Friday, May 29, 2015

The Outrage Chamber

The Australian Facebook post that successfully
whipped up a vigilante mob. Click to enlarge.
Two online stories this week give me significant cause for pessimism, even though one accords with my personal beliefs. In one, an Australian mother’s Facebook post publically shaming an accused pervert went viral, even though the accused man proved completely innocent. Then, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature repealed the state’s death penalty law on strictly conservative grounds, including cutting needless spending and curbing government overreach. Both stories involved public, anonymous death threats.

The Australian story is remarkable for its extreme disjunction. The outraged mother, who apparently didn’t witness the event she posted about, wasn’t satisfied reporting the incident to store security or police. She posted this guy’s face online, using dark, glowering language about perverts invading public spaces, though she possessed wildly incomplete facts. Apparently she didn’t trust trained professional law enforcement personnel to enforce law with professionalism or training.

Tellingly, though her original indignant post generated 20,000 reposts overnight, news of the official police retraction took two weeks to reach my inbox. That is, outrage, even fictitious outrage, had reach exceeding a quarter million potential views almost instantaneously, while cool, dispassionate exposition of facts required literally weeks to expunge the public mistake. Meanwhile, the vilified subject, who only intended a goofy joke, received death threats from “concerned citizens” after police exonerated him.

Nebraska, an overwhelmingly conservative state where libertarian political ethics have significant footholds, attracted attention for its repeal effort partly because it didn’t use conventional leftist reasoning. Though state senator Ernie Chambers, possibly Nebraska’s leftmost political figure, has repeatedly introduced anti-capital punishment legislation, it usually dies quietly. This week’s repeal succeeded because an intricate conservative coalition inveighed against capital punishment’s great expense, time-consuming procedures, and intransigent bureaucratic immobility.

The (almost) final vote tally to override
the Nebraska governor's veto, which
almost never happens. Click to enlarge.
Consider: since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, Nebraska has executed only three criminals. All three were under centrist Democratic governor Ben Nelson in the 1990s; the last was nearly eighteen years ago. Despite the death penalty’s emotional appeal, it mostly doesn’t translate into actual executions. However, with their mandatory multiple appeals, special housing requirements, and mounting legal bills, Nebraska’s ten Death Row inmates have generated massive expense.

Despite this perfectly reasonable analysis, public response turned ugly. One state senator publicly released the audio of a constituent phoning in threats to rape and murder his family for espousing a position the constituent didn’t share. Other senators reported similar responses, despite keeping evidence private. One wonders whether such citizens would retain their ideological loyalty if their threatened actions netted them capital sentences.

I already understand the appeal behind "kill the bastard." But that plea’s gulf from material action, and the expense necessary to prevent railroading, makes capital punishment inefficient at best. However, conservative state senator Beau McCoy, who voted against both the appeal and overriding the governor’s veto, promises to restore capital punishment by popular referendum. He may succeed, judging by comments like this, from an otherwise libertarian friend of mine:
I cannot imagine how frustrating it would be for the families of the victims to need think of him as breathing, comfortable, and fed, with a long life ahead of him, while their loved ones sit cold in the ground.
Lemme tell ya, my friend Deanna was murdered. Her killer then turned his gun on himself. And him being dead too doesn’t make me feel one goddamn bit better.

But facts matter little in cases like this. Whether pushed from the left, as it usually is, or from the right, as in this case, anti-death penalty campaigns must peddle difficult, fact-based portfolios. Pro-death penalty campaigns simply name-drop Manson, McVeigh, or Tsarnaev and walk away. These emotional appeals have remarkable staying power. But naming outliers doesn’t truly represent circumstances for attorneys and legislators who must actually litigate death penalty cases.

Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers has fought the
death penalty for forty years. His cause has prevailed,
but not his reasoning.
It’s much like the Australian case. The mother’s accusation, though motivated by (possibly) reasonable impulses, was flat damn wrong. The police exoneration, though grounded in fact and bolstered by evidence, lacked the outrage appeal, and therefore didn’t travel nearly so fast. A capital punishment referendum will probably behave similarly. Senators debate issues publicly, and courts keep elaborate transcripts. Voters in their booths are completely opaque, and may have truly awful motivations.

The Internet has proven strikingly bad at disseminating complicated, factual reasoning. Statistics indicate you probably haven’t read this far into my essay. This bodes ill for serious discussions of life-or-death issues affecting everyone generally. If we cannot factually debate executing our own citizens, or mob-rushing innocent defendants, how can we discuss cleaning filthy air, or preventing wars abroad? I grow tragically pessimistic.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Warrior Queen of Seattle

Cherie Priest, I Am Princess X

May Harper and Libby Deaton overcame their fifth-grade outcast status by creating Princess X, a katana-wielding superheroine whose exploits gave suburban life meaning. Then, in a tragic accident, Libby’s mother drove off a Seattle bridge, killing Libby and herself. Now sixteen, May drifts through life rudderless and alone… until she sees it. An image of Princess X on an abandoned storefront. A message meant only for her.

Locus Award-winning science fiction novelist Cherie Priest returns to her former adopted hometown of Seattle, the setting of her breakout novel Boneshaker. But that novel involved a carefully realized steampunk universe, where the contrast between real Seattle and Priest’s Seattle brimmed with satiric potential. This novel takes a more realistic tack, turning urbane, high-rise Seattle into a domain as complicated as any medieval dungeon.

That first Princess X image leads May to a thriving internet subculture dedicated to the Princess X webcomic. But that webcomic can’t possibly exist. Libby’s father discarded all their notebooks after her death, and these images tell an entirely new story. Aided by an affably harmless hacker from her building, May begins tracking subtle clues laced throughout Princess X’s story, an excruciating process that undermines everything she thinks she knows.

Priest offers the skeleton of an engaging story. The contrast between May’s unglamorous Seattle life and Princess X’s allegorical world, a network of complicated overlaps and correspondences, drives the story with urgency and panache. Priest gets good mileage from the theme of a complicated hidden reality, popular in multiple genres today. Coupling it with the complexities of Internet-based underground cultures and an urban quest feels like so much fun.

Cherie Priest
As May gradually unpacks clues laced throughout Princess X’s story, she realizes the webcomic creator couldn't have intended these complicated clues for general consumption. They refer to places from her own life, memories she never spoke of, experiences she shared with nobody else. Nobody but Libby. But that could only make sense of somebody is lying to her right now… or everybody has lied to her for at least three years.

Seattle, in Priest’s understated telling, resembles less an American city than a catacomb of forgotten rooms and unseen tunnels. Princess X leads May and her sidekick, Patrick, into half-demolished coffee shops, mausoleums, and the rain-slick underbelly of various tourist attractions. May winds up discovering parts of her city that the tourist board would probably prefer remain hidden. But a complicated parallel society dwells beneath polite Seattle, bearing secrets.

This novel aims for a conventional “young adult” audience. It has many familiar tropes from that marketing niche, including teenaged protagonists who don’t necessarily start out precocious, but must quickly teach themselves resilience; an adult enemy whose own damages boil over into wrath at innocence; and a supporting cast of adults who blinded by conformity. Though telling a good story, Priest doesn’t really break any new ground in her genre.

Priests’s story mixes her prose with original comic art by Kali Ciesemier. Though much of this art wasn’t complete in time for the pre-release reviewers’ edition, what did is remarkable. Ciesemier’s two-tone line drawings resemble the underground “comix” I remember reading in the 1990s. Back then, comix tended toward autobiography. This has more heroic overtones, but retains symbolic resonance with Sonic Youth-era confessionalism.

Some of Priest’s choices feel like low-hanging fruit. The homogeneously young, white, middle-class ensemble, for one. Unreliable, generally clueless adults feel overused, especially when coupled with elaborate excursions into Seattle’s forgotten underbelly. A pretty teenage girl wandering into that environment would need legitimate guidance to avoid getting trapped in a Russ Meyer film. Most youth I know would appreciate a story coupling resourceful young protagonists with actual stand-up adult counsel.

Also, why’s this book so short? Bestselling YA fiction, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, indicates teens’ willingness to engage with epic-scale literature. Priest herself has been pretty voluble in her literature for grown-ups. At barely 200 pages, this book feels like a scanty pamphlet compared to many titles currently available on YA shelves. Especially with the compressed-feeling resolution, Priest probably could’ve afforded a little more description.

Still, that problem notwithstanding, Priest’s story will probably reach her intended audience with haste and concision. Though they, like me, may wish for a longer story with more characters, most readers will probably appreciate this novel for what it is. Accustomed to writing for a seasoned genre audience, Priest is clearly out of her element here. Yet she demonstrates wherewithal enough to burst in and make YA fiction her own.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Best Little Whorehouse On Wall Street

Michelle Miller, The Underwriting

This book's pre-release literature compares it to recent films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Social Network, but I'd prefer another parallel. Edith Wharton's 1905 classic The House of Mirth had moments of hilarity without ever resorting to jokes, episodes of tragedy without ever descending into despondency. Throughout this debut novel, I repeatedly recognized Miller and Wharton as kindred spirits. I also cringed to realize, in 110 years, how little Manhattan has changed.

Todd Kent has ambitions. He wants a managing directorship at historic investment bank L.Cecil before he turns thirty, and he needs one cream assignment to accomplish this. When a wildly successful dating app offers Todd a no-bid contract on its lucrative IPO, he thinks his toast is buttered for life. But managerial interference, manipulative colleagues, and shady internal dealings jeopardize Todd’s high-rise fantasies. When it appears this app was involved in murder, everything goes south.

Miller worked a brief Wall Street hitch before deciding her real love was words. I struggle to decide which character in Miller’s satirical roman à clef represents herself. Tara, the financial whiz granted a VP title, but no autonomy, at the absurd age of 27? Amanda, the jilted lover whose attempts to remake herself inadvertently uncover festering corporate rot? Kelly, the idealistic English major who accepts an L.Cecil job offer—then dies under mysterious circumstances?

I wonder because Miller clearly has real people in mind. Her characters’ motivations, and their flaws, reflect a world where early achievement isn’t just common, it’s mandatory. Her milieu reeks of privilege, steadfastly immune to the lessons of 2007. Todd and Tara work aggressively, sleep at their workplace, manhandle fortunes larger than some city budgets, and make paper billionaires at their computers. But only one successfully squelches their conscience; a brutal awakening awaits the other.

Michelle Miller
Given an impossibly short two-month window on their IPO, Todd and Tara begin a marathon journey from Manhattan, to Palo Alto, to London and beyond, turning digital promises into real money. Miller’s telling of this odyssey is educational. She demonstrates how financial rainmakers spin facts, skirt the law, and anchor massive monetary promises on foundations that don’t yet exist. People who play nice don’t last. Before long, the ambiguity becomes too much for one player.

Hook, the startup app, combines Tinder’s sexual abstemiousness with Über’s gender equity and regard for safety. Boasting 500 million users, it secretly collates users’ data, contra its own security agreement, granting one ethically conflicted engineer unique insight into an open murder investigation. Hook’s founding CEO, a computer engineer who places dollar values on every interaction, spotlights his app’s social aspects, yet his dispassionately forward conversations leave everyone feeling like they’ve been groped by a Vulcan.

Meanwhile, Juan, Hook’s lead programmer, makes a discovery. Hook is stockpiling user data which it specifically denies even exists. A secret database which only the privileged few can even find contains quantities of information on half a billion people worldwide, information that can be used for super-advertizing… or for blackmail. When Juan realizes Hook has invaluable evidence in Kelly’s murder, which shouldn’t even exist, all his dreams of benevolence, funded by startup millions, become poisonous.

Though Miller never resorts to jokes, her satire often stings of cutting hilarity, because she succinctly spotlights the absurdities her characters blithely accept. Manhattan finance requires ambition and egotism enough to make Donald Trump blush, because billions turn on single deals, and reputations live or die by one day’s work. The Defense Department would blanch at these numbers. I’d think Miller’s fast-paced style was mere slapstick exaggeration, if my 401(k) balance sheet didn’t say otherwise.

Admittedly, this book isn’t for everyone. The press material describes Miller’s story as “sexy,” but maybe they mean something I don’t. These characters have sex to mark time, blowing through other people like leftover goulash; the “romantic” encounters, which begin as a Fifty Shades-ish turn-on, quickly become anti-erotic. Ordinary practices of everyday life—sex, conversation, work—become a destructive narcotic for these characters. Children, the easily offended, and aspiring Rockefellers will find this book imposing.

Okay, so Miller’s style isn’t for blue-hairs. But her story, of a financial sector willfully blind to its own consequences, matters because it’s familiar. Miller, like her characters, worked Wall Street after the collapse, and saw firsthand how big-shots refuse to learn. The conditions that imploded America eight years ago still exist. And in Miller’s capable hands, the story of characters completely immune to basic self-reflection becomes a madcap farce, when it isn’t painfully sobering.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Captain Propaganda, the First Avenger

In 1937, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis identified seven distinct characteristics of militant propaganda. Marvel’s Captain America hits all seven, including Name Calling, Bandwagon Appeals, and Glittering Generality. That said, it’s important to note that calling something “propaganda” doesn’t imply it’s wrong. The original comic book began as wartime propaganda, a necessary message. Indeed, Captain America provides a remarkable example of how top-down propaganda creates shared identity in mass society, and translates into real action.

Some of this movie’s propaganda appeals are so blatantly obvious that they don’t demand much discussion. The image of a big-shouldered hero in star-spangled leotards punching out Adolf Hitler blatantly displays the IPA’s principle of Glittering Generality, an appeal so vague but highly valued that it doesn’t require reason. And pitting that hero against a leering, monstrous Death’s Head (Tötenkampf) villain uses the exact opposite appeal, Name Calling, or refuting an opponent by personal abuse.

Other appeals are more subtle. The small-statured Steve Rogers, who proves himself worthy of heroism because of high character and moral fiber, channels common American beliefs in ordinary people achieving greatness through superior integrity. Americans want to believe our achievements reflect innate qualities we’ve cultivated through temperament and grit. We associate moral superiority with people like ourselves, which is fine. If abused, though, this belief in bootstrap glory represents a propaganda appeal called Plain Folks.

American leaders from liberal Harry Truman to arch-conservative Sarah Palin have pitched themselves as worthy of mass respect owing to their humble, working-class origins. Sometimes this is apt; both Truman and Palin began as lower-middle-class pedestrians, and worked their way up society’s ladder. But Thomas Jefferson, that slave-holding plantation owner, doffed his powdered wig and rode his own horse to appear “just folks,” an undisguised lie. Plain Folks appeals always require deeper, more skeptical scrutiny.

Chris Evans as Captain America
So that’s Glittering Generality, Name Calling, and Plain Folks. We witness the fourth technique, Bandwagon, when Senator Brandt redirects Steve Rogers into selling war bonds. Though an undoubted waste of Rogers’ potential, he quickly discovers his skill getting crowds oriented toward his desired goals. By convincing audiences that everyone next to them will buy bonds, Rogers effectively convinces people they must buy to fit in. As bandwagons usually are, though, Rogers ultimately finds his dissatisfying.

Psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson report research demonstrating that the most persuasive propaganda is that which we sell ourselves. Encouraged to consider new ways of seeing common situations, we internalize the ways we create, often inadvertently consuming someone else’s message. This happens when Rogers plays Captain America so long, he eventually must actually take action to preserve internal stability. As he says while rescuing American soldiers: “I’ve knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.”

This, however, represents the fifth technique: Card Stacking. Like a magician saying “pick any card,” this technique represents the illusion of autonomy in a tightly controlled environment. Captain America has no strategic training, no field experience, no qualifications for combat whatsoever. He simply believes the message he’s successfully sold everyone else, because it’s his chief input. He thinks he’s picking his own card; he cannot perceive how somebody else picked it for him long ago.

Cap also demonstrates the sixth technique, testimonial. When we admire or respect somebody, that person’s endorsement has significant persuasive power. People Cap respects keep extoling his personal virtues: Bucky laments Steve’s weakness, but talks up his character. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark commend Cap’s fighting spirit. After numerous vaudeville bond-selling showcases, Cap’s own message has become a form of celebrity endorsement. But the people he respect manage to sell him himself until he believes them.

Having rescued the soldiers, Cap applies the final technique: transfer. When something admirable graces the presence of something… well… else, admirable qualities rub off. Consider political candidates posing before the flag, or celebrities visiting war-ravaged countries. Cap finds the Howling Commandos sitting in a pub, indulging their self-pity. But by simply sitting with them, he transfers some component of his heroism onto them. Would a telegram have convinced them to attack Hydra after escaping? Doubtful.

We’re accustomed to considering propaganda something offensive. Its association with Stalinism, fascism, and the Bush Doctrine, has tainted the word. But its techniques, if applied to unifying populations against an unmitigated evil, have potential to unite disparate peoples toward shared goals. Propaganda can deceive, or it can unify. The difference is in good followers: Hydra soldiers are passive, the Howling Commandos are thoughtful and engaged. The techniques are neutral; only people give propaganda moral implications.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Being Your Own Best Business Asset

Thuy and Milo Sindell, Hidden Strengths: Unleashing the Crucial Leadership Skills You Already Have

Many publishers mass-produce business guidebooks on maximizing your personal strengths, identifying your strengths, or finding the Venn diagram overlap between your strengths and the market. Considering market saturation, you’d think America’s professional class had reached Charles Atlas levels of personal strength. Yet well-respected companies and executives keep getting blindsided. Clearly we need another approach.

Silicon Valley consultants Thuy and Milo Sindell suggest we’re missing powerful opportunities within ourselves. Rather than highlighting obvious natural strengths, those skills which come easily to us, or skirting obvious weaknesses, the Sindells turn our attention to our middle range, the skills we haven’t cultivated yet, but could. These neglected skills, which they call Hidden Strengths, represent untapped opportunity to remain versatile, responding to today’s changing market by changing ourselves.

This book has many advantages over other business guides I’ve read recently. First, it’s concise. Only slightly thicker than a pamphlet, it delivers its message without needless verbiage or grandiosity. Too many business authors keep talking long after they’ve made their points, inadvertently revealing their weaknesses and blind spots. This book makes its point as quickly as possible, and when it’s done, hands the next step over to you.

The Sindells identify twenty-eight “skills,” actually umbrella categories, that business professionals exercise regularly. These encompass leadership skills like Resilience, Listening, Inspirational Vision, and Delegation. They admit most business leaders generally find three, maybe four, of these twenty-eight come easily, while one or two remain so difficult, they’re beyond redemption. But at best, these obvious strengths and weaknesses represent under one-third of most people’s capability; much potential, tragically, remains permanently unexplored.

Milo and Thuy Sindell
In essence, that’s the entire book. Fleshed out with a few examples and relevant details, the Sindells present an overview so compact, they could potentially stage it as a live symposium. Dedicated readers could savvy this whole book in one sitting—though it certainly rewards slower reading, backed with careful reflection. Besides the simple how-to, the Sindells present a worldview complex enough to demand business leaders rethink everything they do.

First, the Sindells’ vision requires leaders willing to listen, connected to others willing to provide meaningful feedback. Though they have a self-evaluation quiz available through their website, they admit that you’ll get better results with what they call a “360-degree assessment” from peers, supervisors, and subordinates. Their system relies upon frank introspection, calling users to examine themselves within their organization. You cannot improve yourself if you don’t first know yourself.

It also requires users to face their difficulties head-on. We’re accustomed to accentuating our innate talents, rewarding ourselves for what comes easily. But the Sindells insist that more difficult skill development, which may perhaps require greater self-sacrifice but produce greater rewards over time, reflects the long view necessary in business. Career development is an investment with an ever-changing payoff horizon. Leaders should prepare, personally and professionally, for the long haul.

Besides their deep, multi-faceted reasoning, I cannot stress enough the Sindells’ brevity. Despite their structure’s inherent complexity, our authors remain succinct, saying just enough to guide readers into the message, then stepping back, permitting us to fit their message to our situation. Too many writers make assumptions about readers, then keep talking long after they’ve made their point. By keeping brief, the Sindells permit us to remain top-level career control.

Our authors write explicitly for business professionals, and draw their relevant examples from the business and finance world. However, what they describe can, with minor tweaks, apply to many career fields. An attorney with good speaking and listening skills can still benefit from partnership building and conflict resolution. Artists, especially in current markets, can benefit from cultivating entrepreneurship skills and performance monitoring. These skill sets are ecumenical and eminently portable.

Today’s capitalist fascination with Disruptive Innovation means executives, leaders, and entrepreneurs who rely on one skill set to accomplish one goal quickly get plowed under. This means that personal development isn’t only personal. A motivated will to improve one’s skills ensures a versatile mind and adaptable sensibilities. Buffeted by the demand for constant change which modern markets create, only flexible, resourceful leaders can remain relevant when surrounding pressures constantly evolve.

Having clashed recently with other business writers, whose prolix style and mercenary reasoning don’t withstand blue-collar scrutiny, I must commend the Sindells. Their brief, practical, intelligent guide provides the mix of organizational savvy and humble ambition I’ve missed in several recent business books. Truly, this reads like a book entrepreneurs and seasoned executives can enjoy equally. I know I’ll be applying these precepts to my own career.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The True Story of an Arctic Catastrophe

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 50
McKenzie Funk, The Wreck of the Kulluk

On New Year’s Eve, 2012, an Alaska tugboat crew cut loose the Kulluk, a mobile offshore drilling platform intended for extracting undersea oil from Arctic waters. The platform, carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and living supplies for hundreds of men, hit Sitkalidak Island, where it was totalled, signalling an ignoble end to a $6 billion experiment. But the story began much sooner, and much more sordidly.

Journalist McKenzie Funk, a veteran freelancer for National Geographic, Outside, and BusinessWeek, reconstructs the events leading to, and stemming from, the disastrous attempt to move the Kulluk and its attendant fleet during Alaska’s storm season. The result is a concise narrative that combines high-seas adventure with an exposé of corporate short-sightedness and greed. If more journalism today looked like this, America’s newspapers would remain thriving and profitable.

Oil, as an industry, has evolved far beyond the circumstances it occupied when wildcatters struck crude in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in 1977. As Funk describes, rising state-owned oil companies have crowded private enterprise, stabilizing prices but undercutting profits. Corporations have scrambled to reclaim markets. Until recently, options have proven limited. But when crude prices crack $80 per barrel, risky choices suddenly become cost-effective.

The Kulluk was only part of a larger flotilla aiming for untold Arctic petroleum riches. Funk estimates one-quarter of Earth’s untapped petroleum reserves reside under Arctic sheet ice, and a mix of sustained demand, inflated prices, and global warming made offshore drilling in untested waters suddenly profitable. The Kulluk’s parent corporation, Shell, snagged valuable leases in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas at fire-sale prices, and prepped an exploratory drilling fleet.

Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk mobile drilling rig, in its final
resting place, the shoals just off Alaska's Sitkalidak Island

Royal Dutch Shell purchased the Kulluk for an undisclosed sum and spent over $300 million refitting it for Arctic drilling. Yet despite its massive size and tremendous power, and despite being intended for drilling in regions where floating ice is measure in miles, Shell inexplicably gave it no engines. For propulsion, it relied upon external tugboats attached with steel cables. A subcontractor built a hardened tugboat specifically for ice drilling.

Funk describes errors piled upon errors with such grandiose haste, it approaches tragicomedy. A British corporation, with North American headquarters in Texas, hired contractors in Long Beach, California, and New Orleans, Louisiana, to build vessels intended for Alaskan waters. It sent exploratory vessels into waters so remote, they’re accessible only three months per year, and the nearest search-and-rescue facilities are over 1,000 miles away.

Finally, after drilling season ends, Shell executives decide to return the Kulluk and its fleet to Seattle in December. Later, they’ll explain their decision by citing obscure tax law. But anybody who knows Alaska knows that the North Pacific doesn’t quietly accept human arrogance in December. Forty-foot swells batter the fleet, swamping engines designed for Gulf of Mexico conditions, while bitter headwinds push straining tugboats backward, technology be damned.

Against this journalistic backdrop, Funk juxtaposes Craig Matthews, a true Alaska original. Originally from California, Matthews hitchhiked to Homer, took work in deep-water fishing, and eventually became ship’s engineer. He survived the Exxon Valdez spill and remained steadfastly dedicated to his adopted home. Though lacking formal education, his engineering skills remain unquestioned and priceless. Despite his rugged style, Matthews eats vegan, practices Buddhist meditation, and lives a simple, self-disciplined life.

The contrast between Matthews and other singular personalities on one hand, and corporate groupthink on the other, drives Funk’s narrative beyond dry reportage. This conflict between those who know and respect Alaska, and those who would control and dominate it, gives Funk’s journalism storytelling panache often associated with Jack London or Mark Twain. Alaska’s volatile winter ocean becomes a contest of wills between the arrogant rich and the poor wise.

It’s possible to read Funk’s story so many ways. Is it an adventure story striving heroic roughnecks trying to prevent a completely man-made disaster? A parable of corporate hubris brought low, of people who consider themselves masters of the universe realizing that nature still won’t be denied? A dedicated muckracker exposing corporate bureaucrats’ refusal to accept that the “invisible hand” won’t save their asses? Oh yes, all this and more.

American journalism recently has become a competition to accrue the most possible online “hits” or bottom-line ratings. But Funk’s story proves, not only that skilled reporters can still produce hard-hitting stories, but that readers want more than headlines and breaking news. At this writing, Shell currently intends to try Arctic exploratory drilling again this summer. Writing like Funk’s challenges readers to think carefully before trusting industry to fix itself.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Harry Potter and the Butt-Plant of Destiny

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels
I recently reread two of my all-time favorite genre fiction series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles. The latter I’ve carried with me since elementary school, while the former I discovered… well… somewhat later. Rereading each in middle age, however, I noticed something remarkable regarding these two exceedingly popular fantasies. Though both represent modernized takes on classic heroic journeys, only Alexander’s story involves actually going anywhere. Harry Potter is notably stationary.

Joseph Campbell, in his famed treatise of comparative religion, Hero With a Thousand Faces, describes a phenomenon he calls Monomyth, a recurrent pattern of narrative momentum that crosses cultures, epochs, religions, and traditions. It applies in various scriptures, Grimm’s fairy tales, and epic adventures across genre divides. Campbell’s Monomyth describes a hero’s journey from ordinary earthly existence, into an otherworld of transcendent discovery, back to real life, where the hero’s breakthroughs transform their tradition-bound world.

This journey isn’t only religious. George Lucas, who read Campbell in college, deliberately used Campbell’s Monomyth in writing his iconic Star Wars movies. J.R.R. Tolkien apparently followed Campbell’s template inadvertently. It’s difficult to know whether Lloyd Alexander knowingly appropriated the Monomyth, but since his story partially retold classic Welsh myth—he recycles names, events, and plots from the Welsh Mabinogion—the continuity between his novels and comparative religion seems appropriate. Alexander is a monomythic writer.

Campbell divides his Monomyth into seventeen distinct stages (though later authors simplify his pattern). Stage three, Crossing the Threshold, involves our hero’s complete separation from banal reality. Each of Alexander’s five books begins with Taran, the orphaned pig-keeper, leaving his bucolic village and venturing into trackless, monster-haunted forest. The first six Harry Potter novels involve the Hogwarts Express; the seventh involves Harry’s comrades packing their bags and running. However it’s depicted, leaving home is paramount.

Lloyd Alexander, author of the Prydain Chronicles
But there, paths diverge. Leaving means something different for each hero. In five books, Taran leaves home deliberately only once; adventure is thrust upon him, and Taran rises to the opportunity by assembling a cohort and confronting unexpected challenges. Harry, by contrast, goes to boarding school. Departure happens at scheduled times, under predetermined circumstances, for a known destination. Once there, Harry mostly stays put. Harry doesn’t sally forth; adventure invades his carefully programmed, structured world.

The idea that our hero needn’t physically move to undergo trials isn’t unprecedented. Jesus sat in the desert, and Satan came to him bearing temptations; the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree, wrestling with uncertainty, before enlightenment overcame him. But a stationary journey, if not unheard-of, is nevertheless extraordinarily rare. Generally heroes, from Odysseus and Sinbad to Captain Picard and the Doctor, must travel to their next challenge before meeting it. Taran travels; Harry doesn’t.

Certainly, Harry isn’t altogether sedentary. Especially as the series progresses, he often ventures outside Hogwarts, to Hogsmeade, Grimmauld Place, or the Ministry of Magic. Near the end, Dumbledore takes Harry wandering in pursuit of Voldemort’s horcruxes, very briefly. But these excursions are always brief, dangerous, and exceptional. Even in Book Seven, the least geographically rooted, Harry’s “tent” contains an entire mock-Tudor house, less rugged than an American Winnebago. Harry’s quest is largely circumscribed by buildings.

This happens because Harry’s quest, unlike Taran’s, occurs substantially within himself. Taran ventures beyond his confines, encounters the world in ways both violent and nurturing, and eventually establishes such rapport with his people that, in mastering himself, he inherits his kingdom. Harry mainly encounters himself. Relics like the Pensieve and the Mirror of Erised connect Harry with his own mind, or bridge the gap between his own and others’ perceptions. This is uncommon in mythology.

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Rowling doesn’t blow her nose on traditional mythology. Her millennium-old castle, teeming with ancient ghosts and cherished artifacts, reflects not only fantasy fiction’s infatuation with antiquity, but also Britain’s numerous preserved historical buildings and myths. Unlike America, where colonists destroyed many pre-Columbian landmarks and communities, the distant past is physically present in Britain. But unlike, say, King Arthur, Harry’s quest doesn’t circulate throughout Britain. Tradition, for Rowling, is a fixed backdrop to an internal quest.

Perhaps Harry’s situation reflects modern needs. Alexander’s “forest primeval” setting doesn’t exist in today’s Wales, and besides hitchhiking, few opportunities for self-discovery happen “out there” anymore. Yet Rowling’s story nevertheless makes a noteworthy deviation from established mythic patterns. In bygone days, prophets, paladins, and conquerors, ventured outside themselves to discover their callings. Harry Potter remains, with significant exceptions, sedentary. This is a new kind of journey. And it represents a new kind of quest audience.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Comfortable Tudor Murder

Mary Lawrence, The Alchemist's Daughter

When pretty young Jolyn Chapman dies suddenly in her best friend Bianca Goddard’s laboratory, their Southwark neighborhood is scandalized. The coroner pronounces a poisoning verdict, and the constable makes to arrest Bianca. In an environment of rudimentary science and justice for the highest bidder, only Bianca has skills enough to prove her innocence and finger the guilty. Just another day in dying Henry VIII’s overcrowded, impoverished London.

To understand just how familiar Mary Lawrence’s debut novel feels, Google the title. lists at least six books entitled The Alchemist’s Daughter just since 2000. That signals what you’re getting in reading this novel: a perfectly pleasant rehash of historical fiction tropes that articulate an interesting story, without particularly breaking new ground. Lawrence’s intended audience will probably enjoy the product, but emerge essentially unchanged by the experience.

Bianca’s alchemist father and herbalist mother bequeathed her different ideas, which she combines in her Medicinals and Physickes. Southwark’s varied, but mostly poor, denizens consult Bianca for everything from ordinary medicines, to semi-lawful abortions, to rat poison. This makes her prime suspect in Jolyn’s poisoning. Loyal customers band together, though, temporarily preventing her arrest. This buys her time to investigate what corrupt, half-drunk Constable Patch won’t touch.

Poor Jolyn’s life took some remarkable turns in her final weeks. Rescued from abjection by a mysterious benefactor, she quickly learned the ways of London’s middle class, and acquired a well-connected suitor. Her great personal beauty also earned the admiration by a morally slipshod merchant and a boyishly naive servant with deep secrets. But she remained tight-lipped about certain details, like her suitor’s name, even after he gave her ostentatious gifts.

Mary Lawrence
Bianca’s prodding uncovers good reason for such secrecy: everyone wanted something from Jolyn. Without meaning it, Jolyn had seized something that could restore flagging fortunes, repair damaged honor, and bring quick connections in the early days of newborn Imperial commerce. Now they think Bianca has what Jolyn died for, and they’re willing to kill for it. And how does this connect with a plague ship moored just outside London’s jurisdiction?

Where conventional historical novelists like Philippa Gregory would focus storytelling on kings and aristocracy, Lawrence keeps King Henry at arm’s length. Her democratizing impulses permit a story of Londoners so completely impoverished that they comb rubbish out of tidal mud to buy their bread. This requires some imagination—we don’t know much about Tudor England’s urban peasantry—but better reflects today’s audience beliefs.

Lawrence combines a fully realized, immersive environment with a certain casual approach to historicity. Like similar historical novelists, she demonstrates selective anachronisms—the powerfully independent woman, leisurely dedication to period English, occasional displays of modern attitudes—to make her 500-year-old setting comprehensible for modern readers. She aims to help readers travel in time, even if that sometimes means sacrificing accuracy. She’s created an imaginative TARDIS, not a history textbook.

Some of Lawrence’s choices seem really forced. Particularly, ramrodding in Bianca’s romance with John, the silversmith’s apprentice, feels completely unnecessary, except that Lawrence’s audience expects a romance subplot. Bianca, the consummate professional, ignores John in pursuing her goals; he responds with foot-stomping tantrums. I kept wishing John would walk away altogether. Perhaps Bianca’s disinterest should’ve warned Lawrence that this subplot didn’t solve her story’s beating heart.

However. Lawrence writes for an audience accustomed to certain cues. It wouldn’t be unfair to note her target audience is substantially female; throughout history, women have both created and consumed the bulk of fiction. We’d also note how prior authors have conditioned Lawrence’s audience to expect red herrings, sudden revelations, the three-act structure, and romance. Lawrence provides everything her audience expects, in mostly the expected order, like reading a blueprint.

Therefore, how audiences receive Lawrence’s novel depends on their relationship with expectations. Some readers enjoy reading new takes on familiar boilerplates, while others prefer surprises and innovation. Lawrence certainly writes well, having researched middle Tudor English and created a version of period language comprehensible to modern readers. Lawrence doesn’t lack for ambition. She just takes that energy into story tropes so familiar, readers could build a pillow fort of them.

Despite my appreciation for her democratic inclinations, Lawrence doesn’t write for readers like me. I’ve reached a level of familiarity with enough diverse literary styles that the old tropes have become boring. I await the astonishment where authors invert our expectations and challenge us to grow. If you’re like me, you’ll grow bored waiting. Lawrence writes well for her audience, admittedly, but never expands or challenges that audience’s comfort.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Cowboy Dinosaur FBI Detective Procedural

Craig Johnson, Dry Bones: A Walt Longmire Mystery

Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire doesn’t want this cold case. The most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever uncovered just appeared on a ranch owned by a cantankerous Cheyenne elder. The fossil could net millions for whoever owns it. But who does—the rancher, the Cheyenne Nation, the federal government? When the elder’s body, half-eaten by wildlife, appears on his own ranch, the question becomes dangerously loaded.

Craig Johnson’s thirteenth Longmire novel hits shelves just ahead of the TV adaptation’s fourth season, forthcoming on Netflix. Johnson uses his adopted Wyoming home to exemplify the collision between modern life and traditional ways. Sheriff Longmire is a contemporary Doc Holliday, classically educated (he translates Latin aloud) but also dedicated to classic attitudes of justice and restitution. Sparsely populated northern Wyoming severely tests Longmire’s values.

This time, Longmire doesn’t want this murder investigation. His daughter, a Philadelphia lawyer, is due home with Walt’s newborn granddaughter. Walt’s best friend, Henry Standing Bear, has arranged a Cheyenne naming ceremony, and Walt’s squeeze Victoria “Vic” Moretti, who doubles as his daughter’s sister-in-law (um…), is showing nesting tendencies. All this is amplified because Walt and Vic suffered significant trauma in the last novel.

Nevertheless, Walt, Vic, and a cast of diverse prairie personalities find themselves thrust into a difficult situation. The massive, newly discovered fossil brings national, and even international, interest into Absaroka County. A newly appointed U.S. Attorney with outsized ambitions dragoons Longmire into his PR campaign, while the FBI and Cheyenne tribal police inject their own desires. Plus, it’s summer in Wyoming, which means storms, including hail large enough to kill.

Craig Johnson
Johnson’s fans have long admired his ability to invent complex characters and inject them into fraught situations. He demonstrates great aplomb in creating dialog among laconic people who dispense words with Protestant thrift: “ How ’bout I go in there and kick his skinny ass like a rented mule?” Having lived in America’s prairie heartland for twenty-three years, I can easily imagine slow-talking people with nose-first accents really talking this way.

But it isn’t just about characters. Unlike conventional mysteries set in close-packed environs like Manhattan or L.A., Wyoming presents entirely distinct challenges based on its sprawling geography. As Longmire stresses early, Absaroka County covers territory larger than New Hampshire, meaning truly determined malefactors can disappear altogether. The land is crisscrossed with mines, caves, shacks, and unmapped canyons untouched in a century.

Danny Lone Elk ruled his ranch with iron discipline. Between his swift punishments and his chronic alcoholism, there aren’t many tears shed among his family upon his death. However, he apparently knew about Jen, the Tyrannosaurus fossil, and hoped for… something. Hard to say what, since evidence of his handshake arrangement with local paleontologists remains mysterious, and as his own only witness, his death scatters all arrangements wildly.

These paleontologists, incidentally, aren’t scientifically detached. One apparently used Danny Lone Elk’s naivete to arrange a lopsided agreement for fossil extraction; the other, a longtime Wyoming character, has strangely friendly arrangements with the family her colleague tried to bilk. When they attempt to ship Jen’s enormous head out of state UPS, Walt finds himself storing sixty-million-year-old rocks in county holding cells.

Gripping though the mystery is, readers will stick with Craig Johnson for his intense sense of place. Longmire’s Wyoming, like most American prairie communities today, straddles the willful dedication to tradition, and modernity’s implacable march. Absaroka County’s people combine native country dwellers and fugitives from urban America’s impersonality. The blend creates a cauldron of ever-evolving ethical collision.

Comparisons with traditional Western literature comes naturally with Johnson’s novels. Besides his central protagonists, his supporting cast of thousands comprises the kind of Blazing Saddles-ish personalities that flourish wherever territory exceeds population. The cowboy-hatted sheriff’s precarious relationship with local Indian officials reflects two cultures’ incompatible claims on the same land and heritage. Absaroka County is truly the frontier.

This, though, isn’t some anomalous period piece. Longmire’s Wyoming exists one connecting flight away from America’s largest cities. Very modern urban tragedies can intrude on Longmire’s time capsule world instantaneously. And his stern commitment to justice has earned Longmire foes among Mexico’s most high-tech drug cartels—foes whose ability to surround and savage him isn’t circumscribed by Western notions of distance and isolation.

Johnson deftly combines character drama with procedural mystery, modern genre fiction with classic Western values. His longtime fans already know this. His thirteenth novel rewards loyal fans by expanding his beloved characters and their continuing backstory. But it also invites first-time readers to jump aboard this charging train.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Censor's Lament

Hawaii-based novelist and schoolteacher
Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Hawaii-based novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s first book, a verse novel entitled Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, deliberately courted controversy when it debuted in 1993. Yamanaka wrote about girls living outside Hawaii’s tourist spotlight, struggling with abuse, drugs, and sexual violence. Her approach was stark and frank, dealing with, arguably, America’s most marginalized populations. And she did it in the regional dialect working-class people speak in Hawaii.

Yamanaka certainly received controversy, but not what she anticipated. Anybody who has lived in Hawaii, away from the spit-shined tourist environs, knows that Hawaii suffers deep racial stratification. As a Japanese-American, Yamanaka resides in the state’s second-highest economic stratum, after whites. Spokespeople for lesser communities, including Koreans, Filipinos, and especially Polynesians, excoriated Yamanaka for her use of frank racial language and characters poorer than herself.

This criticism did little to deter Yamanaka, who remains both a prolific author and a dedicated schoolteacher. Yet if taken literally, this criticism, that authors should limit themselves to only those depictions of disfranchised populations which the populations would approve, would deeply circumscribe writers’ abilities to confrong racial issues. Considering how segregated Hawaiian culture is, this criticism would declare residents’ most important issues off limits for anybody not poor.

Two recent circumstances brought this controversy back to me. In one, a writer I know refused to read a chapter from her novel in progress because a character drops an N-bomb. She feared local university students would misconstrue her intent, thinking such language expressed her own prejudices. Never mind that the chapter features an obviously unpleasant character saying awful things; she feared the word would redound negatively on her.

In the second, an up-and-coming writer I respect posted this tweet:

What does this mean? For her to write this suggests that she isn’t “done” in the sense of abandoning the fight. And knowing her, I doubt she’ll stop participating in poetry when white authors get involved. Besides this, how much appropriation of indigeneity must happen before it becomes co-optation? Can white authors write about native issues, or must we reserve such issues as unique prerogative of natives—like, coincidentally, herself?

Recent incidents of white-on-black violence, many perpetrated under cover of police authority, have raised Americans’ interest in racial issues. This interest hasn’t translated into clear courses of action; some insist that current circumstances, while imperfect, are acceptable, or anyhow trending acceptably. Others insist that this sudden racial awareness makes today perfect for redressing generations-old wounds still bleeding profusely in public.

Personally, I have great sympathy for oppressed peoples anywhere. Past circumstances have forced me to acknowledge how my choices have contributed to inequality; I’ve invested effort since in attempting to undo some fraction of the damage I once inflicted on society. Simply denying that racism really exists, in the classic Greg Gutfield style, doesn’t cut it. Viewed without the blinders of privilege, racism, sexism, and other discrimination remains painfully prevalent.

Fox News anchor and noted bomb-
thrower Greg Gutfield


When one author demands white poets pussyfoot around indigenous issues, while another self-censors the very category of painful disclosures that makes literary fiction so valuable, I fear we’ve lost something important. We’ve divided who can address society’s issues from who cannot. This kind of counter-elitism has, potentially, the same deleterious consequences we attempt to undo by calling racism out publicly. And this painfully narrows the discourse.

Whether white, well-heeled male authors can touch issues of oppression matters. Because much research has demonstrated that racism, sexism, and entrenched poverty don’t only damage the oppressed; they also squelch the oppressors’ ability to see others as completely human. In grinding “lesser” peoples into the mud, the powerful diminish their own souls consummately. Only they themselves can address this damage, and its possible solutions, adequately.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an invitation to consider all topics acceptable for everybody. We’ve seen protests, violence, and social upheaval recently because American society has tragically lost sight of basic mutual decency. Recent surveys have indicated that race relations are as bad today as America has seen since the 1970s, and we see the consequences in dead youth, burning cities, and inability to speak with one another.

The answer, however, isn’t priggish self-censorship. Refusing anyone permission to discuss other peoples for their race, wealth, or gender inevitably narrows the discourse. Sure, the well-heeled often wear their privileged blinders so long, they forget the limits of their vision. When that happens, others will call them to account, as they should. But silencing anybody’s permission to address society’s firebrand issues has an inevitably chilling effect on everybody’s speech.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nurture Your Body, Liberate Your Mind

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 49
Stephen S. Ilardi, PhD,The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs

Diagnosable clinical depression isn’t equally distributed worldwide; Americans and other industrialized nation citizens suffer far higher rates than poorer nations. University of Kansas psychologist Stephen Ilardi and his research team discovered that modern life has cultivated certain behaviors that crush people’s psyches. But for most people, antidepressant medications don’t work any better than Doctor Time.

Human beings, Dr. Ilardi writes, aren’t adapted to modern life’s sedentary, indoor conditions. Though we believe we’ve conquered nature’s limitations with our technology and social sciences, our bodies and brains remain optimized for hunter-gatherer conditions. So Ilardi began research into what he calls Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC), a permanent, lasting cure for clinical depression involving six uncomplicated steps:
  1. Supplementing dietary levels of Omega-3 fatty acids
  2. Engaging in meaningful activity
  3. Getting sufficient physical exercise
  4. Getting sufficient sunlight
  5. Spending time around people we like and engage with
  6. Getting enough sleep
Really, that’s it. Well, it’s actually more complicated, with specific recommendations to not only improve our living conditions, but also to proactively prevent depression from recurring, or from hitting in the first place. This is important, because depression has a higher relapse rate than virtually any physical ailment. Yet by following a lifestyle of healthy, balanced choices, we an control our vulnerability to this debilitating illness.

Dr. Ilardi strikes a satisfying balance between solid science and practical suggestions. Too many First World citizens work seated, spend spare time alone, and eat lopsided diets. The luxuries we enjoy, which our ancestors never envisioned, have made us less happy, less healthy, and less properly disposed to handle life’s little setbacks and disappointments.But neither, he writes, can we chuck everything and hunt wildebeest on the Serengeti.

Stephen S. Ilardi, PhD
Thankfully we don’t have to. Ilardi’s TLC program requires a modest investment of effort and time, often less than one hour daily, to recapture the wild conditions for which we’re still perfectly adapted. One needn’t spend hours at the gym for sufficient exercise; a brisk thirty-minute walk three times weekly can get our hearts moving robustly. And those stresses keeping you from sleeping? They’ll feel more manageable if you’ve gotten your eight hours.

Some suggestions seem obvious once Ilardi says them aloud. It only makes sense that we suffer depressed mood and stunted brain function when we spend time on meaningless activities, or when we’re chronically lonely. As Ilardi notes, the only population group that hasn’t seen massive increases in diagnosable depression in the last hundred years is the Amish, a population who works together, mostly outdoors.

Other suggestions require more explanation, which Ilardi helpfully provides. We’ve become so accustomed to considering fats just bad that, when he says we need more Omega-3, many readers, including me, may feel baffled. Yet Ilardi explains, not only what Omega-3 fatty acids are, and why we need them more than the common Omega-6 variety, but also what a balanced diet means in terms of human evolutionary imperatives.

Ilardi also discusses the importance of motivation for any meaningful change. Exercise in particular will require some incentive, because humans are attuned to avoid unnecessary, inefficient effort. But if we roll things together—exercise as opportunity to spend time with friends, for instance, or discovering a hobby that involves deep muscular effort—we can extract maximum benefits from separate, individual activities.

This isn’t some mere list of pointers, moreover. After walking us through his six steps, including explaining how and why each works, Ilardi provides a graduated twelve-week approach to incorporating his TLC into regular life. This includes not only adding his six steps, but also documenting your symptoms according to an objective scale, and keeping good records. You and your doctor should find his measurement scale very helpful.

Dr. Ilardi stresses, early on, that nobody should undertake any lifestyle change, even his, without consulting a doctor first. Depression can stem from physical ailments, which your doctor should exclude first; and rapid lifestyle changes, like aerobic exercise and dietary supplements, carry risks which you and your doctor can minimize. So don’t just grab Ilardi’s book and run. And certainly don’t base lifestyle changes on one 750-word book review.

Though Dr. Ilardi talks up TLC for clinical depression, he stresses that this isn’t only for people with mood disorders. His techniques improve general health, including heart health, and also improve general mutual accountability. His steps are straightforward, manageable, and fun. Since half of all Americans will face major mood disorders, and TLC can prevent as well as cure, this approach is truly for everyone.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Cherry Bomb For Your Eyes

Denise Bosler, Creative Anarchy: How to Break the Rules of Graphic Design for Creative Success

Let’s start with what I consider the most important point: graphic design professional Denise Bosler never actually advocates “anarchy” or “breaking the rules;” that’s a rhetorical flourish. We call them rules for a reason. Rather, she coaches graphic designers, like good attorneys, to know when conventional rules don’t apply, and respond accordingly. We’ve all seen the results when designers, thinking themselves bold and ambitious, ignore fundamentals like color, line, and shape. Bosler doesn’t recommend lawlessness.

Within this slim but oversized book, Bosler compiles a thorough, synoptic course in graphic design fundamentals. Bosler formats her book like those old-school Ace Doubles novels: hold it “right-side up,” you’ll receive an 88-page primer in rudiments of design, including exercises to experiment with making visually engaging images entirely from straight lines or primary colors. This includes a very thoroughgoing introduction to Bosler’s career specialty, type design. Today’s text-intensive world will thank Bosler for that.

Flip the book over, Bosler commences a 144-page whirlwind tour of various places where “coloring inside the lines,” as she puts it, impedes design’s purpose. Flanked by a generous selection of diverse graphic examples, Bosler demonstrates how working professionals lasso the rules to their own purposes. The rules Bosler teaches, which are common in academic art and design programs, guide apprentices with efficiency and grace. But professionals don’t serve the rules—the rules serve them.

Denise Bosler
This isn’t “anarchy,” not really. “Don’t second-guess your client,” Bosler recommends gently; “Explore his [sic] level of creative tolerance by asking him questions.” In everything from Peter Max-inspired concert posters and Bauhaus teapots to fin-de-siècle book jackets and neon bar signs, Bosler shows how well-done design elements interact with, accentuate, and complete their environment. Like people and tools, designs have their roles to fulfill. Nobody would call this anarchy; I’d call it more like synergy.

And what synergy it is. For Bosler, graphic design, like art, has context. Whether we’re packaging a product, or advertising to increase brand awareness, or simply making text inviting to read, design plays an important communicative role. When she shows how Penguin Audiobooks’ ad designers morphed Mark Twain into a pair of headphones, or how almost-invisible kerning and serifs turn illegible fonts into elegant graphics, she proves that design creates conduits between two human minds.

Despite the wide range of examples she musters, Bosler mostly keeps emphasis on two-dimensional designs. From ads and posters to books and fliers, we mostly encounter graphic design on flat surfaces these days. Household appliances and architectural marvels may have graphic components, which Bosler tacitly acknowledges, but she permits experts to retain control of the three-dimensional field. Still, considering our media-saturated contemporary society, she clearly retains claim on the largest design categories people regularly encounter.

So, since Bosler doesn’t recommend chucking that figurative cherry bomb into graphic design, what does she advocate? Well, she runs a complex gamut, from clean geometric patterns popular in midcentury media, to frenzied psychedelia, to digital shape-morphing in today’s world. Bosler’s examples and influences refuse categorization. True to her title, Bosler doesn’t attempt formulating any new rules or precluding genuine invention. She shows, instead, how innovative designers pave new roads by thinking outside textbook conventions.

I do regret one significant omission: I cannot recall Bosler including any examples of web design. Today’s code-centric world has made most of us digital design consumers, and the importance of our personal websites, Facebook pages, and other digital footprint, has made many people digital design creators, too. Web design creates important challenges, with the need to carry elements intact across multiple platforms and browser customizations. Slovenly web design is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in today’s world.

Well, slovenly design generally. We’ve all come across photocopied rock band posters that look like dribbled spaghetti, magazine ads apparently done by prisoners with crayons, and self-published books with teensy illegible type and missing margins. Advancing technology has put media creation within nearly everybody’s grasp, but knowledge of design basics hasn’t kept pace. While Bosler’s guidance may require some tweaking, even possibly an entire second book, to encompass web-based design, she makes a noble start.

Denise Bosler’s brief instructional textbook encompasses the basics of nearly every college-level graphic design course. We know it’s always harder to learn without a living coach, but Bosler makes guided self-study more possible. In today’s world, choked as we are with conflicting media messages and eye-strain-inducing graphics, most media design passes unnoticed beneath our gaze, mere visual static. Careful study of Bosler’s book, while incomplete, will help dedicated creators stand above today’s grievously crowded field.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Soldier Ceiling

Click to enlarge
Every time America’s fast-food workers strike for better wages, this image at right hits my Facebook news feed. The version I scavenged here is dated September 20, 2014, which, being a Saturday, cannot be when this self-described “rant” occurred. Since I’ve seen it circulating since at least March 2014, it’s surely older still. Like similar self-propelled zombie arguments, it persists long after it should’ve died.

Credited author Jennifer Harris (a common name difficult to backtrack this late) complains that Clown Meat purveyors demanding a $15 minimum wage—a number determined back in 2005 as only just sufficient to raise a family under austere conditions—shouldn’t expect pay scales comparable to American soldiers. She uses name-calling and false equivalency to mock and belittle strikers. She basically chucks a bomb, leaving us to clean her mess.

This argument has many problems. Start with the claim that “you are working in a job designed for a kid in high school.” This claim would make sense if fast-food franchises were only open on evenings and weekends, when high schoolers are legally eligible to work. But most fried meat shacks have daytime hours, post-curfew hours, and some even have all-night shifts. Students couldn’t possibly work these hours.

Or the claim that “you have chosen this as your life long profession.” Seriously? Does this author believe anybody really chose this occupation? In most large cities, adult fast-food workers are racial or ethnic minorities, retirees with medical bills, and single mothers whose need for income collided with out-of-date skills. John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.

But most importantly, this argument stumbles on what it doesn’t say explicitly: that one occupation’s wage constitutes a ceiling for other occupations. Even if we believe one career field is more deserving than another, saying we should limit somebody’s pay because someone else also gets paid badly is frankly chilling. Wages should constitute a floor nobody falls through, not a ceiling nobody ever exceeds.

I understand America underpays its military personnel. I attended high school in Honolulu and San Diego, big military towns, and I knew young men who agreed to die for their country, if called upon, but received pay so low that they couldn’t afford to date women. Historically, Americans demand large, interventionist armed forces, but we resent having to pay for anything. We subsidize large militaries by low amortized paychecks.

Ms. Harris implicitly acknowledges bad military pay as acceptable, then insists we should strictly limit what people she doesn’t respect to that level. Ms. Harris’ tantrum doesn’t mention what job she fulfills. Let’s assume she’s a schoolteacher, a highly respected but badly paid career path. Should we justify her low pay by asserting that Catholic schoolteachers are paid even worse? Would she accept that argument?

Would you?

“Inequality” has become such a ubiquitous buzzword lately, even Republicans like Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio have appropriated this traditionally liberal bugbear to harangue the status quo. But it retains currency because it still matters. The mass export of American manufacturing jobs, pay freezes on public sector occupations (like soldiers), and replacing human workers with machines, have meant work’s greatest rewards accrue to management, not labor.

Meanwhile, the mass bipartisan deregulation of America’s financial industry, begun under Bill Clinton and accelerated under George W. Bush, has been blatantly disastrous. Cash-and-carry elections have turned “democracy” into a fire-sale auction from Bizarro World. People who create value, by making stuff or providing services, pay twice the marginal tax rate of people who flip money. Next year’s presidential frontrunners promise to double down.

America’s former middle-class boom, underwritten by expansive manufacturing and Marshall Plan spending, has proven historically temporary at best. Any job that managers can export, downsize, or automate, then will, from self-checkout lines at WalMart to Amazon promising drone deliveries as “friction-free.” Friction, in this case, means interacting with humans. Also paying them. Both, we’re told, should be avoided.

Food service, like construction and trucking and medicine, still requires human effort. Admittedly, in true Taylorist fashion, management will automate whatever they can, and remove the financial difference from grunt-level paychecks; see Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. But these same forces afflict American soldiers. Smart bombs and drone warfare excuse the largest army, and smallest army paychecks, in human history.

Fast food is, essentially, a litmus test for American will. If we cannot pay the people who cook and serve our food—our food—the most basic living wage, who will we pay? If Ms. Harris thinks she’s immune to downsizing and unemployment, she should just wait. Everybody is expendable these days. And when that time comes, Ms. Harris will want a floor to prop her up, not a ceiling to press her down.