19 July 2021

Another Brick in the Failure Wall by Lard Alec

“Back in 2011,” writes former Dun and Bradstreet Vice Chairman Jeff Stibel, “I had an idea.”

Uh oh.

In the brain and/or mouth of the wrong person, the word idea can be a chilling thing indeed. For those in the climate-controlled and wealth-cushioned C suite, idea means something different than it does for the rest of us. It DOESN’T mean, “Good idea sneaking a quart of contraband Milk Duds into the Imax, Sean.” Instead, it means something like “the inspired problem-solving vision of an executive super being who is set momentarily free of the unjust limitations of history and/or the physical universe.” An idea, in the worlds of Silicon Valley, high finance, and corporate leadership in general, is like a wormhole through the guts of materiality from inspiration to progress and profit*.

In this case, the idea is to LEARN FROM FAILURE. Because, sometimes, gang, there are bumps in the road.  There are oopsies that cause us to, say, squander centuries of energy policy, end marriages, or mildly hamper third-quarter earnings. But Stibel’s FAILURE WALL, thankfully, lets us redirect our mistakes (you only get one!) back onto the shining path of growth, progress, and growth.

He continues, “I knew it would turn out to either be a boom or a bust situation, but I honestly had no clue which scenario was more likely. Nonetheless, I plowed forward with optimism, comforted by the fact that I was 'walking the walk' and taking a risk” (bold face, underlining, italics, and yellow highlighting mine). I’d like to point out a few noteworthy features of Stibel’s prose** since this is, after all, the language of leadership and innovation in America’s transcendent class.

•    “[B]oom or bust” is both a cliché and an intellectually constraining duality. Stibel doesn’t consider the possibility that THE FAILURE WALL is, perhaps, just a mildly helpful gimmick that could be workshopped into something, you know, even more effective than a figurative trophy case of shame that converts mistakes large and small into a mush of contrite workplace quasi-epiphanies.  
•    The word “situation” is the empty tic of a lazy public speaker or a B- first-year college essayist. In composition speak, “situation” is considered “deadwood”—that is, an empty/inefficient word that should be replaced with a more specific and meaningful one.
•    “Scenario” is deadwood too. In the excerpt above, it means pretty much the same thing as “situation,” and was probably chosen, if I had to guess, for dictional variety, making it that rare and heretofore unnamed “double deadwood” or “redundant deadwood***.”
•    “Plowed forward”: is it possible to plow backward? We may never know, but the phrase suggests something like “proceeding despite difficulty” or even “proceeding recklessly, in the face of better, or at least other, options.” For Stibel, though, it seems to mean “trying out a hacky idea with some people who are paid to listen to him and do what he says (i.e., employees).”
•    “Optimism” is the (foolish, unjustified, evidence-free) belief that the future will turn out well. For most of us, optimism comes and goes, but for Stibel and people like him, optimism is a fanatical, dogmatic necessity, without which the world might vanish in a deflationary puff. Business grows! Progress progresses! Smart guys and their cool ideas get better and better as they churn toward the singularity of universal mega-mind! Even failure is an INVESTMENT in the future, and should, upon recognition, inspire us with optimism for growth, change, and more growth.
•    “‘[W]alking the walk’” and “taking a risk” are both clichés but only the first is set inside quotation marks. Why the distinction?
     o    Perhaps Stibel wants to remind us that he did not invent this expression; the quotation marks let us know that someone else came up with it and he’s just borrowing it for a sec.
     o    Or maybe he is signaling that this is commonly used but especially charged and important speech that must, because of its rhetorical voltage, be insulated from all the less powerful speech that surrounds it.
     o    Or maybe he knows it’s a cliché and quotes it to signal that he’s being fetchingly casual here (that is, “I’m too busy for wordsmithing right now”). In this “scenario,” it would stand to reason that he does not know that “boom or bust,” “plowed forward,” and “taking a risk” are also clichés as he neglects to put them in quotes.
     o    Or maybe, like many people, he “uses” quotation “marks” kind of “haphazardly.”

If you believe language arts creeps like me, Stibel’s prose is full of not just bad writing but bad ideas since ideas are often subject to and defined by the medium in which they’re presented (see Objectivism).  But I don’t think Stibel’s Kinko’s-ass prose has dampened his ability to communicate with his audience. Powerful, economical, or even original writing is no friend to what passes for good ideas in his milieux. For these people, writing and language are often inhibitory media****; that’s why they love the ear mics, tri-colonic lists, and big, careening gestures (like some kind of underwater, dream tai-chi) of TED Talks—all the visual mannerisms and illusions of physical communication distract audience and speaker alike from the emptiness of their WORDS. Besides, if you’re worrying about WRITING WELL, you are probably not devoting sufficient energy to discovering the next great innovative hack-insight (like, “Why don’t we turn water into a publicly traded commodity?” or “Why don’t we charge tuition for public schools?”).

Stibel goes on:

"The idea was to create a 'failure wall,' by taking a large white wall***** in the office break room and encouraging employees and partners to write down their biggest mistakes. . .for everyone else to read…I snuck into the office in the middle of the night****** and stenciled some inspirational quotes by famous people about failure onto the failure wall . . . . Then, I took a sharpie and wrote down a few of my own failures: Things like, 'Should have sold simpli.com to that little company in Silicon Valley (Google)' [WHOOPS!] and 'Should not have waited so long to have kids*******.' I left a handful of markers and a few simple instructions: (1) Describe a time when you failed, (2) write what you learned, (3) sign your name." (Italics etc. mine)

So, yeah, no fuckin thanks!

Although I do think it would be pretty funny to sneak into the room and write some charged confession (“Before I go home, I wait till everyone else leaves and then I lick all the computers…”) on behalf of an office rival or, even better, a good friend. This of course could expose you to revenge forgeries but only if your identity is discovered or inferred. At any rate, if presented with THE FAILURE WALL exercise at your place of employ, I think the best idea is to make a mockery of it, or even to claim that you have nothing to share “since you don’t make that many mistakes anyway.”

There is a darker side to all this too. Someone I know went to a workshop in which people were encouraged to write criticisms of their workplace and/or recall negative things that had happened to them at work. This is not the same thing as THE FAILURE WALL, but it is obviously in the ballpark and probably derives therefrom. The exercise did not go well. People hung up dirty laundry, recalled past traumas, and scrawled conflicted denunciations onto a perimeter of whiteboards, as instructed. And then, “Oh, look at the time!” the session was OVER and the workshop leader, thinking there was another session lined up for the next day (there wasn’t) mumbled some bromides and rode off into the sunset.

But, hijinks aside, THE FAILURE WALL is ultimately disturbing because it is, upon introduction, immediately haunted by unacknowledged and unspeakable truths and tragedies. Remembering that time you kept a helpful suggestion to yourself instead of sharing it with your team because of endemic timidity pales in comparison to piercing but honest disclosures like “taking this job,” “having that first drink,” “being born,” or whatever. Societal failures, too, cast volcanic shadows over the tame, half-bullshit Sharpied confessions of your suck-up coworkers. You can summon your own list of collective failures here; I don’t have the heart to recite them at the moment.

In place of the THE FAILURE WALL, I would suggest a couple hours of affordable, weekly therapy******** and/or meaningful work, but that’s not the kind of solution you can spitball in a WeWork conference room. The real self-help move is to walk away, though this too is mere fantasy. In its place, you can, if asked to dip your toe into the struggle session of contemporary knowledge work, 1) lie and 2) keep the truth hidden somewhere safe, where it won’t be perverted by the lackluster insanity of corporate “innovation.” In other words, you can keep it to yourself or go home and, provided you’re feeling up to it, share it with someone you love.


*Progress only being progress if it leads to profit, of course.
**To my ear, it all sounds like the sanguine ravings of a late-90s George Saunders antagonist.
***The most insipid town in the old west.
****As are the historical record and natural laws.
*****Is this in fact just a whiteboard?
******Calm the fuck down, man!
*******This weirds me out a bit because I’m pretty certain this guy has done some BUTTERFLY EFFECT analysis and concluded that if he had had kids earlier, he wouldn’t have the kids he has now.
********Subsidized by, say, capital gains taxes.

09 July 2021

What the Fuck Is Tubi? by Lard Alec

One night, I was thinking about but not watching the weird new “on-demand [free] streaming service” Tubi, and wondering what the fuck its deal was. So, I opened up Bing, the search engine that’s number two in every conceivable way, and therefore, I thought, just the figurative man for the job, and asked, “what the fuck is Tubi?"

Granted, I had watched some weird stuff on Tubi already (among other things, a Bigfoot documentary and a third-rate spaghetti western), which meant that I both knew what it was and had no clue at all what it was really about. Well, Tubi, it turns out, is an “‘on-demand [free] streaming service’” (owned by Fox, no less) that inserts ads into its weird 3rd-rate inventory of films and shows, and therein lies the rub.

As Josh Levinson and Daniel Martin write in the article cited above, “The only real downside is the content. Since Tubi only makes money from advertising, it has little money to spend on content, so it licenses more affordable older material” and, I must add, newer bad material as well. Not satisfied watching Matthew McConaughey in Mud on like nine other streaming platforms? Watch it for free (never mind your extant subscription costs elsewhere), with minimal commercial interruptions, on Tubi instead. Not sold? Well, guess how many Jean Claude Van Dame movies are currently available on Tubi. If you said 24*, one for every hour of the day, then you are right. Just think: what you could have rented for a dollar a piece from your neighborhood video store back in 1994 (provided that you could send such recent anti-hits as The Bouncer, Enemies Closer, and Swelter back in time to the very same year Timecop** was made) you can watch for precisely no dollars here. There are 19 Seagal titles***, more than 10 but less than 15 Chuck Norris movies****, and at least five of Andrew McCarthy’s second-best efforts warehoused in Tubi, but there is, sadly, nothing featuring Jim J. Bullock.

Given that their business model is showcasing acre after acre of ad-hacked Saturday afternoon cable horseshit of yore, Tubi offers an extensive drop-down menu to facilitate browsing. To narrow things down a bit, you can wade through the murk of “Recently Added” content, which offers more than 500***** new titles to choose from, including Air Force One, Striptease, The Girls of Rio, North Korea Vs. USA: A Game of Nuclear Chicken, Liberace’s Easter Special, and Sasquatch Abounds, all before you even get close to the end of the list. Okay, then. Maybe the “Most Popular” and “Featured” labels will help propel you toward a movie that’s right for you. How about Marlon Wayans in Little Man? Or half the famous people from the 90s in the legal snore A Time to Kill? Or maybe Kevin Costner in The Postman, his 1997 post-apocalyptic answer to the question: “What if Waterworld but on land?"

There is good stuff on Tubi, like Oliver Stone’s JFK, a bunch of Werner Herzog flicks, and a few undisputed classics by the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Guest. But watching A Mighty Wind on this dismal website, on your whirring computer, is an act of subtle but powerful denigration, like looking up a childhood friend on Bing. It takes what you used to value (“Oh, Eyes Wide Shut”) and gives it that non-magical Wal-Mart bargain-bin feel. The proximity of Seven Pounds and Dark Crimes makes you****** want to read a book instead.

But despite its (albeit fascinating) mediocrity, Tubi is a valuable heuristic for analyzing the contemporary stream-scape. It’s basically Netflix without the vertically integrated reverse-engineered gimcrack like The Midnight Sky and Extraction or those two shows you don’t like very much but binge watch nonetheless. I know Netflix’s subscription bill is trending up, but Tubi asks, “What if you paid nothing and could watch 55% of this junk anyway?"

Like Farley Mowat’s experiment in Never Cry Wolf*******, where he ate “only mice for protein sustenance” to show that wolves could survive on small game and weren’t, as was speculated at the time, decimating northern Canadian “caribou population[s],” someone, not me, should perform a like experiment with Tubi, watching it and nothing else for maybe a month or so. Is this kind of passive, almost anything will do approach to streaming sustainable?

Of course, for millions of Americans driven by immiseration to the margins of digital consumption, the answer is necessarily yes. But the broader pitch is unmistakably sober, if deflating: Tubi probably doesn’t have what you want, but maybe it has (just barely) enough to get by.


 *as of this writing.
 **Time Cop is currently available on Tubi.
 ***Though a couple of these are Spanish-language redundancies.
 ****The number is a little hard to pin down without watching a handful of ambiguous returns. For example, it’s hard to tell why a “Chuck Norris” search retrieves titles like the 1959 B-movie horror Teenage Zombies but it does.
 *****I stopped counting at 500.
 ******Well, me.
 *******In the film, at least. I read but cannot remember if he actually does this in the book.

02 July 2021

Twistin’ Like a Flame in a Slow-ass Lady by Lard Alec

At first, I thought my work here would focus on film, but after one half-hearted semi-review of a 23-year-old UK crime flick*, I’ve found myself gravitating toward the subject of “funny music.” Much lighter fare. I may still complete a piece on Up in the Air, downsizing, and The Great Recession, but while that theoretically sounds like an interesting project, and one I picked out for myself, mind you, it also reminds me a lot of HOMEWORK, something I wish to avoid.

Avoiding it is harder than you might think. As much as I try to consume art, literature, and popular culture according to penchant and whim, my leisure pursuits take on a quasi-professionalized drift over time. Buffs of all stripes are familiar with this, at least in part. It’s hard to watch one Korean horror movie, read one Le Guin novel, or like only one band in a particular genre, as taste soon gives way to anxious compulsion. For many, a completist rationale presents itself as an organizing principle against the chaos of one’s own goddamn free time and justifies frivolous pursuits by lending them a scholarly cast. Before you know it, you’re writing or yell-vlogging about what you love instead of just loving it. I think of this as The Homework Mindset (THM)** and its telos is not learning something or feeling good but publishing a report of some kind. It takes anxiety over surplus time and insecurity over identity and productivity and turns those into free labor (posts) for tech companies and data aggregators. THM is the thief of free time.

All this is insidious because there is no test or final grade. You never have to turn in the homework; the shadowy professor of the subconscious who assigns all this will never answer emails or mark a word you write.

This is no way to live. So, as a curative for my own case of THM, I’ve focused on funny music, which is self-evidently frivolous, and well outside the realms of edification. I’ll never learn anything important doing this; the stakes could hardly get lower. It is, I believe, a redemptive waste.

Smoke Weed, Andre Rison!

One of my all-time favorite dumb/funny songs is “Fire Woman” by The Cult, which was released in 1989, the perfect time for this kind of bullshit. The Cult was like 60% a hair-metal band, but the lead singer had straight, dark hair and wore a cowboy hat*** with a skull-and-crossbones on it. They were something a Poison fan would listen to when feeling introspective. The Cult had a couple of hits in the late 80s and early 90s before Grunge killed the golden, whammy-barred goose, but “Fire Woman” is their enduring classic.

“Fire Woman” is a soulful heck-raiser of a tune with weirdly ecumenical appeal. On the one hand, it’s got a splashy, tacky, gushing libido**** but its circular, tweetery signature guitar riff is perfect for playing a conservative talk show back from a commercial break. I think of it, too, as the ultimate emotional primer for discussing a heated NFL quarterback controversy with a disgruntled drive-time fanbase. The song suggests somehow that talking will not suffice; only screaming will do.

And then there are the lyrics, which thanks to Ian Astbury’s adenoidal warbling, are rarely clear, especially in memory. More often than I’d care to admit, the song will come back to me in attenuated form. I’ll be vacuuming or folding laundry and the Ner-ner-NAIR-ner guitars and attendant hallucinatory associations will spill forth:
          Ta, ta, ta, ta, twistin’ like a flame in a slow-ass lady
          You’re drivin’ Miss Daisy
          Fireeeeee (etc.),
          smoke weed, Andre Rison!
As the vacuum tugs mightily at a crusty patch of carpet.

Of course, the song also brings me back to a simpler time, when so much of the music I listened to came out of the TV. Once in a while, MTV’s musical lottery, a weird AR rotational formula just beyond the mind’s ability to chart, would spit out a punchy hard-rock hit, like “Fire Woman” or “Kickstart My Heart” in between Paula Abdul snoozers, and I’d be lit up for three-to-five minutes, thinking about buying posters or impossibly expensive CDs. This early-life conditioning, randomly alternating punishment and reward, as vast, clashing demographics tuned in to the same hopeless farrago of corporate hits, ensured that, years later, I would be weirdly passive about my musical tastes and scarcely know the difference, in some cases, between affection and ridicule.

Do I like The Cult’s “Fire Woman”? I feel like no matter what I might say in response, I would be lying. It’s a special piece of music for that reason. “Fire Woman” makes some small part of me a mystery to myself. In this way, the song is bottomless, endlessly fascinating, without being interesting.

And funny too:
          My heart's a ball of burnin' flame
          Oh, yes it is
          Prancing like a cat on a hot tin shack
          Lord, have mercy
          Come on little sister
          Come on and shake it*****


 *Which is mostly about HAIR COLOR.
 **See Nick Mullen on this phenomenon, around the 30-minute mark here:
356 - Sympathy for the Joker (10/8/19) by Chapo Trap House | Free Listening on SoundCloud.
 ***The band was founded in West Yorkshire btw.
 ****A young woman in one of my undergrad lit classes told me during a smoke break that she and all the other cocktail waitresses at the restaurant where she worked loved it and saw it as a kind of closing-time anthem during which they’d count tips and do shots, etc.
 *****These are the real lyrics.