Friday, October 22, 2021

Who are the Twitterati and why did we cede control of our culture to them?

It must have been so difficult in Ye Olden Days to put a mob together. It happened, of course, from time to time, even before the Internet. No less an authority than Smithsonian Magazine, in a June 2020 article, reports that nearly 2,000 Black Americans were lynched during Reconstruction, perhaps as many as 6,500 from the end of the Civil War until 1950. Murder by mob. Over and over and over again.

A mob is a gathering of people which collectively adopts, by some unspoken means, the IQ of the most ignorant person present.

Which is why Internet mobs are so very dangerous indeed: With old style mobs, whether recruited by newspaper or word of mouth, the individuals comprising the mob had to have at least enough intelligence to work their own doorknobs. Now, with the Internet generally, and Twitter specifically, even that minimal qualification is no longer necessary. So we have mobs that are more ignorant than ever, and they can assemble at the Speed of Light.

And supposedly serious people take these mobs seriously indeed.

Careers are ruined, reputations trashed, lives are forever altered all because largely anonymous people take their umbrage to Twitter.

In a recent post by Ken Levine, "Dave Chappelle and the current state of comedy," Levine laments, "Remember the days when some people thought something was funny while others didn’t and it was just chalked up to differing senses of humor?"

Levine was not defending Dave Chappelle per se. He's not particularly a fan. But, he said, he is glad there is at least one comic out there who is fearless, who is willing to ruffle feathers, who forces people to think. On the other hand, he adds,

I’m personally not a fan of mean-spirited comedy. And if it’s designed to demean anyone, regardless of color, gender, age — then it’s not for me. And it’s not the type of thing I write. But I don’t think there should censorship when it comes to comedy. I don’t think writers or comics should be blasted for things they wrote or said that may not be acceptable now but were when they wrote or said them.

That last sentence should be engraved in stone somewhere. Perhaps atop a pile of rubble left over from the destruction of statues of persons we (as a society) once thought heroic or important for something they had done in their lives, only to be torn down recently by mobs who were outraged by their failure to espouse 21st Century "values" (as they see them) in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th Centuries. I'm not talking Robert E. Lee here, kids. I'm talking about George Washington. Or Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, Levine's post cited to a long article on Commentary called "Destroying Comedy," by David Zucker. Zucker was one of the creators of the classic movie Airplane!, one of the many funny movies made a generation ago that could never, ever be made today.

Which was Mr. Zucker's point exactly. Go ahead, read the whole article. I'll wait.

You're back? I thought some of his jokes very funny, others crude and tasteless. Kind of like his movies. The good ones had more hits than misses, the not-so-good ones had more misses than hits. Whatever.

This passage in particular jumped off the screen at me:

[S]ome of the best contemporary comedy minds are abandoning laughter in favor of admittedly brilliant but serious projects such as Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, and Chernobyl, written by Craig Mazin. These men collaborated on two of the Hangover pictures, which struck gold at the box office. Phillips summed up the general plight of the comedy writer when he said, “It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it. So, you just go, ‘I’m out.’”

Zucker suggests we use Phillips' estimate of 30 million as the number of the perpetually outraged Twitterati or, as Zucker writes, that portion of the "population is killing joy for everyone." By his reckoning, that comes to about 9% of the population.

Nine percent. Do you realize how vanishingly small 9% is?

Donald Trump -- Donald Trump! -- got 34% of the vote in Ken Levine's California (source: Wikipedia). Trump was buried in a Biden landslide -- in a state where Republicans are an endangered species -- and he still got nearly four times (3.77777 if you're keeping score at home) the estimated percentage of perpetually outraged Twitterati, compared to the rest of the country.

And I think Mr. Phillips may be overly generous in his estimate. An outfit called Statista estimates that there are 73 million Twitter users in the U.S. as of July 2021 (and another 17.55 million in the U.K. -- not all our online outrage is necessarily domestic). An online marketing firm called Oberlo suggests that there were 55 million active daily Twitter users in the U.S. as of Q4 2020.

That makes sense to me: In my own family I am by far the most active Twitter user. I post fairly regularly. But my sons follow the latest local sports news and rumors on the site and seldom, if ever, post. Their usage varies widely, fluctuating with the seasons. None of us, to my knowledge, has ever joined a Twitter mob.

So the percentage of persons regularly active on Twitter should be less than the total number of registered Twitter users. And there are uses for Twitter, believe it or not, besides trying to ruin the lives of persons who inadvertently offend the perpetually outraged. And there are right-wing kooks and crazies on Twitter, too, and these would presumably not be upset at the same things that animate their equally dim brethren on the Left. So the total number of perpetually outraged Twitterati should be some modest percentage of overall active Twitter users -- 30 million may be way high and off the mark.

But whatever. Assume that they are 9% of the country's population. Ninety-one to nine is not just a landslide, it's an avalanche. And while the vanishingly small cadre of perpetually outraged Twitterati may be concentrated in various geographic locations -- perhaps in the most hip, trendy, and tawdry neighborhoods of our largest cities -- they could not carry an election for dogcatcher. Anywhere. Why do we listen to such as these?

Part of the reason, presumably, is because the perpetually outraged make such outlandish statements that media types, the few remaining journalists and all the multiplying cable 'news' outlets, find them irresistible. They bring in eyeballs. Or clicks. And that's how media companies make money in 2021. And, some, surely, are embedded in the media or in academia. But, if you went to college -- heck, if you went to high school -- you know darn good and well that not all teachers are necessarily smart.

And they may "follow" each other. The more followers one has on Twitter, the greater that person's presumed influence. But if all the like-minded (and I am using 'minded' here in the loosest possible sense) perpertually outraged folk follow each other, that has no influence on the 91% at all. And some of them aren't even influential enough to attract followers even within their own tiny-minded clique. Chicago Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) recently apologized online for 'engaging' with a Twitter user who had one more nostril than he had followers.

That's a positively Churchillian put-down.

Let me conclude by going back to the Ken Levine post I mentioned at the outset. A final quote:

The night ALL IN THE FAMILY premiered on CBS, they installed extra phone banks and operators to field the inevitable throng of complaints. They got 12 calls. 12. Now today those 12 could cause such a stink that they might be able to pressure ALL IN THE FAMILY off the air. How horrifying is that?

It doesn't have to be horrifying at all.

In the Pixar movie A Bug's Life, a handful of grasshoppers terrorize an ant colony until one ant, Flick, realizes that, just by sticking together, the ants are far stronger than the grasshoppers no matter how loud the grasshoppers roar or how scary they look. The perpetually outraged Twitterati are the grasshoppers, people. We are the ants. We don't have to live in fear of them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Curmudgeon turns out to be not the retiring sort

Photo credit: Ernst Vikne Flickr stream from Wikipedia Commons

I am not ready to retire.

No, that's not right: I'm ready. I'm more than ready. I am not able.

I meant to be rich and famous some day. Or at least rich. Or at least not broke.

I joked about it -- in 2010 I said I was disappointed to learn that the Mayan calendar had been mistranslated and that the world would not end in 2012 after all. (Spoiler alert: It didn't.) But, see, I said I was rooting for the End of the World in 2012 because my credit cards would have just about maxed out by then.

In reality I scrimped and saved and got my credit cards back under control (the last of my five kids finishing college helped a lot in this regard). But I'm not out of debt yet... and I'm not likely to ever be completely out of debt.

Actually, it turns out that reaching retirement age is in some ways like being a teenager all over again, except without the hormones (darn it): As my friends in high school all turned 16 and got their drivers' licenses I wasn't 16 yet and I was kind of envious because I wasn't yet old enough. Now my friends are all retiring and I'm not quite old enough and I neglected to get a pension from anyone.

That was poor planning on my part.

This is the 'second wave' of retirements in my case: Some years back, when I was coaching at what I called Bluejay Park (my coaching "career" ended in 2006) a lot of my fellow coaches started turning 50. That may not strike you as a particularly important milestone. But most of these dads were City workers -- cops mostly, but some firemen, at least one guy in the Department of Forestry) and they had their 30 years in with the City and were therefore eligible to retire and collect their full pensions. Many did retire. Most found other jobs, too, meaning they had some pretty good earning years while I was rooting for the Mayan prediction to be true.

I had a plan about how I was going to get a pension -- lots of plans -- none of them practical.

So I'm still here, still pursuing plans that are unlikely to bear real fruit. But I'm more at peace now with that. And I'm prepared to muddle through.

I'm not either of the old duffers on the bench in the picture above. But come sit next to me on this bench in the Blogosphere. I'll tell some stories, and maybe I'll even make you smile.

Or piss you off. In 2021 I suppose that seems more likely.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Now we know which side to take: Balding Billy blasts billionaires' space efforts

Nothing against Balding Billy, really. He and his lovely wife, Bonnie Kate, will be King and Queen of Great Britain some day. Probably. Assuming the monarchy survives his father. Which it most likely will. The monarchy is too important for the British tourism industry.

But that doesn't mean that anyone should take these "Royals" seriously. The Brits like them because they have good manners and dress well and they provide a little lustre to any social occasion that any of them happens to attend. An animatron could probably do those jobs just as well. But the "Royals," being human, and not very bright, are capable of stupendous blunders, and make them from time to time, giving fodder for the tabloids (at least outside of Britain) and plots for new Netflix programs. It all keeps the tourists interested.

Before you accuse me of being unfair, consider the position of the monarch in the British constitutional scheme. The Sovereign can advise, and warn, and has a right to be informed -- and then, when instructed, to sign here and here and read the occasional speech exactly as written. The Brits know better than to actually pay heed to one of these creatures.

So, when Balding Billy says, in a BBC interview, "We need some of the world's greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live," it means absolutely nothing.

Billy may or not be a billionaire in his own right. Yet. He will be eventually, of course. And he will acquire his billions in the oldest of old-fashioned ways: He will inherit it. (The present Queen controls a vast personal fortune in addition to the tourist traps she fronts.) But -- unless I missed it -- he's not advocating hocking the Crown Jewels in hopes of 'repairing' the Earth.

It's all very amusing, really, how the billionaire space entrepreneurs, Musk, and Bezos, and Branson, are portrayed as having the solution to all the world's problems in their wallets, but selfishly choose instead to squander their fortunes on space travel:

But that doesn't mean that it's true. Because it isn't.

We should continue to try and solve our problems here on Earth. Which we'll never do, of course, because we are imperfect beings who will never achieve perfection in this life. But we can keep trying to improve.

At the same time, however, we must also look to the future, to our future, as a species. Our fragile civilization should persist, at least until the next eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano... which probably won't happen this year or next... but might. And all the tax revenue in the world won't help us then. And who knows what other nasty tricks Mother Nature may play on us? Maybe it will be another, deadlier virus. Maybe it will be an asteroid. No... dispersal is a sound strategy for any species; it is a necessary strategy for ours, too.

I'm sure I'd much rather have Balding Billy and Bonnie Kate as neighbors than Musk or Branson or Bezos. Less drama. Polite chit-chat over the back fence. Their kids would play nice with my grandkids. But, obnoxious as they may be, I'd trust Branson and Musk and Bezos with the future over Balding Billy. Any day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Not really in defense of Jon Gruden... but....

I haven't read any of the emails that cost Jon Gruden his job as Head Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. I have seen some snippets in some published news accounts. Let us stipulate that they are as awful as they have been reported to be.

Gruden surely should have known better than to commit racist, homophobic, or misogynisitic slurs to paper or, in this case, email. He is old enough to know better -- 58, according to my quick research this morning -- and he was likewise an adult when he wrote the emails he is accused of writing. His case thus differs from other recent instances where young atheletes have faced condemnation for social media posts made in high school.

First takeaway: Never put anyting in writing that you wouldn't want read back at you from the pulpit of your church. I've tried to teach my kids this. I've tried to conduct myself this way, too. I'm certain that I have failed, from time to time, though hopefully less and less as the years have accumulated. Nobody's perfect.

Second takeaway: Don't write in anger. And, if you do write in anger, don't press "send."

During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln composed all sorts of vitriolic letters, often to generals in the field that he felt were lacking the proper resolve or spirit, and when he finished one of these, he would put it aside, in a drawer, for later consideration. Usually, the letters actually sent were toned down considerably.

In our modern, instant age, it is all too easy to lash out in anger. We don't even have to pause long enough to address an envelope or find a stamp. We can just press "send" and spew our vitriol out into the world at large. The temptation is grave enough in supposedly "private" communications, such as those in which Mr. Gruden apparently exchanged with Bruce Allen, the former president of what is now the Washington Football Team. (It was while sifting through Allen's old emails, as part of a broader investigation into allegations of misconduct concerning the Washington NFL franchise, that Gruden's emails were apparently uncovered.) The temptation to vomit unfiltered rage may be overwhelming when one is allowed to vent anonymously, as is so often the case on the Internet.

But we should hardly be surprised that Mr. Gruden had anger issues. (Imagine: A coach with a temper. Next you'll be telling me that there's an accountant out there who has an affinity for numbers.) Mr. Gruden, in particular, was renowned for his anger issues, made all the more marketable by his apparent resemblance to the Chucky character from a series of horror movies and television shows that I will never willingly watch.

Sometimes, when people blurt unthinkingly while angry, they will use slurs. As apparently was the case here, in at least one of the damning emails, Gruden used derogatory terms for a homosexual person to describe the Commissioner of the NFL. That does not mean that Mr. Gruden necessarily harbors a particular animus against the LGBTQ+ community, or that Gruden believes, or then believed, that the NFL Commissioner is in fact a member of that community. It does mean that, on one occasion when he pressed "send", Gruden was angry about something the Commissioner had said or done and could not come up with, and/or did not try to find, a better way to express that anger.

That doesn't make it "OK" to use those words. Or any of the other hurtful words Gruden is accused of using. That is why this is, at best, a half-hearted defense of Mr. Gruden.

Human beings are supposedly rational creatures. We are blessed with the power of speech. We have hundreds of thousands of words in the English language alone from which we can choose when we feel the need to express an opinion, positive or negative, about anything. We should always be able to find words to express ourselves without resorting to racial, homophobic, or misogynistic slurs.

At the same time, however, though we are rational creatures, we are also emotional. Sometimes, our emotions get the better of us: We say things we should not say, using words we should not use, using words would not use if we took the time to reflect on what we were really trying to communicate.

I wonder how any of us would fare, including Mr. Gruden's new ardent detractors, were we subjected to the kind of scrutiny that Mr. Gruden has recently experienced.

I offer no opinion on whether Mr. Gruden should have been able to keep his job, despite the newly disclosed emails. He foreclosed further debate on that point by choosing to resign.

But, ultimately, I would hope that none of us, including Mr. Gruden, will be judged solely on what we said, or wrote, in a moment (or, apparently, in Mr. Gruden's case, several moments) of anger. Rather, I would hope that we are judged by those who know us, and see us, and live and work with us, on the totality of their observations of us.

In this harsh and unforgiving modern age, I realize that this is a big "ask." But I'm asking anyway.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Yogurt: Why in the world does anybody eat this stuff?

It's supposed to be good for you, I know. What I don't understand is why.

Yougurt, sold openly in stores in containers such as that pictured above, is, insofar as I can tell, the exact same thing as milk that's been left in your refrigerator a week past its use-by date.

Except for Greek yogurt. That's milk that's been left in your refrigerator two weeks past its use-by date. That's why it's chunky.

And, yet, this container has on it its very own use-by date. A date that is, inexplicably, still in the future.

America: We don't make much of anything anymore, but we can market anything!

As you may be able to deduce from the foregoing, this container of yogurt, taken from the Curmudgeon family refrigerator, was not purchased for my consumption.

My wife, Long Suffering Spouse, claims to like plain yogurt. She uses it, sometimes, as an ingredient in 'smoothies.' These are concoctions, made with a blender, into which all manner of fruits and vegetables are hurled, there to be sliced, diced, and liquified. Along with yogurt.

It is a fate too horrifying to contemplate.

Mind you, I don't much care for fruits or vegetables either. But I harbor no special animus against them. I would never mutilate---indeed, utterly destroy---them in this fashion.

But my wife---my wife who claims to like fruits and vegetables---sees nothing wrong with condemning innocent fruits and vegetables to such a gruesome fate. With yogurt, yet.

But, whether it is from pangs of conscience or the press of time, Long Suffering Spouse does not always get the chance to ritually slaughter fruits and vegetables in whirling blades of death before her yogurt goes "bad."

Each time this happens, when she happens to mention it to me, I ask, "How can you tell?"

For some reason, my wife does not always find this endearing.

Since the Pandemic began, my wife and I often do our grocery shopping together. I go racing through the aisles, grabbing the usual sundries (bread, coffee, coffee cake...), and bringing them back to the cart; she lingers among the fruits and vegetables, carefully choosing which ones she will destroy. The container used in the above illustration was acquired during one such recent joint venture.

I brought it back to the cart as directed.

Now you have to understand that the last couple of times we have bought yogurt, my wife was unable to use it before it supposedly went bad. (I've also sometimes asked if yogurt becomes edible after its experation date; this, too, has not been well-received by my better half.)

Anyway, because I am an obedient husband, I fetched the yogurt, reporting the stated use-by date to Long Suffering Spouse, who always asks about such things. "Can we just throw it out now, when we go through the checkout line?" I asked, as I dutifully put the container in our cart. "It would save time later."

My wife was not amused. On the other hand, in the week or more since we returned from that expedition, she has not yet found time to make her "smoothies."

Meanwhile, as you can see, I have, finally, gotten some use from this purchase.