Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sometimes an extinguished match is just an extinguished match

When an artist dies young, it is typical to hear analyses like, "He was just too smart for this world."

You know the cliches: He was like a comet who shot across the sky for a moment and disappeared. The brightest stars burn out fastest. How could someone so brilliant endure such a mediocre world?

This begs the question, should brilliant people be expected to die young?

Einstein lived into his 70s
Bohr - 77
Newton lived into his 80s
Tesla, who neglected to invent any health-boosting smoothies, survived until 86. (once again beating Marconi, who despite his own burdensome brilliance managed to live into his 60s)
Edison - 84
Aristotle - 60s
Galileo - 77
Confucius - 70s
al-Khwarizmi - 70
Curie - 66 (the radioactivity her brilliance allowed her to study did her in, and she still lived more than six decades)
Schopenhauer - 72
Copernicus - 70
Buddha - 80ish
Kepler - almost 60

The people who figured out what comets are managed to live long and prosper, but not the people that are compared to comets? Speaking of burning, the inventor of the Bunsen burner died at 88.

Am I clouding matters by not focusing exclusively on artists? No problem, let's focus on those sensitive folks with the artistic temperament. After all, we know they're destined to flame out early.

Michelangelo saw 88
Frank Lloyd Wright saw his 90s
Matisse - 80s
Kurosawa - 88
Michelangelo - 88
Rembrandt - 60s
Tolstoy - 82
Franz Liszt, who lived like a rock star before there were rock stars, lived into his 70s.
Da Vinci - 60s
Picasso hit 91
Miles Davis - 65
Dante - 56
Donatello...79 or 80
Dumas - 68

Many of these people lived in eras where life expectancy was well lower than it is today, and they still lived far beyond what could be called their youth. Several dynamos who died youngish, Austen, Mozart, Chopin, Raphael, died of natural causes. Inconveniently, Mozart was not found dead in a whorehouse surrounded by opium and quill-penned suicide notes. Chopin didn't throw himself in front of a horse-drawn carriage because some asshole in a bar failed to "get" him. The evidence shows these gone-too-soons wanted to carry on.

Pythagoras dulled his brain enough to make it to 75, but Sid Vicious, a man so untalented the band stopped plugging in his bass, burned too brightly? Goethe suppressed his genius enough to fight through 30,000 days, but James Dean, a Keebler Elf who plodded through all of three movies, was too special to cut it in this world? Plato resisted the temptation to hang himself with his toga and died at 80, but Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose paintings are indistinguishable from a infant's bib after a spoonful of Gerber, had no choice but to call it a day at 27? Sounds a little fishy to this genius.

The average age at which Nobel Laureates receive their awards is 59. There is no 27 Club in the Nobel club (even if Nobel Laureates did die young, they still wouldn't leave good looking corpses).

The "brilliant people die young" idea seems a very rock 'n' roll, youth culture idea. We take for granted how much easier it is to survive nowadays, making early death more romantic. As recently as the 19th Century, an open window during the wrong season could snuff one out. When staying alive isn't a given, a person who dies at 27 is just an unlucky stiff, not an automatic Canon Enhancer.

It is poetic to quote Lao Tzu, "The flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long," (Lao Tzu lived to be 74, by the way), but the myth doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The famously dead weren't too brilliant to endure. They were too damaged to endure. Not all damaged people are brilliant. If that were true, Mensa and Alcoholics Anonymous would simply merge.

"Hi, I'm Fred."

Hi Fred!

"I'm an alcoholic. And my IQ is 152."

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Biggest Conspiracy Theory of My Lifetime? Saddam has WMDs

The New York Times is bemoaning "conspiracy theories" generated by the Internet Age. It is true that technology makes it easy and cheap to spread the fraudulent and the half-baked. Trouble is, the NYT and other establishment media spreads steady misinformation too, and even uses the Internet to do it (Tom Friedman has a Twitter account, need I say more?).

The Iraq Invasion was built on conspiracy theories promulgated by esteemed outlets like the NYT (plus WaPo, WSJ, the Economist, etc.). Did the NYT's Tom Friedman, Bill Keller, and David Brooks or WaPo's Richard Cohen, or any of the other conspiracy spreaders get fired once everything they said was proven untrue? No. Other than the NYT's Judith Miller, no one took a fall. 

Joe Scarborough was on MSNBC then, is still there now, and is probably a bigger celebrity today than he was when he was spreading conspiracies about Iraq's weapons program. The list of misinformers is long enough to fill six Wikipedias. I think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert owe much of their success to the spectacular failure of the "respectable" media with respect to Iraq.

The legacy media loved social media and the Internet in '08 when it helped their candidate win. The very idea that Obama was an "outsider" organically foisted to prominence via grassroots Internet support is itself misinformation spread by outlets like the Times

The mostly imaginary "Arab Spring," with its goofy narrative of a grassroots, democratic Mideast revolution largely ignited by social media - was another Internet-focused conspiracy theory spread by the establishment press. I am not aware of any establishment hacks getting the boot for promoting that turkey-on-wheels.

Amazingly (but unsurprisingly), the traditional press was too clueless to recognize that the same tools they claimed were behind their preferred brand of popular movement could also be used to abet popular movements anathema to them. Such anopia might help explain why so many of them have been unprofitable for years.

On Twitter: @greatmikepayne

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

History repeats, historians are parrots

A historical work of any value should have more question marks than periods. Even then, its scope will be overstated.

Historians, who not coincidentally are often wannabe fiction writers, speak with bottomless confidence about figures who died centuries ago in countries that no longer exist. If historians stuck to recreating the simple, everyday details of those distant, sparsely chronicled lives, it would be daunting enough. That challenge isn't enough for them, however. They seem more driven by a desire to credential themselves as all-knowing psychiatrists, affording them license to assert the precise motivations, impulses, and fetishes of every King Tom, Queen Dick, and Emperor Harry.

With many historical figures, we can't even piece together all the bits of their outer lives (birth dates, birth places, burial spots, etc.), yet historians speak with clinical certainty about their inner lives. A historian will confidently gives us 500 straight pages on Columbus's innermost thoughts, meanwhile, we're not even sure about the color of Columbus's hair (possibly ginger, poor sod - he probably hoped he'd fall off the edge of the Earth). If these goofy suppositions stayed within the circular Hell of tenured hackdom, the collateral damage would be minimal. Alas, this all too assuredly composed historical half-fiction not only gets repeated by other hacks; it trickles down to the masses, sometimes helping shape contemporary opinion on how modern situations - allegedly analogous to past ones - should be handled.

Today some polls show just 6% of Americans trust the media. People don't even trust those reporting in real time on contemporary events. Why then do they trust the reporting on events of foregone millennia?

How many times have you met someone seemingly mousy and tame who said, "You should have seen me in my twenties! I was partying hard, living on the edge, I'm lucky to be here!"

Assuming that person, let's call him Sir John Doe, is telling the truth, had he died in his 20s while partying, a historian would likely profile him as a wild man, then look for clues from his youth about what led to his being a "wild man." If obvious, measurable clues were absent, the historian would simply infer wild leanings from Sir John's Doe's otherwise ordinary behavior.

Assume Sir John Doe survived to become that mousy 30-something and never told anyone about his wild days. Without photographs or arrest records documenting them, what would even cause a historian to dig for evidence of wild days? Unless he stumbled onto folks who knew Sir John Doe then and were forthcoming about his hi-jinks, that wild period would go unreported. The historian would search for other motives for whatever actions Sir John Doe took in his 20s. If Sir John seemed aimless during that time, the historian might assume lack of confidence (after all, he ended up mousy!), when in fact that aimlessness had more to due with being too hungover to accomplish much.

Consider how many different people you've been in your life. Are all those phases equally documented?

When Hillary takes office, the first thing she should do is make it illegal to release a historical film that isn't animated. At least then the viewer might realize the "historical record" is fantasy.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Most Sanctimonious Game

I have never shot an animal, which is too bad, because there are many humans I'd like to kill. This means I've never hunted, despite being a meat eater.

I have encountered meat eaters who upon hearing the word "hunt" quiver with more feigned outrage than a white politician running for office in the inner city. In a certain respect, hunters are more honest meat eaters than the rest of us. They're willing to do the dirty work we can't stomach. Not only do we outsource the killing of those tasty vermin, we sometimes throw away meat without even cooking it. "You know, I bought all this chicken, but I just wasn't feeling it this week."

Thanks to your ADD palate, an animal died without even fulfilling the purpose of feeding someone. Talk about senseless violence.

I have sometimes contemplated visiting a farm to slaughter an animal, so that I can at least say I did the dirty work once. I never have, and likely never will, because I love meat and seeing the killing up close would probably turn me off to it forever. So I continue to ignore the means by which that delicious lamb reaches my plate. Pure trophy hunting may be indecent, but otherwise, it is embarrassing for a meat eater to act like hunting is some unfathomable pursuit. Frankly, a deer being hunted in the woods has a much better chance to escape than a captive farm pig grown specifically to complement your mash potatoes.

If you're a meat eater, hunting is not only more honest; it is better sportsmanship.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The only blog you need to read about Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick isn't standing for the national anthem before football games. You know the story, you have heard the arguments, you have watched the TV pundits faint at the "outrageous!!!!!" comments of whichever fellow time-filler happens to be babbling alongside them on the panel.

Some are upset that he is making a political statement by not standing for the anthem. Guess what: Standing for the anthem is also a political statement. The anthem represents a country, and by saluting it, you are embracing that country on some level. If the act of saluting has no connection to the country and therefore to politics, should American athletes also salute the anthems of other countries? If they did, I bet those hounding Kaepernick would be furious.

Some are upset that someone who is "just" an athlete is making such a statement. "No one looks to Colin Kaepernick for social commentary," that sort of thing. I too sometimes roll my eyes at "commentary" from celebrities. I love DiCaprio as an actor, but scamper for the remote when he is interviewed so I won't witness his puerility.

That said, those standing for the anthem are also *just* athletes making a political statement. If statements are wrong when the come from those who are "only" athletes, then athletes hailing the anthem - a political statement - is also problematic. One could credibly say, "Who are we to trivialize what the military does by incorporating it into a mere football game?"

When athletes raise money for military or police charities, no one says, "Shut up! You're just an athlete."

I have heard complaints that Kaepernick shouldn't talk as he does because he makes mega money. What does his salary have to do with it? If he was sitting to protest being underpaid, it'd be one thing. But he isn't - he is sitting because he feels elements of society are unjust. He didn't bring money into it, his critics did.

On a sidenote, I expect Blaine Gabbert to start sitting too. Not during the anthem, during the game, because he is, well, Blaine Gabbert.

On Twitter: @greatmikepayne