Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ad Nauseam

You may notice that as of this week, I've got a couple of links to other blogs on this site. They aren't blogs that I read or even recommend -- as a matter of fact I have no interest in them whatsoever -- but the blog owners contacted me and asked if I'd link to their blogs, in exchange for which, they would link to mine.

I resisted at first. The first person contacted me in January, but I ignored his request. But then, someone else contacted me last week and I figured I might as well link to both blogs.

Here's the thing, though. I don't even think the people who contacted me are real people. Both of the messages I got looked like they were generated by a mass-mailing application. And when I did a check to see who the registered owners of the two blog sites are, I found that one is registered to a marketing company, and the other is registered anonymously through a proxy registrar. But both of the blogs are full of ads, and every post on one of the blogs practically reads like an advertisement, so they were very obviously created as money-making ventures.

Remember when the web first became popular in the mid '90s? Back then, most of the content was created by individuals who wanted to express themselves using what was then a new medium. But when corporations realized what a valuable advertising and marketing tool the web could be, they established a web presence as well, and we're at the point now where the overwhelming majority of the web is devoted to advertising and commerce. It's sort of ironic when you consider that when the internet was first established, it was illegal to advertise on it.

But lest you think I'm complaining about how the web was taken from the people and put in the hands of the corporations, I'm not. I've bought a lot of stuff online that I probably wouldn't have been able to find otherwise, and let's be honest: Back in the pre-corporate days of the web, most of those personal web pages you saw were self-indulgent and pointless and ultimately of no interest to anyone other than the people who created them.

When blogs first emerged, the web was already the huge shopping mall and international advertising medium that it is today, so blogging was heralded as a way for individuals to regain a web presence again. And predictably, a lot of blogs were self-indulgent and pointless and ultimately of no interest to anyone other than the people who created them.

There were exceptions, of course. There's this blog, which strives every week to be informative and fun, and there are other blogs that cater to specific interests, such as politics, parenting, civil liberties, horticulture, and whatever else you can think of. But as blogging became more popular, once again the corporate world saw them as a money-making opportunity, and that's why today we have blog sites registered to internet marketing companies.

So that's that. And there's nothing we can do about it, but maybe you'll be comforted to know that I will never put ads on this blog. The few pennies I might make every year will never make up for the sense of shame I'd feel for stooping to that level. The way I see it, if you want to read intelligent well-written and often humorous observations about contemporary culture, you should read this blog. If you want to look at ads, go outside and stare at a billboard.

You might not know this, but all "blogspot.com" blogs (such as this one) are hosted on Google servers using software provided by Google. Besides the basic blogging software, Google also provides other services, such as RSS feeds and a revenue-sharing program for any ads that appear on the blog.

When you search for something on Google, you may notice that in addition to a bunch of links, you'll also get a bunch of targeted ads. So if you do a search for "photography," for example, you'll probably see a few ads for photography studios, photography classes, and maybe even camera stores. Google provides this feature as an option for bloggers as well. So if you had a blog devoted to bowling, the readers of your blog would see a lot of ads for bowling balls, bowling shoes, bowling alleys, and anything else having to do with bowling.

The reason I mention this is because, even though I have this option disabled on my blog, I'm sort of curious to see what kind of ads I'd get if I had it enabled. My blog has no consistent theme, and I don't know how sophisticated the ad targeting software is, but I suspect that all it does is look for keywords that it can match up with ads. So for my blog, it would be difficult to find suitable ads, and it might be sort of funny to see which the ads they did use. It's sort of like when I use my Gmail account. As I'm sure you know, Gmail is also owned by Google, so it has targeted ads as well. That's why whenever you empty the spam folder on your Gmail account, you'll get ads for "Spam" recipes -- "Spam" in this case being the name of the spiced ham in a can concoction created by the Hormel Foods Corporation sometime in the 1930s.

But you'll never see ads on my blog. To twist my own words a little, it's because I wouldn't make enough money to compensate for the sense of shame I'd feel for showing the world how greedy I am. And I realize to some people, what I just wrote will make absolutely no sense at all. "Why is it 'greedy' to want to make money from something you do?" they might ask. "Why is it 'greedy' to advertise products on your blog?" they might wonder.

Well, all I can say is, it just is. My attitude is, if you want to make money, get a real job. Don't become another platform for corporate advertisements. Judging by what I see all around me, that's not a very popular sentiment, but if you're old enough, you might remember what it was like to be in the United States in 1976. That was the year of our bicentennial celebration -- the two-hundred year anniversary of the United States that was hyped and over-hyped to the point that people began referring to it the "buy-centennial sell-abration" and most people I knew couldn't wait for it to be over, just so they could stop hearing about it. So my point is that too much advertising is a bad thing, and since there's too much already, there's no reason to add to it.

But as I said, that isn't a very popular sentiment these days. It probably never was, but it seems to become less popular every year. That's why you see so many people walking around advertising their favorite band or their favorite team or their favorite whatever on their t-shirts. They're just walking billboards, as far as I'm concerned, but it doesn't stop with t-shirts -- you also see it in designer clothing and apparel. You can get a pair of Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses or Versace sunglasses or Gucci sunglasses for a few hundred dollars, and what you're mostly paying for is the prominently-displayed logo on the frame. This trend doesn't seem to be stopping either. You see it on belt buckles, shoes, wallets, purses, bath towels, and probably even on underwear. You know how race car drivers have the logos of all their corporate sponsors plastered all over their clothing? In fifty years, we'll all be dressed like that.

So that's my attitude about advertising, but I also have some attitudes about greed that may run counter to those of a lot of people. My attitude is basically, greed is bad. But for many people, it seems that greed is neutral -- what's important is that you make a lot of money somehow. And it doesn't even matter how. If you do it by advertising on the internet, or by being the CEO of some company with predatory lending practices, or even by becoming a prostitute or porn star, it doesn't matter.

And speaking of which, there have always been women who make a lot of money in the porn business, and there have always been high-priced call-girls who make more money than tenured college professors, but what's different now is that it's become mainstream. Prostitutes, no matter how much money they made, used to prefer a certain amount of anonymity. And with rare exception, porn stars used to be famous only among the people who saw their movies. Now some of them are household names. And both of those professions are now part of the "sex-worker" profession -- a name that gives them some amount of legitimacy.

Of course, the term "sex-worker" was originally used as a non-judgmental way of referring to women who were forced into prostitution, but has since become a catch-all term for everyone who accepts money in exchange for sex. It's always sounded like sort of a ridiculous term to me, but to be fair, it's not exactly a term that has caught on with the general public.

For example, you never hear anyone say something like, "I won $5,000 in at the Blackjack tables in Vegas last week, so I got a few bottles of champagne and a couple of sex-workers and we partied all week-end in my hotel room." Nor, I'm sure, has anyone ever said on the set of a porn film, "We need three or four more women for this orgy scene. Get on the phone and see if you can find a few sex-workers who aren't busy today."

I don't remember when it was -- maybe sometime in the '80s -- when it seemed like just about every job title underwent some sort of transformation to make it seem loftier than it actually was. So secretaries became administrative assistants and computer programmers became software engineers. As a joke, someone suggested that janitors be referred to as sanitation engineers. Everyone laughed back then, but today a sanitation engineer is a real job title. So since the term "sex-worker" never really caught on -- probably because it sounds so flat and dull -- maybe we should start using another term, like "penis technician," for example.

Go ahead and laugh, but in twenty years or so, I bet that's what everyone will be calling them.

I don't have anything against pornography, by the way, although to be honest, I might feel a tiny bit resentful that women with very little education or intelligence can make more money than I do. And I don't have anything against prostitution either. One time I was dismissed from a jury because the defendant was charged with soliciting a prostitute, and in answer to the prosecuting attorney's question I happened to mention that I had mixed feelings about whether or not prostitution should be legal. It may seem harmless enough, but it would turn pimps into legitimate businessmen, and it would become another service we'd see endless advertisements for. On the other hand, it's legal to have sex with strangers, and it's legal to give money to strangers, so it should probably be legal to do both of those things at the same time. It's already legal in some states, and it may become legal in others some day. That's okay with me -- I don't think it means our morals are declining or anything stupid like that.

I'm still not going to prostitute myself by allowing ads on my blog, however. I'll link to other blogs, though.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Converse

You may recall that sometime last year, I bought a copy of The Rejection Collection -- a collection of cartoons that for one reason or another were rejected for publication in the New Yorker. Well, a few months ago a whole new collection of rejected cartoons was published, and they're just as funny as the ones from the first collection. But while I was looking at the cartoons, two thoughts popped into my head.

The first thought was that as long as the New Yorker continues to exist, and as long as people continue to submit cartoons to it, and as long as the vast majority of those cartoons continue to get rejected, there will continue to be new installments of The Rejection Collection. So a year or so from now, I might me telling you about the third or fourth Rejection Collection.

The second thought I had was that when some of the cartoons were submitted, the people who drew them must have known that they had absolutely no chance at all of getting published in the New Yorker, which led me to believe that the only reason the cartoons were submitted was so they would get rejected and thereby be eligible for inclusion in the next Rejection Collection.

Or maybe I'm just being cynical. Maybe all those cartoons were submitted in earnest. I'm not always right about everything, and I freely admit it.

For example, here are a few things I've been wrong about recently.

Remember when I told you about Zoom, the Root Boy Slim record I picked up for fifty cents in a used record store? If so, you may recall that I predicted it would never be released on CD. Well, guess what? It has been. I think the only way you can buy it is from the official Root Boy Slim web site, so don't go looking for it on Amazon or anywhere else. I doubt if I'll buy a copy -- as I mentioned before, there are only two songs on the album that I like, although those two songs are pretty good.

And now, because the fair use provisions of the United States copyright laws allow me to do so, I will include brief excerpts from the lyrics of those two songs, just so you can see for yourself what a comic genius he was.

From "World War III":

There was trouble down in Africa
Riots over in France
Nuclear war was at hand
Seemed a likely chance
When the Russians lost the Olympics
They got a little pissed
They sent a few nukes over
The kind that never miss


From "Dare To Be Fat":

Me and my woman
Really got it made
Eating in and eating out
At least six times a day
Breakfast and brunch
Lunch and dinner too
Plus a few meals
That might be
New to you


Okay, here's something else I was wrong about. A few weeks ago, I listed all the movies I'd seen Bai Ling in, many without knowing she was even in them. In that list I included Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. However, it was pointed out to me that the scenes she was featured in were cut from the film before it was released. So I didn't see her in that film and neither did anyone else.

This next thing isn't something I was actually wrong about -- it's just something I didn't happen to know about, but I'll mention it here anyway, just for the sake of completeness. When I was commenting on the distracting habit of the ushers at my local neighborhood multiplex of walking down the aisles looking for anything amiss, I didn't know what the flashlights with red filters they carry with them are called. They're the same things that people use to direct airplanes when they're on the ground, and as it happens, a woman I know has a son who works at an airport, so I asked her if she knew what those things are called. She said she didn't but that she would ask her son. When I saw her the next day, she told me they're called wands.

Okay that's everything I've been wrong about or ignorant about recently. Now here's something a lot of other people are wrong about. I'm referring, of course, to the widespread misuse of the word "converse."

I don't mean the verb "to converse" -- as far as I know, everyone's still using that correctly. I mean the noun "converse" and the related word "conversely." I don't know where or when I learned this, but somewhere along the line it was impressed upon me that the word "converse" has a very specific meaning.

In case you never learned this, every conditional statement has a converse, and basically no other statements do. The converse of a statement that has the form "If A then B" is the statement "If B then A." The sentence needn't have that exact form of course -- all it has to have is some notion of implication or causality. And needless to say, not all true statements have true converses. For example, the converse of the statement "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" would be something like "If the heart grows fonder, absence will be the result."

So that's what a converse is. It's a pretty simple concept. Yet you hear people getting it wrong just about every day. Consider the following statements. "If Barack Obama wins the Democratic party nomination, it will be the first time a black man has ever had a chance of becoming the president of the United States. Conversely, if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic party nomination, it will be the first time a woman has ever had a chance of becoming president."

While each of the statements is true, the converse of the first statement is actually "If this is the first time a black man has ever had a chance of becoming the president of the United States, then Barack Obama will win the Democratic party nomination."

To use another example, some people might say, "When people are optimistic, they look toward the future. Conversely, when they're pessimistic, they look toward the past." They'd be absolutely right about people and which way they look, but they'd be absolutely wrong about the usage of the word "conversely."

As we now know, the converse of the statement "When people are optimistic, they look toward the future" would be "When people look toward the future, they become optimistic." And I'm not just using this particular example for the sake of teaching you something you probably learned a long time ago -- I'm mentioning it because I think we should try to find out if this particular example is true.

I've said elsewhere on this blog that if people were more optimistic, they'd embrace modern architecture instead of looking for comfort in the outdated traditional architectural styles of the past. If that's true, which it almost certainly is, then it would be interesting to find out if the converse is true. The only way to find out would be to build modern houses in new residential tracts and see what the result is over time. I have a feeling it would make most people more optimistic, but even if it didn't, it would at least make the world a more beautiful place to live in.

Incidentally, we're seeing a tiny resurgence of modern architecture these days. It isn't big enough to notice unless you're paying very close attention, but more and more architects are beginning to understand the importance of efficient sustainable architecture. That's sort of how modernism came into existence the first time around.

This time around, it looks like it will arrive in the form of "prefab" houses. You hear a lot of architects talking about this, and some architects have even devoted their entire practice to the design and construction of modern factory-built homes. Of course, despite all the talk about this in the last five or six years, very few of these homes are actually getting built. Or not in this country at least. In Japan, they're much more popular, but we'll probably catch up with them one of these days.

Of course, the notion of prefab houses might be a tough sell in this country, because the word "prefab" still has a negative connotation. A lot of people probably still associate it with those cheaply built mobile homes you used to see. But those houses bear absolutely no resemblance to today's prefab house.

The construction process of modern prefab modular houses creates less waste than traditional "stick-built" houses, there's better quality control, they're more energy efficient, and they go up much quicker once the materials are brought to the site. Plus, the houses are designed by architects (unlike the vast majority of houses built in this country) and the ones I've seen (or at least seen pictures of) are absolutely beautiful.

If things go well, we should see more and more of these houses popping up within the next few years. Or maybe we won't. Maybe I'm wrong. And if I am, it won't be the first time.