Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

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How many times in your life have you heard the words, “Dante’s Inferno”? How many times “Dante’s Paradiso”? I’m guessing the ratio leans heavily toward Inferno.

How familiar with those two works are you? This isn’t a Literature test. I’m just guessing that if you’re familiar with either, it’s probably the Nine Circles of Hell. And I’m willing to bet the Nine Circles of Heaven are a complete mystery.

It’s not just you, Inferno has been the subject of plays, movies, even a video game. By comparison, Paradiso is shunned.

And it’s not just Dante. William Blake said of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

It doesn’t take a poet to realize that writing about hell is easy, “at liberty,” and writing about heaven is difficult, “in fetters.”

I believe there’s a key to human nature and human history in that dichotomy. Our race’s origins are in savagery, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Civilization is something we build despite it. Nobility is something we strive for. We work to be better individuals, we labor at it, because selfishness, fear, and hatred are so easy. We strive to transcend our animal nature.

I’m vegan. I’m not asking you to be. But I’m weary of hearing the line, “It’s only natural for humans to eat meat.” Of course. I know as well as you that for our race, killing and eating other animals is natural. No argument there.

It’s natural.

But is it necessary?

Help I’m Concise

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The song, “Help I’m Alive” by Metric is a piece of minimalist genius.

At first glance, it seems simply sparse, in keeping with the moment of panic we feel before stepping on stage. “If I tremble, they’re gonna eat me alive. If I stumble, they’re gonna eat me alive.” So few words to capture so much terror.

“Can’t you hear my heart beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer.” That repetition itself is a pulse, with a sparsity casting me back to the breathless “animal in a cage” inability to think beyond the moment before the mike goes live.

But here are the words of minimalist lyrical genius that have been flowing around my brain cavity since first hearing the song: “Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”

I’m a poet by nature. (Game design is formalist poetry.) And I find myself stunned at the perfection of those eight words. Where do I start?

First, each phrase takes two utterly contradictory words and melds them into a singular truth. That accomplishment alone fills me with wonder. Especially given that they’re simple one-syllable words.

One-syllable except for the last, intentional, two-syllable word. Listen to the rhythm of the line, the one-syllable “soft” forcing a caesura that makes you hear each phrase as independent. Then the two-syllable “tender” leading rhythmically to the next line.

And grammatically the phrases are identical. An open oyster shell.

Beyond all that, there’s the poetic consonance and assonance of those four adjectives. “Soft” and “tough” are virtually mirror images.

Just, wow.

Until today, I’d been so captivated by that line that I missed how structurally parallel the next one is: “Come take / my pulse, / the pace / is on a runaway train.” Those pulsing iambs. The one-vowel-sound difference between “pulse” and “pace.” The fluidity of the last phrase with its trio of “n’s.’

This is minimalism. A glass of water so clear you notice neither glass nor water in the act of drinking.

This is the difference between brevity and concision. The division between short and art.

And it’s why I so hate the catchall phrase, “rules lite,” in game design.

Gen Jones at the Bridge

Reading and thinking about Generation Jones today, I gained more insight into my own feelings toward MAGA on the one hand and Bezos et al. on the other.

Forgive the thumbnail timeline and capsule definitions, but Gen Jones came on the tail end of Boomers and as heralds of Gen-X.

We began life in starry-eyed belief that we could grow up to be anything, even President! The hellish Vietnam war cast that innocent positivity under the terrifying shadow of the draft; Watergate told us President wasn’t such a lofty goal; and a dying economy from the Energy Crisis made us cynical about Boomers’ promise of prosperity.

MAGA is to me a Boomer view of “Better Days,” when they flourished in privilege handed them by the Greatest Generation’s bloody sacrifice. Of COURSE that’s where they want to be again. And I’m happy to let them revisit it in senile dreams.

[Sorry. The phrasing of that paragraph was Gen Jones bitter cynicism from crushed hope speaking.]

“Even President!” we were taught, and it was our answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the question itself being another piece of Boomer bullshit. Only post-2000 have I realized that the correct answer to that question is, “I want to be me. And I want to be part of something bigger than me.”

Because Gen Jonesers were taught to succeed or fail alone. Alone. No looking at other students’ tests; no letting other students look at ours. School was a factory: Stand in line, listen for the bell, put in your 40 minutes in the math class then the social studies class then the science class, & etc. It was a factory with kindergartners pushed in one end and diplomas/jobs handed out at the other.

It was a factory of teaching facts, skills, and biases to the middle, with children at both ends pinched by the gears. Those who learned too quickly grew bored and were castigated as inattentive. Those who struggled to keep up grew surly and were castigated as inattentive.

School made widgets. Widgets were slotted into the machinery of a society. If that early question had been honest, it would have been, “What *widget* do you want to be when you grow up?”

Sure, there were A’s for exceptionalism. The exceptionalism of the individual. The feeling of being better than the rest. And this is where the Bezoses of the world come in: The “I deserve insane wealth because I’m insanely better than others” people. The “Others are ‘Human Resources’ to individuals of my stature.”

[And now that you and I have grown used to the term “Human Resources,” it’s morphing to the more forthright term, “Human Capital.”]

I mentioned a post-2000 realization.

[It came pretty much right after the Bezoses of humankind brought the worldwide economy crashing down and stuck the rest of us with the bill for their junk bonds. I’ve put this comment in brackets as a bitterly cynical aside. Because what I write next is hopeful.]

Working in educational publishing at the time, I was confronted with a new approach called “Project Based Learning.” Give students a project that involves more than just one subject, and put them in teams to make it happen.

[Not the abstract “If a train leaves point A at 60 mph, and Jimmy has 2 apples . . . ” answered as individuals on a standardized test.]

Give a project to a team of students, and two wonderful things occur.

First, subjects are no longer discreet pieces without context. They’re a conceptual whole: “Build a bridge between these two desks, using the materials on the back table, with a budget of $10 to buy them. Make sure it can bear the weight of two bricks. Put together a written report of how you did it, what you learned, and present it to the class.”

Second, students discover that “team” means using each person’s strengths, accounting for one another’s weaknesses, and accomplishing something together. Not as the team-building warfare of sports. In project teams everyone shines; while everyone recognizes their need for the others; and together they’ve built something that didn’t exist before.

Within a team, students learn that some are good leaders, in that they inspire and organize. Others have a knack for engineering. Others can perceive how a plan does or does not fit in a budget, and offer alternatives. Others are best at perceiving the project as a whole and explaining it in writing. And some aren’t terrified to speak in public. (There’s also a value for graphic design in that presentation.)

When the project is complete, their joint work is put to the test by those bricks. If it stands, they celebrate together. Together. If it falls, they also watch it fall together, and they go back to the drawing board, with knowledge and experience they didn’t have before. And either way, I can guarantee that they’ll never again ride across a bridge without seeing it for the marvel of human engineering that it is.

I’m Gen Jones.

I was born in hope, and nearly buried in cynicism.

But I see this generation, and my hope is born again.

NFTs, WFT?

In all fairness, how different are non-fungible tokens from owning a Web domain?

Two differences: (1) I can’t really “own” a Web domain, only rent it; and (2) Non-fungible token owners are art patrons, most of whom display it publicly, like a private owner at a museum.

In both cases, NFTs are better than a Web domain.

Now, how different are NFTs from owning digital music? After all, both pay artists. (1) Again, we don’t pay a subscription for music access (let’s be honest, how many of us actually store most of the music we buy?); and (2.) We don’t own exclusive rights to the music. Other people can pay for it, too.

Next, how different are NFTs from buying rights to a photo from ShutterStock, iStock, etc.? Well, photo rights aren’t exclusive, and often they’re restrictive.

How different are NFTs from cryptocurrencies? (And if we’re skeptical about cryptocurrencies, how valuable is that piece of green paper in your pocket? It’s just a coupon with a serial number, traded for an hour of labor, in trust that the country we’re taxed by doesn’t collapse and default on it. And WTF is my bank balance except a type of cryptocurrency?)

FWIW, governments have a horse in this race, and in a barter economy of favor for favor or your garden’s green beans for my tomatoes. It’s difficult to tax the first, and impossible to tax the latter.

I’m 65 years old, sometimes grappling with Information Age concepts that younger people take as a fact of life. But this train’s starting to make sense. While we scoff, it’s leaving the station.