Monday, June 1, 2015

Finals: An End of Year Reflection

Overall, I'd say that this year has been a pretty stressful year- American Studies is by far the class that I'm most sad to see go, though. It's definitely the highlight of my school day, a class where you're actually rewarded for talking! Junior year schoolwork hasn't been kind to me (Nor most, I would think) in terms of allowing me proper amounts of sleep and socialization. This seems to be a New Trier ritual year though, and we get the freedom of being seniors after it ends, which is nice to think about. After which, of course, I'm off to college (presumably, gap year may be included). I've written a fair bit on the educational system and structures on this blog here, and it's certainly an aspect of pride that I've survived New Trier's grueling junior year. I'd like to think that I developed as a person during this year, and especially during this class. I know for a fact that I learned how to make sick powerpoints, as well as picked up some new author names I hadn't heard of before. It was the first time I'd had a lot of the discussions that we did in a classroom setting, which provided an interesting new perspective on it. Regardless, it was certainly a fun time, and provided a much needed respite from the horrors of Math.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ireland: Green & Rainbow

Ireland is a historically conservative country, never really pointed at as a shining beacon of progressiveness by...well, pretty much anyone. That is up until now. Very recently, Ireland has overwhelmingly passed a democratic vote to allow gay marriage, landing them as the first country to do so in the world. Now, while this is amazing and all, I'm sure you're wondering "Hey, this is a blog about America, what's it got to do with that?" Good question, you! See, Irish-American ties have historically been a lot stronger than most countries, at least culturally. The sheer amount of Irish Americans around have seen to that (Myself being one of them). Much as Irish traditions spread over to the US, it's my hope that this new wave of tolerance does as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Memetic Futures

The internet, though a wonderful tool in many aspects, has brought quite a few interesting twists (to say the least) to western society. It’s sped up communications to the point of instantaneous transmission, leading to what used to be considered only time enough for a rush-job into perfectly adequate time for completing an assignment or project. Though this has obvious implications for business and other more formal aspects of our li(v)es, the effect that I’d like to focus on is that of our culture. Internet culture is a thing now, and despite growing up with it it’s still confusing and surprising to myself now and then. However, one of the most prevalent things that internet culture has created is the “meme”, usually an image or phrase that communicates an idea that is usually imbued with humorous connotations then. 

These memes used to become popular through a few image-boards, posting them and then making fun of how simplistic or counter-intuitive they were, or even just some mildly funny aspect of it that was blown way out of proportion to make it ironically humorous. The latter portion of this is where the seeds for the present were sown, in shameless irony. Back before the turn of the decade, memes were generated at a relatively low rate, perhaps a new one popping up every few weeks, maybe once a week if it was a really sizzling day. These elder-memes would be posted with frequency at the time of origination, but then quickly toned down until it became one of the whole pool of memes, never being over-used or relied upon to create a punchline in and of itself. Around 2012 though, that all started to change. Memes were suddenly being produced at a much higher rate, the internet catching onto the idea of them and having quite a blast while doing so. For a span of a few years, the web kept churning them out at ever increasing speeds- until it started to leak. 
                           One of the earlier memes, Shoop da Whoop, based on a Dragonball Z parody

Suddenly, brands and stores started to sell and produce physical copies of memes, be it on clothing or other items. The internet’s meme culture was seeping out into the real world, and this led to only more memes being created. The whole internet was swept into a veritable meme-frenzy, producing dozens a day and posting them everywhere it could. The lifespan of a meme’s originality and humor was no longer months or even years, it became days if not hours. The natural progression of this would be for the dead horse to just be buried and done with it, but then irony crept into the mix. 

Around 2014, horrifically overused memes started to be posted again, only this time with the context of ironically laughing at them. People were no longer finding humor in the actual content of the meme, but instead in the notion of it being laughed at in the first place. It reached the level of meta-irony around early 2015, where even the irony wasn't funny anymore to the majority crowd. Instead of being original and coming up with different ideas, they instead added another layer of irony- posting an already ironic meme and laughing at how un-ironic the posting of it became. The signifiers of irony and humor became one in the same at this point, something no longer being considered entertaining unless it was an ironic, self-referential mockery of itself. 

This too spilled over, reaching what I would consider to be a boiling point when someone ironically spent 5000$ on purchasing “rare pepes” from a seller on ebay (or even more, though this bid likely didn't go through)- images of a poorly-drawn frog that were considered funny just due to the irony attached with posting them. An ironic purchase of an ironically ironic image that was put up for sale ironically in the first place. Proof of purchase was then posted ironically on many sites, making people ironically laugh at the expenditure of cash. That’s six layers of irony, in case you weren’t counting. At some point, this has to reach a point where it can’t sustain itself. The ironic tirade will have to crash and burn at some point, as we’re quickly approaching just laughing at the concept of irony itself. So what will the future hold for internet culture, and the real world culture that it’s slowly but surely osmosing into? Only time will tell, but I sure hope it won’t be ironic. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Surveillance State Part 4: A Watchful Eye

So, we've already covered the fact that the NSA's data analyzing methods are horribly inept and don't really achieve much other than simply stumbling over themselves in an attempt to catch nebulous "terrorists"- Though that might not be the only reason for their actions.  Another explanation for their actions is that of control. Surveillance is, after all, a method of exerting power. Conscious or not, the effect that being surveilled has on people is certainly tangible. Take the example of the Panopticon (an architectural idea turned thought experiment made by Jeremy Bentham). It's a prison where there's only one central watchtower with an outer coating such that the windows in it are indistinguishable from the walls. The prison walls themselves form a circle around the watchtower and the yard around the watchtower, the prisoners milling about in that field between the two structures. The interesting part is this: The prison gate is open with no guards by it. So why don't the prisoners just bolt for it and run? It's a fairly intuitive answer- Because they're afraid. They have no idea whether they're being watched or not from inside the watchtower, and if so what weapons the guards inside have trained on them. They don't know about any of these things for certain, but even the mere idea of being surveilled is enough to make them police their own behavior. And that is the beauty of surveillance for a control technique. It makes people follow rules without having to enforce an actual punishment most of the time. The application that this thought experiment has for American society as it is now is quite frightening. If this is indeed the government's rationale, then why are they still using police (in ever increasing amounts as well) to enforce law? That's still a discussion to be had.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Surveillance State Part 3: Pragmatic Problems

Okay, so we've already covered that the NSA has been attaining absolutely MASSIVE amounts of data and information on everything than everyone's doing in the US- and abroad too (Lookin' at you, Merkel). This begs the obvious question of what they're going to do with all of this data...And of course the response given by the NSA is that they're going to be using it to fight off the terrorists. Specifically the brown ones with the turbans, but those are randomly selected of course. Be that goal as it may, it could seem obvious how surveillance techniques would help. If we collected data on the terrorists and learned what they were plotting, obviously we could implement countermeasures to protect against a second 9/11 from occurring...right? Well, it's not as idyllically simple as that, unfortunately enough. The reason why the NSA is collecting so much data is because they can't be sure if any one little bit is the next clue to a terrorist attack. However, this means that they need to sift through all of the data in order to find this, and they only have a vague idea of what they're looking for. It's like searching for a needle in the Saharan desert, except the needle may not even exist in the first place. This work requires and incredible amount of manpower that the NSA only has a fraction of, leading to the vast amount of data either never being processed and simply shoved into the backfiles or being looked at months after it was ever relevant. This inept phenomenon is called information overload, and it's happening as I type this out right now. It's clearly not working, so why does the NSA continue to chug along? Find out next time, as the junior theme crusade continues...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Surveillance State Part 2: Surveillance in Modern Day America

There can't be any discussion of modern day US surveillance practices without name-dropping Ed Snowden at least once. He was really the first major whistle blower on the NSA in the information age, offering an insight into the inner workings of the surveillance-machine that most Americans didn't even know was working behind the scenes. He provided thousands of government documents to back up his claims as well, shifting the discussion about surveillance from one characterized by hypothetical scenarios to one of facts. The amount of data being collected was huge- But wait, that's not the right word to use. See, this was one of the things that Snowden revealed, is that almost every word used by the NSA in press releases and congressional interviews is specifically defined within NSA legal code. Data can only be considered "collected" if a human eye has looked over it. Operating on a more common-sense definition of collection, the NSA has attained billions of times the amount of data they say they've collected. Using various broad sweeping programs and tools such as dragnets, the NSA operates under a collect-it-all mentality in this modern day and age, sifting through the data afterwards. There are quite a few problems with this approach, which will be addressed in the next post in this mini-series...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Surveillance State Part 1: A history of surveillance in the US

The US's relationship with surveillance is something that has always been tumultuous. Going as far back as the splitting of our nation from the redcoats, the independence movement had meetings in secret so as to avoid the watching eye(s) of the British empire. That was back when the US was the underdog though, and didn't benefit from being the one on the other side of the looking glass. Fast forward a few centuries, and you get US government gleefully wiretapping suspected mafia and mob members, attempting to get the evidence that they needed to throw them in jail- Which they did, of course. This successful usage of new surveillance technology made it more apparent to the government that this was something that they could use in more ways, culminating in the Watergate scandal that every other scandal seems to be suffixed with today. This was still back in the 1970's though, when public opinion of surveillance was horror instead of apathy. Nowadays...well, that's going to be in the next post in this junior-theme extravaganza.