Essays on Technology and Culture

Pop Culture Granfalloons

Pop culture, especially for us socially isolated dorks, is an easy granfalloon to call our own. You have a ready-made conversation topic, a sense of purpose, and a way to identify the out-group. As a geek of the old school persuasion, I get it. Somewhere in my piles of stuff is a beat up, yellow paper card signifying that I am an official member of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Information Club. It’ll be eighteen years, this year, since the day I got it in the mail from Minnesota. I have a similar, newer card, signifying my membership in Club DEVO, the DEVO Fan Club. That’s about the end of my formalized pop culture affiliations, though I have no shortage of informal ones—largely in music.

But these affiliations are starting to worry me. That worry is largely about the way online discourse occurs around pop culture. Especially when someone is critical of a particular piece of pop culture. You can’t say anything negative—or just counter to populist opinion—about something with a large, devoted fanbase in a public forum without raising the flaming ire of fans. Heaven forfend you make even a valid criticism, even of something you like, without being called out as a fake fan. And if you’re female, a person of color, or both, here come the rape threats.

Problems occur when the requirements to be part of the in-group increase. The more of a piece of pop culture you consume, the more trivia you can spout, more merchandise you can display, the truer a fan you are. For a new fan of anything, the requirements to join the in-group can become positively Sisyphean. And this is usually by design. It’s far from a new phenomenon, but the movement of pop culture from an interest to an identity has only amplified the territorial tendencies of geeks.

Which goes a long way towards why I’ve chosen to dial back from my geeky pop culture obsessions. I’m doing this in large part because I don’t like defining my identity based on someone else’s work, but also because I have seen the dark side of geeky obsession from both sides. Fandoms can become toxic, and it can happen on the turn of a dime. Just look at what happened recently in the Steven Universe fandom on Tumblr.

I’ve seen a short YouTube video linked when people discuss their disinterest in cultural granfaloons. It’s a mantra I’m trying to take to heart. Maybe you should too. Remember: “It’s okay to not like things! Don’t be a dick about the things you don’t like.” And don’t be a dick about the things you do like, as well.

Problematic Media and How to Live With It

A while back, my Twitter feed was blowing up about an episode of the podcast Top Four, wherein Marco and Tiffany Arment discuss their picks for the worst four Weezer singles. I didn’t listen, largely because I didn’t have an hour to devote to the discussion, and I already know Weezer’s worst four singles. Frankly, Weezer has two good albums: the self-titled blue album, and Pinkerton, and I will hear no defenses of their subsequent material. Well, the song “Keep Fishin’” gets a pass, mostly because of the music video. Muppets make almost anything better

Going back to Pinkerton, like all good Weezer fans, it’s an album I appreciate a lot. I, too, was once a shy, love-lorn dork who found a seemingly kindred spirit in Rivers’s emotional lyrics. Then, I came across an amazing piece in The Awl about Pinkerton that woke me up to the album’s serious issues. Between the casual racism of “Across the Sea” with its broken English lyrics and exotification of an underage Japanese woman, the rape-apology-not-apology of “Butterfly” and the queer erasure of “Pink Triangle,” there’s a lot of gross to unpack. As a queer person, I know my feelings on the latter song alone have changed a lot from before I understood my sexuality. But, despite these issues that I cannot un-hear. I still like Pinkerton. It’s a great record, and one of the albums that I have deigned to be in my iPhone’s “Permanent Rotation” playlist.

I bring up Pinkerton, because it’s a good example of an ongoing debate in, for lack of a better term, “geek” circles, about the media we love, and whether loving a piece of media requires us to look beyond the issues it has. The word “problematic” is thrown around a lot—and is a source of backlash in itself. From a distance, the argument looks a lot like people saying that beloved geek works are sacrosanct and above criticism, at least when those criticisms are focused on “social” issues like gender, sexuality, race, class, etc. On the other side, you have the people shouting that loving these problematic things is the same as endorsing their problematic aspects—though the existence of this side is largely mythical, it’s more a side effect of the volume of the other side.

What I find odd about this debate is that there is a long geek tradition of tearing down works based on certain flaws. For example, there’s a long-running YouTube series called “CinemaSins” that takes a film, often ones that have popularity among geeks, and tallies up all the various goofs, inconsistencies, plot holes, and other issues that happen in even the best movies. There’s a strain of geek who wants reviews to focus on what they term as “objective criticism.” Objective in this case refers to a focus on gameplay, production, special effects, and not “subjective” topics like the social concerns I mentioned above. What is it that makes one subject of critique more valid than another? You’ll get people complaining that engines wouldn’t make noise in space, but turn around to say that a gratuitous shot of a female character in her underwear that adds nothing to the story is no problem at all.

There’s an idea that criticism of a work is something that determines whether it is good or bad, or more accurately, whether the reader should spend money on it. We conflate the “review” which is, by nature, a subjective set of opinions on a work with the intent of making the case of its merits as something to spend money on with “criticism,” an academic discipline that attempts to identify aspects of a work and what it’s trying to say. In other words, a video game review is: “Action-packed, great controls, graphics aren’t great: 3.5 stars,” while a video game critique is: “The series continually denies agency to female characters…” One can use both to come to a purchasing decision, of course, and the lines between a review and a critique are often blurry outside of academia. It’s still important to make the distinction.

The distinction matters because too much of geek identity is tied up in the media we choose to consume. Some people are video game geeks, some music geeks, some comedy, or sci-fi, or anime, or a combination of a bunch of these. It becomes our identity: we tie ourselves to the things we love and they become part of us. When a criticism we see as off-base is levied at a piece of media we love, it’s easy to take it as an attack on us. The social critique reads to the media-affiliated geek as “This is bad, and you are a bad person for liking it,” but that is almost never the intent. Social criticism is just another way of thinking about the work. Many critics (in the academic sense) approach their subjects out of a sincere love of the thing they’re critiquing.

As long as we allow our identities to be defined by the media we love, we’re going to keep running up against legitimate critiques of that media and puncture our balloons. It’s important that we understand that we are allowed to like what we like, and to dislike what we dislike. It’s also important that we realize that, as we grow older and learn more about ourselves and others, our opinions may change. The rest of the world doesn’t have to agree with our specific media opinions, either. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong; it doesn’t mean you’re right, and vice-versa. And we really need to learn that nobody is going to take the media we love away from us. The days of Jack Thompson, the Comics Code Authority, and The Hayes Code are all behind us.

More importantly, we need to come to terms with what it means to love someone else’s creations. When we love a work of art—a video game, an album, a movie—we need to acknowledge its flaws, not to single them out, but because we know it can be better. The attitude of loving a thing “warts and all” doesn’t mean ignoring the warts. It means acknowledging them, and understanding someone else may not see it your way. And that is okay. The people who make social critiques, who talk about the problematic nature of a lot of the things we geeks love, they’re not doing it to hurt us. They’re doing it out of love. It comes from the same place as your love. The sooner we understand this, the better.

Healthy Living isn’t One Size Fits All

I’m fat. Not so fat that I would need two seats on an airplane, unless we’re talking RyanAir, but I weigh about 200 pounds and I’m 5’8″. In other words, I’m built like a hobbit. My BMI has hovered around 30 to 31, so I’m borderline obese by that criteria. Could be worse—just a few years ago I was over 230, and would get winded bending over to tie my shoes. I dropped the pounds by calorie counting for the most part, but I’ve been stuck at 200 for a while. I’ve also been heavy all my life, in a family whose body types range from heavy to very heavy. My mother even underwent gastric bypass surgery several years ago to deal with her weight. (It’s helped a lot.)

As someone who’s been trying, though maybe not as hard as he could be, to shed pounds, I see a lot about food and diet flying around these Internets. I see even more of it at my day job in medical journalism, with diet articles running through my inbox several times a week. Thankfully, the kind of diet articles I work with are ones that approach it from a scientific and medical standpoint, so it’s not as annoying. Still, the volume of talk about food, and what one should eat, and shouldn’t eat, almost has me annoyed enough to just drink three glasses of Soylent a day so I don’t have to think about it—if a supply of Soylent wasn’t back-ordered for the next decade.

Part of the problem is that I like food too much. That’s not why I’m overweight—well not the only reason why I’m overweight. It’s also why I’m unwilling to commit to any sort of elimination diet (e.g. Paleo/Keto/Vegetarian/etc.) unless a physician orders me to as a matter of life or death. I grew up not on Saturday Morning Cartoons, but Saturday Morning PBS Cooking shows. The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook hold dear places in my youthful memories, as does cooking out of a children’s cookbook with my Mom. Even now, I actively enjoy cooking, whether something as simple as a weeknight thrown-together stir-fry, or a Sunday roast chicken. (And I make a mean roast chicken.) I don’t want to give up what I enjoy, if I don’t have to.

I don’t want to say that if you find eating by a certain elimination diet works for you to not do it. That way lies madness. And certainly if your doctor tells you to cut something out, I won’t tell you they’re wrong. That way lies madness, too. It just frustrates me when I see so many people suggesting so many different diets that I immediately check out. I have the same problem when trying to settle on an exercise plan. (I still don’t have one besides “walk a lot.”) I have a copy of Staring Strength, considered to be the book for people who want to begin weight training, and I begin to smell toast partway through the first chapter. Best I’ve managed is Couch-to–5K, or the bodyweight exercise routines in FitStar, because they explain what to do in small words and pretty pictures in the case of FitStar.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the nutrition and diet talk that flies through my daily life, it’s that we don’t really know anything about what makes for a proper diet. We’re slowly figuring it out, but we still don’t know. The sheer diversity of human beings on this planet, the biomes they live in, the food supplies available to them, and the adaptability of the human digestive system means that a diet that works great for someone could put someone else in the hospital. From my own experience, I’ve tried doing the Paleo thing, and I spent those three days constantly hungry until I gave up and shoved some bread down my gaping maw.

We have all this technology to track what we do—I’ve walked nearly 16,000 steps today, as of time of writing—but very little to give us guidance on what we need to do to reach our health and fitness goals. Then again, we barely have a scientific understanding of fitness and nutrition, so it’s a leap to think the computers in our pockets and on our wrists will have that understanding too. It’s also easy for someone who claims to have it figured out approaches the topic with a holier-than-thou attitude that “counting calories will help you lose weight, but it won’t make you healthy” or some other platitude that misses the point of what we’re trying to do. At least we’re thinking about it.

Ultimately, the foods we choose to eat, and the number on the scale in the morning doesn’t make one more, or less moral. Much like the nerd entitlement attitude around fancy gizmos and gadgets, the attitude around health and fitness, from the people who found a system that works is often the opposite of constructive. There’s a key difference in that there’s aspects of health and fitness that are achievable for everyone, even those who can’t afford a personal trainer, gym membership, or organically grown kale—or have time to fit in a full fitness regimen around working full-time and taking care of their family.

Dropping the attitude is the first step to making that happen. Second is calming down, and coming to terms with the fact that while we have some of the facts, we don’t know enough to be prescribing a single diet and exercise plan for everyone. Finally, it’s accepting that not everyone has the desire to be at peak physical fitness. Support and understanding are more useful than body shaming and lifestyle prescriptivism. I don’t desire to be Adonis, I just want to drop my spare tire and, hopefully, live a little longer. That’s not a bad goal to have.

I’m That Guy Who Doesn’t Have a TV

I don’t own a television, but I try not to be one of those jerks who’s self-righteous about how he doesn’t own a television. Considering the amount of time I spend passively consuming streams, both social and pirate, I’m not about to maintain any pretensions about how not owning a television makes me better than anyone. The time most people spend watching TV is just filled up with other activities, that’s all. Name any major TV show of the last decade or two: Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Walking Dead… something else? Odds are, I haven’t seen it.

Growing up, I watched plenty of TV. I was raised on Star Trek: The Next Generation, PBS cooking shows, and various cartoons. Though once I got an Internet connection at home in the late 90s, my TV watching time was doomed. Even then, I made it a point to catch The Simpsons on Sunday nights, and MST3k whenever the Sci-Fi Channel—before it was “Syfy”—could be bothered to show it. I went off to college without a TV in tow, but I did get a TV tuner card for my desktop—so I could hook up my Super Nintendo without needing any extra displays in my tiny dorm room.

Working evenings, with my part-time telemarketing job for the Walnut Street Theatre while in school put the final nail in my TV watching coffin. Sure, we had a TV in my dorm, and later in my shared house, but I was rarely around to watch it. When I moved out to West Philadelphia on my own, I didn’t take a TV. I didn’t even sign up for Netflix—it wasn’t how I learned to spend my leisure hours. Even now, years later, my girlfriend and I still don’t own a TV. It’s just not what we do. If I feel like being mindless for 22 minutes at a stretch, I’ll pull up a classic episode of The Simpsons from [REDACTED] and laugh my fool head off.

And so, I feel somewhat disconnected from talk that flies around my Twitter circles, largely tech-related, about TV shows, new and old. I’ve never seen anything touched by the hand of Joss Whedon, be it Buffy, or Firefly. I don’t really desire to, either, not out of dislike, but sheer apathy. Why bother? It’s officially too much of a timesink that I can’t even be bothered to keep up with recent shows I do care about. I stopped watching the final season of Boardwalk Empire, and I’m far enough behind on Doctor Who that they’ll be on to the 15th Doctor by the time I finish Peter Capaldi’s first season.

I’m sure people who follow me are just as confused when I drop the name of some band or artist whose album or show I’m eagerly anticipating. It’s just surprising after it being a minor-to-non-existent part of my life, just how important TV watching is to people I know and follow. I guess it shouldn’t be, though. I also find myself wondering just what I’ve been missing, but there’s only so many hours in the day. I can’t see where I’d squeeze in the time to keep up with TV, let along all the ancillary recaps, podcasts, and meta-discussion surrounding it. Better to just stick with leaving the metaphorical cable cut. Besides, that’s $9.99 a month I can blow on an album by someone you’ve never heard of instead.

The Urbanist

I was born in the city. I was raised in the city. God willing, I’ll die in the city, though maybe not the same city I was born in.

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It’s the only way of life I’ve known. I was born and raised in Philadelphia. My childhood spent in a residential neighborhood of row houses in the Tacony neighborhood. I went to middle school and high school just north of downtown Philadelphia, and attended college in Brooklyn before returning to Philadelphia to finish my education. I lived in West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill for four years before moving back to New York in 2012, where I intend to stay. The city is in my blood.

I read paeans to the beauty, the tranquility, and the silence of rural life, but I don’t understand it. The silence scares me, unnerves me, especially since it’s never really silent out there. The wind blows and rustles the trees, the insects chatter and buzz, and when you’re used to man-made noises, grew up with them outside your window, it makes sleep difficult. At least in the city, I’m used to the noises, and can tune them out, unless it’s the damn ice cream truck.

The city is density and noise, but it’s also livelihood. It’s never wanting for something to do, even if you don’t want to do anything. It’s being able to walk to the grocery store and back—maybe with a Granny Cart—or ordering in food from almost any cuisine you can name. It’s a neighborhood bar I can walk to, and stagger home from. It’s being able to commune about the miseries of delayed subway trains without speaking a word. It’s finding the silent place, no matter where it is, and appreciating it, for you know it is transient.

Cities let you hide in plain sight. You come and you go placidly, amid the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there my be in being a part thereof. Whatever sins of urban living you commit today, and you will commit at least one, will be washed away overnight. When you get back on the train the next morning, nobody will even remember. It’s liberating, in a way. It’s the introvert’s dream. All the people around you are extras in the movie of your life, and you are an extra in theirs.

The city is freedom. It’s liberation. Where do the disaffected congregate? Where do the immigrants, minorities, the shunned collect? The city. They build support structures for each other, they build businesses and lives. Every city has its neighborhood whose identity is defined by the people who built a community there, where nobody else would have them. From Chinatowns to Gayborhoods, the marginalized and the different have used cities as places to lift themselves up. One of my favorite New York city memories is walking in the West Village, on my way back to the subway to go home, seeing a man in traditional Saudi garb, talking politics, and saying with the utmost sincerity: “I am an American!” He is, no question.

The city is real life amplified. Sarah Larson, in her essay on the recent gas explosion and fire in Manhattan’s East Village puts it perfectly:

Living in New York intensifies the common life experience of having daily pleasures and terrible accidents coexist in close proximity. Terrible things can happen right near you, and chance determines whether your life is changed. Most of the time, incredibly, we remain safe.

You can’t forget you exist in the big city. Doing so is to risk death, or at least serious injury. It’s not so much falling down an open manhole cover, more like getting hit by a delivery guy on a bike. That’s the most danger you’ll probably be in, a large, American city’s downtown in 2015. Random horrors can occur anywhere. In the city, the infrastructure is there to deal with it quickly. The NYFP was on the scene of the explosion in three minutes flat. That’s impressive work anywhere.

I’ll never say the ruralists are wrong. It’s a big enough country, a big enough planet, that they can live in their place apart and be happy. I hope they enjoy it. For me, I thrive in city life. I live for long walks on city blocks, curious of what’s new, amazed by what’s old—yet new to me. It’s all here, in the wild, noisy, organized chaos of what I call home. The country is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.