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Summer – Wk 10: On the Importance of Print Culture | Fire in the Sky | Learning to Navigate Complexity | Ride or Die: Sturgis at 81 | Matt Baker's Metal Jeremiad

On the Importance of Print Culture

[Originally published in The Nashville Free Press, 2009 – a few months before it folded]

The digital hype-machine claims that print culture is dying. News sites chronicle the death of newspapers. Magazines are folding, and book sales plummet by the day. I watch in horror as Web-based media proliferates like a swarm of brain-sucking Roombas.

Let’s hope this is just a phase. There are numerous benefits to print-based media that digital media can never replace.

Physical print lends itself to a type of mental self-discipline that web-culture threatens to erode. Books require—and therefore create a proclivity for—sustained attention.  There is no Instant Messenger in a book. There are no hyperlinks, no media players, no video games in the next window.  

Reading a book well requires you to sit down, quiet your mind, and concentrate on the text at hand for a prolonged period of time. All of the distractions endemic to a computer should be eliminated from the environment. A computer may be a handy repository of definitions and references, but so is a library. Or simply a dictionary.  If one is undertaking a disciplined study of a serious subject, computers are useful—but superfluous. Books are indispensable. 

The same is true of magazines and newspapers. Even if you sit before a mound of periodicals, devouring article after article, when you have finished a good one you will often pause for a moment to think about it. You may even take a walk. These moments of contemplation are essential to retention and understanding.

Compulsive link-clicking is the curse of web-browsing. Rather than a discrete series of articles in a physical publication, the internet functions like an endless scroll. It invites continual digression.  We often forget the last piece of information while moving on to the next—and the next—in an incoherent whirlpool, absorbing little of relevance to our lives and hyperlinking ourselves into oblivion.

Print media provides a limitation on incoming information. In order to fully comprehend any subject matter, it is crucial to narrow it down to the finer points.

Human beings are not designed to mull over an infinite supply of data. Presented with such an abundance, the information eliminated is as important as what is retained.  That is precisely the job of professional teachers, authors, journalists, and editors.  Here, you have a human mind immersed in a body of knowledge, presenting—with varying degrees of skill—the most pertinent information. A search engine algorithm hardly compares.

If this sets off your egalitarian alarm bells, then you are missing the point. I am not arguing that recognized authorities should not be questioned, or that alternative sources (blogs, ‘zines, fringe press, a ranting neighbor, etc.) are inherently unsound.  We are all responsible for discerning the truth ourselves, and it may come from any direction.

The editorial process is frequently plagued by the influence of advertisers, government pressure, or general misinformation. Every editor is bound to print some questionable articles or pass over a few journalistic gems. In this case, Net Neutrality creates a space for important voices that never make it to the press, and this is an invaluable feature. But these are usually exceptions, not the rule. 

The web abounds with bloggers who spout off on a whim, resorting to dubious sources (if any at all). Anonymous Wikipedia contributors mangle their subject matter, cutting and pasting their way to half-baked expositions. Most of this is supplementary at best.

I have to admit, my preference for print media is also aesthetic. Imagine a world where no one reads a creased-up book in the park. Where there are no coffee-stained newspapers at the breakfast table, or magazine collections stuffed under the bed. Just glowing blue faces before the ubiquitous screens. Billions of heads seeing through one hypnotic Eye.

Electronic media may save paper, but it kills the pleasure of holding a finely bound book in your hands, of clipping the newspaper for a scrapbook, or discovering that lost letter in a drawer, yellowed with time and rich with nostalgia. Online archives may contain the same words, but they do not carry the same meaning. The romance of history is in the faded photographs and the brittle spines, passed from hand to hand for generations. Only a computer—a vessel of information, devoid of a soul—could miss this distinction.

I am not proposing (here) that society should turn away from digital media. Only that preserving our print culture is vital to the intellectual and artistic life of America.

So go buy a book and read it under a tree. Subscribe to an excellent magazine and stack them in your garage. Peel your kids from the screen and take them to the library.  Remind the new generation—and yourself—how beautiful the printed word really is.

The Nashville Free Press, 2009


Fire in the Sky

Latest print article: “Fire in the Sky: UFOs and What They May Reveal” — in Parabola — Volume 46, No. 3 | Fall 2021 | Fire Issue

[Print edition only]

UFO encounters signal our transition into a technetronic era. These metallic orbs and their humanoid pilots are heralds of a spiritless future, sold to the public as inevitable, in which mechanism supplants the sublime. As such, these “flying saucers” provide a compelling symbol, be they psychological projections, extraterrestrial beings, or interdimensional entities—or, as some suggest, a liminal intersection of all three.

The most important question is whether this alien mythos portends a higher plane of existence or crushing dehumanization. The latter seems far more likely.

Late in his life, Carl Jung noted that unexplained spacecraft bear a close resemblance to what the ancients saw as “signs in the heavens.” In his slim 1957 tract Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, the psychologist wrote:

“In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode in the planets. … Under these circumstances it would not be at all surprising if those [irreligious] sections of the community who ask themselves nothing were visited by 'visions,' by a widespread myth seriously believed in by some and rejected as absurd by others.”

One of the book's striking aspects is the familiarity of its subject matter. The UFOs of Jung's day were described as being shaped like a convex lens or a cigar, much like today. They hovered as if weightless. They moved effortlessly in any direction at impossible speeds. Jung collected every government and media report he could find. Comparing them, he noticed many sightings involved military installations, particularly nuclear sites. Given the scant but puzzling material evidence, including radar detection, he couldn't rule out the physical existence of flying saucers.

Even so, the psychologist focused on the phenomena's psychic import. The central thrust of Flying Saucers is a Jungian analysis of dreams and visions involving alien visitors. In these recurring motifs, we see that insectoid machines, harrowing abductions, immanent technological catastrophe, and the possibility of salvation—either through peace on earth or an escape to distant worlds—were already present in the modern psyche at the Cold War's inception.

Jung thought these otherworldly visions reflected widespread anxiety over the possibility of nuclear holocaust, in addition to overpopulation and the resulting friction between disparate tribes. Reading his work, it's obvious that more recent tales of unexplainable aircraft and disturbing close encounters are elaborations on a well-established concept. As such stories accumulate, we're left with little more than unanswered questions and a frustrated sense of urgency.

Unedited excerpts for Singularity Weekly readers:

Whether real or imagined, UFOs represent godhood in material form. As with other heavenly or infernal powers, their pilots are thought to possess supreme intelligence, superior power, and access to higher worlds—except that their miracles are accomplished by way of technology. As Jung saw clearly, this imagery indicates the birth of a modern myth.

Perhaps the most articulate development of this idea is The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained by religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal and novelist Whitley Strieber.

Kripal and Strieber see the UFO experience as both real and imagined. These aerial phenomena are quasi-material reflections of some underlying psycho-spiritual structure. In the end, the authors claim, what we are seeing is the early phase of an entirely new religious paradigm—one that blends the transcendent realms of ancient religion with current paranormal phenomena and the detailed cosmic maps of modern astronomy, ecology, and biology. In their view, these alien entities are teaching us how to become our true selves.


As an intellectual exercise, the synthetic “super natural” paradigm has undeniable appeal. Yet as I contemplate the basis of the authors' conclusion—which originates in Strieber's disgusting abduction experiencetheir seductive idea looks less like the Transfiguration of Christ and more like the Rape of Persephone. It's a metanarrative for technocrats penetrating the natural human form by force.

In his best-selling book Communion, published in 1987, Whitley Strieber describes an experience he had around Christmas two years before. A troop of small, gray, human-like beings with “mesmerizing black slanted eyes” invaded his cabin in Upstate New York. They dragged the horror novelist out of bed and carried him onboard what appears to be a spacecraft. Inside, these beings inserted a needle into his temple and implanted a chip behind his ear. They then sodomized him with a strange mechanical device.

“The next thing I knew,” Strieber writes, “I was being shown an enormous and extremely ugly object, gray and scaly, with a sort of network of wires on the end. … They inserted this thing into my rectum. It seemed to swarm into me as if it had a life of its own.” This caused Strieber to ejaculate. The gray aliens kept his semen, he explains, as well as some fecal matter. Only afterward did these sadistic creatures put him to sleep and place him back into his bed.

“People who face the visitors,” he wrote after reading similar stories, “report fierce little figures with eyes that seem to stare into the deepest core of being. And those eyes are asking for something, perhaps even demanding it. … The goal does not seem to be the sort of clear and open exchange we might expect. … It seems to me that it seeks the very depth of the soul; it seeks communion.”

Call me closed-minded, but the authors provide a much better argument for installing a nuclear iron dome over the Earth's atmosphere than for opening ourselves to this new “super natural” paradigm. …

Support print culture!

Purchase Parabola | Fall 2021 — HERE to read the whole thing.


Learning to Navigate Complexity

Latest professional article: “NWRS 2021: Learning to Navigate Complexity” — in Protocol: The Journal of the Entertainment Technology Industry — Vol. 26, No. 3 | Summer 2021

The entertainment industry is rapidly becoming more complex. Our community is evolving technologically, and in terms of social structure. Naturally, these changes are happening in tandem with the wider world. This situation poses real problems, though.

How does a shackle-twisting mouse find some cheese in this vast maze? Aside from hard-won experience or naive trial-and-error, solid education is the only way an individual can prepare for this increasingly complicated environment.

Automation vs. Motorization

As shows grow more elaborate, automation is employed to control these complex systems. Dynamic rigs that would require an army of Oompa Loompas to pull rope and push buttons in harmony—with ridiculous results—can now be controlled by one person from a central console. Used properly, automated systems are much safer, faster, and more precise.

The “Automation vs. Motorization” panel began with the caveman tech of hand-cranked winches, progressed through the push-button chain hoists we all know and love, and left us at the human-machine interface now prevalent in the robotic age. Perhaps unintentionally, Nils Becker, Joe Champelli, and Pet Svitavsky provided a superb crash course in cultural evolution.

The panelists explained each element in painstaking detail: load arrest mechanisms, force sensors, position sensors, current sensors, e-stop/enable devices, motion control, and computer control networks. Having pulled the big machine apart, the presenters then described the variety one finds within different rigging systems.

For instance, a load arrest component could be as simple as an old school dead-man switch, or maybe something hi-tech like a laser curtain. Similarly, force sensors range from a slipping clutch to digital load cells and tension meters. From one component to the next, their presentation conveyed the historical development of these technologies, while providing a practical guide to their appropriate use in varying situations.

How much automation should one add to any given system? For the mechanical engineer, the central question is: Is automation safer than human control?

The decision-making process behind that requires careful risk assessment. Svitavsky offered a basic flowchart as a ready guide. Isolate each potential hazard (e.g., a moving set piece might strike a performer). Next, do a risk assessment. Is the risk at an acceptable level? If no, find a way to reduce the risks (e.g., adding more precise controls). Once the risk is determined to be acceptable, create ample documentation of how you arrived at that confidence.

So what happens to the naked apes when automation becomes pervasive? Svitavsky assures us, “They say the most sophisticated computer is only a fraction as sophisticated as the human brain. We need that judgment of a trained operator.” However, Nils Becker offered a more forward-thinking, if ominous perspective:

“I think it's also worth noting that while you can argue for the idea of the human eye or the human being closing the loop—and they are capable of doing amazing things—the fact is they are not as reliable and predictable as the mechanical solutions you oftentimes devise to substitute for the human attention span.”

For instance, a digital sensor will react far faster than mere human reflex. This is especially true with a large number of motors, convoluted motions, and multiple moving parts. At the conclusion, Becker made the off-hand comment that a certain degree of complexity requires artificial intelligence.

There will always be a human in the loop, we're told. So that's one paycheck secured. It's worth considering how many others will be scrapped, and what happens next.

What’s my Line?

There's an old joke: “What's a rigger without his rope?” Give up? A stagehand!

In archaic times, a length of hemp was good enough for rock n' roll. But the current era demands more specialized materials. That's why Bill Sapsis, Eric Rouse, and Andy Schmitz put together a primer for any rigger who might ask, “What's my line?” Throughout their panel, the history of our industry really came alive.

To begin with, the panelists identified the three primary types of rope used in our industry: twisted (or “laid”), braided, and kernmantle (static core with a braided sheath). Laid ropes go back to prehistory. These are typically made from organic materials—hemp, jute, or manila—and are still used in “hemp house” theaters today.

If I may add an aside, Kitty Ferguson writes in The Music of Pythagoras that the ancient Egyptians squared their architecture using hemp rope. An endless loop would be tied with three knots using the Pythagorean 3-4-5 method, then stretched out by hand, so that a pyramid's corners were at perfect 90° angles. That means rope-pullers stand at the dawn of civilization!

Back to the panel, braided rope began to appear in large quantities after the advent of machine bobbing during the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-20th century, the accumulation of technical advances saw the invention of kernmantle ropes and the rapid development of synthetic materials. Each variety has its own advantages and downsides, depending on relative strength, elasticity, durability, and cost.

Delving into synthetic ropes, the presenters identified the major types, date of invention, tensile strength, elastic stretch, critical temperatures, and ideal uses. Here are a few handy specs (relative to the above categories):

[Material (date inv.) | tens. st. | elast. | crit. temp | uses]

CLASS 1 – 3/8” strand | ~50% knot efficiency—————————————————————————————
Nylon (1938) | 5,300 lbs | 20%  | 250° | rope access, rescue
Polyester (1941) | 5,300 lbs | 2% | 275° | suspension (holds trim)
Polypropylene (1954) | 2,600 lbs | 15% | 300° | classic arena hand-line

CLASS 2 – 3/8” strand – | ~30% knot efficency (should be spliced!)
Technora (1987) | 15,840 lbs | 1% | 520° | stunt work, performer flying
Dyneema (1985) | 12,870 lbs | 0.5% | 150° | 4x4 winches, soft shackles
Vectran (1990) | 14,400 | 0.5% | 428° | cable cams, performer flying

With these amazing materials available, why would anyone continue to use wire rope in a counterweight system? Bill Sapsis put it succinctly, “There's a cost! We're not gaining anything, and we're spending more money for it. [Class 2 synthetics] have good abrasion resistance, but none of them compare to wire rope.”

Revisiting the Chase Center

On an allegorical level, all this progress culminates in San Francisco's futuristic Chase Center arena, which opened in September of 2019.

Up above the 96' grid, haul points have been installed over the beams to attach sheaves. In the long run, that means San Francisco's up-riggers might actually retire with their spines intact.

The main attraction is the arena-wide tension grid. This taut wire-rope net allows up-riggers to move around in the air as if they were walking on the ground. As Estremera notes, the up-sides are obvious: “Safety, Efficiency, and Inclusivity.” She notes that workers who would normally shy away from heights are now able to join the crew upstairs.

The potential downsides are more subtle. Up-riggers pride themselves on their guts and physical prowess. There’s also the issue of pay. From the earliest days, the element of danger has ensured our higher wages. What happens to that culture, and its benefits, when the playing field has been flattened?

For now, that's something for San Francisco's Local 16 to hash out. But if Powers is correct, and tension grids are the future of rigging, that means big changes are coming to the rest of the world. As with most technological revolutions, the cultural loss can't be denied.

What's a stagehand up in the tension grid? A rigger.


Throughout recorded history, the tendency toward complexity has been part of the human condition. Judging by the fossil record, it’s surged in fits and starts for well over a hundred thousand years. For the planet as a whole, adaptive radiation is a defining feature of the 3.8 billion year-old process of biological evolution.

Even for those who reject the scientific narrative, the motif of simplicity yielding complexity can also be found in the book of Genesis, in the Hindu Vedas, as well as in Chinese etiology (from the Yin-Yang to the I-Ching's sixty-four hexagrams).

There's a sense of inevitability in the Myth of Progress. Life naturally tends toward greater complexity. That's how roadies went from stinky cargo vans to polished tour buses. It's how riggers went from being fearless steel-climbers to herd-like sheave teams. In 2021, this progress means a rapid shift toward robotics and social diversity.

How do we navigate this increasing complexity? The answer is as old as Athenian philosophy. Listen to the finest minds. Learn to adapt. And think for yourself.

Read the whole thing HERE

Or read the entire Protocol issue HERE (free)



Ride or Die: Sturgis at 81

My Latest “Ride or Die: Sturgis at 81 (or is it 81?)” — in ColdType

PDF pg. 26-29

In mid-August, we wandered around Sturgis, South Dakota, watching bikes roar past. The soundtrack was like a classic rock station coming out of a DeWalt boombox on a construction site. The best was an AC/DC cover band whose stocky frontman and lanky schoolboy guitarist were the spitting images of Brian Johnson and Angus Young. The crowd rippled with the most energetic white people boogie you’ve ever seen. …

After a long jaunt through the chaos of bikes and dead cowhide, we left the noise behind for the silence of the Badlands. If you focus on the bison, prairie dogs, pronghorns, and big-horn sheep – and ignore the gawking tourists – ancient patterns emerge in the striped buttes.

As with any exposed geological formation, the Badlands offer a continuous story that goes back millions of years. Drought, deluge, and then long periods of grazing, fighting, and breeding before the next disaster.

Down in the gulleys, the first layers of silt, limestone, mud, and volcanic ash – tinted red and yellow by various minerals – were deposited around 75 million years ago. The strata end at the top around 28 million. Water erosion exposed this story a half million years ago.

If weather patterns persist, the storybook will be closed in another half million years when the last layers are washed away. Staring out into this rugged void yields the same lessons one gets from reading tree rings, Hesiod, or Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson.

Our lives are a thin layer of lunacy over-laying an endless series of victories and folly. You won’t win every time, but you won enough times to get this far. Might as well go all in before the tables close.

Reading the Badlands stratigraphy from the bottom of the page to the top – like an old Chinese pseudo-history – we move from the aquatic dinosaurs to mammalian megafauna. At the end, it says we live in the greatest country on Earth, largely because it’s ours.

The last sentence reads so slowly, it never ends. If you read between the lines, though, it hints that one day ’Merica will be no more.

If the ’rona doesn’t find you, geo-history will.

So ride hard, assholes. Get your kicks while you’re still kickin’. You can’t see the end of the road from here, but you’d better believe we’ll get there soon enough.

Read the whole thing (and see all the pics) HERE



Matt Baker's Metal Jeremiad

Andre Antunes plays over the dreadie Matt Baker’s anti-vaxx jeremiad at a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting.

It’s superb.

“No autotune or vocal editing software was used.”

Don’t believe it? See the raw video HERE