• NaNoWriMo Part 1: Joseph and I discuss CD indexing

    I’m trying National Novel Writing Month this November! Not sure if I’ll be able to get through the entire 50,000 word requirement, but I’m going try. Here’s chapter 1:

    Culture is gravity. It’s leaden prose and inescapably smelly brass-spittoon takes about the must-seeness of anything we’d have seen anyway. No one can breezily and actively curate their own cool garage of cultural artifacts—grafting some little wings on to a personalized library whose collective pages beckon the air itself to stir them, to send them in a happy accident flying out of their spines like plague-locusts to be eventually silhouetted against Noah’s great rainbow—without first enduring an ambient phlegmy rant on the greatness of Kid A or James Joyce, or the inevitability of poptimism, or what Normal People—the noble unwashed Offline Masses, owners of impeccable taste whose baseness we can’t mention and whose correctness we don’t question—think about all this.

    I’d tried to explain to Joseph—even before he went to Neo-Egypt after he’d dreamed another dream that’d make his brothers drift off into nightmares in which they imagined him as gay as a $3 bill with a coat the shape and color of a CD-ROM held under distant and now breath-warm mideast sun—how vinyl records work, not because he had any persuaded interest in them but because the filmic gravity of Taylor Swift had pulled him beyond the event horizon of even caring about listening to music anymore. He didn’t own a turntable, didn’t know the difference between analog and digital sound, had never seen a concert film, one day hadn’t even engaged with the clickbaity-ADHDy thought of abruptly, finally paying five-figures to watch some compelling content, live, with legions of outstretched phones. Now he sat with a hardened heart letting plaquey plague cultures infect him and make him so heavy with passivity and content consumption that he felt hot, in the way only people carrying around extra energy on their bodies can, with large heads and round bellies in sync with the planets and the different symphonic movements that Gustav Holst scored for each such galactic wanderer.

    “So, how do you skip between tracks?”

    “The needle and the—well you have to move the needle manually to where these outlines are—but the notion here is that you listen to the entire side—”


    “Unlike digital media, vinyl has the potential for a firm stop or an infinite loop that’d make a programmer jealous by actually being intentional—literally going on mansplaining and manlaughing forever, without jumping between songs or requiring any action. Like the needle can be retracted once the side reaches its capacity, or it can dig in and go on forever in Sgt. Pepper-esque chuckles. Like, you have to get up and go pull that needle off, and it can feel like the band had murder in its heart for you, telling me to fuck off, go fuck yourself, etc.”

    “Is there data encoded into the record, where does the volume come from?”

    “Vinyl isn’t computerized, it’s all waveforms traced by a needle.”

    “I miss computers already.”

    Ahh, computers: How the fuck do they work? Well: Not by jabbing a needle into a sludge of recycled sea insects with enough force to give them all posthumous Hepatitis C, tracing inside their bodies their old outside flight patterns so precisely as to make sound airy enough to be thrown out of their ancient guts, across Pharaoh’s pre-parted Red Sea, and at last back to the surface like a slick blackened wet whale breaking the face of the waters with amplified desperation for a little air, a little life. Joseph was newly vi-curious, but later on Moses would hate records, hate the bequeathed sand settling in the music-occupied grooves, hated the vinyl revival of 2005, hated the thought of a stylus that when cast down into the oily bowels became a serpent whose hisses dazzled the ears in crackly low dynamic range.

    Ohh, Joseph. Before he journeyed into Neo-Egypt he showed me his mouth aflame with chewing tobacco that made his cheeks look Cubist and his record reviews sound like smokily flattering press releases. They lived on AI-written and SEO-optimized pages whose vapors wafted over the web like ponies whose manes had just started getting good in the back, running so fast that they were all neon hair, all surface, when they loaded into view out of the nothingess of the New Ancient Google search field void and then bespoiled the landscape with their hooves pounding toward word-count Valhalla. Inshallah, 500 words more and I’ve hit the quota—my manager is in the control room right now, watching everything I type.

    “No one except complete madmen misses computers, at least not the way I sort of miss those ponies of yours and the problems they caused. A real case of the causes being good but the problems being bad. I can’t read anymore about the ‘Top 5 Things Every Would-Be Exodus Traveler Needs’ or ‘7 Harsh Truths From Yahweh’s Mouth That’ll Make You A Better Person’ or ‘Pharaoh Says If You Have This One Insect In Your Home, Throw It Out Immediately.’ But I liked how you wrote them!”

    “Well, I do miss computers. I’m an independent content consumer. That’s what I heard in a the latest episode of my favorite podcast, Parallel. I might not hang out hearing songs on the radio or watching reruns of The Basket Floats by the River on cartridge, but I have choice, damn it, I’ve got agency, and—thanks, while I’m doing this bit—I have a completely original style—fuck you, Harold Bloom, I invented the human—that can only be honed by watching everything in the Spotlight and What’s Hot rows of Netflix and recycling the verbiage of the first page of results I seee for “Euphoria review.”

    “How do you feel about sex scenes in media?”

    “I’m against them, no movie or TV show needs that because it distracts from the plot and from the ponies and from the—”

    “And if something that’s ‘hot’ or ‘trending’ has it in them?”

    “I need to say this, but you are too online, you’re quoting back takes on misinformation from that known plagiarist Cain at Buzzfeed and —”

    “How can I be too online when I still listen to most my music on a disc player, as God himself intended. You were worried about skipping tracks on vinyl, right? Well did you know that CDs pioneered track indexing and that now that we’ve gone to streaming, some of that is getting lost again?”

    “I care about skipping because although I like the first two tracks on 1989—”

    “—and I remember you didn’t like anything after the first two books of the Bible, either, hello where is my digital audiobook skipping, is that anything?”

    “CDs are so passé though, even Adam disliked it, and vinyl skip or no vinyl skip, well maybe that’s not important, I like having these records in a gallery to show people on my Zoom calls about how this client needs 10,000 more words that I’ll have to count out in increments of ten as I type after the contract is inked, and then pause for a 30-minute break to think about what it’d be like to do literally anything more fulfilling, like sticking my head inside a grand piano and giving a lecture on nationalism that really, uh, resonates with the audience, or about how, if this were all being done with pen and paper, such inhumane Pharaoh-mandated volume wouldn’t be practical.”

    I’m zooming into someone’s space where there’s a painting visible in the background as a landscape for conversation, it’s of a man smoking a cigar and lifting a turntable stylus to play surely the most authentic music ever recorded, some backwoods country or synthpop made with real analog syntheiszers from the 1960s. Here’s my conversation snippet, later recorded as a lecture as we exited Neo-Egypt for good, or at least for a few millennia:

    “When music moved away from CDs starting after Adam left Eden, vinyl was the new covenant. But like streaming with its vast array of so much content that it could never be consumed while staying biblically thin, vinyl is more of an idea than an instrument, meant to be admired more than enjoyed viscerally. You can’t skip around, you have to endure the entire side, like you’re being forced to watch the star soccer player thread his passes to inept torch carriers who could never hold the angel’s flaming sword, you have to tsk in forum thread-ese at how the low-end just isn’t as deep and the high-end just isn’t as bright.

    But you know what’s high-quality and in a unit that’s realistically consumable for real human beings and real heroes? Actual CDs. CD albums also have digitally indexed tracks, and they can be shuffled, in ways that linear analog media such as LPs and cassette tapes can’t. Giving into the shuffle is liberating because there’s no more illusion of active curation, of being a bootstrapping tastemaker libertarian who recommends culture yet believes they’re above all its pervasive influence, a motivated detail-oriented self-starter who arranges everything as immaculately as a triple-washed résumé and like a robot HR department reading it, dings 99% of everything on it for not sounding as good as whatever they heard across an acoustically perfect greenhouse when they were 18—for not truly believing in the role.

    Shuffling, though—doesn’t it go against what the artists intended for those albums? What if you applied similar logic to Genesis or Exodus or, Yahweh forbid, even Leviticus and read the verses in random order? “Ye shall eat the fat of the land, and darkness was on the face of the deep” sounds like cringe marketing for would-be Wegovy patients. Books, then, are less amenable than movies or music to such cut-and-paste logic, but according to the Parallel show hosts separting the art from the artist is imperative—indeed, maybe the point of all interpretation!—and shufflng does that. Yet some albums defy this anonymity, this freedom from responsibility that Joseph and the other critics imagine is possible when critiquing anything this way. There’s still an analog voice, some cigarette-touched vocal cords or lead-poisoned brain cells oozing like oil from a spill uncontrollable even by the most robust cloud-based IT solutions that bleed out to their end-users as faultless and blamless digital interfaces that aim to compute and control everything.

    Apollo 18 was a huge influence on Moses, a revelation that got him to swear off vinyl and linearity forever (or at least three times), but Lumpy Gravy? It was his ticket to finding a that voice in the cloudy wilderness and deciding that the way out of Neo-Egypt was to build his own golden calf of a carefully curated collection that nevertheless yielded to the random gravity of culture, through divinely elected shuffling.

  • That oily sweat-tingling feeling from unexpected autumn warmth—when it’s hot out but oughta be cold, and your brain turns into a fruitful bough by a well of water for sweet-teeth—is dark liberation, a cheater’s affect that feels so righteous as you flaunt the sunglassed archers, the Agents of S.A.D.

  • Two screaming album covers for albums without much screaming on them

    CDs of “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic and “Ratatat/Classics” by Ratatat
  • Some throwback listening 💿

    Spirit of Eden 💿 in the tray of a Blu-ray player. The 💿 jewel case is nearby.
  • Basking in the fall sunlight

    A cat sitting by a door, perfectly within an incoming beam of sunlight
  • Even my 🐈 enjoys Super Turrican: Director’s Cut, a restored genuine Super Nintendo game that’s bundled with the Analogue Super NT retro console.

    The box of Suoer Turrican: Director’s Cut, with a cat visible to the left and a painting to the right
  • Some cassette tape listening

    White cassette of Same Place, Another Time by Soshi Takeda. A painting is visible above it
  • Diet culture, exposed: the legacy of Requiem for a Dream

    “I’m thinking thin!”

    In the 2000 film Requiem for a Dream, that’s the hopeful refrain from Sara Goldfarb (played extravagantly by Ellen Burstyn) as she embarks on a crash diet—black coffee, hard-boiled eggs, and half a grapefruit each morning—to lose 10 lbs in 10 days. The underlying goal (because there’s always one with dieting, no one diets for its own sake): Fit into an old red dress she wants to wear when she appears on television after winning a mail-in sweepstakes1.

    Spoiler alert for a 23-year old movie: She can’t stick to the diet and so she seeks medication to assist her weight loss. A doctor prescribes her a daily course of amphetamines, i.e., the diet pills du jour from when the story was set in the mid 20th century.

    The results are stunning: She loses her 10 lbs and then some, but—shocker—that proves tough to sustain without increasing her dosage. Soon she’s psychotic, imagining the refrigerators talking to her and that the huckstery, infomercial-immersed host of the show she delusionally thinks she’ll be on is in her living room alongside her fantasized thin red self2, mocking the messiness of her Brighton Beach apartment. Eventually she ends up virtually vegetative.

    Her plot line, more so than the other three that involve three other characters’ struggles with heroin, is what makes Requiem for Dream linger3 in my mind. Rarely does any quasi-mainstream4 movie portray diet culture for what it really is—a money-making cult that drives its followers literally insane while destroying their health.

    The notions that weight loss is A) desirable for health reasons and B) sustainable have no roots in scientific evidence.5 Any substantial weight loss is regained and then some in 95% of people. This inevitable weight cycling is itself far more provably harmful than being “obese”6—in other words, by telling people to diet, doctors are essentially prescribing the thing they’re nominally trying to prevent.

    Medications for weight loss have a horrible track record. I mean, look at the fucking tables in this paper—and this was before the disastrous fen-phen cocktail of the 90s. As with the destructive baldness medication Propecia, weight-loss meds are pushed on the desperate public with zeal despite their concerning side-effect profiles7 and their relatively meager benefits8. I wouldn’t trust Wegovy et al. at all given the history and the culture that made them.

    The weight loss imperative thrust on “obese” patients is an aesthetic and political concern—“fat people are disgusting,” more or less—masquerading as a medical diagnosis. And its costs are immense, not just financially but also in terms of the effects on people’s physical and mental health’s and their enjoyment of life. Perfectly good and nutritious food gets branded as “sinful,” “a guilty pleasure,” or part of a “cheat day/meal.” There’s thus a religious, Puritanical thrust to the dieting madness.

    And for what? There’s no reward on the other side except for short-term weight loss that’ll be reversed, people who’ll tell you look great even if your weight loss was the result of some illness (the easiest way by far to lose weight, and a hint at how unhealthy it is), and more madness counting calories and going slowly mad in your home like Sara Goldfarb.

    1. She never hears back about this contest. ↩︎

    2. This reminded me in the imagery of the Laurent Garnier song “The Man with the Red Face.” ↩︎

    3. The Cranberries? Anyone↩︎

    4. It was rated NC-17 but it’s by Darren Aronofksy, a major director who also did the awful The Whale↩︎

    5. On this point I recommend The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos. ↩︎

    6. “Obese” is not a real disease. Its only indicator—BMI—is a pseudoscientific formula made upby a literal astrologer. I recommend What’s Wrong With Fat? by Abigail Saguy on how the “obesity epidemic” was manufactured from whole cloth in the 1990s. ↩︎

    7. Propecia can cause irreversible damage to the male reproductive system. Wegovy can damage the thyroid, among other effects. Both come with an FDA “black box” warning. ↩︎

    8. Yes, even the “miracle” new diet injections plateau and reverse after a while↩︎

  • There’s so many reasons to hate “obesity” discourse, including how it makes eating less fun by assigning a quasi-religious moralism—and from people who’d never consider themselves religious fanatics—to it. Yes, tell me more about how something is “sinful,” “empty,” “guilty,” or “cheating.”

  • Collection of Super Famicom games

    Super Famicom games in their boxes Super Famicom games in their boxes

  • Amazing that Tactics Ogre came out in 1995 for the Super Famicom. The depth of its gameplay is way beyond anything else on the system or on many more “advanced” systems, too. The Reborn remaster spruces it up, but it’s still mostly the same basic 28 year old game underneath, and that’s incredible.

    tv Gameplay from the game Tactics Ogre RebornBox for the Japanese version of Tactics Ogre Reborn

  • This morning’s listening:

    The Legendary No Nukes Concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and The Grand Wazoo by Frank Zappa, both on vinyl LPs
  • Unless you exert conscious effort, you’ll deem the music of your youth as the “greatest” ever. Relatedly, music that others see as “great,” but that you aren’t nostalgic for, can seem mystifying—that’s happening to me with the current anniversary tours for The Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie.

  • There’s a lot of media hype about Wegovy that doesn’t grapple with how at its core the drug seems to induce the same harmful weight cycling as every other miracle weight-loss “cure.”

  • Three versions of Pink by Boris:

    • 2006 🇺🇸 CD
    • 2006 🇺🇸 LP (different sequence, longer versions of 3 songs)
    • 2016 deluxe 🇺🇸 CD (extra disc of bonus songs, 🇯🇵 cover art)
    Pink album by Boris in theee different versions—CD, LP, and deluxe CD
  • The Analogue Pocket has 100x (not a typo) the resolution of a Nintendo Game Boy Color (GBC). Here’s the title screen for the rare GBC title Metal Gear Solid, running off the original cart on the system.

    Metal Gear Solid for Game Boy Color running on an Analogue Pocket
  • The agony and the Ear-X-Tacy

    Sometime in the mid 1990s, I saw it for the first time—the bumper sticker reading “Ear X-Tacy,” on a car in my school parking lot. That “X” had the mystique of the forbidden, at a time when deep, reflective narratives about Gen-X were widespread, and possibly when Elon Musk was already running the original X.com1. “X” still signified coolness and mystery.

    The reality behind this “X” was straightforward but thrilling—Ear-X-Tacy was a vast, single-location record store in Louisville, KY, predominantly stocked with CDs2 that by the time I visited it with my mom a few years later had also gone big into a little new hotness called DVDs. It even carried vinyl, at a time when that format was at its nadir, right before its mid-2000s revival.

    Shopping in the physical world

    Shopping for music in physical stores like that one is an alien experience for most people under 30. It required immense time and literal energy—i.e., the gas to drive miles away—to go to Ear-X-Tacy, and as such couldn’t come close to the current efficiency of just searching a title in Apple Music and clicking the “+” button.

    There’s no space for its mass comeback, and I doubt I’d trade the status quo for it. It’s easy to romanticize it now (and I will in a bit), but the requisite effort is what Don DeLillo might call a “collapsible fact”—something painful (in this case, the inconvenience and expense of CD shopping) that nevertheless gets tucked away as a form of self-defense, only to be recalled (uncollapsed, as it were) later when your nostalgia and/or idealism eventually wears off.

    But hunting for CDs did feel challenging and visceral, because you had so much music (more than you could ever get through if you listened nonstop for a month3) at your fingertips as real physical objects, and yet simultaneously you had to work within the sharp physical constraints of the store itself. The experience was unique, such that, even now as a little treat to my nostalgia, I like to go to the Tower Records in Shibuya almost every winter to hunt through its massive rows of special edition Japan CDs4. It’s almost like going back to the mid 2000s again, the twilight of my frequent record-buying experience.

    Though it was “only” ~15 years ago, those times seem even more distant than events from much earlier, I suppose because they were so thoroughly physical in away that no longer remotely resembles modern music consumption:

    • I’d look up record reviews on Web 1.0 sites such as warr.org. Imagine—reading the opinions of professional critics!
    • I’d write down the ones I wanted I to look for on a piece of printer paper. Paper! With pencils and maybe even pens!
    • I’d either go with my mom on the drive to Ear-X-Tacy or, if I was in college, walk a ways to the Newbury Comics at a mall near campus. I had to leave the house!
    • I’d finger through the CD rows, sometimes but often not finding what I’d been looking for, but also finding things I hadn’t thought of but seemed appealing. Not everything was available on-demand!
    • I’d take the discs back to my room (or dorm) and use my desktop PC to rip them into iTunes and then load them onto my iPod. There was no “cloud”!

    It took effort, and as painful as it often was, finding something rewarding and having it in your hands was exhilarating—a tangible win in a well-defined game with clear boundaries.

    The Zappa conundrum

    The artist who dominated those peak CD buying years was one who had at best a contentious and at worst a hostile relationship to the format—Frank Zappa. Record stores almost always organized their collections alphabetically by artist’s surname, so I built muscle memory5 to go to the end of the line and find the day’s almost always massive sample of Zappa’s endless discography.

    They’d often have his most popular work—We’re Only In It For The Money, Apostrophe, Freak Out!—alongside some daunting (and expensive) multi-disc works such as Läther and Shut Up N’ Play Your Guitar, and lots of releases you’d probably never even heard of despite your preliminary research, such as Wazoo, a live album containing some but not all material from the much better-known The Grand Wazoo studio album.

    Finding a worthwhile6 Zappa release took even more work, but had an even greater reward, than any artist I can recall, not just because there’s a huge gap between his best and worst work, or because he released seemingly 459 albums, but also because in the pre-digital panopticon, pre-smartphone era, it wasn’t always easy to know you’d got the right version of any given album.

    Here’s where Zappa’s aforementioned contentious relationship toward the CD comes back in play. When CDs became commercially available in the 1980s. Zappa—like all other major artists of the album era—began remastering many of his LPs. But he went further: He actually re-edited and heavily remixed the recordings, making many of them sound drastically different from the vinyl originals:

    • We’re Only In It For The Money had all of its original drum and bass tracks replaced with new recordings that sound badly out of step with the other instrumentation. It also has its censored obscenities restored. The initial CD was different from both the stereo and mono vinyl releases, which were also substantially different from one another.
    • Hot Rats had one of this tracks, “The Gumbo Variations,” lengthened by 4 minutes, and its most famous piece, “Willie the Pimp,” re-edited with what sounds like a totally different guitar solo.
    • Unless you’d snatched up and held into the original 8-track cartridge of Lumpy Gravy in 1967 when it got recalled, every version thereafter until 2009 was the vastly inferior 1968 re-edit with lots of irritating dialogue added. There was also another version that “punched up” that 1968 mix with re-recorded bass and drums!

    There’s way more along those lines. Indeed, the endless possibilities opened up by the CD format—longer run times and greater dynamic range 6, mainly—seemed to overwhelm Zappa, giving him pretext to indulge his tendency to fiddle. Sometimes, limits are good!

    I was lucky to walk out of Ear-X-Tacy in spring 2005 with a good mix (the 1995 CD) of We’re Only In It For The Money, I slipped it into a CD player while riding through a hilly stretch between Nelson and Washington Counties in Kentucky, and added it to my iPod later that day. But I also got a “bad” (to some people) mix (the 1987 CD) of Hot Rats and wouldn’t hear the “good” vinyl mix for years (FWIW, I think the CD sounds better).

    Physical memories

    Those two discs were the soundtrack to my 2005 summer—the drums of “Mom and Dad” echoing in my head while I assembled cars door panels in a factory, the squawking saxophone of “The Gumbo Variations” playing from the car stereo on our road-trips to Rhode Island. I was so careful with them because even then they seemed to embody, in their physical form, a time and place I could literally touch.

    Sadly, I lost my Hot Rats disc in a flood this year and only barely saved the We’re Only In It For The Money one and have had to clean it; I think it may still be usable. Either one’s tracks—and all their alternate Zappa remixes, too—are of course still available on every streaming service, but not those exact tracks, on those exact discs, as physical links to distinct memories, and as manifestations of what versions of those albums were deemed the “right” ones at that historical juncture. That’s something that feels like a unique product of the “music store” era, and one that’s literally being washed away.

    1. The old X dot com was an online bank that merged with Confinity to make PayPal. ↩︎

    2. They even had a Super Audio CD (SACD) section. SACD was a format that required special playback equipment and offered only modest improvements over regular CDs, most importantly the ability to carry up to 6 channels of audio instead of just stereo. But basically nothing except the PlayStation 3 and some Blu-ray players offered a practical way to play them over a good sound system. ↩︎

    3. I told a doctor that I had a month plus of music on my iPod in 2008 and I’m pretty sure that even now I haven’t listened to some of the songs in that batch. ↩︎

    4. In Japan, CDs often have extra tracks or even extra discs exclusive to the country. ↩︎

    5. I typo’d this as “music memory,” and almost left it. ↩︎

    6. It’s not an exaggeration to say that with some of Zappa’s worst work, like the 1968 mix of Lumpy Gravy most people couldn’t endure even a single playthrough. ↩︎

  • Don DeLillo, on the last day of summer in Underworld: “It is all part of the same thing, the feeling of some collapsible fact that’s folded up and put away and the school gloom that traces back for decades—the last laden day of summer vacation when the range of play tapers to a screwturn.”

  • Like a 🐅 camouflaged in the jungle

    An orange and white cat against a hardwood floor
  • Some ☕️ and 🌈

    A coffee mug filled with coffee sitting next to a rainbow refracted through the living room windows
  • Bright red tomatoes from my backyard garden

    Sliced tomatoes, chopped white onions, a bun, and a knife on a wood chopping board
  • “The economy” isn’t real—but your perceptions are

    One of the inescapable meta-narratives of the Biden era had been centrist and center-left writers 1 wondering impatiently why so many Americans think “the economy” 2 is so bad when, in fact, it’s objectively so good. Will Stancil exemplified this tendency recently when he characteristically blamed “media vibes” for distorting Biden’s “economic approval”:

    I really think the best explanation [of] Biden’s low economic approval is media vibes. People do not accurately perceive real-world economic indicators around them and predictably adjust their politics. Instead they internalize narrative descriptions of the world, mostly from media.

    He has this exactly backward.

    In Stancil’s formulation, the supposed real thing is the “real-world economic indicators” that can’t be “accurately” perceived, whereas “narrative descriptions” are fluff—harmful and fanciful distractions (“vibes,” a word meant to silly-ify and diminish their seriousness) from that hard underlying realness of unemployment rates, wage numbers, job openings, and so on. Moreover, “economic approval” gets set aside, presumably from others types of approval (social approval? political approval?), placed above (or maybe below, depending on the spatial metaphors) them as something more fundamental, more real.

    But you can’t hold GDP per capita in your hand—after all, it’s a total abstraction, a statistical average! Meanwhile, all of the following things are super-tangible and accordingly easily captured by narratives that in turn resonate with huge audiences:

    • The balance in your bank account strained in particular by healthcare costs and other emergencies that are pure products of the U.S. political system. 3
    • The very prominent signage (practically a form of advertising) for gas prices, which are virtually unique among consumer goods in being touted in this way. The absolute level doesn’t even matter as much as the sensation of it moving in the “wrong” 4 direction.
    • Political sentiments that make you feel like you’re“losing” or “winning” depending on who’s in office, regardless of what’s happening in “the economy.”

    It’s the narratives that are the real and powerful things, and the macroeconomic indicators that are fake and impotent in people’s lives. And yet all of the concerns above and any adjacent to them—essentially, anything that strays from the perceived cold hard realness of “the economy” and of the discipline that studies it, economics—are treated as, well, fake news by the Stancils of the world. To them, there’s an objective economic reality out there and people are simply failing to get it because they can’t get out of their own ways.

    This viewpoint is reminiscent of two others common on the American left, and you can see contours of both in the incredulity thrown at skeptics of the current U.S. “economy”:

    1. First, the constant characterization of right-wing climate deniers as idiots ignoring what’s before them.
    2. Second, the mockery of the belief that Hell awaits anyone who doesn’t grasp what religious fundamentalists deem the “obvious” truth of the Gospels.

    Are economy deniers like the clueless climate deniers in no. 1, or are they more like the clueless evangelicals and tradcaths in no. 2? In this case, I think that’s the wrong question—the right one is “why do ‘the fundamentals of our economy are strong!’ proponents sound so much like those zealots in no. 2?”

    What even is “the economy”?

    Harsh? Sure. But the entire “why don’t they get how awesome ‘the economy’ is?” narrative hinges on a concept as flimsy as that of a mythical deity—that of “the economy” itself.

    This term, meant to denote all of the activity in an entire country, only came into vogue after the Great Depression, and its indicators—the ones in which Stancil et al. invest so much value—are quite imprecise. Even the economist Diane Coyle, who wrote a book about GDP, says that the number is more of an idea than a thing. It doesn’t denote any “natural entity,” she says. It’s also somewhat nonsensical—for example, the Sisyphean rebuilding of infrastructure after every hurricane actually boosts Florida’s GDP. It’s good for “the economy,” even!

    So “the economy” is a little wonky as a concept, but it’s still fundamentally sound as a meaningful term, about which people should be getting generally similar signals? No. The problem is that by cordoning off something called “the economy,” we act as if:

    • There’s something amoral, scientific, and generally objective about it.
    • It’s nicely separated from the messier fields of politics, social science, philosophy, art, and so on.
    • Being free of such complications, it can be clearly—and uniformly—measured, perceived, and felt.

    That’s all really naive. There’s no there there with “the economy”—it isn’t something that’s easily described even by its proponents, such as Coyle above, much less readily (or uniformly!) perceived by the population at-large. People’s own experiences in spheres beyond economics—where they were born, the music they listen to, their cultural heritages, their social circles—inevitably shape what they think about economics. It’d be weird if they didn’t!

    Sometimes pundits do latch onto this, although they usually stop short of realizing that fixation on “the economy” is a category mistake. Judd Legum wrote a much more nuanced take than Stancil’s on the “what’s with people thinking the good economy sucks?” phenomenon and identified partisanship as a major reason for differing perceptions:

    One factor in Americans' pessimistic view of the economy is partisanship. A study published in The Review of Economics and Statistics in May 2023 concluded that “partisan bias exerts a significant influence on survey measures” of economic conditions, and this influence is “this bias is increasing substantially over time.” Specifically, “individuals who affiliate with the party that controls the White House have systematically more optimistic economic expectations than those who affiliate with the party not in control.”

    Think about how bad the Trump years felt if you were on the left, despite the “good” (for the stock market, at least) “economy” (whatever that is). Guess what, that feeling was real and you weren’t simply in denial about some deeper underlying economic truth that you should’ve accepted in such a way that you could compartmentalize everything else—the world is experienced through your total overlapping value system, not just (if even at fucking all) your relationship to economic statistics.

    So wondering why everyone isn’t in lockstep, joyously buying into a shared notion of a “great economy” is akin to wondering why everyone hasn’t simultaneously accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior—given social cleavages and political differences of all kinds, some of them irreconcilable, that was just never going to happen, and you sound like a disappointed and spiteful preacher thinking that it ever would.

    Samuel Chambers, in his collection There’s no such thing as “the economy”: Essays on capitalist value, sums up why any meta-narrative about “the economy” that treats it as a standalone domain is mistaken (emphasis mine):

    An “economic” event is never just economic, and it never happens only in or to “the economy.” …[T]he so-called “economy,” understood as a discrete object or domain, only comes into existence as a construction of the discipline of economics, after which the very idea of such a place is reified by other disciplines (who explicitly or tacitly accept the idea that “the economy” is what economics studies). Every social order is woven together by threads that are simultaneously economic, political, cultural, and so on. Just as the economic, the political, and the social do not exist in, nor can they be confined to, separate spheres, so too for “values.” There is no moral domain, separable from others. Value systems are themselves built into, developed through, and secreted out of larger social orders. If we want to understand value relations, we cannot look to a discrete object or a separate value sphere; we can only ever look at society. This lines or argument entails the very impossibility of placing “the economy” on an ethical foundation, for the straightforward reason that one of the things “the economy” does is produce and restructure value relations.

    So there—stop worrying about why everyone isn’t seeing the light of the wonderful Biden economy, and think about the political and social (and philosophical and moral and so on) reasons for why that might be.

    1. I identify as a leftist. ↩︎

    2. I’ve put this term in quotes throughout because I think it’s flimsy, as I’ll delve into later. ↩︎

    3. A majority of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck. ↩︎

    4. “Are high gas prices good?” is a conundrum for the U.S. left because while high prices discourage driving an ICE vehicle, they also create powerful backlash narratives. ↩︎

  • Essential reading

    The Obesity Myth, a book by Paul Campos
  • Saw this red bird earlier on top of my 🍅 cages

    Red bird on top of a tomato cage in a garden
  • The past isn’t quaint while you’re in it

    Many once-ubiquitous customs and behaviors have become so obsolete that it’s puzzling to anyone who didn’t live through them—and maybe even some of us who did—how they were ever so dominant.

    Sports gambling was very discreet

    Turn on any major sporting event today and you’re likely to get bombarded with information directly from the announcers about betting spreads, “first bet free,” and upset implications. Moreover, many accompanying advertisements are also about gambling. FanDuel, DraftKings, et al. are tightly interwoven with the legitimate sports broadcasting complex. ESPN has licensed its name to a sportsbook maker. Gambling won.

    Until the late 2010s, this all would’ve seemed gauche.

    Watching a broadcast before then, you’d never know that anyone was betting on the event, much less get direct encouragement to do so yourself. In the 1990s, my grandpa sometimes mentioned moneylines to me, and asked me to look them up in the newspaper, but at that age I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t understand the scope of sports gambling until well into adulthood.

    Indoor smoking was everywhere

    When I was helping out at a bingo at a school around the same time as I was looking up those lines in The Courier-Journal, everyone smoked in the gym where the event was held. The smell went everywhere you went. Restaurants had (indoor) smoking sections.

    Courseware? Never heard of it!

    A Mastodon post sadly lost to time had a bit in it about how, in the Star Wars universe, the prevailing attitude toward cybersecurity seemed to be “never heard of it.” That was the same attitude colleges had about specialized education software such as courseware, before about 2005.

    Indeed, I attended college in the 2000s and it was even then an intensely paper-driven process:

    • Class papers were often turned in by dropping them in a faculty member’s department mailbox. Only near the end did email attachments become A Thing.
    • All registrations were done by hand in ink on a paper card, until they were replaced after my junior year by a proprietary online system.
    • Every course had a paper syllabus that had to be religiously referred to and preserved.

    Now? The syllabus is another artifact of the Paper Age, as Ian Bogost explained in The Atlantic:

    The syllabus encapsulated the educational side of college life. This wasn’t just a course plan; it was a document that mediated the student’s relationship with the professor. It was a contract, and those who paid that contract insufficient mind—students who might find themselves in breach—were considered lazy, incompetent, or truculent.

    Then, 21st-century software upended how courses were run.

    Courseware that tracks and updates every aspect of each class is now so embedded into college that you come off as a Certified Old if you say there was a time when it didn’t even exist.

    Passwords and sign-ins were rare

    Remembering passwords and, if you’re more bleeding-edge, managing 2FA logins and passkeys, is intensely important now. But you used to be able to use a computer all day without ever having to enter a credential to sign into anything.

    Let’s say you’re using a Windows desktop 1 in 1996. Your workflow might be:

    1. Turn on the machine.
    2. Arrive at the Home Screen.
    3. Do some work in Microsoft Office and save it to a floppy.
    4. Print some documents
    5. Play a game off of a CD-ROM.
    6. Fiddle with Paint.
    7. Look at some pre-JavaScript webpages.

    Signing into the cloud? Never heard of it.

    Console gaming was a lot faster, actually

    1995 was my banner year playing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Although gaming has nominally advanced a lot since then, it’s impossible for most modern systems to match the sheer speed at which you could go from not playing to being immersed in a game. We’re talking just a few seconds, to turn on the CRT TV, power on the console, see a title screen, and press Start.

    By contrast, modern systems may have to download a patch/update whose file size is bigger than the entire SNES library, before doing anything else. And then loading screens are everywhere. When Mickey Mania came out in 1994, its loading screens were considered painfully slow for the SNES, a console for which it wasn’t even fully optimized. Now those screens would be some of the speediest in console gaming.

    Aging was a bigger deal

    If you turned 40, people used to act like you were near death. 60? You may as well be mummified. Now there are septuagenarians who are fitter and more active than the 30somethings of the 1980s and 1990s. Modern medicine is astonishing. Lipitor didn’t come to the US until 1996!

    Desktop PCs were ascendant

    Everyone at my college had a tower desktop PC and a printer connected via serial port. I’d be surprised if anyone there now had a desktop or any kind in their rooms.

    Video rentals were big business

    The very small town I grew up in once had multiple video rental places. Walls of VHS tapes and SNES and Sega Genesis cartridges. Now physical entertainment media is the outpost of collectors and enthusiasts only.

    Edgy white guys, not so much anymore

    This one is harder to quantify but I feel like people used to speak in hushed tones about “edgy” white men geniuses such as Kurt Cobain and Lenny Bruce. That moment’s gone and it’s been gone for a while. When a cello duo came to my school in the late 90s, they were astonished that most of the audience had never heard of Nirvana.

    1. I’ve always preferred Macs but I use a Windows example here because that’s what we had at the time and that era was the nadir of Apple’s business. It almost went bankrupt in 1997! ↩︎