Category Archives: Uncategorized

Trauma by Facebook

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I’ve been traumatized in a million ways by Facebook.  By everyone I know.

In small ways.  In a cumulative way.  They add up.

Most recently, a friend posted a photo of a dead cat in a gutter.  The “why” does not matter.

It was an intelligent, even poetic post.  But . . . I did not know that it was “there”, in the ether, waiting to sicken, deaden, and depress me.

There was no warning.  It was just there.  It was just there in a way that sick images did not occur unexpectedly and traumatically in ad breaks during “Green Acres” when I was 10 years old in 1967.

Another recent trauma:  I watched a video of four Chinese workers being accidentally electrocuted.  Again, it doesn’t matter how I got sucked into watching it.  But there it was.

Congratulate me.  Finally, I know what “electrocution” looks like.

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I can’t imagine what happens to kids when they see these things, whether on purpose or unintentionally.  I can’t imagine what these things would have done to me – or to you – at ten years old.  I do know what having my dog, Mischka, run over and killed in front of me when I was ten was like, on Lay/Leigh Street in Canton, NY.  I’d love to thank Facebook over and over again for dredging that PTSD back up thanks to a random acquaintance seeking attention.

And remember, these Random Attention Seeking Units, RASUs for short, are the people we know.

Some of them are truly malignant creatures.

They’re easily taken care of.  Unfriend them.  Unfollow them.

But what do you do about the others?  What do you do about the RASUs who are . . . just like you and I are?

I have dreams and nightmares about Facebook, and I am far from a power user.

 

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HOTEL BY A RAILYARD, Edward Hopper 1952, via WikiArt

During my nap yesterday, I dreamed that I was in a darkened room looking out a window toward a window of a darkened room in the house next door.  I could dimly see a woman standing at that window, looking at me.  It was like a Hopper painting.  Me looking at her.  Her looking at me.  Seeing nothing.  Dimly.  More imagination than reality.

This is our age.  Voyeurs of nothingness.

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CAPE COD MORNING, Edward Hopper 1950, via Smithsonian
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You Will Die When . . .

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. . . your “self-driving” car stops driving during an emergency situation.

My car has rear sensors and a rear camera.  They have not worked since late October, when road salt and sand coated them.

Don’t give me the, “You’re supposed to keep them clean!” line.  Like most average Americans, I don’t and never will keep anything clean, whether it’s the sensors on my car, the gaps between my teeth, or that mysterious tank behind toilets.  I will buy ten assault rifles from a guy in the Price Chopper parking lot before I will bend over once, between now and death, to clean a sensor.

Besides, what does a “sensor” look like?  There are more knobs and protuberances on the front, back, and sides – not to mention that odd little shark fin on the roof, what’s that all about? – of a modern car than there are on a cocklefish’s belly.  I have no idea what to clean.  You have no idea what to clean.

And even if you or I did know what to clean, and how to clean it, why do we need one more thing to do?  I need to remember when to take my meds, 650 cell phone numbers, an ever-growing number of medical and dental appointments, how and when to set 25 clocks twice a year, I have to remember to change my smoke alarm batteries before they go off AT 3 AM AND GIVE ME A STROKE as they kill me in their attempt to save my life, I have to remember when the cats need booster shots, I have to remember several hundred passwords and Social Security numbers and addresses and how to do things I only do once in a blue moon like gap a spark plug, change the oil in a small engine, get my driver’s license renewed, start the rototiller, where the owner’s manuals are, how to get the oven to turn on or turn off, how to get a greasy (or oily or chalky or biological) stain off (name a piece of furniture here), and so on.

But forget about me.

What about the beautiful young 20 year old driver of a car?  Pretend she’s your daughter.  She has a car  – a self-driving car – and it has done all her driving for her.

Oh, they told her that she might have to “take over the wheel” on “rare occasions”.  But in two years of ownership, she has had no driving experience whatsoever.  She has been a rider in her own car, a 2031 Nash Rambler, say.

And then she drives north from Princeton, NJ, to watch her friends play in a hockey game at St. Lawrence or Clarkson in the far North Country of New York State, where we still do not have bandwidth and barely have television and the radio signals from Canada float in and out.

And it’s on Interstate 81 near Pulaski or Adams Center or some other legendary lake effect snow sump hole, during a whiteout, that the Rambler’s sensors fail, and the car says to the woman, “Here, you take over now.”

So there you have it.  Her first “real”, as in in-real-life driving experience.  During a lake effect whiteout on an Interstate highway.

Oh, I know, those of you who are well-informed will miss the point of this essay.  You’ll patiently, in your best “I’m missing the point like I have my whole life” way say that Aspies in San Francisco will have taken this emergency into consideration, that the car has both camera-based and radar-based sensors, that the car talks constantly to road signs, satellites, GPS, sensors embedded in the highways, and so on.

Horseshit.  Are we going to coat the skies with satellites?  I barely have internet service in 2018!  Are we going to tear up every highway in the country when we can’t even figure out how to fill potholes or plow them, let alone AFFORD to plow or fix them?  And are we going to pay to do this at the same time we plan to convert every gas station into an electric charging/hydrogen explosion center?

And even then, what do we do when the Russians or the Mexicans or a 13 year old kid hacks the street in front of his house, just to watch a crack-up?

And how will the beautiful young woman get any driving training when schools can’t afford to teach it, even now when 100% of us have to drive our own cars?  Do we expect the Home Ec teacher (is there still Home Ec?) to teach dough rolling, highway skills, and Basic Marksmanship all at the same time?

My point is simple:  forget self-driving cars.  The mainstream media is nuts.  We’re nuts for paying attention to the mainstream media.  They lie.  They hype.  It’s news by press release.

There will be no self-driving cars.  We do not want self-driving cars.  Nobody does.  Even more importantly, I don’t want them, and that’s what’s key to your proper understanding of this complex and misbegotten topic, one which has been foisted upon us by a malignant and wayward lamestream press that should put sensors on their asses and then keep them clean if they can locate them.

The Case Against Education

Bryan Caplan proves – proves! – that education is (mostly) useless.

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Princeton University Press, 2018

With impeccable scholarship and endless footnotes, Caplan makes the case that education does nothing but signal, for resume purposes, conscientiousness and a willingness to conform.  As he says, “(Jenn’s) degree signals her deference to social expectations; she’s a team player.  When the boss says, ‘Jump,’ she’ll ask, ‘How high?'”

Education is sadistic.  College applicants are not only smart and diligent, but they have proven over and over again in K-12 that they are “willing to tolerate serious boredom.”

If I think back over my school years, college, and a wee bit of grad school, and ponder starting the process all over again from the first day of kindergarten when I accidentally ate my classmate’s carefully foil-wrapped crackers, I want to vomit.  The level of boredom, the interminable line-standing, the achievement-mongering, the smelly bathrooms, warball day after day in gym . . . it is nauseating.

Our whole educational process is shit, and, even worse, bullshit, from beginning until restroom.

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Caplan is a libertarian, and a severe one.  I don’t agree with all that he says.  And even though he proves his point convincingly, I don’t like it.

And besides proving that signaling (to future colleges, then grad schools, then employers)   that you’ll play the All-American bullshit game and conform, and you’ll work HARD at that conforming, and you’ll never have a deep thought (” . . . most humans resent mental effort . . .”), he proves we learn nothing of the actual subject-matter that we study.

“Schools make virtually no one fluent in a foreign language,” he says, and he has the facts to prove it.  Less than 2% of people who take a foreign language are fluent when self-reporting.  Since this is self-reported, it’s probably, egads, high.

So what do we learn when we take Spanish for three years in high school?  We learn that there is a language called Spanish that is spoken by other people in the world.

Figures are even worse for science education.  Americans actually retain nothing from their science classes.  In fact, we have negative science knowledge, as if science drains from our feet and into the soil.

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Now, remember:  Caplan is a utilitarian.  He is an economist and a statistician.  He is purposely provocative.

His bottom line is that we, as a nation, should spend much less on education.  Less.

He convinces me that if we, as a people, learn nothing from dissecting frogs in biology in 7th grade, then the proper and wise approach is not to double down and make students dissect frogs daily until they know frog guts by heart, but to forget frogs.  Teach students vocational skills.  Teach them basic numeracy and literacy – reading and writing.

Forget Spanish and French.  Forget history.  Forget political science and art and music.  Unless you really, really want a life of poverty.

But something seems missing.  Even he mentions the teacher who instilled a love of classical music in his libertarian soul.  Many teachers say that what they do is offer “cookies” to students, and hopefully, one or two a class, will “get it”.

Something magical will click in their brains.  They may not remember how to specifically conjugate a verb or flagellate a frog.  They may not directly use 1492 or 1776 in their job in 2018.  But something of the aura of that knowledge will be of use.  Or something that some teacher taught them in science in 1956 will, oddly, help them appreciate Bach or Mozart.

Caplan disproves this, of course.  He’s an economist.  What would you expect from someone who studied just another absolutely useless subject in school?

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The Strange Case of Charles Sheeler

Was photographer and painter Charles Sheeler a fan of the machine age, or did he hate it?

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GOLDEN GATE Charles Sheeler  1955, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At first glance, Sheeler’s work looks like a celebration of all things modern and shiny.  How can that not be the case when you look at something like STEEL CROTON from 1953:

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STEEL CROTON Charles Sheeler 1953, source unknown

Which, btw, was probably a distant influence on my own even more abstract work, STRUCTURE from 2013:

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STRUCTURE Gregory Fedchak 2013  http://www.greggfedchak.com

Wanda Corn pretty much makes the case for the straightforwardness of Sheeler’s art in her book THE GREAT AMERICAN THING:  Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935.  To be honest, I think Corn is correct.  On a gut level, I think Sheeler is in love with all things modern and mechanical.

But . . . then things get darker.  In his VIEW OF NEW YORK from 1931, we are looking out from a very mechanical place, a typesetting shop, and through an open window seeing clouds, clouds of freedom from . . . the mechanical, the technological, the 9 to 5.

1931 Charles Sheeler (American artist, 1883-1965) View of New York, 1931

Karen Lucic talks about Sheeler’s ambiguous feelings about modernity and the changing scene of early and mid-20th century America in her book CHARLES SHEELER AND THE CULT OF THE MACHINE.  Like most people, he felt a tug toward the traditional, and often painted or photographed early American objects and architecture.  Also like most people, he was comfortable with his powerful new cars and the financial rewards of 20th century life.  He could go either way.

Mark Rawlinson, in his CHARLES SHEELER:  Modernism, Precisionism and the Borders of Abstraction, goes all the way to the extreme and makes the argument that Sheeler may  have been a covert critic of the machine age that he lived in.

Little things in his work are “wrong” in that objects/subjects are inaccurately portrayed in terms of lines, shadows, and perspective.  Everything is odd or edgy, “not right” as in a “Twilight Zone” episode.  But it’s subtle.

Look at STEEL CROTON and GOLDEN GATE.  wtf?  It’s so precise, so realistic, and yet . . . so wrong.  Which is, of course, why Rawlinson titles his book ” . . . and the Borders of Abstraction”.

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I know how I feel about technology in my painting, STRUCTURE.  Tech is broken, shadowy, incomplete, weak, sketchy, dangerous, hidden, evil, ironic.

As I write this, my wi-fi has gone out several times, thwarting the saving of my work.  I don’t know why.  Neither does AT&T or Apple.  I live with it.  My work could die at any moment, for no good reason except that I am working with high tech.

I no longer feel wonder toward tech.  I feel a deep sense of alienation.

We aren’t sure exactly how Sheeler felt.  I’m sure he felt good/bad/ambiguous, but, back in that more optimistic time of the 1939 World’s Fair, it’s the good that (mostly) shines through.

The Greatest Gardening Books Ever

There’s nothing I like better than a photo of a guy standing between a cucumber vine and a sprawling tomato plant:

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Dick Raymond from DICK RAYMOND’S GARDENING YEAR

There are a million gardening books out there, many of them on vegetable growing.  There are very few sure things in life, but two sure things are DICK RAYMOND’S GARDENING YEAR and his famous and bestselling THE JOY OF GARDENING.

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These are my most treasured books.  I already knew how to garden as a kid, thanks to my parents, my grandfather George Fedchak, Uncle Harry Welch, and an Athens, Pennsylvania neighbor, Otto Storelli.

My parents were older than usual, so they were very much children of The Great Depression.  They feared disaster at every turn, and perhaps even relished the notion, since they knew how to grow their own food, and, if push came to shove, could kill it with their bare hands, too.  My mother froze and canned.  We ate.

The Welch family of the late 1800’s was into the shingle-making business and the apple cider business.  The Fedchaks were Eastern European farmers or, let’s say it, peasants, at least until 1910 when George moved to Sayre, Pennsylvania.  There, as a laborer on the Lehigh Valley Railroad, he persisted in growing (and butchering) his own food until 1972.

Alas, GARDENING YEAR is out of print.  It can still be had as a used book in good condition from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere.  It is magnificent, and it is perfect for beginning gardeners, loaded with color and organized the way books are supposed to be organized.

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But THE JOY OF GARDENING, from 1983, is still, unbelievably, available new.  It still sells well worldwide.  The advice is a bit more advanced than GARDENING YEAR.  But not much.  And it, too, is an absolutely beautiful book.  Even if you don’t garden, it’s a great book to thumb through, cocktail in hand.

I still grow vegetables.  The prior generations are gone now.  But every time I pull a (damned) weed, I see my mother on the gardening stool my father made for her, tossing another weed in the bucket.

I pull, I sweat.  I keep the traditions going.  Somehow that’s the greatest thing that we can do.

A Burned-Out Society

Want to read some modern philosophy?  Of course you don’t.

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But if you feel compelled to, try some Byung-Chul Han.  If you want to read someone who is arguably the “hottest” thing in philosophy today AND writes simply (for a philosopher) AND writes really, really short bite-sized books, he’s the only game in town.

The downside is that Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born philosopher who writes philosophy in his second language, German, which is then translated into English.  To me, this makes his pithy style rather robotic, disembodied and humorless.  Trust me, this is a good thing; it makes him far more readable than philosophers who are pressing to impress.

To do the impossible, I’m going to try to summarize his books in the most concise possible way.  This does not do them justice.  But it sure makes my life – and yours – easier.

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THE BURNOUT SOCIETY is about how “achievement society creates depressives and losers”.  “In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside”.  Contemplation fades; multitasking is the norm.  We are reduced to bare survival amidst riches too vast to chose among.

THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY says that in our voluntary vomiting-forth of private data, information, and photos on social media we have lost all hope of finding the trail through the useless muck.  We leave our personal breadcrumbs scattered behind us, but they have gotten intermingled with the crumbs of other digital wanderers.  What is important?  What is the point?  The forest has been trampled beyond recognition.

THE AGONY OF EROS is Byung-Chul Han’s call to arms against the impersonal forces of what he calls “pornography” – far more than what we usually think the word means – and how “higher expectations . . . are responsible for the mounting disappointment experienced in contemporary society”.

We expect our lovers to be brain-dead perform-all-night porn stars at the same time we expect them to be world-class fantasists capable of touching our deepest nerves.  Can’t be done.  Can’t have both.  But porn isn’t just sex.

Porn is sport utility vehicles, information, strip highways, the internet, fast food, and if our burger is too dry, we are . . . depressed.  The objects and experiences are sold as erotic, sensual goods.  We soon discover that they are cold, dead steel, meat, and data.  And we have forgotten how to inject our love into them to make them come back to the life they had when we were younger.

Byung-Chul Han’s PSYCHO-POLITICS:  Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power

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attempts to convince us that we are self-Panopticons, achievement machines that patrol ourselves looking for any misdeeds – eating or drinking too much, failing to run five miles a day, not reading enough, not progressing in a career.  Henry Fords used to stand over us, as Foucault pointed out.  Ford’s thugs physically beat us if we showed up to work late.  Now we beat ourselves up if we don’t meet our personal goals or if we don’t achieve.  And not just in work, but in love and leisure.  Leisure and love ARE work now.

This is the Protestant work ethic on steroids.

We can’t just open one restaurant, we have to open a second, then a third, and so on.  We can’t just get a high school degree and flip burgers, we have to get a college degree and flip burgers, or a doctorate and tell people how to flip burgers.  If we get up at 5 am to meditate, we have to move on to the greater achievement of getting up at 4 am and running before we meditate.

And if we fail at constant acceleration, at constant achievement of new goals, we get anxious and depressed.

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Philosophers are never good at giving helpful hints.  None of Byung-Chul Han’s books end with a list of Top Ten Things To Do To Be Happy.

But his books are bestsellers – honest to God – in Germany, and are being internationally translated, because he helps us to see that it is not us.

It is not our fault.  It is society’s fault.

And the old truism that “we help to create the society that we live in” is no longer true.  Technology has gotten away from us.

According to Byung-Chul Han, being an “idiot” is the best we can do, and the most powerful we can be.  Idiots are outsiders, the politically unallied, the heretical, figures who resist by virtue of being surprisingly uninformed news-bite-wise, and mostly silent.

The idiot is like J. D. Salinger in his last decades:  silent and brimming with life, despite the death camps he witnessed.  An antenna beyond trifling Big Data.

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I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For . . .

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THE SCREAM, Edvard Munch 1892, via Popular Science

. . . THE SCREAM!

This painting was revolutionary.  Munch, a Norwegian, went to Paris and got the spirit of a nascent modernism.  He became the father of Expressionism.

Influenced by Nietzsche, early Freud, and a society sopping wet with the thought of Darwin, THE SCREAM was the result:  the first major artistic expression of the sheer terror we all experience every morning when we wake up.

Why terror?  Why Valium and Xanax and Prozac and wine?

Freud took away certainty of mind and made our live-in devil, the unconscious, our master.  Darwin proved that we are elevated and self-important toads and monkeys, thereby killing God.  Nietzsche did the burial by telling us, the toads, that we were each gods, even though we did not know our own minds.

It didn’t help that Munch’s sister and mother died before his very eyes when he was a young child.  It didn’t help that his father was a religious zealot.  It didn’t help that Munch himself was very often seriously ill both mentally and physically.

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AT THE DEATHBED, Edvard Munch 1895, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

It is unfortunate that someone obsessed with anxiety and death lived to a ripe old 80.  He died in 1944.

A similar artist, the Belgian James Ensor, made it to over 90 years of age, and he lived when Munch did.  Ensor was just as obsessed with death as Munch, but there is a sense in his work that he enjoyed the subject rather than dreaded it.  Witness:

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SKELETONS FIGHTING OVER A PICKLED HERRING, James Ensor 1891, via The Royal Academy of Arts

Skeletons, masks, emaciated and diseased figures, pockmarked faces, distorted features – Ensor painted a carnival of the grotesque.  Like “Twin Peaks”, he believed that evil is fully embedded in this life.  The grotesque faces us every day.  Sometimes that can be humorous.

You have to realize how progressive and out-of-place these paintings by Ensor and Munch were.  Not just when they were completed (and I mean completed for the first time, because both Ensor and Munch fiddled with completed works and made many versions of many works), but until well after the men passed into what most intrigued and horrified them.