. And while I—an extreme social liberal on many issues—would like to think that we can reach accords on the issues that divide us, and daily hear Rodney King’s impassioned words, I know the chances of this ever happening are close to zero.

The irony perhaps is that while we of social liberal or true libertarian bent (as opposed to the neo-libertarian conservatives) are willing to let others live the way they want and not impose our ideals on them or dictate their lifestyles, it’s just about impossible for a devoted Christian to take that stance. Much as it drives me nuts, I refuse to take the easy way out of the rabid atheist and absolutely dismiss their worldview. While deep religious faith  may to me be at best a comforting crutch and at worst delusional,  to others it’s part of who they are. And you can’t demand respect without giving it, however grudgingly. We can disagree with someone without making them the enemy.

In conclusion, I’m going to quote Christian White, one of the protagonists of my recent thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules,” who finds himself pondering these same issues in the hills of Afghanistan after a narrow brush with death, and has just been reassured by an Afghan friend that “God is good”:

There were times when he’d have given body parts for real faith, for the comfort and unburdening it would bring. As a consequence, he thought about faith a lot, to the point where sometimes he felt downright stalked by God, as if God really needed him to believe, wanted his pathetic soul.

But try as he might, whatever powerful feelings he might have in the throes of fear and need (and didn’t everyone have those? Didn’t finding yourself in a foxhole turn everyone into a believer?), he couldn’t overcome his rational doubts. And you couldn’t fake these things, couldn’t fake belief. Oh, he knew plenty of half-assed believers, people who used church as a social club and mouthed religion as a good gambler might hedge a bet, and they seemed content enough. Not him. You didn’t try faith on like a pair of shoes, walk around in them a while to see if they fit before committing. If it wasn’t genuine and from the heart, it was hollow. And any God worth believing in would see through that.

Yeah, we’re never going to get along. It might well be time to experiment with some new social structures, because the current ones, and maybe even the whole edifice of western democracy, is threatening to burst at the seams. Expect a strong backlash from governments when the first city-states become viable.

Your comments are welcome.


Related

Floating semi-autonomous communities

My own earlier post about tolerance and America’s culture wars

Michael Potts’s excellent, thoughtful blog  (As a sample, check out this terrific post in which he addresses Christian misconceptions about Goth culture )

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The Samsung Galaxy S4: A Brief Rant

The Samsung S4? I can’t begin to fathom why anyone would get so excited over a telephone.

I’m sorry, a device. I know it’s so much more than a phone, that it’ll work as a TV remote, respond to crazy air gestures, possibly even tell you your weight and fortune. But it’s a gadget, people, not the Second Coming.

So while 600,000 Americans are homeless; while the Middle East inches inexorably towards a meltdown that will affect us all; while the sequester that nobody wanted but the public couldn’t be bothered to wrap their heads around begins to squeeze jobs, lives, and institutions; while bankers who should be rotting in prison get fresh bonuses and are once again happily dealing in collateralized mortgage obligations (which everyone has mostly forgotten about despite the fact that they brought about the recent Great Recession, and no, there never were any real regulations passed because the legislators are all in the industry’s pockets anyway); while all this goes on, almost half a million Americans watched Samsung’s online product launch event.

Are we insane? Oh, yes.

We’re insane because we use phrases like “sports hero;” because we spend $4 on 500-calorie desserts disguised as coffee drinks; because we allow the food, banking, and so many other industries to largely police themselves; because we think nutrition is complicated and, besides, refined, prepackaged garbage tastes better; because we think a global population of 7-going-on-9 billion people is okay;  because we think celebrities matter; because we surrender our privacy and freedoms to politicians who keep beating the War on Terror drum; because we continue to reward aggressive alpha male behaviour and inflexible thinking at every opportunity; because we think the arrival of yet another ephemeral bit of electronic wizardry is an event of vast import.

Oh yes. We’re insane.

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Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

Last night my wife and I watched the 1997 Science Fiction film, “Contact.” And, like 95% of the SF movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout*.

The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to tedious tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the tedious attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this five decades ago.

In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional, even Christian values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the cultural equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like “The Core,” which, though truly awful, is at least honestly and unpretentiously awful, and actually provides a good deal more entertainment value.

The last good SF movie I saw was the 1971 Tarkovsky film, “Solaris” (my impressions of which can be found in this post). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, “Solaris” was true Science Fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. “Solaris” was art; “Contact” was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.

Publishing today has just about caught up with Hollywood. Art and vision long ago went out the window, taking theme and relevance with them. Like Hollywood, no novel gets published without being heavily breathed on and hammered into formulaic conformity by several people, which likely include at minimum the author’s agent, the publishing house’s editor, and the marketing department. The result—at least in genre publishing—is an interminable deluge of fast-moving, relentlessly formulaic stories which are all event and movement without much content. If a story doesn’t conform to the iron requirements of genre and category dictated by marketers (e.g., no Romance without an HEA—happily Ever After—ending stands a chance of publication); if a protagonist isn’t relentlessly proactive; if the characters don’t all change in direct conformity to the industry-standard arc; if  the ending doesn’t resolve with all the  plot strands tidied up; forget it. Under these parameters, many of the  world’s greatest classics and most thoughtful, interesting novels wouldn’t ever see print today.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Once in a while, a standout will get through, like, say, “The Good Fairies of New York,” but those are very likely coming from an indie press or self-publishers.

And therein lies the only hope for risk-takers and nonconformist writers who put art, integrity, and theme front and center. Because if it doesn’t fit the suffocating template of Big Publishing’s category and genre obsession, it isn’t going to be published. I know too many good writers, even agented, Name writers, with excellent mss. that don’t stand a chance with the majors.

Which brings me to my own venture, Panverse Publishing.

I started Panverse in 2009 because I wanted to provide a venue for new SFF writers working at novella length, a then very underserved niche. As an example of how shortsighted even the relatively open SF market can be, I had the incredible fortune to be offered—and was delighted to publish—Ken Liu’s searing novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which went on to receive terrific reviews and was nominated for both the  Hugo and Nebula Award. How telling that it took an unknown to publish it.

After publishing three annual anthologies of five novellas each, stories from which garnered several award nominations and one win (The Sidewise Award for Alan Smale’s 2010 novella, “A Clash of Eagles”), as well as a collection of short stories titled “Eight Against Reality,” I published my own bittersweet travel memoir, “Aegean Dream.”

“Aegean Dream” had been with my then agent over a year; but despite her best efforts, and several nice notes from editors saying how they loved the writing, nobody would touch it because it (i) didn’t conform to the saccharin “A Year in so-and-so” travel memoir formula, and (ii) at 135k words, it was at least 40% too long for the market category.

With zero advertising and no bookstore presence, “Aegean Dream,” published in both digital and POD edition by Panverse, sold almost 4,000 copies in 2012, was #1 book in both Greece categories on Amazon UK for over three months, and is looking set to sell strongly again in 2013. In addition, I was approached by Poland’s largest travel book publisher, Pascal, who noticed its success in the UK and are now in the  process of preparing the Polish language edition, due for release in July.

After a great deal of thought, I decided to call it a day with Science Fiction as both a writer and (with rare exceptions) as a publisher, for two reasons. First, as a lifelong fan and voracious SF reader, I’m rather disappointed by what’s going on in the field today (not much, IMO); secondly, it’s too limiting. And not just SF—any genre is limiting. When our very lives don’t observe genre boundaries, why on Earth should fiction? Readers, in my experience, are far, far smarter than most publishers give them credit for: they largely don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them, period. And if it breaks a few “rules,” and still works, all the better.

So, after much consideration, Panverse has moved from simply publishing SFF anthologies and my own work to being a real indie press. We have six novels and one nonfiction title coming out this year, and more scheduled for 2014. We have no separate imprints, no genre or category restrictions—our single and overriding mission is to publish books that absorb, reward, and stimulate the reader. Books that make the reader think, that affect them, that surprise them. Books that are about something rather than just being a breathless succession of events; books that are well-written and produced; books that stick with the reader long after the story ends.

The first Panverse title of 2013 is out, and it’s my own caper/thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules” (reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, et al). Best described as an intelligent caper/thriller with elements of the police procedural and the spy novel, finished off with just a shimmer of the fantastic, “Sutherland’s Rules” moves fast and introduces the reader to characters I hope they’ll enjoy and remember. Most of all, the novel is about something—in fact, several “somethings”—beyond the externalities of the plot; please check it out, and read an excerpt here.

As the year progresses, I’ll be posting more about Panverse’s upcoming books, my own work (I’ve just begun on the next novel), and, as usual, my occasionally eccentric and even contrarian musings on life. If you care to send your friends a link, I’d be absolutely delighted. You can also find both myself and Panverse Publishing on Facebook and Twitter, and of course sign up for this blog’s feed via the “Follow” link on left sidebar.

Thanks for visiting, and come back soon!

* The original Carl Sagan novel was rather more interesting, but not much.



What’s your take on this?

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In Praise of the Slow: A Meditation on (Free) Time

The first in a series of essays in which I air aspects of my own strongly-held, evolving, and sometimes contrarian worldview. Indulge me–this is about so much more than TV.

 

Fit the First

I hate television. Fortunately, my wife isn’t too fond of it, either. My dislike of the medium is so strong that I find it difficult to be in someone’s house with the damned thing on. It’s a social catastrophe, at once degrading conversation, distracting people, and filling everyone’s head with a stream of endless chatter, as if the chatter of our own minds weren’t already enough to contend with. The invasion of every public space—gyms, waiting areas, bars—by the plasma screen upsets and offends me.  Are we insane, that we allowed this to happen?

Why do I dislike the medium so much?  Let me count the ways.

First is the near-catatonic passivity of both body and mind that television induces in the viewer. Whereas reading or listening to radio or audiobook engages the imagination in active creation, TV puts those faculties to sleep and, I believe, dulls them by negative reinforcement. Worse still, since we humans are primarily wired for visual input, so that around 70% or more* of our sensory information comes through that channel, the images we see on television, especially those of high emotional content, such as soap operas, angry mobs, murder, mayhem, and political rhetoric, tend to slip past our conscious filters and embed themselves deep in our psyche. It promotes fear and perpetuates stereotypes.  Television is the perfect mind-control tool.

Other gripes, such as the low quality of most offerings and my monumental disdain for advertising, pale by comparison. Nor do I for a moment buy the defense that educational content such as the History Channel’s offerings or Sesame Street in any way redeem the medium: the former is padded and extended with useless filler and silly, unnecessary dramatization (read a book instead, dammit!), and the latter simply teaches innocent young minds that the idiot box is their friend and surrogate mummy.

So the fact that we’ve allowed the internet to be turned into something largely indistinguishable from television is—to my mind—a profound tragedy and an affirmation of our collective disinterest in any kind of societal growth. We are clearly not serious about building a better world or improving our minds and knowledge. We’d rather just watch YouTube.

Fit the Second

Although we have neither a cable nor a satellite connection in the home and we don’t stream, we do we have a TV, which we use to watch movies on DVD and VHS media. In recent weeks, we’ve been enjoying a run of classic and cult movies from the 1960s and early 1970s (many of these are part of the excellent Criterion Collection). I want to talk about three of these: Blow Up, Solaris (the Tarkovsky original) and If.

Apart from the power and heft of the films themselves, one thing that struck me in each of these was the pace at which people’s lives (I’ll come back to this shortly) flowed just two generations ago, and, not coincidentally, the depth in which our inner lives are examined in these three films.

Even though the lead character (played by David Hemmings) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up lives life in what then would have passed for the fast lane, he doesn’t lack for down time. In the film, set in the swinging London of the mid-60s, Hemmings plays a young photographer who realizes that a series of pictures he took on a whim in a London park document a mysterious murder. When he tries to cut through the distractions and banality of the everyday and arrive at the truth, he finds himself thwarted at every turn until, in the end, the antics of the traveling mime troupe with which the film opens becomes a metaphor for our lives.

The 1971 film Solaris (at the time dubbed ‘the Russian 2001’) will, to some modern viewers, appear glacially slow. It’s not: although the action appears to unfold slowly, the film is so rich in psychological content and imagery as to almost overload the psyche and push it into overdrive. With its meditation on human relationships (do we love the person or our concept of that person?), our aggressive instincts, the relationship between reality and consciousness, and the vast barriers to communication with alien species, this film made me feel I’d come home, rediscovered what it is to look inside and dwell there, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the endless bombardment of external trivia.

The last of this trio, Lindsay Anderson’s If, stars Malcolm McDowell as an anarchic adolescent antihero who takes on the British establishment. Although the film mostly concerns itself with the regimented brutality of the 1960s British social order and its suppression of and reaction to non-conformity, the strong surrealist currents in this movie (as in the former), the transitions between colour and black and white, and the power of the film’s apocalyptic final scene (unthinkable in today’s fear-saturated sociopolitical climate), and above all, the absence of high-speed action and external momentum culminate in a psychic impact that—like the previous two films—makes modern attempts to do the same laughable.

Fit the Third

We live in a world and at a pace where the inner life and dialogue, as well as the flexing of the creative imagination at a level beyond the superficial, is both difficult and discouraged. Television—along with the internet, the smartphone, and all the rest—has replaced religion as the opium of the masses. As long as we have these things we trundle along, perhaps not happily but at least tolerant of all social and economic ills. It’s not inconceivable that we’re rewiring our neurons and building new cortical pathways in our brains to such an extent that we’ve begun to evolve into a new species of human.

I can envision a near future in which millions would accept, and even welcome, indentured servitude as a means of keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads; but if all TV broadcasts, networked media, and game systems were to break down tomorrow, I think our social fabric would disintegrate. I don’t believe that a generation of adults raised in daycare and suckled at the terrible altar of the glass teat could cope with being suddenly thrust into a situation where they have time and are forced to explore their inner space, to reflect and think, and to communicate with others on a level beyond the banal.

An elitist view? Judgmental? Perhaps. But don’t get me wrong: I’m no luddite. My argument is not with technology but with the way we choose to use it. Hardwired as most of us are for short-term benefit (the technical term is ‘hyperbolic discounting’), we seem to have a tremendous gift for turning powerful technologies into either weapons, tools of mass control, or time-wasting frivolities.

If you find it difficult or are too young to remember a time before modern communications technology had become a central part of our lives; a world of just a handful of TV channels with limited broadcasting hours; without email, smartphones, or even answering machines; a world with half the population of today, and in which a person with even a half-decent job could enjoy a good middle-class life; a world in which ADD referred to an arithmetical operation; a world in which we actually spent time with ourselves and our thoughts; try the following.

Take a weekend alone somewhere without your phone or laptop or any device, and where there is no television—don’t cheat. Try to go into nature instead of a B&B, or at least spend as much time as you can out of doors and away from people; if you can go somewhere remote, all the better. Don’t even wear a watch. I’m talking about being somewhere you can watch the clouds go by, or a stream flow, or ants go about their business, for an hour or more without interruption or the ability to measure time.

At first, you’ll probably be bored, maybe restless. You may experience anxieties. The time will stretch weirdly: an hour will feel like four or five. Note these impressions without feeding or buying into them.

Before long you’ll find yourself easing into an internal state, reconnecting with your inner life in a way that you haven’t in a long time. For those of us who are writers or artists, that’s the wellspring, the place it all comes from; it’s hard to create without having at least some contact, however imperfect, with that place. For those of us who don’t regularly go there, perhaps haven’t since childhood, this reconnecting can—and will—be an amazing, maybe transformative experience.

So humour me, will you? Try it out, then come back and let me know what it was like. It’s eminently possible, whatever your current lifestyle, to claw back your time and reconnect with your inner life. It might take determination and will, but it can be done.

And the first step is to ditch your TV.

* Some researchers suggest the number may be as high as 80%

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