Witnesseth: Old English, meaning bear witness to the following or take notice.
— paraphrased definition from Black’s Law Dictionary.
When teams of scientists and engineers worked together for years to bring out the first ever image of a black hole last week, some of the excitement was drained off by internet trolls belittling the contribution of one computer scientist, a woman named Dr. Katie Bouman. Dr. Bouman was initially credited online by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she had earned her master’s degree and doctorate, with an outsize role in the great work, probably due to nothing more than an excess of exuberance for the achievement of one of their own when they first heard the news. If Dr. Bouman had been male, it is doubtful the trolls would have seized on MIT’s innocent overstatement and launched their campaign of vitriol geared toward minimizing her contribution and smearing her character.
From the 1983 Draw-a-Scientist Test, one of the relatively few depictions of a female scientist. Photo by Yewhoenter.
The time for minimization of online trolling has long since past. The usual advice to ignore them has not worked. The situation with trolls is like what happens in an eighth grade classroom when a cadre of unruly boys – they are almost always boys – sits at the back of the class disrupting the learning the majority of students and the teacher would like to conduct peacefully and constructively. Has ignoring those jackasses ever worked? No, it has not. The only remedy that works is invocation of real consequences for their actions. The online world is no different. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube claim they are not interfering with free speech rights when they give free rein to trolls, but they are ignoring the unique qualities of the internet megaphone.
Almost all trolling is anonymous, and making personal attacks while hiding behind anonymity calls up a gray area in slander and libel law. The Tweeter-in-Chief obviously makes all his egregious political and personal attacks without anonymity, and in some tweets he barely conceals incitement to violence against people he dislikes for political or personal reasons. Still, Twitter has not shut down his account. It used to be that one vile person could pollute only a small portion of the world with odious views; now that vile person can disseminate ugliness over the entire world in an instant, and millions more can take up the banner of sexist, racist, or white supremacist internet comments within a day or two. The opposite is also possible, of course, and good things can come about. To make internet freedom rights work, there have to be referees protecting the interests of the majority who would prefer good outcomes without the distraction of constant juvenile disruption, just as in a classroom where a teacher backed up by the school administration and by parents can rule counterproductive behavior out of bounds, restoring the peace and order necessary for instructive dialogue.
Instagram influencers are multiplying like flies, and their presence is merely annoying to most reasonable people who are not unduly affected by their activities, that is until the influencers started sitting in Joshua trees and trampling fields of California poppies. The young woman who posed for pictures while sitting in a Joshua tree often exhibits outlandish behavior to slake her thirst for attention and to cynically exploit her fans for money, and both outcomes have until now been a sideshow within the larger culture. Plants and animals don’t share any interest in Instagram idiocy, though, and when they are drawn into it and abused, then it’s up to people with common sense and a sense of decency to defend them.
A Joshua tree silhouetted by a summer sunset in the California high desert. Photo by Jessie Eastland. ThisYucca brevifolia looks quite noble in its own right, and would not be improved by the addition of some attention-seeking nitwit hanging out in its branches.
There appears to be no National Park Service ruleexplicitly forbidding visitors to Joshua Tree National Park from climbing on and sitting in the fragile trees. Maybe the Park Service assumed people had more sense and more decency than to do those things. Most people do; but rules, like locks, are not made for most people – they are made for the few without any sense or decency. The Park Service does have a rule requiring a permit for commercial photography, which Instagram photos of celebrities surely are, and if the Joshua tree sitter did bother to get a permit, the Park Service must have asked her plans, or should have. If Park Service employees granted her permission anyway, then the rules need to change, even if Joshua trees are not yet on the Endangered Species List.
The fields of wildflowers currently blooming in California are largely under the jurisdiction of California’s park system. California State Parks have rules protecting the wildflowers from being trampled by the thousands of visitors that come to see them. The main rule Instagram influencers appear to violate states that visitors should stay on the trails and not traipse off into the fields. One person going off a trail may not cause much damage, but thousands and tens of thousands doing it causes damage that can take years for nature to repair, if it ever does. Like the National Park Service, California State Parks also have a rule requiring a permit for commercial photography. The Instagram influencers and their photography crews are probably violating rules both by straying off the trails and by not getting a permit, because again, if they sought a permit they might have to be honest about their plans.
As the recent government shutdown demonstrated, the nation’s parks are staffed lightly – a Thin Gray and Green Line, if you will – and it doesn’t take much reduction in staffing to incur a breakdown in order and civility caused by a destructive minority of visitors who sneer at the idea of conservation and whose idea of enjoying nature involves only callous, swaggering domination over it. Park employees, whether at National or State Parks, have always had their hands full keeping that crowd under control so that they don’t destroy the environment along with the peaceful enjoyment of it by other visitors. Now they also have to cope with Instagram influencers, swooping in like flies, and following after them the swarms they have influenced, all bent on twisting nature to their own perverse, fairy tale vision of it. These are the self-absorbed people accidentally plunging to their deaths off cliffs in the Grand Canyon and in Yosemite while foolishly trying to take unsafe selfies.
Presumably no poppies were harmed in overlaying Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”, from their 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, on this scene from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The original editions of both survive intact and can be enjoyed by themselves. It is possible to create without trampling and destroying in a pathetic attempt to call attention to oneself.
If people want to behave foolishly and others want to watch them do it, that’s their own business. Most of it is relatively harmless, even when influencers have taken to extorting hotel and restaurant owners for free lodging and food and drinks. They’re not doing anything journalists haven’t always done. It’s just that since it is easier to declare oneself an Instagram or YouTube influencer than it is to gain employment with an organization churning out reputable journalism, there are now hordes of them, descending like ravenous flies on resorts worldwide. Even the shallow influencer whose parents bought her way into a university she was supremely unqualified to enter, even she is harmless in most ways other than as any kind of role model, because in addition to her other selfish behavior, she has displayed a dearth of moral character by throwing her parents under the bus soon after the scandal made news. It is when these influencers trespass on nature that reasonable people have to object and draw a line, warning them they have gone too far and disturbed what really matters in the world. As for that fickle portion of the public, the easily influenced, they might consider how altering the title of this post applies to them, as in “Look at this, Idiot!”
There are two phenomena related to hearing that have opposite reactions from listeners and that often originate from food ingestion noises, one called misophonia and the other ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). People with misophonia react angrily to certain sounds, and the peculiar thing is that people who are sensitive to ASMR can react with pleasure to the very same stimulus. In both cases, food noises are often the trigger, even though other noises, such as tapping, can serve as well.
Misophonia sufferers must cope with their condition using psychology and physical methods like earplugs or headphones with music. People who have tapped into how good ASMR can make them feel are watching YouTube videos, listening to audio tapes, and downloading applications to their phones which promise to give them the pleasant sensations they seek. In the case of the YouTube videos, there are ASMR performers who are making five or six figure incomes uploading content featuring themselves leisurely and noisily eating various items like raw honeycomb or ramen noodle soup.
Scene in a Russian Hospital: The Ear Inspection, an 1890s painting by Emily Shanks (1857-1936). The sources of misophonia and ASMR, while related to hearing, are most likely found in the brain, not in an overly sensitive ear.
There is no cure for misophonia, and for ASMR apparently no cure is necessary since it is relatively harmless. Some ASMR videos can make the activity seem more perverse and fetishistic than is probably healthy, but otherwise they usually fall under the category of “to each his own”. Since neither condition appears to be related to any hearing disorder, they both must be entirely psychological. No one knows precisely what adaptive purpose they might serve, although of the two it seems ASMR would be more useful because it encourages people’s understanding of what is good to eat. It would seem that people with misophonia are turned off from eating what others are eating because they are annoyed or even enraged by listening to them, regardless of how much the eaters appear to be enjoying their meal.
These two conditions appear to be opposite extremes on a spectrum, separated by a wide area of appreciation or disgust for food ingestion noises, none of which trigger significant emotional responses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but it is interesting that visuals of extremes comparable to the auditory extremes in question here don’t appear to provoke as visceral a response. All the senses have particular areas of the brain devoted to them, and in the case of the older primary senses, it appears they bypass the evolutionary later overlay of reason and speak directly to core feelings.
A clip from an October 2012 episode of the animated TV show Family Guy, created by Seth MacFarlane, who was also the voice actor for the Peter Griffin character.
Such is the case with the sense of smell, which evokes memories to which we then struggle to add words. It could be that with hearing we understand at a distance what we need to either welcome or dread, and for a minority of people that understanding has gone off kilter for ill or good. For everybody else, besides the usual annoying food noises of too loud chewing or slurping, there is the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard or the squeak of styrofoam, and it’s baffling what may be the adaptive purpose of shuddering at those noises even though the actions creating them do not necessarily threaten us, but nearly everyone can attest how those noises pierce them to their core. We know only how unpleasant it is to hear them, and we are at a loss to express why.
The vinyl record revival that started after the turn of the century continues to this day, and is even picking up momentum as younger people discover vinyl record albums anew. It’s encouraging to see renewed enthusiasm for the old format because it means manufacturers will produce new equipment for playback of 33 and 1/3 long playing albums, and some record companies will also press new albums in the format. The 45 revolutions per minute format has fewer adherents, and consequently there will be less quality equipment made for its playback.
In the 1950s, 60s, and even into the 70s there was a large market in 45 rpm records with a single song on each side. Typically 45s were played by teenagers on cheap portable record players they kept in their rooms. Those record players were capable of playing LPs, but their owners more likely used them for the cheaper 45s. Sound quality was not the biggest concern with those portable players. Now fast forward 50 years and there is a glut on the market of relatively cheap, poorly made portable record players with retro designs meant to evoke the teeny bopper record players of times past. There lies a dead end to the vinyl revival.
A Swedish made Radiogrammofon Granada III. Photo by Dan Johannson. It was not uncommon in the mid twentieth century for well made stereo playback equipment to be housed in well appointed pieces of furniture such as this console.
The main point of the resurgence in interest in recordings pressed on vinyl is that it is driven by audiophiles looking for better quality sound than can be found on digital recordings. A secondary point relates to maintaining playback equipment for old vinyl record collections. That by itself is heartening news, because there are unfortunately too many people with media files of one sort or another they are unable to play back because manufacture of the appropriate equipment has been discontinued. Vinyl at least has new life in that regard.
Just don’t expect younger people to understand the reason for the revival and the superiority of vinyl in the ears of audiophiles when their only experience of it comes from a shoddy portable record player. Using such poor equipment, its appealingly retro design aside, misses the point of the vinyl revival. In the old days, some people had no choice but to use cheap record players. There were no other options such as compact disc players, MP3 players, cassette decks, or even 8 track players, bad as they were, until later on in the 70s. In the middle of the twentieth century, for the majority of music lovers vinyl record players covered all the options from high end to low end for all but the few who used reel to reel tape decks.
The owner of this Sanyo Hi Fi manufactured in the 1970s and built into its own furniture enclosure was good enough to share his enjoyment of it on YouTube and, admirably suited to showing off this mid-twentieth century ensemble of hi fi with wood cabinets is the owner’s selection of “Early to Bed”, a swinging tune by Elmer Bernstein from the movie soundtrack to The Silencers, the 1966 entry in the Matt Helm series of spy movie spoofs.
Now the situation is different, with many more options for listeners. Buying a cheap, poorly made record player now misses the point, pleasant as it may be to imagine teenagers listening to individual pop songs on 45s played through tinny speakers in their room rather than blasting the rest of the family out of the house with a more powerful system. Those days are over. The vinyl revival now is for audiophiles and record collectors, probably nearly all of them at least in their twenties. To play vinyl LPs now and enjoy them for what they’re worth it’s necessary to spend the money for high end playback equipment. Otherwise, with many easier options available, what’s the point?
There are some people who are so afraid of change that they would rather curse the darkness of their current situation than light a candle to change it. Such people curse an onerously expensive Comcast or Charter cable television and internet bill and the infamously poor customer service of those companies, and yet when they are presented with alternatives they hem and haw and drag their feet about contacting a competitor to the large cable television and internet providers. Part of the problem is fear of change, and part of it is the desire to continue having all of everything, all at once.
People living in or near cities have choices of providers for their television and internet services, while choices for people living in the countryside are far more limited. Nevertheless, while choices may be limited, they are available to people everywhere in the United States who are willing to forego having daily access to obscure specialty channels on cable television or to hundreds of GigaBytes (GB) of data each month for streaming content over the internet. People have to be willing to give up the passivity of slouching on their couches and letting Comcast do everything for them. If that’s what they want, then fine, but don’t expect everyone else to be sympathetic to complaints about high monthly bills for lousy service. Curse the darkness to yourself if you’re unwilling to light a candle to help yourself.
A waitress lighting candles in a bar in Paris, France, in 2008. Photo by Jorge Royan.
For everyone else, there is research to be done, most likely over the internet, a job for which it is very well suited. Research options for internet service providers other than the large companies. You may have to make sacrifices in one way or another when changing to a local, small scale provider, but that is part of cutting the cord. It’s like changing from buying most of your groceries at a national or regional chain grocer to buying them from a local farmers’ market or independent grocer. City dwellers will of course have more options when it comes to technology than country folks, but the important thing to realize is that there are options, as long as people ditch the idea of having all of everything done for them all at once.
The same thing applies to television service, which starts with cutting the cord without bothering to find a new cord provider. Get an antenna! Local television stations are adding digital subchannels every year, and receiving them with an antenna costs nothing. The two key things to remember in buying an antenna are that there is no such thing as a digital or high definition television antenna (an antenna is an antenna, built to receive electromagnetic frequencies regardless of whether the content of those signals is analog or digital), and that resolving digital television content requires a slightly more powerful antenna than in the old days of resolving analog content. Where a rabbit ears antenna may have done the job before, today an outdoor antenna may be necessary for adequate reception.
A nice story from the actor, Jamie Farr, about his early days struggling to make a living in Hollywood. Documentaries like this are much easier to find now on the internet than on cable television.
Some folks who are fortunate enough to have hundreds of GigaBytes of internet data available each month at a reasonable price can do away with cable or antenna television service altogether, and instead use their internet service for viewing television. Do your research! Ask questions of yourself first about what it is you watch most and can’t do without. How many different ways are there to receive that programming? Chances are there are multiple ways of receiving your favorite content, and continuing to rely solely on companies like Comcast and Charter is a disservice to yourself and a way of continuing to curse the darkness. To take documentaries – serious documentaries, that is, not Shark Week documentaries or anything involving Guy Fieri – as one example, it is obvious that cable television offerings have been replaced in the past ten years by what’s available for free on YouTube and by subscription on services such as Netflix. Don’t keep sitting in the dark – light a candle, just don’t expect it to vanquish all the shadows in your life.
There was a time, thirty and more years ago, when late night television struck a delicate balance between light entertainment and interesting conversations with political and media celebrities in a talk show that was perhaps taken for granted at the time and has not been repeated since, namely The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In the time since, there have been other late night shows which touched on some of the same notes, particularly the ones hosted by David Letterman, but none have reproduced the entire formula, if indeed they were even trying. Since 2016, reruns of The Tonight Show have been airing, and viewing them is a revelation in comparison to the shows currently airing.
Johnny Carson appeared in August 1970 as a guest on the syndicated daytime talk show The Phil Donahue Show. Phil Donahue, on the right, talked with a wide variety of guests, much like Carson did on his show, with the difference being that Donahue often went into greater depth in his interviews, many times having only one guest on for an entire hour long show. Photo by Rollyn Puterbaugh.
Late night television talk shows have never been a fountainhead of intellectual conversation, but compared to what passes for conversation on today’s shows, the talk shows of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s could almost pass for Socratic dialogues. Perhaps with the atomization of media into YouTube and social media outlets, where people can select snippets of the shows they want to watch, having long form dialogues between host and guest is no longer salable. In that case, it’s hard to say whether the fault belongs with the audience or with the purveyors, or even whether either party sees assigning blame as necessary. Maybe they are all happy with the new situation.
Thanks to the same internet media outlets which have served the short, snappy comedy bits on the new late night talk shows well, many of the older shows which have a more limited audience, such as the earliest Tonight Show episodes hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, or Johnny Carson, are available for those who know where to look. Meanwhile, for those less internet savvy, there are reruns of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson available on select television outlets around the country.
An appearance by the Smothers Brothers on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in January 1991 exemplifies the kind of classy, understated comedy rarely seen since then on the late night talk shows or anywhere else on television.
It’s interesting that a talk show, of all formats, can hold up to scrutiny from thirty years on, because much of the political jokes and movie and television show plugs from the era of original airing have of course dated, and some may even be incomprehensible to many viewers now. What makes return viewing worthwhile is the charm and charisma of the host, Johnny Carson, in relating to his guests; the polish of the show’s production and its good natured sensibility; and the view into a world which expected a little more from its viewers in the form of attention span and intellectual capacity than what is expected today by most of the late night television media, never mind the distorted mirror held up to our society by the trashy daytime shows which we acknowledge with revulsion or delight, depending on our point of view.
As if the lack of trust hadn’t sunk low enough between internet users, advertisers, and the websites which host advertisements, along comes cryptojacking, a method for either honestly or dishonestly using the computing power and electricity of internet users to mine cryptocurrency. Last week, users of YouTube in some countries noticed that their antivirus and antimalware programs were alerting them to code hidden in ads on YouTube which were enlisting their computers for cryptomining without their permission. Google, which administers YouTube, claims to have fixed the problem. Unfortunately, there are many small websites that don’t have Google’s Information Technology (IT) resources and may have been hacked and had cryptojacking code installed without their knowledge.
A mining farm of Genesis Mining in Iceland. These are mainly Zeus scrypt miners. 2014 photo by Marco Krohn. No subterfuge involved in this cryptocurrency mining operation. Note that because the calculations required to create the currency generate a lot of heat, there are fans at the ends of all the units.
After some amount of pushing from internet users, Coinhive started offering an above board, opt-in type of cryptomining code so that website visitors knew what was being asked of them. Naturally that version has not proved popular with the website owners who partner with Coinhive because advising visitors of cryptomining activity only leads to the great majority of them declining to participate. People who are not computer savvy, when confronted with an option which will in all likelihood confuse and frighten them, will resort to the safest option and just say no. More computer savvy visitors will likely decide it’s not worth their while to have their computer slowed down to a crawl and their electricity bill hiked by a few dollars a month just to visit a website. Only the most indispensable websites could get away with it, and they are apt to have access to many other less complicated sources of revenue. Coinhive, meanwhile, continues offering the original, surreptitious version of its software.
Naturalist David Attenborough discusses brood parasitism among birds in this BBC wildlife segment.
The arms race between website owners and advertisers on one side, and website visitors on the other side, began when internet service was incredibly slow and most consumers had data caps. Ads, particularly Flash ads that jumped up and down to attract the visitor’s attention, slowed down internet service even more and sucked up the visitor’s limited data. Enter ad blockers. The thing about ad blockers, however, is that even though most of them offer users the ability to whitelist websites, most users are either unaware of that option or don’t bother to use it unless prompted by the website. Ad blockers often act effectively as blunt instruments then, punishing honest websites which display discreet, reputable ads in an above board manner, along with dishonest or careless websites which display gaudy ads that may or may not harbor malicious code. Like many other areas of life, on the internet a few bad actors can spoil the honest efforts of the majority of website owners. The answer to declining revenue from the arms race between advertisers and advertising blockers is not for website owners to get sneaky, however, which erodes trust, but to develop trust with their visitors and exercise restraint on their advertisers.
“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” ― Barry Switzer, U.S. football coach.
In 1976, the movie Network satirized the television business of the day and projected then current trends into the future, to extremes that at the time seemed preposterous. A reality show about terrorists? A planned assassination filmed live on television? Too much! Satire turned into fantasy! Looking back from over forty years later, we realize maybe it wasn’t too much. Maybe it was prophetic.
George Fenneman and Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life” in 1951, a quiz show where the financial stakes weren’t as important as entertaining conversation.
Thirteen years before Network appeared in theaters, the psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment at Yale University that tested how far subjects would go in administering electric shocks to other people they thought were also subjects of the experiment, but who in fact were actors. It turned out that when directed by authority figures (also actors), two thirds of the subjects giving shocks escalated the punishment to 460 volts, which is severe to the point of being dangerously debilitating. In 2010, a game show aired in France which re-enacted the parameters of the Milgram experiment in the name of televised entertainment. The producers later revealed that the show was in fact a fictitious re-enactment, with no one harmed, but most of the participants did not know that while the show was in production, nor did the studio audience. In the French game show, 80% of the subjects delivering shocks escalated them to 460 volts.
A 2012 experiment designed by the psychologist Paul Piff at the University of California-Berkeley had subjects play the board game “Monopoly,” with the rules changed to allow one subject to enjoy advantages throughout the game. The methodology and results of the experiment appear to indicate we do not so much learn the haughtiness of economic privilege as have the capacity already within us, waiting only for the switches of power and money to activate it. Economic inequality in the United States has burgeoned since the 1970s when the fictitious mad TV news anchor, Howard Beale, ranted about the inequities in American society, and the divergence between the haves and have nots has only increased since then.
The point where the 2010 French game show and the 2012 “Monopoly” experiment intersect is in describing what has become acceptable behavior for people seeking fame and fortune. Forty or fifty years ago, before YouTube and Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, fame and fortune were as like as not obtainable only after a long slog of work for most, and certainly it was rare to become an overnight sensation. Now we see that most people have sloughed off the diffidence and decorum they had when appearing in public in the age before instantaneous media saturation. Now it seems many people feel little restraint in satisfying their thirst for fame and fortune, no matter how ignominiously won, and will cast off all restraint when egged on by peers or authority figures. Now conscientiousness and civility have become quaint afterthoughts.