No One Is Actually That Smart

The first weeks of the Trump administration bring to mind a term inherited from the previous era when a Republican occupied the White House: shock and awe. It has been the modus operandi of Trump, and particularly of his “deputy” Steve Bannon, to maintain a virtually uninterrupted assault on what are generally considered the pillars of the American liberal order. Whether it’s the don’t-call-it-a-ban-on-Muslims ban on Muslims or the refusal to accept decrees from federal courts or the reorganization of the National Security Council or the ranting calls to foreign leaders, the constellation of these actions appears designed primarily to overwhelm and exhaust.

Concomitant with this barrage, we have seen a proliferation of thinkpieces whose intent is to try and decipher what exactly all this means. A prominent example of the genre was a piece by Yonatan Zunger suggesting that Trump’s recent actions represent a “trial balloon for a coup.” Other posts have floated around suggesting that the various executive orders are merely “headfakes” to take our eyes off something more important. I don’t want to get too deep into the analysis, which I don’t think holds up all that well; what I’m more interested is the psychology and rhetoric behind such pieces and the intellectual current they represent.

The problem, ultimately, with all of these articles is not that they attribute excessive malice to Trump et al. but that they engage in torturous reasoning to do so. The chain of logic is strongly reminiscent of the conspiratorial theorizing exhibited by the subjects of Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: the enemy is always a twisted genius, constantly outhinking the simple citizen. If the conservative solution to this problem is purity of heart and spirit, the liberal counterpart is the teasing out of every possible thread of causailty until the web of intrigue is unraveled. Conservatives are the daytime soap opera and liberals are the police procedural. This tendency speaks to the state of the liberal intellectual order: deprived of any actual influence over policy, it finds comfort in the “secret knowledge” afforded by deciphering the allegedly-complex puzzles presented by its enemies. As Matt Christman noted on a recent episode of Chapo Trap House, all we had left during the Bush years was our ability to know we were being had, and now even that is in danger of disappearing. So liberal commentators engage in the pursuit of an esoteric knowledge that does not exist and wouldn’t actually illuminate anything even if it did.

Sometimes, of course, there really is a web to be unraveled; actual conspiracies do happen, after all. But typically, the unraveling comes after the fact and is driven by uncovering what actually happened. Real conspiracies are invariably banal and straightforward and the main mystery to be solved consists of finding out what the principals want to conceal. The attempts to forecast Trump’s and Bannon’s actions, on the other hand, are prospective and are predicated on the assumption that the actors involved have a complex, multi-phase plan that they are carrying out.

The evidence for such a plan is virtually nonexistent, and indeed, it would make very little sense for such a plan to exist, or for the people ostensibly carrying it out to believe that it would actually work. The reason is simple: plans are good for situations where your opponents’ moves are strongly constrained and can be reasonably predicted in advance. Politics notably does not fit this schema: even zero-order predictions of how a policy will be received are proven wrong all the time, much less any higher-order effects. The reactions of political opponents also cannot be predicted, nor informational secrecy insured; the ship of state is constantly leaking, and never more so than when the government is as unpopular as Trump’s. Even if some secret plan existed on a whiteboard in a secret office, it would be delusional of its designers to think that it could actually work. Which is not to say that Trump is not delusional, but rather that we should not attribute to delusions the character of actually feasible master plans.

The disadvantage under this administration operates, in this day in which information literally travels at the speed of light, is that by the time anything has been planned it will very likely already have been made public. There is a large and experienced cadre of legal analysts in American society who are more than equipped to properly parse things like executive orders, so that five minutes after something becomes public, we can expect a pretty good analysis of its actual effects. In such an environment, multi-phase long-term plans that rely on successive stages of implementation would be useless: any meaning that can be read into a public document can almost certainly be read out of it, and such things have to be public in order to actually take effect.

All of which is not to be confused with the message being broadcast by some institutionalists that consists more or less of “don’t worry.” Do worry, but worry about the right thing. The people running the Trump administration are not particularly smart, but they do exhibit a certain animal cunning. In this, they are very much like the authoritarian regimes they tend to admire; such regimes have only a few ways of influencing people, typically either by trying to build support through mass media, or by visiting violence on their opponents. The tools at their disposal are actually very crude, which in my view is much more of a reason to be concerned, because history suggests that when the gentler methods of persuasion fail, Trump and Bannon will gladly move on to violence.

Trump is barreling into the teeth of the American institutional order because that is all that he understands. The various cranks and lunatics who work for him are not people who have bothered to spend any time comprehending how anything actually works; they only understand the language of domination. In this they are of course the distilled id of the Republican party, the culmination of a decades-long process of purposeful self-stupefaction in the service of revanchist ethno-nationalism and looter capitalism. Having hollowed out the pillars that hold up the country, they are now running into them head-first, intending to topple them entirely. Were they more subtle, we might have more to be concerned about the continuing erosion of these pillars in more circumspect ways (c.f. John Roberts), but subtelty is not a thing that they are either spiritually or philosophically or constitutionally capable of.

What we should concern ourselves with is not hypothetical twelve-steps-removed manipulations but the outright violence that is being worked first on actual living human beings and second on protective American institutions. Any effective confrontation with Trump has to start from those positions. But we also need to recognize that the danger we are fighting is not remote; it does not exist at multiple stages of remove from our current situation, stages that are decipherable only by some analytical priesthood. On the contrary, the sequence of steps is very clear and publicly visible to anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to gaze into the abyss. Sooner or later, whatever plans exist in Bannon’s fevered imagination will come in contact with reality, at which point the question of the degree to which the American state is willing to do violence to its political opponents1 will become paramount and the protective constraints will either hold or buckle. Which is to say that Trump’s actions are not so much the “trial balloon for a coup,” as they are just the coup itself.


  1. Which is, of course, quite high already, especially for anyone who isn’t white, straight, and male. 

Fugue State

So, that really happened.

I had previously been working on a different piece that I had hoped to post this week but the outcome of the election and the realization that we will all soon be living under a one-party state interrupted that particular line of work.

Instead, I suppose the thing to do is to reflect, as intelligently as one can manage under these circumstances, on the path that brought us here. We might ask with Herzen, “Who is to blame?” but the catalogue of failures is almost too large to comprehend. Was there a failure of the media to take seriously the manifest danger of a Trump presidency? What about the strategic incompetence of the Clinton campaign? The FBI, flexing its deep state muscles on the eve of an election in which late deciders broke overwhelmingly for Trump? The Republican party, which for decades has groomed its voters to be receptive to conspiracist ideation and authoritarian leadership? The Democrats, who in doggedly pursuing a neoliberal economic policy had foreclosed on the possibility of a genuine left populism? The voters themselves, some for ignoring or wishing away Trump’s extremism and others for openly abetting and aiding it? Yes, all of these and more besides.

In the wake of this historic event, we are left standing amidst a pile of ruins after a cataclysm, sorting through the wreckage to try and understand where it came from and what drove it. For the more privileged among us, every day feels like an altered reality in which all of the things we thought were true are not just false but fundamentally incomprehensible; the frameworks by which we understand the world seem inapplicable. For anyone belonging to a sexual, religious, or racial minority group, the concerns are much more immediate: waves of violence and harassment have already broken out, as literal fascists come out of the woodwork, emboldened by the triumph of their Fuhrer.

There will surely be recriminations and autopsies aplenty; it is not clear to me that the responsible parties will learn anything from them. On the one hand, as I write this, even arch-establishmentarian Chuck Schumer endorses Keith Ellison (championed by Bernie Sanders) to lead the DNC. On the other hand, there are rumors that Chelsea Clinton, of all people, is being groomed for a run for Congress in suburban New York. This election ought to serve as a wholesale repudiation of Clintonian Third Way-ism, but its grip on the party’s affect, inclination, intellectual underpinnings, and ideology is far from being decisively loosed.

I don’t wish to spend much time rehashing the various arguments here. There will be ample opportunity to do so in the coming weeks. With unified control of the federal government, Republicans will be able to finally implement their fully destructive agenda in a way that we have never seen before. Any advances made in the previous 8 years, if we’re optimistic, and actually the last three decades if we’re realistic (let’s not say what we think if we’re being pessimistic) will be undone decisively. More than that, as it is easier to destroy than to build, the basic institutions that ensure the adequate functioning of governments at the federal, state, and local level will be dismantled. It’s easy enough to point to the obvious horrors of putting a climate denier in charge of the EPA or Ben Carson in charge of Education. Sarah Palin will duly sell off the national parks as head of Interior. But the real damage is going to be done not by top-level department heads, but by the legislative destruction that a Republican legislature sending bills to a Republican president can work. Civil rights, unions, reproductive rights, regulatory frameworks, taxes, environmental protections: all of these things are either going to vanish or be weakened beyond usefulness. Putting them back together is going to be the work of a lifetime. The institutions that even make resistance to this possible will be fatally compromised, and Republicans are going to do their best to dismantle civil society so that we are reduced to a nation of serfs. The new feudalism is here.

We have seen a preview of what this looks like from observing Kansas under Sam Brownback for the last several years. Now we’re going to see what this mode of governance produces when applied to an entire country. Perhaps its effects will be so devastating that the electorate, further demographically altered in another two or four years, will reject it, but pinning our hopes on that would be expecting too much. It’s clear that opposition will have to come from the ground level, and that means it will have to be organized for resistance. That is our collective task for the foreseeable future.

Odi et Amo: Programming Edition

One of the things about being a programmer is that you use a lot of different tools, where “tool” is roughly defined as a discrete program that accomplishes some particular task. IDEs are tools; the command line is many tools accessed through a common interface; programming languages themselves are tools, which are typically surrounded by a larger ecosystem of other tools that are necessary to get things done; and so on. Most of these tools can be combined with one another, so a given user’s toolchain can, in theory, comprise any one of a exponentially exploding number of tool combinations.

The tragedy of the situation is how bad so many of these tools are.

There’s a phenomenon which I think is more prevalent in the software development world than in other technical disciplines which licenses half-ass work. There are a lot of contributing factors to this attitude. For example, the fact that most software isn’t running critical operations means that bugs are, relatively speaking, low priority. It’s just not that important to get it right the first time, unlike, say, building a bridge or engineering a car. Combine that with the valorization of hacking and you get a recipe for lots of shoddy software. Furthermore, there’s a legacy element to software that makes it hard to correct old mistakes or fix bad old tools; unlike physical tools, which wear down and have to be replaced, code is basically forever. So if a bad tool makes its way into the chain by e.g. having been constructed earlier than others, it’s near-impossible to get rid of it.

The other attitudinal problem that software development has as a community is a predisposition towards “tough it out” thinking. This is manifested as a predisposition to disregard such factors as user experience and design quality and shift the blame for any problems with the tool onto the user. These attitudes usually don’t appear (or are repressed) in environments where user experience is actually important, i.e. where money changes hands, but those are situations in which software developers are selling their product to non-developers or the general public, rather than creating tools for each other. When it comes for tools that we actually use, the conventional wisdom is that it’s the user’s responsibility to adapt to the tool, rather than the opposite. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that tools which have become entrenched from early adoption in the days when almost no tools existed have only marginal incentive to improve.

As a result of these factors, we’re left using a lot of extremely shitty tools to perform development tasks. The various shells that originated with Unix and have been passed down to its spiritual descendants are uniformly terrible. Shell scripts have a barely-comprehensible syntax while providing a fraction of the power of real programming languages. And yet these pieces of legacy code are used to maintain entire operating systems. That seems clearly absurd, but in a world where no scripting languages existed, a shitty scripting language was better than none.

Of course, when real scripting languages appeared they only improved the situation marginally. Perl was still shitty, but it allowed you to break so many more things and it had regexes as first-class objects for some reason so you didn’t have to pipe your text to awk (and learn yet another syntax), so people jumped all over it. Ignoring the fact that it initially had almost none of the useful abstractions of more advanced programming languages like Common Lisp; ignoring that its syntax was cobbled together from an unholy mixture of C, awk, and shell; ignoring that Larry Wall, for reasons that can only be assumed to be sadistic, designed it to mimic natural language; the internet went bonkers over it and adopted it wholesale. And now, even though it’s slowly dying out, every once in a while a programmer logs into some old system and discovers some legacy Perl scripts whose author is long gone and which are utterly incomprehensible. The old saw about Perl being the glue of the internet is apt: it’s a nasty, tacky substance which gets into small niches from which it is impossible to extract. Perl is built on the philosophy that there’s more than one way to do it and you should never be prevented from picking the wrong way. Perl sucks.

Autotools sucks. Autotools started out as a script that some guy wrote to manage his Makefiles, which also suck. Autotools is conceptually a correct idea, namely, that you shouldn’t have to write per-configuration Makefiles by hand, but it goes about it a bizarre way. Take a look at the truly byzantine dependency graph on the Autotools Wikipedia page. There are a ton of moving parts, each one with its own configuration logic. Naturally all of this is written in shell script instead of a real language, so Cthulhu help you if you ever have to get down into the weeds of Autotools. Most people run it like a ritual invocation; you just do the minimal amount necessary to get your project to build and hope nothing ever breaks. Actually, Autotools is written in at least two languages, because it uses the m4 macro processor, which Kernighan and Ritchie wrote for C back in the Paleolithic. Hmm, what other language do I know of that is useful for writing domain-specific languages because of its advanced macro capabilities? But of course using Common Lisp would have been too obvious, so m4, which, again, has a totally incomprehensible syntax and no real programming language functionality to speak of, is what gets used. As a result of a lot of talented people wasting a substantial portion of their lives, Autotools has been brought to a level where people can actually use it, with the result that this nightmarish rats’ nest of code has become irreplaceable basically forever. Autotools is the abyss.

PHP is a fractal of bad design. Created by someone who wasn’t really interested in programming for people who also apparently aren’t interested in programming, or consistency, or reliable behavior, or really any other normal markings of a functional piece of software, PHP caught on like consumption at a gathering of 19th century Romantics, because it allowed you to make terrible web pages, which is what everyone in the 90s wanted to do. However many number of revisions later, people are still phasing out shitty old features of the original language in the hopes of someday creating something one-third as pleasant to use as Python.

Make is terrible and confusing. Autotools was create so that you wouldn’t have to write Makefiles by hand, which tells you something about what a pleasant experience that was. Make was initially purely a rule-based system, but at some point it dawned on folks that perhaps they’d like to have things like “iteration” and “conditionals” in their build process, so naturally those got grafted onto Make during, I assume, some sort of Witches’ Sabbath, with Satan’s presence consecrating the unholy union. Despite being created contemporaneously with many of the tools mentioned above, Make does not share syntax with them. In order to avoid writing Makefiles, a complicated tool called cmake was invented, which allows you to write the files that write the Makefiles in yet another syntax which in comprehensibility is somewhere between make itself and a shell script. As per Greenspun’s 10th Rule, Make almost certainly contains at least a portion of a working Common Lisp interpreter. Make sucks.

All these terrible and weird legacy pieces of code have survived down the generations from early times when they were nothing more than convenient hacks that made it possible to automate things. Over the years, they’ve accreted corrections and version numbers and functionality and eventually the process of using them was either made somewhat tolerable or most users were insulated from the messy core by layers and layers of supporting infrastructure. Because replacing old stuff is hard, and because code doesn’t wear out the way that hardware does (and also because most of the cost of usability fall on the developers themselves), these tools just persist forever. Any discussion of their terrible usability or their shortcomings is met with, at best, indifferent shrugs (“It’s too bad, but who’s going to take on that job?”) or outright hostility. People become habituated to their tools and view any suggestion that they might be inadequate as a personal attack. Just check out that PHP post, in which a bunch of people in the comments defend PHP on the grounds that “it’s weird but we’ve gotten used to it!” Well, you can get used to driving a car with a faulty alignment or driving nails with a microscope, but that doesn’t mean you should. If you bring up the point of Perl’s syntax or its weird referencing rules, you’ll be told that you should just memorize these things and once you do it’s not that big of a deal. Suggestions that perhaps knowledge of modern programming practices should be put to good use by creating replacements for tools that behave in opaque and hard-to-understand ways are greeted with incredulity at the heresy.

As developers, I think we do ourselves no favors this way. We should demand, and work to build, better tools. We should have build systems that can be configured in a language that’s easy to parse and understand. We should make use of the strengths of the languages we do have, so that when we need a macro expander, we have one in Lisp or one of its variants. We should have languages that don’t confuse us with unnecessary visual clutter and which are easy to read. We should not be afraid of abandoning old tools because they’re old and were created by esteemed personages at the dawn of programming. We should, above all, pay lots of attention to human factors and usability studies because human time is precious but programming time is cheap. We should, in the end, not be afraid of change, of learning from past mistakes, and of abandoning rather than perpetuating legacy code. That’s my presidential platform; write me in next year in November.

Tolerable Cruelty

If you want to read a sad, sad story of how miserably our standard approaches to drug addiction have fared, check out this long investigation into the lives and deaths of heroin and prescription opioid users in Kentucky. It takes a long time to get through; I think I needed an uninterrupted hour, at least, to finish reading it. The picture painted therein is not so much grim as nearly hopeless. I will spare you the suspense: we have in our toolbox drugs that could, very possibly, eliminate the threat of relapse and subsequent deaths from overdose for most addicts, and we refuse to use them on preposterous “moral” grounds.

There’s simply too much too good reporting in the linked piece for me to be able to summarize it in a way that does it justice, but a basic theme keeps emerging again and again: there’s a conflict between what we know works from a scientific and medical standpoint, and what facilities and people who are nominally charged with caring for addicts are actually dispensing. What we know works is something that blocks the withdrawal symtoms and eliminates the cravings, preferably without making the user sick. That something is called suboxone, and it is, as the article notes, pretty much the “standard of care” for treating opiod addiction.

What gets meted out to addicts, on the other hand, is best described as moralistic bullshit. Interview after interview cited in the article has people saying things like suboxone is “not sobriety… it’s being alive but you’re not clean and sober.” Or: “[treatment] is a drug-free model. There’s kind of a conflict between drug-free and suboxone.” Or, and this for me is maybe the worst of all because not only is it scientific ignorance but in my view actually judicial malpractice, the case of Judge Karen Thomas, who literally orders addicts off suboxone if they want a sentencing reduction. It’s hard to imagine the callousness required to utter the following:

“I understand they are talking about harm reduction,” Thomas said. “Those things don’t work in the criminal justice system.” In a subsequent interview, the judge added, “It sounds terrible, but I don’t give them a choice. This is the structure that I’m comfortable with.”

This is where we are as a society: the comfort of a judge taking precedence over medical standards of care.

Our model of thinking about addiction is, unfortunately, skewed because, as the article points out, addiction treatments got under way before we really understood anything about how it affects the brain. But the problem goes deeper than that. Consider the language used by those who speak negatively of suboxone, and you find the same words and phrases making an appearance across the board: “clean”, “abstinence”, “drug-free.” Why do these particular locutions have any moral weight? After all, we would not say that a cancer patient must remain “clean” or “drug-free.” We understand that cancer is a disease and that those who have it are not morally culpable for it[1]. We generally accept that treatment of diseases frequently involves the consumption of various drugs; all the talk about purity goes out the window when you come down with pneumonia.

Unfortunately, we routinely fail to extend this understanding to mental illness. Our folk theory of mind is terribly suited for talking about mental illness as actual illness. Or, if you prefer, the scientific image is not nearly as appealing as the manifest image. To suggest that an addict is sick rather than wicked seems to remove the possibility of condemnation, and if there’s one thing we’re desperately attached to in this country, it’s the ritual of condemning people for moral laxity. To use Judge Thomas’ terms, we just aren’t comfortable with a medical model of the brain, and our comfort clearly should take precedence over people’s real lives.

Cleanliness, purity, abstinence: whence the moral valence of these terms? They suggest a kind of “natural” state, uncorrupted by external influences. The mind as unsullied Eden, so to speak. Where the moral valence of that comes from, I don’t need to tell you. Out of this obsession with the rhetoric of the purge comes the idea that if addicts fail, it’s because they want to fail; if they had wanted to succeed, they would have. A circularly self-justifying chain of reasoning that admits no breaks into which some notion of medical effectiveness could penetrate. Cheap moralism, all the cheaper for the fact that the moralists never need justify themselves, operating as they do against a backdrop of erroneous assumptions about the nature of health and illness and about the mind’s relation to the body. Cartesian dualism is a hell of a drug, as deadly in its own way as any opioid.

It’s not an accident, of course, that blue Minnesota has seen successes where red Kentucky has failed. As usual, liberal states are much more willing to move from moralistic scolding to an attempt to actually do something about the problem[2]. Massachusetts and Maryland have had some success as well.

Ever since I learned about it from Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, I’ve loved Judith Shklar’s definition of a liberal as someone who thinks that being cruel is the worst thing that one can do. And what is the denial of medical treatment but the most abject cruelty, visited by the state on some of its most vulnerable members, in service of a misguided attachment to a moral language it can barely articulate? This is the damage that the short-circuiting rhetoric of purity can do, measured in actual human lives.

[1] Or, at least, most of us understand this. There’s no shortage of people in the world more than happy to take to task a cancer patient for not having lived an approriately “clean” life, but they tend to occupy the fringe rather than the mainstream.

[2] Although, unfortunately, not as willing as they should be: far too many liberals ascribe unnecessary moral properties to “purity” and “cleanliness,” as the anti-vax and anti-GMO movements readily demonstrate.

In Which A Great Secret Is Revealed

Prepare to be enlightened:

Here’s my tale of woe. I decided to upgrade my Enthought because it’s nice to be able to build things for a 64-bit architecture. However, Enthought decided to change their system to something called “Canopy” which I can only assume is some sort of dumb marketing gimmick. The name is meaningless, but what *does* mean something is that it changed the install path.

Ok, fine, it did do that. However, it relied, for reasons unknown to me, on an old set of build flags which were apparently a carry-over from the previous version of Enthought. When I tried to pip install scikit-learn, I got a bunch of compilation errors related to a missing header. Turns out that I never got these errors before because the missing headers only apply to 64-bit builds, and due to an issue with the Qt libraries not working right in previous versions of Enthought, I had been using the 32-bit version (which itself was problematic because it sometimes caused various version shifts relative to other Python-related tools, but NEVER MIND THAT FOR NOW).

Total bummer, right? What I discovered from reading the logs was that when I ran setup.py install, the CFLAGS parameter being used to build the C components of scikit-learn pointed to /Developer/SDKs/MacOSX10.6.sdk. This is a problem because when you upgrade XCode (which I absolutely had to do to get a different build working), XCode *ALSO* changes the paths to the SDKs! For reasons which are, like the above path change, shrouded in mystery, the SDK for OS X 10.7 and up now lives in /Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Platforms/MacOSX.platform/Developer/SDKs/MacOSX10.7.sdk.

At this dramatic juncture in the narrative, I realized that I needed to tell distutils, which is Python’s build system, where to find the new SDK. But how do I do that? Where does it get its information? Well, to find out *that* carefully concealed secret, you have to go to the distutils directory and look at a file called sysconfig.py. Specifically, take a look at a function called _init_posix(). Therein you will discover that the dictionary from which distutils gets its flags is seeded by reading the top-level Python makefile, which is located in the lib/python2.7/config/ subdirectory of the location where Enthought (excuse me, “Canopy”) installed itself.

Armed with this powerful information, you can now symlink /Developer/SDKs/MacOSX10.7.sdk to the location where the true SDK for 10.7 lives, and edit the Makefile’s CFLAGS options to change the isysroot parameter to the SDK symlink.

And now you can sudo pip scikit-learn install, and it will build without errors. You’re welcome.

No Logo

Since I assume you don’t live in a cave, I will also assume that you’re familiar with the University of California’s recent decision to “rebrand” itself by developing a new logo*. The reception among students and other right-thinking individuals has been less than enthusiastic, to say the least. The abysmal design has been rightly compared to a toilet bowl (complete with the urine-colored “C”) but there’s more to this story than the logo’s unqualifiably hideous aesthetics. Put simply, the whole “branding” effort is a reflection of the degree to which the corporate mentality has taken over universities wholesale; the logo itself is merely a urine-stained symptom of a larger problem.

Nothing suffices as better proof of this thesis than examining the positive reactions to the logo (yes, they exist). For example, in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, a “creative director of a branding agency” writes:

This is one of the freshest and most creative education identity schemes in a country full of boring institutional logos…As designers know, a brand is much, much bigger than the logo. A logo is just one element of the entire system but the general public does not understand this.

Translation: fuck you, you stupid plebes, for not appreciating my art.

It would be tempting to take Rob Duncan to task for being a blithering imbecile (the man actually defends the equally abhorrent logo of the London Olympics; you know, the one frequently analogized to a certain cartoon character giving a blowjob), but that would be ignoring the real problem. The problem isn’t that Rob Duncan is stupid; the problem is that he types words which mean pretty much nothing, and is convinced that they mean everything. The problem is that Rob Duncan, and people like him, have committed an egregious category error about what sort of institution a university is. Further down, Duncan writes:

Times have changed. Audiences are more visually sophisticated. They expect more out of an identity than just a static logo (which would describe many university or college logos).

Which audiences? What is the evidence that they “expect” any such thing? Do they “expect” anything of the sort from their institutions of higher learning? Duncan doesn’t say; someone enamored with facts might point out that the audience has, in fact, not been particularly pleased with this innovation, but for people like Duncan facts are simply inconvenient things. The theory of the brand is all, and all must submit. That’s just how things are, even when that’s not how they are. When the facts run counter to the theory, it is the facts that must be changed, or ignored, if they’re too inconvenient.

Consider the classic UC seal: what exactly is “static” about it, as compared to the logo? If anything, the seal actually depicts, literally depicts, more motion, with the ribbon flowing across the bottom right and light emanating from the star. A bit busy? Sure, maybe it’s not the best Twitter icon, but why should this matter? It ought to be a simple task to reduce the visual complexity slightly for use in other media, not a task requiring a committee working for several years on a re-engineering effort. But the real key to the seal is the content, which is easy enough for anyone to comprehend. The book is the symbol of learning; light is a symbol of, well, enlightenment; “let there be light” echoes the classical Biblical line, but posed against the background of the book, suggests that real light comes from learning. And the University of California is the preeminent institution of higher learning serving the citizens of the Golden State.

It’s a series of very simple, very straightforward visual metaphors that convey a genuinely important message: that learning is good, and that we as a society are making a public commitment to it. To cast the university as a brand is, first, to simply mistake what the university is about in a fundamental and deleterious way. For an institution of the caliber of UC to do so is also completely pointless. Who, exactly, is the mythical “audience” for this change? Is there anyone in the world who needs to understand a symbol that refers to UC but would not understand the UC seal? It’s a maneuver that doesn’t make sense from any angle; you can talk about “brands” all you want, but UC does not need to brand itself. It already has a brand, that of the best system of public universities in the world. Is someone going to be swayed in ways they might otherwise not have been swayed by this change?

When a business needs to convince people to buy more of what it’s selling, it might engage in such an enterprise. FSM knows that the world is full of iconic business logos, from golden arches to exaggerated checkmarks. But univeristies are not businesses, and UC in particular doesn’t need to convince anyone to go there; demand far outstrips supply when it comes to a UC education. This obsession with image over substance is a symptom of fundamental rot, of misplaced priorities and failure to understand what kind of institution you’re running and for what purpose. Consider, if you will, the official video put out by the university which “explains” (for sufficiently generous interpretations of that word) how they came up with the new design**.

Look what happens there. First they eliminate the entire UC ring as well as the “Let there be light” ribbon. Then they trace the outline of the book (which is barely recognizable as a book) and then they shove the book out of the way (how’s that for symbolism?). Some dude is then showing turning a crank which reproduces the horrid design in yellow-on-orange (orange is not a UC color!).

In predictable fashion, graphic designers, mistaking their work for high-concept art clearly over the heads of the idiot public, have gone to bat for it, in the process demonstrating how little they understand what they’re talking about. Example time!

Kali Nikitas:

The older UC logo, she said, conveys a sense of stability while the new one looks “incredibly progressive.”

What exactly is progressive about the letter “C” embedded in the letter “U” is left unexplained.

Petrula Vronkitis

“It is much more about brand differentiation,” she said, noting that many of the old college seals looked too much alike. UC has shifted dramatically, she said, “from an institutional look to a marketing look that is young-skewed and vibrant.”

Indeed, “from an institutional look to a marketing look.” Whether that represents any sort of vibrancy worth the name is not something that Petrula Vronkitis is qualified to answer.

The piece de resistance of the whole thing is nonthing other than the official University of California brand guidelines which amply demonstrate how deep the dementia goes. Some actual, real, completely not at all made up by me because I couldn’t possibly be clever enough to create satire of this quality quotes:

A brand – our brand – is the intersection of what we say about ourselves, how we act, and what people think of us.

Translation: a brand is everything and nothing. It’s whatever we need it to be whenever we need it, which is how we avoid anything that remotely looks like consistency and accountability.

the UC lock-up reinterprets the classic elements of the seal into a vibrant, visually energetic, engaging and relevant identifier.

Translation: Cyan and urine-yellow are now “vibrant” and “visually energetic.” How any of this is “relevant,” exactly, is unclear, but hey, see point #1; it can be whatever we need it to be whenever we need it. If we say it’s “relevant,” then it damn well is, facts notwithstanding.

The UC monogram is a contemporary reinterpretation of the UC seal. Modern in form, it embodies both the relevance and rootedness of the university.

Translation: We’ve gotten rid of any element that indicates an obvious connection to the sorts of values universities are tasked with upholding. This means we are modern.

The wordmark is the official relationship of the words “University” “of” and “California”.

Translation: ….[gurgles]….[vomits on self]….[eats own vomit]….

Even in the most flexible and dynamic visual system, guidelines and consistency are critical to ensure we understand who we are.

Translation: How can we understand who we are without a dumbed-down visual symbology that effectively eliminates all but the barest hint of who we actually are? Did I mention that war is also peace?

UC is not just a university, contributing educated graduates to California, but a place in perpetual motion

Translation: Contrary to what you may have been taught in the Berkeley Physics Department, the University of California is not, in fact, subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Brand attributes

  1. Visionary.
  2. Experimental.
  3. Optimistic.
  4. Awe-Inspiring.
  5. Essential.
  6. Audacious.
  7. Pioneering.
  8. Proven.

Translation: We are awesome! How can you not look at our logo and deduce how awesome we are?! P.S. AWESOME.

the UC visual identity is more accurately described as a visual system

Translation: I like to use opaque metaphors that obfuscate any sensible interpretation that a competent speaker of the English language might try and undertake. I believe that this represents cutting-edge design theory.

Let There Be Light is not just the university’s motto; it is a fundamental concept of the brand identity.

Translation: I don’t understand exactly what universities do, but I won’t let that stop my mission to redefine universities.

And finally, my favorite part, because you really, really cannot make this shit up:

We all must be good stewards of the UC brand. Being mindful of how we use and express the UC brand allows the university to grow and flourish. UC is a dynamic, complex and important institution to represent. The brand is how the university’s contributions and values can be more easily understood. It’s that simple.

Translation: State support is contingent on using the correct font spacing. Also, making it easy to understand values means that you have to eliminate any element that might actually hint at the values that an institution of higher learning ought to hold from your “visual system.” And people can’t be trusted to understand your contributions by being told about them, because in this brave new era of modernity and progress words are outdated.

And next to this inspiring collection of words is the following image:

That’s right: it’s a goat in a vest being led on a leash by a disembodied hand. If that doesn’t say dynamism and leadership and progress, then I don’t know what does!

There you have it: the end result of the ludicrous obsession with “branding” is an Orwellian mangling of the English language to the point where not only does the text in question not convey any comprehensible meaning, but to where it is explicitly designed not to do so. All of these fuzzy metaphors and pontifications about visual systems and brand stewardship are not statements of value; they are not statements of what the university stands for and how it achieves and lives those values. They are statements about how graphical elements can look like they might hint at possibly achieving those values, or possibly how people can be convinced of this if they’re hammered often enough. Eliminate the visual reminders of the institution’s original mission, repeat meaningless shibboleths with sufficient frequency, and someday you’ll eliminate the spirit of the thing too.

* Yes, I am aware that the logo does not replace the seal.
** I realize that this might not be a literal depiction of how the new design was achieved, but it’s how it’s being conceptualized post mortem.

In Which Your Esteemed Correspondent, Having Relocated From a Hill Infested With Squirrels to a Field Blooming With Flowers, Traveled First to Fort Dearborn for Scholarly Contests and Thence to Frozen Northern Wastelands for the Purpose of Delivering a Scientific Oration, Continued South to Visit With Familial Relations Residing on the Shores of Oceanis Pacific, Returned Once More Northwards to the Lands of Pontchartrain du Detroit for Another Scholarly Bout, and Thence Continued Homeward to Fort Duquesne, Dutifully Vows to Resume His Reportage and Furthermore to Answer All Letters and Other Missives Directed Towards Him, Which He Has Lovingly Collated in Chronological Order of Reception for That Very Purpose.

It may happen as soon as this weekend.

Christopher Hitchens memorial linkfest

I don’t know if you all heard this, but apparently Christopher Hitchens died. I know, totes unexpected. A lot of people have written a lot of things about that, aparently, so I’ve collected some of those things here for perusal and edification.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/12/16/farewell-to-c-h/

http://nplusonemag.com/Hitch-Obit

http://articles.latimes.com/2001/may/20/books/bk-144

http://crookedtimber.org/2011/12/17/even-though-hating-mother-teresa-was-great/

http://www.counterpunch.org/2003/09/10/hitchens-as-model-apostate/

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/blog/arguing-hitchens/

http://coreyrobin.com/2011/12/16/christopher-hitchens-the-most-provincial-spirit-of-all/

http://coreyrobin.com/2011/12/18/yes-but-more-on-hitchens-and-hagiography/

http://www.businessinsider.com/regarding-christopher-hitchens-2011-12

Stop putting stupid shit in your webpages, or, Fuck your Web 2.0

Ok, here’s the deal, internet people. I know that everyone is totally stoked as all fuck about Web 2.0 and how you can put doodads in your sites that do all kinds of crazy shit. What a lot of you apparently don’t realize is that you’re populating the internet with functional equivalents of the HTML blink tag. All this motherfucking flash and JavaScript that does god knows what and takes up memory on my computer is unnecessary. I’m calling for a goddamn moratorium on this shit. Here are all the things your website should ever have:

1) Text.
2) Images. But not too many. Only those that are necessary.
3) The absolute minimal amount of JS to do whatever it is your site does. All these crazy popout menus and weird Flash crap and whatever else you’ve got going up in there, I’m looking at you, Salon, cut it out! I don’t need any of this nonsense to read your site!

Seriously, just because it doesn’t look as blatant as blink doesn’t mean it’s not irritating or won’t slow down everything that’s going on in my browser. If I’d had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten an “Unresponsive script” error, I would be able to buy lunch like three times this week.

Fuck you! Make it easy for me to read your shit, assholes!