Step Back Sometimes and Remember that it’s All Fake and Pointless

Meet the latest cultural artifact and YouTube sensation from mix master Daniel Kim. For the past several years, Kim has been creating pop music mashups of the past year’s hits. His 2012 mix is easily his best yet, and the collective internet audience has rewarded it with more than seven million views after being out for only a week. It’s worth the eight minute watch:

I confess I’m enough of a Philistine to enjoy a good pop tune once in a while. Some I enjoy quite frequently (like Owl City’s “Good Time,” which I listened to daily all last summer). I try to at least know of the top music stars right now. A compilation like this thus brings back many memories from the past year. It’s skillfully mixed together and a lot of fun to watch.

These songs have a certain nostalgic value because I associate them with people or times in my life. That’s fine, but it really just obscures their true nature. When you think about the songs themselves, there’s almost nothing there. They are nothing but sticky-sweet ear candy stretched over a gaping void. Some of these songs are uplifting and anthemic, but most are also overwhelmingly narcissistic.

If this is representative of our cultural consciousness for the past year (not an entirely unfair claim), it raises some scary questions. The songs in this anthology are utterly detached from anything real, significant, lasting or valuable. It’s a load of fakeness, fool’s gold, glam and glitter, lights, pretty faces, too-perfect bodies, fleeting feelings. It’s kitsch that has little reason for existing other than to make money. Out of the Pop Danthology’s 55 songs, I could probably count on one hand the ones that aren’t about “love.” Continue reading →

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Quick Take On The Presidential Debates

I’ve never followed an election season as closely as the one America is in the middle of right now. Granted, at the tender at of 22, that’s not saying a whole lot, but working on a congressional campaign myself, I felt a professional obligation to keep up with the Obama-Romney race. The presidential debates, in particular, set the tone for the campaigns down the home stretch and shape the talking points of the public square (at least for a week or so). That’s why I made it a point to watch all of them.

As much as people may like to complain about the formats, the questions, and the state of political discourse in America in general, I think there’s something to be said for the presidential debates. One problem with politics is that’s it’s fake. Everything you see of a candidate is a carefully constructed image and surface-level presentation. This is most true on the campaign trail. It’s one thing to deliver a faultless, teleprompter-assisted speech on the stump or shake hands with thousands of enthusiastic supporters. Going face-to-face with your opponent, someone inevitably seeking to exploit all of your greatest weaknesses and failures, is an entirely different matter. It seems, then, that a debate gives us a slightly better glimpse of who our candidates really are because we see them in the face of opposition.

That said, the nature of politics and our society at large means that these debates are just as much (if not more) about style as substance. As such, you have to judge them on two levels. One, how did the candidate come across to people? Was he likable? Knowledgeable? Presidential? Two, what are his views and what kind of vision does he have for the country? Are his arguments sound? How much does he manipulate the facts? Will his policies actually work?

I would argue that the Romney/Ryan ticket was, on the whole, better than Obama/Biden on both of these counts. Continue reading →

Book Review: The Shallows

NOTE: This post marks the end of my longest blogging drought since starting this blog a little more than a year ago. For more than a month, I posted nothing. That’s unacceptable, but there’s no point in self-flagellation. What matters is that I’m back with another book review.

Yeah, it feels good to write again. On with the review:

About a year ago, I noticed an odd irony about my college experience. When I looked back to high school and compared my study habits, classes, and the things I remembered then to my college classes right now, I found that I was much sharper in high school. I remember being much more focused and engaged when I memorized biology terms as a high school freshman than when I studied Hegel in Intro to Philosophy last semester. I have no doubt that I’m smarter and more informed than at any other point in my life, so how could this be? (aside from sleep deprivation)

I found the answer in Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Few books have shaken up my thinking like this one. It will probably end up changing the long-term course of my intellectual life. Here’s why:

As the subtitle implies, Carr’s argues in “The Shallows” that the internet is changing our brains. It is shaping the way we think largely without anyone realizing it. This happens at the neurological level. The more we do certain activities, the better we become at them because our brains forge new circuits to make us more adept and sensitive. This applies to motor skills like playing the piano as well as more abstract thinking like reading a book. The more we practice a certain pattern of thinking, the more our brain map makes space for it.

This process also works in reverse. When we don’t practice certain things, those neural pathways start to go away. In people who become blind, for example, the neural paths that the brain once used for sight are rewired to enhance other senses like hearing and touch.

The implication of this is, as Carr quickly points out, is that technology ends up shaping and even controlling us much more than we might like to think. In the case of the internet, it trains our minds to be distracted. We jump from one thing to another within seconds—always shifting and moving and consuming. . . without really retaining. And with the sheer volume of information out there, we hardly have a choice. Between RSS feeds, Facebook status updates, Tweets, email, and instant Google searches, no one can afford to read anything anymore.

At least, we don’t read in the same sense that we traditionally mean when we “read” a book.

At this point, Carr treads with care. As a technology writer who has written for publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Wired, he has a pretty good understanding of the power of the internet to process information, mine data, and help us live better, more productive lives. He shows us how the internet has wrought an irreversible change on humanity, but demonizing the web is the last thing he wants to do. It is not inherently good or bad. And Google in particular is neither God nor Satan–although many people see it as one or the other. Even though the impact of the internet is unique, technology has always changed the way we think. Continue reading →

Political Journalism and Lolcats–Together?

Politico writer Ben Smith made waves last week when news broke that he was leaving most of his duties at the young political news site to head up a new  team of journalists at BuzzFeed, a website devoted to distributing popular social content across the Web. The editorial team, Smith said, will cover traditional beats like sports and politics plus other, “non-traditional” news categories.

On the surface, it seems like an odd move. In the world of elite political news coverage, Politico is where it’s at. Everyone in Washington, DC reads it. It’s one of three things that former president George W. Bush reads every morning (the other two are the Bible and the Wall Street Journal). When I spent a semester in DC, the first journalist I met had some advice for me: read Politico–every day.

BuzzFeed, by contrast, collects and promotes anything that lots of people are clicking on, seeking to provide “the viral world in real time.”  It is thus geared toward everyone on the Web; we all know the posters and gag videos that come up on such sites. I do not frequent either of the two sites myself these days, but from what I know of the two, I would have no qualms about spending a few hours a week reading Politico.

BuzzFeed? It hosts a weekly battle to choose the “best”, most time-wasting flash game and makes lists of top viral videos.

So why did Smith make the switch? Clearly he has an entrepreneurial spirit, but I think he realizes something more. Simply put, the internet is powerful. Some have called it the “Second Gutenberg Moment,” and I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. Those who learn to tap into this power have the potential to gain a lot of influence in a short amount of time. I doubt that Smith hopes to become the next Drudge or Zuckerberg, but as many articles about the move have pointed out, BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti is a co-founder of the successful HuffingtonPost. Peretti knows how to work the web better than most, and it appears he hopes to duplicate his success with BuzzFeed (although he refuses to speak directly about comparisons between the two). Continue reading →

Thinking About Science

Nothing huge this week. But one of my professors recommended a while back that I watch this interview with philosopher-mathematician David Berlinski.

Berlinski is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle and well-known as a critic of evolution. People can be quite dogmatic about evolution these days, but I think it’s pretty funny when a stuffy old philosopher like Berlinski comes out of academia and starts tearing apart the scientific establishment.

Whether or not you agree with what he has to say, I think it should at least give us pause. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to be a little more skeptical towards the claims of science.

With that, I give the floor to Mr. Berlinski himself. The following are a few quotes that stood out to me. Be sure to watch the interview to understand them in their full context.

In regards to evolutionary theory and the big bang:

It is a creation myth without a Creator.

The game must be fixed, or I must be inordinately favored to win it like this.

In regards to morality and the meaning of life:

The idea that the world of matter is the world that matters is simple not true.

All the laws of heaven and earth are unable to prevent man from his crimes. Surely relaxing the laws of heaven and earth shall not dispose man to better behavior.’ That seems to me self-evident.

In regards to the nature of science:

In order to advance scientifically, there’s an enormous body of assumptions that have to be in place, and those assumptions can’t be defended. No science, Aristotle said, ever defends it’s own first principles. And we can’t either.

In regards to the Bible:

The Old Testament is the greatest repository of human knowledge and wisdom in the history of civilization–any culture, any time, any place–and that really should be the first point of discussion because every attitude current today in the discussion, from Richard Dawkins to me to Christopher Hitchens to lonely pastors in the Bible belt on Sunday morning ranting from a particular text, is discussed in the Bible and there’s a character in the Bible who expresses that point of view and there’s sympathy expressed for that point of view and there are reservations expressed by the sympathy.

I think that last quote in particularly significant, as Berlinski is an agnostic and describes his relationship to the intelligent design movement as “warm but distant.” Yet he has a point. For anyone seeking answers to the big questions of life, or anyone who simply wants to engage with western civilization, you must read and study the Bible. If nothing else, it’s a matter of intellectual honesty.

Music Review: Vice Verses

It’s easy to choose one word to describe Switchfoot’s new album, Vice Versestension. Musically, this new work from San Diego natives bring the same rocking signature-guitar-riff-songs that fans have come to know and love, balanced, of course, by softer, but powerful, heartfelt ballads. Lyrically, it deals with many of the main themes from Switchfoot’s past albums. Vice Verses takes the band’s best qualities and strings them tight between the great hurts that confront us every day and the great hope we can have despite them.

This tension comes out as the songs bounce between an Ecclesiastes-type mourning of the vanity of life and a yearning for hope in the eternal life to come. As you listen to Vice Verses, this comes in transitions: it opens with a powerful upbeat trio of songs and then drops abruptly to “Restless”, one of the softest tracks on the album. Shortly after this comes the most cynical song on the album, “Selling the News”, followed by the much more tender “Thrive.” We don’t even get to the hardest song on the album until track eight.

Throughout the album, front man Jon Foreman’s lyrics paint a dark and gritty world in which we are strung between the evil and the good–the “in-between,” as he calls it several times.

It’s a world full of rampant deception, manipulation and confusion. “Selling the News” delivers a poignant critique of the American media and the masses who listen to it: “Begging the question/mongering fears/the truth just seldom as it appears/We’re selling the news.”

Continue reading →

Freedom of Religion is Only for Christians

Photo: Gage Skidmore

As a human being, I have a bias towards certain things, and I think a large part of it is towards the media. It seems like everyone these days can find a way to criticize journalists and tear down the work they do. In any controversy (or lack thereof) the media is always one of the first groups to get blamed.

I’ll be the first to confess that journalists are human and make their fair share of mistakes. Worse, their presuppositions, religious beliefs, and political framework play into their coverage. However, I still want to believe the best about journalists and the stories they write. Most of the time, I don’t think they’re out to get one side or the other.

Sometimes, though, they really are “that bad”. Yesterday I nearly spit my drink out when I came across this AP story about the Aug. 6th prayer meeting headlined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Dubbed “The Response” and attended mainly by conservative Christians, the prayer meeting was promoted as a time for believers to gather and bring their mutual concerns and hopes before their God.

Many of the stories and commentary I’ve seen on it have either emphasized the political aspect–Perry’s marshaling the conservative Christian base–or questioned it’s appropriateness. Is it okay for a governor to lead such a narrow religious event? What about separation of church and state? etc.

If you want to talk about that, fine, but in this case, it seems, the writer has let her fear and disdain of these evangelicals slip through in a really sad way. Where did the AP story trip up? Look near the middle, where April Castro writes:

Perry’s audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music on stage. And Perry, himself, huddled on the stage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Perry’s idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians. (empahsis mine) Continue reading →