Sunday, August 31, 2008

'Midcult' - Environmental Sustainability's Enemy

Sniggering aside to his fictional alter ego from Saul Bellow's Humbolt's Gift and description therein of how one part of the boychik's anatomy reacted adamantly to his own words during a moonlit Montauk beach encounter with an equally immodest lass, the eminent critic Dwight MacDonald [See left (of course)] is remembered in large part for a 1960 article in which he launched the term 'Midcult'. Despite its possible pyschological connotation to Khmer Rouge-like brainwashing, Midcult, instead, was a development, per MacDonald, which provided a thin gloss of culture - a "fig leaf" was his exact term - to the formulaic nature of most pop or mass culture. This latter strain was deemed 'Masscult' by D.W. and served as the polar opposite to true (and redeeming) high art, the secular God for many. Midcult, therefore, was an intermediate high ground. Per Mr. MacDonald, it was also a longterm metastisis because it drained the marrow from high art to make it more digestible for the upwardly mobile without the effort required to chew over the concepts, conundrums and dichotomies inherent within any significant cultural work.

Heavy stuff, eh? Regardless of MacDonald's thesis' correctness (and that debate, thankfully, is omitted here), there is a corollary to the promulgation of environmental sustainability in much of packaging design. Specifically modern Marketing folks stumble with Midcult-hued products when trying to build what they call 'Brand Equity'. By contract, Masscult items instead rely upon secondary advertising, i.e. radio/TV ads, and have no such need to use their packaging for a point of brand/product differentiation.

You eat, right? If so, then you ingest a fair amount of sugar. Possibly, too, you know the daily delight of a good cup o' joe like the one being enjoyed by the fraulein to the right? Some of your consumption - even if not as a result of your own toiling - happens in your own domicile, I bet. Chances are, then, you have some kind of container with sugar or coffee therein; might be a leaking five pound bag, maybe a zip-lock printed bag from the manufacturer, etc. Sugar and java beans are two examples, but it could be applied to any number of household commodity-derived items, i.e. cereal, rice, all manners of nuts, dried beans + lentils, pasta ... and the hits keep comin'.

Yes and your point? If you truly wanted to lower your individual carbon footprint - sustainability's real aim - with regards to consuming these types of items, then what would that personal supply chain look like? Would you pick-up discrete packages of each item, truck them home and throw-out packaging to make landfills grow? One superior scenario would have you bring to the store plastic containers made from recycled material (or purchase the receptacles there), fill-up what you need (and only that much) from large-scale dispensers and repeat the cycle when you needed more.

The packaging - and all the carbon emissions involved in producing it - would be eliminated save the original recycled material used for the container. Additionally, the containers could be configured on a nice pull cart which would be much easier to transport and unload than the current metal shopping pushers. One could presume that such a system in full operation would net a cost-savings to the consumer for elimination of several steps in the manufacturers' production. As our greatest non-war (during his Administration, that is) U.S. President no doubt would say of this, "Bully!".

Utterly fabulous (albeit highly unrealistic) idea, but what the hell does this have to do with Midcult and/or Dwight MacDonald? Ask why we have that packaging in the first place. When it comes to some food items, there is a legitimate safety concern. However for the types of items referenced above, tampering by a malicious entity would be easy enough in the current configurations as I know, unfortunately, from personal experience dealing with the fallout from such. The answer, I believe, is that the packaging allows corporations to perpetuate the appeal of slightly upscale items, i.e. Midcult, to build their brand equity.

Not just words nor images, but actual packaging design can denote the class of consumer who should use an item. Admittedly it's an excercise half Sigmund Freud and equal part Cindy Crawford (or name your alternate favorite advertising eye candy for melding sex appeal with an appeal to sophistication). Such is fine and certainly I am not one to protest having to gaze upon new graphics reminiscent of Malevich nor dew-eyed damsels draped suggestively across boxes of Post Toasties. This endgoal, however, is anathema to good functional design and precisely the kind of excess which serves as budgetary feedstock for the foes of consumer packaging's sustainability.

So? If that product differentiation were not needed for many/most common items, then a lot more of consumer purchases would be commodity-based. The latter is imminently amenable to enhanced environmental sustainability because it does not require the literal material of packaging to solidify its demographic appeal. All that stuff - paper, plastic, resin derivatives, etc. - is omitted from the supply chain to get the essential thing you buy into your pantry or larder. The crux here is Marketing's use of Midcult-like packaging design concepts (albeit, perhaps, unintentionally). This begets an inherently inefficient structure only to provide a brand marketing platform via the packaging (but is usually an utterly non-essential thing to the product itself).

Isn't that all Marketing does? No and, certainly, design doesn't have to cater to furthering such even outside the ole USSR. Thinking of a Rolex, is the best example. You'd take one even if it came under a wrapping of speckled jute paper because the thing itself is so impressive that the packaging pales by any comparison.

When the item is inherently worthwhile the point of product differentiation is achieved without any need for resort to ancillary marketing reassurances. It's only when a cultural fig leaf, of sorts, is needed that packaging takes on any importance beyond functionality to deliver the goods safely and/or cheaply. In that sense it's Midcult, not Masscult, which is the true enemy of enviromental sustainability.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hua Guofeng dies (finally) long after his relevance did

Old China hands attribute the real end of the Cultural Revolution, that most bloody and sickening episode, not to Mao's death in 1976 and the ascendency of Hua Guofeng, but to the policy shift imbued by 1978's "Socialism With Chinese Characteristics" doctrine. The project of the 2x-purged and ever wily Deng Xiaoping, it marked the Communists final turning away from the most radical elements of their philosophy. Nevermind the hundreds of millions chalked-up in the KIA column - directly or through such ancillary means as famine, disease, etc. - due to the CCP's various forays into monumental lunacy (e.g., 1959's Great Leap Forward) still stand as one solid bookend (the other being Uncle Joe Stalin's contribution) to the torture rack that is totalitarianism's true bent, ultimately, to eat its own. That all said, the passing yesterday of the aforementioned Hua Guofeng serves as a reminder of how such atrocities have - and still can - occur.

There is a well-written book from over ten years ago entitled The Private Life Of Chairman Mao by the late leader's personal physician for over twenty five years, Dr. Li Zhisui. Some of the book has been disputed (by Chinese authorities, go figure) and it can be a bit chatty in parts (but, to be fair, the power struggles around Mao, at many times, bore striking resemblance in their machinations to the plot progressions of even the most outrageous day-time soap operas). What is striking in the book are the exceptionally vivid vignettes provided by the doctor of various high-ranking communist personalities involved in some of the most wide-scale atrocities perpetuated by a long-standing government upon its very own people. In particular, I submit humbly, would be an examination of the strange case of Hua Guofeng - the eventual dupe of Deng Xiaoping, the enemy of Jiang Qing (at considerable peril to himself) and the true protector of his revered idol, Mao Zedong. With Hua Guofeng's passing not at the end of a Red Guard's bayonet but safely in doddering retirement from the Central Committee and any real power more than two decades after being pushed aside by Deng, there are some interesting moments to examine in the period just before Mao's death and Hua's rise to head of the Chinese state.

Hua was from Mao's home prefecture of Hunan and a leader there by 1955, when, according to Dr. Li, the Chairman first noticed and praised his skills. It was probably a bit of the bonhomie M.Z. developed for Hua which allowed the latter to keep his position and, possibly later, his life after uttering before seven thousand cadres the famous comment that "the people have lost weight, the cattle have lost weight and the land has lost weight" to sum-up the cumulative results from the late '50's Chinese central planning brain-child known as The Great Leap Forward. Certainly more storied heroes from the Long March, such as Peng Dehuai, had not fared nearly so well in subsequent years after espousing equally as strong criticisms. Hua, instead, rose. In 1970 Hua became First Party Secretary for Hunan, 1973 saw his ascension to the Politburo and, in 1976, he was made First Vice Chairman of the CCP, Premier and (most significantly) the specified successor to an already ailing Mao. Despite passing over - literally in one case - the charred remains of two previous Mao-decreed designees (Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao) attempting to follow communist China's founder as its new penultimate leader, Hua actually managed to pull it off - albeit for a short tenure. All this also against the opposition of both Jiang Qing, the Zelda Fitzgerald 'Gang of Four' head, on his left and his ultimate successor, Deng Xiaoping, pushing hard for his personal rehabilitation from the right.

So, what's the point? First a question: Why did Hua survive where so many others more accomplished and clever, fail? I offer the insight that Hua's ascent, later descent and ability to peacefully (plus with, shown to top left, some meaty-lookin' naps at party meetings to warm-up) shuffle off his mortal coil all was predicated upon a remnant of humanity he kept throughout his career and which was concentrated in a deep, blinding personal loyalty to Mao regardless of its consequences. Sentimal claptrap! Perhaps. However, before cementing this opposing conclusion to mine, please read the following passage from early in Dr. Li's tome concerning the certainly nerve-racking situation for him during the Chairman's final illness in 1976:

"Hua Guofeng, in charge of the efforts to save the Chairman's life, was genuinely loyal to Mao, deeply concerned about his health and comfort, conscientiously trying to understand the doctors' explanantions, trusting that we were doing all we could to save Mao. When we recommended new, and sometimes uncomfortable, medical procedures, like running a tube through Mao's nose and into his stomach for feeding, Hua Guofeng alone among the leaders had been willing to try the new procedures first on himself. I liked Hua Guofeng. His integrity and sincerity were rare amid the corruption and decay among the party elite."

And there's the rub. On one hand, loyal lieutenant willing to take a bullet - or at least stuff his windpipe - for his man. On the other, pliant henchman to perpetuating wholesale devastation upon his own prefecture's people due to the same blind devotion.

To digress more than just a wee bit for a moment, it is often said that one of the great strengths of the British Army before the American Revolution was its ability to turn former enemies into some its most valuable fighting units. The classic example being the two voluminous regiments culled from Highland Scots, including notably the Queen's most decorated amongst all her men at arms - The Black Watch. In return for the ability to once again wear a kilt, speak Gaelic, get a snappy (indeed) uniform and serve with one's kin, these lads became some of the most loyal members of an army which their forefathers had fought (and, members of, killed). They did so out of a sense of personal loyalty - first to their kin and, extending out, to the monarch to which they swore (sometimes reluctantly) allegiance. In short, the British Army's concessions to the Scots' culture was repaid in spades (or tartan, if one prefers) many, many times over.

That kind of personal bond, I believe, Hua Guofeng knew, understood and lived. It wedded him to Mao Zedong even well after the Chairman's badly preserved body was permanently placed on display in Beijing's Great Hall of the People and Deng Xiaoping was edging Hua out of, finally, chairmanship of the powerful military commission.

Is it better to be perpetually loyal in this manner? Certainly the people covered with lime at the bottom of mass Cultural Revolution graves would not concur. However this kind of emotion is the glue that sustains the charismatic leader's edifice and no totalitarian state succeeds without such a figure. Deng Xiaoping was no choirboy and certainly played both sides of the street plus the manhole cover inbetween during his heyday of political maneuverings, but he was never the kind of zealous true believer as Hua. Lets hope there are no more like the recently deceased when it comes to the newest CCP.

[Curious postscript: It has not failed to pass my ironic notice that little more than two weeks ago - and totally in passing - I made an innocuous reference to Jiang Qing when reporting on the poor attitude encountered at my local Chinese kitchen. It was Hua Guofeng, of course, who ordered the arrest of Jiang. What kismet this represents, I won't suggest, but suffice to say that aged national leaders might start to read this compendium on a regular - possibly daily - basis to mind well the obvious tangential death pool talent its author seemingly possesses. Miscreants of humanity, you all now have been duly warned & advised!]

Monday, August 18, 2008

The music of Wilbur de Paris available (at last) again

To those who know already the differences between Dixieland, Ragtime, Swing and the early period of what we now call Traditional Jazz (a.k.a. 'Trad Jazz'), probably the name Wilbur de Paris brings a smile to your lips. For those not fully comfortable discerning between above genres, never the mind and you, too, are in for a treat.

Wilbur de Paris, shown right, was a trombonist of note and fronted for years a band in which his brother, Sidney, played cornet. Their most famous gig was playing Jimmy Ryan's on New York City's famed 52nd Street for over a decade. Both brothers took chairs with many influential musician's bands, but Sidney's CV notably includes a stint in Louie Armstrong's short-lived + legendary 1937 Big Band.

Almost any entry concerning either Wilbur or his brother invariably contains the dreaded sentence "long since out-of-print LP's" when discussing their work. Such was the case for far, far too long, but ... today almost all their studio catalog is available via the Collectables imprint. Most of the newly issued CD's can be found at reasonable prices on Amazon, but is the issuing company's site.

Most appealing in the reissues is not just the excellent audio quality, but the ability to buy combinations of previously issued (and hard to find on their own) records. My current favorite is the duo of 'New Orleans Blues' and 'Wilbur De Paris Plays Cole Porter'. Not only does one get fresh intrepretations of chestnuts from the Great American Songbook in the latter, but the former contains the Jimmy Witherspoon vocal immortal 'Lotus Blossom'. I've seen a couple of references by Mr. Witherspoon to his performance here as the apex in his career. After one listen, you'll understand this is no false modesty on the deep honey baritone's part. His tone is superb, but this track is a true gem.

If you've ever enjoyed a Doc Cheatham or Sidney Bechet 'hot lick', then you should check-out Mssr. De Paris' work. It has the lyricism of Dixieland, the driving rhythmn of Swing and a little something something also tossed-in for an extra jambalaya measure of good Nor'lins taste.

The downward spiral of naughty bits

Your mindful author is aware that his chronological advance serves, amongst other depressing items, as a ready-made rationalization to further facilitate his - since teenager years - nascent curmudgeonly tendency. Knowing one's achilles heel doesn't, necessarily, serve to abate impact, but it can, at least, mollify deterimental impact by galvanizing one to seek out more appropriate avenues of alternative interest.

Therefore in the same vein that the straight razor & strop were a better shave (plus infinitely more environmentally sustainable) than any current beard technique employed, may your humble scribe point-out the geo-political altering fact (as I'm sure you'll agree) that present day offerings for naughty bits are equally dismal to any discerning gentleman. Besides being infinitely too vulgar, the barrage of plastic in today's models' overall form + demeanor is appalling to anyone outside a hedge fund manager with long positions on various silicon manufacturers. With the advent of the Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War, Mr. Hugh Hefner stopped being suave and his magazine slid, unfortunately, into the mire of the unwashed Id's percolating trough of abasement.

All that true, there is, my considered cognescenti, a source for some lovely (and, rest assured, only mildly compromising) snaps of less than modest lasses from days not too distantly gone-by. It's nom de plume is Vintage Pulchritude; full credit goes to its author for this post's photographic entries. A lovely website in layout and, as these offerings attest, of course with regards to content, the originator and/or perputuator of this Internet project should be given a mini-MacArthur grant for the utter civility of his effort, at the very least, and considerable taste, in the most appropriate accolade.

Despite erudite wading through and wallowing in the meat of the ole 'Harvard Five Foot Stack', it is a sublime truth to which I can attest that the images of slightly less than fully dressed ladies often are the purest expression of visual delight that many a male experiences. It's a shame - not to try mock appeasement as a closet Feminist/Steinem-nite - that this more civilized form of erotica has been lost to the present day pay-per-view potty portals of pornographic putrification. [Lattermost sentence is my entry for this year's "Willie-boy" Safire 'Nattering Nabobs Of Negativity' Alliteration Award]

Another virtue of these photos is their depiction of real, i.e. curvy, women. A veritable cornucopia of shapes is on delectable display by those whom - one can only hope - willingly shared their appeal for future generations of appreciators. No matter your particular fancy or epoch, you will find a heart-stopping pic of an ideal (and without today's requisite, it seems, stare of surliness or, in nauseating opposition, victim-at-the-scene-of-the-crime countenance). Lacking the pretense of modernity or contrived artiness, these images are in general superior to even the upscale alternatives available today from private photographers of tasteful boudoir scenes (not that these more au courant folks cannot foster some lovely moments with their own considerable talent).

Any petition to march against prostitution outside of several legal counties in Nevada has my willing signature because, inevitably, the mistakenly appelled "victimless crime" feeds the coffers of organized crime in some fashion. However the appeal of these women is equally as convincing as one of the few concrete reasons life can be beautiful, at least from the vantage point, I would submit, of the less-than-completely-prudish gentleman of moderate to fully Cary Grant-like refinement.

Think, does one, that Obama or McCain prove vexing presidential candidates at times? Try 1848's Zachary Taylor on for size!

Perplexed by McCain's inability to find the right neighboring countries on a Mideast map or Obama's seeming diss of guns & God in Pennsylvania's red heartland? How could a presidential candidate perform so poorly? Buddy, to borrow a phrase, you ain't seen nothing yet. For the ultimate 'let me shoot myself in the foot and rapidly reload' aspirant to the blanched shack @ 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, look no further than the winner of 1848's race - General Zachary Taylor.

In the course of his suprisingly victorious campaign at the head of the Whig ticket (and proving to be their second + last elected President), ole Rough and Ready, his sobriquet, mananged to accomplish all the following while not actively campaigning:

1.) Not pledge to accept another party's nomination

2.) Fail to identify himself, in fact and on purpose, with any existing party's principles based on his own personal belief in "No Partyism"

3.) Willingly accepted the South Carolina state Whig nomination which placed the rival Democratic Vice Presidential nominee (and a fellow Southern slave-holder like then Louisiana-residing Taylor) in the 2nd spot on his own ticket instead of convention-picked Millard Fillmore

4.) Waffle worse and more violently than a Sen. Kerry flip-flop caught in a late season Nor'easter re the overwhelmingly dominant issue of the day - Presidential signing of a Wilmot Proviso bill (and, therefore, not extending slavery to new territories such as present day California, New Mexico & the Northwest's vast Oregon Territory)

5.) Promise to proceed upon any particular course of action that was not first handily ratified by a sitting Congress

For this analysis and laundry list, one need only to turn to Michael F. Holt's masterly The Rise And Fall Of The American Whig Party. A necessary + insightful antidote to Arthur M. Schlesinger's Age Of Jackson, Holt's oeuvre succeeds brilliantly, if I may detail briefly.

First - to dismiss the notion that the best presidential candidate gets picked - the Univ. of Virgina Prof lays out the epic career of the day's tragically doomed politician, Henry Clay, to the backdrop of his 5 failed runs for the elective brass ring. Clay was the day's magnificent man and a forward-thinker in contrast to the machine-driven Van Burenites or autocratically-inclined Jacksonians.

Second, Dr. Holt examines how, ironically, a party which stood for a halt to illegitimate territorial conquest wound-up thrice (Generals William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, in order) running military men at the top of their ticket. This disconnect with their otherwise considerable electoral bottom-up efforts at the state level proved to be one of the twin spears to the bosom of their demise. The other, regrettably, was an eventual (at least by 1848) capitulation by the party's influential southern wing to stand in rock-rib sectional solidarity over the peculiar institution, Negro slavery, with their southern Democratic colleagues.

In the end, Taylor wound-up being the 2nd shortest-serving Chief Executive on record and none other than the enemy of New York State's tyrannical twins (Editor Thurlow Weed & Governor/Senator Seward), Buffalo's Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency. It is interesting, additionally, to read of Fillmore's great concern for acting in concert with the rule of law during his term. The sentiments might seem alien to contemporary readers, but such is the delight of exploring history.

Monday, August 4, 2008

(Angry) New China take-out!!!

"I hate all you round-eye!", said, of course, with my worst/best - depending on one's PC perspective - Charlie Chan voice. That's the most apt description of my latest experience at the local Chinese take-out kitchen and can be ascribed to the surly lotus flower behind the counter bearing a remarkable resemblance to a young Jiang Qing.
For those of you not familiar with such, a Chinese kitchen is different from a restaurant. There is no waitstaff in the former and the kitchen is fully visible. One meanders up to the counter and tries to discern one's order for accuracy repeated back by the, usually female, family member manning the cash register & phone for deliveries. Usually the cheerfulness experienced borders on saccharine, but, alas, I have discovered a bileous tumour in this stereotype at my nearest Sino outpost.
Said infamous wife of the Chairman - during younger and more fashionably-pleasing days - is pictured to the left. Qing was an actress and quite beautiful, it is reputed, before assenting to be Mao's "wife" - a loose term, albeit, for the Fifth Sword of Marxism and a top three all-time butcher of humanity. [Pol Pot, %-wise, still beats his one-time northern neighbor, but Zedong gets the prize for longeivity.]

The resemblance to Jiang had not struck me at the time my Shrimp Lo Mein was being sullenly proffered, but - while reminiscencing about the last good Szechuan Eggplant of which I had partook - the resemblance struck me like a pair of chopsticks hurled by some 8 year old as boomerang practice off his daft younger brother's head. Being the requisite soul of benificence and empathy, I was struck immediately by the continued, albeit muted, truculence of the young female taking my order the day before last. Previously I had attributed such to temporary dyspepsia, but the trend was now more obvious and offensive than a set of forged 1960 steel production charts whipped-up to appease the Great Leap Forward's new annual smelting quotas.

Why this particular co-opted Cantonese vixen is so encased in ill humour, I know not. Probably would make a good story, but I've seen the non-foot bound lass wield a heavy cleaver to separate my spare ribs and I'm not going to tempt an Emergency Room sojourn just to appease my latent curiousity. Better to stick with snaring a few extra Sweet & Sour sauce packets for future BBQ marinades, quietly hand over my plastic for payment and leave the scene in diametrically opposite fashion as my original reference - now "Mrs. Gang Of Four" in scene to the left from the Xiaoping-directed show trial & her ultimate downfall (despite employing a defense hinged upon her comment that "I was Chairman Mao's dog to bite any hand he said").