Are you a Bangkok Old Hand?
In which of the following situations would it be appropriate to use the common Thai expression mai pen rai (“never mind; no problem”)?
(a) A guest spills a little water on your coffee table.
(b) A waiter accidently dumps your beer into your lap.
(c) You go downstairs one morning in the rainy season and find that those of your possessions that float are floating, while everything else is under water.
(d) You read that the greenhouse effect—the gradual warming of the global climate and the subsequent melting of the polar ice-caps—means that all of Bangkok will be under water by the end of the century.
Or perhaps even much sooner than the end of the century, given recent evidence.
It turns out the “mai pen lai” attitude is far more widespread than a certain class of Western expats resident in Thailand would normally grant. It seems we even have the upper legislative house in the modern world’s leading superpower formally suggesting that current climate change is not anthropogenic, and (in effect) we should at all costs vote in favor of commercial interests, and screw the rest of the world as well as future generations everywhere. (“Senate says scientists are wrong, climate change isn’t real” [what they said was that it isn’t caused by human activity] by Sean Cockerham, 22 January 2015.)
'The chairman of the environment committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ... an enthusiastic denier of climate change, [says] it is the “biggest hoax” perpetrated against mankind.
Well, shit. Yeah. Heaven forbid we should let such patent hubris on the part of human beings inhibit the march of commerce, eh? Because it appears the bottom line here is that nothing should interfere with the Keystone pipeline project and other US energy self-sufficiency measures.
For more on this, see my next post on this site, “How I quit smoking,” which in part provides brief notice of a new book that should be required reading for everyone in the world, starting with our political, business and educational policymakers.
Answer to the above Bangkok Old Hand Quiz item: In all of those situations: a, b, c and d.
This is in response to S. Tsow's comment on my last post.
Cautionary note. Ease off when your brain begins to bubble.
Bonus lore. Rx for hangovers: The Joy of Hangovers
Tbe aafe is the work of Carole Spandau.
Rule to live by #1: Bring black peppercorns to any dope-smoking contest the like of which nobody is likely to win
The fix. Neil Young, in a Rolling Stone interview with Howard Stern, offers this treatment for weed-induced paranoia: chew some ‘black pepper balls.’ I’m thinking he must mean peppercorns.
On the off chance that peppercorns are the latest panacea, I tried chewing just two of them. Not because I’d been smoking dope, and not because I was feeling especially paranoid. Just because like, whatever, eh? And they were good. Not as good as finding one by accident in a nice salad or pasta dish, but good. And, I imagined, I became suffused with a sense of well-being. A kind of oneness with a generally benign world.
The panacea. Next thing I was routinely chewing peppercorns as a hedge against insomnia, sleepiness, melancholia, bad breath, hunger, Angst and simple boredom. I’ve hesitated to try smoking myself into a proper state of paranoia but, given all the pepper I’m ingesting more or less for the hell of it, I’d probably find I was immune.
Mind you, I now resist the notion of ever again dipping into a Reader’s Digest (only in dentists’ waiting rooms, okay?) for fear I’ll learn that peppercorn addiction notoriously induces apathy and general emotional disconnectedness. For the same reason, I no longer read the health pages in newspapers.
Living forever. The other morning I inadvertantly entered into an insomnia-induced trance akin to that typically experienced by shamans. It was in this altered state of consciousness that it occurred to me that I should steep cracked black peppercorns together with a bunch of parsley and drink the tea. And damned if it didn’t taste pretty good. Not only that, but I listened to my body as I drank this stuff, and my body said “Dude!”, which I took to mean something like good shit. Not only that, it was much cheaper than sencha tea, my usual swill.
My suspicion is that if I went online to look — which I’m not going to do because I don’t care — I’d discover that once again I’ve reinvented the bicycle. Generations of New Agers and their ilk have probably already been there and done that.
Hello Kitty’s birthday has just passed, marking 40 years during which this prominent cultural icon has only ever lurked there on the periphery of my consciousness.
Though I do recall one occasion on some waterfront when I’d had enough to drink that I wondered, briefly, if I needed a tattoo. Out of nowhere — given I knew no more about Hello Kitty than this image appears everywhere around the world that you find tacky items manufactured from synthetic materials — it came to me that the tattoo for me would be a Hello Kitty on one shoulder, just by way of accenting my hairy-chested masculinity, at least while under the influence. Yeah and, like, daring anyone to challenge it.
This morning, a couple of days too late to wish Hello Kitty a happy birthday, I find myself reflecting on this image’s remarkable appeal. I ask myself what it suggests to me (aside from wild inclinations to join the tattooed hoi polloi). “Vacuousness” leaps to mind. As does inanity, blankness and a young woman I knew many years ago who burned out on psychedelics. But surely none of these attributes could account for Hello Kitty’s vast fandom. (In fact they might -- as you'll see if you read on.)
One fist of iron and the other of ... Um.
Just as Hello Kitty has inhabited only the periphery of my own awareness all these years, I have inhabited only the periphery of the collective popular consciousness. I’m totally out of it. So I’ve decided to consult that collective popular consciousness, plunging in by way of Google.
Almost immediately I find an analysis that shows, at least from some POVs — notably, perhaps, copyright holder Sanrio’s perspective — the vacuousness is Hello Kitty’s essential advantage. Lucy Nicholas, in her thoughtful June 2003 M/C Journal piece “What fucked version of hello kitty are you?Or: Is Hello Kitty as a logo for third-wave riot grrrl feminism merely mainstream gender hegemony in disguise?” suggests the following:
A product without context, Hello Kitty is a blank signifier with the potential to be loaded with codes and meanings as diverse as the ideas of those who consume her/it. Yet Hello Kitty encompasses, and holds contradictory associations with, discourses as diverse as debates over reappropriation of symbols, consumerism and nationalism.
Then there’s Time magazine’s take (31 October 2014) for the 40th birthday, and Olivia B. Waxman’s “Hello Kitty at 40: Sexist Throwback or Empowering Icon?” Waxman focuses on Hello Kitty’s influences on women.
Interesting characterizations taken from that article include “adorable,” “overpowering,” “outsized influence ... on the culture,” “the international representation of Japan’s culture of ‘kawaii,’ ... items that are cute and meant to spread happiness and promote friendship.” Beyond that, the article casts a look towards the nitty-gritty:
Despite her seemingly benign and utterly adorable appearance, the character has become a polarizing cult figure around the world. Fans who collect everything Hello Kitty say she’s empowering, or at the very least a harmless hobby. Critics say she’s a sexist throwback to a time when girls, particularly Asian girls, were supposed to be cute and silent (the character has no mouth). Meanwhile, in some feminist circles, she’s also been embraced as a counterintuitive symbol of freedom to be feminine and strong. And to further muddy the picture, Sanrio [the company who created her and, reportedly, is subsequently making something like US$8 billion per year from this stroke of genius] recently clarified that the character is actually a third-grade girl and not a cat. A 40-year-old girl who looks just like a cat that is.
For a clue as to why feminists might consider Hello Kitty an abomination, something that by comparison makes Barbie look like Gloria Steinem, watch April Lavigne singing “Hello Kitty,” surely a parody. In fact ironic uses of the image are often used to good effect.
Anyway, online Hello Kitty analysis abounds, and my earlier desire to become more pop-culturally au courant has been trumped by my appetite for breakfast. So I will conclude this post here.
I lied. If I weren’t so hungry, not to mention lazy, I’d develop the notion that Hello Kitty is part of a creeping fill-in-the-blanks culture of modularly commodified personalities (see "New you's: Modular commodification"). This might even relate to Nicholas’ reference to Yu-Fen Ko, Hello Kitty and Identity Politics in Taiwan, 2000) when she suggests, “Hello Kitty is the ultimate symbol of pure irrational consumerism and commodity fetishism, a ‘trap of material slavery’.”
The future has arrived. Have you looked away from the Internet recently, taken a gander out there at what passes for the real world these days? If not, you’d better take a look.
Some oddly premature future has arrived while you were posting cute cats and inspirational quotes on Facebook. What we generally think of as the present has been skewed, bumped off-center and ahead of its time into a sci-fi realm that’s fast becoming commonplace reality (not to mention fast evolving into even screwier realities we can only guess at). It’s scary.
A case in point: I’ve just now caught myself responding emotionally to our new HomeBot. This snazzy robotic vacuum cleaner carries two on-board cameras and maps the territory it’s expected to clean, learning from experience and doing its job faster as it gets the lay of the land. Sara loves it, though she grants it certain limitations. On earlier test runs, for instance, she parked the dining-room chairs up on the table to avoid confusing our little home helper and to give it more room to maneuver.
But what good is all this hi-tech gimcrackery, if I’ve still got to do some work? So this morning I chose to leave the chairs on the floor. A bit later I was in my office composing deathless prose when I hear something like a zombie bumper-car rally out in the dining room. In reality it was our HomeBot — it was trapped in a labyrinth of chairlegs. A wee shiver ran up my spine as I watched this simple machine, which so much resembled a curling stone, displaying something very like sentience as it tried to find its way clear. It had taken to methodically going this way and bumping into a leg, then that way and bumping into another leg, and then another way. Again and again, it came very close to discovering a clear run out toward the kitchen. Except it always missed the exit by a couple of inches, only to take up the whole search routine all over again. Caught up in its quest, I found myself sharing its frustration. (Not to mention all this was easier than writing.)
“You moron,” I hollered at it. “There. Just to your left. ... No! You idiot.”
Bear in mind I’m talking to a mechanical vacuum cleaner.
Anyway, before I had to intervene, it worked things out for itself. Not quite a moron. And what did it do then? Having escaped from under the table, it performed a couple of victory turns out there in the open, spun around once more, and then careened right back under the table and under the same chair that had last entrapped it.
So I changed my mind. “You really are a moron, aren’t you?” I told it.
Yeah, right. I watched in amazement as it repeated its earlier reconnaissance routine except this time, after one circuit as if to confirm what it had already learned, it darted back out through the proven escape route and headed off for the kitchen.
After it finished with the kitchen, it came into my office. Picture this companionable scene: me at my desk beavering away all the while the HomeBot hummed and whisked away, taking care of business, leaving me free to concentrate on such creative projects as writing blog posts about vacuum cleaners. And so it went. Except I’d closed the office door to keep the cool air in, and my new helpmate got confused. Next thing I knew it was nudge-nudging along the wall in the northwest corner on the room, first one way and then back the other, whining about low batteries.
“Low battery,” it said, real urgency in its voice (or so I imagined).
Here’s the thing. HomeBots are programmed to establish and remember the location of their recharging station. And this one’s station lay in the corresponding corner of the living room, which it couldn’t get to because the office door was closed. So there it was with its next best hypothesis, futilely and ever-more desperately trying to get the fix that would let it finish the job.
But here’s the real thing — I reacted the way you might to a pet animal in distress. I experienced a sense of amused concern for this poor wee bot, all hungry and confused the way it was.
“You moron,” I told it, this time more affectionately. I picked it up and carried it to the living room, where I put it down it front of its station, vicariously enjoying the relief as it scuttled up to dock at its electrical teat.
They’re everywhere. Think about it. HomeBots and their ilk are just the beginning. Soon every home will have a robot or two, or three. (In fact some argue the revolution has arrived. And here.) At least as interesting: These bots promise to become part of the household, even part of the family. You probably think I’m just weird, feeling sorry for a mechanical vacuum cleaner who isn’t that much smarter than a curling stone. (It can’t even climb up and dust the books on my shelves, I was disappointed to learn.) But my responses may be typical. Indeed bots are being designed to encourage emotional relationships. They’re already used with some success in elderly care, for just one example.
Or how about this? In terms of congenial human-bot relations, we Canadians — who, just incidentally, also invented the telephone, the Nanaimo bar and Justin Bieber — now present you with the super-nice HitchBot. What a charmer, eh? Schmoozing its way all the way across the continent, programming maybe by Dale Carnegie or some such.
Speaking of cars and passengers, beyond the housebots as such, our cars are already being transformed. In the near future our vehicles will be directed both internally and externally by clever machines designed to take us safely and expeditiously where we need to go, in a manner and by a route we can leave to our carbot.
No such thing as a free lunch. At the same time digital technology is taking much of the drudgery out of our daily lives — in the process often usurping our jobs (e.g. three million professional drivers in the USA alone may soon have to seek other employment) — it is also contributing much to the increasingly totalitarian nature of our societies. So look ahead to a day coming soon when you get this kind of exchange:
You say, “To the mall, carbot.”
“Sorry," it replies. "Your presence is required downtown. Someone wants to talk to you.”
“Carbot! Take me to the mall.”
“Okay, I’m getting out. ... Unlock the doors.”
My friend Jack’s new Ford performs automatic parallel parking, but it leaves Jack to extricate himself from the space afterwards. And Jack says his car has this perhaps puckish habit of stuffing itself into spaces that he can’t drive out of afterwards. And this is early days, a mere preview of the revolt of the machines, maybe even our eventual supersession by the bots, the evolutionary antecendents to whom humanity gave birth.
So, is our HomeBot just the thin edge of the wedge? The announcement comes to me where I sit in the office: “Charging complete!” I go back out to the living room to look at the thing again.
This time I sense a sinister cast to the way it’s hunkered down there, all fueled up and ready to go again. It occurs to me to wonder: Can we really trust our vacuum cleaners? But that’s only one of a range of responses to our robotic helpmates.
“Don’t tease the HomeBot,” Sara tells me, when she hears about today’s adventures. “You should always put the dining-room chairs up on the table.”
Our word for the day is earworm. And the following definition is from the charming animation “Jazz that nobody asked for.”
Neurologists claim that stuck songs are like thoughts we're trying to suppress. The harder we try not to think about them, the more we can't help it. The phenomenon is also known as earworms, and the ongoing ‘dim di da da dum’ causes a kind of brain itch you can't scratch.”
I once acquired the equivalent of that little red Pandora’s box in the animation. Back at the beginning of time, when I still lived in Montreal, I bought Live/Evil (Miles Davis), and I used to come home at about 4am sometimes full of beer, and listen to Miles’ 21-minute version of “What I Say” two or three times in a row while I chain-smoked in the dark. The ladies who shared my flat finally asked me whether I couldn't listen more quietly, or possibly in some other city, since they had to go to work in the morning. (I was a student.)
Then, decades later here in Bangkok, I’ve come across this album again and, what do you know? I still find this cut compulsively listenable. Which suggests that my musical tastes never really matured.
Sara snickers. “Unlike the rest of you?” she says.
Whatever. It may be my old Montreal flatmates had somebody put a curse on me, because now I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing in my head, and it won't go away.
That’s right. So go ahead and listen to it at your own peril.
A note on Teflon tunes.
Bill the Mathematician, who is second only to Al the Alien as a mentor, says nobody else is old enough to remember Miles Davis, and I’ll provoke more traffic to this site if, as he puts it, "You dis Phish and praise Nickelback. Miles Davis is in that in-between stage where he's too long gone to be well known to the online masses, but not so long gone that it can be cool to be really into him. On the other hand, everyone loves the forgettable Phish and loves to hate the even more forgettable Nickelback, and wants to tell the world about both those things.”
So I’ve gone and had a look on YouTube. And both groups sort of give me a pain in the neck. I don’t think they’d ever infect me with earworms, because my delicate sensibilities erase all trace of them bar by bar even as I try to listen.
There, now I’ve dissed them both. I await the outrage, maybe even an extra visitor to my site.
app (n.) 1. originally from computer software app*lication; 2 (n.) bio smartphone and tablet app*endages, most commonly specimens of Homo sapiens.
When extraterrestrials finally arrived on Earth circa 2021 for a look around, they discovered that the dominant life forms were evolved digital communications devices. Subsequent investigation suggested that these creatures had only recently emerged on the scene, and at first the aliens couldn’t see what had given rise to them.
But then one team noticed tiny bio appendages dangling from many of the endemic Smartphone and Tablet spp. Even as the digital beings had developed, their evolutionary antecedents had shriveled to largely vestigial organs, more decorative than functional. Later investigations revealed that a pre-Homo app specimen of Homo sapiens, one designated Collin Piprell according to prevailing naming conventions, had foreseen these developments in something he referred to as a central irony of their age.
Other Earthly species had already undergone parallel developments. One such example was Haplophryne mollis. “When scientists first started capturing ceratioid anglerfish, they noticed that all of the specimens were female. These individuals were a few centimetres in size and almost all of them had what appeared to be parasites attached to them. It turned out that these "parasites" were highly reduced male ceratioids."
Female anglerfish with atrophied males attached.
Bingeing writers and binge writing. Traditionally, writers have been notorious bingers. And, aside from any occupational enthusiasm for booze and suchlike, we get binge writing, where instead of turning caffeine into books, as some would have it, writers instead turn whiskey into piss and engage in binge writing in the intervals between their alchemical endeavors. (I first encountered the expression “binge writing” listening to a Letterman interview with Hunter S. Thompson. See "What is writing?")
Binge viewing. The media has given much attention to the rise of binge TV series viewing. With entire seasons and entire seasons readily available on DVD, couch potatoes no longer have to wait till next week for the next episode of 24, Breaking Bad, The Tudors, whatever. Hell, no. They can go for hit after hit of suspenseful conclusion segueing into the start of the next cliffhanger, and the next, and the next right up till it's nearly time to get up and go to work anyway, so why not watch just one more?
Binge reading. More recently we've seen the emergence of so-called binge reading. Probably spoiled by the DVD TV series syndrome, binge readers are unwilling to wait a year or even six months for the next blockbuster novel in a series. They want the damned thing now, now, now. So publishers are beating on their favorite series authors, telling them to get the lead out and churn those novels. That's money we're talking, eh? See, e.g., "Impatience Has Its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster." I've read somewhere that the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin has had fans get so irate at the pace with which he coughs up the next book in his series that they've issued death threats. Here's something from an interview:
It is great that so many people are eager for the next book and certainly these are the people who are paying my bills and allowing me to have a house across the street from my other house. But at the same time, sometimes I just wish they would stop pressuring me about it. It will be done when it's done. I'm working on it. I don't know what else I can say: I'm a slow writer, I've always been a slow writer, and these are gigantic books…
A favorite comic sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe fame, produced a few novels that were near genius. The last few were anything but. Reading them, I kept getting this image of some publisher holding a gun to his head and saying, "We're talking big money, laddie. So write us another book. Like now, you should write it. "
Binge pontificating. Isn't all that reminiscent of the "publish or perish" blight, where academics had to generate some kilos of books and papers to win associate professorships or tenure or whatever? And look what that did to the general quality of academic publishing. Yow.
Binge realities. But now we're bingeing on breaking reality, which is a dangerous thing, since a reality has to sit and steep a while before anyone knows whether they've got the genuine article or not. Here in Bangkok, e.g., we've been teetering on the edge of chaos since late December, where events unfold day by day as though we live in a cleverly designed TV suspense series, where the conclusion of each episode leaves you dying to see what happens next, this always being a big surprise. And it gets to be like binge-viewing whole seasons at a time on DVD -- instead of waiting for the morning newspaper to get your next fix, you become addicted to minute-by-minute Twitter feeds, witness to the unravelling of our world in real time.
If the day-to-day events aren’t put in a context of national, regional, global and cosmic change and development, then current affairs is only gossip. My old friend Tony Alcock, a classicist and linguist of no mean accomplishment, says he doesn’t want to read about it if it isn’t at least 300 years old. From that sort of perspective, CNN is little more than the modern equivalent of neighbors jawing over the back fence. And the Twitter universe? Spare me.
Still, in these troubled times I admit I can't stop checking the feed to see what's happening. Among other things, I fear the onset of binge tribalism. Maybe I should just retreat into that Breaking Bad TV series someone lent us.
Here's a nice take on bingeing from techradar.
“[E]ssentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
First published in 1973, Susan Sontag's On Photography speaks to us with even more force today about what cameras and the mass reproduction of images have done to our appreciation of ourselves and our worlds. And she offers this insightful spin on our lemming compulsion to photograph our experiences again and again and then share these images with as many people as possible:
"The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion."
Though Sontag couldn't have foreseen how this effect might be exaggerated by the fact that cameras would become ubiquitous, she saw how the process was already having profound effects on our world. In her conclusions to On Photography, she says that
"The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals."
Recent items I've posted on this site -- "Colonialized: The Peak Experience" and "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediocritization" -- offer related reflections upon my own experiences of Hong Kong's Victoria Peak, the Mona Lisa, whale sharks, the universe and my self.
The above image is attributed only to "anon" on the Internet.