Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Internet's Little iDeath for Steve Jobs

Note: Mark Brendle is a former media critic for, a short-fiction writer and the author of both book reviews and the Criterion Recollection series for Et tu, Mr. Destructo?. Today he takes a break from books and cinema to address the first great humanitarian crisis of the 21st century: the potential that Apple gadgets might become less awesome before you've paid off your iPhone 4. You can follow him on Twitter.

Last week, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs stepped down from his position — a purely formal change in the Apple Corporation's executive management — it struck a chord with many people who feel invested in Apple, despite having no shareholder investment. Why this over-response about an insignificant event in a private company? Because, as even email and Twitter spam can tell you, the latest Apple release is the commodity-object of our time.

Apple proponents often cite innovation as the reason behind both their idolization and Apple's success. But what does innovation mean in this context and what has Apple innovated? Mp3 players? Tablet computers? Touch screens?—these existed long before their Apple versions came out. One would be hard pressed to find a single significant innovation on a fundamental level made by Apple computers since their very early days.

Despite this, Apple has innovated since, and it is this innovation that dominates their markets and the minds of their fans. What initially set the iPod apart from the numerous other Mp3 players with identical functionality was its coolness.

Apple campaigned heavily for the iPod, in much the same way they did for the iMac, forcing connotations of coolness, taste and style onto the device. It is through what David Riesman calls marginal differentiation that Apple innovated and continues to innovate. This marginal differentiation expresses itself through form (everyone has heard Apple products called "sleek"), through social consumer-competition (kids don't want an Mp3 player; they want an iPod) and through self-referential endorsement (our heroes in the film, music, art and publishing industries often use Macs).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dispatches from Libertopia: College Edition

College is a wonderful place. A community of people engaged in the same pursuits provides a welcoming environment that fosters speculation, intellectual adventure and novel risks. Perhaps credit for this falls on a positive context for self esteem or just on the suspicion that everyone else is equally frightened and prone to "fake it until they make it," but for many of us it's a rare chance to truly take conceptual leaps. Some of us shouldn't.

Sadly, for every kid who builds an airboat that runs off old McDonald's fryer oil, there are two pre-law Randroids who will militantly argue the affirmative case in, "Resolved: The United States should legalize indentured servitude for the benefit of poor people at or above the age of majority." Or there's a girl like Stephanie Grace, who employs that intellectual freedom to address whether black people possess subhuman intelligence, provided that one defines "human intelligence" as "white-people smart."

In fact, the abundance of bongs and the consequence-free collegiate bubble that repels the practical and harsh elements of reality often form the genesis of Libertarian sociopathy. Reality is a thought experiment; people and products are all numbers, and death, suffering, pain, neglect and contempt are just remainders that someone at George Mason or the University of Chicago with enough math degrees will eventually square away for good at no cost to the Libertarian explaining this.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Let's Help Lourdes Garcia-Navarro Understand Things

I turned on NPR during a long drive home from a ballgame yesterday and found myself listening carefully to the news from Libya. I tend to listen carefully to NPR, because only through any strain on the user's end of the exchange can one divine actual information from the verbal miasma of "both sides of this confusing and open-ended story are equally valid!"

NPR dutifully reminds you that it just can't make the call on the events of the day; it would be unseemly. The verb "seem" triumphantly stomps action and causality into speculation. Immediately thereafter, great wet beltway farts gurgle out to explain the two ways to look at all this uncertainty, with the Brookings Institute "on the left" and the Cato institute "on the right" handwaving away any crazy notions not their own. Sometimes EJ Dionne says something, that poor doomed bastard.

It was during this close reading that I heard what can only be described as a "Look at That Wacky Gaddafi!" update from Lourdes Garcia-Navarro's "News of the Weird" dispatches from the front. The entire tone of the piece pointed up what a nutty family those Gaddafis have, despite the fact that it takes all the education available from a PC game about World War II to understand why. From All Things Considered yesterday:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

OMG! Those Deadspin Guys Are TOTES Jelly

Nothing, it seems, about Deadspin or Grantland can be discussed without amateur dramatics. A refrain that grew in intensity over the last month reached a kind of crescendo on message boards and Twitter yesterday when Deadspin printed three pieces about Grantland: "The editors and contributors of Deadspin must be consumed with a mindless, soul-eating jealousy of Bill Simmons, working for ESPN and having footnotes." Or something.

Increasingly, blog and board posters seem to assume that, in sports journalism, Grantland is The One True Gig, and all who do not hold it within their grasp wither to sightless wraiths screaming in the void.

Now, if you're the sort of person who enjoys dismissing an entire argument because you can detect a shred of partiality ("Anthropogenic Climate Change can't be real — scientists are just making stuff up for that biiiiiiiig state school tenure money!"), you might want to bail out here. After all, I wrote a bilious screed about Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman and Malcolm Gladwell, and I did that out of consuming jealousy. Worse, that piece resulted in people from Deadspin noticing me and dropping the occasional link to this site on their "Good Morning, Deadspin" roundups. Bottom line, I can't be trusted.

However, if you're willing to look past my Iago-like malice, let's look instead at the three Deadspin articles that allegedly demonstrated a critical mass of jealousy:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Guest Column: C-List Critics' Slapfight

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present our first guest column from a real, live person who is also a complete stranger. Maxwell Kuhl is a blogger who might also be a horrible monster or a powerful genius, but we don't know, because he didn't go through the normal vetting process of "being someone we got drunk with at some point." Instead, he used the contact information in our blogger profiles and cyberbullied us into acquiescence.

Overrated and Underwhelming

Slate published an article last week titled, "Overrated: authors, critics and editors on 'Great Books' that aren't all that great." It's a charming title and a pithy thought, fraught with possibility, potential anarchy and an air of literary excitement. What follows the title isn't really any of that.

I don't know the author, Juliet Lapidos, and I don't know the literary people she cites (though they all have serious literary gigs), and I don't have anything personal against any of them, but this article stretches the limits of useless intellectualizing and confirms that the internet, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There are two main problems with it. First, her definition of "great books" seems at once misguided and charitable. Second, the "takedowns" are dreadfully limp and banal.

As for her notion of greatness, well it's a little unclear. Beyond a book simply being "one of the greats" and a "must read" (she puts both in quotation marks), she doesn’t say all that much. The quotation marks suggest she's reluctantly deferring to someone else (without saying whom) and lacks the conviction to make her own judgment. She subsequently reveals her own wobbly standard with an ambivalent account of struggling to convince herself to read the great Thomas Hardy... unless that's a joke, which would be way too abstruse for this article — and actually funny.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fuck You, Warren Buffett

Dear Mr. Warren Buffett,

Thank you for your recent editorial, "Stop Coddling the Super Rich." I never thought you would write to me, part of a working class of people rarely recognized for their great contribution, a letter dictating to politicians what they should do with regard to The Super Rich. Some might say that your article should have been sent to the people it presumes to lecture, but that would not allow those who don't have so great a share in power to know the steel morals with which you handle the billionaire's reins.

Your sharing this simple human statement, so identifiable to the average Joe, reminds one of Henry V demonstrating that, although he descended from a divine line of kings with complete autocracy, based solely on domination and exploitation of labor via violent force, he wasn't above walking among the common dead, showing his radiant face as a final grace for those who suffered so much.

Your lightning bolt of righteousness descended as if thrown from Olympus, a modern Prometheus risking his immortality out of pity for mankind. It is as a blessing that I receive your vision, so highly esteemed in the press because you've spent your life as a scholar of the humanities, and can offer your accumulated wisdom, you’re a life long teacher, dedicated to the dispensation of wisdom to future generations, well-studied and with a real stake in humanity’s future, and you have a lot of money.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Criterion Recollection: Provocateur, Pauper, Prisoner

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

Repression and Rebellion: Spine #533, Crumb (1994)

Terry Zwigoff's Crumb offers everything one could hope for in a documentary: interesting subject matter, intimate access, multiple, conflicting perspectives, great music and a host of unanswered questions that leave a viewer thinking about the film for days, weeks or even years after watching.

Crumb presents a fairly bleak portrait of a family struggling to maintain even the thin veneer of sanity while pursuing invisible demons in the form of art, spirituality and isolated reflection. Because of the relatively dark psychological subject matter and the unflinching portrayal of "bizarre" characters on the margins of society, Crumb developed a reputation as depressing. Especially with only one viewing, Crumb can overwhelm an audience, but beneath the surface tension, it exposes a fundamentally optimistic message, one of rebellion in the face of overwhelming odds, of individuality prided over conformity and of a trio of brothers who emerged out of the stifling repression of an abusive 1950s family, fearlessly seeking the truth about themselves and their place in the world.

Robert Crumb, seemingly the protagonist of this documentary, leads us through the byzantine and strange world of his art, libido and family. R. Crumb's celebrity provides a sort of keystone for viewers, allowing them a familiar foothold with such popular works as the once-ubiquitous "Keep on Truckin’" comic, or the hatchet-job adult film of Fritz the Cat. However, early into the film, as Robert Crumb speaks to a crowd of college students, we quickly realize that celebrity and popularity hold little interest for him, and that his most well-known works are also those which he most vigorously despises. Instead of veering into a navel-gazing "my REAL art is…" diatribe, we engage the essence of R. Crumb's art, both from his own, shockingly self-aware perspective, as well as those of art critics, feminists, former and current lovers, friends and foes.

Even that barely skims the surface of this film. The heart of this movie resides in the relationship between, and personalities of, the three Crumb brothers: Robert, Charles and Maxon. Each of the Crumb brothers, in his own way, lives an ostracized, tortured life. Each of the brothers sought a device with which he could cope with the intense trauma of their upbringing, as well as the social marginalization they had experienced since their school days. The core of this trauma is an intense repression of fundamental sexuality, brought about by the tyranny and abuse of their father. Only by rebelling against this repression could they begin to function in society. Or, in the case of Charles Crumb, the oldest brother who apparently bore the brunt of their fathers' abuse, the inability to break free from this internalized rule-of-the-father determined the tragic course of his entire life.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Riot Tweetup: 'Mohammed Was a Bacon-Eating Homosexual'

There will always be people who claim that Twitter is useful. They'll mention monetizing your blog, winning free iPhones, crowdsourcing or promoting natural dick growth. They're mistaken. Twitter's most powerful value lies in baiting people — whether it's Hoobastank sending two million people to "goatse" during the Iranian election crisis, or a man named "Fart" goading Smash Mouth's front man, Mr. Mouth, into eating two dozen eggs.

Also, evidently, all it takes is a handful of tweets to turn Britons on Twitter into Oswald Mosely, Nick Griffin of the BNP, or that hooligan bozo Stephen Yaxley-Lennon of the English Defence League. Or, at least that's what happened when a Twitter poster named Solaar used the #LondonRiot hashtag to drop a couple of fake lines about a Sharia revolution straight out of a right-wing fantasist's cheapest nightmare scenario. Here, take a look:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jonah Keri's 'The Extra 2%'

I like Jonah Keri. Apart from a calculus teacher who brought a hammer dulcimer to class and a trigonometry teacher who let us turn in homework only weekly, he's one of few people who've taught me things involving mathematics without engendering any sense of malice. He also has the best intro music in all of podcasting, and I suspect he makes beautiful, tender Canadian love.

More importantly, he wrote The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, the first smart book about the Tampa Bay Rays. Unless you consider brick-sized coffee-table commemorative editions with photos and cut-and-paste promotional text "good," it's essentially the first good book about the team at all, which makes it frustrating that it's often oblique about its main topic and instead feels far more enjoyable and touching in a way that Keri probably didn't initially intend.

Ostensibly, Keri's book should exhibit a kind beautiful meeting of talent and topic. He's a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and a co-writer of their Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. So he not only marries writing chops to sabermetric bona fides, but the subtitle of this book alone tells you how right he is for the job.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Profiles in Florida: The Sound of Freedom

For the last year, I've spent significant time driving in Florida, partly for work, partly for vacations and visiting people. Within just a month or two, I lost count of the number of stunningly weird signs and billboards I saw.

I'm sure that many of them aren't particularly novel in a broad, American sense, but the sheer selection Florida offers must be unique. Cosmopolitan areas see English-language ads for expensive glass art exhibits on roads lined with billboards for Spanish-speaking personal injury attorneys. Interstate 75 alternates between scripture posted by a group called "NARROW ROAD," and dated, Aqua Netted hairstyles on the nude dancers for Café Risque's "WE BARE ALL" burma-shave of pornographic American sadness.