Wednesday, February 07, 2007

And now, the end is near...

After two-and-a-half years, 572 posts, and a lot of late nights that could have been spent watching Letterman, AOTW will enter a permanent hiatus. It's been a fun journey, traversing an ecletic range of topics in a way that impressed some and bemused many. I've said plenty of things that I'm proud of, and a few that I regret, but either way I've enjoyed the process of finding my own voice and claiming a small soapbox as my very own.

I've been debating with myself whether or not to take the AOTW archive off-line. In the end I think I'll keep it accessible, both because of the reality that once something is published it can never really be unpublished, and because I think readers are intelligent enough to realise that one's past can never be a guide to one's future.

Now I'm moving on to greener pastures, having started this week as a trainee reporter at one of Australia's most influential newspapers. The blogosphere is regularly gloating over the impending demise of newspapers, but yet so much blog content is derived from them. Much like newspapers survived radio and television, they will survive the technological age. Indeed, more than merely survive, newspapers are making this new media their own. It really is an exciting time to be a part of it.

Whatever happens from here, I'll know one thing for sure: I did it my way.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Musings on a sorry State

On Saturday I returned from my five week sojourn to the United States. Whilst I landed with the best intentions in the world to share my wild ride with my blog-post parched readers over the weekend, I ended up doing rather more pedestrian things, like overcoming jetlag and shopping for groceries. Come Monday, I commenced my new job (more on that soon) and so my opportunities to write about the trip are rather limited.

So, rather than the careful, sober analysis that such a trip deserves, I offer up a few random thoughts on things that captured my imagination.

The United States is a sick society, caught up in a pique of hyper-consumerism in an unsuccessful attempt to fill the psychological void of post-industrialism. It's nothing new to suggest that literally everything is for sale in the US, but it's still unnerving to see it close up.

A few examples help illustrate the point.

Inside many trains on the New York subway is wall-to-wall advertising for self-improvement of all kinds, from hair regrowth to breast enhancements to anxiety medication to eyebrow threading to hokey Jesus-love. Staring at that for an hour commute day after day can't help but leave you feeling woefully inadequate about things that are perfectly normal. Buying your way to physical and mental perfection is destined to fail, but it doesn't stop people buying and selling the dream.

Enormous serves of food are the norm, as if the mound of fatty morsels on the plate are an emblem of prosperity and success. An abundance of fast food outlets sell an abundance of sheer mediocrity, and people lap it up unthinkingly. Overwhelmingly, these places focus exclusively on the quantity of the food sold and make no claims as to it's quality.

Unthinking displays of patriotism dull the critical senses. The ubiquity of flag needs to be seen to be truly understood, with flags on most buldings, appearing on many cars and incorporated into a large number of corporate logos. Sadly this jingoism corrupts public debate, with ideas evaluated not according to their inherent value, but according to their degree of patriotism. One need not show that an idea is a good one, but that it is "the American way" or that it is "what the founding fathers intended". Witness the debate over the troop surge in Iraq or gun control. Patriotism, not efficacy, becomes the most important measure of worth.

Interest in celebrity has reached the point of obsession. America has spawned a generation of deeply vain but utterly talentless fresh meat who become famous for nothing more than their own vacuousness. The latest generation of celebrity themed reality shows insult their makers, their participants and their viewers, but still they are enthusiastically lapped up. I'm still not sure whether the reality TV show idea I heard was satirical or genuine: a group of nerds compete for the right to lose their virginity to an attractive celerity. Such an obsession with the famous surely reflects deep personal inadequacies amongst those who gawk admiringly.

Individually, these examples mean little, but taken together they present a picture of a society in a deep malaise. Accepting the massive difficulties of generalising about an entire nation, especially one as diverse as the United States, it seems that American society has entered an intellectual paralysis and has lost the ability to reflect on itself. Headstrong consumerism, with a foreign policy to match, has become a substitute for taking a long hard look in the mirror.

There are, of course, a few noble exceptions to the slow collective suicide of American society. A spectacular array of street press provide witty, incisive commentary on the state of the nation, and show a keen eye for feature writing and investigation that their more conservative daily newspapers could learn from. Kudos ought go to papers such as The Village Voice, the Austin Chronicle, the Chicago Reader and New Orlean's Gambit Weekly. The indefatiguable folks at The Onion still continue to pump out satire that hits just the right note.

American society is a great society, and we ought be eternally thankful for it fighting and winning the two great battles against tyranny of the twentieth century, first against Fascism and then against Communism. We must stand side by side with it in its battle against a third tyranny, Islamic fundamentalism. One hopes that it can shake off its cultural and intellectual mediocrity, which is condemning its people to an endless cycle of trashy pop culture and unthinking patriotism.

One final snippet comes in the form of a minor controversy over the lack of release for of a subversive black comedy my Office Space director Mike Judge. According to John Patterson at The Guardian:

The plot: in the future, the educated and intelligent will be massively out-bred by moronic A-type prison-fodder and Nascar idiots, to the point that all knowledge of engineering, agriculture, medicine and literature will be lost to misty memory. Luke Wilson plays ordinary Joe Bowers, chosen to be frozen by the military in 2005, who accidentally wakes up in 2505 to find a broken-down, thuggish America where language has become a patois of football chants, hip-hop slang and grunts denoting rage, pleasure and priapic longing, where citizens are obese, violent, ever-horny and narcotised by consumerism, TV and fast food. Everything's branded, and people have names such as BMW, Mountain Dew and Frito. TV features the Violence Channel (its signature show: "Ow, My Balls!") and the Masturbation Channel ("Keepin' America 'batin' for 300 years!"). The President's a Smackdown champ and porno superstar, and there's a mulleted wrestler on the billion-dollar bill. And everyone in the future thinks that Joe Bowers, suddenly the smartest man on earth, "talks like a fag".

There is venomous anti-corporate satire throughout the movie, remarkable mainly because Judge names real corporations. I was astounded - and invigorated - by the sheer vitriol Judge directs at these companies, who surely now regret permitting the use of their licensed trademarks. Like fast-food giant Carl's Jr, which in 2006 sells 6,000-calorie burgers the size of dictionaries under the slogan, "Don't Bother Me, I'm Eating". In Idiocracy, this has devolved into "Fuck You! I'm Eating!" And every commercial transaction has been sexualised: at Starbucks you can get coffee plus a handjob (or a "full body" latte).

Forget straight-to-DVD: this thing should be compulsory viewing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Deep in the heart of etc, etc

Having spent almost a week in Texas, I'm disappointed to see that it's not nearly as Texan as I was expecting. San Antonio is a big city with lots of fat lanyarded conventioneers flocking into town to eat overpriced shrimp and slap other fat landarded conventioneers on the back.

Austin is a little nicer though, like a slice on Byron Bay in the heart of Far North Queensland. It's a fun city, with plenty of live music, some supurb improv comedy, a mayor called Will Wynn (I shit you not) and an unofficial slogan "Keep Austin Wierd". That's my kinda place.

UPDATE 5/2, 7:50pm. In response to the comments:

- Austin as Byron Bay was not meant as a geographic reference but as a cultural reference. Whether it's in Queensland, New South Wales or Timbuktu is irrelevant to the comparison I was making.

- I'm trying to imagine the conversation I might have with this Jason Traxal: "Hi Jason, my name's Ari from Australia. An anonymous person told me to look you up and tell you that you played basketball with him in Melbourne four years ago. Do you mind showing me around Texas?" Too long a bow to draw, I'm afraid.

- The improv comedy I saw in Austin was the excellent Available Cupholders in their 27 January show, which featured a wonderful long-form narrative play based around a colourful crime gang known as The Wheels, each of whom possessed their own set of, er, wheels. For what it's worth, other classy improv was seen in the forms of the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, who performed an improv battle between Jews and Christians (Baruch-Ha-Ha-Ha vs The Kings of Kings of Comedy... very cute) and some slightly underdeveloped work by the Peoples (sic) Improv Theatre in New York.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Can I, y'know, help you?

Normally I like nonchalance in people who are delivering services to me. I don't want my waiter to be a sycophant, my station master to stress out or my airline steward to twist an ankle in my service. Still, quite often in this country, service is beyond nonchalant - it's just plain rude in its cantgiveafuck-ness.

I had a nigling feeling that something was not quite right on my first meal in Los Angeles after landing. After being shown to our seat at a 1950s-themed diner, our waiter roused himself from his comfy booth and approached us. With earphone still wedged in his left ear, he flung some menus in my direction, and returned a few minutes later only to ask "Yeah?", which we soon learnt was an invitation for us to recite our order.

This was far from an isolated experience. On many occasions, you can't help but get the feeling that your mere presence as a customer is intruding upon the leisure time of the person you are trying to deal with. From Greyhound, to Walgreen (a Walmart spin-off) to many a suburban Chinese restaurant, apathy is the norm.

As a few people have pointed out along the way after experiencing similar mediocrity, never is the adage that you get what you pay for more true. Though it has just been increased, the minimum wage is low by European and Australian standards, and there are plenty of people who are working at this wage, plus tips, of course. When someone is being paid such a meagre amount, its little wonder that they struggle to summon the energy to care. The fact that businesses can survive with such poor service suggests that most customers are willing to tolerate it if it means that prices stay low. As always, it's a trade-off: good service requires paying your staff decently, which requires increasing the cost to the consumer. It is a cost few consumers are willing to pay.

There are a few exceptions of course to this "low cost, low expectation" model of service delivery. Starbucks, who are as ubiquitous as the stereotype suggests, charge a little more than most for their products, but their staff are remarkable in their friendliness and courtesy. In a country in which these values appear in short supply, it is most welcome.

Boom! Chicago

The front page of the tabloid commuter giveaway in Chicago this morning reads "Obama-rama", and this Barackaphilia has spread nation wide. Obama, a local Illinoisan, has only just dipped his toe in the Presidential waters, but he has received a reception normally reserved for deity making the presence felt on earth. He's charming, charasmatic, and oh-so-electable. For newspaper editors sick of the tiresome partisan politics that has become entrenched since the numbing effects of September 11 wore off, Obama is a breath of fresh air.

Having said that, being the leading candidate 21 months out from election day is a bit like leading the Melbourne Cup at the first turn. There is plenty more of the race yet to be run. Leading up to '04, Howard Dean was the lead Democrat significantly closer to the Convention, but by the time the big day came around he was no where to be seen. Still, for Democrats this is an exciting time, and Obama is an exciting candidate, and one wonders whether any of the more seasoned Republicans can compete in the popularity stakes.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Pricey internet means few posts


UPDATE 12/1, 7:30pm: It also means mysteriously misspelling easy to spell words. The US is a strangely unreflective society, steadfastly refusing to take a moment to think but instead indulging itself in an orgy of mindless consumption. It's a society with a sense of entitlement, where the very idea of leaving an urge unsatisfied in frowned-upon. The cultural differences are subtle, but the collective mindset is more obvious.