The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

snarl § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-16 18:31:36
Robert § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-14 03:26:25
Bob § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-13 02:23:25
Sounds like § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 17:11:20
Ryan Lower § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 16:15:35
Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The new utility belt / 2017-02-27 10:18:33
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17
Snarkmarket commenter-in-chief since 2003, editor since 2008. Technology journalist and media theorist; reporter, writer, and recovering academic. Born in Detroit, living in Brooklyn, Tim loves hip-hop and poetry, and books have been and remain his drug of choice. Everything changes; don't be afraid. Follow him at

Two songs from The Muppet Movie
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Why write a blog post somewhere nobody has published in five years, in a new WordPress interface where you recognize… yeah, nothing? Where somehow you can’t even upload a JPG or PNG file you downloaded from another site “for security reasons” without converting it first? Or get paragraph tags or linebreaks working inside blockquotes? (Really? On Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s own World Wide Web???)

Because sometimes there is no other place to put such things. There is no other place where you want to put such things.

I bought a new laptop late in 2020, one of the new Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Pros that was announced just after the election (which was also my birthday). It is easily the best laptop I’ve ever used, let alone owned. I’m typing on it now. (It doesn’t have enough ports; otherwise, it is as perfect a machine as has ever existed until the next one comes out.) Buying that laptop started something for me: a new round of investment in myself after a long period of being fearful and dormant. And shortly after I bought it, I covered it in Muppets stickers.

I’m hardly unique in loving The Muppets; we’re past fifty years of Sesame Street and even longer of Jim Henson’s earlier creations, meaning just about every living generation has been touched by those special creatures one way or another. But the Muppets are a talisman of something I try to guard in myself: tenderness, exaggerated emotion, a desire to experience the world as something new, an urge to creativity and renewal, a fear of rejection, and a sometimes desperate need to be loved in a world where love is often in short supply.


The most famous song from The Muppet Movie is the opening number, “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s sung by Kermit the Frog, as played and performed by Jim Henson himself, and the conceit in the movie is that Kermit is playing and singing the song alone, on a banjo. This conceit is quickly abandoned, at least aurally; a whole orchestra comes in, turning a dead-simple children’s song into something swelling and cinematic. It’s three minutes long, and sung by a puppet, performed by someone who, for all his unbounded talents for voice and performance, can’t really sing. But I think it’s the greatest song ever written for a film. (A surprisingly competitive category!) It’s really worth watching, as many times as you can.

Here is a story about the writing of “The Rainbow Connection.” And here are the lyrics:

[Verse 1]

  • Why are there so many
  • Songs about rainbows
  • And what’s on the other side?
  • Rainbows are visions
  • But only illusions
  • And rainbows have nothing to hide
  • So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it
  • I know they’re wrong, wait and see

[Hook]

  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[Verse 2]

  • Who said that every wish
  • Would be heard and answered
  • When wished on the morning star?
  • Somebody thought of that
  • And someone believed it
  • Look what it’s done so far
  • What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing
  • And what do we think we might see?

[Hook]

  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[Bridge]

  • All of us under its spell
  • We know that it’s probably magic

[Verse 3]

  • Have you been half asleep
  • And have you heard voices?
  • I’ve heard them calling my name
  • Is this the sweet sound
  • That calls the young sailors?
  • The voice might be one and the same
  • I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it:
  • It’s something that I’m supposed to be

[Hook]

  • Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection
  • The lovers, the dreamers, and me

[End/Outro]

That’s the whole thing.

As a child, I was taught that this song was about hope in tough times — a rejection of cynicism, an attempt to uphold on the threshold of the Reaganite 1980s something of the idealism of the 1960s, from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the antiwar movement, only somewhat looser and more adaptable (if also more inchoate). The song also had a religious element to it: something of my mother’s highly adaptable (and thoroughly idiosyncratic) Catholicism — a belief there was a magical, spiritual universe both separate from and pervading the one we could see. The Rainbow Connection was not heaven in any proper theological sense, but it was the heaven my mother believed in. And, I think, that she still believes in.

And it is those things — insofar as it “is” anything but a sweet song with a good melody — but it’s also something else. And as you get older, and continue to deal with grief and heartache (as I have, many times), and are dealt reversals and disappointments, the other meaning of “The Rainbow Connection” becomes insistent and impossible to ignore.

It is a song about what you can and can’t believe in after a life filled with missed chances, casual cruelties, and dead family and friends. It’s a song shot full of the melancholy many of us remember most clearly in our own childhoods, an ache to your bones that has never gone away. It is every heartbreak you have ever had, every injury suffered to your body, mind, and pride. It is how you think about friendship and community when your community is broken and your friends are all so very far away. It is not about a cohort of happy dreamers, or lovers. It is about how you care for your child inside when all your illusions are gone. It is the last illusion you keep, because without it, you would have nothing left.

The questions “The Rainbow Connection” asks are genuine questions, with a more ironic edge than Kermit places on it in the song itself:

  • “Who said that every wish / Would be heard and answered”? Really ask yourself: who?
  • “Somebody thought of that / And someone believed it.” Who thought of it? Why have any of us ever believed it?
  • “Look what it’s done so far.” What has it done? Have you actually looked? Where are we? All these years of struggle: what were they for? And what have they done?
  • “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing / And what do we think we might see?” What are we looking for? How would we even know it if we saw it?

And if not this, then what? What are the alternatives? Lie down and die? Give in to the world’s cruelty and cynicism and make yourself a part of it? Tranquilize yourself and wait for something to change? Could we even do otherwise? After all… it seems like most people genuinely can do exactly that.

Seen from this perspective, The Muppets are not childlike or naïve at all. They are advancing a powerful critique of how we live and what we believe, and how we’ve come to settle for so much less than what we are capable of. There is a utopian element to “The Rainbow Connection,” but it turns out to be a very slight one. A Minimum Viable Utopia, if you will.


The other song that matters the most to me from The Muppet Movie (which, like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Prince’s self-titled album, was released shortly before I was born) is Gonzo’s “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” And this song, too, has multiple layers that are worth unpacking.

Here are the lyrics:

Verse 1:

  • This looks familiar
  • Vaguely familiar
  • Almost unreal yet
  • It’s too soon to feel yet

Hook:

  • Close to my soul
  • And yet so far away
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

Verse 2:

  • Sunrises, night falls
  • Sometimes the sky calls
  • Is that a song there
  • And do I belong there

Hook:

  • I’ve never been there
  • But I know the way
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

Bridge:

  • Come and go with me
  • It’s more fun to share
  • We’ll both be, completely
  • At home in midair
  • We’re flying not walking
  • On featherless wings
  • We can hold on to love
  • Like invisible strings

Verse 3:

  • There’s not a word yet
  • For old friends who’ve just met
  • Part heaven, part space
  • Or have I found my place

Hook:

  • You can just visit
  • But I plan to stay
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday
  • I’m going to go back there
  • Someday

[End/Outro]

This song is somehow even simpler than “The Rainbow Connection,” but it wears its ironies farther out on its sleeves.

The obvious (although not literal) reading of the song is that Gonzo is not talking about any past he remembers, or even really a future he’s waiting for, but about the love and newfound family he’s discovered with his friends now all around him: the Muppets to whom he’s singing the song. Again, as a child, this is what I was taught without having to be told, and for the most part, it’s what I believed.

The second, more critical take on “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is that it is a profound confession of abandonment and loneliness in Gonzo’s formative years. It is the absence of anything like the heartsoaring love he is stumbling to find words to describe, and his very early and extremely keen awareness of that absence, even before he knew there was hope of anything different. It is less about loss (you have to have something before you can lose it, technically) than lack.

And while you could say that Gonzo is realizing now that he’s found what he’s long been looking for, the fact that he still puts it in the future tense suggests that he’s still feeling something lacking, either in his companions or in himself. He still feels incomplete, blown apart, alone and lonely, en route to something he does not have and has never had, does not know and has never known — something that he can only describe or define by its absence. A negative theology.

You could take this a step further and say that what “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is really about is the fact that such a place does not exist, has never existed, and if it waits for anyone, it does not wait for the singer. Gonzo — Tim Carmody — is so irreducibly damaged by what has happened to him, so thoroughly alone, that he can only think of love and belonging as a return to a paradise he’s never known and will never in his lifetime see.


The trouble with all of this is that sometimes the impossible happens.

Here I’m going to invoke another important text from my childhood, but I won’t take any time to explicate it, because I can talk about baseball (and specifically, this single plate appearance) forever.

It is hard to talk or even to think about miracles, especially if (like me) you have long since relaxed the God hypothesis. The 18th-century empiricist / skeptical philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.

The trouble for Hume with miracles is the trouble for Hume with all knowledge (including very basic relationships of cause and effect): the evidence to genuinely believe in miracles is always lacking. It falls apart given the tiniest bit of criticism — and yet, people are inclined to believe in miracles anyways.

In fact, people all over the world, at every age and in every walk of life, may be more inclined to believe in something impossible they believe they’ve witnessed themselves, alone or in a small group, than an ordinary event witnessed again and again by millions of people. Aristotle, too, understood, this irony, writing in the Poetics that (translations differ, but here is the gist) “the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” And if you can keep God’s hands off the probable impossible, so much the better.

The world Gonzo prophecies in “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” that Kermit imagines in “The Rainbow Connection,” is not supposed to exist. It is an illusion, an impossibility, even if it remains a necessary one. And yet: sometimes, somehow, after you have already set aside your own eligibility for such things, and doubted their real existence for others or their cameos in your own past, you nevertheless, to your own total astonishment, find yourself back there again.

On Saturday, February 6th, I moved back to the city of Philadelphia. I made my nostos, not to the city where I was born (Detroit, which will also always have my heart), but the city I chose when I was 22, and where I spent most of the important years of my life. I am back. I am home.

You can just visit / But I plan to stay / I’m going to go back there / Someday

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No one to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car
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A big part of my history of Flint River pollution, just published today, is about this 1999 accident where 22 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the river, killing fish and making the river unsafe for contact for about a year and a half. It revealed all sorts of structural problems in the way sewage was being treated in the region, and happened right in the middle of a mayor’s race and an attempt to renegotiate the city’s water contract with Detroit.

Over two days, 22 million gallons of raw human, industrial, residential, and commercial waste poured into the river. On the second night, downstream in Mt. Morris Township, Karen Winchester saw hundreds of dead fish floating down the river past her property — catfish, carp, and bluegill, 3 to 20 inches long, all belly-up. For 14 months, health officials prohibited swimming, fishing, or direct contact with the river…

Over the next year, bacteria levels continued to rise, fall, and rise again, suggesting ongoing pollution. In June 2000, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring municipal and county authorities to report any sewage spill to the Department of Environmental Quality. It uncovered dozens more spills: as part of an amnesty program, nine communities in the Flint area reported 90 illegal sewage overflows over the preceding five years. Heavy rains, power outages, and accidents at plants or along sewage lines repeatedly dumped waste into the river. Flint itself declined to disclose any spills it hadn’t already reported. Communities began doing house-to-house checks looking for illegal hookups dumping into the sewer system or the river. Many were never found.

Despite the new law, the city continued to discharge untreated and partially treated sewage into the river during heavy rains, snowmelts, and power outages, including an 8-million-gallon spill in March 2006 and a 18.1-million-gallon spill in September 2008. The city’s takeover by state-appointed emergency managers did nothing to change the basic limitations of the river and the city and region’s ability to treat its own waste. It happened over and over again.

After each spill, many of Flint’s leaders repeated a version of the caveat James Helmstetter, the county’s director of environmental health, tacked onto his warning to residents after the 1999 spill.

“As far as we know, no [community] uses the Flint River for a drinking water source,” he said.

But! Here’s one little historical irony (or rhyme?) that got cut from the final story.

A contractor for a telecom company — probably SBC Ameritech but I couldn’t even find legal papers to say exactly who it was — was digging a trench to lay fiberoptic cable near an apartment complex on the bank of the river. They notify this third-party agency whose job it is to get permission from the city to say it’s OK to dig. The water department in turn is supposed to mark the line. This agency contacts Flint’s water department, and gets no response. They in turn tell the contractor, yup! No problems! Go ahead and dig!

The contractor digging the trench punches a giant hole in a main sewage pipe running between the city and the treatment center. Just all the filth in the universe is leaping out of this pipe. You can’t shut it off. The only thing you can do is divert some of it to other sewer lines, including into Flint Township, and dump the rest of it directly into the river. So that’s what they did. It then took the city more than two days to patch the broken pipe. With raw sewage dumping into the river the entire time.

Why didn’t the water department respond to the request to mark the line, and why were they so slow to patch the pipe? Well! First of all, they were totally understaffed and underfunded. But what staff they did have, almost all of them, were diverted to work with GM on getting a brand-new engine plant ready at the complex on Van Slyke Road, making sure they had the proper hookups for water to use on their equipment and to treat their waste to go into Flint’s sewers.

Flash forward fifteen years later. The city switches from Detroit water to water from the Flint River. GM starts noticing that the new water is corroding its parts. It starts getting its water from Flint Township — the same system that handled part of the overage when the pipe was broken. But not at every plant — just this one engine plant.

This was one of the early signs that there were serious problems with the city’s water, and was also emblematic of how they were dealt with — piecemeal, under the radar (although it was known), satisfying important interests, neglectful towards the vast majority of people who were more deeply affected.

And damned if this GM plant that switched its water source isn’t the same GM plant Flint’s water department was helping get up and running fifteen years before when they should have been marking that sewage line.

And oh — that engine plant switched its incoming water to Flint Township. But it continued to dump its waste into Flint’s city sewage lines.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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The State of the Speakularity
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Matt coined (or at least first wrote about) “the Speakularity” in 2010: “the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.”

Five years and change later, we’re still not exactly there! But we are closer. Like the horizon, the Singularity, or the coming of the Messiah, the Speakularity is always ever-so-slightly in the distance.

I recently reevaluated my rig for transcribing recorded audio and thoroughly reworked it. I feel much happier about this than any of my previous setups, which leaned a little too heavily on procrastination and weeping.

Also, I recently read Friend of the Snark Charlie Loyd’s entry on “The Setup” about the tools he uses, and feel correspondingly moved to actually tell people how I do things in the hope that they might add, improve, adopt, critique, be entertained, or otherwise benefit from it. You know, like how the internet used to be!

This setup requires a few pieces of software. Some of them I even paid American money for.

CallRecorder for Skype. Skype is… less than perfect. But it’s common, and you can do app-to-app calls or call an outside phone number. Most of what I do these days is interview sources and contacts on the phone. If you have a landline from which you can easily record incoming audio… do that. The rest of us sinners, we have to do this.

There are a bunch of call recording programs for Skype. There are also ways to rig Skype and your sound card to dump audio into a file. I’ve used Soundflower before. But I like Call Recorder for a few reasons:

  1. I already bought it;
  2. I can set it to record Skype calls automatically;
  3. It can easily split the recorded audio into two files, one for each side of the conversation.

This last part turns out to be important. It gives you a pristine audio file with no trace of your own voice. You don’t have to listen to your own stupid self! Totally worth the price of admission. Or I don’t know, rig Soundflower to do the same thing. I can’t figure it out, but you probably could.

Ok, now I do a rough pass of this separated audio in a voice transcription app. I use an older version of Dragon Dictate. Again, I use this partly because it (kinda) works, but mostly because I have it. It’s like eating what’s in your fridge before you go back out shopping. You can also use YouTube, especially if you don’t care that Google might have a copy of your audio.

You can also use IBM Watson’s speech-to-text API for two cents per minute. This has some advantages in that it’s relatively easy to script. I’ve just started messing with Watson by way of Dan Nguyen’s video transcription project on GitHub. Sometimes Watson works for me and sometimes it times out, which might be a function of my often-iffy Wi-Fi more than anything else. So usually for a first pass I try Dragon instead.

All I want for this quick-and-dirty transcription is a basic idea of what was said. Plus, it’s good to get an auto-transcription of the audio file before you start messing with it, which we’re about to do.

The next piece of software I use is an app called AudioSlicer. AudioSlicer is free but comes with some limitations, like being Mac-only and only working on MP3 files. So I may try another app like WavePad Audio Splitter. Maybe you have a favorite you’d like to share.

The important thing you’re looking for with this app is that it 1) detects silences in an audio file and 2) elegantly splits that file into multiple files, wherever silence is detected.

This, in conjunction with splitting your Skype recordings into a you-side and a them-side, is magic. Not only do you not have to listen to yourself talk, but those places where you did talk? They become punctuation for the other person’s audio. You can get audio files broken up into natural units of conversation. This, unsurprisingly, makes for audio files that make good quotes, and are a natural length for you to edit and transcribe in one go.

Now we’re on to the last app: ExpressScribe. This company also makes WavePad Audio Splitter, which makes me think they might work well together. Anyways, this is a genius little free app. It lets you load and save audio files, has a text editor right there, and adjusts speed without changing pitch. Again, it’s far from perfect, but it solves a lot of problems for you.

So you take all those split audio files from AudioSlicer or WavePad or wherever. Sometimes I sort them by size and weed out the smallest ones, which are usually just somebody saying “yup” or “uh-huh,” “ok,” etc. Then you load them into ExpressScribe. I’ve got my quick-and-dirty transcription of the entire interview, which helps guide me for the quotes I’m looking for. When I find those audio files, I run them through the transcriber again by their lonesome. (If I’m using Watson, I probably bulk upload here; Dragon, you have to do them one at a time). I pick whichever of the two transcription (pre-cut or post-cut) is more accurate, or maybe take pieces of both of them. Then using ExpressScribe, I do a fine-grained edit of the transcribed the text, checking it against the audio.

When I’m done with the transcription (either piece-by-piece or the whole thing), I put the transcribed files into my notes (which I keep in Scrivener). Now I’ve got a bunch of separate quotes that I can deploy anywhere I need them. I’ve got the audio that goes with each note, if I have to finesse it. And I have a transcription of the entire talk, for context.

If I need to, I transcribe my side of the conversation — but most of the time… this is actually unhelpful. I mean, sometimes I say something really smart on a phone call or I stupidly phrase a question in a way that you need it in order to make the answer make sense. But most of the time, even if I say something smart, it’s to try to goad the other person into saying something smarter. The more I can get out of my own way, the better.

So right now, February 2016, that’s how I’m transcribing my phone calls. I’m sure I will relentlessly fine-tune this process, especially when doing so means that I might be able to avoid actually writing or especially, actually hand-transcribing audio.

What do you use?

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The Common Test
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One of my running jokes on Twitter is that I hate the rapper/actor Common. No; hate is the wrong word. The joke is that I consider Common my personal archenemy.

Now, it’s certainly true that I generally think there are better rappers and especially better actors than Common. And I think “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is a shining example of supposed consciousness and integrity hiding a lazy misogyny. But I’m mostly playing this up, because it’s funny to me how strong my feelings sometimes run — in general, not just about music or movies, and particular, about Common.

There are songs featuring Common that I absolutely love: Black Star’s “Respiration” is definitely one of them.

J. Dilla’s “So Far To Go,” with Common and D’Angelo, is another. Even if its greatness has more to do with Dilla and D’Angelo’s contributions than Common’s (and some of his lyrics make me shake my head), it’s just beautiful:

It’s probably most accurate to say: Common bugs me. Take the end of his verse on “Respiration”:

Ask my guy how he thought travellin’ the world sound
Found it hard to imagine he hadn’t been past downtown
It’s deep, I heard the city breathe in its sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep
Deep, I heard my man breathe in his sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep

Now, that last couplet — that’s a pretty good line. You can tell Common knows it, too, because he repeats it. Why does he repeat it?

Now, this is educated conjecture, but: he really likes it, he thinks it’s profound, and he wants to hang a lantern on it. And: it’s because the structure of the verse demands another rhyme, and he doesn’t have a better one.

As a writer and editor, this offends me. This is super-presumptive on my part, but I feel just a little bit like Lydia Davis in this terrific anecdote from her 2014 New Yorker profile that I think about all the time:

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

I want to like Common. But he keeps getting in the way. I wish he would get out of the way.

Note: I feel this way about a lot of people. Blake Griffin — really, the entire Los Angeles Clippers — Cam Newton (although I’m mellowing on Cam), Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair, Batman, more of my fellow journalists and scholars than I am comfortable naming. I just want them to be better artists, public personalities, and/or humans than they are.

Now, one artist I am 100 miles per hour excited about pretty much all the time is Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is great because, like Anthony Davis, he got great in a hurry and there’s a very good chance he’s going to get even better as time goes on. Even if the things he says sometimes makes you shake your head — and really, once you start shaking your head at hip-hop and pro athletes, you’re never going to stop — he’s so charming that you forgive him everything. (It’s the same quality that Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, and pre-2000 Tom Cruise had.)

Here’s an example of why I like Kendrick Lamar so much. This is from “Backseat Freestyle,” a joyous, thoroughly juvenile, and exceptionally well-crafted single from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city.

Goddamn I feel amazing, damn I’m in the matrix
My mind is living on cloud nine and this 9 is never on vacation
Start up that Maserati and VROOM-VROOM, I’m racing
Popping pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked

Now, that second part of the first line almost always trips me up. First of all, I’m not totally convinced that it’s “damn I’m in the matrix” and not “damn I’m in the majors,” but the first is what most of the lyrics sites go with, so, ok, whatever.

Second of all, it’s not the song’s hook, but it shows up where the hook might go (before the first bridge or hook ever appears) and parallels its structure. This is how the hook goes:

Goddamn I got bitches, damn I got bitches
Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress
All my life I want money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead showers

So you have this “Goddamn/damn” partial parallel in the hook, which is fully paralleled in this verse. Which makes you think, once you know the song, that he’s going to lead into “Goddamn I got bitches” rather than “Goddamn I feel amazing.” And he repeats “I got bitches” three times, which leads you to think, okay, he’s going to repeat “I feel amazing.” But he doesn’t. He goes into “goddamn I’m in the matrix/majors.”

And in fact, every single one of the hooks is just a little bit different. Sometimes after “damn I got bitches,” he adds a little contrapuntal “okay,” and sometimes he doesn’t.

It actually reminds me a little of what Paul Simon does to the hook on “Graceland.” Go to about five minutes in, and you get a fraction of the story of composing this song: the full version on Under African Skies (from which these clips are taken) is terrific.

Anyways, on “Graceland” sometimes the hook is more straightforward (“I’m going to Graceland / Memphis, Tennessee / I’m going to Graceland”) and sometimes it’s a permutation (“In Graceland, in Graceland / I’m going to Graceland”). It’s tied to little mini-verses, and sometimes it migrates out of the chorus and into the verse. It’s just a continual iteration and play.

Kendrick and Paul are never happy to just repeat themselves, no matter how thoroughly they’ve nailed it. And that’s why I’m more tolerant of their tics, blind spots, and failings of politics or self-consciousness, than I am for someone like Common. Because they’re actually artists, and much closer to the kind of artist or craftsman that I would like to be.

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I wanted you, but I’m over that now
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Every album by The Wrens so far has turned out to be a time capsule prophecy of my life in the decade to follow — just open it up ten years later, listen to it again, and it turns out there was your whole life, written for you by a band’s songwriters who’d already gone there and were sending you a message back, like constellations five to ten light years away, only it went in reverse, and you are actually seeing the future in the stars. Superluminal astronauts desperate to get a message back to the past, and the only way is through slightly overwrought guitar pop songs.

They’re releasing another one, signed with a label, recording is almost done. Their fans may be few, but we are loyal and we are mighty, and we have been making ourselves ready, here on the other side of the universe.

Call it dad rock if you want. I, for one, am anxious to learn what my forties will be like, and grateful to know that if the pattern holds, no matter what happens, at least I’ll live that long.

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A leaky rocketship
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I’ve been trying to write this post all day. It’s hard for me to write these days because I fractured my shoulder a few weeks ago, so writing for me really entails talking to a computer, which translates my speech into text. This sounds like it would be easy, but it isn’t. You need time, electricity, and relative quiet, which turns out to be really scarce. You also need to be able to pay attention, which is also pretty scarce.

We’re not quite at the “Speakularity,” where speech in any context can instantly be converted to text and back again with a minimum of human processing. But speech recognition software has gotten incredibly good — certainly much better than it was five years ago when I was last injured and trying to write blog posts with a combination of one-handed typing and decent – but – still – rudimentary speech recognition software. Those early Snarkmarket posts in the fall of 2009 were pretty rough. I remember contacting Robin Sloan and asking him if he could proofread them for me, because I made so many typos with my left hand, and I couldn’t pay attention long enough to reread everything I’d written.

Snarkmarket is 11 years old today, and like the preteen that it is, it’s not as communicative as its parents would always wish it would be. Attention and quiet are scarce resources, and even a hardy desert ecosystem needs those two things to sustain itself. Still, it’s a relief to know that Snarkmarket it’s always here, a pied-a-terre in the blogosphere for those of us who live on social media, dark social, the official world of formal communications, the imaginary world of invented fictions, the obligations and complications that life continually calls on us to address and fulfill. Snarkmarket is here. The key to that lock will always let you in.

Six years ago today, I became one of the writers/editors of Snarkmarket, joining Matt Thompson (hahaha — you guys can’t see it, but my speech software wanted to call him “Matt #”) and Robin Sloan in convening this circus tent, this public diary of private preoccupations, this repository for 10 year time capsules, this leaky rocketship into the future. Snarkmarket has been Snarkmarket with Tim longer now than it wasn’t.

And I think — maybe Robin and Matt would contest this — but Snarkmarket deserves a place as one of the Great Blogs of the 2000s. I don’t know if anyone is keeping a list of these, or if people get together and argue whether Metafilter or Kottke.org was better and why, or if the whole Daring Fireball route was a mistake, like sports fans arguing about overrated and underrated sports teams and players, but if such a world exists, and let’s be honest, a universe with such a world inside it is better and greater than one without it, in the same way that a universe with a just and perfect God is better and greater than one without it, I submit that in this world Snarkmarket needs to be considered as one of the Great Blogs, in the same way that Tony Gwynn is one of the great baseball players, or the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons is one of the great basketball teams of all time.

Enough people — smart people, successful people, people not much younger than Robin and Matt and I, but often more successful than any of us, which, look around, is a pretty significant hurdle to clear — come up to me and say things like, “Snarkmarket helped me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” enough people say these things that I increasingly have a sense that Snarkmarket was not just the most important blog to me when I joined it in 2008, but to many other people too. It played that Tony Gwynn/Kazuo Ichiro role for a lot of people — sure, other blogs had more power, but Snarkmarket was just a little smarter, a little trickier, a little more curious, a little better at getting on base.

Joining this blog was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and that’s another way in which I can judge somewhat objectively how important it is been. In November 2008, I was on the academic job market, getting ready to interview for a few tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships, and it was weird — it was a time when people, smart people, influential people still said “you shouldn’t have a blog, you shouldn’t be on twitter, if you do these things, you should do them under pseudonyms, and if anyone asks you about it, you shouldn’t tell them, because if you blog, and it’s known that you write a blog, online, people are going to wonder whether or not you’re really serious about your work, and you just don’t want to give them any extra ammunition to wonder anything about you.”

I didn’t care. I had been waiting for one or two years, ever since Robin had suggested that maybe Snarkmarket would add a few writers and maybe I might be one of them, I think when we were on our way to the bathroom at the Museum of Modern Art on a random visit, and I was just super hungry to be handed the key to this place where I’ve been reading and writing comments since before I knew what a blog really was.

Is that still a thing, people getting excited about being able to be part of a blog? I didn’t think so, but then I became part of Paul Ford’s tilde.club and saw people falling over themselves to get an invite to SSH into a UNIX server, just to be a part of something, just to have a chance to put up some silly, low bandwidth, conceptually clever websites and chat with strangers using the UNIX terminal. It’s not like being one of the cool kids who’s in on a private beta for the latest and greatest smartphone app, where your enjoyment is really about being separate from the people who aren’t included, and the expected attitude is a kind of jaded, privileged disinterest: it’s more like getting a chance to play with the neighbor kid’s Lego set, and he has all the Legos.

Robin and Matt had crazy good Legos. I didn’t get that academic job, but I was able to take their Legos and build my way into a job writing for Wired, of all places, 30 years old and I’d never been a journalist except by osmosis and imposture here at Snarkmarket, and now I get paid every month to write for Wired, how does that happen except that this place was an extra scaffolding for all of us, for me in grad school, for Matt at newspapers across the country, for Robin at Gore TV/Current TV/Twitter, to build careers that weren’t possible for people who didn’t have that beautiful Lego scaffolding to support them (I’m wearing a sling on my arm right now with straps that wrap around my body to hold my arm in place, and a screw and washer to hold my shoulder bone together, my upper arm bone really, plus my rotator cuff, plus hold massive tendons, plus I’m thinking about those times that I would walk from my apartment in Columbus Circle down Broadway to Four Times Square in Manhattan to go to work at wired, wired isn’t there anymore, Condé Nast just moved in to one World Trade Center today, all the way downtown, but the scaffolding in Manhattan that is just constant, that is the only thing that allows the city to remake itself day after day month after month year after year, so this scaffolding metaphor is really doing something for me, plus Legos, well, Legos that just came from before, so what can I tell you, roll with it).

I don’t work at Wired, Robin doesn’t work at Twitter, Matt is at NPR, and we are where we are because of the things that we did but also because of this place. Ars Technica ran a story about it being 10 years since EPIC 2014 – I could paste the link and maybe that would be the bloggy thing to do, but you’re big boys and girls, you can Google it after you finish reading this — and there’s great interviews in there with Robin and Matt about how they made the video, and some specific names of wars and companies aside, were basically right about how technology companies were going to take the distribution and interpretation of the news away from both traditional journalism companies and the emerging open standards of the World Wide Web. I mean, isn’t that a hell of a thing, to see the future and put it in a flash movie? Anything was possible in 2004, especially if that anything Looked like a future that was vaguely uncomfortable but not so bad, really.

I turned 35 today, and I don’t really have a lot of deep thoughts about my own life or career or where I am in it. I’ve had those on other birthdays, and I’ve had them on many days in the not too distant past. Today, though, I’ve mostly felt warm and embraced by the people all around me, in my home, across the country, on the telephone, connected to me by the mails, whose books I read (and whose books publishers send to my house, my friends are writing books and their publishers send them free to my house, that’s almost as amazing as a machine that I can control that lets me read new things all day), and who were connected to me by the Internet: on twitter or Facebook, on Slack or email, by text message or text messaging’s many, many hypostases, all around me, as real to me as anyone I’ve ever imagined or read or touched, all of them, all of them warm and kind and gracious and curious about me and how I’m doing, what I’m up to, what I’m thinking, what I want to do this week or next month or when I get a chance to read that thing they sent me. it is as real to me as that invented community at the end of epic 2015, that brilliant coda that people almost always forget, and I don’t know why because it’s actually a better prediction of our future-come-present than anything in the first video, but maybe it’s not about the New York Times, it’s just about a beautiful day outside, a traffic accident, an open door, Matt’s beautiful voice when he narrates that photograph, beckoning you to come outside to look, LOOK.

The Snarkmatrix Is infinite, the stark matrix is everywhere, the start matrix can touchdown at any point in these electronic channels and reconstitute itself, extending perpetually outward into the entire world of media and ideas and editors who are trying to understand what will happen next, and teenage kids who are trying to figure out how what they’re doing maps in any way at all to this strange, established world of culture, to writers who are anxious for any sense of community, any place to decompress between the often hostile worlds of social media and professional correspondence. People want a place, a third place, and blogs are a great form of that place, even when they’re not blogs. (I’m subblogging now. This is what it’s come to. But I think most of you feel me.)

I don’t feel like I’m at any kind of peak or hollow or inflection point of my life or career, or any vantage at which I can look forth and contemplate what’s happened or what is to come. what I feel overwhelmingly is a sense of being in the middle, in medias res, nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita, and there is no crisis, only a sense of being surrounded, enmeshed, connected, and in-between, en route. Snarkmarket remains en route. And I hope it does for another 111 years. It deserves to.

Screenshot 2014-11-04 13.24.26

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Women’s voices and mogul swagger
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I had the fortunate accident of reading these two very different articles in close succession: Mary Beard’s “The Public Voice of Women” and Peter Lauria’s “Mark Zuckerberg Comes of Age As A Mogul.” I think you can guess which quotes from come from which:

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand.​ But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

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Noticeably absent from the mounds of coverage of how Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp came together is any mention of the social network’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg… Her absence, at least publicly, seems to suggest that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg no longer needs adult supervision. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though Zuckerberg is still three months away from his 30th birthday, over the last few years he has blossomed into a very impressive mogul. Gone is the caricature of him as a hoodie-wearing, socially awkward CEO profusely sweating under questioning. He’s grown into a cocksure leader, solid operator, and gutsy dealmaker, even if the casual dress still remains. Looking at him today, he can rightly be called the first mogul of social media.

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There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

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It’s important to understand that not all CEOs are de-facto moguls. There’s a swagger moguls have that transcends simply being the boss or being rich. Moguls are visionary, decisive, and a bit ruthless, at least with their business objectives. They are concerned not with industry or domestic but rather world domination, and usually have grandiose mission statements to describe their business (“Connecting the world” in the case of Facebook; as another example, “Organizing the world’s information” for Google). And they also usually have absolute control of their companies through majority control of its voting shares. Not unlike the traditional family-run media companies — think News Corp’s Murdoch family, Comcast’s Roberts family, Cablevision’s Dolan family, or Viacom’s Redstone family — Zuckerberg has an ironclad grip on Facebook’s board and strategic direction through his 57% control of its voting shares.

It’s both fucked-up and perfect to think about Telemachus competing with both Penelope and her suitors over her “control of voting shares” in Odysseus’s media empire.

I did a quick Google search to see if any female tech CEOs have been praised for their “swagger,” and got stalled at Andrew Wallenstein’s exhortation for Marissa Mayer to, well, shut up:

It’s as if Mayer is trying to play two seemingly incompatible roles at once: the visionary turnaround specialist who lets the innovations she implements do the talking, and the rockstar CEO who rationalizes that her company basks in the refracted glow of a halo that gets its shimmer from her swagger.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you think. Well, “The Marissa Mayer Show Needs a Rewrite” spells out its subtext, pitting Mayer against Sandberg through way of a joint photo op. While Sandberg epitomized “tasteful restraint,” Mayer “seemed to be auditioning to be an Entertainment Tonight correspondent.” “Sandberg leans in. Mayer preens in.”

Dismiss this opinion of Mayer as pure sexism if you must. She’s an attractive woman who shouldn’t have to tamp down her femininity to correspond to some conventional presumptions of how an executive should conduct him or herself. But the same could be said about a male executive who posed for GQ and interviewed the cast of Fast and Furious 14.

Beard’s article/speech isn’t really about the way professional media writers talk about CEOs. It’s more directly about the way the hoi polloi talk to and about women who speak, especially women who speak out. But I think Beard also persuasively shows that the two things aren’t so separate. The way we frame women’s personae at the top of the social pyramid, from Penelope to Margaret Thatcher to Mayer and Sandberg, both guides and is supported by the way we talk about women’s and men’s public and private voices all the way down.

The whole mess is caught up in an inherited fabric so tangled, so knotty, so devious, that “misogyny,” Beard suggests, is a word that falls far too short. It’s not only hate; it’s history.

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Conversation Media
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One of the eternal refrains/laments/excuses thrown at most forms of social media, perhaps especially Twitter, is that “you can’t have a conversation.” Everyone has heard this and many of us have said this.

Whether it’s because of the character limit, the permeable membrane between public and private, the not-quite-real-time interaction, the fact that Twitter and Facebook are things usually at the edges and not the center of our attention, or any other reason — many, many people are unhappy with social networks as a medium of conversation.

Some of this a pushback against what frankly were and are exaggerated claims about what digital media could do to promote conversation. “Want to join the conversation? Add a comment below!” — as if it were just that easy. As if the fact that the group of people formerly known as the audience had and could immediately transform themselves into something else entirely, just by the sheer fact that they too could write for an audience.

Now, this is not true only of comments or Twitter or other social media, even if they get regularly hammered most as being “bad conversations.” Online forums, where people gang up on and ignore each other. Email, which is both now too formal and too cluttered. Texting runs into some of the same problems as Twitter and email. Skype and other video chats sometimes still seem a little weird, performative, almost uncanny, more like you’re acting in someone else’s home movie (and they in yours) than talking to them. Branch and other startups have tried to figure out a way to engineer a conversational structure, but I don’t think they’ve quite gotten a handle on it.

And obviously, you can take it to its limit: there are some conversations that people refuse to have over the telephone, and that it’s considered right and proper only to do in person.

But let’s stipulate that it is possible to have a technologically mediated conversation of high quality. Because it seems like with some things, we get there. The right Twitter or comment thread. A really good podcast, or TV/radio interview. (Although I think interviews are a little different.) A really good round of instant messaging.

And let’s stipulate that there are sometimes genuine hindrances to these being good media for conversation. Those hindrances may be technical, or conventional, or accidental, but I think they are real and not imaginary. Even if some of us have had and are having what we think of as good conversations in these places, not everyone always feels the same.

What makes these conversations work? I’m tired of people saying “you can’t have a conversation on Twitter” and other people replying “of course you can, dummy.” That pseudo-conversation has played itself out. I would rather try to figure out how, why, and under what conditions meaningful conversation happens.

I want to anatomize conversation. Or rather, I want to anatomize conversations, because they’re not all of one kind, and what counts as a good conversation in one kind of media is probably not a good conversation in a medium with different characteristics, strengths, or weaknesses.

Let’s make this even more ambitious. How can you make a conversation as a media object? I’m asking because I think the reason we circle around conversation is because we really do think that the interchange, exchange, and participation of ideas, the emergence of something new as part of a collaboration between two or more people, has inherent value.

Conversation is something we enjoy doing, we enjoy hearing, we enjoy seeing. And despite our misgivings about new media, conversation is not something old media did well, especially for public consumption.

The 20th century gave us the article, it gave us the debate, it gave us the interview. As McLuhan and Ong and Postman and everybody else told us, convincingly, it transformed oral culture into something new, that print culture and technical media could understand. It gave us the telephone and the radio, but neither of those get us all the way there.

We want something else. We’re dying for something else. It feels like with everything we’ve learned, with everything we now have, that something else is, or should be, within reach. What could get us there?

Five years ago, I wrote a blog post, inspired by a conversation with Robin Sloan, where I called for an “iMovie for conversations.” Now, five years later, inspired by a conversation with Jess Zimmerman, I’m asking again. How can we make this work?

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Hide the switch and shut the light
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Chronic traumatic masculinity
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kid-middle-finger

Brian Phillips has written a terrific essay for Grantland on the culture of ritualized pain and intimidation in football, and the ways that sports fans share, enable, embrace, and vicariously live out fantasies through it. It’s called “Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.”

I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.

And of course this affects the players. Locker-room guy-culture is one thing; the idea that any form of perceived vulnerability is a Marxist shadow plot is something else. It’s a human inevitability that when you assemble a group of hypercompetitive young men some of them will go too far, or will get off on torturing the others — which is why it’s maybe a good idea, cf. the real-life military, to have a system in place to keep this in check. What we have instead is a cynical set of institutional fetishes that rewards unhealthy behavior. The same 110-percent-never-give-an-inch rhetoric that makes concussed players feign health on game day encourages hazing creep after practice. Don’t believe that? I’ve got a helmet-to-helmet hit here for you, and that’ll be $15,000, petunia.

This of course reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s amazing essay on pro tennis, “The String Theory” (which I riffed on with respect to broader athlete culture during a guest stint at Kottke.)

But it also resonated with this story Adam Rothstein pointed me to today, about the culture of police officers and police encounters. It’s called “An Ex-Cop’s Guide To Not Getting Arrested.

Every interaction with a police officer entails two contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”

Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.”

Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”

He also says you should be dignified — unless it looks like you’re about to lose both the psychological contest and the one for custody of your body. In which case, you should be strategically pitiful.

I want to be clear — this is insane. This is all some real PTSD shit. These are mechanisms that make a bit of strategic sense in dealing with an abusive parent, or surviving in the Jim Crow South. They are not and must not be tools for dealing with civil servants upholding law and order, in playing a game, or dealing with your colleagues in the workplace. (Always remember, pro sports are both of the latter.)

I mean, maybe we are all suffering with a form of PTSD, after centuries of patriarchy, racial violence, labor violence, and warfare whose legitimacy suddenly (from the long view of eternity) seems suspect. And if PTSD is the wrong acronym, let’s borrow the new term of art football has made famous. What we have is chronic traumatic masculinity syndrome.

Just like NFL players suffer long-term brain damage from both hitting with and suffering damage to their heads, we as a culture are suffering from long-term damage both from and to an parodic and extremely pathological image of masculinity.

As it’s being chased out of places where it used to be welcomed — the household, the workplace, even the military — this strain of CTM pops up in a concentrated form, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in a handful of spaces. Pro sports. The police. Wall Street. Rap music. Reddit threads. (NB: I like all of these things, at least MINUS the bullshit masculinity people feel the need to display there.)

It’s a toxic expression of our long-toxic history, that not only subjects, objectifies, and physically and emotionally abuses women, but stops seeing men as people with feelings, with internal organs other than the ones they use to hit each other, but as generators of violence, and statistics.

“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”

CTM has no easy solutions or easy cure. But just like in football, the activism will have to start from within. And we’d better find a way to get real with the story, pronto.

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