Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Portal or The 36 Chambers of Death Metal

imagesDeath Metal is genre music. Its defining characteristics are complex riffing (with a sometimes equally complex approach to meter), “blast beat” drumming, and vocal stylings that range from deep grunting to “cookie monster” growling to maniacal screaming. Naturally, the lyrical content of death metal centers around death —its many causes, violent and otherwise, as well as its various physical characteristics and consequences— feelings of terror or menace, and the occult. Likewise, the genre’s visual palette consists of images of the dead, the undead, war, murder, satanism, heathenism, barbarity, all-pervading darkness, and a post-apocalyptic futurism replete with blasted landscapes and bio-mechanical weaponry.

While there are bands like Opeth or Enslaved who have pushed and prodded these generic attributes in many surprising and strange directions, if you are wandering the halls of the record shoppe (or browsing through iTunes) and you see a cd whose cover depicts necrophagia or some pagan or devil-worshiping atrocity and the name of the band is Baphomet or Entombed or, well, Necrophagist, then you pretty much know what you are going to get.

That predictability is the beauty of genre music. Like country music or reggae or acid house, death metal, in the abstract, “all sounds the same.” But as any lover of the genre will tell you, there are real differences between the greats and the innovators and everyone else.

Which is why I want to tell you about Portal.

Read the rest of this entry »

Two Thoughts on the Link Economy

This Sunday past, Richard MacManus published an article on entitled, “Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried.”

MacManus believes that Google et al. should be worried because ranking algorithms use in-bound links as an indicator of authority but, due to the rise of “content farms” such as Demand Media and, which can effectively generate links to their own content at scale, the number of in-bound links may indicate little more than the ability for an organization to generate in-bound links.

A conversation that I had with two SEO jedi back in October at the MarketingProfs Digital Marketing Mixer caused a similar thought to haunt the darkened corridors of my tortured mind. That is, it became clear to this novice that building links is, in part, merely a question of resources and effort. If, like the one jedi claimed, you have “guys in India” who can help by Digg-ing content and taking care of directory submissions, you’re gonna rank. If not, good luck.

Thought #1: If link-building is primarily a question of effort, then search results in Google primarily reflect this effort, rather than some quasi-meritocratic invisible hand.

In other words, the problem with this aspect of the link economy is that, in effect, people can print their own money. Now I ask you, how many “real world” economies could survive that kind of devaluation of its currency?

Still curious about the link economy, I hit the Googles and discovered a raging conversation about the value of links being waged from the content producer side. This dispute started with an article by Arnon Mishkin on “The Fallacy of the Link Economy” in which he argued, in effect, that links ARE content so that link aggregators should be paying the sources for these links.

Read the rest of this entry »

Epistemology versus Ethics

A local, recently gender-reassigned nanny drove a car which featured the following bumper sticker:


While sympathetic to the sentiment expressed, believing, as I do, that reality, taken in the totality of its sordid, mundane, and astonishing details, is nothing if not outrageous, I felt nevertheless rankled.

Said rankling arose from my even stronger belief that the unstated logic of the proffered statement – “If you are not responding in a specific way, then you are not perceiving reality as it truly is” – serves as the logical underpinning of political, ideological, or religious fundamentalism in every form.

My work on Germany’s Red Army Faction (aka, The Baader-Meinhof Gang, a much cooler name, IMHO) led me to rebel against and reject “the unassailable logic of the next step,” as Norman Mailer called it in The Armies of the Night, insisting instead that there is no ethical norm inherent in the physical world, including, and this is the real scandal, the human world in all its perplexing complexity.

It is one of the benefits of being human that we can simply observe. While sense stimuli – a flashing light, a gunshot, an electrical shock – do indeed provoke hard-wired responses, and the body may involuntarily behave in a specific way based on the type of stimulus, this becomes less and less the case as we consider more involved levels of cognition.

Sunlight reflecting off a passing car may make us squint; recognizing the driver as our mortal enemy could make us cry out in fury or turn away or remain impassive. Conscious, attentive perception, thankfully and sadly, does not produce an automatic, programmed, and necessary response.

Still, to a certain way of thinking, the true outrage is human freedom.

First Principles

2887146373_6fbdd76fc9_mChaos is our mother.

The entire history of the universe unwinds in the transition of diverse high energy states into a single low energy state. When the universal stuff has achieved a uniform temperature, it will be completely and chaotically disordered. When the energy gradient has disappeared entirely, there will be no identifiable things. “No thing-ness” awaits the universe at and as its end.

The amount of time we spend consciously dwelling on the Earth is vanishingly brief compared to the time it will take for all the energy generated (released?) at the time of the Big Bang to dissipate entropically and, for all intents and purposes, vanish. For this reason, I say that we always find ourselves in the middle of time.

“You can’t miss what you can’t measure.” For something to exist the way that things exist, you must be able to measure it. Does it make sense to speak of a thing that does not exist?

If the existence of something cannot be proven logically or demonstrated scientifically it is irrational to insist that it exists. In other words, it may exist, but only irrationally.

Dynamic referentiality. Our language does not refer to some central lexicon to be used or understood. Instead, it refers to the multidimensional history of its own usage. Read the rest of this entry »

The Great Divider

2507578321_730f501ed0_mRemember when I said that science was Satanic not because it advocates evil but because it sees moral distinctions as epiphenomenal and, in the end, insists that all reality consists of a meandering, entropic unfurling of energy through myriad states of transient, quantum differentiation until an ultimate universal state of uniform heat death is achieved?

Well, it turns out that I was right. You see, the Hebrew word “bara,” which has traditionally been translated as “created” in the the first sentence of the book of Genesis – “in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” – also means “to separate” and, according to Professor Ellen van Wolde, a “respected Old Testament scholar and author,” that first sentence should reflect that God “separated” rather than “created” the Heaven and the Earth.

Anthropologically speaking (at least from the structuralist perspective), the function of religious belief and practice is to make distinctions between the sacred and the profane, human and animal, good and evil, etc. Thus, it is only fitting that the deity’s original creative act consists in drawing a line.

God may have created the Heaven and the Earth but only in the sense that you create two things by dividing one thing. Of course, such a division implies that you have “one thing” to begin with and, indeed, van Wolde’s re-translation of Genesis suggests that there was something there, both temporally and spatially, before God. This single, undifferentiated thing, the opposite of God, is essentially nothing, since anything that is not separated into things is quite literally “no thing.”

God is the Great Divider and the real Devil, the “other” of God, is not another being but this pre-separated stuff: the “no thing.” The irony is that God, too, is not a thing, and it is this “no thing-ness” of God which makes monotheism practically indistinguishable from atheism.

But if all this is too high-falutin’ for y’all, here’s the marketing lesson that I draw from these meta-theological divigations: Differences (between products or services or whatever) don’t exist, they are made.

Dwell upon it.

Image Courtesy of KM&G-Morris.

It’s Not About Money

Better a debtor than pay with a coin that does not bear our image!
– Friedrich Nietzsche

3236020116_9af37066a0_mI’ve never been motivated by money.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I have been motivated by money to the extent that having money, or a relatively constant source of it, was necessitated by the need for food, shelter, and a modicum of creature comforts.

More precisely put, I’ve never been motivated to undertake a particular course of action or engage in a particular pursuit because it could potentially or even reasonably result in the acquisition and/or accumulation of wealth. I’ve just never cared that much about having money or having the more luxurious and extravagant things the enjoyment of which money so famously facilitates.

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always viewed money as kind of hassle, albeit the kind of hassle that you have to deal with because, eventually, you run into other, bigger hassles that require money for their ultimate or timely alleviation. Put another way, money is the “ur-hassle” (which may be the source of money’s status as the root of all evil).

The strange thing about money, of course, is that it isn’t really anything. It has the kind of being that the philosophers and theologians refer to as “contingent.” Money, which in this era of floating exchange rates and electronic funds transfer has even lost its traditionally material substance and standard, depends on a host of non-financial entities to retain the appearance of value and fungibility. In the absence of these entities – rule of law, a functioning state, an implicit social contract, etc. –  money is quite literally not worth the paper it’s printed on.

Now, you will frequently hear folks say, “Money is the only way we have of measuring value.” While I tend to bridle at the simple equation of money and value, I get the point. If someone is willing to give you money for a good or service, you know it is worth something, as opposed to nothing. If, on the other hand, they would take it if it were free but pass it by if they had to pay, we can safely say that whatever value they may ascribe to it is so capricious as to be negligible.

Closer to the truth is something a CEO I once knew used to say, “For businesses, money is like oxygen: oxygen isn’t the point of life, but without oxygen, no life.” This fits my own notion that the most basic goal of any business is to stay in business. Money can help you achieve that goal, which is why people frequently confuse it with the goal, but it is not the goal.

This sentiment was reiterated by the Joker in The Dark Knight when he said, as he set a towering stack of bills alight, “It’s not about money; it’s about sending a message.” This spoke to me because I’ve always valued the currency of language, thought, and sentiment above all else and have thus been drawn to prize the achievements, or at least the efforts, of writers and musicians, thinkers and teachers, firebrands and demagogues.

To my cost.

Image Courtesy of jondresner.

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The Joker

3288542484_d020daa685I may be late to the party, but I always have a good time.

See, I final caught Heath Ledger’s swan song in The Dark Knight and, like many people, his performance as the Joker really got under my skin.

Weird, damaged, and menacingly off-kilter, Ledger’s Joker embodies everything that Western rationalism apparently opposes and inevitably calls forth.

Unlike those shadowy figures who are thus labeled, this Joker is a terrorist in the most literal sense of the word: his sole aim is the production of a blithely dehumanizing, sanity annihilating, shockingly atavistic terror, specifically, the terror evoked by abject encounters with the chaotic void from which all reality issues and to which it inexorably returns.

The film gets evil precisely right when the Joker says, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” From the standpoint of law and order, in either a secular or non-secular sense, the idea that there is no absolute line dividing right from wrong or good from evil is intolerable. To celebrate those acts condemned by the dominant system leaves its hierarchy of values in place; to reject the legitimacy of any hierarchy at all is satanic rebellion.

(On a side note, I hear in the Joker’s ethos the pragmatic view that an unconditional flexibility – no fixed, dogmatic rules  – provides the key to adaptive survival. Of course, the amorality of adaptation, which is really just an opportunistic and even accidental “going with the flow,” is what truly frightens opponents of evolutionary theory.)

The film gets chaos precisely wrong. The violence and mayhem orchestrated by the Joker undeniably reflects the pervading notion of chaos as unpredictable, unassimilable, and overwhelming activity, but therein lies its error. True disorder is not characterized by a lot of something happening, but rather by a lot of nothing happening.

Indeed, the most accurate image of chaos we can muster is the heat death which awaits us as the entropic end of it all. When there is no longer any difference in energy states anywhere in the universe the pure state of chaos has been attained and it is, by definition, indistinguishable from nothingness. (Of course, this is why reviewers were unanimous in designating the Joker’s worldview “nihilistic.”)

By taking the side of the entropic decay and unstoppable disintegration of order, the Joker aligns himself with the grinding momentum of reality itself. It’s also why he is, as he says, “ahead of the curve,” and always one step ahead of Batman and the police; reality’s motion, its long march towards total dissolution is always one step ahead of us. We can never overtake it and are always, in the end and even before, overtaken.

Yet, it is this fact, the ultimate source of the Joker’s power, which also makes Batman’s adherence to his “one rule” truly heroic, though in the tragic sense. Belief in the timeless and unquestionable validity of “the rule” requires the denial of reality (that all rules are provisional, conventional, mutable ) and is, insofar, utter folly. Nevertheless, the faith expressed in devotion to “the rule” constitutes the stuff of valor and is, therewith, utterly human.

This raises the very question posed insistently and insidiously by the Joker as envisioned by Heath Ledger:

Does the unblinking acceptance of reality call for the overcoming of our humanity?

And if it does, should we?

Image Courtesy of Joan Thewlis.

What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?

My posts on Aquent’s blog sometimes got kind of philosophical. Here’s an example which should help you dodge the question, “What do you want to do with your life?” It first appeared on September 20, 2008. – Matt

2783320265_8fd07858a1_mAbout twenty years ago, after I had stopped out of grad school, quit my job at SuperShuttle, and was so broke that I made all my family members collages as Christmas presents, my father sat me down for a fireside chat. The gist was: Dude, you got to get it together, figure out what you want to do with your life, and just do it. The problem was, as he put it, “You don’t seem to do anything.”

Was I a lost soul at that point? I suppose I was. My band (Spanking Machine) wasn’t going anywhere, I was unemployed, and, frankly, very depressed. When I returned to San Francisco from that demoralizing holiday in Los Angeles, I got a temp job (thus launching my current career, oddly enough) and wrote my father a letter.

Aside from the fact that the main point of the letter was to ask him for money so I could fix my car (yes, I did that), I also took issue with his criticism of my do-nothing lifestyle. On the one hand, as I pointed out, I did actually do stuff like write page after page of mad-cap, beatnik musings, play music, and hang out with my friends. I also reminded him that there were quite a few cultural and spiritual traditions that emphasized doing nothing over doing something as the true goal of life and enlightenment and that I was not unsympathetic to such views. Moreover, the idea that our lives and the world at large were there as a resource for us to do something with was symptomatic of the Zeitgeist, as Martin Heidegger explained in his essay concerning the question of technology.

Here’s where it gets deep (so watch out). To this very day I bristle at the existential imperative, whether in secular or religious garb, that says you have to do something with your life. There are so many things that are wrong-headed about this notion that I don’t know where to start (or finish), so I’ll just highlight two logical inconsistencies that dog this everyday ethical commonplace.

First of all, “your life.” Aside from the fact that even scientists struggle to define life, what exactly about the life you live is yours? You are, after all, 90% water, which, if I understand it properly, is made of hydrogen and oxygen that has been part of this earth for some billions of years. Add to that the carbon, nitrogen, and other trace elements comprising you as physical entity, you quickly realize that none of them are “yours” strictly speaking. Indeed, your genetic peculiarities are a melange of your father’s and mother’s, as their’s were of their’s, and, in any event, consist of amino acids that are of rather ancient provenance. Etc.

So, the living matter provisionally associated with your life is freely borrowed from the environment and the vast surrounding universe to which it will inevitably return (yes, I’m referring to “your” death). But what about this “you” that is supposed to “do” something with this “life.” First of all, your “you-ness” is inextricably linked to this particular physical entity that perpetually changes (replacing itself every seven years or something like that). Not only that, your sense of yourself, your personality quirks, and your interests are totally contingent on your genetic makeup, your lived experience, and your physical condition. If you doubt this, please experiment with severe brain trauma and review the results.

But turning away from the impermanence and ineffability of your you-ness, how could you do anything with your life in the first place? Usually, in order to do something with anything, you need to distinguish between you and that something. But how can you stand outside your own life which, as we know, is not a thing in the first place? And if people mean, “Create an interesting story or artwork from the events and experiences of your life,” when they say, “Do something with your life,” why don’t they just say that?

Because, frankly, they don’t mean that. They mean, “Do things as part of your life that, retroactively, will have made your life a meaningful something instead of a meaningless nothing.” But, as everyone knows, “meaning” is entirely contextual. Nothing means anything in isolation. Which means that you can never be the judge of whether or not your own life is or was meaningful. That can only be decided by deciders who stand outside of your life and understand all its ramifications, not just in your little world, but in the history of the universe. And the number of deciders who are in a position to do that are either zero, one, or three, depending on your persuasion, none of whom are you, or even human, for that matter.

If you’ve read this far, you get the picture. From here on out, whenever anyone tells you to do something with your life, and you don’t have the time or wherewithal to explain to them what’s wrong with that statement, please have them contact me, and I’ll do the dirty work.

Image Courtesy of mohammadali.

The Consolations of Conspiracy Theory

2876550480_fb353da796_mEver since I realized that there was an “official story,” on the one hand, and a very complicated, to some degree unknowable, and to some degree intentionally obscured, reality on the other, I’ve been interested in conspiracy theories. From Holy Blood, Holy Grail to Loose Change, from occult Nazism to the reign of the reptoids, I’ve consistently been amused, amazed, and disturbed by the fantastic proliferation of alternative world histories and astonishing speculation about who’s really running things.

I’ve always tended to approach these theories with a Muldaurian “I want to believe” attitude, but have also always been disappointed when I dug down into the details. While it may be true that I’ve never met a conspiracy theory I didn’t like, it’s also true that I’ve never met a conspiracy theory that wasn’t riddled with holes, hallucinations, and brain-rending leaps of (il)logic. Reading this stuff has frequently been edifying and even, in a strange way, inspiring, but it has never been convincing.

Although the truth is undoubtedly out there, conspiracy theories are not about the truth. Their primary purpose is to forge a semblance of order from the relentless rush and incomprehensible sweep of events on both the human and cosmic scale. Scientific discovery has unveiled a universe of overwhelming temporal and spatial vastness, the mass media continually inundate us with an unassimilable torrent of devestating reports from the bottomless well of human suffering, and the traditional (i.e., religious or mythical) filters no longer have the power to channel our experience into comforting or even remotely manageable frames of reference.

Still, the thought that our lives are “meaningless commas in the sentence of time,” or that we are blindly stumbling, ‘neath a protective veil of self-deception, through a labyrinthine vortex of genetically driven ego-trips and Nietzschean/Orwellian power-games devoid of exit or purpose, is for most of us unbearable. So we clutch at the straws offered by the conspiracy theorists (not to mention the good old news) because they tell us that, even if it is the Greys or the Illuminati or the CIA or the World Bank or the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission, or whatever, at least SOMEONE is in charge and everything is at least going according to SOME plan, as nefarious, diabolical, or alien as that plan may be.

The question is: Why are we consoled by the thought of SOMETHING, even SOMETHING MALEVOLENT, behind EVERYTHING?

Why, on the contrary, is the notion that all we are and experience arises from and inevitably returns to a primordial, entropic chaos – in other words, to nothingness – so difficult, even impossible, to accept let alone embrace?

Or is it?

Image Courtesy of Midnight-digital.