american society, big ideas, ruminations

Signal, Noise, and Lou Dobbs

Jarrod Trainque (flickr)CNN “News”

Signal to noise ratios are something most people are at least mildly familiar with. They’re the reason that you either turn off the radio or change the station as you drive out of the range of the station you were listening to.

But where radio on road trips is the obvious place to begin this analogy, it’s certainly not the end. Signal to noise ratios come in to play everywhere. Maybe you’ve picked up a magazine and had to put it down because the make-up or computer parts ads easily outnumbered the interesting content of the magazine. Maybe you’ve made the same decision about a website. Too many pop-ups, pop-unders, or just plain old ads. Maybe you “detest” “corporate” radio because of “all the ads”–my apologies for three uses of ironic quotation marks in the same sentence.

But advertisements aren’t all this is about. Certainly advertisements are an easy example. When you’re watching television, listening to the radio, reading magazines, or surfing the internet, advertisements are easily recognizable. Because ads are easy to recognize it’s easy for us, as consumers, to decide that they clearly constitute “noise” against the “signal” of the show or article we are seeking.

But advertisements aren’t the only type of noise out there, and I would hardly allow that they are the most pernicious. We know them and clearly recognize them as noise (perhaps excepting those during the Superbowl) advertisements are easy for us to filter out. Product placement, when done well, can be much harder to filter out than traditional advertising–hence it’s premium position in the minds of advertisers.

And that’s to say nothing of the hard-to-find signal in other places. For example, a few years ago I gave up on cable “news.” The signal to noise ratio was creating something far worse than mere advertising or even an out-of-range radio signal. The signal itself was corrupted. Not only were the commercials “noise,” but the content itself was essentially valueless. Were CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News the only ways to get the news I may have tolerated their pettiness, but in a world with so many options in so many mediums sitting through the noise of commercials and the noise of the channels’ shrill commentators seemed a fool’s choice.

Now what I consider “noise”–the churlish pettiness of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann–may be considered by others to be the signal. Surely both men produce shows far more interesting than they would by blindly reading wire stories, and for some that’s enough. And indeed it’s roughly the same calculus–“It’s news and entertainment”–that I use to excuse the regularly petty antics of Jon Stewart’s The A Daily Show.

There are multiple points that one could unravel from all of this, but the most important is this: you’ve always got to consider what you want, and if what you’re looking at is giving it to you. It’s very easy to say “I want to be informed about the news. CNN is about the news. I’ll watch CNN to be informed.” The logic is faultless, but the results are ugly. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs and thinks they’re being meaningfully informed about the world is severely misguided.

If there’s one societal trend I’m allowed to blindly lament without any evidence it exists, I’ll choose this: People seem less skilled about distinguishing between what’s valuable or not and using those judgments to determine their habits. They seem to flock to people and ideas and then abandon them without ever considering if they’re personally getting anything from either act.

Now I have no basis for that lament, so I must retract it. But I think this advice remains salient: Think before you watch, or listen, or read. Please.

fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.

personal, ruminations

The Joys of Life, the Moon, and Reading

Source: eye of einsteinMoon Sliver

Last Wednesday evening, as I got up from the computer, I looked out the window. There in the sky, fragile and held aloft by what seemed to be nothing was a sliver of the moon. The horizon I could see over the nearby houses was an enchanting shade of mild orange, which melted into a thin rainbow of yellow and green under a sky of beautifully darkening blue.

To improve the image, the trees, long since little more than needle-like lines in the sky, pointed up everywhere. And below, a thick layer of recently fallen snow made the evergreens look like the quintessence of winter.

Were I feeling vulnerable, I though, I might just have to shed a tear or two at this sight. A sight made all the more valuable because of all the times I know I’ve forgotten to look out the window and say “My God, it’s grand to be alive.”

It’s exceptionally easy to forget what a wonder life is, as we bustle from meetings to errands to television and bed. And it’s when we lose sight of these sights, that thin sliver of a moon held aloft over a perfectly darkening horizon, that we begin to stress about things unworthy of our care.

Getting a raise, or a Christmas bonus, are perhaps not trivial concerns. Making certain you’ve got a shelter for warmth, and food and water to keep you alive certainly are not. But when I stood there and looked at the moon, not a single thing in the world seemed to matter much at all.

Were I to have died, right then, right there, I would have been satisfied. Sure I haven’t accomplished all I’d like. I’m not confident that the world’s a better place than it would have been without me. But to know I got to fully enjoy that view of the moon over my horizon when no one else did was enough. And that can alway be enough.

It’s that feeling, that deep awareness of the importance of that moon over that horizon, that has inspired my undying love for both The Little Prince and the poems of William Stafford. Like no other writers, Saint Exupéry and Stafford seem aware of the amazing power that’s contained in watching the last flickering momemts of the sunset, as the thin moons floats aloft exactly where you want it to be.

Sharing that feeling of love and peace communicated by those men is perhaps the highest ambition of this man.