McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediacratization

Posted by Collin Piprell

The Peak Experience.

In a recent post, I reflected on the strange compulsion to record every iota of our individual and collective experience and then share it with everyone else, each of whom is trying to do the same. How can anyone enjoy an unmediated experience of night-time Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, for example? (“Colonialized: The Peak Experience”)

There I stood at the rail on the viewing platform, getting a many-elbowed massage from others who had mounted an assault on the Peak Experience. I stood my ground, trying for a contemplative appreciation of what should be an amazing sight, wishing all the camera flashes weren’t destroying my night vision and wondering how these ranks of lemming photographers thought their cellphone flashes were going to further illuminate the city lying hundreds of meters below.

The Mona Lisa Experience.

Mona-Lisa-at-the-Louvre-w-008Then, right there in mid-Peak Experience, my encounter with the Mona Lisa came to mind.

Some years ago I was wandering about in the Louvre when it suddenly occurred to me: This very museum was home to one of the most widely recognized of all the great works of Western culture. Best have a look, I thought. Take an up close and personal peek at this phenomenon.

But there was no getting close to this thing. It was railed off and surrounded by a mob. As with views of the Hong Kong colonial light-creature (see earlier post), furthermore, you had to stand tippy-toes to see over other admirers standing four and five deep, not to mention risk blindness from the barrage of photographic flashes. The Mona Lisa’s famous smile, from what I could see, which was very little, looked more like a wince.

So scratch the Mona Lisa. Sara figured her YouTube Victoria Peak Experience beat “the real thing,” and I got more juice out of magazine repros of the Mona Lisa than I ever did from the real McCoy.

A cultural icon? Sure. McMona Lisa.

The Whale Shark Experience.

Swimming with whale sharks can be awesome. It’s best, I’d say, when the encounter is unexpected and you’re sharing it with a couple of other divers at most. It’s even better when these divers don’t have cameras (or, at least in the old days, when they’ve run out of film). But maybe that’s just me.whale shark 3_2

whale shark snorkelers_2Too often these days, especially on liveaboard dive trips dedicated to finding whale sharks, you get gangs of divers all plunging into the water together going flash-flash, often getting mainly pix of other divers going flash-flash. The shark lurks in the background, figuring it’s past time, if only it can find a way to break clear of all its groupies, to migrate back to deep water.

Hey, but progress marches on. Several years ago, enterprising sports-diving entrepreneurs, not wanting to leave the Whale Shark Experience to chance, started using spotter planes around Western Australia’s Nigaloo Reef. Having drawn a bead on the sharks, they radioed fast boats which then sped off to dump loads of divers as close as possible to the sharks, no doubt massively freaking out all but the hammiest of these creatures.

Not what I’d call close encounters with untamed nature.

Since then, however, commercial imperatives and the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme has gone way beyond the Nigaloo Experience.

Take Macau, for instance. An enthusiasm for glitzy casinos on the part of mostly non-locals has already all but erased the charming Sino-Portuguese colonial architecture and distinctive local way of life. And the boom continues. The 2,900-room Venetian, e.g., the Las Vegas Venetian’s sister development, boasts the largest gambling area in the world. Hell, it keeps a captive Venice on the third floor, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers, even a faux sky that remains benign no matter what the weather outside. This is a new, improved Venice with no rain and no floods and shiny big name-brand boutiques on all sides.

So how do you beat that? Easy. Toss some whale sharks in a big aquarium and invite happy crowds of adventurers to come goggle at them. New casino-related projects include funparks complete with whale shark enclosures so visitors can have a big adventure snapping photos of this largest of all fish species, beautiful creatures that, till recently, had remained rarely sighted and mysterious.

“Twenty years ago, scientists did not know much about what whale sharks ate, where they spent their time or how they reproduced. Historically, seeing a whale shark in the wild was a rare experience, even for veteran divers. Jacques Cousteau reportedly encountered only two whale sharks his whole life.” (“How to Love a Whale Shark,” Scientific American)

But now every Tom, Dick and Harry with the price of a Macau vacation can snap any number of whale shark photos and show them to friends back home who have already seen them a hundred times before on TV and YouTube. Borrr-ing. (Casino developers in Singapore are planning something similar.)

Not that any of this is basically new.whale sharks captives kuroshio-sea-of-the-okinawa

Never mind. Democratization and anti-elitism rools, OK! And who am I to suggest these experiences soon become degraded for both those privileged with the time and money to do it right and for those on a budget. Not to mention for the whale sharks.

Untamed nature for Everyman? Sure. McWhale Sharks.

The Me, Me, Me Experience. Where are we really going with all this? Good question. We’re already photographing every square centimeter of Mars and much of the rest of the solar system. Which is nothing, considering the fact there are untold billions of galaxies in our universe, and each galaxy includes billions of stars and quite a number of solar systems.

The Hubble telescope, for one, is peering into deep space to find that even the apparently emptiest bit of our sky harbors thousands upon thousands of galaxies, more of them the deeper you peer. This video shows what some are describing as the most important image ever recorded in human history. Hubble_Ultra_Deep_Field_part_d

Maybe. But look at this selfie I’ve just snapped.  The self-mediated me. And just watch me post it on the Internet. Thusly. selfie



Whoa. McMe. I guess that puts all those galaxies and stuff in perspective, eh?


The Afterthought Experience.

We’re witnessing the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme. Meanwhile we distance ourselves from our own experience in the ongoing commodification and mass distribution of everything including ourselves.

“Does that make any sense at all?” Sara asks me.

“It probably needs more editing,” I tell her. “Plus I think I might have something like a hangover.”



"Selfie," a recent neologism, appears destined for the standard dictionaries.

"Mediacratization" is of my own coinage, a portmanteau of "mediate" and "mediocritization" hot off the press, and probably doomed to oblivion. "Mass mediacratization begets mediocritization," an aphorism for our times, and, again, hot off the press.

Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."

Photo credits.

"These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa" (The Guardian)

Jonathan Kang, Kuroshio Sea of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan

Whale shark images by Ashley J. Boyd. (Boyd, an Australian resident in Thailand, was long one of Southeast Asia’s leading underwater photographers. A highly qualified diving instructor and teacher of underwater photography, Ashley has logged close to 4,000 dives. His photographs have been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and postcards, while his underwater video has been used in advertising and TV. He has collaborated with Collin Piprell on dozens of articles and three books (all of them now out of print):

Thailand’s Coral Reefs (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1995)
Diving in Thailand (Singapore: Times Editions; U.S.A.: Hippocrene Books, 1994, 2000)
Thailand: The Kingdom Beneath the Sea (Bangkok: Artasia Press, 1990)



Traitor, hero or some of each?

Posted by Collin Piprell

Government surveillance is a public service; E. Snowden is a self-serving traitor.


Government surveillance is evil; E. Snowden is a heroic champion of our individual freedoms and dignity.

xkcd atheists & fundmenalistsMaybe we should adopt a perspective superior to either of those.

The truth may well lie somewhere between two poles. At least if you acknowledge that we conduct healthy societies and polities in the tension between ideals of perfect security and perfect freedom, perfect harmony and a Hobbesian state of nature, imperatives of the collective good and those of individual self-expression.

Like it or lump it, feel as indignant as you like, this is the human condition. We live our lives in that tension, always for better or worse at any given time, approaching one pole till contrary forces swing the pendulum back towards the opposite pole, and then back again. For your average citizen — unless you’re currently engaged in the business of either storming barricades or erecting them — the trick may lie in recognizing this and relaxing a bit.

From this perspective Snowden and the NSA are merely fulfilling roles in a perennial drama, like re-enactments of some myth of the origin. Except that it would be nice to think that, however slowly, the larger historical plot is gradually approaching some more ideal situation. Though this approach itself, fated never to arrive, is probably the best we’ll ever manage as individuals or collectives.

In any case, governments and security agencies are never going to be able to do their jobs without secrecy and without cutting ethical and moral corners from time to time. I believe that is simple fact. Though it doesn't mean they should be given carte blanche to carry on as they will. These operations will always (one hopes) be opposed by civil libertarians who appeal to laws and individual rights. Where their activities break the law, they'll have to face the consequences (which may even include changes to the law). Sometimes, as with Snowden, their activities will cause much inconvenience and real damage to government operations and, arguably, to the country as a whole.

At the same time, as I’ve suggested elsewhere,  modern communications technology and the prevailing politics of fear  arguably entail a totalitarian logic, and may well incite ever-more radical attempts to thwart concomitant social and political developments. (Whoa. That’s a mouthful.)

Might this in part explain Snowden’s motives? Glenn Greenwald's Guardian interview indicates it does.  

The drawing is from the excellent website xkcd


Japanieces & tilefish & things

Posted by jack_shackaway

What have tilefish and superyacht owners got in common?

Collin posed this question at the end of his last post, "Pharaonic fish and flash fatcats." And now he has invited me, Jack Shackaway, who remains unbound by considerations of political correctness, to explain.

The following passages are from a novel in progress starring yours truly — even written by yours truly though Collin will no doubt try to claim otherwise. The book is a work of fiction, but I'm real and the things described in this chapter, at least, actually happened. You could call it straight-up reportage. And here, something that Collin would never do, I insert a smiley-face:    :)    Hah!

chapter two



“Japanieces!” Des told me.

We were standing in a large open-air hot pool high on a jungly hillside on the island of Langkawi, in Malaysia, palm fronds silouetted against a big moon overhead, bright strings of colored lights festooning the bar below. Only a few yards away, four luscious japanieces-to-be stood immersed to their bikini-tops.

“Oh, boy!” Des added.

Rich yacht owners have lots of nieces. You tend to find these items draped about their boats, many of them in advanced states of undress and sometimes, not often, more than half the age of their hosts. One theory has it that an inordinate fondness for nieces is the only reason someone who is otherwise of sound mind would ever buy such an expensive toy as a multi-million-dollar boat. In fact, according to Des, this amounts to no more than an expensive dick-enlargement operation.

“But we get to play for free,” he added. “God is good.” The mere sight of this congregation of Japanese office girls giggling and blushing away in the hot pool had instantly telegraphed a clear vision of the near future.

“You are staying in this hotel?” asked the cutest Japanese girl of all.

“No,” Des replied, looking as modest as any poor yachtie ever could. “We’re staying on a boat.”

Wild surmise swept the pool like an early monsoon gale. “You mean, the big white boat?” asked the second and third cutest ones. “The big white boat down in the bay?” asked the fourth, who was also cute, never mind there was only one yacht of any description anchored down there, and where else would you put a yacht anyway?

“Yeah. That’s right.”

Their eyes grew as huge as Japanese eyes could get, no doubt in the attempt to accommodate the immensity of this concept, this enormous amazing motor yacht way down below in the bay and the fact that we slept on it. The water in the hot pool began to boil all around us as the girls crowded closer. In no time we were on a first-name basis with Tomoko, Hiroko, Sachi and Yumiko.

“Want a drink?” I asked.

“Yes!” they chorused.

“And Bob’s your uncle,” said Des, with a broken-toothed grin, although I think he really meant to say that we were their uncles, for now, and these fine young japanieces should just relax and let us look after everything.


A couple of musicians were beating the shit out of a piano and drums while a bass guitarist measured the carnage. This gang of three plus a singer and trumpeter rushed from one piece to another, laying a vaguely bossa nova beat over everything from Bach to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, charging along as though they wanted to finish up and skedaddle before the cops arrived.

Des seemed just about as antsy. “Boy, those drinks look good, all those little parasols and slices of pineapple. Cherries and shit. Don’t let them get warm, now. That’s it. Down the hatch. There’s lots more of this stuff on the boat. Oh, my. Yes. On the yacht.” Once more, he pointed out the big plate-glass bar window to where Boomboom II sat far below on the water. “Cheers!” he said.

Kampai,” the girls responded, which, as they had already told us, was Japanese for “cheers.”

Japaneices, man.” Des whispered at me, waggling his eyebrows in a very discreet manner. “We got japaneices by the boatload. Oh, boy.”

Forget about how busted up he was, Des was a ladies’ man. Pretty soon he was talking to Tomoko in an anodyne semi-pidgin. “I never get rich from photography,” I heard him say, “but I am free.”

“Yes,” Tomoko said, squinting in the way women who are nearly blind and haven’t installed their contact lenses tend to squint. “I see.”

Even smart women like this Japanese office girl generally chose to overlook the essential banality of it all. Somehow, in some way unclear to me, Des’s whole manner and appearance signaled “good for the gene pool.” It probably related to his obvious capacity to survive anything existence could throw at him. Des had that look you see in veteran rodeo riders. National Hockey League goalies used to have it, back in the days before face masks. The look that said, “Do your damnedest; I’ve sustained lots worse and I’m still truckin’.” Nevertheless, Desmond’s most recent girlfriend had left. Bryanni said she still loved him, only she couldn’t stand watching him die the Death of a Thousand Boo-boos.

But he had big eyes and long eyelashes, which he batted, bimbo-wise, and no compunctions about telling a woman anything he thought she might want to hear, and right now he was making out like a bandit.

Meanwhile I was doing my thing, batting my own eyes and explaining to Sachi and Hiroko how I wrote travel articles and suchlike. Just to make a living. But I was really a novelist, when it came right down to it. An artist, really, though I didn’t use that exact word.

“Ah, so,” Sachi said. “What is your name again?”

“Jack. Jack Shackaway.”

“Ah, so,” Hiroko also said, maybe thinking I didn’t believe they were really Japanese.

They were asking where they could buy my books and I was waffling when Des came to the rescue.

“That’s right. And he’s a war correspondent too. Both of us are. Partners to the end. Brothers in arms.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “That’s right.” I’d been trying to forget our latest adventure.

Tomoko and Hiroko headed off for the bathroom, and Des, dropping the pidgin and maybe forgetting Yumiko probably didn’t understand one-tenth of what he was saying, took to telling her, “Yeah, you see, if I build up my photo stock just a bit more—flesh out Malaysia and so on—and with these agencies flogging my stuff in the States and Europe, I figure on retiring before I’m forty-five. Okay?”

Pretty little frown lines formed between her perfectly plucked brows. “Ah,” she told him. “So.”

“Wow,” added Tomoko. She and Hiroko had returned to the table and also pretended to know what Des was talking about, which was something Des himself did not.

“It takes discipline. A freelance photojournalist has to face temptation all the time. You know what I mean? But you can’t give in. You have to have goals, man, and stick to them.”

And Des was sticking pretty close to Yumiko, set to score this particular goal. And maybe still set to score another with Tomoko, since I knew he was capable of adopting any attitude it took to get laid, and maybe two at once. Attitudes, that is. New Age, Marxist-Leninism—whatever they wanted to hear. Even abject middle-class propriety, if that’s what it took, as seemed to be the case with Yumi.

“So.” She tried to jog his memory. “You sleep on the big white boat?”

That’s when we should have made our move—told the ladies to go pack their overnight bags and we’d hightail it for the boat. But Des had maybe had one too many drinks, trying to hurry the girls along, and now he decided the band needed help. In fact, the band really sucked, he told us right in the middle of their bossa nova rendition of “Hotel California.”

“The band really sucks,” he announced again, and he went up to this very band and asked whether he could sit in for the next number.

As a piano player, at least when he was in full stride, as he happened to be at this moment, Des was a cross between Fats Waller and someone trying to demolish a whole piano with his bare hands. As a matter of fact, Des did have his own personal martial arts style, which he’d learned at the same place he learned to play the piano, which was a succession of low-life bars around the world. It was called tae kwan whoa, he informed me once, just before he broke both a guardrail and his foot with one lightning kick. His piano-playing style, on the other hand, had no name, even though it could get a joint rocking under just the right circumstances which these weren’t.

I noticed the japanieces were already looking nervous about their new friends, when the crew from Boomboom II burst upon the scene like a nineteenth-century press gang raiding a Bristol tavern. ...


chapter three



“There is no God.” Des proclaimed.

QED. There we were, japanieceless aboard Boomboom II and on our way to Burma...

So that's how Des and I got to appreciate on a gut level -- however briefly -- in what way tilefish and super-yacht owners are same-same.

Collin seems to be planning other tilefish-related posts. I can't say what those will be.

I hope you noticed the expression "japanieces," which is a neologism coined by none other than me no matter what Collin might tell you about its provenance.

Have a look at Kicking Dogs, an earlier novel starring me, written by me, hijacked by Collin, out of print and currently languishing on the Internet as an utterly neglected e-book. Collin is even worse at promoting books than he is at writing them.


Photo of Amanputri by J. Everingham.

Langkawi pool image.

J.B.S. Haldane, perhaps more of a wag than most of his ilk, famously suggested that "The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles."



Zombie nation: Shutting down

Posted by Collin Piprell

In my previous post I suggested that persons and cultures, our very realities, are narrative in structure. What happens when you interrupt such narratives? Many of us are finding out, thanks to our increasingly ubiquitous and much-beloved digital communication technologies. There follow two especially obvious ways this is happening.

Applying a cell phone to the side of one's head in public has the effect of disconnecting the brain. In this condition, cellphone users show characteristic signs of aimlessness, milling about on sidewalks and bumping into things. At the same time they lose all sense of courtesy, entering a solipsistic world wherein lanes of sidewalk traffic and right of way on escalators cease to exist. They step outside the collective narrative that is our conventional civil society.

Yammer away all you like, forget about the person standing next to you on the Skytrain. Sure. And pose in generally awkward locations as — compliments of the advertising industry and celebrity stooges — you slip into one prefab persona or another, aping the beautiful brainless people, exulting over how cool you are as, phone clapped upside your head, you stand framed in doorways and at the tops of escalators. The idea that you are both cool and connected is the only storyline establishing the continuity of these moments. This is who you are.

Musing along these lines, I suddenly realized something. A parallel kind of thing afflicts me when I succumb to the Internet urge. It’s as though the narrative that is me, as I want to think of myself, is abruptly paused. Confronted with iMail, Facebook, Skype, Google, etc., my attention explodes across the many distractions at hand. And, in some way I can’t articulate very well, my sense of self becomes diffused in the same way.

spring day darkening:

the locust digital swarm

eats my absent mind


In part, I metamorphose into something like a lab rat with an electrode planted in its pleasure center, hitting the jolt-me button again and again in preference even to the buttons for food or sex, even unto dying of friggin’ starvation. But that’s just a white rat, eh? Whereas I am a card-carrying member of the elite species Homo sapiens. So I don’t need no stinkin’ electrode stuck in my hypothalamus. No, I simply go online, where I can get many, many discrete little hits of dopamine, dipping away like a demented dipstick till all my creative projects lie dead in heaps on my study floor. We call this a higher-order activity. It’s Progress.

But it’s such a relief not to have to concentrate on anything. What a gas, the relative ease of bumping around, Brownian particle-fashion, among the myriad other bits of persons and their digital spoor, just going with it, eh? Wherever, and whatever. Like I’m being absorbed by the collectivity, and there’s no real “me” left to worry about things. Until I re-emerge from cyberspace which, at least so far, we all have to do eventually.

“Just turn off the Internet router,” my Sara tells me. Right.


The "Walking Zombies" image is used with permission from ChargeAll.


What is writing?

Posted by Collin Piprell


J.P. Donleavy, an early literary hero of mine, was quoted in Playboy (May, 1979) as saying, “Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.”

Would that this were so. Meanwhile, another spin on the essence of writing is going the rounds on Facebook:



In other quarters, writers instead turn whiskey into piss and engage in binge writing in the intervals between their alchemical endeavors. (I encountered the expression “binge writing” listening to a Letterman interview with Hunter S. Thompson.)


But let’s leave the last word to Norman Mailer:

“Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.” (NY Times Book Review, 17 September 1963)

Typically, perhaps, he leaves the female writer’s experience out of this account. So maybe we can instead allow me the last word:

Writing books is the closest women ever come to knowing what it’s like for men to come as close as they ever can to giving birth.

And there you have it, another fine aphorism hot off the press.

Illustration from Platt R. Spencer, Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship, 1869.

Portrait of Hunter S. Thompson from "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson," by Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 19 Dec. 2008).

Whiskey is of course a false Muse.


Digital civility rools, or doesn’t

Posted by Collin Piprell

Vertically walleyed: A new affliction, an occupational hazard for the digitally connected and cool, a neologism of sorts coined right here and right now.

“My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.”

That’s from a great NY Times article by Sherry Turkle, “The Flight from Conversation.” And this advice has expanded my notion of what’s fittin’ and what ain’t in this modern digital age. And it has led me to wonder how many other surprising rules of courteous, or at least cool, behavior I might collect.

More rules for the cool and maybe even courteous

What follows isn’t as interesting as Turkle’s observations, but maybe it’ll encourage others to ante up rules of their own.

One rule that’s needed, in my opinion, and evidently in Doug Savage’s: If you’re going to use your phone in a public place, try to find somewhere you won’t disturb others.

Also in terms of telephone etiquette, I believe it’s becoming increasingly accepted that you should send an SMS first, asking whether it’s okay to interrupt with a phone call. Mind you, my own experience suggests that, more and more, all that ensues is an exchange of SMSs, with emoticons doing a wan job of substituting for non-verbal input.

Here’s another situation that has yet to find its proper etiquette. More and more often, these days, you find yourself in the middle of some classic “absent presence” situation. You may be parked in a restaurant with four or five friends, e.g., and they’ve all buggered off somewhere via their iPhones and iPads, except for one who’s asleep; and you know you shouldn’t, but you yourself enter into an SMS exchange with your brother in Vancouver.

Before doing this, however, you announce, “I really do apologize. I know this is rude, and a sign of the times, with civility being corroded by all our gadgetry and digital connectedness combined with effective absence and everything, but I do have to take just a minute, okay? I have to say something to my brother in Vancouver.”

Whatever, eh? Nobody’s really there anyway, so they haven’t heard what you said and, even if they have, they merely wonder at your eccentricity and take to thumbing their keyboards even more furiously. (See my earlier post, “From absent presence to omnipresence.”)

Then there are the people who, right in the middle of what you thought was a conversation, will hop onto smartphone or tablet computer to seek  the answer to a question, maybe provide a gloss on something they’ve just told you. Let’s say you’ve never heard of Rachel Weisz. Next thing you know you’re being presented with photos of her in various states of dress, with a Wikipedia bio, maybe even with her phone number. Wait. Did the first outbreak of “Saturday Night Fever” occur in 1977 or 1978? Just hang on a sec’. Not that you really give a damn, but the answer will arrive momentarily.

This kind of thing doesn’t conduce to real conversation. What unfolds is more an exchange of information, rather than the exchange and mutual development of ideas. This is how Sherry Turkle, in the NY Times article cited above, characterizes real conversation: “In conversation we tend to one another [my italics]... We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.”

Technology eroding our native capacities?

The new modes of connectedness may be having uncertain effects on the way we think and our very capacities to do things. For example, there appears to be a growing inclination to rely on the Web as a one-stop shop for anything we need to know or remember. It reminds me of those who’ve grown up with calculators and see no need to remember the multiplication tables or how to perform long division. It reminds me of my longstanding reluctance to consult a thesaurus except as a last resort, since I’m afraid that too much dependence on it will gradually erode my native capacity to think creatively about word choice. In fact, the Web begins to resemble something like a collective memory and collective consciousness, and the main individual intelligence and experience we wind up cultivating may be skills needed to access the Cloud.

Prophets of doom vs. Pollyannas

All my doomsaying also reminds me of all the scholarly Pollyannas who perennially refer to Socrates and his warnings regarding the growing popularity of the written word. He was convinced this fad would eventually destroy our capacity to remember things on our own. Of course to some extent he was right, but there are good arguments to the effect that we’ve gained far more from written language than we’ve lost. And maybe today’s Pollyannas are right, and we’ll gain far more than we lose from the new technology and the concomitant changes in ourselves as individuals and communities.

Maybe.   :)

Anyway, does anyone have other new rules for the digital age they’d like to propose? Just by way of priming the pump:

* How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans (Wired, 15/07/09).

* Rushkoff’s Rules for the Digital Age.

* Business Etiquette: The New Rules in a Digital Age (Google this for a PDF version).

Special bonus video: Here’s a somewhat dated interview with Sherry Turkle regarding what was then her new book Alone Together



Premature evacuations offend spirits of the place

Posted by Collin Piprell

Here on my eight-floor balcony, watching the sun retire across the river to the west, I can almost hear the waters advancing from Saphan Kwai. Or is that merely the kerfuffle of conflicting rumor? For weeks, here in Phya Thai District, we’ve awaited the floods from the north as they advance with glacial alacrity. One of the many rumors, inconsistently promulgated by government officials, was that we might well be spared altogether.

Ultimately, though, it seems the hi-so spirits of the place have been insufficiently propitiated. Or perhaps too many of the locals have succumbed to premature evacution (current phrase, not my coinage), their lack of faith offending our spiritual guardians. Because last night and this morning, Twittish wisdom had the flood arriving in front of Big C at Saphan Kwai. Since, however, we’ve been given to understand that this was not the flood proper, but only prophylactic pumping of the drains, and that the area is dry again.

Nevertheless, the inexorable tide of umpteen zillion Olympic swimming pools equivalent, the standard measure du jour, continues its near-imperceptible rush towards us. As it has been doing for weeks.

I’ve decided never, for any reason, to look at the Twitter feed again. Gossip is always a powerful stimulant, but in time of crisis Twitter is crack cocaine. In the good old days, people would just get on with life and, if a giant flood appeared, they’d say, whoa, a flood, and deal with it. When it passed, they’d get back to other matters.

Of course all that’s easy enough for me to say, still safe and air-conditioned in my apartment as I make guacamole, croques monsieur and salad with which to surprise Sara when she gets home from work already heartened by thoughts of that half bottle of wine in the fridge. Only a few kilometers from us, meanwhile, large numbers of people are suffering abject misery. (I fear that us relatively privileged folk hereabouts will suffer our real crisis only after the floods have abated, and the social, political and economic fallout hits us.)

Of course there’s every reason to believe our neighborhood will finally indeed be flooded within days. Though how deeply and for how long is anybody’s guess. If you want considered opinions ranging from no flood at all to 10-12cm to 1.5m standing from a few hours to a few weeks, consult #thaifloodeng, an amazing confluence in itself of observation and information from every source imaginable. Everything you need to know from subduing feral crocodiles in black water to whether the reported invasion of green mambas is for real or a hoax, from how to safely test standing water for electric current to how to volunteer for relief efforts.


Here are more standout photos of the flooding in Thailand from The Atlantic and the Boston Globe.

A graphic representation from Japan showing, as of 27 October, the Great Flood Monster about to gobble up Phya Thai District and other parts of so-far untouchable “inner Bangkok.” (The situation has become even direr since then, of course.)

People often respond to disaster with great good spirit and imagination. Here's a motorcycle modified for underwater excursions.

For more on the respective powers of myth and science in flood control, see the latest posting on Somtow's World.

First photo (above): “A resident pulls her belongings as she wades through her flooded neighborhood in Thon Buri outside Bangkok on October 28, 2011.” (Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters) From the Boston Globe.

Second photo “Children play in a flooded street in Sena district, Ayutthaya province, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Bangkok, on September 12, 2011…” (Reuters/Sukree Sukplang) From The Atlantic.





Creative word use, politicians, natural laws

Posted by Collin Piprell


In a recent post, "Get your new words while they're hot," we looked at neologisms that have appeared in these pages. Read on for more along those lines.

Back in March of this year Bill the Mathematician sent me to the “Church For Christ” site, which quoted Sarah Palin’s now-famous remark:

“We need to take this opportunity to talk about Jesus and rebute these lies and show people they cannot simply seek the truth, but how they can find the true Christ in the Bible.”

Bill the M. speculates that she wanted say “refute.” Or “rebut,” maybe even “rebuke.” But all you have to do is consult The Intelligent Politician’s Practical Handbook, Chapter 3, “Lexical legerdemain” (by yours truly, still in draft) to find the real answer. "Rebute" is a portmanteau expression including all the senses Bill suggested plus, most importantly, "reboot." But Palin prefers to deliver “reboot,” for reasons that remain obscure, with a Brit accent. The idea is that, if you reboot a lie (roughly “re-beaut”), it'll come out somehow better—more effective, at least, if not actually veridical.

Of course Sarah Palin has coined other fine neologisms. “Refudiate,” for one, has yet to fade from the popular consciousness. And, however much lexicographers remain reluctant to enshrine the word in official dictionaries, they do admire it, in one case going so far as to designate it “Word of the Year.”

‘The new Chambers Dictionary includes “freegan” and “geek chic,” and Merriam-Webster has recently added “staycation.” Not that lexicographers will include any word that swims into their ken: so far they’ve drawn the line at “refudiate,” though the editors of the Oxford American chose it for their 2010 Word of the Year.’

-- from “When a Dictionary Could Outrage,” by Geoffrey Nunberg (NY Times, 23 September 2011.)

Anyway, the important thing for me to take away from all this is an item for The Intelligent Politician’s Practical Handbook, Chapter 7, “Riffing reality”:

If you rebute (reboot/re-beaut) a lie, it can come out better. That is to say, whether or not the rebuted version is true, strictly speaking, it may at least be more effective.

Here’s a related article: “In praise of urban dictionaries,”  (The Guardian, 21 April 2011) “Once scholars agonised for years over additions to language. Now, online dictionaries enable instant updates...”




Get your new words while they’re hot (warm, anyway)

Posted by Collin Piprell


Watch the English language evolve! Here are some of this site’s neologisms—original, borrowed and even commissioned—from my posts over the past year or two. The numbers refer to how many hits each gets on Google as of right now.

* Cymbalalalazophobia (fashioned to order by Dr Anthony Alcock, coiner of words for our age extraordinaire). 0 hits (a big surprise) 

* Iktsuarpok (with thanks to the Inuit and to Adam Jacot de  Boinod for collecting this specimen). 7,570 hits



* To cabbage (v. trans.) David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest). n/a (turns out there are other “cabbage” verbs, but I can’t find references to Wallace’s usage) 

* Hobologoism/ hobologoist (coined by yours truly, I am proud to report). 10 (they all lead to my site, mind you; but just wait till next year, eh?)

* Hi-so (from current Thai slang by way of English hi*gh so*ciety). 752,000,000 (but most instances refer to other things)

* iField (with apologies to Apple). 1,470,000 (subtract references to towns named Ifield)

* Vuvuzela (from S. Africa, quickly spread around the world on a tide of footie fever, but faded as fast from the popular mind). 11,600,000 (9,320,000 for “vuvuzela 2011,” so maybe it isn't fading as fast as all that)

* Democrazy (used in newspaper interview by former Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, at a time, last year, when local demos had indeed gone patently crazy).  755,000 (the word is everywhere, and, just like its half-cognate, applied to all manner of things)

* Apocalyptic cosmophobia (me, looking forward to 2012). 3 (all my site)

* Beepification/ beepify (Leary’s coinage). 5 (only one of them referring to Leary; the expression has had multiple geneses)

* Absent presence (an expression for our times, coined a few years ago and likely to enjoy increasing currency over the years to come). 89,100,000

So that's it for now, with help from a scholarly friend, the South Africans, Inuit, and Thais, a writer or two, and a relic Boomer channelling from 50 years ahead. Stay tuned for more news of  changes to the language, not to mention recommended changes.

The ghost portrait of David Foster Wallace brooding at the top of the page won't go away.  I fear he's holding me in some way responsible for something.


Cymbalalalazophobia: Things to worry about when the sky isn’t falling

Posted by Collin Piprell

So  just the other morning I suffered something like a flash of cymbalalalazophobia, which is hardly surprising, Sara claims, given my lifestyle.

My recent “Hope in dark times” post elicited the following Facebook query:   Is there an official fear of hi-hat cymbals phobia?

If there weren't, it stuck me that I had a friend who might be uniquely qualified to coin such an expression. Dr. Anthony Alcock is not only a fine classical scholar, linguist, Egyptologist, jazz & blues guitarist and trumpeter and man about town (not this one), he’s capable of spinning five neologisms from the classical Greek before breakfast. His advice:

You might try this, from I Corinthians 31,1:

Cymbalon alalazon (which may turn out to be gobbledygook in the transmission) — 'a tinkling cymbal', from which it is possible to make a word 'cymbalalalazophobia ', along the lines of 'supercalifragilisticexpialodocious', which would be an apt description of the theology of St Paul.

I’m not competent to comment on Tony's theological acumen, though I’m predisposed to believe he’s right in this matter of St. Paul. (Wait. The Inquisition is defunct, is it not?) But the new word is just what we needed. It even has a pleasingly musical quality to it, and nearly demands percussion accompaniment. As long as that doesn't involve hi-hats, of course.

So we get to see the English language evolving right before our startled eyes. And now that it has been defined, many more among us will discover in ourselves this horror of hi-hats.

More on the passage in I Corinthians. (Further testament to Tony's genius: this account suggests onomatopoeic connotations in cymbalon alalazon of approaching armies clad as for battle.)

If  cymbalalalazophobia isn't enough for you, click on Chicken Little, here, for a comprehensive list of phobias to choose from.