Day 213: Surveillance special!

“Stage a crime in front of a back-alley security camera and see if anyone comes to the rescue.”

There must be a few back alleys somewhere in this town, but I don’t think any of them have security cameras. Even if they did, they would be useless: cameras in public places aren’t about making us safer, they’re about making us think we’re safer — about the illusion of safety.

Nobody is watching the feed from those cameras. It’s probably recorded and stored, so that it can be accessed and watched in the event that something prosecutable happens — but that watching happens after the fact, not in real-time. Go into a large retail establishment, though — the kind with far more overhead cameras than helpful employees — and you can be pretty damn sure someone is watching the camera feeds, at least most of the time. And why? Because there’s money involved, money to be lost if someone isn’t watching.

Surveilling an entire city — or even just the “high risk” parts of a city — in order to prevent crime simply isn’t cost-effective; not even fucking close. Making people think the whole city is being surveilled — turning the city into a Panopticon — might make some people feel safer, but it probably actually makes them less safe.

Let’s say I mug somebody in an alley that has a security camera. A week goes by, I don’t get arrested. I mug someone else, in another alley with a camera. I don’t get arrested. I talk to my colleagues, at the monthly meeting of muggers and malcontents, and it turns out that lots of muggings happen in front of cameras — and only, I don’t know, 2 muggings out of 100 that occur in front of a camera result in an arrest. I don’t have to know who Jeremy Bentham was to figure out that the cameras are bullshit.

Now let’s say I’m an oblivious middle class bougie who had a few too many $2 PBRs at the local dive, and I’m wandering home, drunk, and decide to take a shortcut down the sort of alley that people get mugged in — but there are cameras, and I know how Jeremy Bentham was, alright, because I read about him in college — and so I feel safe, because there are cameras, and the feeling of safety (and the beer) make me complacent and unobservant — and I get the shit beaten out of me, and my wallet and iPhone stolen.

Here’s my point: even if I could find a back alley surveillance camera in this town, and I went to stage a crime in front of it to see if the police would show up — I already know that the police wouldn’t show up, and I’d probably get attacked and robbed by actual criminals while I was pretending to be one. That didn’t sound like fun, which is why I stayed home, drank vermouth (I’m out of bourbon), and watched The Walking Dead.

Cameras don’t help in a zombie apocalypse either.


Day 194: A word from our sponsors.

Originally scheduled for Wednesday, July 13.

The Book was — ostensibly, anyway — sponsored by Stockham Management Consultants, Inc. I’m not sure what to do with that, having so recently badmouthed life coaches.

I’m ambivalent about sponsorship. Not the part where money is given by one party (usually a corporation) to another party — hell, I’d love a corporate sponsor — but the part where only certain such givings of money count as ‘sponsorship’.

Racecar drivers are covered in corporate logos (well, their cars and uniforms are, anyway); we know who the sponsors are. There are images of politicians similarly covered in logos; this is clever, and useful if it gets people thinking about politicians as more indebted to their corporate sponsors than to their constituents. Its usefulness is limited, though, because it reinforces the belief that sponsorship is unidirectional.

Or, rather, the idea of sponsorship itself reinforces the belief that economic transactions are somehow simple and straightforward; furthermore, the sponsoring of things by corporations works to justify and naturalize the consolidation of money and power in the hands of corporations and a certain elite class of individuals.

Obviously, though, the money used to sponsor things comes from somewhere, and at least some of it comes from us, the majority of Americans who are not ridiculously wealthy. Most corporations sponsor a NASCAR team; lots of folk buy things from corporations; therefore, lots of folk sponsor NASCAR teams — and then pay for the privilege of watching them race, if you’re into that kind of thing —— but even that is an excessively simplified account of the flow of the monies involved. I’m not an economist, though, so it’ll have to do.

I think the point I’m driving at is this: the practice of sponsorship allows average consumers to ignore the socio-political implications of their spending. Corporations have enough money to be sponsors — enough money, that is, for the deployment of it to ‘mean something’ — whereas the average consumer never deploys ‘mean something’ money.

Except that every cent counts. All money ‘means something’. And people are starting to realize it: look at Kickstarter, TopatoCo, etsy — and a bunch of other sites I don’t know — that are designed to bypass ‘the way business is done’ and connect producers and consumers more directly, so that money spent ‘means more’. The emphasis on buying locally comes from the same place.

It’s so easy, though, to ‘buy locally’ or ‘support the artist’ and then feel smug and self-righteous, like one has done one’s duty, and like one doesn’t have to think about what one is supporting when one fills up one’s SUV with 93 octane gas and then drives it half a mile to sit in a drive-thru and buy coffee at a corporately-owned coffeeshop.

Real responsibility — fiscal and otherwise — requires thought, work, compromise, and sacrifice, and people don’t like to have to do those things on a daily basis, as a way of life — because easy is, well, easier.

Clarissa: the first twenty-five letters.

Alright, I’m finally fulfilling the promise made in this post to bore entertain you with my commentary on the biggest novel of the 18th century.

A lot happens, sort of, in the first twenty-five letters, almost all of them written by Clarissa to Anna Howe, though she occasionally encloses letters she wrote to various family members, and their responses.

Clarissa is the youngest of three, with an elder sister (Arabella) and an even elder brother (James, junior); their father (obviously also James), is the middle of three brothers, John being the elder and Antony the younger. Clarissa’s uncles, though, never married, and have no children, and so form, with James, the family’s board of trustees, with James Jr. as the CEO who’s going to do big things.

That’s an anachronistic but fairly accurate description: the entire family is concerned with the accumulation and consolidation of land, and James Jr.’s elevation to the peerage. The family is upwardly aspirant, and mercenarily so — all of them, that is, with the (possible) exception of Clarissa, which is the source of the conflict.

Clarissa has, as one might expect, this being that sort of novel, two suitors: Lovelace and Solmes. Lovelace is wealthier, and charming and generous, but also a libertine, which is the family’s reason for disapproving of him (his brief courting and rejection of Arabella prior to pursuing Clarissa doesn’t help, either, nor does the fact that he wounded her brother when provoked by him into a duel). Clarissa doesn’t care for him, either, but her family’s dislike of him is so vocal, and so excessive, that she feels compelled to defend him, for the sake of justice — and both she and Anna remark that her family is in danger of driving her into his arms by the force of their hatred.

Solmes, the family’s choice is, at least in Clarissa’s eyes, absolutely distasteful, and she refuses to marry him; this defiance drives her father to intractability, Clarissa is confined to her room and forbidden to correspond with anyone (though, this being a novel composed entirely of letters, she finds a way around this immediately), and she and the family enter an epistolary Mexican standoff.

Part of Clarissa’s problem is that her grandfather left her a small estate — the “dairy house” — not particularly large, but large enough for her to live on, independently, as a feme sole. One of the enclosures we get is the part of the grandfather’s will where he explains this bequeathment: all of his sons have plenty of money, only one of them has children, his two eldest grandchildren will be well provided for (indeed, as the novel opens, James Jr. has inherited an estate from his godmother), and Clarissa is his favorite.

The family — and especially James Jr. — are hacked off not only because Clarissa has some measure of independence (which she gives up, naming her father steward or some such thing), but also because they are hell-bent on consolidating the family’s holdings, and hope that, in marrying Clarissa off to Solmes, they can recover the dairy house. There are other hoped-for benefits as well, but I’m not quite sure I understand them.

One final thing to mention: Clarissa is engaged in a correspondence with Lovelace. At first, before the opening of hostilities, the letters were to the family, care of Clarissa, and were about travel — these are unimportant. After the “rencounter” between James Jr. and Lovelace, Clarissa maintains the correspondence in order to pacify Lovelace, because she’s worried — rightly so, I think — that he might murder all her relations if he felt there were no chance of his acquiring her.

These letters are primarily interesting because of their absence. We know about them because Clarissa tells Anna about them, and even paraphrases a few, but we never get to read any of them. I’m not yet sure what to make of this, but it seems important. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

Day 159: Find a way to grow $10 into $100.

I was on my way to the hardware store — the last trip needed to finish my third broken-pipe-in-an-inconvenient-place plumbing project of the year — when I passed a garage sale. Yes, on a Wednesday: I thought it was weird, too, which is why I stopped.

It was a typical garage sale, I guess: some shoes, some ugly clothes, some ancient kitchen appliances, miscellaneous crap, a collection of inspirational cassette tapes, shit like that. There was also, however, a cardboard box full of toys: action figures, mostly, of the sort that come in children’s “meals” at fast food joints — which is to say, most of them aren’t actually articulated, and so are more properly “static” figures instead of “action” figures.

There was also a watering can in the box, for some reason.

Five dollars for the whole box.

I bought it, obviously, even though most  of it was crap: I had a plan, and I had five dollars left over for glue, which I bought at the hardware store.

When I got home, I hurriedly finished up the plumbing — it still leaks a bit, but the leak is underground, so that’s okay, right? — and got to work on my get-rich-quick project: an action figure collage. This might sound stupid — probably because it is stupid — but it’s also ART (in all capitals, which you figured out, because you’re reading this and must have noticed that I wrote ART in all capitals) —— it’s ART, I was saying, and ART sells for lots of MONEY, and money is what I was after.

Amazingly, I managed to sell the thing today, too, and for a lot more than $100: I can’t specify how much, as part of the non-disclosure agreement the purchaser made me sign — and obviously I can’t name the purchaser, either — but let’s just say I’m not going to run out of bourbon any time soon. What I can do for you, dear readers, is provide a picture of the stunning piece of avant-garde post-futurist found-materials assemblage-collage ART that I produced today:

(Just in case it needs saying: all of this is a lie. The collage is real, but it’s on a car — a VW Beetle, apparently — somewhere in Canada. Also, I didn’t take the picture. Also, one of the three plumbing projects involved a hot-water heater, and not a broken pipe. I did finish the most recent plumbing, though, and it doesn’t leak. Yet.)

Day 90: Today help collapse a currency!

The currency in question is the Bangladeshi taka (৳) (not to be confused with Taaka). This is another one of those “let’s all work together” tasks: every Book owner was supposed to buy 100৳ sometime during 2004 – about $1.80 at the time – and sell them back on December 31, which would somehow cause the economy of Bangladesh to collapse.

Either nobody did it, or it didn’t work – Bangladesh’s economy is still functioning, and while the taka is worth less relative to the dollar than it was when the Book was published (then: $1 = 58৳, now: $1 = ~72৳), it’s not “not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Which means, obviously, that I won’t be able to collapse the currency on my own, at least according to the Book’s methods – and even if I wanted to badly enough to figure something else out, the Book assures me that the IMF (whose agents look like Agent Smith but with a beard) will step in and thwart my efforts anyway. So why bother?

Really, collapsing just one currency is pointless. If you’re aiming for serious economic upheaval, you have do it like Tyler Durden and go all the way: collapse all the currencies. Brilliant!

The movie ends with – alright, spoiler alert, but Fight Club is over a decade old, and if you’ve never seen it, I’m not sure we can continue to be friends – the movie ends with Tyler’s plan actually happening, with the headquarters of banks and credit card companies and other financial institutions blowing up, so that there are no records of anybody’s debts or assets and everybody starts over. But what happens after that?

Honestly, I don’t think much would change. Sure, names and faces would change, the medium (or media) of exchange would change, but the structure of the economy would remain unchanged: a small group controls most of the wealth, both by possessing most of it and by regulating the ways ‘legitimate’ transactions can occur – and this control is, essentially, an amoral exercise of power.

The only good part of Romero’s Diary of the Dead is this section where the protagonists meet the ‘new bankers’ and get the ‘new’ economy explained (watch the last few minutes of this clip if you want some context – don’t waste your time watching the whole movie, because it’s awful – and really, only the first few minutes of the clip below are important – and also there’s some “shits” and “fucks” in the clip, so be warned – and, yeah, this is turning into a really long and unwieldy parenthetical note):

So. No reason to collapse a currency unless you’ve already got a hefty stockpile of guns, ammo, gasoline, batteries, booze, nonperishable foodstuffs, bottled water, whatever – and if you can afford to do that, you’re probably also doing well enough under the current economic system that you’re not in a rush to hasten its fall.

Looks like you’re alright for another day, Bangladesh. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? But today – today, your money is still good here. And by “here” I mean “there,” because nobody else takes takas.

Day 45: Romance day.

Oh, I see. “It’ll be Valentine’s Day,” Benrik said to themselves, “let’s make today’s task something … romantic!

I’m not happy about this. That’s a bit of an understatement; my initial reaction was something like: “I can’t fucking believe this stupid fucking bullshit!

I can be romantic when I have to be on occasion, but I don’t like being forced into it, especially on a day that’s been coöpted by giant corporations. Who remembers the humble origins of Valentine’s Day? Only medievalists, that’s who, and they don’t count. (Sorry, y’all.)

In defiance of the Book, I refused to do anything romantic today. The Book can go … romance itself, let’s say. Lorna was gone quite a bit through the day, which helped my anti-romance project. Can’t be romantic if she’s not around, right? Right.

I could have ordered flowers; I didn’t. I could have gotten her a present; I didn’t. I could have gotten her a massage, or a pedicure; I didn’t. I could have been nice to her; I wasn’t (or, well, not any nicer than usual, which isn’t that nice – and I did tell her that her ass looked good today). I could have taken her out for a fancy dinner; I didn’t. I could have cooked dinner for her; I di——

Oh, wait, yes I did. But only because she complained about not wanting to cook, and I only made bacon and eggs and chocolate doughnuts (for dinner, yes, don’t give me that look), not something fancy, and I got the bacon a bit too done, and I didn’t have candles on the table or a bottle of champagne ready in the fridge – and I ate without her because she was putting Jack to bed. Not very romantic – no, not at all.

I failed utterly at romance today, the one day of the year everybody is expected to be romantic. But I failed on purpose, dammit, and that makes it okay. My wife still loves tolerates me, and that’s all I can ask for.

Day 24: Barter day.

The Book recommends learning to barter, because it’s “a useful skill to acquire in the event civilization should suddenly revert to the Stone Age.” I completely agree, and – in all seriousness – I think about what I would do in the event of a second Stone Age every day.

Successful bartering, post-collapse, is not a matter of being able to negotiate – to get four sheep for a gallon of gas rather than three. It is, instead, a matter of hoarding certain key commodities – of acquiring and protecting a sufficient stock of the things people really want:

  1. Alcohol: liquor, mostly, but there will also still be beer and wine snobs connoisseurs even after the world goes to shit. Probably no reason to hoard any 99 Bananas, though.
  2. Cigarettes.
  3. Ammunition.
  4. First-aid supplies.
  5. Batteries.

(I’ve left off rations – bottled water, canned goods, dried beans, pasta, &c – because those are the sorts of goods you ought to hoard and keep for yourself.)

Storage is an important issue. Ideally, one needs a warehouse – and a sufficient number of goons associates to protect it – but not everyone has a warehouse handy. Taking over a Wal-Mart is an option (especially in those states where Wal-Mart carries booze) – but, again, having a group of armed comrades is pretty important. Just keeping the stuff in one’s garage is probably a bad idea, if one has any desire to actually maintain one’s inventory.

Because, really, a post-collapse, barter-based economy is not that different from the economy we have now: both are built on the exchange of dissimilar goods. Why are two apples worth one loaf of bread, or two dogs worth one cow, or one giraffe worth one bicycle? Because the people exchanging them agree that they are. Our barter system is more complex – though perhaps having a “standard currency” hides this complexity – but it’s still just as arbitrary. Why is one hour of an unskilled laborer’s time worth one of these – and why are both worth two gallons of gas? Are this and this really of equivalent value?

More to the point: isn’t our current economy largely controlled by a (relatively) small group of people who limit our access to the things we need and the things we think we need? How different, really, are the CEO who gets an eight-figure bonus and the “entrepreneur” who has a warehouse full of Absolut, aspirin, and shotgun shells? Both have armed guards, of course, and both are heavily invested in economics being a zero-sum game.

Somewhere this stopped being funny (assuming, of course, that it started out funny), and started veering toward being an anarcho-syndicalist rant – so I’ll stop, and turn things over to more capable hands: